Piece of Kenosha history sent home from Lake County

  • Randy Donley of Donley Auctions readies a Bain wagon that was de-accessed from the collection of the Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County to be moved to the Kenosha History Center.

    Randy Donley of Donley Auctions readies a Bain wagon that was de-accessed from the collection of the Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County to be moved to the Kenosha History Center. Courtesy Lake County Forest Preserve

  • A Bain wagon removed from the collection at the Dunn Museum of Lake County is readied for transfer to the Kenosha History Center.

    A Bain wagon removed from the collection at the Dunn Museum of Lake County is readied for transfer to the Kenosha History Center. Courtesy Lake County Forest Preserve

  • The Bain wagon transferred from the Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County is on display at the Kenosha History Center. "Bain company was the industry that put Kenosha on the world map," said Chris Allen, executive director of the Kenosha County Historical Society.

    The Bain wagon transferred from the Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County is on display at the Kenosha History Center. "Bain company was the industry that put Kenosha on the world map," said Chris Allen, executive director of the Kenosha County Historical Society. Courtesy of Kenosha County Historical Society

  • An advertisement for a Bain wagon, which were manufactured in Kenosha, Wisconsin, from 1852 to 1926.

    An advertisement for a Bain wagon, which were manufactured in Kenosha, Wisconsin, from 1852 to 1926. Courtesy of Kenosha County Historical Society

 
 
Updated 3/23/2020 6:43 AM

A weathered and worn old wagon that has been in storage in Lake County for more than 50 years is back home in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and its host is delighted to have the rare piece of history.

"We absolutely are over the moon about it," said Chris Allen, executive director of the Kenosha County Historical Society.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"There are not many, and not many in the condition this was in," he said of the gift from the Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County, operated by the Lake County Forest Preserve District.

Still in remarkably good shape given its hard use as the pickup truck of its day, the faded Bain wagon is a relic from an important time in Wisconsin and Kenosha history.

How it came to be on display at the Kenosha History Center is an example of how and why historical museums help each other.

"We had two" Bain company wagons, explained Diana Dretske, Dunn museum curator. More about that later.

Museums periodically review their holdings to determine if a piece fits its mission -- in the case of the Dunn museum, the history of the people and events of Lake County.

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Items that don't are removed from the holdings in a process called de-accession.

"If we can determine if an object has a relation to other museums, we reach out to them and see if it's something they would want," Dretske said.

"We prefer if there's another museum that can tell that story, it's the best scenario for that piece."

Bain wagons were manufactured in Kenosha from 1852 to 1926. Various types, from agricultural to industrial use, were available depending on the type of load to be hauled.

By 1900, Bain Wagon Works became the state leader in wagons and carriages and was one of the largest wagon manufacturers in the U.S., according to information provided by Allen.

"It's important because this is one of the first really large industries in Kenosha," he said.

"Bain company was the industry that put Kenosha on the world map. By 1879, they were making 16,000 wagons a year, which is an incredible number."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Marketed as "the best on earth," Bain wagons were desirable and popular because of their quality, Allen said.

Given that, one would think there still would be some around. But the wagons were workhorses used until they couldn't be used anymore, which is why few remain intact, he added.

The wagon transferred last week to Kenosha was in the collection of Robert Vogel, who founded the Lake County Museum of History in 1957, Dretske said.

The forest district acquired it when Vogel liquidated his holdings in the 1960s. It has been in storage since and never displayed. It origins are unknown, Dretske said, and no connection to local history could be found.

"It's part of the responsible care for collections -- you don't want to get rid of something and find there was a (local) story to it," she said. So, Kenosha's Allen got a call.

"I got a response like lightning," Dretske said. "That's exciting and that's what you want."

The wagon transferred to Kenosha was used for bigger and heavier loads. The one still in the Dunn collection -- first owned by Fremont Township farmer Simon Roppelt -- was for agricultural use and has links to Lake County.

Roppelt bought his wagon from the closest Bain dealer, Schanck Hardware Co. (now Rolland's Jewelers) on Milwaukee Avenue in downtown Libertyville.

He used the wagon from 1910 to 1928 to haul cans of milk to the Soo Line Railroad station at Harris Road in Grayslake to be shipped to Chicago.

His grandson donated the wagon to the forest preserve district in 2011. It was never repainted and retains its original color and advertising, Dretske said.

Roppelt's Bain wagon remains in storage but is expected to be displayed at some point, she added.

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