SMALL TOWNS: The “Museum Man” of Two Rivers

Jim Van Lanen is always looking for a new way to preserve and promote the history of his hometown.
Updated: Jun. 16, 2022 at 6:10 PM CDT
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TWO RIVERS, Wis. (WBAY) - “I don’t have any firm plans, I’m wide open, got some ideas,” says Jim Van Lanen with a smile.

He’s always looking for a new way to preserve and promote the history of his hometown.

In fact, you would be hard pressed to find anyone in Northeast Wisconsin more dedicated to their community’s history than Jim.

This week in Small Towns, we travel to the lakeshore to meet up with the “Museum Man” of Two Rivers.

Jim can’t think of a better place to live than along Lake Michigan’s shoreline.

“It’s a spot that God alone can get credit for,” says Jim.

After growing up on the outskirts of Green Bay, Jim served in the Marines during the Korean War era.

After his service, he returned home and dabbled in appliance and insurance sales, before focusing on construction and real estate.

In 1973, he learned the City of Two Rivers was looking for someone to develop the uncompleted Ramada Inn along the lakeshore.

“I came over and fell in love with the site and told them I will develop this for you,” recalls Jim.

What eventually would become the Lighthouse Inn proved to be an instant hit.

“We started out with a bang and things went really good,” explains Jim.

All was great until one day, when a hotel patron asked Jim a simple question.

“He said I’m going to be in Two Rivers today, what is there for me to do and it was November. Well I thought for a second and I said have you seen our new Maritime Museum? He says that’s in Manitowoc, I’ll see that tomorrow, what’s there for me to see in Two Rivers today? And I thought, well Rogers Street Fishing Village is the only museum we have here and it’s closed for the season, so I said, come into my cocktail lounge and take a look at some new ice cream drinks we just invented. I had nothing for him to do, I was embarrassed,” says Jim, now able to laugh about it.

Jim was now on a mission.

In the early 90′s, Jim found out the city had received a $20,000 grant to tear down an 1850 hotel.

He stepped in.

“I opened it up to the public for two weekends and asked people to come through and take a look at it. Boy we had a wonderful turnout, it’d been closed for a while, everybody was wondering what it looked like, so they came in and I put a book in the bad and said sign this and let us know whether we should rehab it or rip it down, and 100 said rip it down, 300 people said keep it,” says Jim.

The historic Washington House was saved, and Jim, well he was just getting started, all the while offering his own time and resources.

“It just fell in line with what was available,” says Jim.

Next on the agenda, the History Museum, which opened in 1997.

“The nuns moved out of the convent at St. Luke’s Church and they’d been there for about 90 years I think,” recalls Jim.

The following year, Jim helped create the Coast Guard Museum, with has since merged with Rogers Street Fishing Village.

And the year after that, another one, the Hamilton Wood Type Museum.

“Well this company had been going for over 100 years and they were Mr. Two Rivers you know,” says Jim.

In this venture though, Jim discovered one small problem.

“I knew that the history was there, but I’m starting a wood type museum and I don’t have any wood type, they sold all the type they made over the years,” explains Jim.

After putting out a few feelers, Jim started receiving calls from around the country.

“Guy by the name of Silverman, he’d been collecting wood type all his life, and then he reached a point where he had to start selling it off and he wanted $150,000. Oh, that was a lot of money for somebody in a small town. I ended up a year later buying his type for $40,000,” says Jim with a big smile.

The fifth museum Jim founded opened in 2006, and to this day, he spends a lot of time in the Farm Museum.

“All the items that you’d need to start farming in the early 1900s,” says Jim.

And what’s truly amazing is that Jim didn’t just come up with the ideas for all these museums, he led the charge to renovate the buildings and gather all the collections.

A unique combination of love for history and love of community, all because of a patron’s question decades ago that Jim felt compelled to answer with action.

“Somebody has to stand up and do it and that somebody could be me,” says Jim.

This spring Jim turned 90 and his passion for Two Rivers history is as strong as ever.

He still serves on the historical society board and is always open to a new museum idea.

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