A History of the Sterling North Society
From An “Impossible Goal” to Reality
On June 24, 2002, the Sterling North Society hosted an event unlike any before, a mortgage burning. The celebration represented the culmination of years of planning, hard work, and sheer determination that resulted in the beautifully restored Sterling North Home/Museum and Barn. It’s hard to believe that such an auspicious occasion had its origin in the humble gestures of school children. In 1984 a group of Rock County school children, friends of Sterling North, and the Edgerton Chamber of Commerce erected a sign in front of the home which read, “In this home in 1918, 11-year-old Sterling North lived with his ‘ring-tailed wonder’ pet raccoon Rascal.” In 1989 Jennifer Nelson’s third grade class sent the newly formed Sterling North Society a check for $15.00 along with a plea that the home be purchased. The seed was planted.
The Inception of the Sterling North Society
On August 3, 1989, Secretary of State Douglas LaFollette certified the articles of incorporation for the Sterling North Society, Ltd. A small gathering of admirers of Sterling North and his works, with an appreciation for his birth and childhood in Edgerton, had been meeting at the Edgerton United Methodist Church. The group had been planning to establish an organization “committed to preserving and promoting the heritage of Sterling North as it relates to the Edgerton area.” Among that group were the eight original signers of the bylaws, the newly elected board of directors, including: Shelby Fahlgren, president; Ruth Barrette, vice-president; Elizabeth Diedrick, secretary/treasurer; Walter Diedrick; Mary Hamilton; Mary Lou Kimpel; Victoria Maloney; and Ori Anne Pagel. The first official meeting of that board was held on October 4, 1989, at the Carlton Hotel. The bylaws of the Society had been established. Dues were set. The first public meeting of the membership was held at the Edgerton Public Library on October 17, with 23 persons attending. Copies of the Society’s purpose and objectives were distributed.
Purpose and Objectives of the Society
To preserve and promote the heritage of Edgerton related to the literary efforts of Sterling North.
- To raise the awareness level of Sterling North in the community, state, and nation.
- To promote the reading of Sterling North’s books by both community residents and visitors.
- To promote physical preservation of sites related to North and his books.
- To provide a guide to local sites related to North and his books and to promote accessibility to those sites.
- To make available to the community and visitors such items as North’s books, post cards, stationery, maps, and appropriate souvenirs.
- To develop and promote reading programs using North’s books in the schools and libraries in Rock County.
- To promote an awareness of the arts to children and adults in the Edgerton area.
- To promote activities which will involve the entire community in the preservation, promotion and financial support needed to maintain the local heritage.
- To seek funds for maintaining this heritage from state and national grants, foundations, governments, businesses, and individuals.
The Society’s affiliation with the State of Wisconsin’s Historical Society was announced at the January 16, 1991, board meeting. In July 2000, the Capital Regional Convention of the state Society was hosted by the Sterling North Society. Ms. Jane Eiseley, an historic preservation consultant, compiled the ten-page application form for consideration by the Wisconsin Historic Preservation Board. At the annual meeting of the Society in 1996 announcement was made of the Society’s inclusion on the Wisconsin State Register of Historic Places and on the National Register of Historic Places. The Society is a member of the United Arts Alliance of Rock County and the Edgerton Chamber of Commerce.
The Society Offered Programs for the Community
To achieve its goals, the Society began offering programs for the community. On November 20, 1989, Victoria Maloney introduced Carol Field, a high school class-mate of Sterling’s, who held the audience spellbound with her stories. She presented her school yearbooks and many articles about North to the Society. Additional special guests have included author Wilson Rawl’s widow, Bill Dyke (topic August Derleth), Catherine Rasmussen (topic what a classic is) author Kathleen Kennedy Tapp, and many who shared personal stories about Sterling. Since then, the Society has offered at least four to nine public programs yearly. Some of those have included book reviews and readings of North’s and his family’s writings, . Also, the programs given in area schools and to students visiting the home have been shared with the community.
The Society has performed public service by participating in the spring membership drive “phone-a-thon” for Wisconsin Public Television, by hosting the Smithsonian Institute Artrain reception, by entering a team in Relay for Life, and by being involved in many local activities.
