Fred H. Keller – Sussex – Lisbon Area Historian, Museum Curator

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Sussex man hopes to pass on past – Proposed historical society would preserve memorabilia collection

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI) – Friday, September 7, 2001

Readability: 9-12 grade level (Lexile: 1110L)
Author: JACQUELINE SEIBEL, Journal Sentinel staff

A Civil War musket, hundreds of postcards, photos and a Kewpie doll collection all representing the area’s rich history soon could come under the care of a group that wants to form a historical society.

“I’m getting old, and where will this stuff go?” asked Fred Keller , the official village historian.

The Sussex native, 69, has been collecting area artifacts and memorabilia since he was 14. Keller decided this year to donate the collection to the village, on the condition that a historical society be formed.

Forty-six people from Sussex , Lisbon and Lannon met in August and voted to form such a society.

Forming a historical society can take six months, said Thomas McKay, local history coordinator for the Wisconsin Historical Society.

The Sussex -area group needs to adopt bylaws, incorporate as a non-profit organization and apply for tax-exempt status, he said.

There are 320 county, local and specialized historical societies in Wisconsin, including 13 in Waukesha County, McKay said.

He said it’s important for local historical societies to collect, preserve and display the state’s historical treasures.

“Having groups like Sussex provide historical artifacts and programs in their community only strengthens the state’s collection,” he said.

Size does not determine the success of a historical society, McKay said. Many groups succeed with 20 members; others have hundreds.

“The best (historical) societies are the ones that have all kinds of people from the community,” McKay said. “If you have people and the enthusiasm, then the accomplishments will follow.”

At the meeting last month, Hank Carlson was elected to head the steering committee that will work the next several months to form the society.

“We need to preserve the history of the area,” Carlson said about why he accepted the position as chairman.

Once the society is formed, members will need to find a home for Keller ‘s collection, Carlson said.

Keller has amassed his collection through auctions, rummage sales and estate sales.

There is typically a story behind each item. He purchased the Civil War musket for $5 from a “local” when he was 14. That began his collection.

He was digging through items another resident intended to throw away when he found a pencil with the Halquist Stone Co. name on it and its two-digit phone number from the 1930s.

He started collecting the Kewpie dolls because the cherub was used as a logo for the Friday Canning Co., a longtime employer for area residents.

The books he has compiled on local history will become part of the collection at the Pauline Haass Public Library. The historical items will be displayed in a museum once the society finds a home.

“I could sell it on the market, but it really belongs to the community,” Keller said of his vast collection.

History never gets old for Sussex man

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI) – Sunday, April 7, 2002

Readability: 11-12 grade level (Lexile: 1220L)
Author:LAUREL WALKER, Journal Sentinel staff

Every community needs at least one Fred Keller .

Someone with a keen interest in local history and a deep love of his own community.

Above all, someone who has an unceasing willingness to work on the tangibles compiling books, framing pictures, talking to old-timers, hunting auctions or garage sales for collectibles, even diving into garbage bins for any historic treasure that somebody else considered trash.

Finally, someone with an understanding spouse June, in his case who over the years has watched their house fill with the history of Sussex , Lisbon and Lannon, a good share of which some day will fill a museum.

The Kellers’ nicely groomed house on Sussex ‘s Elmwood Ave. is immediately recognizable for its super-sized Sussex logo painted on the overhead garage door. A signal of his previous role as supervisor of parks and recreation in the village, for one, but also of his gung-ho regard for his community. Inside you’ll find a tidy arrangement of what seems to be something about anything and everything Sussex .

Some of Keller ‘s more striking possessions? An 1893 charcoal drawing of the village’s original pioneers. An 1874 hand-drawn map of the Sussex -Lisbon area. An 1886 lithograph listing 28th regiment Civil War infantrymen from the county, nearly a dozen from the Sussex area. An 1879 handwritten note and silver serving spoon from the first Sussex settler woman.

