Altoona historical society railroad speeder

From left, Altoona Historical Society President Don Winrich, member Vicki Iverson and historian John Glassbrenner stand in Altoona City Park next to one of the society’s largest artifacts, a bright yellow railroad speeder the group purchased from the city of Altoona. One of the group’s priorities is raising money partially to assist in building a shelter to display the speeder next to its building in the park, Winrich said.

ALTOONA — Local historical organizers have leased a building in an Altoona park, are seeking local artifacts and are raising funds to develop a historical society and museum.

It’s a renewed effort for the Altoona Historical Society, which first formally organized in 2010. The group achieved nonprofit status in 2016, and planning efforts began again in earnest then, AHS Historian John Glassbrenner said Monday.

“Those of us passionate about Altoona’s history would say there’s a defining line between Eau Claire and Altoona,” Glassbrenner said. “Sometimes we get lost in Eau Claire’s history.”

The historical society hopes to change that, aiming to eventually open a museum.

So far organizers have gathered memorabilia and are settling into a new building.

The AHS has established a new five-year lease for a small building in Altoona City Park, 10th Street West, in an agreement with the city, said Altoona City Administrator Mike Golat.

The building is informally known as the old Fish House structure, a nod to its history as an after-school hangout for local kids. (The structure sits next to the park’s newer Fish House building, which was recently built to host city rec programs and community gatherings.)

When AHS president Don Winrich heard that the future of the old Fish House structure was uncertain, the AHS approached the city about leasing the building.

“They’ve been very supportive,” Winrich said of Golat and the Altoona City Council.

Under the lease agreement, the historical society will maintain the Old Fish House building. Winrich said the AHS intends to give the building a fresh coat of paint and its utility systems a once-over.

The building has infused the longtime effort to create an Altoona historical museum with new vigor, organizers said.

“We spent a lot of years trying, working on getting a building and looking at options,” Glassbrenner said. “Those were tough times when it came to raising money. Now, our hope is this exposes people to our history … History needs to be touched for most people.”

Seeking memorabilia

The building isn’t formally open yet, though community members can make appointments to see the many photos and artifacts inside.

“Our goal right now is to be open for events in town,” Glassbrenner said. “Then, if we get to a point where we can be open maybe two days a week in the summer, that’ll be down the road.”

Before it broadly opens to the public, the AHS must raise money to maintain and operate the building, Glassbrenner and Winrich said.

It’s also seeking new memorabilia.

The AHS is willing to take nearly any historical item related to Altoona, said AHS member Vicki Iverson: Photographs, old school or sports uniforms or other memorabilia.

The group already has an eye-catching start to its collection: A large, bright yellow, motorized railway speeder, which railroad crews used in the 1960s and 70s to inspect and maintain the tracks.

The speeder was given to the city of Altoona in 1995, and the city in turn gave it to the historical society, according to the AHS.

Altoona’s legacy has always been shaped by the railroad, Glassbrenner said. Settlers began putting down roots in the city in the early 1880s, when a Midwest-based railway chose the area for a new railroad terminal.

The community was first dubbed “East Eau Claire,” Glassbrenner said, but confusion between the East Eau Claire and Eau Claire railway stations spurred a renaming, and Altoona was incorporated as a city in 1887.

“Without the railroad, Altoona would not be here,” Glassbrenner added.

Planning for the future

Winrich’s hope is to eventually display the speeder outside the historical society’s building, though it will need to build a covered shelter to protect from the weather.

As it fundraises for bigger projects, the AHS has been easing into the public sphere with smaller ones. For several years it’s published historical Altoona photos in their annual calendars; has shown off the railway speeder at local parades; and is hoping to create an interactive genealogical archive using around 60 old Altoona High School yearbooks.

Ultimately, AHS organizers say they need funds to maintain and develop the museum. The group has started a $50,000 fundraiser using online platform GoFundMe, and is also planning other fundraisers, including a pie and ice cream social this summer, Winrich said.

Winrich also hopes the group can establish a permanent scholarship fund for local students.

For Glassbrenner, Iverson and Winrich, their quest to document Altoona’s history is personal. Some of the AHS’ historical photographs portray their grandparents and relatives. Like many other Altoona natives, Iverson’s great-grandfather worked for the railroad, she said.

About 38 people have been involved with the AHS thus far, and dozens have contributed memorabilia or donated, according to the group.

The historical society’s meetings are open to Altoona residents and the general public, and Iverson said organizers are delighted to welcome new people who are interested in the city’s history.

“It’s an enthusiastic group and we’re hoping there is interest,” Golat said.

The historical society’s website is www.altoonawisconsinhistoricalsociety.org. Winrich can be reached via email at dlwinrich@charter.net.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.