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As a Madison native, I had HEARD of the Milton House, but never actually understood it or the significance of this meaningful space in Wisconsin history. I knew it was a fun hexagon shape, and white. That is about it – and I am sure the Milton Historical Society is thrilled to learn that.
Research for my book
I am currently under contract for my next travel book: 100 Things to do in Wisconsin Before You Die. I was on the hunt for interesting and unique places to visit in the state, as well as great restaurants to eat at and just in general cool things to do in the dairy state. The Milton House historic landmark was suggested to me by more than one person and I had to check it out.
Who Built the Historic Milton House?
It was constructed in 1838 by Joseph and Ezra Goodrich and is asserted to be the first grout building built in the United States. It was designated as a National Historic Landmark on December 19, 1961, and is one of the earliest examples of Federal period architecture in the United States.
When the Milton House family came to Wisconsin in 1837, they were some of the earliest settlers in the area. They had left their home in New York with high hopes of starting a new life out west. The journey was long and arduous, but they finally arrived in Wisconsin with everything they needed to open a frontier store. Unfortunately, one of their wagons got stuck on an ice-covered river and they lost all their supplies.
It can be challenging to open a store when you have no inventory, but they persevered.
Settling the “Wild West”
They were all in a 420 square feet house to start with – all 13 of them! By 1844 they had to change things up – business was hopping, and they need the cabin as an Inn.
Undaunted, the Goodrich House family set to work building their new home using lime grout experiments that Joseph Goodrich had played around with. To build his vision with brick would have a price tag of around $4,000. Switching to wood would drop it to about $3,000. His innovative Lime Grout method came in at under $1,000.
His building would be two stories, with a third added around 1867. It grew as their businesses did.
There are 9 more Milton area homes with that lime grout used in them!
How did he help build the community?
The Milton House was a popular stop for the railroad. In fact, Joseph paid the railroad to create a stop there and it was the reason the railroad line took a detour. This allowed people and goods to easily travel in and out of town. Thanks to his ingenuity, there were roughly 25 trains and 25 stagecoaches stopping a day in town.
He would use his land for a church, park, stable, and so much more – really helping the community thrive.
A zero-tolerance policy – even back then
Seriously religious people, they worshiped on Saturday instead of Sunday, didn’t believe in smoking or drinking, and seriously thought that the idea of slavery was a sin. It is no surprise that they would be abolitionists who were determined to create a safe haven for escaped slaves.
What was the purpose of the Underground Railroad?
The Underground Railroad was a system to help fugitive slaves escape to freedom. It started in the northern states and expanded southward. The goal of the railroad was not just to free slaves, but also to protect them from capture and return them safely back home.
The Underground Railroad was instrumental in helping more than 500,000 slaves escape to freedom between 1815 and 1860. Many abolitionists were also involved in helping slaves escape, including Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and Lucretia Mott.
What role did the Milton House play in the Underground Railroad?
This was interesting to me – I knew slavery was illegal in Wisconsin but didn’t know those slave hunters – the people who went after escaped slaves – could come here and catch them to take them back south. In 1861, even the Union Army camps would send the escaped slaves back.
We would learn that the soldiers were happy to fight for the abolition of slavery, but did NOT like the idea of the freedom seekers having equality.
The Milton House is a significant part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom as it is documented as helping freedom seekers. That is rarely the case as records of assisting escaped slaves could cost you in the long run if you were caught. It is hard to say for sure, but they estimate that between 5 and 20 people came through the Milton House, on their journey to freedom.
How did the Underground Railroad and abolitionists contribute to the Civil War?
The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses used by slaves in the United States during the era of slavery to escape to freedom. The term “Underground Railroad” has been applied to abolitionism in general, because it describes the efforts on behalf of abolitionists to help slaves get away from their masters and find safety.
Many people contributed to the success of the Underground Railroad, including abolitionists who risked their own lives to help slaves escape. One such person was Harriet Tubman, who made 19 trips back South and helped more than 300 slaves reach freedom. Other abolitionists included John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth. Sojourner Truth actually spoke at Milton College – one of their most famous guests.
The Underground Railroad played an important role in helping African Americans escape slavery during the Civil War. By helping slaves find freedom in the north, abolitionists were able to weaken Southern support for slavery and contribute to the eventual victory of Union forces over Confederate troops.
See it for yourself
I am a very poor tour guide and going off of the memory of my visit. We were regaled with stories, details, and historical gems that had me furiously writing in my notebook and taking pictures.
I can’t share with you how it felt to walk through the tunnel over to the old cabin that was the kitchen. That cold, dark area, that had damp walls. That area which is now twice as tall as it used to be and where freedom seekers would hang out when they were in danger of being caught.
- You need to know what happened around the turn of the century when stagecoaches were no longer visiting and trains often went on more direct routes.
- How they reinvented themselves and became relevant.
- How they helped build Milton College.
- How they helped not only save the lives of freedom seekers but helped them go from being slaves to leaving a legacy of property for their kids.
- How Milton was almost called Prairie du Lac.
- You need to see the mural that covers a family’s journey to freedom.
- How a town of 500-600 people could build a college that allowed both men and women to attend.
I could go on and on – but they tell the stories so well.
Become a member
A family membership is only $30 – and that gets you in free. You will want more than one visit so you really “get” all the history and information that is shared with you! Make sure you put Civil War Living History Days on your calendar! It is the weekend before Memorial Day and looks like a TON of fun from Lincoln’s speech down to Mail Call! I don’t think I would volunteer for the Civil War Medical Demonstration though…but that is just me, LOL!
You can find it at 18 S Janesville St, Milton, WI 53563, (608) 868-7772
Places To Stay Nearby
Other Wisconsin things to check out:
- Step Back in Time at Villa Louis
- America’s Black Holocaust Museum: Our Journey Through Time
- Pete’s Hamburgers Satisfies The Soul Of Your Taste Buds
- Wisconsin Canoe Heritage Museum: A Look at Canoeing History
- Fun Family Activities in Milwaukee
- Check out the Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center of Manitowoc
- Free or Cheap Activities for Kids in Wisconsin
- Wisconsin Bucket List For Travelers