How To Do Local History

They know how to do local history in Winneconne. (long e’s, unless you’re a tourist). The village of 2,400 souls on the Wolf River northwest of Oshkosh has a preserved railroad depot/museum like many another community. It also has a 19th century house furnished in period style, also like many another place.

What Winneconne has that other places don’t is the Kay Wilde Doll Cottage, a picturesque stone cottage filled with antique dolls; and the Steamboat Museum, which is the real thing, at least in part. It consists of the main deck and pilot house of a genuine steamer that once plied the waters of the Fox and Wolf Rivers, refurbished and looking like it’s ready to make the run from Butte des Mortes to Orihula.

All these items fill a corner of the village park on the edge of town. To find more and arguably the best part of Winneconne’s historical cache, you have go downtown to the library.

There in a room specially- endowed is found the book collection of James P. Coughlin. A political leader who served as village president longer than most citizens can remember,  Coughlin was also a Winnebago county supervisor, board chair and county executive.  Politics was in his blood, but history was his passion. After retiring from county office in the early 1990s, Coughlin exercised his passion by collecting books.

His goal was to assemble the largest library of books about Wisconsin and/or by Wisconsin authors in the state, if not the USA. He wasn’t interested in big selling authors with a Wisconsin connection. Sorry David Maranniss, Jane Hamilton and Lorrie Moore.

No, he wanted the work compiled by, for example, the history committee of Mellen in Ashland County. These hard-working folks published two volumes in 1986, well over 1,000  pages, detailing the story of Mellen, population 300. They have roughly four pages of book for every person in town

After you’ve finished Mellen you can read the history of Alma on the Mississippi, Port Wing on Lake Superior, Oconto on Green Bay, or South Milwaukee on Lake Michigan. Just go to Winneconne.  Care about St. Bronislava parish in Plover, Trinity Lutheran in Arkdale, the Frei Gemeinde in Sauk City.? Their books are in Winneconne, too.

How about biographies? Of Senator Philetus Sawyer, General Joseph Bailey, or the thousands of lesser lights profiled in the hundred volumes of county histories on the Coughlin shelves.  Military history? How about the book on the Fourth Wisconsin Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, the story of the battleship USS Wisconsin, or of World War II air ace Richard Bong?

Pick a subject. Obscurity is not an obstacle: public statuary in Green Bay, the county highways of Winnebago, trout fishing on Green Lake,  the Sauk County hops boom, the Italian community of Iron County. It’s in a book in Winneconne.

The Coughlin collection is testimony to the man, but also to the thousands of  researchers, compilers, genealogists, news article clippers, obit snippers, the grabbers and holders of our local heritage. For the majority, this is their book, the only one they will ever publish.  Jim Coughlin understood and respected their work.

He died about a week ago.  His passion survives, along with that of the authors he honored by placing their work on the shelves of his library in Winneconne.

–Michael Goc

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