Ursula Peterson

River Falls local historian, Ursula Peterson, dies at 93

Ursula Peterson died January 27, 2021, in Madison, WI, from Covid-19. Born in Germany, she moved to the United States in 1947 and lived in River Falls from 1954 to 2018. Her husband, Edward, was a history professor at UW-RF. While her husband, who taught history at UW-RF for over 50 years, specialized in the history of Europe, particularly WW II, she devoted herself to local Pierce County history and published eight monographs. The publications focused on local towns and ethnic groups, such as Bohemians, who had settled in various areas. She is also remembered for her efforts in saving South Hall on the UW-RF campus and for organizing the placement of a number of historical markers in River Falls that still stand.

Ursula Schmidt Peterson was born on April 3, 1927, in Fulda, Germany, and was raised in the city of Bad Hersfeld by her parents, Willy Schmidt and Anna Enzig. Her father died when she was four, likely as a result of complications of entombment during the Battle of Verdun in 1916. Her mother continued the operation of the business supply store, until her death in 1953. She is preceded in death by her brother, Dr. Richard Schmidt, and sister, Christa Heymann.

As a child growing up in Germany, Ursula had an interest in American history and literature. When she met her husband-to-be, Edward Peterson, in July 1945, her familiarity with his home town of St. Joseph, Missouri, and with the writings of Mark Twain, was one of many reasons for her attractive qualities to him. They married on August 29, 1946 and she came to the United States in October 1947. Their first son, John, was born in Bad Hersfeld.

After a year living in Missouri, she joined her husband, in the fall of 1948, in Madison, Wisconsin, where he had become a student at the University. She worked in Wisconsin General Hospital and did housework to support his finishing his doctor’s degree. After a year at Eastern Kentucky State College, 1953-54, they moved to River Falls in August 1954 where he taught History and Social Science for over 50 years until his death in March 2005 at the age of 79.

Second son, Michael, was born while they were in Richmond, Kentucky. In the fall of 1957, they built their house at 936 W. Maple Street (later renumbered to 1020). When she discovered in 1969 that the city was planning to move the Kinnickinnic River farther to the west and put a parking lot on the east bank, she organized a petition to “Keep the River a Park, not a Parking Lot.” The plan to move the river was subsequently rejected by River Falls voters.

She was always concerned with local history and it bothered her to discover that almost nothing had been published on River Falls or Pierce County. She started collecting old pictures of River Falls and in 1963, she started to assemble slides for a presentation on its history, which eventually grew to over 1500 slides, many of which she made herself from old pictures. She gave presentations to a variety of groups. For years, she gave the presentation to 3rd graders at Westside Elementary School.

As president of the Tuesday Club in 1969, she persuaded the club to finance lifetime historical markers, the first at the Junction Mill and “Fort Foster,” which was dedicated in November, 1969. The second, also sponsored by the Tuesday Club, was on the Greenwood Mill and the Railroad, installed in 1975. Another marker, at the Middle School, was sponsored by Doris Fuka, through the Kinnic Year Book. All of these markers are still at their original locations. Later, she worked on placing the Glen Park Municipal Swimming Pool on the National Register of Historic Places.

Her appeal to the Garden Club, of which she was repeatedly president, to beautify the area around the mill and railroad marker, inspired the Club to create Heritage Park for the Bicentennial in 1976 on the west side of the Maple street bridge and to save the old River Falls fire bell to commemorate its Volunteer Fire Department. The bell is still at this location, just to the west of the Maple street bridge. In that year, she was one of three chosen in River Falls as Women of the Year.

From 1975, she had particular pleasure in her slide lectures on the history of River Falls to school classes, notably the 3rd graders. In 1971, she became president of the Pierce County Historical Association. She decided to further interest in local history by publishing books, which reached 8 volumes. The first was literally came together on the kitchen table. The last two volumes, emphasizing the Bohemian community of Cherma and then that of El Paso, required enormous investigation of the families. They presented local history also through many family histories.

As leader of the Pierce County Historical Association (PCHA), she was the first to make the effort to preserve South Hall on the UW-RF campus. It seemed a hopeless task to stop a plan of the State of Wisconsin to demolish it. A Save South Hall committee of local alumni was formed, which by an appeal to area residents and alumni was able to get a reversal of the decision to tear down the building. A large celebration of the building in 1976 included Garrison Keilor as speaker.

On the creation in 1996 of a Historical Preservation Commission, she was appointed its Historian. Her experience doing family histories for her PCHA publications turned her toward genealogy. She gave help and translations to hundreds of families and presented a large number of workshops on how to do it. Every summer from 1988 to 2004, she researched for various clients in this country and in Germany, particularly in the former East Germany. She translated the old documents and would create, with much effort, family charts going back as many as 17 generations. For years every Tuesday evening, she devoted three hours of help to amateur genealogists with their German ancestry needs at the Mormon History Center in Oakdale, MN. Ursula lived over 60 years at her house at 1020 W. Maple until 2018. She died peacefully at St. Mary Hospital in Madison, WI, after contracting Covid in a local care home. In addition to two sons, John (Madison, WI) and Michael (Edinburgh, Scotland), Ursula leaves behind four granddaughters and nine great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family encourages donations to the Pierce County Historical Association, PO Box 148, Ellsworth, WI 54011.

Funeral Services for Ursula Peterson will be held at 2:30pm on Monday, February 1, 2021 at the St. Bridget Catholic Church, 211 E. Division Street in River Falls. Following services, Ursula will be brought to her final resting place and buried next to her husband, Edward, at St. Bridget’s Catholic Cemetery in River Falls.

For family and friends unable to attend in person, the service will be live-streamed on the St. Bridget YouTube channel at: http://www.youtube.com/saintbridget

You may also view the funeral services via Zoom:

Join Zoom Meeting
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/9828531377?pwd=ZWxoQlM5VHJRUnVvbCt1eVV0ZUM3Zz09

Meeting ID: 982 853 1377                  Passcode: Peterson

Ursula’s service and burial will be recorded and, at a later date, will be available to be viewed at https://maps.unomaha.community/Ursula/

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