Paulette Melvin is a retired educator; member of the Carrie Jacobs Bond Questers; former State Questers Board Member; former Janesville Area Retired Educators Board member; former Rock County Historical Society Board Member; antique dealer; and memoirs writer.
Interview by Teresa Nguyen
Where are you from?
I’m a “Kickapootian,” as they say. I grew up in La Farge, in Vernon County on the Kickapoo river.
What was it like growing up there?
The city was about 700 to 900 people when I lived there. It was a small town and my graduating class had only 30 students. I often look back and think about what motivated me to go into teaching, what were my inspirations. I suppose it was my teachers.
Were you involved in high school activities?
Yes, generally. Girls weren’t in sports at the time, but we always attended the boys’ sports.
Then, when I graduated high school in 1954, a friend and I went to Madison and got jobs for the summer. I worked at the University Hospital in pediatrics. Looking back, I wish I had thought of becoming a nurse, but I continued down the path of teaching.
Did you room with girls in summers?
My friend’s sister had a rented room, and we were able to rent for the summer and stay at that place.
I worked three nursing shifts; 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., or 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. We had to rotate with the other shifts. Sometimes I would get off work on University Avenue at 11’o clock in the night, and walk to the far west side to my apartment. These days you wouldn’t want to do that.
When the summer was over, I went back to Viroqua and went to school. After that I began teaching.
How did you meet your husband?
Ronald, known as “Red,” was in the same high school. He was in the service during the Korean war. I remember one of our classmates died in Korea. But Red didn’t have to go overseas. He was stationed in Colorado, California, and then in Maryland for two years.
What brought you to Rock County?
My husband got a job at GM. There were many areas in the state that had no employment, so people just moved down here to work. A lot of people my age came to work at GM. I arrived in 1957. My husband had come down earlier.
What were you doing at that time?
I was teaching school. I had attended Vernon County Teacher’s College, a two-year teacher’s college, and started teaching in 1956. They paid me $300 a month, which was the top salary for beginning teachers at that time.
I started with a one-room schoolhouse position at Buckeye Ridge teaching eight grades! I was in charge of 21 children, an oil heater and sweeping the floor. A neighbor delivered water to a large crock for drinking water, and we had an outdoor toilet.
I came in like I knew what to do. After teaching 37 years, and obtaining numerous education degrees, I reflect back on that time and wonder how I even knew what I was doing!
There was a little girl, one of my first graders, who ended up getting her master’s degree and now she’s retired. So, I didn’t ruin her! That’s what I tell people. I’ve even been able to connect with her on Facebook.
What happened after you moved to Janesville?
Once we moved here, I taught out by Afton at another one-room schoolhouse in Bass Creek. The next year, I went to Hillcrest, which is west of town. I taught 4th and 5th grades there. The year after that, my husband was drafted and I ended up following him. I taught in Fort Mead, Maryland on the post from 1959-1960.
My mother was concerned and said, “Oh, don’t go, don’t give up your good job.” So, I went to talk to the county superintendent and he told me, “You go. I’ll see that you have a job when you come back.”
When I came back, he had a job for me at La Prairie. I taught there for six years. That was a wonderful community. I still see grown kids from there.
After that, I taught at Wilson for two years before I had my first child, my daughter Amy.
Did you continue to work after having Amy or did you stay home?
Well, I thought I would stay home and take care of my child. However, one of my bosses called and asked me to come back in half-days teaching Title 1, a federally funded program.
I’m glad I returned to work half-days. I taught Title 1 for the rest of my teaching time.
Amy was about 3 or 4 when Jason was born in 1971. The interesting thing about that was that in that era, you were supposed to resign if you were having a child. I sent my resignation to my boss and she said, “You do NOT have to resign.”
So, historically, 1971 was the first year here when, if you were having a child, you didn’t have to quit. I was out just a half a year and then went back.
Tell me about your continuing education.
Eventually, we had to be certified to teach reading. By the time I received my reading certification I was so close to a master’s, so I completed that at UW Madison. I earned that first master’s degree in 1975.
After taking a series of wonderful literature classes from Dr. Burrows, I continued with the required classes to obtain a second master’s degree from UW-Whitewater. That was my Masters of Education Professional Development, which I received in 1983.
How long did you teach in this area?
I taught for 37-and-a-half years and retired in 1995.
Did you find time outside your teaching career to be involved with the community?