In 2006 in celebration of the 100th anniversary of North’s birthday, the Society, the Edgerton School District, and the Edgerton Chamber of Commerce initiated the first Edgerton Book and Film Festival which has continued annually. Presenting were many top authors and speakers – novelists, poets, biographers, historians, columnists and chroniclers of rural life – who have been nominated for and have won many prestigious prizes and honors. The festival also included a book fair featuring 40 area authors. The first Sterling North Legacy Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature was awarded by Arielle North Olson, David North and the Society to Kevin Henkes. In 2007 Ben Logan was the recipient as was Jacqueline Briggs Martin in 2008. John Schoenheer who illustrated Rascal was so honored in 2009.
The Society’s other special school and community programs celebrating the anniversary of North’s 100th birthday included the play “Rascal” by the Chicago Theater Hikes group, an old fashioned afternoon at Race Track Park, a birthday party and bell ringing with the Methodist Church bell rung by 5th graders 100 times in honor of North, and the sale of a cachet envelope with a birthday postal stamp cancellation.
Recently two DVD’s were produced for use by the many visitors to the home. One entitled Sterling North – Author, Critic, and Naturalist was produced by David Haldiman and the Society. The second is the slide presentation done by Walter Diedrick for the school programs.
In 2009 the Society celebrated its 20th anniversary with several special programs including a read along session for the community with Arielle North Olson, a wild bird program, and a reception honoring the many volunteers who comprise the foundation of the Society. In February, 2010, the 19th annual talent show was held; this is not only the Society’s major fundraiser but also a much anticipated community event. The annual December holiday party with the Friends of the Library has become a favorite tradition.
In 2022 the Society celebrated the 25th anniversary of the home’s opening. This celebration was planned by the Sterling North Society, as well as the Sterling North Book Festival Committee and the Edgerton Public Library. There were programs from January through November. Events included book groups reading SO DEAR TO MY HEART, Edgerton 5th graders writing Haiku poems about raccoons, a canoe-building demonstration, a presentation by John Foust about the Japanese anime,
a vintage tea and coffee soiree, Walt’s Rascal bus tours , a panel of founding members sharing their memories, a coloring contest, a video from Sterling’s daughter Arielle, a presentation by Sterling’s grandson, Gregory North (David’s son) and the presentation of “The Life and Times of Sterling North” a play written by Gayle Stettler and Isabelle Spike. Arielle North Olson, her husband Ole, their daughter Christy Olson Kennedy and her husband attended the play on October 21. She was very moved. (See the play on our website or on YOUTUBE.)
Since early in 1992 a newsletter has been mailed to members and friends announcing events, programs, and current information. In-depth information about North and the Society can be obtained by visiting the Society’s web site which was developed and maintained by Skip and Drazenka Kimpel who have donated their time and energies since its opening on July 29, 2000. Betty Leonard has worked on updating the website since 2022.( Skip and Drazenka Kimpel also launched The Sterling North History Geocache series. (GC156FH) where one can visit five different stages of historical value relating to Sterling North and Rascal.) For several years, the society has sent a spring and fall newsletter to members.
Programs Offered for Area School Children
Soon after the Society was incorporated, several board members worked with Sterling’s daughter Arielle North Olson, her husband, and her son to produce a slide show about North, his writings, and his family. On March 8, 1991, Dave Kotwitz presented the slide show and an informational program to children in the Cottage Grove School District. That May, letters were mailed out to schools in a 50 mile radius of Edgerton offering this program. Both Dave and Walter Diedrick visited many schools. Once the home was officially opened in August, 1997 the school programs were then presented at the Methodist Church, the Edgerton Public Library, and the Sterling North Home. The first school group to tour the restored (in-progress) home were 5th and 6th graders from Juda , WI, in 1993. . Currently during each school year, tours are conducted for between 100 – 200 students. Walt Diedrick was the lead tour guide from 1997 until 2015. From 2015 until the present time, Betty Leonard has set up all tours and been the lead tour guide.
