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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 2/17/2019
by Kristen Parrott, curator

Prohibition was on the minds of Vernon County people 100 years ago. The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited the making, moving, and selling of alcohol. This amendment was ratified by the required number of states in January 1919, with the stipulation that the law would go into effect one year later, in January 1920.

This law was the result of years of effort by temperance groups. The word temperance means “moderation”, and in this context it means moderation in drinking alcohol, or, more usually, total abstinence. The temperance movement in the United States began in New England in the early 1800s. Many of Vernon County’s 19th-century white settlers came from New England, bringing temperance ideas with them. Norwegian immigrants were also frequently temperance people.

Vernon County was home to chapters of several temperance societies, including the Independent Order of Good Templars, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Temperance organizations were established in Vernon County communities with large populations of Yankee and Norwegian settlers, such as De Soto, Esofea, Readstown, Viola, Viroqua, and Westby.

But of course many people were opposed to Prohibition – brewers and saloon-keepers, for example. The Wisconsin Historical Society says that most communities in Wisconsin had at least one brewery operating by the 1890’s. Was that true here in Vernon County? Hillsboro had a brewery then, and has one again today, but I don’t know of any breweries in other villages or cities in our county. Let us know if your community had a brewery 100 or more years ago.

German immigrants were a driving force in the anti-Prohibition movement, as were Irish and Bohemian immigrants. Vernon County had communities of all of these ethnic groups a century ago.

There are lots of interesting stories to be told around this issue. As we mark the centennial of Prohibition, we look forward to exploring local temperance movements and the effects of Prohibition on Vernon County.

A brief history of poverty and its solutions in the Coulee region will be the subject of the next free monthly program at the museum. Hetti Brown of Couleecap will talk about that organization’s 50 years of fighting poverty in this area. The program will be held at 7PM on Tuesday, March 5, in the museum’s conference room. Everyone is welcome to attend.


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For the week of 2/10/2019
by Kristen Parrott, curator

The Vernon County Historical Society recently upgraded the copy machine in our museum’s busy office. Our former 16-year-old machine was replaced with a modern, time-saving, higher-quality machine that will be a benefit to patrons and volunteers alike. We would like to thank the Viroqua Area Foundation for its generous grant of $500 to help pay for this vital piece of equipment. Many thanks also to the Dawson Club, which is the Historical Society’s Friends group, for its generous donation toward this purchase.

February is Black History month. While doing other research recently, I was looking at a copy of the January 2, 1918, issue of the Vernon County Censor and noticed an advertisement for an upcoming show at the Star Theater, located at 211 S. Main Street in Viroqua. The ad was illustrated by two formal portraits of an African-American man and woman. Black entertainers in Viroqua 100 years ago is a story worth pursuing.

Dave and Alice Picket played at the Star Theater on January 4 and 5, 1918. Their act was billed as the “Old Original Pickets, World’s Greatest Character Imitators and Negro Minstrel Entertainers”. A little searching led me into the history of minstrelsy, and specifically black minstrelsy.

19th-century minstrel shows involved music, dancing, jokes, and short skits, all based on racist caricatures of African-American life. Earlier in the century, shows were performed primarily by white people in “blackface”, skin darkened with burnt cork or some other makeup.

Later in the century, minstrel shows sometimes featured black people themselves, called “originals”, as in the “Old Original Pickets”. By about 1900, minstrel shows were losing popularity, replaced by vaudeville. But the Pickets continued to tour well into the 20th century.

A newspaper review from Willmar, Minnesota, in 1921, describes the Pickets’ show as including banjo music, ragtime, and pre-Civil War plantation songs. It also featured many character sketches – of African Americans, of Irish and Scandinavian and Asian immigrants, of Jews – all people struggling at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder at that time. (To portray the white characters, Dave Picket apparently wore “whiteface” makeup, an uncommon practice.)

These character sketches were probably based on broad stereotypes, full of exaggeration and ridicule. How did the Pickets feel about lampooning themselves and others? What was it like to perform in front of all-white audiences? Did the audience members have any other experiences with African Americans?

This 1918 ad says that the Pickets “have played Viroqua many times in the past, and are well known here”. Where did they stay overnight? Were they allowed in local hotels and restaurants?

Lots of questions and not many answers. These complicated issues continue to resonate today, as “blackface” is again in the news. To learn more, visit the website for the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture at nmaahc.si.edu.


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The previous two articles:

February 3, 2019

January 27, 2019