Top 25 Wisconsin Historical Sites
By Mary Bergin
Midwest Features, special to TravelWisconsin.com
Truth be told, history was my weakest subject as a kid. It all seemed so much like a grueling test of memory -- matching dates with people, people with events, events with places. What often was missing was the relevance, the real-life links between past and present.
Authentic settings help make the past pertinent, and Wisconsin is full of these great teaching tools. They leave a lasting impression on adults as well as children.
These are places of final rest, peak performance, humble beginnings. Wisconsin has been the home to architectural visionary Frank Lloyd Wright and cherished children’s book author Laura Ingalls Wilder. It is the land of beer barons, the hideaway of celebrities, the birthplace of the GOP.
This is a state that has preserved the lifestyles of everyday people with as much respect as the works of its geniuses. It acknowledges the powerful, as well as the value of typical ethnic or pioneer lifestyles.
What makes something historically significant? It may be a style of architecture, the site or symbol of a world-changing event, or a unique representation of culture, livelihood or habitat.
It is easy to study history by emphasizing the most dramatic or political events: the wars, the elections, the discoveries. But life-changing moments also can be more subtle, yet just as notable. Wisconsin knows this.
There is value in simply learning how our ancestors lived, worked, interacted, coped. There are lessons that come from understanding what stays the same as technology, alliances and community dynamics change.
Here are 25 sturdy links between “then” and “now,” places that are worthy springboards for wonderful history lessons. Many well-preserved and significant historic structures are open for public tours; this is a sampling of the finest.
For this exercise, we’ve kept our mitts off of the many museums in modern buildings that preserve, protect and interpret the artifacts of previous lives and times.
We also have refrained from selecting historic districts that add depth and richness to entire communities -- such as Cedarburg, Mineral Point and Alma.
About three dozen bed and breakfast inns in the state are on the National Register of Historic Places. Wisconsin has around the same number of National Historic Landmark properties, from a submarine to a circus headquarters.
So the resources are plentiful, and the mission seems clear. Let’s get going!
This archaeological site, between Lake Mills and Johnson Creek, contains the ruins and artifacts of an ancient Middle Mississippian village that seemed to thrive from 1000 and 1300 AD. Then it was abandoned, about 200 years before Columbus landed in America. It is a place full of mystery. There are bones and artifacts, but few explanations about why these Native Americans deserted their home. Hundreds lived here – yet the remains of less than 20 people have been found. What made the setting ideal for its inhabitants? It was on the prairie, fertile for growing food. Wildlife were plentiful. A nearby stream made fishing and transportation accessible. This 21-acre settlement was surrounded by a stockade and flat-topped mounds, portions of which have been reconstructed in the 172-acre Aztalan State Park. The site was discovered in 1836, has been part of a state park since 1948 and a National Historic Landmark since 1964.
What's a basilica? Long ago, it was kind of like an indoor shopping mall for people of the Roman Empire. Then it became a place of spiritual pilgrimage. Today the word is as much about architectural style as it is about the Catholic religion. When St. Josaphat Church was dedicated in 1901, it was called “the most imposing of all Polish churches in the United States.” But the church burned three years later, and the congregation quickly outgrew the replacement. A resourceful priest saved his flock a ton of money by finding the huge, stone Post Office and Customs House in Chicago, which was destined to be discarded for a more modern building. For $20,000, stone (and more) from the old building was dismantled and hauled to Milwaukee on railroad cars. In 1929, Pope Pius XI designated the copper-plated dome a basilica, as it was a place of religious pilgrimage and had the right structural requirements.
More than 200 antique circus wagons -- the largest collection in the world -- make this much more than just another place to see trained tigers, bumbling clowns and tightrope walkers. The museum’s collection of circus posters, handbills and costumes is extensive, too. In the library archives is American circus history, starting with materials from the first circus (in Philadelphia, 1793). Why is it all here? These 50 acres were the original winter quarters for the Ringling Bros. Circus. The site is a National Historic Landmark, as well as a place to see a live circus performance in summer.
Martin Pattison’s 42-room mansion is a symbol of the boomtown phase that the city experienced in the 1890s. An industrialist and mayor, Pattison and wife Grace raised six children in this glorious Queen Anne home. The Fairlawn became an orphanage from 1920-62, after the owner’s death. About 2,000 children lived here, often a couple of dozen at a time, and the people traffic apparently took a toll. Built for $150,000 in 1891, the Fairlawn was sold to the city in 1963 for a mere $12,500. It escaped demolition and today is a city museum, supported by a $1.6 million restoration project.