Fund Raising Efforts Begun
A necessary component of fulfilling goals is having the needed resources. In November 1990, 501(c) (3) status was granted to the Society which defined it as a nonprofit organization exempt from some federal and state income taxes and allowed it to receive tax deductible charitable contributions. In October 1989, the Society began selling black and white postcards picturing the front of the home and in March 1990, copies of Rascal at various businesses around Edgerton. Artist Wayne Peterson created the Society’s Rascal logo to imprint on t-shirts and sweatshirts which were then offered for sale along with several of North’s other books including THE WOLFLING , ABE LINCOLN, and GEORGE WASHINGTON at Applefest, the Christmas Bazaars, and Arts in the Park during Tobacco Heritage Days. Other items were added to the list including the Society’s cookbook and a coloring book designed by the children of Edgerton with the help of their teachers. Currently these items and many more including a poster drawn by Dave Kotwitz and a print of the home by Gordon Glass; Rascal and Wolfling charms; Rascal toys, socks, decals, and caps; post cards; pens; and buttons are offered for sale at the gift/book shop at the home.
Other sources of income have included membership dues, donations, tour fees, a pancake breakfast, many annual Tours of Homes and Businesses – the first on September 10, 1990, the annual old-fashioned hometown talent show – the first in 1992, the Antique Appraisal Fairs in 2007 and 2008, bake sales, rummage sales, and raffles.
As the years progressed, the Society became financially solvent.
The Society Purchased the Sterling North Home
At the board of directors’ meeting on May 16, 1990, serious talk about purchasing and restoring North’s boyhood home began. On October 17, 1990, several board members met with the Society’s attorney Jeffrey Roethe to draw up the first offer to be made to the owner. After a year of negotiations, in 1992 the Society secured loans and purchased the home for $65,000 and began a drive to raise $122,000 for the restoration. The “Revive Rascal’s Residence” Capital Fund Drive was led by a task force including chairperson Dave Kotwitz and members Doris Brewster, Elizabeth Diedrick, Janet Helland, Carol Liddle, Ann Porter, Dorothy Spike, and Henry Stockwell.
Donations came in all amounts, from $12.95 from a school bake sale, to $20,000 from the city of Edgerton. Members of the North family; the Jeffries Foundation, the Janesville Foundation, Inc, and the United Community Foundation (all of Janesville); the Mautz Paint Foundation; local organizations; and school classes added to the coffers. Board members solicited funds by phone. Countless families and individuals responded to the call for help through the “$10.00 Drive” and with donations ranging from pennies in canisters to $5,000 and above. Progress on the drive was measured on a “Rascalmeter” located in downtown Edgerton. A major assist came when a “good samaritan” by the name of Maud Williams of Elkhorn assumed the home loan to be repaid interest free. Many in-kind donations such as materials, painting, laying concrete, and landscaping were made by area businesses.
What some had referred to as an “impossible goal” was becoming a reality.
The Society hired architects Engsburg and Anderson to design the restoration plan for the home built in 1894 by North’s grandfather Thomas North and into which Sterling and his father D.W. North moved in 1914. Since the goal was to recreate as many things as possible from RASCAL, the architects began by searching the book for clues about what the house was like. The first phase of the plan was to have the asbestos siding professionally and safely removed which began on Nov. 23, 1992. Builders were contacted to determine costs and prioritization of jobs.
Led by the hard working and determined team of Ron Brewster, Al Brown, Walt Diedrick, John Fahlgren, and George Stanek the work began! They are credited with contributing over 12,500 hours of work to the restoration effort. Kitchen cabinets, wallpaper, windowpanes, and non-original walls were removed. Piece by piece, woodwork and molding were removed for stripping and refinishing. And of course, there was cleaning to be done — seemingly endless cleaning and clearing out of debris. Insulation, electricity, and plumbing were installed, windowpanes replaced and doorways enlarged. The exterior porches were rebuilt along with a ramp to make the home wheelchair accessible. Floors were sanded and refinished, walls plastered and painted, wallpaper hung, and light fixtures installed. The restoration was underway, always with a careful eye to authenticity.
In 1994 Midwest Living Magazine recognized these extraordinary efforts by listing Edgerton on its Hometown Pride Award Honor Roll for the work done on the home. On September 27 of that same year, the annual business meeting of the Sterling North Society was held in the home for the first time. Although much remained to be completed, it provided an opportunity for the 140 members to view the fruits of their labors.
In the following year, Edgerton Floral and Garden Center and Alliant Energy undertook a landscaping project. On May 12, 1995, a group of 150 third graders from Edgerton Community Elementary School helped with a tree planting ceremony to launch the project.
Society Board Hosted Open House
April 20, 1997, was the big day! Over 200 people attended the Open House and Ribbon Cutting Ceremony hosted by the Society. Proud members of the Society’s board led guests through the beautifully refurbished home.
