Keeper of The Past

By Lisa Schmelz

What would propel someone not native to a region to be one of its biggest historical preservation champions? If we’re talking about Patti Marsicano of Delavan, the powerhouse behind the Delavan Historical Society, the answer is simple. Her paternal grandmother.

Overlook the fact that her paternal grandmother, Jean Dallas, was not from here and stay with us as Marsicano connects the dots.

“The interest in history came about through my interest in genealogy,” she says. “Some people think that genealogy and history are two different things, but I think they are both tied together. There wouldn’t be one without the other. When you’re looking at family names and dates, you have to know what was going on then to know what records to search for and find out what life was like.

“[My interest] in history all comes down to a mystery I have not been able to solve yet: my grandmother. She said she was from Houston, Texas, but I can’t find her [records] there. Everything that has ever referenced where she was born says she was born in Houston, Texas, but there’s no record of her there.”

So does Marsicano think there’s more to the story of her grandmother, maybe even something that’s been deliberately hidden all these years? “Oh, yeah,” she says. “There’s gotta be.”

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

Any story about Patti Marsicano and her dedication to making sure local history is known to future generations, not to mention her dedication to civic life in general, would be wildly remiss without some background on Marsicano herself.

Born in Evergreen Park, Illinois, to Carl and JoAnn (Minnich) Ruth, Marsicano was one of four children. The family lived in Alsip, Illinois; her father was a sheet metal worker and her mother worked full time as a registered nurse. Marsciano was introduced to Walworth County by a girlfriend whose family had a cottage on North Lake in Millard. In 1978, she married and moved with her first husband to Delavan.

Delavan quickly became home, and she remained there after she and her first husband divorced. In 1993, she married Chris Marsicano, who co-owns The Village Supper Club with his brother, David.

How did she and Chris, who live on the Delavan Inlet, meet? “We don’t know,” she says, laughing. “That’s a good question. We have no clue. We just kind of knew each other.”

When did they start dating? “Probably after I’d been working at the restaurant for a year — at The Village — I bartended there,” she explains.

But eight months after they started dating, she adds, they married. They have no children together, however, she has three from her previous marriage, seven grandchildren and her first great-grandchild was on the way when this interview was conducted in April.

Being busy operating The Village Supper Club hasn’t kept the couple from being active in Delavan township and in the city of Delavan. Over the years they’ve supported more causes than they can recall, including acting as hosts for an annual Thanksgiving dinner for the community and helping launch the Tavern League of Wisconsin’s SafeRide program locally. Through it all, Marsicano was filling in the branches on her family tree. Eventually, local history came knocking.

“I got involved with the historical society in 2003,” she recalls. “There had been incarnations of the historical society and 2003 was the fourth incarnation.”

Why so many incarnations? “I’m not really sure. In the early days, I’m sure it was hard to keep it going. That’s something I have no history of, those earlier incarnations, of why they didn’t continue.”

But the latest version of the Delavan Historical Society has not just continued under her leadership, it has thrived. As its president since 2003, she’s led the group on a shoestring budget through a number of successful campaigns, including the installation of the Walldogs murals across the city and town. The 20 massive hand- painted artistic renderings on the sides of area buildings depict key moments and history of the community and were all extensively researched by Marsicano for the participating artists. Like many historic downtown districts, Delavan struggles with empty storefronts. But the murals have breathed new life into the area.

Marsicano’s leadership has also led to the establishment of the Delavan Historical Society Exhibit and Resource Center in the former fire safety building on Ann Street. The center houses artifacts, displays and extensive archives for the public to access.

Newly elected Delavan Mayor Ryan Schroeder says Marsicano’s work touches a lot of lives. “I think she, and what she does, matters because we as a community want to preserve our history, and until she kind of came along and reopened the historical society — it had been closed a number of years — people didn’t have a place to go to learn about the past or their family’s past. But when she got more involved, this center was created.”

