Civil War, History Class, Life, Museums, Travel, Uncategorized, World War 2

Exploring the Oshkosh Public Museum (and a Small Piece of the National WWII Museum)

2023 has arrived, and even though the gray clouds remind me of Washington winter more than the dazzling snowscapes I envisioned, it’s off to a pretty good start in the Clare household. We had a lovely Christmas break with many visits from family and friends, and my kids and I found a snow drift large enough to tunnel through—always exciting!

I was also excited when I discovered a chance to see part of The National WWII Museum (a place that’s on my “I’d love to visit!” list) without having to manage travel to New Orleans.

The exhibition “Manufacturing Victory: The Arsenal of Democracy” made a guest appearance in the city of Oshkosh, Wisconsin this October-December. With only a few days left in which to view it, my family and I took a little trip to the Oshkosh Public Museum.

With this past year’s massive life changes and hectic schedule, I looked forward to a chance to explore another piece of World War II history. (While I’ve dug into some Homefront history, most recently it’s all been centered around Bremerton, Washington.) I didn’t go in with particularly high expectations for the rest of the museum—the highest praise I’d heard of it was that it was “nice.”

The building itself was certainly impressive.

The Edgar Sawyer House

While the entrance to the museum and part of the exhibition area are in a modern building, the new construction flows into the Edgar Sawyer House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. What a house it is!

Edgar Sawyer (b. 1842) was the son of a successful lumberman and politician. He had a knack for investing and business acumen. Like his father, he provided many charitable gifts to his community. Unlike his father, he didn’t care for public life. He married Mary Jewell in 1864 and had two children.

The current Sawyer House was built for them in 1908— a more modern mansion to replace the one that was previously on the site. It was notable for having beautiful furnishings (many designed by the Tiffany Studios in New York) paired with wonderful conveniences such as gas and electric lines, two telephone lines, an electric elevator, and horsehair insulation. It had four floors, 35 rooms, and the house and estate encompassed almost an entire block. Each of the main rooms on the ground level was done in a different type of wood, and the fireplaces and staircase were carved by local German artisans.

The Sawyers didn’t get to enjoy their lavish home together for very long. They moved in when they were both 66, and seventeen months later Mary passed away from heart failure. Edgar kept the house up but spent more time at his other residences in Georgia, Florida, and Texas.

In 1922, Edgar donated he house to the City of Oshkosh, “free of all restrictions or limitations, except that it be used for the benefit of the public.” (Oshkosh Northwestern, courtesy of the museum pamphlet.) Naturally, there was some back and forth and some legal kerfuffle about just how the house ought to be used, but in 1924 the house was opened as an art museum. Later, it moved toward a focus on historic artifacts from Wisconsin, particularly the Oshkosh area.

In my opinion, the curators have done an excellent job.

Exhibits on Wisconsin History

The first local history exhibits we encountered on our visit dove into the early history of the area and detailed information about the lives of the native peoples and their early interactions with explorers and traders. The museum had attractive displays with a number of authentic artifacts as well as some really well-done reproductions. We particularly enjoyed the walk-through Oneota longhouse and a simulated archeological site.

As a teacher and mom, I’m always looking for places in museums where kids can actively engage with history. This museum provided plenty of them. There were things to touch, listen to, even smell. The kids enjoyed a little simulated fur trading video game.

Upstairs, exhibits moved forward in time, with a great interactive exhibit on Wisconsin’s involvement in the Civil War. My kids were fascinated by samples of hard tac, (authentic, but under glass so no tasting) grossed out by the replica of a wounded arm, (complete with embedded miniball) and interested to heft the weight of a civil war era rifle and to race some plastic cockroaches.

Displays from other time periods included a visit to “Grandma’s Attic” (where I tried out a really tall bike) and a recreated, furnished log cabin.

Naturally, I zeroed in on one picture on “Grandma’s Attic” wall.

While the gown itself was not currently on display, the story of the dress, made from the chute that saved the groom’s life when his bomber went down around the English Channel, made an excellent read!

Downstairs, one of the rooms in the house proper also had some posters with Homefront connections.

While the other rooms of the house had some lovely historic pieces on display, the most striking was the Apostles Clock.

