Museum History

Phelps Opens Historical Museum

Don Ruck

Phelps, with a population of 1,525, ranks among the smallest communities in Wisconsin, but the little town boast of as much more history, tradition and impact on Wisconsin as any city in the state.

To acknowledge and commemorate its unique history, Pauleyn Nystrom, with a big assist from P.C. "Phil" Christiansen and other local residents, did the initial spade-work to establish the new Phelps Historical Museum, which was dedicated July 2nd.

"Our committee made several presentations to the Phelps town Board for a budget to get the project started," said Nystrom. "In January, the town of Phelps approved a budget of $10,000 and, thanks to the board, we had the money we needed to get rolling."

In short time, the committee rented available space from Ralph and Cindy Spurgeon, the proprietors of Phelps Trustworthy Hardware located in the center of downtown Phelps.

"We knew Mr.Christiansen wanted to start a museum, and he gave us our first big collection of priceless memorabilia from the offices of the C.M. Christiansen Co., a veritable treasure of history, including journals, pictures, surveyor equipment that was used to chart the first layout and plans for the community that was to become Phelps," said Nystrom. Phil Christiansen, with the help of his daughter, Kathy Scarbrough, who winters in Sarasota, FL, and spends her summers in Phelps, gave us desks, files, antique types of old equipment, such as a typewriter, a cash register, an adding machine and so forth - all priceless items."

Lumber Town

In the formation of what was to become Phelps started before the turn of the century. Two men, B.R. Thompson and J.A. Bonnell, saw the vast natural forests in the area and, on February 9, 1896, they incorporated the Thompson and Bonnell Lumber Company.

Following that start, the Wisconsin Lumber and Bark Company was incorporated December 28, 1901. The incorporators were John Bonnell, William A. Phelps, Charles A. Phelps, Charles H. Hackley, Otis A. Ferger, Dustin Oakes and George C. Covell.

As the lumbering operation began, it was aided by the fact that, by the turn of the century, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad laid tracks into the area that was to become known as The Great North Woods. In 1905, a final railroad spur from Conover to Phelps was completed, thus helping with the shipment of lumber.

The town was initially named Hackley, but because of the confusion created by another Wisconsin town named Hatley, the Hackley name was changed to Phelps in 1912.

In 1928, the Hackley-Phelps-Bonnell Company was dissolved and its assets were purchased by C. M. Christianson and his wife, Leta. Under Christiansen, the lumber mill prospered and eventually was the main root of providing nearly 400 jobs for families, including mill workers, staff, loggers, truckers and numerous craftsmen, ranking the operation as one of the largest in the entire nation.

"Were it not fo C.M. Christiansen, there would be no town of Phelps and, without the helps of C.M.'s son, Phil,we could not have created the Phelps Historical Museum," said Nystrom.

Museum Now Open

For the time being, the new museum will operate on a limited schedule until it becomes self-sufficient. The current hours are from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

"We have a long way to go so that the museum can be rated by our North Woods residents and our heavy influx of summer residents and tourists as a must-see stop," said Nystrom.

Over the course of the next year, the museum organizers are planning a steady series of fundraisers, raffles and other events to help make the facility financially independent.

"We need locals to step forth to volunteer to help us staff the museum during expanded visiting hours; folks who can help supervise and assist visitors.," said Nystrom.

"Fortunately, due to the enormous generosity of a good number of residents, we have already accumulated an awesome collection of historic photographs and artifacts," continued Nystrom.

"Our committee and board members have been hard at work and all the old vintage photos loaned to the museum have been framed and beautifully displayed. We ask all of our area residents to take time to look into their old shoe boxes and closets to find other photos and relics that would add to the museum."

People who wish to loan or donate items to the museum can call Pauleyn Nystrom at (715) 545-3012 or (715) 617-5551. Financial donations can be sent to: Phelps Historical Museum, P.O. Box 324, Phelps, WI 54554.

"We have received the donation of a new 26" television and a DVD player, which will become the audiovisual section of the museum. We already have some old and remarkable 8mm film that has been loaned to the museum by Phil Christiansen. That film of numerous historical events has already been transferee to DVR discs. Over the course of the next months, we pan to conduct taped interview sessions with some of the oldest residents of the area, folks who recall the rich traditions of Phelps," Nystrom said.

Spectacular Photos

A typical reaction from one of the earliest visitors in July came from Margaret Jubek, daughter of Wisconsin native son, Tony Kubek, one of the great New York Yankee baseball players of all time.

When Kubek first saw the museum, she said to Nystrom, "Wow! This is spectacular. The collection of old photos is worth the visit alone." Kubek added, "I was some impressed, I immediately decided that the current college-related thesis I am writing will be about the Phelps Historical Museum."

The first board of directors includes Nystrom as President, Jan Petrick as Vice President, Mary Ann "Mak" Holcomb as Secretary, Joyce Spurgeon as Treasurer and Donna Barron as Assistant Secretary. In addition, the museum's working committee includes Sharon Gifford, Donna Brand, Dorothy Kimmerling, Steve Waier, Tom Spurgeon, Kathy Scarbrough and Susie Wilkenson.

"Our town of Phelps may be just a tiny dot on the map of Wisconsin, but we are extremely proud of the impact the vast lumbering operation had on our state an nation," said Nystrom. "The wonderful past is a tradition to be honored and remembered and our goal, through the Phelps Historical Museum, is to do just that for generations to come."