Yes. I had joined Questers in 1965, before I had Amy. I’ve been a member of Questers over 50 years now!
Tell me about Questers.
Questers is an international group, headquartered in Philadelphia, PA, founded in 1944. The group aims to stimulate the appreciation of antiques through study and to encourage the preservation of historical landmarks.
At chapter meetings, the highlight of a meeting is a program of a collection or historic site of historic significance. The presentation can be given by the member or by a local collector. Alternatively, a presentation may be conducted off-site, at a museum or historic site. Likewise, state and provincial meetings focus on a theme or historic venue.
Tell me about the Carrie Jacobs Bond Questers.
The Carrie Jacobs Bond Questers was the first Questers chapter in Wisconsin. It was founded in 1965 by Anna Loper, my friend’s mother-in-law, who had come to Janesville from Iowa. Anna was a Quester in Des Moines and had moved here to be near her son. She hosted a group of friends in her home across from Riverside Golf Course on August 8th, 1965.
I joined the group in 1965, and I’m the only original Carrie Jacobs Bond Questers member left in the group.
Our original program focus was on research of our antique collections. Since then, the groups focus has shifted to being involved in preservation and restoration. We also support several local historical groups and their projects.
This local group has supported the Rock County Historical Society, Milton Historical Society, Luther Valley Historical Society and the Evansville Historical Society.
People ask how we get the money to support these groups and projects. Over the years, we have applied for international and state grants, and we find other ways to build our treasury.
What have been some of your Questers projects?
Some of our wonderful and important projects have included restorations at Oak Hill Cemetery Chapel windows in Janesville, the restoration of the stone pillars in the lovely pavilion near Devil’s Staircase at Riverside Park and the restoration of a leather-bound Civil War veterans’ journal, which was written by Milton’s Civil War veterans.
We restored a Milton College portrait as well as a Rock County Historical Society aerial view lithograph called “Looking Down the River” showing early Janesville businesses. The Carrie Jacobs Bond Questers also restored some engravings hanging in the Lincoln-Tallman House. Our projects vary throughout the area.
Can anyone join Questers?
Yes! Anyone can join by contacting our Carrie Jacobs Bond Questers President, Nanci Zigler, at 608-752-7986 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see the Quester Quarterly newsletter, visit www.questers1944.org.
What have you enjoyed about belonging to the group?
It’s truly been a wonderful thing to belong to Questers. After I retired from teaching in 1995, I was able to go to the conventions. I’ve traveled to a lot of states to visit historical places. At Quester conventions around the United States we have visited places and restoration projects such as Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Illinois, Pennsylvania, California and Arizona.
What was your involvement at the Rock County Historical Society?
I had served on the board. At that time, I followed Rick Hartung and Maurice Montgomery around like a puppy. I learned to identify early historic building styles. Even my young children could identify Greek Revival or Italianate buildings as I pointed them out.
Our Quester groups were very supportive of historical societies, and we continue to support them and help in any way we can.
How did you get involved in selling antiques?
Well, being in Questers you learn about other people’s collections, and then you’re out buying them. I started in Clinton WI. Eventually, I rented a set of shelves for 20 dollars a month.
After a while, I rented a whole room and the men who were running it said, “We’re going to open a mall in Rockford, why don’t you come down there?” I didn’t think I wanted to do that. But I went down on a Friday, and moved in on a Sunday!
It was a two-year shop, and then I came back to Janesville. A few couples opened 27 West, on West Milwaukee Street. Eventually, we moved to Creston Park Mall, then to Campus Mall in Milton, then to a different mall in Rockford.
I ended up taking space in Terry Williamson’s building, Goodrich Hall, in the old Milton College. My grandson, Chase, would carry things for me. He’s in his third year at UW-Whitewater. I realized I’d better get out of it because it’s a lot of carrying and lugging things.
I sold antiques for about 40 years. And now I’m figuring out how to get rid of all the inventory, little by little. I’m selling some of it on Facebook Marketplace and elsewhere.
Do you still find yourself tempted to buy pieces for yourself?
Well, it’s like a disease or compulsion. You end up going places and say to yourself, “No, I’m not going to buy anything.” And then you see something wonderful, and you end up buying it! Other dealers and I, we just laugh about it. They relate.
I bought a beautiful, 8-foot wooden bench. They told me it dates to the late 1850’s and was used in the first Janesville High School. It is in my house, but I would like to donate it to the historical society.
