During the 1980s, Historic Madison Inc. boars members Ruth Doyle and Hallie Lou Blum led an initiative to conduct a series of oral histories with prominent and impactful Madisonians. The last interviews were conducted in 1991, but the audio stayed on cassette tapes until 20 years later, when volunteers began digitizing and transcribing the interviews. This digitzation effort was finally completed in 2023 by the Dane County Historical Soceity.
Ruth Doyle, Betty Gay Kurtenacker, Hallie Lou Blum, Julia Schwenn, Lorraine Orchard, Lynn Hartridge, and Marie McCabe were the interviewers of these oral histories, and they collectively interviewed over 60 Madisonians, some of whom were over 100 years old.
These fascinating oral histories record memories of growing up along Third Lake and downtown and in the Bush and on Regent Street and in the Latin Quarter. They include eyewitness accounts of the 1904 Capitol fire and the fire that destroyed the dome on Bascom Hall in 1916. They mention wooden sidewalks, windmills in University Heights, a school shooting, German classes being removed from Madison’s public schools during World War I, a Pledge of Allegiance controversy, May Day activities on Bascom Hill, construction of the present Capitol building, the grandstand collapse at Camp Randall, passage of the equal housing ordinance, struggles by African Americans, Vietnam War riots on State Street, a UW coed being chastised by the women’s matron for swimming without stockings – “a Wisconsin woman does not appear in public with her legs exposed.” And so much more. They offer a truly unique perspective on Madison life, as far back as the turn of the 20th century.
Beginning during the summer of 2023, Dane County Historical Society began digitizing the remaining tapes with the assistance of the Madison Public Library and University of Wisconsin Archives. Once all of the cassette tapes were digitzed, DCHS uploaded them to their YouTube channel, created metadata for each interview, and posted them to their content management tool for the world to see!
DCHS is working on planning a reception to celebrate the digitization of these incredible pieces of history. More details will be revealed soon.
Interviewees had a variety of lives, from lawyers to librarians to mayors to business owners. However, they all offer a unique perspective on the city of Madison.
Julia Bogholt discusses the “forging of the new Democratic Party in Wisconsin in the 1940s and 1950s.” Activities included getting like-minded thinkers into elective office, developing the patronage system, and fundraising for political races.
Vera Browne speaks of growing up in Augusta, Wisconsin. Her father was later the managing editor of the Madison Democrat and Democrat Printing Company on Schenk’s Corners.
Esther Toepfer Carswell speaks of her family’s Oakwood and Westmorland home environments. She was later an art teacher at Longfellow School.
Marjorie Mosel Chapleau taught at the Wisconsin School of Music. She was born into the Madison Candy Company family.
Katherine Coleman refers throughout the interview to a memory book she had written for her family. Her faather and grandfather were physicians and her husband and son were leaders at Madison-Kipp.
David Couper speaks of his years as Madison Police Chief, beginning in 1972. He speaks of his philsophy of police as facilitators for peoples’ right to peaceful protest.
Dorothy R. Daggett and George Extrom share their first-hand information and insight on the relationship between the Taychopera Foundation and Historic Madison; the former was interested in preservation, while HMI was interested in history.
Anna Mae Davis was one of the first women lawyers to begin a practice in Madison. She was once a candidate for the Socialist Party for the office of Attorney General.
Edward Durkin was a long-time Madison Fire Chief and an offcer of the firefighter’s union at three levels.
Ruth Anne Piper Dykman speaks of her family’s businesses, many around the square. She was a school voice and orchestra teacher.
Herbert Eberhardt recorded his memories at the time of his retirement from the downtown Cardinal Beauty Shoppe, reflecting on the 1960s and creation of the State Street Mall.
Connie Elvehjem speaks of attending the UW in the 1920s, her husband’s career at the UW, and her hopes for the university’s future.
Joyce Erdman speaks of the Madison League of Women Voters, Democratic Party of Wisconsin, and her roles as Shorewood Hills village board president, membership of the UW Board of Regents, and the creation of the UW System.
Alice Felt reminisces about her life-long career at the Rentschler Greenhouse, Highland Avenue at Regent Street. Her father was a firefighter.
Otto Festge grew up on a farm in Cross Plains Township and became a public servant, serving as county clerk, Madison mayor, and home secretary to Rep. Robert Kastenmeier.
Edith Sinaiko Frank was raised in the Greenbush neighborhood on Emerald Street. Her mother was active in working for women’s suffrage and safe Fourth of July events. Edit returned to Madison after her husband’s death and talks of her own civic involvement.
Lowell Frautschi speaks of his family roots and his civic involvement with the United Hospital Fund of Dane County, a railroad underpass for West Washington Avenue, merchants’ concerns about parking limitations on the square and State Street, Monona Terrace, the youth hostel movement, and the Rotary Club.
