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New website showcases digital collection of local musical history

| Judy Berthiaume

Curious about Eau Claire’s musical history?

You soon can explore the Chippewa Valley’s musical history online thanks to the newly created "Sounds of Eau Claire," a website that showcases a digital collection of music-related artifacts and stories.

UW-Eau Claire public history faculty and students created the online archive after digitizing thousands of stories, artifacts, photographs, documents and other treasures.

Shake, Rattle 'N Roll Festival 1987

A photo of a performer at the Shake, Rattle 'N Roll Festival in 1987 was among the images shared by a community members.

“History is built on the stories, papers and artifacts that are preserved for future generations,” says Dr. Daniel Ott, a lecturer of public history at UW-Eau Claire and the lead on the project. “While we’ve known for a while that Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley is a special musical place, its history has only been held by the individuals, groups and communities that lived it.

“This project and the website have been an opportunity to document and centralize those stories into a single repository for everyone to enjoy and to preserve those stories rather than risk their loss over time.”

The website — set to go live June 13 — contains more than 5,000 digitized items, including oral histories, photos, posters, instruments, scrapbooks, albums, personal notes and other historic ephemera related to music history in the Chippewa Valley of Wisconsin, Ott says, noting that more than 75 community members contributed to the project.

The collection touches on a range of local music history from logging camps of the 1890s and dance bands of the 1920s to formal and informal music education, community choirs, bands of a wide range of genres, music festivals, venues from parks to basements, and community and family musical traditions.

Student exhibits touch on topics related to local music education, the changing community, group and family traditions, national trends at the local level and venues.

The historians’ overall goal for the project is to create a deeper and more inclusive look at the history of the local music scene, while preserving and sharing that history with community members.

Shining a light on the diverse music that has played a part in the city’s history is especially important as Eau Claire’s residents and leaders continue their work to reinvent the city as a cultural destination built on a thriving musical landscape, Ott says.

“As part of the musical renaissance, residents are hungry for better music history,” Ott says. “Longtime residents and newcomers have embraced the city’s emerging identity and want more opportunities to explore and understand the roots of its music history.”

By working with community members through oral histories and public curation events, the digital collection of local music history recognizes the broad and diverse scope of music in the region, Ott says.

“The city’s musical landscape is the product of old and new traditions, and layers of musical experimentation,” Ott says. “This project preserves and disseminates a deeper and more inclusive history of local music, as well as encourages more community members to recognize themselves and each other within the city’s history.”

Public history majors collaborated with community members at several “History Harvest” events this spring to digitally document and organize collections.

“We had a great community turnout for the ‘History Harvest’ events earlier this spring,” Ott says. “People came in the door with all manner of stories and objects from scrapbooks detailing decades of community choral groups to stories of Frank Zappa’s visit to Eau Claire in the 1970s, and everything in between.”

In consultation with faculty and archivists, students digitized the items, organized the collections online and created online exhibits on the website.

Current history students’ work built on work done in previous semesters by Blugolds who conducted oral histories with 24 local contributors.

The “Sounds of Eau Claire” project is a collaboration among UW-Eau Claire, Blugold Radio, the Chippewa Valley Museum, and the people of the Chippewa Valley who shared their stories and contributed items to be included.

The project is funded in part by major grants from the Wisconsin Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities Common Heritage program.

While the new website is launching, the project is not ending, Ott says, noting that he hopes the digital collection continues to grow.

“The public is invited to comment on items, collections and exhibits,” Ott says of the website. “We know that in many instances, the community knows more about local music history than we do. With this project and all study of history, really, we don’t know what we don’t know.

“If people notice that something is missing from the story, they should get ahold of us and add their stories and their treasures to the collection. We can best tell the full story of local music history through preserving a wide variety of perspectives and voices.”

People who have a story to tell or artifacts to share also can complete a form on the “Sounds of Eau Claire” website or contact the UW-Eau Claire archives and special collections department at 715-836-2739 or to schedule an appointment.

There will be continual updates to the site’s content over the summer with new features, collections and content being added by student historians, Ott says, adding that community members and scholars can use the website’s digital content for non-commercial purposes. 

Blugold Radio will air segments from the “Sounds of Eau Claire” oral histories at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays during the summer.

For more information about the project or the new “Sounds of Eau Claire” website, contact Dr. Daniel Ott at or 715-836-4379.

Top photo caption: UW-Eau Claire public history students gather information from a community member about an instrument during a recent "History Harvest" event.