Date in History: 1884 – 1967
Eliza Pierce Caswell Ivey was born into a prominent Fort Atkinson family in 1884. Her paternal grandfather, attorney and U.S. congressman Lucien Caswell, had founded the First National Bank (now PremierBank) back in 1863, and her father, Lucien Caswell Jr., continued in the family banking business. But though she would work for a brief time at First National, Eliza’s devotion to her family and community was destined to take her down a different path.
Zida, as everyone called her, graduated from Fort High School in 1902, and went on attended the University of Wisconsin and the Minneapolis Business School. In 1912, at the age of 27, she married local dentist William Ivey and two years later gave birth to her only child – a son named Lucien!
Like her family members, Zida was an active member of the Fort Atkinson community. One report indicated that she belonged to 21 different organizations in the city over her lifetime. But perhaps the organization that was to have the most effect on her life was the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). In 1933, the ladies of the DAR met to consider the idea of collecting historical items for the upcoming city centennial in 1936 and for possibly starting a small museum. Ironically this initial museum meeting was held in the home of Luella Hoard – the same home that 34 years later would become the Hoard Museum. The ladies began collecting and got permission from the Dwight Foster Public Library to use a basement room for storage. Zida was assigned the task of organizing the items and when the little Dwight Foster Library Museum opened on February 22, 1934, she had all 108 items on display.
Over the next two years Zida volunteered her time to open the museum every Saturday for a few hours. Dedicated to the museum’s success but knowing little about the work, Zida and Marie Royce visited other museums and spoke with museum employees. Working with no budget, they become professional “wheedlers,” charming local merchants out of display cases and old items.
Zida’s determined and creative opportunism was perhaps most in evidence in the banner year of 1936. A meeting had been called to consider ideas for decorating the storefronts on Main Street for the 4-day centennial celebration coming up that August. As Charlie Roger recalled, Zida arrived with a finished plan in hand to which all agreed. In accordance with Zida’s historic motif, every storeowner would display their historic items in their windows. Hardware stores would put out their old tools and guns; shoe stores their old boots; taverns their antique wine bottles, and so on. Zida cleverly obliged the storeowners to show their hand, revealing just what they had. After the celebrations were over, Zida returned to the stores and convinced most owners to donate the items to the museum. The collection grew dramatically.
1936 also saw the museum officially become a department of the library, with Zida given a salary of $10 a month from the city. Zida would remain curator of the museum until her death in 1967. During that time she helped found the Fort Atkinson Historical Society in 1939, and oversaw the museum’s move from the library basement into the Hoard House in 1956-7. An able researcher, lecturer and writer, Zida penned a popular column for the Daily Union entitled “Historical Primer,” and was responsible for inspiring a few generations with her love of local history.
On Thursday, February 23rd, 1967 Zida stopped on her way home from the museum to pick up some groceries. She was in the kitchen of her home at 400 Madison Ave putting them away when she suffered a fatal heart attack. She was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, there joining many of the early settlers whose stories she ensured would forever be recorded and remembered.