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Weekly Column

Each week a small segment of Vernon County history is published in the county papers.

For the week of 1/17/2021
by Kristen Parrott, curator

Inaugurations are on everyone’s mind these days. Over the years, several Vernon County people have travelled to Washington, D.C., for presidential inaugurations.

From the effects of General Earl Rogers (1839-1914) of Viroqua, the museum has a “Program and Souvenir of the Inauguration of the Honorable William McKinley, President of the United States of America”. The inauguration took place on March 4, 1897. I don’t know for certain that Rogers attended, but it’s very possible. In addition to being a Civil War veteran, he had served as the Quartermaster General for the Wisconsin state troops during the 1880’s, when his friend and fellow soldier Jeremiah Rusk was governor of Wisconsin, so he was well-connected.

Another Civil War veteran who was invited to a presidential inauguration was Colonel C.E. Morley of Viroqua. Born in New York in 1843, he moved to Vernon County with his family in 1858. He served in many public offices in the county and the state including, like Rogers, on the military staff of Gov. Rusk. Later he spent some time in Washington, D.C., serving as bookkeeper to the Sergeant-at-Arms in the House of Representatives. Col. Morley was granted a permit to the inauguration of William Howard Taft, held on March 4, 1909.

Margaret Elizabeth Butt (1878-1967), the fifth and youngest child of Cyrus and Margaret Butt of Viroqua, attended the inauguration of President Herbert Hoover on March 4, 1929, and also enjoyed a celebratory luncheon at the White House. Beth graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1900, and married fellow student Allard Smith of Eau Claire in 1903. In 1914, they moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Allard was active in politics there, and was elected as a delegate to the 1928 Republican convention at which Hoover was nominated for the presidency.

You’ll notice that all three of these stories involve inaugurations in March, not in January like we are used to now. Here’s what the Library of Congress has to say about the date change: “The Constitution of the United States had established March 4 as Inauguration Day in order to allow enough time after Election Day for officials to gather election returns and for newly-elected candidates to travel to the capital. With modern advances in communication and transportation, the lengthy transition period proved unnecessary and legislators pressed for change. The date was moved to January 20 with the passage of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933.”

Mary (Berry) Kuehn of Viroqua attended a presidential inauguration in January. She was born in 1910 in McGregor, Iowa, and worked as an X-ray technician at Madison General Hospital in Madison, WI, where she met Alvin Kuehn, an intern. They were married in 1930, and in 1931 they moved to Viroqua, where Dr. Kuehn opened his own medical practice.

Mary was the Chair of the Vernon County Democratic Party in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. In 1959 she was in charge of arrangements for Senator John F. Kennedy’s stop in Viroqua during his tour of western Wisconsin. After he was elected president in 1960, Mary travelled to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration on January 20, 1961, and also attended the inaugural ball.

A ball – imagine. No balls this year. But there will be again in the future, and maybe Vernon County people will again be in attendance.

inaugural hat
The hat that Mary Kuehn of Viroqua wore to JFK’s inaugural ball on January 20, 1961


For the week of 1/10/2021
by Kristen Parrott, curator

This pandemic is going on and on, making life hard in all sorts of ways. We look to past epidemics to try to understand what is happening to us, and to try to predict what will happen next, but there are other histories that might help us too. With the World War I centennial so recently behind us, and those stories still fresh in our minds, I think about Vernon County’s WWI homefront experience to try to make sense of our present reality.

The biggest similarity between then and now, in my opinion, is that people don’t know when the situation will end. People didn’t know when the war would end then, and we don’t know when the pandemic will end now. History books tell us when the war ended, but that’s all hindsight – the people living through it at the time could only wonder, and worry, and hope, same as we do now.

We also didn’t know that the problem was coming here – it started far away, affecting people we mostly didn’t know, but now it affects us too. This was true with the war, which started in Europe in 1914 and didn’t officially involve the U.S. until 1917, and it’s been true with this pandemic, although on a much shorter time scale.

During WWI, there were posters and signs everywhere with public messages, encouraging people to buy government bonds, help the Red Cross, not waste food. And today there are posters and signs, radio and TV announcements, social media posts, all reminding us to wear masks, wash our hands, stay 6 feet apart. People are desperate for the latest news on the subject, even though the news is often bad, and there’s a lot of misinformation, too, with false rumors spreading. It was the same during WWI, although there were fewer ways to get news then, and the information, or misinformation, travelled more slowly.

Some people are on the “front lines”: soldiers on the battlefield in WWI, essential workers now. Others are at home, tending big gardens both then and now because of food insecurity, and making stuff. During the war people made clothing for the soldiers and refugees, such as warm socks and hospital pajamas. Today people are making masks.

The war affected many aspects of everyday life, and the pandemic does too, with curtailed travel, shortages of some goods and services, holiday plans changed or cancelled. A U. S. Presidential election took place during WWI, and of course we have just had another election. Civil rights issues came up then and now, with unrest and demonstrations and protests about women’s suffrage during the war, and about racism today. German Americans were scapegoated during the war, and some Asian Americans are now. And, while many people supported the war, others didn’t, just as today some people support the fight against the virus, while others question it.

Worst of all is that lots of people die hard deaths, both during WWI on and off the battlefield, and now, in sickbeds everywhere. But there were signs of hope during the war too, when a battle was won or an enemy capitulated, or a beloved soldier was found alive. And there are signs of hope now, when the virus cases go down and the vaccination rates go up, and the sick recover.

What’s the biggest lesson for our times that we can learn from World War I? That it ended. The war ended, and those who survived picked up the pieces and made new lives. For a lot of people, life after the war was very different from before, in ways both good and bad. This pandemic will also end, and history books will someday tell the story.


The previous two articles:

January 3, 2021

December 27, 2020