Kewpie collection

He’s got an extensive and valuable Kewpie collection started because the village’s Mammouth Springs Canning Co. used the doll drawing in its canned goods logo from 1924 until 1965. Keller said he holds one of only two remaining lighted “Kewpie Pop” advertising signs, created when Mammouth canned carbonated water in 1954 only to discontinue it soon after.

There isn’t an old-time business or community building that Keller can’t put his fingers on somewhere, somehow in his collection of butter crocks, seltzer bottles, horse feed gunny sacks and Lord knows what else.

If he doesn’t have an artifact, then he has a book old ones salvaged from somewhere, or bound compilations of materials he’s acquired. Hundreds of books and an estimated 20,000 photographs, he said.

If he doesn’t have a book, he’ll write one, having reached 15 original works so far. The latest was on the history of Lisbon.

He is the expert just about everyone reporters included calls when in need of an answer. In many cases, he’s the first one called when someone local has a building about to be abandoned or a piece of history they no longer want. They’re betting Fred Keller would, and he usually does.

“You’ve got to do it when the time presents itself or it’s lost,” he said. “I’m a great garbage diver.”

On one occasion, Keller said, his wife was stopped by a police officer in a squad car, lights flashing, only to find out the officer wondered if Fred was interested in a Kewpie coaster wagon he had.

A local gold mine

Village officials figured out in about 1976 that Keller ‘s knowledge and collection was an untapped gold mine. They made him the official historian. About the same time, he started writing historic features for what then was a free local newspaper, the Sussex Sun, and hasn’t quit since. About 1,250 articles later, “I just never run out of material,” he said.

In 1981, Keller added a humor column called “Bald Facts” a title that tells you as much about his hairstyle as it does about his wry observations.

A year ago, he offered his collection to the community provided it form a local historical society and consider creating a museum. The first is already accomplished. The second is well on its way, with an anonymous donor willing to give $100,000 for housing the collection, probably in the Northwestern railroad depot on Main Street.

His interest in history stretches well beyond Sussex . He has long been active in the Waukesha County Historical Society as a member and former board member and currently works on replacing or establishing historical markers. He volunteers as much as 20 hours a week, clipping news articles for the society’s archives.

Keller , 70, who was born in Waterford and spent his childhood in Elm Grove, became acquainted with Sussex when his father bought the Sussex Mills in 1946, although he didn’t move there until 1959. With one of his early paychecks for shoveling coal, he bought his first artifact a Civil War musket for $4. That and an erudite aunt who encouraged his inquisitiveness helped him cull a love of history.

If history is his first love after June, four children and 10 grandchildren, of course then basketball is a close second.

“I really know my basketball,” he said, all 6-feet-five-inches of him.

He was a star player at Marquette High School on a team that went to the state finals twice, lost twice and sadly, he adds, was therefore forgettable. He said he was drafted in 1952 and assigned to a military police unit in the Army in Germany largely because of the basketball skills he could bring to a commander’s team.

Three of his four children two boys and two girls were all-conference players at Hamilton High School. Four grandchildren currently play varsity high school basketball, and on any given Thursday or Friday night he’ll be at an Oostberg or Waukesha West boys’ or girls’ game.

They’re beneficiaries, no doubt, of the full-court, lighted basketball court Keller built in his backyard for regular workouts. Between his own offspring, their friends and neighbors, “I have six kids who made all-state off my backyard,” Keller boasted.

Besides keeping track of history, he’s helped make it, too.


Among Fred Keller ‘s more striking possessions:

— An 1893 charcoal drawing of the village’s original pioneers.

— An 1874 hand-drawn map of the Sussex -Lisbon area.

— An 1886 lithograph listing 28th regiment Civil War infantrymen from the county, nearly a dozen from the Sussex area.

Sussex’s very own historian

Fred Keller shares his devotion to community

Fred Keller, 1953 in Germany

The red pickup truck bearing license plate SU-6-Sun, parked in front of a garage with the Village of Sussex logo emblazoned across the front of the overhead door, tells you a lot about Fred Keller, the iconic newspaper man who originally crafted the ubiquitous symbol of the village he loves.

