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Wisconsin's closeted history

Last week's trip to Cress Funeral Home felt like the beginning of a good habit to me. My fear is that the writing well might run dry if I sit here alone every day typing from morning 'til night, with no one but two cats for conversation. And so I'm challenging myself to go on a field trip every week.

I was supposed to visit an abandoned house today, but my intrepid friend had to reschedule, so I made my way down to historic Mineral Point instead. Mineral Point was a booming city in the 1800's, larger than either Chicago or Milwaukee. Today there are about 2500 people there and it's a thriving artists' community. It's high on my list of "I wouldn't mind living there."

Pendarvis is one of the historic sites of the Wisconsin Historical Society. In the 1930's when the limestone cottages that were built by the Cornish Lead Miners of the 1840's were being torn down for salvage, Robert Neal and Edgar Hellum began purchasing and restoring the cottages. Some were original to the site and some were moved from nearby towns and reassembled.

Here I am, having crawled out of my cave into the sunlight...Hello! I bought myself a historical "passport" and I plan to visit each historical site over the course of the summer.

And to my right is Rex. Isn't he awesome? He didn't move from his spot outside the office the whole time we were there. I heard he sometimes watches the tours go into buildings and then goes around to the buildings' exits to greet the groups as they come out. He's a neighbor's cat.

This cottage is built into a hillside. The second floor walks out to ground level on the opposite side of the house, which is confusing. The other photo is a "lean-to" that was not original to the structures, but added in the 1940's, the significance of which I will reveal in a moment. It's maybe 12' square or so.

I'm not sure what the pretty limestone gated thing was. Maybe a spring. The tour guide showed us how the old mattresses were supported on the bedframe by rope. It must have been a historical mattress and blanket, because she had to put those gloves on to lift it up. And In the photo of the window, you can see how the walls of the cottage are a foot and a half thick. (I think that's my favorite photo. I love the quality of the light and the composition.)

Okay, on to my big revelation. We were in the building with the lean-to--this building had been restored to its 1940's appearance--and the guide told us about how Neal and Hellum had turned it into a restaurant serving Cornish specialties, and people came from far and wide, and it only seated 20 and you had to get your reservation six months in advance. She said the kitchen was in the lean-to, and they lived in the lean-to as well.

And then I thought, oh wow. They were gay.

Right at that point someone else on the tour said, "Okay, so one was an interior designer, and the other was an artist? I guess that explains the connection they had to the project."

I guess. I went through the rest of the tour in a bit of a daze, trying to wonder what it would be like to be living in rural Wisconsin in the 1930's as an interior designer and an artist, and having the balls to do what these guys were doing. They were extremely successful, and in fact the thriving artist-community of the town is due in no small part to them. They kept it going until 1970, at which point they retired and turned it over to the Historical Society so it could be restored to period decor/furniture and preserved.

Upon coming home and researching it, I found a book on the topic called A Passion to Preserve, Gay Men as Keepers of Culture, as well as a post-reply by the book's author in which he says, "I encountered significant homophobic hostility in conjunction with my publication of Neal and Hellum’s story. There was hostility locally in Mineral Point and at the Wisconsin Historical Society headquarters."

Sad, sad, sad. Undoubtedly, if I'd known Pendarvis was the pet project of gay artists in the 1930's, it wouldn't have taken me 10 years to get my butt over there.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 1st, 2010 10:24 pm (UTC)
Next week is the abandoned house. Whoo!
Jul. 1st, 2010 10:33 pm (UTC)
It's fun to think that in Moolah and Moonshine, Sam and Emmett came back from Paris and started restoring historic buildings like Pendarvis. Emmett would have had to get over his phobia of his horrible house.
Jul. 2nd, 2010 02:42 pm (UTC)
It does make me stop and think about all the hidden parts of history...
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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