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Weekly Column

Each week a small segment of Vernon County history is published in the county papers.

For the week of 11/21/2021
by Kristen Parrott, curator

November is Native American Heritage Month, and this November we’ve been looking at the life and legacy of Joshua Decorah Sanford. He was born near Friendship, Wisconsin, in 1919 to a Seneca father and a Ho-Chunk mother. During World War II, Joshua was a fighter pilot with the famed Flying Tigers. Before and after the war, he lived in Hillsboro, right here in Vernon County.

Continuing the story from where we left off, in the late 1950’s the Sanford family was living in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. Joshua was the manager of the Reedsburg airport, his wife Rosemary was the principal of Rock Springs Elementary School, and their children Maureen and Bill attended Sacred Heart School in Reedsburg.

During the war, Joshua had been wounded in action, for which he received a Purple Heart, and he continued to suffer from those bullet wounds long after the war. He was hospitalized for over a year around 1960 with complications from the injuries. When he was released, he found a new job as a factory representative for the Radio Corporation of America. In this job he could continue to use his radio and electrical engineering experience.

He also served as the Sauk County Civil Defense Director, and in 1961, he was appointed Director of Civil Defense for 11 counties in southwestern Wisconsin. However, his health was declining, due to a combination of war wounds, a kidney ailment, and diabetes.

Joshua Sanford died on October 21, 1962, at a hospital in Madison. He was 43 years old. He was buried with Catholic rites at the Mt. Vernon Cemetery in Hillsboro, where his father Herbert had been buried in 1951. Wife Rosemary would join him there in 1998.

Hillsboro honored the memory of Joshua Sanford by renaming its airport the Joshua Sanford Field Airport on May 30, 1993. A morning of festivities for the airport renaming included the presentation of a painting depicting Sanford’s WWII experiences to his widow, Rosemary, who in turn donated the painting to the city of Hillsboro. The airport closed in 2016.

Joshua’s name was added to the Memorial Wall next to the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Aviation Museum in Oshkosh in 2016. And in 2018, he was inducted into the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame, also at the Aviation Museum in Oshkosh.

You can learn more about Joshua Sanford at the Vernon County Museum, where we have a file full of information about him. If you have something additional to contribute to the file, please contact the museum at 608-637-7396, or, or stop by during our regular winter hours of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, noon to 4PM.

Captain Joshua Sanford

Captain Joshua Sanford, 75th Fighter Squadron, stationed in China in 1944-45.


For the week of 11/14/2021
by Kristen Parrott, curator

Last week we began looking at the life of Joshua Sanford of Hillsboro, decorated World War II fighter pilot of Native ancestry. Today we’ll continue his story by focusing on his post-war life.

In May of 1946, shortly after the war, Joshua established his own radio and TV repair business on Main Street in Hillsboro, called Sanford Radio and Electronics Shop. He sold the business the following year, and I think it was then that he moved to Chicago, where two of his half-brothers lived. He continued his education in electronics there and got a job as an electrical engineer for the Hallicrafters Corporation. In June of 1948, he married Rosemary Bertz of Loyal, who was a teacher in Wonewoc. They settled in Hillsboro, where he again established an electronics business.

The Sanfords had two children, Maureen and Bill. Joshua became a member of the American Legion, the VFW, the Lions Club, and the Chamber of Commerce in Hillsboro. He served as a Boy Scouts leader, and as a ham radio operator. Then in 1956, the family moved to Reedsburg, where Joshua had a new job managing the local airport, using his war-time experience as a pilot. He also continued to operate a small electrical appliance business.

Throughout his life, Joshua Sanford was active in efforts to improve life for the Ho-Chunk people. His Ho-Chunk ancestry came from his mother, Maud Decorah. She was a basket maker, probably making black ash baskets of beauty and utility. In December of 1948, shortly after his marriage, Joshua was appointed to a committee called the Wisconsin Winnebago Tribal Affairs Commission. (“Winnebago” was a name used at that time for the Ho-Chunk.) Two years earlier, the U.S. government had passed the Indian Claims Commission Act, which allowed this new committee to pursue claims that the Ho-Chunk people had not been paid fairly for land taken from them by the government in treaties of the early 1800’s.

I don’t know how Sanford came to be chosen for this work, but he did serve on the committee with a fellow WWII veteran, the Rev. Mitchell Whiterabbit, and possibly their status as veterans prompted their nominations. Various Wisconsin newspapers reported on the formation of the Winnebago Tribal Affairs Commission in the late 1940’s. The Waukesha Daily Freeman used derogatory language to mock the committee and its efforts, but the Leader-Telegram of Eau Claire treated the story respectfully, as straight news.

Over the years, the commission developed into the Wisconsin Winnebago Business Committee, which Joshua was still serving on in 1961, shortly before his death. This committee also worked toward federal recognition of the tribe, and helped to form the modern-day Ho-Chunk Nation government. The constitution and by-laws of the Wisconsin Winnebago tribe were officially adopted in January of 1963.

Next week we’ll conclude Joshua Sanford’s story, and look at some of the ways in which his legacy has lived on.

Young Joshua Sanford

A young Joshua Sanford in regalia.


The previous two articles:

November 7, 2021

October 31, 2021