It all started out like any other hobby.
At the tender age of 14, Fred Keller had moved with his family to Sussex. Almost immediately, he had a fascination with the history of the area and decided to start collecting Sussex and Libson artifacts. Later, he added Lannon to his interests.
“I started collecting as a very young boy,” said Keller. “I had a really big bent for world history and I had a certain amount of mentors that fostered this. My father bought the Sussex Feed Mill and on Saturdays he’d have me come out to work there. I’d meet these farmers and I started asking questions and started to collect, both mentally and physically, pictures, artifacts, Civil War guns that local people had, things like that.”
More than 50 years passed and Keller’s collection grew. And grew. One day in 2001, when Keller had reached the age of 70, he realized he had a dilemma on his hands.
“It took over my house and all of a sudden I realized I was an old man and what am I going to do with this collection?,” said Keller. “I sent a letter to the Town of Lisbon and the Village of Sussex (stating) that if they started a Historical Society and thought about getting a museum that I would donate my stuff.”
Thankfully, the village agreed with Keller’s idea and thus was born the Sussex Lisbon Historical Society, located across the street from the Pauline Haass Public Library. The society is dedicated to preserving the history of the villages of Sussex and Lisbon. It officially sent out its first newsletter in October 2001 and has been in operation ever since.
Through the years, many in the community have recognized the value of the museum and have contributed heavily towards its success.
“The late James Taylor donated $100,000 and we bought the last of five railroad depots in Sussex Lisbon,” said Keller. “We had several other prominent people that donated. We got the museum and we’ve decked it out and cleaned it up. We have since received a lot of donations because people now realize that there’s a place to go with these artifacts.”
In 1976, United States history really came to the forefront as the nation celebrated its bicentennial. That was when the Village Board first realized that, in Keller, Sussex and Lisbon truly had an asset.
“I go back to the pioneers,” Keller chuckled. “In 1976 the Village Board realized they had this geek who knew everything about how it all fit together, and by proclamation, they made me the village historian.”
At the same time, Keller was working as a sports editor with the Sussex Sun and one day he got an idea.
“I asked the editor if I could contribute a historical picture to the paper each week about Sussex Lisbon, using a picture and explaining the significance of the picture,” Keller recalled. “He asked me how long I could go on with that and I said, ‘Forever!’ Today, 35 years later, I still have that column called 'Retrospect.'”
Keller has also published 40 books, pamphlets, calendars and even a Civil War diary of a Sussex soldier. Though he is officially retired, he still gets a check from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for writing his historical column for the Sussex Sun.
Through the years as he enjoyed his historical journey, Keller has continued to hone his appetite for knowledge as well as his appreciation for what these historical artifacts mean to the people of the area.
“The history of the community is actually the community,” said Keller. “It’s very important to know what led up to this day and then to acknowledge these people that were the foundation of this community and to remember the people that made our community what it is today.
“Sussex, Lisbon and Lannon are neat places. A lot of really neat people over the years have made outstanding contributions. I hope that I have honored them. I had this collection and (wondered) what I was going to do with it. Give to my kids? No, they’ve moved away. Sell it? No. Actually, people just gave it to me so that I could play with it. I’ve played with it and now I had to find someplace where it could be kept together and future people in the community can have it. A lot of people have stepped forward to make my little dream a bigger dream.”
The museum is open on second and fourth Saturdays of each month, from 1-4 p.m. In addition, individuals and groups can call to make arrangements for private screenings, like a Boy Scout troop looking for a history lesson. The museum also features a research library for people to look up their family history and their land history.