Are your children as into antiques as you are?
Well, early on they took some things they could use in their house, but you can only use so much. They’ve taken what they want and that’s it.
Tell me a little about your family.
Amy has worked more than 25 years at Grainger Industrial Supply. She and her husband, Charlie, have two children, Audra and Chase.
Jason is a landscaper, and after several years of working for other companies, he started his own business. Jason and his wife, Susan, have three children, Libbie, Ben and Lucy.
Tell me about your neighborhood development projects.
When we moved to Satinwood Drive in 1992, there was a glacial kettle, which was more like a large pot hole, in the Fox Hills neighborhood. It held water and produced so many mosquitos that it was difficult to get from the house to the car without being attacked!
I remembered I had read about a couple of women who had worked with the Parks Department on developing parks in their neighborhoods. One was Stacy Brunsell, who worked on Vista Park and the other was Jackie Wood, who helped with the Court House Park. I walked into the Parks Department office and spoke with Parks Director, Tom Presny. Our park was #31 out of 31 to be worked on.
I got my neighbor, Dan Betka, a civil engineer, on board and we brought other neighbors together. Tom met once a month at my house from 2001-2004. He helped us through the process, through meetings, fundraising and eventually after draining and other detailed work, we received bare root oaks to plant. They are 10 years old now and connect to the greenbelt. Among the oaks are pines, Japanese maples, sunburst locusts, a gingko and some shrubs.
The Greenbelt area behind my home was also a messy remnant of the glacier melt, filled with silt loam soil. My son used a brush hog to clear brush and weeds from around the trees and I planted a prairie with the help of Ron Martin from Midwest Prairies. Ron killed weeds and planted over 5,000 sq. feet of native grasses and plants that thrive on the lilt loam soil. I added flowers such as lilies and Hostas bring to bring more beauty to the area. People can enjoy a nice neighborhood trail down there now.
What have been some of your favorite Stateside trips?
Well, when I retired, I was able to travel quite a bit. I would travel with the Quester group, once a year, going to someplace in the United States. I became interested in Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. Of course, you can see them here in Wisconsin. The big one everyone wants to see is Falling Water in Pennsylvania, and so we finally got to that one.
Have you done some world traveling?
Yes! Sally Cullen, who taught French in Janesville, took student tours to France. When she retired, she took adults. So, I was able to go to France and Italy with her. And I went to England with Dr. Burrows from Whitewater. I’ve traveled to England twice, once with Dr. Burrows and one with Sally Cullen.
On one of the tours of England, we were at a polo game near Windsor Castle the Sunday before the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Using binoculars, I saw Lady Di show her engagement ring to Nancy Reagan. After the game, we lined up on a narrow road way and the royal couple drove right by us!
The Gathering Place had a trip to Hawaii, and that was really wonderful. And my dad was in the Seabees (Construction Battalions) in WWII, and was stationed at Hickam Field. Thankfully, he was not there when the bombing took place, but afterwards. That was special, seeing where he had been in the Navy.
Where do you see our community going?
I am just amazed at what’s happening downtown! I know Britten Langfoss, who has done programs for us. She is one of the leaders downtown. And I just see unbelievable things!
I compliment everyone who is working toward revitalizing downtown. There are a few different groups working together, including the City of Janesville. So, it’s very collaborative. Each area kind of does their thing, but at the same time it’s all for the one goal – to revitalize.
I was just looking at the hotel that’s being built near the river. Yes, people were sorry about losing GM, and a lot of them had to go to Indiana. But it’s been an amazing recovery, and I just can’t believe it when I come downtown! I attend the concerts down at the courthouse, and enjoy the street food now at Music at the Marv.
People my age think, “Oh the city shouldn’t be spending that money.” I remind them to look at what happening! Would you rather see it in a crumble? Or would you rather see something developing down here?
And it’s not all city money. There are a lot of private donations going on, a lot of philanthropy. The way I see it is, you make the city center attractive and inviting, and you bring in businesses. That starts to revitalize the economy. More manufacturers, more businesses want to come here, and it’s going to help the entire population of Janesville!
At one point, everyone wanted to go to Colorado. Well now they’re coming here.
Are you planning to stay in the area?
Well, I like this town. In fact, when Red worked at GM I said, “If you have to move, I’m just going to stay here.”
Yeah, I like this area.