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Maryanne Harmuth became the education chair of the Board of Trustees of the Madison Historical Society after a career in education. She was the preschool Sunday school director at St. Margaret’s Church for eight years then taught at the Madison public schools for another 22 years. Photo courtesy of Maryanne Harmuth

Maryanne Harmuth became the education chair of the Board of Trustees of the Madison Historical Society after a career in education. She was the preschool Sunday school director at St. Margaret’s Church for eight years then taught at the Madison public schools for another 22 years. (Photo courtesy of Maryanne Harmuth )

Maryanne Harmuth: Learning from Our Past

Published June 10, 2020 • Last Updated 11:57 a.m., June 12, 2020

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As education chair of the Madison Historical Society (MHS) Board of Trustees, Maryanne Harmuth had a Catch-22 on her hands.

How could she promote the historical society and educate Madison youth about the town’s history when a history-making pandemic has put her educational programs on hold?

With a bit of creativity, Maryanne and a core group of education-related board members came up with a novel solution: start the History Mystery Contest.

Launched in early April, the contest is a guessing game played via weekly videos posted on the MHS page on Facebook and Instagram. Each video includes a picture of an artifact shown on the screen and a brief clue given by a Madison youth.

The posting is made every Monday, and anyone with a hunch can answer. On the following Friday at 8 p.m., a winner is randomly picked from all the correct answers that have been posted. The winner is awarded a gift card from a local business.

It’s an imaginative solution for an unprecedented time.

“Each week we pick a new, interesting artifact from our collection at the Allis–Bushnell House,” Maryanne says.

Most of the artifacts are no longer in use, so the guessing game triggers interest and fun especially when some amusing, outlandish guesses are posted.

“Some of the objects we have featured in previous weeks were a fly catcher, tape loom, ratchet wire stretcher, and the Hurd animal tether that was manufactured right here in Madison by J. Myron Hull,” she explains.

Maryanne adds that because it promotes Madison history and local businesses on social media, its “a win-win for both sides.” The local businesses that have taken part in the History Mystery Contest include Ashley’s Ice Cream, Willoughby’s Coffee & Tea, the Madison Coffee House, R.J. Julia Booksellers, and R.J. Café & Bistro.

As for the youth presenters, she explains, “We create a script and then send it to our youth reenactors at home. The videos are produced at their homes. We have another student who does the editing and then we upload to our Instagram and Facebook accounts each week. I think having students do the presentations has been a huge success.”

Getting Madison youth to be presenters for the weekly videos was easy because they were involved at the MHS Lantern Tour last fall.

“We had the idea to invite Madison youth to join as youth reenactors for the Lantern Tour. It was a great success. We found students from Polson [Middle School] and Daniel Hand High School and a college student who were interested in participating. These students happen to be in the performing arts so they were naturals as reenactors. Going forward, we hope to encourage and recruit more student volunteers who would like to help support and share our mission of keeping Madison’s history alive and in the present day,” Maryanne explains.

To view the videos of the History Mystery Contest, visit the MHS Facebook or Instagram page.

Teaching ‘Little Sponges’

Maryanne became the education chair at MHS in 2019 following a career in education.

She earned her B.S. in education from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, in 1975 and taught high school for five years in Appleton, Wisconsin, and then relocated to Stamford, Connecticut. She became the director of health, fitness, aquatics, and youth services for another five years at the Greenwich YWCA and worked one additional year at the New Haven YWCA before leaving to start a family.

“I had always wanted to be in education,” she said. “I was a certified high school teacher. I did take time off when I had my children and was fortunate enough to be home with them until they went to 3rd grade.”

Her children, John and Elizabeth, are now grown. Her husband, Joe, passed away three years ago.

“Once my children started school, I started thinking about what my next role would be. I was asked to be the preschool Sunday school director at St. Margaret’s Church and I was in that role for eight years. During that time, working with younger students, I started to think about working with the younger age group. A friend mentioned that the Madison public schools was starting to hire paraeducators for their elementary school programs,” she recalls.

That conversation with her friend was a turning point. She began her career with the Madison public schools, where she worked for 22 years as a paraeducator and focusing on children in preschool through grade 4.

“I loved the enthusiasm of the little ones, their innocence and energy. They really wanted to learn and were like little sponges,” she says.

She was based at Island Avenue School, starting out as a special education paraeducator and trained to work with students with autism. After about seven years, she became an instructional paraeducator where her main role was to help support instruction in the classroom.

“My experience with the Madison public schools was wonderful, although in college, I only thought about high school teaching and not the younger [students],” she recalls.

“I think once I had my own children and working at St. Margaret’s with the preschoolers, the idea of working with elementary-age children was very appealing,” she adds.

Nowadays, in her role at the historical society, she taps into her experience with the youth and Madison public schools. Her primary responsibility as education chair is to organize youth programming, which includes the annual school tours for Madison public school students.

She works in coordination with staff from the public schools to provide programming that supports their curriculum.

For instance, 2nd graders are given an overview of a typical day for children during Colonial times. Done in conjunction with Deacon John Grave House, the program allows second graders to experience a colonial school day and participate in games.

For 3rd graders, a presentation on Madison’s history focuses on key figures who exemplify the characteristics of generosity, bravery, and kindness.

Children in 4th grade undergo a program that focuses on Colonial life in the late 1700s. They participate in a colonial town meeting and an in-depth tour of the Deacon John Grave House to experience daily activities, such as hearth cooking and weaving.

But the pandemic spurred the MHS to come up with other programs, too.

Recognizing the significance of the outbreak, the MHS began an archive by collecting documentation on how the coronavirus has affected Madison residents and welcoming them to upload written reflections, photos, and videos of their lives during the pandemic. Just as it values documents and reflections on the 1918 Spanish influenza that now give a window into the lives of those who lived through the outbreak, the MHS hopes to collect and preserve documents shared by Madison residents during this time of COVID-19 for future generations.

“I would go back to the mission of the MHS,” she says, “which is to make all Madison citizens aware of our past history by linking the past with the present to inform for the future. Certainly, this pandemic has made us quite aware of how the past and the present have an undeniable connection. There is much to learn for our future.”

For more information about the MHS and the COVID-19 pandemic archive, visit

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