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Wisconsin Historical Society saves state's past

Small percentage of artifacts on display

MADISON, Wis. - Artifacts uncovered at historical society

The Wisconsin Historical Society has preserved the state's past for 150 years, but only about a small percentage of its growing collection has made it to museum floors.

Joe Kapler, a curator with the society, walked us into the basement of their headquarters. That is where Room 61 is cramped with pieces of the state's history.

Kapler said they have more than 500,000 artifacts. Many of them are kept in preservation facilities similar to Room 61.

Some of the items in Room 61 include a fragment of the engine from the van that held the bomb that blew up Sterling Hall.

Also in the room are slot machines of all shapes and sizes. They were seized after gambling became illegal in the state.

In another room is a 1941 Harley Davidson "Knucklehead," just one of about 2,000 ever made.

"If we feel it's going to have value now and in the future for understanding what makes Wisconsin, Wisconsin then we're going to take it," said Kapler.

Some artifacts are what Kapler described as "deadly serious."

Under that category are arm and leg restraints, worn by John McCaffrey in 1851. McCaffrey was the last man executed in Wisconsin. He was hanged after he killed his wife. His hanging reportedly drew a crowd of thousands.

"It's kind of one of those lump in the throat moments," said Kapler looking at the restraints.

Then there is former Wisconsin legislator Charles C.P. Arndt's vest, a vest with a bullet hole.

The bullet came from fellow council member James Vineyard. The two were having a heated argument over an appointment to the Grant County Sheriff. The debate intensified, and ended with Vineyard shooting and killing Arndt on the legislature floor. Vineyard was later acquitted of murder in Green County.

Among other items in the basement of the society's headquarters was a European sweater with an "x" marked on the back. Kapler said this belonged to Tadeusz Kowalczyk, a Polish Catholic veterinarian who survived the Holocaust and made his way to Madison. Kowalczyk spent five years in various concentration camps including Auschwitz. In 1949, he moved to Wisconsin, worked at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and became a renowned veterinarian scientist.

Lee Grady is a reference archivist with the Wisconsin Historical Society. In his department are countless film reels, original movie scripts (including Citizen Kane and Casablanca), maps dating back to 1513 and original historical documents, some are kept from public view. Historical documents include a letter from Thomas Jefferson suggesting an venture to the West; as well as, a diary from Sergeant Charles Floyd documenting Lewis and Clark's expedition.

Historical documents may end up in the conservation lab where they are cleaned and treated as needed.

For Kapler, preservation is part of their ongoing mission.

"That is how we know who we are and how we got where we are today," said Kapler.

The Wisconsin Historical Society's is in the middle making plans to move into a new $46.7 million facility in the by 2016. This is to keep their collection preserved in better conditions in terms of space, security, proper storage for particular objects.

You can see much of the society's artifacts and archives at

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