Velkommen til Westby

Velkommen til Westby

Friday, November 20, 2020

Christmas in the 1950s

by Sheri Neprud Ballard, 2016

The little girl got ready for school, slipped into her warm winter coat and her winter boots. She gathered up her books and her lunch pail and waited for her brother. Shortly they were out the door and braving the December winds and the snow flurries.

Never mind that the temperature hovered around zero degrees and the roads were already full of ice and snow. The little girl and her brother lived 1.75 miles from their school, so there was no transportation for them to their school. Most of their classmates walked to school as well, except for the neighbor’s boy who was driven in by his father with a horse and sleigh.

The little girl was anxious to get to her school, since it was getting close to Christmas, and there would be rehearsing for their annual Christmas program.

Sheri Neprud Ballard in 1952; 8 years old

The teacher greeted the children as they arrived one by one or by families. She had already been up quite a while because it was up to her to get to school early to start the furnace, so that it would be warm by the time the children arrived. She boarded at the little girl’s Aunt Alice and Uncle Elmer’s farm which was a short distance from the school. That is, she had a room in their farmhouse where she went every night after school until Friday when she would return to her own home. She was fed breakfast and supper and brought her lunch to school as did the children.

The children’s mothers had prepared homemade soup in Mason jars for the children. The teacher took the jars of soup from the children as they arrived and put them on a shelf where they would remain until lunchtime. At lunchtime, they would be heated on a hot plate.

After the children’s lessons were done, it was time to rehearse for the annual Christmas program. Everyone took part as a group, singing wonderful old Christmas carols, being in a skit or for the little ones, speaking a “piece.” Sheets had been hung at the front of the school room to set the stage and the back-stage area. The teacher could play piano and accompany the children. Sometimes, the singing was a cappella if the teacher could not play piano. That was alright too, as there is nothing sweeter than the sound of children singing.

The little girl and her classmates helped to trim a tree in the schoolroom. They also worked, with the teacher’s guidance, to make gifts for the mothers. Soon, all would be ready for the big day, the long-awaited day of the Christmas program!

The little girl and her friends felt so special that night, as they all had new dresses purchased or sewn by their mother, just for this special occasion!

The children’s parents, the school board, even the neighbors who had no children, attended the Christmas program. The community, at that time, revolved around the one room school, and so the Christmas program was looked forward to with much anticipation.

The Christmas program went on as planned, and was thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended. The highlight of the evening for the children, of course, was a visit from Santa. He gave all the boys and girls a brown paper bag of treats. Inside were peanuts in the shell, hard candy, an apple and an orange. The children were all very happy and made to feel special by the visit from Santa.

What a simple life it was back then! And so, that was Christmas a long time ago. The year was 1952 and I as that little girl. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

WAHS Burns the Mortgage

by Kathy Anderson, 2016

“Something’s Burning” was the Westby Times headline in August 2006, because plans were being made to light a fire! The Westby Area Historical Society was going to “burn the mortgage” of the Thoreson home that they had purchased in 1993. A lunch, program and, of course, cake and coffee, were being planned for Sunday, Aug. 13, to celebrate this accomplishment and show appreciation to the many donors and sponsors who made it possible. In 13 years, the society had raised enough money through fundraisers, events and begging to pay off the $65,000 loan. Quite an accomplishment for an organization that was founded in 1989, only four years before the purchase. 

The property was first deeded to Hans Knudtson by the U.S. Government in 1872. Knudtson sold the land to Theodore and Katherine Thoreson in 1881. They began building the home in 1892 and moved in 1893 with their three sons. Bennett, the oldest, raised his family of five in the home and Bennett’s son, Myron, was the last of the Thoresons to live in the home. In 1971, John and Leah Walker bought the property from Myron and two of their three children graduated from Westby High School while living there. Upon retiring, the Walkers decided to sell the house to downsize and do more traveling.