Wisconsin’s present capitol building in Madison is a grand, ornate and omnipresent icon. That makes the state’s first house of governance, which is a state historic site, seem all the more precious. Territorial legislators first convened in a rented and modest building northwest of Belmont in the fall of 1836. After 46 days, they had passed 42 laws, set up a judicial system and decided Madison would be the government’s permanent home. Perhaps it was one of the more efficient examples of government at work, present day included. Lawmakers decided where to build bridges, build roads, set up courts. That was one session, and there would be no others in Belmont. Until moving to Madison in 1839, legislative sessions were held in Burlington, Iowa.
Founded in 1850, this cemetery’s 200 acres is the final resting place for many of Milwaukee’s most famous names. There are five former governors among the politicians. Fred Usinger, the German sausage maker whose business still thrives, is here. So is Army Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, who created the nation’s first air routes and is the namesake for Milwaukee’s airport. There are more: Beer barons Joseph Schlitz and Frederick Pabst. Actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Nine short tours are outlined on a map that also marks the gravesites or memorials for more than 50 notables. Indoors is the Hall of History, displays about the accomplishments of people buried at Forest Home. Is there room for more, and for anyone? Yes. “Area citizens and dignitaries have always shared a comforting constant: the unparalleled dignity of eternal rest,” the cemetery notes, online.
What opened as a hospital in 1831 has since become a fascinating place to study frontier methods of medical treatment. Until 1995, this site was known as the Museum of Medical Progress. Former owners/operators have included the State Medical Society of Wisconsin. This is all about leeches, the iron lung, medical instruments and milestones. There is a re-created doctor’s office from 1850, a dental office from 1900, dioramas about progress in surgical techniques. It is the story of people as well as professions. Dr. William Beaumont, an Army surgeon at Fort Crawford, advanced our understanding of the digestive system -- all because of his studies and experiments with a patient whose gunshot wound to the stomach didn’t heal. The doctor could watch digestion as it occurred. By 1856, the fort was abandoned, but the hospital museum continues to be a significant part of Wisconsin’s second oldest community.
Before the work of Henry Hamilton Bennett, the stunning cliffs, crooks and caves of the Wisconsin Dells were pretty much of a secret. The area’s beauty was profound, but more than words alone could describe justly. Bennett’s knack with a camera changed all of that and helped turn the Dells into a national tourist attraction. The tools and results of Bennett’s work make for a wondrous collection. He was an enterprising businessman as well as an artist, eventually selling pictures of tourists in front of steamboats as vacation souvenirs. Had he not injured a hand during the Civil War, Bennett just as easily could have been a carpenter -- and a more obscure part of history.
About 1,350 feet above sea level, one of the highest points in Wisconsin, is a national and Catholic landmark that draws both the curious and the devout. It is 178 steps to the top of the observation tower. It has been 142 years since the first sermon was preached.On November 19, 2006, the Shrine was elevated to the status of Basilica and it is a tribute to the Virgin Mary as well as a place of worship. The setting is lovely and wooded, with an Ice Age Trail cutting through Holy Hill’s 400 acres. People come to picnic, to gawk at the architecture, to contemplate, repent and pray. At least two masses occur daily. After the spirit is fed, there is a place to nourish the body. Pies and breads are sold in the bake shop; there also is a café.
Author Laura Ingalls Wilder spent a lifetime teaching children about pioneer life, when what appeared simple and true also encompassed complex challenges and changes. Now a simple cabin, standing where the “Little House on the Prairie” writer was born, helps spread those lessons to all generations. Her book “Little House in the Big Woods” was set in this part of Wisconsin in the 1870s. The classic has been translated into 40-plus languages and was the basis for a television series. Come September, the people of Pepin will celebrate the author’s birth and pioneer times. Laura Ingalls Wilder Days is about traditional craft demonstrations as well as fiddling and Laura look-alike contests.
More than one community in the country says it is the birthplace of the Republican Party, but our money is on Ripon. The school has been a National Historic Landmark since 1974, and the matter also is acknowledged in the Congressional Record. The first GOP meeting was in a one-room school because it was too cold to meet outside and too inappropriate to meet in a church, because of the desire to separate church and state. Do you have to be a member of the GOP to take a peek? Absolutely not – that kind of prerequisite would jeopardize the building’s status as a nonprofit enterprise. Consider it a historic site for the community, and not necessarily a political statement.
