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Historic cyber treasure

Paul Mayer shows off his prized eBay find, pictures from the 1899 cyclone damage. He plans to donate the pictures to the New Richmond Heritage Center.1 / 2
One of more than a dozen pictures purchased by local history buff Paul Mayer. The scene shows searchers looking through the ruins of a local business following the New Richmond cyclone in 1899. The photos were taken by Schadde Bros. photographers and mounted on heavy cardboard backing.2 / 2

When Paul Mayer received an early morning e-mail a few weeks back, his eyes opened wide.

He'd just hit pay dirt. Fourteen large-format pictures of damage from New Richmond's cyclone in 1899 were up for sale and he was a willing buyer.

"Someone from Indiana or Ohio were selling them," Mayer said. "How they got them, who knows."

Fifteen bidders showed an interest in the find. Mayer didn't want to lose out so he submitted a high bid that pretty much guaranteed him the purchase.

"I wasn't going to lose this bid," Mayer said.

The pictures, mounted individually on heavy cardboard, include extensive narrative on the back describing the scene. It's not often that vintage photos include such important information.

The goods eventually arrived in the mail about two weeks ago. The successful transaction was one of many Mayer, president of the New Richmond Area Economic Development Corporation, has managed over the years.

Mayer has been collecting antiques and memorabilia dealing with New Richmond's past for about 15 years. At that time, Mayer and his wife, Vicki, were operating an antique business in southern Wisconsin.

Mayer got hooked on hunting for treasure connected to the local community's past after he purchased a small cream pitcher with the words "New Richmond, Wisconsin" stamped on it. The pitcher turned out to be from the early 1900s.

"That's what got me started," Mayer said. "After that, I would just keep my eyes open for other New Richmond items. I picked up 10 or 15 pieces over the next five years."

Then Mayer discovered eBay on the Internet. He found out that he could quickly search the items listed for sale to find any postcards, promotional items, pictures or other historical pieces related to his hometown.

He has since set up permanent searches through eBay. The Internet site sends Mayer a daily update of things posted for sale related to the key words "New Richmond." Five or six items are typically on the list.

"It's kind of a fun thing to see what pops up," he said. "Some of the stuff is relatively common, like postcards. But some of it ends up being really cool stuff."

Among some of his favorite finds have been trade tokens from previous New Richmond businesses, china pieces stamped with a local store name and souvenirs. Recently he's purchased a copy of Harper's Bizarre magazine, which detailed the events surrounding the 1899 cyclone that hit New Richmond. He also came across a copy of the New York Press newspaper that included a story about the storm that wiped out the community.

"What fascinates me about the New Richmond memorabilia from that period (1800s through 1920) is the rebuilding of this community is such a tremendous story of perseverance," he said. "The city was literally leveled. They could have just given up and walked away."

They didn't leave, choosing instead to rebuild, Mayer said. It's a lesson the community can learn from whenever New Richmond faces challenges, like the current economic downturn, he added.

Mayer said he's one of several local people who buy items off eBay related to New Richmond's past.

Mayer's motivation, however, is not to keep the items for himself. Much of the New Richmond memorabilia he collects has been donated to the New Richmond Heritage Center's permanent collection.

Mayer has donated numerous postcards from the community's past, as well as a collectible ceramic jug from the 1860s that was issued by New Richmond's first mayor.

"It's the only hard evidence that exists from that first mayor," Mayer said. "It was from his store in New Richmond. I think it's pretty cool."

Mayer hopes other community members will follow his lead in assembling historical pieces from the past.

"I think there's a ton of people in New Richmond who have similar things from our history that are sitting on a shelf or in an attic," he said. "I'd encourage them to call Mary Sather at the Heritage Center and donate whatever they find. I think we have a civic responsibility to recreate our community's history in that way."

Mayer also is willing to get his hands dirty when trying to uncover the region's history. He's been "dump digging" whenever the opportunity arises.

Mayer said he works with local historian Jim Reppe to identify old family or farm dumps where historic items may have been buried years ago. He's been able to find old soda bottles and other vintage pieces by exploring such locations.

"If people know of a dump, and they'd be willing to have me do a little excavating, they should give me a call," he said. His phone number is 246-4332.

Mayer knows a little bit about the process for excavating historic finds. He's been a volunteer on several archeological searches in southwestern Wisconsin and he plans on helping out a dig in southern Minnesota this summer.

"There's a part of me that loves this stuff," he said. "My wife says it drives her crazy, but there's a little bit of Indiana Jones in me. It's all about the thrill of discovery."