Elaine Lund, a founder of WAHS, had earlier talked with John about the possibility of purchasing the house if ever he decided to sell. Elaine recognized the same value of wainscoting in the kitchen, inlaid wood floors, exquisite natural woodwork and sound construction of the four-square design of this historic home. John gave Elaine first opportunity to purchase, as he had promised, and documents were drawn by Attorney Tim Gaskell. On Sept. 24, 1993, John and Leah Walker signed in the presence of Verna Oliver, Collette Radtke, Orin Larson, Margaret Garlick, Eileen Constalie, Elaine Lund and Margaret Gulsvig to sell the home to the Westby Area Historical Society.


For the next 13 years, the society held pie and ice cream socials, stone soup suppers, bridal gown shows, spaghetti dinners, flower sales and even a Rock-A-Thon, to raise enough money to support the house and pay off the mortgage. Many of these fundraisers, lefse/pølse at Syttende Mai being the most well-known, still continue on an annual basis. Reaching the mortgage payoff benchmark in August 2006 was a huge confirmation to WAHS that their efforts were appreciated, but also determined a new set point for restoring the home to museum quality and for managing the collections.


Projects have been ongoing since that celebration day 10 years ago and we have recently completed siding and new windows on the Thoreson House Museum. Our next venture will be to spruce up the interior and we are constantly working to improve the displays of our beautiful collections.

Thorson House Museum
111 Bekkedal Avenue
Westby, WI  54667



Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Sanborn Insurance Maps

by Blaine Hedberg, 2015

Do you recognize this part of Westby on the 1938 Sanborn Fire Insurance map? 

In June 1904, representatives of the Sanborn Map Company of New York visited Westby and Hillsboro to prepare fire insurance maps of these Vernon County cities. They returned to Westby in 1911 and again in 1938, and during each visit prepared detailed maps of the city businesses and homes. 

The Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, created for assessing fire insurance liability in urbanized areas of the United States, exist for approximately 13,000 locations. Daniel Sanborn, a civil engineer and surveyor, began working on fire insurance maps in 1866, preparing maps for areas of Tennessee and for Boston, Massachusetts. Seeing a lucrative market for these types of map, he established the D. A. Sanborn National Insurance Diagram Bureau in New York City to develop and sell maps. Regional offices were located in San Francisco, Chicago, and Atlanta. The Sanborn Company sent out hundreds of surveyors throughout the United States to record the building footprints and relevant details of buildings in all major urbanized areas regarding their fire liability. In the 1920s and 1930s, the company employed about 700 people, including approximately 300 field surveyors and 400 cartographers, printers, managers, salespeople, and support staff. 

 The Sanborn maps themselves are large-scale lithographed street plans at a scale of 50 feet to one inch (1:600) on 21 by 25 inches sheets of paper. Updated maps, made available to previous customers, would include drawings of new or altered buildings or lots. Sanborn maps contains an enormous amount of information, such as a decorative title page; an index of streets and addresses; an index with the names of public buildings, churches, schools, and businesses; and a master index indicating the entirety of the mapped area. General information such as population, economy and prevailing wind direction. Fire insurance maps often include outlines of each building and outbuilding; the location of windows and doors; street names; street and sidewalk widths and property boundaries. Natural features; railroad corridors; building use; house and block number; as well as the composition of building materials including the framing, flooring, and roofing materials may also be noted. The strength of the local fire department; indications of sprinkler systems; locations of fire hydrants and location of water and gas mains are generally included. With the aid of waxed paper stencils, Sunburn employees colored each map by hand. 

 An inventory of the largest collection of Sanborn fire insurance maps, found in the collection of the Library of Congress, is available through their website The archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison hold the original Sanborn Fire Insurance maps for 251 Wisconsin communities, generally dating between 1883 and 1930. It also has a complete microfilm edition of Wisconsin Sanborn Maps (in black and white). In 2014, the Wisconsin Historical Society completed a digitization project of 901 maps (7,720 page images) and lower resolution images are available through their website at The Wisconsin Historical Society can also provide high quality images from the Wisconsin Sanborn Map Collection for a small fee. Photocopies of the 1904, 1911 and 1938 Westby Sanborn fire insurance maps are available at the Westby Area Historical Society. We are indebted to David and Vanessa Mills for making these photocopies available to the Westby Area Historical Society archives.

