SMALL TOWNS: Menasha museum carries on late professor’s legacy

Leonard Weis unearthed many treasures over a career spanning decades
Updated: Nov. 17, 2022 at 6:10 PM CST
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MENASHA, Wis. (WBAY) - A Fox Valley museum is celebrating a milestone this month.

First opened 20 years ago, it’s Wisconsin’s official museum for all things rocks, minerals, and fossils.

This week in Small Towns, we travel to Menasha to explore the Weis Earth Science Museum, 1478 Midway Rd.

Over the course of several decades, Leonard Weis unearthed and collected many treasures.

Growing up in New York City, Weis became fascinated with fossils, rocks, and minerals.

Inspired by his collection to become a geology professor, Weis arrived at Lawrence University in 1955, before moving on to UW-Fox Valley ten years later.

His son Stephen remembers an adventurous childhood with his rock-hound father.

“Every weekend that I wasn’t in some kind of activity we were out in the field, in a tent, hiking, all over the state of Wisconsin,” recalls Stephen.

Weis retired in 1987, but his work was far from over.

He had the vision to build a museum.

The only problem: finding one large initial donor to jump-start the non-profit proved difficult.

“And so one day my mother said, ‘Well why don’t we do it?’ And so that was the impetus that started it, and from there my parents did a lot of fundraising and then got Sen. [Herb] Kohl involved and he put forth some funding through the federal government which was approved, so between some private funding, the federal government funding and my parents, the museum came to be in 2002,” explains Stephen.

Stephen, who serves as president of the Friends of Weis Earth Science Museum, recalls how the opening trigged incredible community support, right off the bat.

“It just was like the dam broke open and the floodgates, and now we’re just inundated with boxes and boxes and boxes from community members,” says Stephen.

Dr. Joseph Frederickson is the director of the museum, which was designated by former Gov. Tommy Thompson as the Official Mineralogical Museum of Wisconsin.

“Oh Wisconsin is a very special place geologically, we have very, very old rocks that go back billions of years, so when you come here you will learn about fossils, minerals, rocks, and why they are important to our everyday life as Wisconsinites,” says Fredrickson.

With more than 5,500 square feet, the museum offers a number of permanent galleries, along with traveling and temporary ones that are constantly changing.

Of the museum’s 20,000-plus specimens, only about 10 percent are displayed at any given time.

“In the end, we offer a very unique experience, not just telling you about the story of Wisconsin and your home state and all the neat things that are happening just below our feet, but you also get to touch the past and that’s something I think puts us apart from a lot of other museums, that there’s a lot of hands-on specimens here that we encourage people to come out and not just see but also feel and I think that connects us to Wisconsin’s geologic history in a very unique way,” explains Frederickson.

Just as Leonard Weis envisioned.

“Think the thing that I respect about him the most, not only was he a brilliant geoscientist who had an important value system that he imparted on this museum to put something like this together, but he was a teacher, he was a teacher in the deepest parts of his heart and you can tell when you talk to his former students, that he was one of those professors that you hear about in movies, or you read about in books that really fundamentally changed your life and he did that to just about everybody he met,” says Frederickson.

Weis passed away in 2011, but he certainly saw his dream become a reality.

Those continuing to carry on the museum’s mission say this month’s anniversary is a meaningful milestone.

“20 years is a very important anniversary because so many places don’t make it 20 years, it’s very special to know that you are part of a community for two decades,” says Frederickson.

“He’d be ecstatic, he would be absolutely ecstatic, just like my mother is, we talk about it almost every day, so it’s very exciting for her as well,” says Stephen.

Looking ahead to the next 20 years, the museum’s goal is to double in size, allowing it to showcase even more of Wisconsin’s geologic history.

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