A quick ferry ride from Bayfield is all that separates visitors from some of the oldest stories in Wisconsin history. Although Madeline Island is not a part of the adjacent Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, its museum is steeped with tales of prosperity, challenge and struggle. Some of the first documented exchanges between French voyageurs and the native Ojibwe tribe were here, around 1659. The area has attracted Christian missionaries and just-summer visitors as well. The surroundings, still pristine today, have long been a lure. The rich natural resources made this an ideal place to trap furs. Seasonal cottages began to sprout in the 1890s, a tradition that continues today. On display at this state historic site are artifacts from the island and Chequamegon Bay, prehistoric to modern day.
Joseph Goodrich founded the village of Milton and seemed to set up much of it single-handedly. The first school classes were taught in his home. He organized the first church, served as the first postmaster, built the first blacksmith shop, lobbied the railroad to run a line through town. His hexagonal Milton House was a multi-purpose building: part hotel, part commercial enterprise, part apartments -- and part passageway for slaves to gain freedom from 1844-67. In addition to his other roles, Goodrich was an Underground Railroad conductor, an abolitionist who believed slavery was wrong. So black men and women came to him for both refuge and escape. Their route from southern plantations to a new life in Canada involved a discrete tunnel on Goodrich’s property, plus food, lodging and transportation in wagons filled with hay. The tunnel connected Milton House to a cabin behind it. The house became a National Historic Landmark in 1998.
How remarkable has the railroad been to life as we know it? This is the place to get an answer: There are articles and railroad cars that address both the past and future of railroading. Dwight Eisenhower’s World War II command train is among the 70-plus locomotives and train cars. So is the world’s largest steam locomotive, and the Aerotrain (considered futuristic when unveiled in the 1950s). There is a place for model railroaders here, too, and the serious student of railroad history. The most historic train components tend to be housed in the Lenfestey Center, which can be rented for special events.
More than 60 historic structures were dismantled, moved and reconstructed to create this working pioneer community, the largest in the world dedicated to the history of rural life. Teams of oxen and horses till the fields. Butter is churned by hand. A blacksmith pounds the anvil. These are glimpses of Wisconsin as it became a melting pot of European cultures. Researchers have documented the life stories of these ancestors, as well as found and preserved buildings typical of the 1870s. Harmony Town Hall was the hub for political proceedings and debate. Caldwell Farmers’ Club Hall was the site for community dances, dinners and festivals. This state historic site opened in 1976, as a way to celebrate the nation’s 200th birthday. It continues as a personal, living tribute to the past.
The Gilded Age in America also was known as the Pabst Decade in Milwaukee, and this magnificent structure helps explain why. The last home of Captain Frederick Pabst, beer baron and sea captain, is a work of art and excess. The 1892 Flemish Renaissance Revival Mansion shelters the work of dozens of fine craftsmen, whose woodwork, ironwork and stained glass make the interior an extraordinary gem. Furniture was custom made. There was plumbing for nine bathrooms. The home has always had electricity. The blending of color and elegance is stunning. Pabst had a dozen years to appreciate the finished splendor; he died in 1904. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee owned the mansion for 67 years, until 1975; it has been open for public tours since 1978.
Fireproofing measures, considered cutting edge for the time, were just as important as opulence when this Grande Olde Lady was born in 1895. That is because fire destroyed the first Milwaukee theater financed by Captain Frederick Pabst, less than five years after its opening. “Rebuild at once!” was the sea captain’s directive, when told the loss during his vacation abroad. Pabst Theater opened less than a year later. Its stage has gold leaf framing. Its staircase is made of marble from Italy. Its ceilings sparkle with crystal chandeliers from Austria. The Pabst is the nation’s fourth oldest continuously operating theater. The stage used to belong to Helen Hayes, Katherine Hepburn, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Now the spotlight is for Jewel, The Glenn Miller Orchestra, Jonny Lang.
Mineral Point is a good name for a mining town, and that’s exactly what brought Cornish immigrants to the area in the 1830s. It was a good place to get the lead out, literally. This was a boom town, because of the population growth and because of the blasting powder that made the lead mining possible. Miners came from Cornwall to southwestern Wisconsin, building hillside homes of limestone, eating meat pies called pasties, nurturing their own community and calling it Shake Rag Under the Hill. Each house had a name and a garden of flowers, sometimes more. These families migrated west, with the Gold Rush of 1849, and many of their cottages had vanished by the 1930s. The remainder have been restored, as a tribute and reminder of the years when a specific ethnic culture thrived.