Peek around the house into the backyard and you well see a lighted, full-size basketball court that will also tell you about the sport he played in high school and college and how much he loves watching his grand children play.

Keller was born in Burlington on Dec. 20, 1931. In 1946, his family moved from Elm Grove to Sussex after his father purchased the Sussex Mills from the Reinder Brothers.

Three years after graduating from Marquette High School, where he was the starting basketball center at 6-feet-5-inches tall, Keller was drafted into the military during the Korean War.

“One of the great periods of my life was my military career as a military policeman in Germany,” he said recently.

Keller returned home and eventually purchased the mill from his father. He later sold it to a business partner.

In the mid 1970s, Keller was managing some local recreational basketball teams. A sports writer, Chuck Delsman, discovered Keller’s writing skills when Keller wrote stories for the local weekly newspaper.

Delsman recommended Keller to newspaper owner Jim McCloone who owned a small chain of weekly newspapers in Lake Country, including the Sussex Sun.

Keller has worked part-time for the newspaper for more than 35 years and began his “Bald Facts” column in 1981.

To support his newspaper habit, Keller took a full-time job with the village Department of Parks and Recreation, where he served as director for nearly 17 years.

It was during his tenure as park director that he designed the village logo which depicts a landmark tree and the hills in the village park.

Throughout his career in public service and newspapering, Keller also gained a reputation as the village’s historian.

He and his wife, June, are the parents of two adult daughters and sons. Three of their four children were captains on Hamilton High School basketball teams.

The couple has 11 grandchildren. Seven of them have played college sports and two more are expected to play at the college level.

What makes the communities of Sussex, Lisbon and Lannon so unique?

“They are all good people. I had long ago decided that I would not leave Sussex. I would visit Florida and Arizona, but I would always return to Sussex to be close to Lisbon and Lannon and the people of those communities. The communities all have beautiful parks, the Bug Line Recreation Trail and good schools. You can do your shopping in these communities and Sussex has a great library.”

What are some of your fondness memories of growing up in Sussex?

“My fondest earliest memories of Sussex-Lisbon was interacting with the area farmers as they came in for grinding and mixing of their rations for their cows, pigs, chickens and horses. It was during this period (at the age of 14) that I decided in the future I would start collecting historical items and stories from Sussex and Lisbon.”

How did you get so involved in sports?

“I played basketball at an all-boys school … at Marquette High in Milwaukee. In my junior and senior year, we got to the state finals both years only to lose and finish second. I got a scholarship to the Marquette University basketball program and Sussex had a Land of Rivers League team of former high school players.

In 1951, the Sussex team went through the Land Of Rivers League undefeated and only lost in the state tournament in AAU competitions. Jerry Tetzlaff and I were the one and two high scorers in the league.”

How is “newspapering” different today that it was 25 years ago?

“I have an old saying. People like weeklies. A weekly newspaper means that the community is small enough that it takes a week to get enough news to fill it. Then people buy it to make sure we didn’t make any mistakes.

“After the Sussex Sun started in 1976, it was successful because Sussex-Lisbon-Lannon were eager for sports stories, local reporting and the historical columns.

“Advertising was the life blood of newspaper publishing and that has been eroded away by new technology, the computer, news on TV, and the internet.”

What your biggest accomplishments at village park as recreation director?

“Sussex went from three parks in 1977 to 10 parks when I left in 1994 and retired.

“I transplanted over a 1,000 trees in the parks during my years. I served on the Park Board from 1961 to 1963. I helped build ball diamonds in the park as well as helped get the old engine show in the park.”

W hy did you want to become village historian?

“I was always a history buff in grade school. I spent a summer reading the Americana Encyclopedia, all volumes, from cover to cover. This translated to visiting museums and later concentrating on Sussex-Lisbon-Lannon history. Finding it out, acquiring maps, rare books, artifacts and one-on-one talks with the elderly. The village recognized my talent and by official decree, named me in 1976, Sussex Village Historian.”