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Historical society to buy Betts building

The former Betts Funeral Home, 103 E. Rockwell St., Elkhorn, will be purchased by the Walworth County Historical Society. The house will be used for historical society meetings and events, and to store documents.



FUNERAL HOME HAD LONG HISTORY - ELKHORN — As fitting with the buildings owned by the Walworth County Historical Society, the Betts funeral home has long history firmly tied to that of Elkhorn and Walworth County. For one thing, the house has been there for a long time. "When you look at the structure, you see a core, and there are additions all the way around," said Dan Richardson the historical society's past president and a member of the board of directors. The Rohleder family opened the first funeral home there in the late 1940s or early 1950s, said Doris Reinke, historical society president. It was sold to the Derksen family funeral business, and was finally sold to the Betts family in the 1970s. James D. Betts retired in 2005 and the funeral home at 103 E. Rockwell St., has been vacant since. Although it was a funeral home for more than a half century, it was built as a private residence by John Harris in the mid-19th Century. When the Harrises owned the house, it was more closely identified with the dairy industry, than funerals. John Harris founded the Wisconsin Butter and Cheese Co. Harris would travel the Midwest and buy and sell dairies. Those he didn't sell he consolidated with his Elkhorn plant. The family also ran a lumberyard as a side business. For a long time, the Harrises were an important part of Elkhorn's local economy, Reinke said. In 1891, Harris sold a Chicago cheese distribution business to two brothers, John and Fred Kraft. For a while, there was a close connection between Wisconsin Butter & Cheese and the Kraft Cheese Co. Until Wisconsin Butter & Cheese melted away, Kraft marketed Elkhorn Brand Cheese, made at the Harris' dairy plant in Elkhorn. But the Elkhorn family's business faded, and in 1926, Wisconsin Butter & Cheese was sold to United Milk Products, Cleveland, Ohio. Hawthorne Melody took over the old Wisconsin Butter & Cheese plant in 1961. The plant was closed in 1964. Kraft Foods Inc. now owns restaurants and food companies worldwide that make everything from coffee and cookies to Cool Whip. Meanwhile, Elkhorn Brand Cheese crocks are sold as antiques on e-Bay.
March 14, 2012 | 08:29 AM
ELKHORN — History generates a lot of stuff.

The Walworth County Historical Society collects a lot of that stuff.

"We started collecting when the society was founded in 1904, so we have a lot of things," said Doris Reinke, president of the historical society.

"We have a lot of things stored away, like all museums have."

Those things are taking up more and more space, so the historical society is looking to expand.

It found the perfect spot right across the street.

In February, the Walworth County Board approved a 10-year, $100,000 no-interest loan to the historical society.

The loan will go to buy the former Betts Funeral Home at 103 E. Rockwell St.

Dan Richardson, the historical society's past president and a member of the board of directors, said the total cost of the building is $225,000.

The balance of the building's cost will be paid by the society, which takes in donations, grants and dues to maintain operations.

In a March 7 interview, Richardson said the society should be able to take possession of the house by the end of the month.

The tradition is for the historical society to buy the property, pay off the loans and then transfer the property to county ownership.

Ownership is transferred to the county for insurance purposes, Richardson said.

The county is able to get property insurance at a much lower rate, he said.

Reinke said the house will be used for monthly meetings, special events and to store old tax and land title documents, which the county turns over to the society for safekeeping.

Walworth County bought the Joseph Philbrick Webster House, 9 E. Rockwell St., in 1956 for the purpose of housing a museum, Reinke said.

The Walworth County Historical Society was then asked to take over care and operation of the museum, she said.

Webster was a popular composer of the mid-19th Century, who wrote the Civil War song "Lorena," and the church hymn "In the Sweet By-and-By."

His home is now a window to the mid-19th Century, with Victorian-era artifacts on display from around the county.

Since then, the society purchased a barn which was moved to the museum grounds in the late 1990s.

The society also bought the neighboring Clower House, next door to the Webster House, for additional storage.

The society also owns the one-room school house at the county fairgrounds, which was moved there from Darien.

But the stuff keeps accumulating.

Reinke said the old county records are now stored in rented spaces in two or three different buildings around the city.

The former funeral home would allow the society to centralize those documents, which are sought out by historians and genealogists from across the state and country, she said.

The relationship between the county and historical society has been a good one, Reinke said.

The society is largely volunteer, which means it runs with very little overhead.

"They (county supervisors) appreciate the fact that, as one supervisor said, 'You run a pretty tight ship, there,'" Reinke said.


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