Damaging history: Vandals caught after spree at historical society

Published 5:46 am Monday, July 6, 2015

Mower County Historical Society Executive Director John Haymond points out damage done by vandals to the Milwaukee Railroad train Thursday afternoon. While the train's windows can be replaced, items like the train's original blinds will likely be permanently damaged.

Mower County Historical Society Executive Director John Haymond points out damage done by vandals to the Milwaukee Railroad train Thursday afternoon. While the train’s windows can be replaced, items like the train’s original blinds will likely be permanently damaged.

History repeated itself at the Mower County Historical Society.

In March, someone took the time to take down a plexiglass pane over a window and hurl a cinder block inside the old schoolhouse building. When Executive Director John Haymond found the snow tracks the next morning, he became suspicious when he saw the footprints in the snow leading away from Austin’s oldest building.

“Those foot prints didn’t look as big as mine,” he said.

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A few weeks ago, MCHS staff discovered someone had broken a few windows on the Milwaukee Road train car housed on historical society property. It was frustrating for Haymond — after all, this property damage didn’t just mean a headache to replace broken glass.

“Any damage done permanently alters the history of the object,” he said. “It’s one thing for objects to become broken over time, it’s an entirely different matter when it’s from property damage.”

Last Tuesday, it happened again. Someone sneaked into the Mower County Fairgrounds, threw more bits of rock and concrete at the train, and broke several more windows.

It appeared someone had stood and repeatedly smashed a large, round pane of glass toward the front of the train car, according to Haymond. The windows weren’t the only thing broken, however. Some of the rocks broke the train’s original blinds.

Windows can be replaced. Decades-old blinds are practically impossible to fix.

It’s episodes like this that has prompted the MCHS to ask the public for more help in protecting its resources.

“This is one of those things where the public is affected by this,” he said. “Technically, this is Mower County property, which means this belongs to the public. It’s their land, and so we’d like them to think of it as their property.”

Haymond and other staff hope residents will keep more of an eye out for vandalism when it occurs at the historical society, especially when incidents at the train or one of the buildings take place under bright lights at night.

Of course, sometimes people are just set on causing damage, like the gentleman earlier this year who tried to kick down one of the train car doors — through a set of metal bars, which made it impossible for him to walk through the door anyway.

Though the property damage is “enough to make you weep, wail and gnash your teeth” as Haymond puts it, MCHS staff also see the recent spate of vandalism as a good teachable moment on Mower County’s history.

That red building someone threw a cinder block through? It’s more than 170 years old and has transformed from a school house to a hotel and more.

The train with the broken windows? It was the last train from the old Milwaukee Road Depot, which stretched from Austin to Madison, Wisconsin before it was shut down in the 1940s. At one point, Austin housed more than 500 railroad employees as the city had one of the busiest depots in the state.

That’s part of what makes the damage done to the train so frustrating, according to Haymond. Though it will cost more than $2,500 to replace the windows, some pieces are custom-made.

“I’ll have to call up to the depot in Duluth and ask what’s the best way to fix this,” he said.

This recent historical event ended with justice for MCHS. Three boys, ages 12, 14 and 14, were cited for theft by police after they were caught blue-handed with blue raspberry ice cream they stole from a nearby ice cream truck shortly after midnight last Wednesday.

Police Chief Brian Krueger said officers inspected the train damage once MCHS staff made a report on Wednesday. It didn’t take them long to suspect the same children who broke into an ice cream truck may have also smashed some windows Tuesday night.

The boys admitted their crime and were cited with gross misdemeanor property damage.