Acquisitions Committee Began Its Work
That year also saw the first meeting of the Acquisitions Committee, whose task it was to develop policies and procedures for acquiring items to furnish the home. This committee included co-chairpersons Doris Brewster and Judy Dominguez, Ruth Anderson, Liz and Rebecca Diedrick, Lucy Ide, and Norma Mackey. Thanks to the diligent work by this committee, numerous donations from individuals and groups, as well as purchases, the home was fully furnished and the interior decorated as it might have been in the days of RASCAL. The doors officially opened on August 3, 1997.
The Sterling North Home stands as a proud symbol of Edgerton’s heritage and a model for what a group of determined people and a dedicated community can do.
RASCAL – a Popular Icon in Japan
On June 24 and 25, 2008, visitors from Japan stayed in Edgerton, learning about North, Rascal, the Sterling North Home, and related sites in the area. A contest to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Japanese cartoon series was sponsored by Nippon Animation Corporation which made “Raccoon Rascal” as popular in Japan as Mickey Mouse is in the United States. The tour group included 7-year-old Mayu and her mother, Sanae, the contest winner and others from the Nippon Corporation. The Society, the Edgerton Chamber of Commerce, and the city teamed together to welcome and entertain this group of fourteen.
In Japan the Sozobunka, Ltd. corporation and several Japanese media groups sponsored an exhibition honoring Sterling North, the anniversary of his 100th birthday, and the 30th anniversary of the Japanese animation of Rascal. “The Rascal the Raccoon Exhibition” was held at the Okazaki Children’s World Art Museum in Okazaki City from May 10 – July 6, 2008 where reportedly over 50, 000 toured the exhibit.
Previously, Mr. Hiroyuki Nakamura, president of the company, visited Edgerton several times to select items for display including North’s writings and books, show posters, and several artifacts from the Society; Sterling’s canoe paddle and an original manuscript from the Albion Academy Museum; prints from the Edgerton Public Library; and books and papers from several private donors. These borrowed items were used to support the exhibition’s goal of introducing North’s philosophy of living with nature. Bill and Mika Conway served as the organizers of the collection as well as the translators for the visitors.
Literary Center, Museum, and Meeting Site
The Society encourages activities involving the entire community in the preservation, promotion, and financial support of this local heritage, while increasing awareness of the literary arts for both children and adults.
The Home is now used as a literary center housing a complete collection of all of North’s books and poetry plus the North Star Series which he edited. The life and career of North are showcased in the upstairs museum room with memorabilia including North’s typewriter on which he composed RASCAL and The WOLFLING, his desk, his dad’s typewriter, his brother Herschel’s W.W.I uniform, plus many other artifacts and family photos.
The renovated barn opened in 1999 and has been used by area groups including the Edgerton Public Library Board, the Edgerton Federated Women’s Club, the board of the Friends of Wisconsin Public Television, guests of the board of the Janesville Performing Arts Center, and Edgerton High School seniors for their spring art show.
The home/museum/barn serves as a site for educational programs for school children and the general public. Between 100 – 200 area students annually receive tours conducted by volunteer docents of the Society. Included are a slide show a tour of the home/museum and the barn . Visitors from all over the USA and many foreign countries are welcomed on Sunday afternoons from May through October, as well as by appointment throughout the year. The school tours and those on Sundays and the public programs are the main vehicles through which the Society’s purpose and goals are delivered.
The Present and Future Goals of the Sterling North Society
The Society’s present and future goals reaffirm those established by the founders of the Society in 1989.
- To promote the literary heritage of Sterling North and further literary activity by encouraging reading and writing.
- To preserve the childhood home of Sterling North as a museum and a center for literacy.
- To promote the history and importance of area sites related to North and his writings.
- To serve as a bridge between cultures and peoples around the world who enjoy Sterling North’s writings.
Researched, compiled and composed for the Sterling North Society by Judy Punzel and Jan Stephenson — updated by Betty Leonard 2022
2022 – 2023 STERLING NORTH SOCIETY BOARD MEMBERS
President – Betty Leonard
Vice President – Jennifer Nelson
Secretary – James Roberts
Treasurer – Jackie Kas
Board Member – Jackie Scherrer
Board Member – Rachel Willey