One of the things I wanted to make sure we did on our visit to southern Wisconsin, where Matt grew up and where the boys can locate much of the family history, was to go to some of the local museums. I liked the idea that Tommy would be able to connect his family history with the larger national narratives that he has learned about in school. I’m happy to report that we had a very successful visit to the Milton House, which actually turned out to be a small gem of a museum that the locals have every reason to be proud of.
The Milton House is the oldest grout, or cement, building in America, and it was made entirely with local materials. Hexagonal in shape, it was constructed as an inn in 1844 by John Goodrich, who was also the founder of the eponymous town where it stands. Goodrich was a generous man who gave a portion of the land he had purchased to serve as a town green, a large and lovely park across the street. He also donated land for a post office, a cemetery, a public school, and a church; for Goodrich was a devout seventh-day Baptist. This means the Milton House was a “temperance inn” where alcohol and tobacco were not allowed. It also meant that Goodrich was an abolitionist. In fact, the Milton House was part of the Underground Railroad and Sojourner Truth was a personal friend of the family and once stayed in the inn as a guest. Attached to the inn is a long rectangular block that housed shops and apartments, what is referred to in the museum’s materials as one of the earliest “malls” in America.
Our tour of the museum was led by a young man named Austin who is only a sophomore in high school. Although he couldn’t answer all of our questions, he did a great job and clearly had a strong sense of both piety for and pride in the museum. The approach he took on the tour was great for a kid Tommy’s age because in almost every room he would pick up an object and ask us to guess what it was. Often we were unable to and so he would have to explain that it was a hair curler or a chicken catcher (which not only caught the chickens but broke their necks cleanly) or some other everyday object that people from the 19th century would have recognized instantly. And in many of the rooms, we could walk right up to the furniture and other artifacts, which meant that even Teddy got a good view.
We started our tour in a room that had been set up as the general store, which was exciting for Tommy since his great, great, great grandfather once ran this shop. Like all the rooms in the museum, it had been well-stocked with interesting objects from the 1800s, including a large pickle barrel and boxes that once held patent medicines. We then saw the entire downstairs of the inn, including the men’s and women’s waiting rooms and the small dining area, where we were all a little grossed out to learn that the reason guests wanted to be first at the table was because the dishes weren’t washed until everyone had eaten. (The toothpicks were used communally as well.) Upstairs we saw a small guest room and had the tightening of the bed strings and the straw inside the mattress shown to us, as well as the chamber pot, which the boys were shocked to learn would have been emptied right out the window. The rest of the rooms here are set up to house different collections of artifacts – a seamstress shop, an artist’s studio, a room full of Civil War weaponry and gear, another containing toys and items from a school room. Here there were pictures of a number of local one-room schoolhouses, including the one that Matt’s mother attended as a young girl, which really tickled the boys.
The most memorable part of the tour was in the basement. Since the inn was on the Underground Railroad, there is a tunnel between it and the cabin that was the Goodrich family’s original home and actually served as the original inn as well. We were all able to walk upright through it, although Austin pointed out that when the escaping slaves used it, the ceiling was only about three feet high and the floor was mud instead of cement. But the tunnel was still dank and dark and gave a very good sense of what it would have been like to hide in there. We emerged in the tiny cabin, where Austin showed us how a trap door covered by a rug would have hidden the tunnel from view. Tommy was very impressed by this and when we bought him a book about slavery and the abolitionist movement in the small gift shop, he immediately started reading it.
I was really impressed with the Milton House. It’s a small museum owned by a local historical society, but they’ve worked hard to make sure that visitors leave with a sense of the importance of the place. Our tour lasted over an hour and the kids were fascinated throughout. And although Milton is a small town, it’s easy enough to get to. The museum is about a five-minute drive from I-90 and could easily be fit into a road trip to Madison, Minneapolis, or Chicago. During the summer it’s open every day; after Labor Day appointments are necessary to get a tour.
This is one of those museums that really makes an impression. That night as we were driving to dinner Tommy asked, with evident concern in his voice, if there are still places in the world where slavery exists. I wish we could have told him a resounding no.