Ninety years ago, a committee of forward-thinking citizens realized that a museum "was an important feature of a modern city's life" (Oshkosh Northwestern). They deeply believed that the story of the immigrants, laborers, leaders, soldiers and sailors, artists, and all the others, must not be forgotten and that these stories should serve as an inspiration to future generations.
Since 1905 a small volunteer-run museum existed in a single room at the Oshkosh Public Library. The collection included specimens of natural history and historical objects, especially those of local interest: relics or property of Chief Oshkosh, war artifacts, archeological specimens, coins, ceramics and old pictures. The city took great pride in their museum, and the room at the library was becoming too small to hold the collections.
A search ensued to find a suitable location to house the growing museum, and the solution was found through the generosity of one man, Edgar P. Sawyer. A successful banker and businessman, Mr. Sawyer made many philanthropic gifts to the people of Oshkosh without any fanfare, but his most generous donation was made in 1922 when he gave his magnificent home on Algoma Boulevard to the city "free of all limitations except that it be used for the benefit of the public."
In 1923, a majority of the committee voted that the former home of Edgar and Mary Sawyer be used as an art museum, with the hope that the establishment of the art museum would attract many privately owned exhibits of art. They reported that the house could be used in this way without any modification or construction. Some of the committee members felt strongly that the property should be sold and the profits used to build a public auditorium. The decision was further complicated by a suit filed by J. M. Smick that claimed the City of Oshkosh accepted the property without authority.
Fortunately, the suit ended in a motion to dismiss and plans soon followed to move the public museum from the library to the Sawyer residence. The Oshkosh Public Museum, then referred to as the art museum at the Sawyer Foundation, opened its doors to the public for the first time on November 8, 1924. It was decided the Museum would work toward collecting objects of historical and archaeological interest, including art, particularly from Oshkosh, Winnebago County and the State of Wisconsin.
When the people of Oshkosh decided to create a public museum in the early 1920s, they focused on giving Oshkosh a true quality of life resource. A lot has changed since the creation of Oshkosh's new museum 90 years ago, but the Oshkosh Public Museum still remains one of the best ways for people to connect to community and develop a sense of place.
Today thousands of historical records, photographs, artifacts, and oral history stories are instantly available through the Museum's website. It is a resource that is used by researchers, families, businesses, and a host of others for exploration and discovery of Oshkosh and the Lake Winnebago region.