Story by Julie Rossman

Union Grove, founded in 1838, is rich in history. Now, thanks to a new group called “History Seekers,” the past will be preserved for generations to come.

The group is comprised of about 40 folks of all different ages and backgrounds, but all with an interest in preserving the past.

There’s Marge (Swantz) Martin, whose family history in Union Grove dates back to about 1857, when her grandmother’s grandfather, U.C. Humphrey, owned the local hardware store, which eventually became the Swantz Hardware store on Main Street. She learned a love of history by listening to stories about the past from her parents and grandparents. Martin has brought her organizational skills and leadership to the group.

Bernie and Betty Backus have lived in Union Grove for 56 years, since Bernie took a pharmacist job at Hauper Pharmacy on Main Street. Bernie has always had an interest in preserving local history, while Betty has been working on organizing the local history files at Union Grove’s Graham Public Library for the last 12 years, as a volunteer.

Then there’s Frank Lamping, who grew up in Union Grove and who has an interest in genealogy and researching historic buildings. He’s also working to get the local cemetery records online.

Jerry Karwowski lives nearby on Oak Clearing, a historic farm in rural Yorkville. Jerry has transformed his farm into a local history museum with artifacts, books — even a complete blacksmith shop, from all over Racine County.

Mary Nichols is literally a walking history book. She’s always got a story or photographs to share about early settlers to the area.

Let’s not forget Ruby Alswager, who has lived in Union Grove for all of her 90 years. She’s sharp as a tack, has lots of stories to tell and she loves to share them. “When you get so old, you’ve got stuff you can look back at,” Ruby said. Ruby and Mary regularly visit local school and civic groups together, sharing stories of the past.

The group gathered in May at the home of Jerry Karwowski for a charter membership meeting and old fashioned roll call. Members each received a certificate — lifetime members got a special customized patch, and each signed the official membership document.

Some members were dressed in period clothing, sharing stories of days gone by, while others walked around the farm, taking in Jerry’s extensive collection of antiques. McKinley Ray, 7, Union Grove, enjoyed watching Frank Lamping work his magic in the blacksmith shop — she even took home a souvenir piece of iron that Frank twisted for her. “There’s lots of neat stuff they used a long time ago,” McKinley said.

McKinley and her parents, Angie and Dan Vilanj, joined History Seekers to find out more about their historic Main Street house and about the community they live in, as neither grew up in the area.

History Seekers informally began back in 2008, thanks to the efforts of Fay Neidermeyer and her friend and neighbor, Eileen Vos. Fay, a retired teacher, got talking with Village President Mike Aimone one day, saying she’d like to do something for the village. His response, according to Fay, was that he’d like some sort of history of Union Grove.

Fay and Eileen started holding informal meetings at the library where they invited folks to share items and stories — they even recorded some of the stories. “We had a great time but it was nothing formal.”

Now, there’s structure, leadership and a membership base. “I’m so excited,” Fay said. “I’m pleased someone else picked up the ball.”

The group hired a formal facilitator in September 2010, thanks to seed money from Graham Public Library. Marge Demuth is president of the library’s board of directors. “It’s important to preserve local history,” she said. “We’re pleased to have the local history files that Betty (Backus) has organized here at the library, and we’re happy to support the History Seekers organization as well,” she added.

Marge Martin took over the facilitator position in May 2011 and now leads the group as a volunteer. She immediately decided the group needed structure. That’s where she said her “4-H background” kicked in.

The group established a board of directors, comprised of Marge Martin, Helen Lena, Diana Homburg, Frank Lamping and Betty Backus. They wrote a charter and planned a calendar of events. For now, the main goal of the group is to promote themselves, to be visible in the community.

“I see us with a traveling booth — getting out information,” Marge said. The hope is that when people see something they want to preserve, they’ll contact the group. Since Betty has organized an extensive collection of print materials at the library, History Seekers are mainly looking for artifacts.

Though there is no formal place for the items to go yet, the group plans to just see what develops. Director Helen Lena lives in nearby Kansasville and was excited about the group forming. “From the very first meeting — I knew this was where I belong,” she said.

Helen urges residents to hang on to historical artifacts. “We want to be a presence in the community so people trust us to give us things — don’t throw it away,” she said.

Speaking to the group at the charter membership meeting, 90-year-old Ruby defined a “seeker” as “somebody lookin’ for something or somebody.”

“If you find it, for crumb sakes, record it,” she exclaimed.

History Seekers will be present at local events throughout the year. To join the group or to share historical artifacts, contact Marge Martin at 262-994-3344 or the Graham Public Library at 262-878-2910.

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