The Apostles Clock

The Apostles Clock has resided in the Oshkosh Public Museum for around 70 years. Built in 1895, it took Oshkosh resident, Mathais Kitz, six years to complete. Eight feet tall, the clock is intricately carved with beautiful detail.

Every hour, a door at the top opens and a sculpture of an angel comes out and strikes a gong. The clock lights up and music begins to play (it can play around 50 different songs) and another door opens. A figure of Jesus stands at the center of the clock, and images of the twelve apostles parade past him, all turning to bow—except for the last one. The final apostle is Judas, who turns away instead. To the sides of the main display are two more doors that open to reveal images of the Nativity and the Crucifixion.

The museum also has a smaller clock—sort of a ‘practice version’ of the Apostles Clock, but still impressive.

If you’d like to see something of what the Apostles Clock looks like in real life, below is a link to a YouTube video.

While the Oshkosh Public Museum proper was well worth a visit, it’s time to move on to the exhibit we came to see!

Manufacturing Victory

The museum had several rooms dedicated to “The Arsenal of Freedom” exhibit.

The greater part of the exhibit was made up of large posters with sections to read (as you can see in the pictures below)

However, there were some artifacts as well as screens with historic footage, and a couple of interactive stations (pictured below.)

One of the walls included displays about Oshkosh history specifically. Various factories in Oshkosh earned five Army-Navy E Awards.

Oshkosh B’Gosh made more than cute kids’ clothes—during wartime they also produced thousands of camouflaged coveralls!

Overall, it was an interesting exhibit. I’ll admit, I was hoping for more actual artifacts, though I imagine those are difficult to transport. The sign boards contained a great deal of fascinating information that I’ll have to dig into more later. Perhaps the rest of the museum, with all of its interactive exhibits, spoiled me. (And it is a little tricky to fully commit to focused reading while wrangling children. That’s better done at home.)

It was still a treat to have the opportunity to see a bit of the New Orleans museum, and I’ll hope to see it in person some day! For now, if I’m looking for WWII artifacts in Oshkosh I’ll head for the Military Veterans Museum. And for local Wisconsin history, I’d be glad to visit the Oshkosh Public Museum again!

Any museum display is better with a place to pose as “Rosie!”

Thank you for stopping by today Readers!

How has your New Year been? Have you discovered any new pieces of history lately?

20 thoughts on “Exploring the Oshkosh Public Museum (and a Small Piece of the National WWII Museum)”

  1. Hi Anne, glad to hear you had a good Xmas and are settling in. While you gave us a great walkthrough, two things caught my attention. First was horsehair insulation. 🙂 I had to look it up. All I could find was horse hair plaster. They mixed it in as a binding agent at the time. The other things racing plastic cockroaches. LOL. -Curt

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Curt! I hope you and Peggy are doing well! We are settling in, and slowly working our way through the boxes. Getting out all the Christmas decorations went a long way toward making our new location feel more like home. 🙂
      Thanks for the extra info on the “horse hair”- I was wondering what that all might entail! (I just took the info from their pamphlet and didn’t dig.) I’ve heard of horse hair furniture, but wondered just how much it would take to insulate a house like that (I was picturing it like the pink insulation, but more…horsey colored.) Mixed with something else would make more sense to me…but If we get back to that museum, I should ask a docent for more details.
      Yeah, there was a really great little section on life for a Civil War soldier. The cockroaches were in the “entertainment” section. (Honestly, it might be more interesting than some of the stuff on TV, but…) The kids weren’t entirely thrilled about a museum outing over their break (they’re getting older and a bit more skeptical) but they really had a great time exploring this one, as did I!


      1. We spent a focused month when we got back from our Rhine River cruise this past summer and unpacked everything we could fit into our dramatically reduced living space, Ann. It still looks like home given that we are still surrounded by books! We like it.
        Another thing we did this past summer was to take our two teenage grandsons down to Williamsburg for a weekend. I was pleased to see that they loved it! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved this, thanks so much. I visited OshKosh back in the 1990s when I was managing a British rock band and we passed through on a radio station and live show tour. We did not have time to stop and sight-see, sadly, and had I known about the museum at that time, I would have been really upset to have missed it. This has been a great read, thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jane. What a great Oshkosh connection! There are some really interesting pieces of history tucked around this area that I’m looking forward to exploring!
      Now I’m curious, though- may I ask which band?

      Liked by 1 person

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