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Exhibit captures more than 100 years of political history

Family loans campaign memorabilia collection to Rock County Historical Society.
Published: Oct. 18, 2020 at 10:26 PM CDT
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JANESVILLE, Wis. (WMTV) - Less than a month before Election Day, a Rock County family and the Rock County Historical Society are taking people on a trip down memory lane, with a new exhibit featuring a collection of campaign memorabilia going back decades.

“It ended up in tote boxes and stored away,” said Virginia Kowal, who has collected campaign memorabilia for decades. Kowal added, “Every time I look at it, I see a different memory.”

Virginia and her late husband George Kowal were heavily involved in Wisconsin politics. Virginia said she was part of a Democratic women’s group.

“They were always campaigning, I remember sometimes I’d help them go door-to-door as a young girl,” Diane Kowal, Virginia’s daughter, described.

Over the years, Virginia and her husband built up a collection of campaign memorabilia from local, state and presidential elections, from parties on both sides of the aisle.

“We just ended up with quite a bit of it,” Virginia explained, laughing.

As the 2020 election season ramped up, the Kowal family began dusting off their old buttons and stickers, deciding to loan their collection to the Rock County Historical Society.

“We were contacted by Bob Spoden, whose mother-in-law was married to George Kowal, so she’s Virginia, and [he] said, ‘Hey I have all these different political things,’ and it would be kind of timely to have this happen," explained Tim Maahs, executive director of the Rock County Historical Society.

The historical society brought out their own collection and combined with the Kowal family’s collection, created a new exhibit.

The exhibit features memorabilia going as far back as the late 1800s and as recent as the Obama-Biden campaign.

“It’s just wonderful to bring up the old memories and remember how they happened,” Virginia said of the exhibit.

Maahs explained the new exhibit, which started in mid-October, has been a major draw for visitors.

“They’re talking about it like a memory walk, like going, ‘Oh I remember this,’” he said.

Jennifer Drach, Education and Outreach Coordinator, said visitors remember “where they were, and who they were with.”

The Kowal family hopes visitors get a glimpse of the past and how it still connects to today.

Virginia said she hopes people take away “how interesting politics are and how involved you can get.”

The exhibit will be up through the end of January 2021. The Rock County Historical Society is open by appointment only, so to view the exhibit, people must make an appointment by contacting Tim Maahs.

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