Unlocking the Past

Ozaukee Courthouse Displays Its Secrets
By Jeff Cole of the Journal Sentinel staff
From the Journal Sentinel
Last Updated: June 6, 2001

Port Washington - Father Kevin Wester fingered the handwritten pages encased in heavy sheets of see-through plastic.

One hundred years ago, some unknown scribe had taken the time to write down the names of every man from Ozaukee County who had served in the Union Army in the Civil War. The list ended up in a time capsule that was encased in 1901 in the cornerstone of the then new Ozaukee County Courthouse.

Wester scanned the list of the names of the 38 Town of Belgium men who had joined the effort to preserve the United States. They were among the 388 men from Ozaukee County who enlisted in the war effort.

"Eugene Antonie," Wester said as his finger came to rest on a name. "He was my great-great-grandmother's young brother. He was killed."

Wester's finger stopped at another name, another ancestor. He also didn't survive the War Between the States.

"This is very exciting," Wester said as he looked at the roster and a number of other items removed from the time capsule. "It is unbelievable."

The cornerstone was removed as part of the preparation by Ozaukee County for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the old courthouse's construction. The building is now part of the Ozaukee County Administration Center.

Wester, a Roman Catholic priest, is active in the Port Washington Historical Society and is one of the people planning the celebration. He is the unofficial courthouse historian.

The actual celebration is to be held July 4. But, just to be safe, the capsule was opened early, Wester explained to the County Board.

"We were told you always open time capsules privately because the majority of time they are filled with old coins and dust," Wester said.

The Port Washington capsule was the exception to that caveat, Wester said. Inside the copper-lined tin box were 117 different items and nearly all were in almost perfect condition.

The one exception was a 1901 State of Wisconsin Blue Book - a directory of state government. That was moldy, but it is the least historically significant item in the box, Wester said.

"There were newspapers, 33 cents in coins, ribbons advertising the laying of the cornerstone, four photographs, including a panoramic view of the actual cornerstone laying, ribbons advertising the event, the empty cartridges from the volley fired that day and many other things," Wester said.

Today's County Board was given a private viewing of the items their political ancestors felt would be important to the people a century in the future.

The supervisors wandered through Ozaukee County Board Chairman Katherine Smith's office, exclaiming over the items. Several donned sterile white gloves so they could handle things had been in the box without damaging them.

Judging from the box's contents, the celebration on that day a century ago seems to have been largely a Port Washington-centered affair, Wester said. There is very little mention of other parts of Ozaukee County, he said.

"There is a list of every church in the area, with a list of their charter members, including the Holden Norwegian Lutheran Congregation, which no longer exists," Wester said. "There is a copy of the Ozaukee County Advertiser, a newspaper which no longer exists and of which we had no copies."

*Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on June 7, 2001.