Evelyn Larson and the WAHS Logo

“History is an open book, not a closed one.” That quote from Westby’s nisse lady, Evelyn Larson, about her design for the lamp logo for the Westby Area Historical Society, reflects Evelyn’s passion for Westby history. The minutes from the WAHS meeting for June 25, 1989, state that Evelyn Larson was asked to develop a logo for the society. The minutes from the Nov. 6, 1989, meeting show that the logo committee accepted Evelyn’s very well-fitting design. This logo, which was a lamp sitting next to a stack of closed books, was used for many years. In the April 2000 issue of the WAHS newsletter “History Keepers,” editor Rita Wells wrote that she asked Evelyn to design a new drawing of the logo because the first one was becoming difficult to duplicate. This time Evelyn designed a logo with a lovely Tiffany-style lamp next to an open book with a pair of eyeglasses on top of the book. This logo reflected her feeling that history is indeed an open book and not a closed one. This design was absolutely perfect for the Westby Area Historical Society. In honor of the 15th year of our current logo, WAHS would like to thank Evelyn for the years of service that her logo has provided. She is shown here holding her original copyrighted design, photographed beside a real life re-creation of the image with a Tiffany-style lamp, an open book and a pair of rimless eyeglasses at the Thoreson House Museum. Along with the logo design, Evelyn and her husband, Orin, who are lifetime members of the historical society, have generously donated many lovely items to the society. The Westby Area Historical Society is so grateful for their support.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

I remember ..... with Elnor Haugen

            Written by Kathy Anderson


                      Memories can recall happy, sad, and even monumental moments of an “ordinary” life. Memories of

                     veterans are especially poignant, yet rarely shared. It is vital that we hear their stories, for us, for 

                     those to come and even for the vets themselves. In honor of Veterans Day today, we are posting 

                     this 2016 interview with one of our local WWII veterans:


Elnor Haugen, “El” to his friends, was born on July 7, 1923. His proud Norwegian roots are similar to many in this area. Sigord, El’s father, immigrated to the United States in 1916 with his widowed mother and three brothers, to join a sister and brother who had come earlier. El and his brother Raymond grew up on a farm in Coon Valley, close to where his four uncles settled in Coon Valley, Chaseburg and Southridge. El’s mother, Minnie, was from Spring Coulee so there was always family around. Both his parents spoke Norwegian and taught him. “It’s hard to find people who can speak Norwegian now,” he told me.


On the farm, Elnor remembers having horses and cows, raising hay and corn, and of course, working tobacco. Manure was the only fertilizer used. “Back then, we hoed the corn to keep the weeds down.” El was only 7 years old when Adolph Brye gave him $1.00 to start a bank account. “That’s how I started to learn to save my money.” El’s mother died when he was only 11 years old. He and Raymond were raised by a single father who never remarried and Elnor got the job of caring for the chickens. He kept the egg money but had to pay all the expenses. “What I got from the chickens, I could slip some of that away.” Elnor said it was a good life lesson. 


So far, this story is like many in the area, Norwegian immigrant grandparents, farmers, hardships as a family, but this is no “ordinary” story. After graduating from Westby High School, El was attending vocational school in La Crosse when he and four friends decided to join the service. In the fall of 1941, “Tug, Howard, Erling, Leland and I went to the recruiting office to join up.”  All five left for basic training in the Army Air Corp on November 4th. They stayed together that first year in Milwaukee; then Fort Sheridan, Illinois; then Keesler Field, Mississippi; and finally Fort Logan, Colorado. But the army wouldn’t keep that many boys from the same town together for overseas missions so then they were separated.

