By Clay Riness  

Something just landed in Sparta, and it’s spiking the cool meter. How about learning Monroe County history like we’ve never learned it before?

Jarrod Roll, director and county historian for the Monroe County Local History Room and Museum (MCLHR), loves his job as much as he loves local history. “We were started in 1976, and it’s always been our mission to connect people to history in a meaningful way. We do that through exhibits, public programs and our research library,” he says. 

MCLHR headquarters is the former Masonic Temple building located at 200 West Main Street, which was initially purchased by volunteers who fundraised the money for it, then gifted it to the county for use as a museum.

What just landed is a new and unique, permanent exhibit called “Monroe County A to Z.” Most exhibits the organization has done in the past have been done by Roll and volunteers with circular saws, plywood and paint, Roll explains. “They do the job, but we wanted to do something really special; we wanted to create a core exhibit that was more than just read and see. We wanted something you’d be able to touch, something interactive,” he says.

After forming the concept, MCLHR, for the first time, hired an outside group, Pica Grove Image Allies, to create the exhibit. “Pica Grove (also in Sparta) is an amazing place. They are an idea factory; they constantly create and think on the fly. And, I hope they’ll still talk to us now that this is done,” Roll says, laughing. The job, it seems, was quite an undertaking.

So, how does the exhibit work? “It’s a concept of open books, because we are a history library. It is a series of six large open books that visitors can walk up to and interact with. Each alphabet letter stands for something significant in Monroe County history,” he continues. “For instance, A is for astronaut Deke Slayton; B is for the bike trail, birthplace of the rails to trails system; C is for cranberries. We’ve got something (or someone) for each letter.”

The visitor experience is multitiered. In the case of A is for astronaut, you’ll learn about Deke Slayton, who was among NASA’s first batch of astronauts in the Mercury 7 program, and that he was a farm kid from Leon. There will be a featured photo and an artifact or two. Interactively, there will be a series of three pictures … farm boy, astronaut and hometown hero. “You’ll turn a knob; it’s like one of those dynamic billboards that you see. Slats will turn and the picture will change. This will help drive the point that here you have a local farm kid turned astronaut turned hometown hero. It’s all mechanical … analog,” he adds, grinning. “We do have some electronics in this, but we tried to keep things as mechanical as possible.”

While Roll addresses the challenge of summarizing his county’s history based on 26 letters, he admits that some were no brainers while others were a little difficult. “One of the hardest ones was X,” he admits. “We ended up using the LaX River and the importance of rivers for local transportation, food and recreation. We had to be real generous with that one because X was a challenge.”

Roll adds that some of these historically significant features and people are not even known by most folks. These include Edgar Stillman Kelley, a world-famous composer from Sparta; Gasoline Alley, a well-known comic strip based on cartoonist Frank King’s childhood in Tomah; and Kathryn Clarenbach, co-founder of NOW (National Organization of Women) and a native of Sparta.

Monroe County A to Z opened Thursday, June 28. Admission is free. The cool meter just went to 11.

The Monroe County Local History Room and Museum is located at 200 W. Main St. in Sparta, Wisconsin. Museum hours are Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.monroecountyhistory.org or www.facebook.com/mclhr.