Passion for the past

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Jay and Sharie Merline dig into Oconto County’s past

Times Herald Photo by Warren Bluhm

Sharie and Jay Merline enjoy learning about Oconto County history and sharing what they’ve discovered.

An Oconto couple is using modern social media technology to share their love for small-town historical treasures.

Jay and Sharie Merline have five Facebook pages and a YouTube page chock full of imagery and information from the last 200 years of local history, much of it from Jay’s personal collection.

“I was raised in a gas station in Oconto” — more precisely Merline’s Circle Restaurant and Texaco — “and over the years I’ve collected a lot of local stuff,” Jay said.

In 2010, he started sharing images from his collection on his Facebook page, and the posts were so popular he launched the Oconto History page a year later. That page now has 1,898 images and more than 2,600 Likes, and it led to the pages History of Spruce, Wisconsin, Oconto Falls Heritage Center, Suring Area Historical Society and Marinette County History Preservation — the last one because Sharie grew up in Pound.

Some of the images have gained viral-like attention — a photo of downtown Mountain in 1940 has been shared more than 1,140 times and has over 100,000 views.

A few years ago, the couple were given the Copperfest videos of parades in Oconto, along with other videos of local history. They took it on themselves to fund the cost of transferring the VCR tapes to DVD and then getting them online. That’s the genesis of the Oconto County History page on YouTube.

Jay and Sharie were married more than 30 years ago, have five children, and share a keen interest in preserving the memories of the past.

“I have a lot of collections,” Jay said, noting for example that one of his prize possessions is a pop bottle from O’Neill’s Bottling Works in Oconto Falls and he’s still looking for one from a Lena factory.

Sharie’s interest turns in the direction of family history. Her interest in Spruce began as a search for more information about her great-grandfather who lived there.

“I’m more interested in genealogy, how they were related to me,” she said.

A family tree she started researching in 2008 led her not only through the history of the Merline family but a half-dozen other branches, and she held a family reunion to unveil the fruits of her labors in a book called “The Merline Family Keepsake Book.” The effort earned her the Kay Stewart Award for lifetime achievement in family history from the Oconto County Historical Society in 2009.

Not that Jay isn’t involved in that area: He’s the president of the Oconto County Genealogy Society, and Sharie is the secretary of the organization.

They scour eBay and private sale listings for memorabilia and information from the area’s history. If a person doesn’t want to part with a historic picture or other documents, Jay will ask if he can scan the material and give it back.

“It’s important to share with young people to get them interested in history,” Sharie said.