El Haugen in uniform, circa 1942

El remembers that monumental Sunday, December 7th, 1941, when he was on his bunk at Keesler Field (Mississippi) and heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the radio. “We beat it in to Biloxi because we were afraid they would quarantine us” and that meant they wouldn’t get off the base for awhile. It was only four weeks after he had left Coon Valley. 


After Pearl Harbor, with the United States so involved in the war, El had to finish his training and was sent to Colorado before he could be put to task on a mission. Finally, he left the United States on December 13, 1942, on a boat that took him to North Africa. Crossing the Atlantic was very stormy; everyone got sick. Elnor was ok because he stayed “on top,” on the deck of the boat, for the fresh air. The waves were high, taller than the boat. But he lost his balance and slipped to the edge of the deck before he caught the rail. “I went back down. I didn’t want to fall off the boat.” He chuckled.


When they got to Africa, the men had to walk seven miles with their gear and supplies. El remembers the strings on the bags were sharp and hard on the shoulders so after awhile, they just dragged everything. They finally arrived about midnight on Christmas Eve and slept out in an open field. “What a Christmas Eve!” he remembers. The men took over a couple of airplane hangers to do their work but had to build a dining room and the barracks. He remembers January and February were quite rainy.


In 1942, US WWII airplanes were transported in pieces by boat to Africa. Elnor had all the information about every airplane and how to put them together. He helped assemble more than 3,000 planes in three years, P-38’s, P-47’s, P-63’s, all fighter planes. He was surrounded by a mixture of many nationalities of people – Spanish, Arab, so many countries. A flatbed truck would take the men from a hanger to the dining hall. It was a very different way to live than what he grew up with in Vernon County. “I enlisted when I was 18, I’d never been out of Coon Valley before this.” Implying that when living in Coon Valley he was young and inexperienced, his adventure in Africa was an eye opener. The servicemen, a company of over 900, had their own radio station.  El remembers that they played “Little Brown Jug” to both open and close the daily broadcast. He explained that they listened to “decent music” on the base, like Les Brown, Tommy Dorsey, other big bands. Today, he likes to listen to Gary Gilbertson on the radio at lunchtime because “he plays good music.”  


Elnor’s assignment wasn’t dangerous in terms of battle but it was certainly critical to the war effort. El remembers only once when there was a bombing near the airport. He has many memories of his almost three years spent in Africa. He was stationed very close to Casablanca but the taverns there “were nothing like those” in the Humphrey Bogart movie. Mostly the men went to Fez when they got some time off. He saw many entertainers including Martha Raye and Bob Hope. He got Joe Lewis’ autograph on a French franc note – it was the only paper he had at the time.  He remembers the time the team “took” a B-17 bomber to Marrakesh, about 150 miles south of Casablanca, to play baseball.  He recalled that on the way back, it was the worst airplane ride ever. “We kept bopping up and down like a cork” flying over the desert. Maybe that was payback for taking the plane? Elnor came home to the United States and was discharged just before Thanksgiving in 1945. They all came home after the war ended, all five of the friends who enlisted on that day in 1941. 


After El finished college, he went to work for the Farmer’s Union Co-op as an auditor. He tired of traveling so after a year, went to work at Trane in LaCrosse for twenty years, and then Norplex for twenty more years. Elnor and Marjorie Steenberg were married on May 28, 1948. They did quite a bit of traveling in their sixty three years together and greatly contributed to the community as a huge part of the volunteer work force. They spent many hours as charter members of the LaCrosse Good Shepard Lutheran Church, at Norskedalen, at the Westby Area Historical Society and at the Country Coon Prairie Church. Marjorie died 3 years ago, around Christmas, so now El is on his own. At 93, he still drives and keeps busy with mowing his yard.  “You gotta have something to do’” he tells me.  Norskedalen still gets his help making lefse and he is a regular at the Upper Coon Valley Lutheran Church. When I asked him to comment about his life, he said he didn’t think he would change much. “Joining the army was ‘the smartest move I ever made – I never hardly heard a shot.” Lucky for us that he didn’t. Thank you for your service, Elnor! 

El and Marjorie on their wedding day, May 28, 1948.