Committed to sharing his collection, Jim Peterson donates trove of local artifacts to library as village celebrates its centennial
The Oscar Grady Library has acquired a priceless collection of Saukville-related documents and artifacts courtesy of two of the community’s inveterate collectors — Jim Peterson and his late brother, John.
Among the items donated to the library are boxes of photographs dating back to the days when horse-drawn carriages were the only means of mass transit, maps from before the Civil War and an array of postcards documenting virtually every building and vista in the village.
Also in the collection are an original survey of the area dating to 1849 signed by Jasper Vliet and William Payne and a photo of Oscar Grady, the namesake of the community library.
Virtually all of the items are in surprisingly good condition, reflecting the care they received from the Peterson brothers.
Library Director Jen Gerber said she first got in touch with Jim Peterson after she agreed to coordinate the village’s 100th anniversary celebration, which is planned for Oct. 17.
Saukville incorporated as a village in 1915.
“I wanted to create a running loop of slides from Saukville over the past 100 years that we could show continuously during the celebration,” Gerber said.
“People kept telling me, ‘If you want pictures of Saukville, you have to talk to Jim Peterson.’”
A meeting with Peterson was set up by Gerber and Village Administrator Dawn Wagner.
As it turned out, Peterson, who is 78, said he was looking for a caretaker of his precious collection, one that would share it with the public.
“My brother and I moved to Saukville in the 1970s, and since then we collected everything we could find that dealt with Saukville,” he said.
Peterson’s brother died in 2001.
“I am getting to the point where I want to start clearing things out of the house,” he said.
“At first I thought about giving everything to the Saukville Area Historical Society, but the library has a full-time staff and has regular hours so (the collection) will be more accessible to the public. That’s important to me.”
Peterson was convinced the library was the right place for his collection after reading about the digital lab Gerber and her staff created earlier this year. The lab, which is the first of its kind in the area, allows the conversion of heirloom items to digital files that can be freely shared.
The library has proven to be a perfect fit for Peterson’s cherished collection.
“It is an unbelievable gift,” Gerber said of the donation, which will be named the Jim and John Peterson Collection.
“Jim brought in the first boxes of photos, and said he had more at home. He just kept dropping boxes off.”
The number of items in the collection hasn’t been counted yet, but it could easily be in the thousands.
Gerber said the plan is to make digital copies of all the images and documents, catalog them and eventually make those files available to anyone who is doing research on the community.
It won’t be a quick process.
“There is so much, we are probably talking a year or two to digitize everything,” Gerber said.
Once that happens, she said, the archived collection will be made available online through the statewide EasiCat system.
“At that point, users will be able to log into the system and ask for photos of, let’s say the Saukville Fire Department or Fourth of July parades, and the digital images from the collection will become accessible on the computer,” Gerber said.
According to the donation agreement, the library has promised that the original photos and documents will never leave the building.
Gerber, who studied history as well as library science in college, said she is especially fascinated by the “slice of life” documents included in the collection.
“I think some of the neatest things in his collection are the files of receipts Jim collected over the year,” she said.
The receipts, all handwritten by some of the earliest merchants in the village’s history, document the evolving local economy and the prices of everyday commodities, and feature some of the names that became synonymous with the village.
Gerber said it is virtually impossible to place a value on the collection.
Peterson confirmed that, saying at one time he paid as much as $100 for a rare postcard depicting a scene of the village. The collection includes hundreds of vintage postcards, many with cancelled postage stamps from the date they were sent.
Record collectors might also drool over red 78 rpm pressings of Audiophile Records in pristine condition, recorded in Saukville by Harry Blons’ Dixieland Band.
Gerber, who lives in Grafton, said she is familiar with the history of Paramount Records, but learning of the Saukville-made discs was a revelation.
“I never knew they made records in Saukville,” she said.
Collecting items to be donated was eye-opening for Peterson, too.
“I didn’t realize how much stuff I had until I started bringing things in,” he said.
Whenever possible, Peterson has included the names of the people in the photos — whether they are vintage pictures of fire department members or children in school.
For decades, Peterson — who grew up in a Milwaukee orphanage — said he and his brother frequented card shows, estate sales and antique shops looking for items to enhance their collection of memorabilia from their adopted hometown.
Gerber said Peterson will sometimes break into an impish smile when asked how he obtained some of the items.
“He will just say, ‘I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you’re asking,’” Gerber said.
Image information: JIM PETERSON HAS turned over the fruits of a lifetime of collecting to the Oscar Grady Library. The Jim and John Peterson Collection includes a staggering volume of photos and other artifacts. Jim Peterson held a plat book dating from 1892, while Library
Director Jen Gerber showed a vintage photo of the village’s downtown before roads were paved. Photo by Mark Jaeger