Tracking Your Past: Normal School Remains a Place of Family Learning

A drive to the Vernon County Normal School Museum in Viroqua can remind family historians that sometimes a personal visit is time well spent. With so many records available online, it can be tempting to forgo an actual trip to a records center. Yet, in addition to the facts we hoped to find, an in-person visit may provide unlooked-for clues into our ancestors’ lives.

Operated by the Vernon County Historical Society, the museum occupies the former county teachers college, or Normal School. Constructed in 1918-19, the fully accessible, three-story building is on the Wisconsin State Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places. Among the museum’s most popular resources is its obituary collection, according to assistant curator Carol Krogan. The collection features death announcements from Viroqua and surrounding area newspapers back to 1856, a mere decade after the town was settled. The historical society continues to clip features, obituaries and other notices from local papers today, providing a time-saving tool to visiting genealogists.

The museum offers more than 200 (indexed!) scrapbooks, area newspapers on microfilm and a multitude of photographs. Cemetery resources document all Vernon County tombstone inscriptions, list Viola and Czech national cemeteries, and offer tombstone photos from an amazing array of memorial parks — Bad Axe Lutheran, Belgium Ridge and Walnut Mound to name a few. Visitors most often seek burial information about their Norwegian, Czech and British Isles ancestors. Some come to learn about their Italian ancestors who settled in Genoa, along the Mississippi River west of Viroqua.

Another frequently asked question, Krogan said, is for information about land parcels. The museum can help with plat maps and photographs.

The museum’s research room offers local, state and federal census data from 1847 to 1930. Selected church records include several from the 19th century; the earliest are Westby Coon Prairie Lutheran Church membership records from 1851. You also can find records from area schools, plus some vital records and tax books. You will need to ask for assistance to access back-room files, for instance, memoirs, family histories, community histories and military records.

Museum exhibits showcase a teaching classroom, archaeology, military history and tobacco growing. The Mark Lee Space exhibit describes the career of the Viroqua-born astronaut.

Summer hours at the museum, 410 S. Center Ave., are 12-4 p.m. weekdays plus 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays. For more information, see www.vernoncountyhistory.org/vcmuseum/vcmuseum.php. Click on “Weekly Column” to read curator Kristin Parrott’s contribution to Vernon County newspapers.

Doris Green is the author of “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery,” available from http://henschelhausbooks.com, Amazon and bookstores. She lives with her husband and three distracting cats on a hillside south of the Wisconsin River. Visit https://dorisgreenbooks.wordpress.com