Denise Pieroni, Delavan’s city administrator agrees. “It was an enormous amount of work,” she says of the Walldogs’ project in particular. “She played such an integral part in that coming together that I question whether or not it [the project] would have happened without her.”

BECOMING A HISTORIAN

Marsicano’s quest to learn more about her paternal grandmother — and countless others in her family tree — has certainly honed her skills as a researcher. While many use the term amateur historian to describe local historians, Marsicano is proof that you don’t need a Ph.D .to protect or uncover the past. She’s a go-to source for this publication, always helpful with suggestions on which rocks to look under when a writer is researching a story of long ago.

In 2004 she published her first book with Arcadia Publishing. The title was aptly named “Delavan.” A compilation of historical photos, and rich, descriptive captions, it remains popular in print. In 2014, she followed with the same publisher with a title “Forgotten Delavan.” A trusted member of the community, she put both books together with access to private collections of photos from longtime families and archival material from major employers, churches and schools.

Humble, she credits her success as an author and historian to others with the same commitment. In her “Delavan” book, she thanks many:

“I am deeply indebted to Gordon Yadon, Franklin Stoneburner, Charles Spooner, and John Buckles for sharing their vast knowledge of Delavan’s history and taking time to make sure it was written acceptably. My appreciation and respect knows no end.”

“Forgotten Delavan” was dedicated to the late W. Gordon Yadon, the former postmaster of Delavan, who lived there his entire life, except for the time he served in the Navy during WWII. Known in state historical circles as Delavan’s historian, he died in 2013. His torch has since been passed to Marsicano.

Asked where she’d like to see the society head in the coming years, she doesn’t miss a beat. “I would like the historical society to eventually be in a permanent location,” she says. “There has been talk about the historical society going into the library, when the library is remodeled, so that is something that is a possibility. If that didn’t work out, I would really like to be someplace downtown in a more walkable location. I’d like to get to the point where we’re able to provide more outreach to the schools. I know it’s about fifth grade when they start working on local history, but I’ve never had anybody come to me and say ‘Hey, we’re teaching local history. Can we have someone come out to talk to us?’ I’d like to get young people more involved.”

And, of course, she’d like to find a paper trail on her paternal grandmother, who she says was “supposedly born in 1912.”

“It’s a much bigger story,” she says of her grandmother’s life. “Her father was supposed to have either been a lawyer or a judge. Her mother was supposedly a French immigrant and died of tuberculosis. She [my grandmother] was raised by housekeepers. But the story she spun, not all of it checks out. I’m curious. I will just keep hunting. She’s my mystery woman.”

TIME TRAVEL

We asked Patti Marsicano if she could meet any woman from history, who would she want to meet? As expected her answer was decidedly local: Anna (Fields) Mabie Phillips.

Anna hailed from New York and met and married Jeremiah Mabie there. Jeremiah and his brother, Edmund, owned the U.S. Olympic Circus. At the time, it was the country’s largest traveling circus. When the brothers chose Delavan as their winter headquarters in 1847, a year before Wisconsin gained statehood, they used much of what is now Lake Lawn Resort property to support the needs of circus animals. Initially, Anna didn’t join Jeremiah here. What is now Wisconsin was then frontier land and “a little rougher life than what they were living in New York” Marsicano explains.

Sometime in the 1860s, though, Jeremiah brought Anna to Delavan. They had two daughters. When Jeremiah died, she remarried Chester Phillips and they had two sons. Anna and Chester, says Marsicano, set out to open a boarding facility.

“He ended up dying a couple of months before it was open, and she opened it on her own,” says Marsicano. “She started the first Lake Lawn. She would intrigue me because of the timeframe that incorporates Lake Lawn and the circus. Shortly after it opened, Lake Lawn had the first steamboat on the lake. She lived in a time when there was so much going on here in Delavan that I can’t think of another woman who would know the history better than her.”

Indeed, but Marsicano certainly runs a close second. —L.S.

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