Walter Frautschi speaks of the family businesses. These include furniture and undertaking, Madison Fuel Company, a telephone company, and a printing establishment. One of the family homes was on Canal Street. He details his European travels and courtship of his wife and stresses the central role of the YMCA to youth of his generation.
Emma Glenz speaks of Madison’s German community and the difficulties of life during World War I. Her extended family included the Menges and the Kaysers. She taught German and art.
Helen Kayser speaks of life in their enormous house, today the Yahara House on Gorham Street. Her father was a one-term mayor and lumberman. She spent most of her professional life as Dean of Women Studies at the UW.
Betty Gay Kurtneacker speaks of her ancestors, including her great-grandfather, Matthew Gay. Madison’s first “tall building” was the Gay building on Carroll Street. Her mother’s family were the Holts.
Beatrice Walker Lambert began her law career in the 1920s. She served at the state Public Service Commission, the state Attorney General’s office, and Labor Relations Board. She tried dozens of cases before the Wisconsin and U.S. Supreme Courts.
Betty MacDonald speaks on passing the Open Housing ordinance in 1963. She was secretary of the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights at the time. She recounts the “high drama” of getting the ordinance passed.
James J. McDonald speaks of growing up in a lumberman and farming family during the 1890s and 1900s. He was an attorney and was among the early Nakoma dwellers.
L.J. Markwardt spent most of his professional life at Forest Products Lab, doing research work. During World Wars I and II, they also did “war work” projects. He was asked to assist in identifying the sawmill source of the wooden ladder used in the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.
Louise Marston speaks of being the society editor at the Wisconsin State Journal. She speaks of adult attire and how the changes of dress were not for the better. The lack of hats in particular bears witness to “one of the fashion tragedies of our lifetime.” She was a member of the Madison Club.
Eleanore Brown McGowan grew up on Gilman Street, a member of the Brown and Storer families. She recalls the 1904 Capitol fire, finishing school in Italy, and school at the UW and Milwaukee Downer College.
John McGrath arrived in Madison in 1947 to join the staff of the Progressive Magazine. Efforts in other states led him to investigate the conditions of African-Americans in the city. As a member of the Tuesday Night Committee of the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights, he was a key participant in passing Madison’s Equal Opportunities and Open Housing ordinances.
Bert Miller speaks of his elementary school in Lafayette County and normal school at Platteville. His parents emigrated from Great Britain and introduced diversification farming to the Dakotas.
Lucile Miller was the eldest daughter of one of Madison’s early African-American families. The family was involved with St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Progressives, and the LaFollettes. She speaks of her mother’s strong feeling of self-respect.
Lillian Moehlman grew up in central Madison. Her early fascination with books led to becoming a librarian at the Madison Public Library.
David Mollenhoff was asked to offer guidance to future oral history interviewers for topics of interest in 50-100 years. He cites: the “texture of daily life,” the context of local history, public policies, and values.
Mildred and Elizabeth Morgan speak of growing up in Madison’s Fourth Ward. They name old-time neighbors and cite childhood activities.
Ruth Chase Noland speaks of life in University Heights, mentioning the omnipresent windmills. Her family moved there in 1908. She attempts to name other neighbors. She speaks enthusiastically of cultural events, including her famliy’s long-time membership in the University Heights Poetry Club.
Gordon Orr, Jr. speaks of the formation of Historic Madison. He was the first president and an editor of the organization’s early Journal.
Vito Paratore recalls life in Greenbush’s Sicilian-Albanian community. He speaks passionately about the neighborhood revitalization program, which “destroyed the neighborhood” and “killed everyone’s soul for a while.”
Robert R. Paunack speaks of his father’s family and work as Madison stone masons and builders in the middle and late 19th century. His family lived in Wingra Park and Westmorland as he was growing up. He went on to speak of his career in banking and his hope that downtown Madison will return to its role as Madison’s “center of activity.”
Walter Plaenert spent most of his life living in the Park Street area. His father’s business furnished sand to the city’s contractors. Two projects included rebuilding the capitol and constructing Central High School. He was a city alder for nine years.
Ellis Potter spent his architectural career in Madison. He offers some commentary on several buildings he designed, including residences in Maple Bluff and University Heights.
Robert Prideaux was an alder during the Vietnam War years and describes being on State Street during the riots. He was involved in ensuring neighborhood safety related to the Dane County airport and MATC’s later relocation near the airport.
Karver Puestow speaks of the history and philosophy behind developing the University Hospital. He also covers “revolutionary changes” in the practice of medicine due to Medicare, Medicaid, and health maintenance organizations.
Alma Runge speaks in her 100th year. She was a Wisconsin librarian with the State Library Commission and was then on the faculty at the UW Law School.
John Shaw grew up in Wingra Park. His school life introduced him to some of the prejudices of Madison life. He began working for Brown’s Book Store and the University Book Store. He speaks of the State Street mall development and Vietnam’s campus disruptions.
