Janel Ruzicka was just minding her own business, attending her first PTA meeting, when she heard something about the Wauwatosa Historical Society.
The society was only 6 years old then — one year older than Ruzicka's first-grade daughter — and still working to preserve what has become its home and most prominent symbol, the Kneeland-Walker House, a 5,760-square-foot historic Queen Anne nestled on a sprawling 1½ acres, the largest remaining residential lot in the city.
'It sounded very interesting. All I had to do is ask a question and someone said, 'Oh good! Come help us.' And we do the same thing today,' Ruzicka laughed. 'We're always looking for volunteers and new blood and young families. It's a never-ending thing with non-profit and community-based organizations.'
It was a welcome Ruzicka, who taught home economics in Menomonee Falls, never expected when she moved to Wauwatosa in 1983. But it has defined her life for more than 25 years, first as a volunteer, then as a board member and, since 2000, as executive director.
The society started in 1977, the vision of 25 charter members who wanted to preserve the history of a community that was first settled in the early 1850s and became a city in 1892.
'There were a couple previous tries in the '20s that we've heard about but nothing stuck, and then there was nothing for several years until it grew out of the country's bicentennial celebration. People said, 'We need to celebrate Wauwatosa's history,' and the historical society was formed.'
By the time the organization bought the Kneeland-Walker house — named for the only two families to own the property, which celebrated its 125th anniversary last year – there were 300 members.
Since then, the society has grown at a rapid pace.
'We just had someone visit (from another area historical society) who said they were up to 110 members, and they were thrilled. We're well over 500, and that's just memberships. If you take all the businesses and families and individuals together, we probably have 800 to 1,000, so we're probably one of the largest city historical societies, if not the largest suburban historical society in the state,' Ruzicka said.
Helpful, since the society only has three part-time employees, and it takes almost a village to staff the society's research library, coordinate four major fundraising events each year and tend the grounds, which are maintained by a team of about 25 volunteers, who spend anywhere from four hours a year to 10 hours a week planting flowers, picking weeds and clearing snow.
And, of course, there's the house.
'When you own a house that's 5,700 square feet, you can imagine the heating bills,' Ruzicka laughed again.
Just painting and repairing the wood-framed house — an expense that comes up about every seven to 10 years — last cost $78,000.
'If you really want to hear a choker for a cost, three years ago we had to replace the roof,' Ruzicka said.
It cost $152,000 to replace the cedar roof and copper gutters on the house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
'We have a love for this house,' Ruzicka said. 'Fortunately, we have very generous members and people in the community who also have a love for this house and what it houses — the history of Wauwatosa.'
JUST THE FACTS
BUSINESS:Wauwatosa Historical Society, 7406 Hillcrest Drive
PHONE: (414) 774-8672
OWNER: Wauwatosa Historical Society
TYPE OF ORGANIZATION: nonprofit
PEARLS OF WISDOM: 'We house the history of Wauwatosa.'
TOURS:Tours of the Kneeland-Walker House are available by appointment. Donations of $5 per person are suggested. Groups of five or more are preferred for a formal one-hour tour, but Executive Director Janel Ruzicka said, 'If you are just in the area and stopping by and you'd like just the 25-cent tour, we'll walk through for 15 minutes and give you a little bit of history.'