The Onalaska Area Historical Society has closed a difficult chapter in its own history after finally reaching a restitution settlement in the embezzlement case of its former president and treasurer.
However, OAHS members attending the Jan. 16 meeting learned the organization would only receive $5,000 of the money Ward Keil was alleged to have taken from the organization following a court settlement reached in September. Keil was charged in 2015 with misappropriating more than $50,000 of the organization’s funds while he was an officer on the OAHS board.
He was elected president in 2011 during a time when the city was considering removing the OAHS museum from its space in the public library. In June 2013, Keil took on the treasurer’s duties while keeping his post as president of the group.
Shortly before his arrest in April 2015, Society members became suspicious and elected former La Crosse County Clerk Sharon Mahlum as the organization’s treasurer. Soon after she was installed, Mahlum discovered the theft from OAHS’s bank accounts.
Keil offered to make restitution, blaming the theft on his gambling addiction and medical bills. He resigned as president the week before he was arrested.
He pleaded guilty to the charge of felony embezzlement September 2015. Compounding his offenses, Keil was also charged with bail jumping after he went to the historical society museum to complain he hadn’t received his newsletter.
He was sentenced to electronic monitoring for six months on the bail jumping charge.
The restitution settlement with Keil provides for a payment of $5,000. According to John Sagen, OAHS vice president, Ward repaid about $1,600 before the final settlement was reached. The stolen amount agreed to in the settlement was $32,000.
The settlement releases Keil from any further financial obligation to the historical society.
“We are told he doesn’t have any money,” said Sagen. “We would have liked to have him pay an amount every month, but the court was lenient.”
The settlement also stipulates Ward cannot go into the Onalaska Public Library as well as the museum unless he has written permission from the director of the library.
On a lighter note, Nancy Tolvstad, the 2017 OAHS Member of the Year, shared a number of newspaper stories she collected that piqued her interest.
One of the earliest clippings she encountered during her historic research wasn’t dated but she thinks it was likely published during the lumbering days.
“I couldn’t find a date on this article, but I think it was probably in the late 1800s,” said Tolvstad.
The report related how a group of men concocted a plan against a disliked bar owner. The group went in and bought out the establishment of its whiskey supply while others wrapped the building with rope. Those in the bar then went out and joined the rest to pull on the ropes until the building was pulled off its foundation. Once in the street, the gang set fire to the building.
Other articles related the actions taken by the community at large to thwart the undesirable activities taking place in drinking establishments. In a July 1915 piece, the newspaper article reported all slot machines were ordered out of all saloons in the city, and the following July, the city became dry in a 110 to 85 vote.
A couple years later a news article recorded Onalaska celebrated the end of World War I with a bonfire and by burning the Kaiser in effigy and letting students out of school.
A 1933 editorial bemoaned the amount of dust being blown into Onalaska from French Island. An island resident commented he would move to Onalaska because of the loss of soil.
“‘That’s where French Island will be in a few years anyway,’” read Tolvstad.
Another 1933 article reported a campaign to reduce the number of turtles in the nearby river because they were consuming too many game fish. A turtle contest was held with a prize of $1 paid for the largest one caught.
“The turtles would be given to needy families along with recipes for making turtle soup,” the article stated.
The OAHS meets the third Tuesday of each month and has programs in January through May and then from September through December. The meetings are held at 6:30 p.m. in Room A of the Onalaska Public Library. The programs are free and open to the public.