Ann Simley spoke in her 100th year. She spins an engaging and informative tale of her pioneer Norwegian life. She did graduate work in the UW speech department while teaching at Hamline University in St. Paul. One of her students was Lester Mondale, brother of Walter Mondale.
Gordon Sinykin was present at the birth of the Wisconsin Progressive Party. He speaks of his connections with the LaFollette family. His family worked hard to survive poverty. He became an attorney and modestly outlines his list of community services.
Betty Walker Smith was a City Council member at the time Historic Madison was formed. She speaks of efforts of restoring the downtown, including the successful creation of the Civic Center.
William Bradford Smith speaks of growing up in Madison. An attorney, he was very interested in legislative reapportionment during his years on the City Council. He was an active member of the Republican party and was proud of his work for the First Congregational church.
Paul Soglin speaks of coming to Madison to attend the UW, his early employment, and his early political activity, including the Dow Chemical demonstration during the 1960s. He speaks of being mayor and the construction of the Civic Center.
Myron Stevens speaks with life-long Madisonians Alice “Patty” Meloche and Adeline Steffon. They provide general reminiscences about early local families, Frank Lloyd Wright, and insider information on the construction of buildings such as the Memorial Union, the Wisconsin Historical Society, and the Tenney Building.
Hazel Shivers Taliaferro speaks of growing up in Greenbush and her jobs. She worked at the UW cancer registry, Board of Health’s vital records department, and State Division of Health. Her father was one of the African-Americans who migrated to Vernon County after the Civil War. Her mother was an East German. Hazel recalls “finding out about race” at Longfellow School.
Carol Toussaint speaks of her community activism. This includes work with the Community Foundation, League of Women Voters, the Rotary, a national utility’s women’s conference, and serving on Governor Schreiber’s cabinet. She came to Madison from Rusk County.
Harvey Waddell offers a detailed travelogue through south Madison in the 1920s. He speaks glowingly of Franklin Elementary School and happy Saturday afternoons at the Pastime theater. He also recalls ball games and construction of a high-adventure ice track.
Richard Wagner provides a tutorial on the philosophical bases of historic preservation. He emphasizes “preserving something because it is historic versus preserving something because it is pretty and from the past” and looking at “physical remains” as well as seeking out the “historical fabric.” He relates these thoughts to the Madison Landmarks Commission, to Historic Madison, and to the Trust for Historic Preservation.
Alice Palmer Washington bubbles at the memory of her childhood years on Langdon and W. Gilman Street. Towards the end of her life, she married Rev. Washington, formerly a pastor with Mt. Zion Church.
Peg Modie Watrous moved to Gilman Street from Williston, ND at the age of four. Her father served as the first dentist with the Jackson Clinic. Childhood delights included watching for the man to turn on the gas street lights and monitoring the man and horse who delivered milk. The family later moved to Spooner Street. She describes picnics at Hoyt Park, looking at sheep grazing, not Hilldale. She assisted in Gaylord Nelson’s office during his years as governor.
Florence Whitefield and Gertrude Bremer are sisters who grew up on Williamson Street. Their grandfather was a stonecutter who helped build Madison’s original post office. Their father ran the old Northwestern Hotel, but later moved in with his parents where he ran a grocery store and accommodated boarders. They witnessed the capitol fire and tell of other memories over the years.
Emilie Wiedenbeck’s father was one of the owners of Wiedenbeck-Dobelin. She speaks of her mother’s side of the family, the Steinles and their business efforts. She mentions in passing that she is the author of several children’s books.
Gertrude Knowlton Wilson lived in University Heights for 20 years after being born on Kendall Avenue. She speaks fondly of her “life” on the University farm.
Glenn Miller Wise was appointed Secretary of State by Governor Kohler. She served for several years on the city’s Parks Commission and served on Republican platform committees for several conventions. She was a UW economics student under many pre-eminent professors, including John R. Commons.
Delma Donald Woodburn moved here with her family in 1902. Her father was a member of the state legislature until 1912, when he became Secretary of State. They lived at 211 N. Prospect. As an adult, she assisted the WI Friends of Our Native Landscape, the WI Roadside Council, the Dane County Historical Society, and the Madison Civics Club. She managed three farms which led to membership in the City Farmers Club; this later grew into the Dane County Historical Society.
James C. Wright speaks on the 20th anniversary of the city’s fair housing ordinance. He speaks of the power of the Martin Luther King demonstration in Washington, D.C. and how Madison used it as a springboard to improving life here. He helped draft the ordinance and then served as the first director of the Madison Equal Opportunities Commission which was charged with enforcing it.
Florence Zmudzinski speaks of her work with the Madison Redevelopment Authority during the Brittingham and Triangle projects. As relocation officer, she sought to “find safe, decent, and sanitary housing that each individual or family could afford.” The Greenbush neighborhood contained aged, poor, minorities, and students.