At sunrise on a June morning, Melinda Roberts is busy loading her car, finding a comfortable spot for her dog Dexter, hitching up her 1986 Uhaul camper and hitting the road. While other travelers are seeking out perfect fishing spots or quiet cabins in the woods, Roberts is seeking out signs of Wisconsin’s past.
“I love the history of the Voyageurs, the fur traders, the native American history … the fact that people are very aware of their heritage here and the fact that they document it well,” Roberts said. “These are things you don’t see everywhere in the United States, so I think Wisconsin has a lot to be proud of.”
For the past few years, Roberts has travelled the state in search of historical markers placed by state, local and independent community organizations as well as other historical sites and points of interest. Her search began only months after Roberts, a California native, moved from New York to Wisconsin for work.
“I got here in June, and in November, I was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer and given a two-year window, and the job I had let me go,” Roberts said. “While I was on chemo and off work, my doctor suggested I do something fun, because we didn’t know how much time I had. So I happened to find a state historical marker on a trip and looked them up and found out there were 532. (I) decided to visit all of them in the remaining 18 months of my window.”
In the months that followed, Roberts not only visited those 532 state historical markers, but also visited nearly 1,000 other markers and monuments.
“Then I just kept going,” Roberts said. “Now it’s about three years that I’ve been photographing state historical markers and sites.”
Along with visiting and photographing historical markers, Roberts also shares the photos and information she gathers on her website (http://wisconsinhistoricalmarkers.blogspot.com/p/home-page.html) The site has attracted the attention of students, teachers, potential visitors, even the mayor of a city in the Netherlands.
As of August 2015, Roberts’ website included information about 4,460 historical markers, sites, museums, veterans’ memorials and other points of interest. Roberts also finds and shares photos of signs featuring Smokey the Bear, a cartoon character that holds a place in Roberts’ heart.
Although her collection of markers online is extensive, Melinda said there is still more work to do.
“I know of about 1,000 more markers that I’d like to photograph,” Roberts said. “I don’t want to spend every year chasing markers. My goal would be to find a way for youth groups to perhaps take over their own registry of their local markers.”
Still, Roberts said the travelling she has done in search of markers and sites has made her life in Wisconsin better.
“The best part initially about it was it kept my mind off of cancer, and for that reason, I think that’s why I get past the cancer,” Roberts said. “It’s been more than that two-year window. It’ll be four years in December.”
Roberts said her travels have also helped her appreciate her new home state.
“I really came here thinking this was going to be an absolute cultural wasteland … and what I discovered was the history here is absolutely fabulous, every bit as rich, more sometimes, than anything on the West Coast or East coast,” Roberts said.