“Busy as bees” describes the work of dedicated volunteers in the otherwise sleepy Village of Mt. Sterling, as friends of Doug and Dorothy Helgerson work to complete the Doug Helgerson Memorial Park.
Dorothy had been out since early morning, when I reached her “picking up rocks.” She took some time to describe the amount of work being done on the project lately.
“I’ve been just about living down here,” Dorothy said of the effort. “It has been more work than I expected, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. There’s hardly been a day since we started that I haven’t heard how excited people are to see the completed park.”
“I want to express my thanks to everyone who has contributed, either financially or with volunteer labor, to make Doug’s dream a reality,” said Dorothy.
The new park, celebrating the unique history of Mt. Sterling, will be dedicated to the memory of Doug Helgerson on Saturday, June 18, from 1 to 4 p.m., with a lunch to be served at 3 p.m.
The park is located at the intersection of Highway 27 and Highway 171, at the heart of the Village of Mt. Sterling, on land donated by Doug and Dorothy Helgerson.
More information about the park can be found at www.dougmp.com.
Donations for completion and maintenance of the park can be made to the Helgerson Memorial Fund at the Royal Bank of Gays Mills, Wisconsin. Donations can also be dropped off with Robert E. Lee at his barbershop, located in the Gays Mills Mercantile Center.
“Mt. Sterling is full of generous people, and I can see why Doug never wanted to leave,” Dorothy noted.
The driving force
Douglas Helgerson, for many years the driving force behind the park project, was born on August 15, 1935 at his home in Mt. Sterling to Carroll and Anna Helgerson. He attended Seneca High School, where he was named athlete of the year in 1954.
He served in the U.S. Army from 1955-1956. After returning home, he worked in construction for many years before launching a career as an over-the-road trucker.
Doug married Dorothy Ziese of Elroy, Wisconsin in 1979. He served as Village President of Mt. Sterling from 2003 to 2015, when he resigned for health reasons.
Doug’s first cousin, Robert E. Lee, recalled the village president’s idea.
“Doug wanted the history of the village to be remembered. First there was the old school bell, which stimulated many years of discussion,” Robert said. “The old windmill followed the bell, and that all led us to the park project.”
The park was a dream that was very near and dear to Doug’s heart, and he lead the initiative until his health declined.
Doug passed away at his home in Elroy on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015 at the age of 80, with his wife Dorothy by his side.
“I couldn’t think of anything I could do for Doug that would please him more than making this park in his memory,” Dorothy Helgerson says of the park project. “The happiest moments of Doug’s life were when he was living in Mt. Sterling, sitting with a group of guys, discussing the ‘topic of the day.’ When Doug came back home to the village, it was never long before the house was filled with visitors.”
Robert E. Lee explained the origins of his involvement with the park project.
“I think I speak for both my brother and myself, when I say that Doug was more like a brother to us than a cousin,” Robert said. “After he died, both of us wanted to do something for him that he would be proud of – something that people could remember him by. Mt. Sterling meant a lot to all of us. Doug was president of the village for many years, and did a lot to improve the village. This park is his final statement.”
Memories, food and fun
The dedication ceremony is shaping up to be to be quite an event.
The Vintage Mix Quartet will provide live entertainment. They are a group of young musicians who are dedicated to “blessing people through the Standards, Barbershop, A cappella, Hymns, Spirituals and Show Tunes.” They see their mission as renewing the focus on harmony and the great music of the past.
There will be speeches by former Governor Tommy Thompson and Jim Grant, a friend of the Helgerson family.
Paul Lagan, author of ‘The Amazing Journey of the Kickapoo Kids: A novel based on a Personal Experience,’ will be present, along with some of the other original players from that baseball team. The ball field that inspired Lagan’s book was located just outside of Mt. Sterling.
Walk down memory lane
The park is an open, sunny corner lot, with a beautiful circular stone terrace, surrounded by plaques commemorating the unique historical features of the village. Prominently featured will be the old schoolhouse bell and the windmill, which provided drinking water to the village.
Seven plaques helping to tell the story of Mt. Sterling will encircle the stone terrace, along with a bronze plaque telling the story of Doug Helgerson’s life.
The first plaque will capture the history of village founder William T. Sterling. Sterling, student, pioneer, businessman, miner, legislator, agriculturalist and poet, settled with his wife in what is now the village of Mt. Sterling in 1842.
Sterling was a personal friend of Henry Dodge, first Governor of the Wisconsin Territory, and over the years served in many public capacities, from being the first postmaster for the area to representing the counties of Crawford and Chippewa in the territorial government. He is believed to be the first person to plant a vineyard in the state, with cuttings received from North Carolina.
At the age of 89, he wrote a poem that can be seen on the plaque. The poem reflects the character of a life lived in service to his fellow human beings.
Sterling lived to be 94 years, 11 months, and 12 days, and passed away on January 11, 1903. He is buried alongside his wife Eliza at the Evergreen Cemetery south of the village.
The second plaque tells the story of the windmill, which represents the fresh water supply the majority of the village relied upon for drinking water.
The old windmill was located at the northeast corner of the crossroads in front of the park. Every day village residents made trips to the pump with “shotgun pails,” which held three gallons of water. There was also a watering trough for horses.
Everyone in the village recalls how great their water was before the days of chlorination.
“It was the best water I can remember,” is a common recollection of older village residents.
The third plaque will be placed at the base of the old school bell located in the park. The young folk of Mt. Sterling heard the bell summoning them to school every day, and went on to become successful and prosperous citizens and courageous soldiers.
The school in Mt. Sterling was founded in 1856 by the William McAuley family. It was a humble structure, with classes held in a slab shed.
Eventually a two-room schoolhouse was built, with the bell placed proudly high above the door. It was estimated to have been built in the late 1870s or early 1880s, and remained an active school until 1958, when the district was divided between the North Crawford and Seneca school districts.
The fourth plaque tells the story of one of the most vibrant businesses to operate in Mt. Sterling – the Mt. Sterling Cheese Company, founded by Ronald E. Johnson in 1945.
By 1955, Johnson had started to package and age his cheddar cheese with a vacuum technique that took his product to a whole new level. In 1957-58, he won the World’s Champion Blue Ribbon Cheddar with a high score of 98 out of a possible 100 points.
Anyone who grew up in Mt. Sterling knew when “curd time” was, and would visit the factory to grab up a handful of warm, squeaky, salted curds for an afternoon snack. Ronald Johnson was very generous in allowing local residents to sample his curds.
The curds became a huge weekend sales product, with the factory packaging hundreds of pounds for weekend travelers during the fall when tourists came to see the fall colors.
The Mt. Sterling Cheese Factory was sold to the present cooperative business that now makes award-winning goat cheese.
The fifth plaque tells the story of the ball field just outside of Mt. Sterling, where the Kickapoo Kids, subjects of author Paul Lagan’s book, got their start.
The Kids would go on to be the “little team that could,” eventually playing baseball for the Gays Mills High School team, which went all the way to the state tournament in 1950, 1952 and 1953.
The sixth plaque tells the story of the lot that was eventually owned by Doug and Dorothy and donated for the park. Over the years, there were a variety of businesses located on the lot at the crossroads of what would become two state highways. The plaque tells the story of all the merchants who operated businesses there.
The seventh and final plaque is called ‘A Walk Down Main Street,’ and tells the story of all the different businesses that operated in Mt. Sterling in its heyday of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.