Brown County Bicentennial 

Wisconsin’s oldest county celebrates 200 years

Thirty years before Wisconsin was granted statehood, Brown County was established as one of the state’s original two counties. It was formed in 1818 and made up the entire eastern half of Wisconsin, becoming the first boundary lines west of the Great Lakes.

As Wisconsin’s oldest county prepares to celebrate its 200th birthday this year, Beth Lemke is in a reflective mood. 

“I look out to the river every single day, and I think about the bay and how this was a place of encounters long before we inhabited it,” says Lemke, executive director of the Neville Public Museum of Brown County.

Wisconsin was established as a state with 28 counties, but today it has 72. Brown County, with a population of 245,000, is the fourth-largest county in Wisconsin. It is composed of 13 townships, nine villages and two cities, of which Green Bay is the largest. 

Brown County was named after Jacob Jennings Brown, an American army officer who served in the War of 1812. Brown organized the militia defenses in the Great Lakes region and defeated the British at the Battle of Sacket’s Harbor in 1813. He was the most successful battle commander in the war, winning four of the nine American victories. This earned Brown a Congressional Gold Medal and national hero status. 

“The War of 1812 is such a little-known war, but for our settlement here it was really important,” says Christine Dunbar, executive director of the Brown County Historical Society. “It removed the control of British fur traders and set up American settlement possibilities starting with military forts.”

The United States government began building forts to protect the waterways used for fur trading from British invasion. Fort Howard was one such fort built in 1816 above the western bank of Green Bay. 

Nick Backhaus, director of operations at Heritage Hill State Historical Park in Green Bay, says Fort Howard was the link between essential forts along the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway. 

“Green Bay is a very old city, and it had a huge impact on Wisconsin’s development. We were the very first settlement that had an influence on all the communities around us,” Backhaus says. “Everything stemmed out of these forts.”

October 26, 2018 marks Brown County’s official 200th birthday, but the entire year will be marked by countywide events, exhibits and celebrations.  

The Neville Public Museum of Brown County will host “Our Brown County (1818-2018),” an exhibit that chronicles 200 years of Brown County history through 50 artifacts, 50 photographs, 50 people and 50 places. The exhibit opens May 29 and runs through October 27, 2019. 

“May 29 is Statehood Day. We are opening the exhibit then because we are paying tribute to our past as we continue to look toward the future of our region,” Lemke says. 

The exhibit will represent benchmark moments in Brown County history like the 45-car pileup on the Leo Frigo Memorial Bridge that left three people dead in 1990. 

“It was a pivotal moment that people in this community remember. At the time, different municipalities had different 911 centers. They weren’t able to respond in a way people thought was quickly enough or in an organized manner,” says Neville Public Museum Curator Lisa Kain. “Now the centers are combined and serve the entire county, so that [event] sparked the creation of the department as it is today.”  

For the exhibit, Brown County Emergency Management provided a 911 operator headset, audio files and call transcripts from the day of the accident. Museum attendees will be able to see and hear somber stories like this one, but they will experience lighthearted ones too. The exhibit also features audio files from Super Bowl XLV in 2011 that concluded with a Packer victory. 

One of the artifacts that will be displayed is a flight suit worn by John Evans who volunteered for the U.S. Air Force and served as a combat aerial photographer during the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1973. After leaving the Air Force, Evans became a lawyer and worked for Brown County and Oconto County.

The oldest artifact included in the exhibit is a book from 1823 that is signed by James Duane Doty. That year Doty was appointed a judge with jurisdiction from Mackinac to the Mississippi and held his first court at Prairie du Chien. He moved to Green Bay the following year and helped establish a military road from Green Bay through Chicago and on to Prairie du Chien in 1830.

Notable personalities from the early days of Brown County to contemporary figures will be profiled. These include Green Bay Packers free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, former Wisconsin State Assembly member Rosemary Hinkfuss and Dr. Rosa Minoka Hill, a Native American physician who operated a “kitchen clinic” on the Oneida reservation.

“We took the stand that these aren’t the 50 most important people or artifacts,” Kain says. “It’s really just a snapshot of the community and a balance of different races, ethnicities and genders, so it’s an actual representation of Brown County and not just the names you see on the street signs.” 

History buffs will be able to see another interpretation of Brown County history at the Hazelwood Historic House Museum, operated by Brown County Historical Society. Dunbar says the venue will host “Fashioning Our Identity: 200 Years of Style,” an exhibit that uses clothing to represent milestones in Brown County’s history. 

“For example, we have an early 1900s bathing costume from the time period when Bay Beach opened,” says Dunbar, who indicates visitors will be able to see clothing worn during World War I and II as well as items that represent Brown County’s involvement in the Civil War. The exhibit opens July 5 and runs through August. 

In addition to exhibits, many celebratory events are planned for the anniversary year. The Brown County Historical Society is also hosting a special event on August 25 called “History Tour Road Rally: Celebrating 200 years of Brown County.” The event will take participants on a scavenger hunt of historic landmarks throughout the county.

On October 26, the Neville Public Museum will host a countywide birthday party for Brown County on the museum grounds from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. The event will include a fireworks display, cupcake and anniversary-themed activities. 

Lemke hopes the anniversary exhibit and corresponding events will reinvigorate the strong sense of place held by many Brown County residents, whether lifelong natives or recent arrivals. 

“I hope that people will see something they are familiar with, but also learn something they never expected to learn,” she says. 

Happy Birthday, Brown County!

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