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Colfax historian publishes ‘Looking Through the Lens’

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX — If you want to think about it this way, Troy Knutson has been working on his book for almost a quarter of a century.

And now, in honor of the Colfax Sesquicentennial, Knutson has published his book, “Looking Through the Lens: Colfax History Through Pictures.”

“I started when I was a sophomore in high school. We did a unit on Colfax history during Wisconsin history. When I started, the seed was planted. Wes Grambo was our teacher. I got gung-ho into it for a while. I bought all the postcards that Juul Noer had duplicates of that he sold at the drug store. Asking questions. Finding out information,” Knutson said.

Because a subject like Colfax history is so large and so complex, it is difficult to maintain a fast pace all of the time.

“You come and go for a while. You work on it real hard for a while, then it fades away and you do something else for awhile, then you come back to it,” Knutson said.

“I’ve been working on the collection since 1991-1992. I have always envisioned that eventually there needed to be a book. While doing research for our class, we found out there are not a whole lot of resources out there (about Colfax history), other than the Woman’s Club centennial book and a few other written reports. And that’s about it,” he said.

With the approaching Sesquicentennial, Knutson’s conviction grew that he needed to do a book.

“Maybe a year and a half ago, Michelle (Knutson’s wife) and I were talking, and I said I thought this really needed to be done. With the 150th coming up, it would be the ideal time to do it. Get it ready to go with all of the people in town. It’s been a year or a year and a half in the works of coming up with a plan and starting to organize,” he said.

“I am a pretty organized person to begin with, but it’s really organized now! I’ve got four four-drawer filing cabinets in the basement, and there’s a file folder for the fair, gas stations, restaurants. You name it, and everything is all divided up into its appropriate folder. Then I started going through photos and scanning everything I had. Getting those into folders on the computer, so I could start doing chapters. Then you have to start coming up with the chapters and in what order. It just made sense to start with the early years and do a progression,” Knutson said.

The book ends with contemporary pictures of Colfax.

“I thought it would be neat, too, to do the last chapter of what Colfax is today, so that when someone does (another book) in 50 years, they’ll have a place to start for the bicentennial,” Knutson said.


As if the work of collecting photos and Colfax memorabilia was not difficult enough, other challenges presented themselves, too.

“It’s been quite a process. The computer died halfway through. Then we had to buy a new computer, and I had to learn a new system while still trying to work on the book,” Knutson said.

“I lost the whole thing probably twice. That was early on. The project wasn’t as big then as it turned out to be now. But I lost the whole thing twice. I learned quickly that you save multiple, multiple places. And save frequently,” he said.

When Knutson knew the book was almost done, he then had to figure out a way to get it in printed form

“Then it was a matter of looking for a printer. I found Documation in Eau Claire. They seemed very willing to work with what I had. They were very helpful,” he said.


All of the pictures in the book have a caption, and many of the people in the pictures have been identified.

“Juul Noer was the Colfax historian before me, and he has graciously donated pretty much his whole collection to me. And a lot of the identification of people was already done. He had the pictures labeled and everything. So it was just a matter of fine-tuning some of them. And through the years of working with (The Colfax Municipal Building Restoration Group) calendars, you accumulate more names and identifications. As long as you keep adding the information to the main record, you have a source to fall back on to see what needs to be added,” Knutson said.

Buildings in town, oddly enough, also presented a challenge.

“I was born and raised here. I know where the Little Italy pizza shop is. But there are people who have not been here in a while. So you have to try to describe in your caption, without getting too wordy, the Fritz Bremer funeral home was in this location. I think people are able to follow along, from what I’ve been told, to figure out where a location was for a particular building,” he said.

“I ran out of time, but I always thought it would be a good idea if you had a plat map of Main Street, or a grid system, and you could label them, one, two, three, four and then on separate sheet, list all of the buildings that were in those spots,” Knutson said.

“Maybe for another project.  And I am sure there will be another project. I say there will not be another project right now, but I know I can’t sit idle,” he said.

Still collecting

Although Knutson’s collection of photographs and Colfax memorabilia is extensive, there is always room for more.

“Even since I got done with the book, I’ve come across another five or six photos that would have fit very well in the book. But I guess you’ve got to cut it off somewhere, or the book would never be done,” he said.

“I am still definitely collecting, and I am still definitely looking for artifacts. And not only photos. Stories. Identification. If there are people or places in the book someone can identify, that would be great. Let me know, and I will add it to the main file. I’m looking for the little trinkets, too. The pencils and toothpick holders and key chains. All that kind of thing,” Knutson said.

“A lot of people might not even think about it. ‘It’s just a Colfax pen from 20 years ago, and it’s not a big deal.’ But there’s people like me that find that to be very interesting. Businesses don’t really do that anymore. Maybe some calendars. But it used to be cups, plates, you-name-it,” he said.

“I plan on having a display at Karl’s (Chevrolet) during the Sesquicentennial so people can see what there was and what I’m really looking for,” Knutson said.

“There were good times and bad. But it’s done. It was a lot of work, but I kept thinking it had to be done. There is nothing else out there. You’ve got to get this stuff documented before all of the history is gone” he said.

“That’s what kept me going — it had to be done,” Knutson concluded.

Troy Knutson will be holding another book signing event at Colfax Arts and Antique Mall on June 7 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. (Look for the advertisement elsewhere in the Messenger.)

The book contains more than 660 pages and more than 1,100 images.

Copies also are available at the Colfax Messenger and at the Antique Mall.