Wisconsin's first governor, Nelson Dewey, farmed this land and named it. The 2,000 acres, with its miles of stone fences, lie between looming bluffs and the Mississippi River. The successful politician and businessman eventually felt a hard turn of luck. Fire destroyed his Gothic Revival mansion in 1873, his investments bottomed out shortly afterward, and the once-proud governor lost most of what he owned. He died poor and alone, with no way of knowing the legacy that would exist today. As a state historic site, Stonefield is a rural village from the early 1900s. Dewey’s homesite was rebuilt, his stone horse shelter still stands and the makings of an authentic rural village (saloon to sweets shop) have been added. The State Agricultural Museum is on this property, too, known for its extensive and historic farm machinery collection.
The northern estate of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright is all about his quest for organic architecture -- that which is inspired by nature, respects it and blends with it. Buildings are made of materials indigenous to the area. Views of the terrain -- rolling hills and the Wyoming Valley -- are generous, strategic. Architecture students still can pursue an apprenticeship here, where they will learn to cook and decorate as well as design and build. In winter, all head to Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz., for more studies about the same principles in a different climate. Taliesin itself is a national treasure, but it also has set the mood for other architectural masterpieces, like New York’s Guggenheim Museum and Pennsylvania’s Fallingwater. There are Taliesin tours, and a need for donations Preservationists call Taliesin one of the nation’s most endangered places, because of its deterioration.
The 60-acre summer retreat of actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne brought Broadway stars to the Midwest for R&R 75 years ago. Now the private playground is open to the public. How much of a pilgrimage was it? As Carol Channing told The New York Times: “What the Vatican is to Catholics, Ten Chimneys is to actors.” The house was built for Funt’s recently widowed mother in the 1920s. The actor and his wife would retreat to a chicken coop, which became a charming cottage. As the parent aged, and the couple’s careers flourished, more and more amazing collections emerged: Delft china. Oil lamps. First edition books. On the celebrity guest list: Edna Ferber, Laurence Olivier, Helen Hayes, Noel Coward, George Burns, Charlie Chaplin. Why the name? There were six chimneys in the house, three in the cottage and one in a Swedish log cabin studio.
Visionary architect Frank Lloyd Wright was a member of this church, and the congregation helped build it, lifting and hauling tons of limestone from a Sauk City quarry. That was a way to save money; the remaining Stonehaulers are in their 70s and 80s today. What was considered a country church when it opened in 1951 now thrives in Madison’s Shorewood neighborhood. The structure continues to be known as one of the world’s most innovative examples of church architecture. There is no steeple, but the steep and triangular roof that soars in front of the worship area provides the same effect, while also creating a prow of glass that flanks the pulpit with light. Additions were built in 1964 and 1990. The building is one of Wisconsin’s newest National Historic Landmarks.
What was life like inside of a submarine during World War II? Some people get the answers during a USS Cobia tour. Others learn more by spending the night, to get a first-hand feel for the lifestyle. Although this submarine was not built in Manitowoc, it is almost identical to the 28 that were constructed by the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company during the war. The Cobia sank six Japanese vessels and earned four battle stars. Since 1970, it has been an international memorial to submariners worldwide. Overnight stays in the communal accommodations are particularly popular with youth groups. The USS Cobia is a National Historic Landmark and a part of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum.
The hilltop view from Hercules Dousman’s 1870 home is breathtaking and appropriate. Why wouldn’t a fur trader want to be near the source of his livelihood, the Mississippi River? Many Victorian houses are considered historic, but this one has been dubbed one of the most authentically restored house museums in the country. This all is thanks to family photographs from the 1890s, exhaustive research and the recovery/restoration of interior design elements and heirlooms. The mansion was, and is, a place to show off British Arts-and-Crafts style. What else? This state historic site was the location of the sole War of 1812 battle fought in Wisconsin. Long before that, it was where tribes and fur traders swapped their wisdom and wares.
Horse-drawn transportation moved travelers between Sheboygan and Fond du Lac in the 1860s. The journey was a constant click and clack, over a wooden plank road. This was a slow and uncomfortable journey, but there was a haven for rest at the midway point. In the heart of wilderness was the Wade House, a place to get a hearty meal and spend the night. Now a state historic site, the property caters to travelers in a different way. There are tours of the stagecoach inn as well as the Wesley Jung Carriage Museum, which houses Wisconsin’s biggest wagon and carriage collection. Reconstruction of the Herrling sawmill, powered by water from the Mullet River, was finished in 2001 -- adding yet another dimension to the study of local history. Wild West and Civil War re-enactments draw a crowd in summer, as does the weekly Hymn Sing and church supper at nearby New Hope Church on Tuesdays in August.
Mary Bergin writes “Roads Traveled,” a weekly column about travel in and near Wisconsin that appears in several of the state’s daily newspapers. She also is a feature writer for The Capital Times, Madison. To contact her, write email@example.com.