Browsing the Archives
Dust off the Agency House archives with us! Explore curiosities from old scrapbooks, fascinating documents, and more! Installments will be posted at the middle and end of each month in 2021.
Post #1: Snapshot of a Survivor
Time, nature, and human intervention too frequently conspire to end the lives of our nation's historic buildings. After the Fort Winnebago complex at Portage was sold in 1854, the process of disintegration began in earnest. Its stately buildings quickly began to disappear from the landscape. On the Agency hillside, over half a dozen outbuildings met their gradual end, leaving the Agency House as the lone survivor. By the turn of the century, the fort's commissary building was looked upon as the corresponding lone survivor among the military structures, although the clapboarded surgeon's quarters would be rediscovered in due time. Once housing the region's most valuable military stores, the commissary entered the 20th century housing cattle, its outside walls advertising Portage's latest new wares to horse-drawn travelers. Unfortunately, this structure is no longer in existence, but this photograph documents its tenacious grip on survival. The picture was recently rediscovered in an envelope which has been sealed for the past 60 years. It is one of few extant photographs of the ruins of Fort Winnebago!
Post #2: Settling the Military Reservation
This photograph was tucked away in the same envelope as our first “Rediscovery.” When the fort was sold, a substantial portion of the “military reservation” (i.e., the land reserved to the government to prevent surrounding settlement from crowding its defensive perimeter) passed into the hands of Milwaukee insurance banker James B. Martin. This investor quickly sold the land to homesteaders and farmers. Apparently the home depicted in this photograph was one of the first to be erected on the newly-available land. The structure in the undated photograph appears to have been conveniently constructed with quarried stone from old Fort Winnebago’s foundation. Can you find all four men pictured in this photograph?
Post #3: Commemorating a History That's Both Ours and "Joers"
Hidden away in the Agency House archives is a letter written by Paul Joers of Milwaukee, dated September 10, 1918. What makes it special is the occasion of its writing. On Labor Day, 1918, history buffs from across the state escaped the wartime news to make a pilgrimage to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the building of Fort Winnebago. The 200 people who gathered that day ate lunch under the massive elm still standing in front of the Agency House. After a tour led by Mayor Baker—at the time the owner of the Agency House—the group was off to the site where Fort Winnebago once stood. This early gathering, organized by the Wisconsin Historical Society’s curator Charles E. Brown, along with the Wisconsin Archaeological Society and the Sauk County Historical Society, was the first in a series of occurrences which raised awareness for the plight of the Agency House which was at that time viewed as the last real survivor of the fort’s early days and an important emblem of Wisconsin’s early history.
Post #4: Max Fernekes Plate
Our museum’s first logo was derived from a sketch originally created for the Milwaukee Journal in 1931 by artist Max Fernekes, Jr. From the sketch, the design was transferred onto a metal printing block. From there it could be stamped on newsprint and promotional materials alike. Take a look at the Agency House’s very first brochure (1932) which was made using Fernekes' sketch. This well-worn printing block was retired following many years of use and now resides in the HIAH collection.
Post #5: Book Saves Home: Then and Now
“Century Old Book to Save Home of Writer,” declares the June 9, 1929, scrapbook clipping from the Milwaukee Sentinel. Plans were underway to reprint Juliette Kinzie’s Wau-Bun to raise funds to save the 1832 agency house, the existence of which had become threatened. Interestingly, this announcement was published four months prior to the official decision to reprint the book! In 1931, the NSCDA-WI purchased and restored the home, thanks in part to the eager reception of the new edition. The soon-to-be-published 2021 Historic Preservation Edition of Wau-Bun continues the mission of preserving the Historic Indian Agency House and its vital story for the benefit of generations to come.
Post #6: The Theatre That Wasn't
Portage’s seasoned residents may recall the 1960s when local tourism promoters hatched a plan to make the small plot of city land on the Agency hillside the host of a new attraction: the “Playhouse Historique.” An elaborate historical drama would be reenacted in the scenic surroundings of the Agency House. Investors were solicited and plans were made to create a massive revolving amphitheater. This grand-scale inverse of theater-in-the-round advanced to final stages of preparation, only to be dropped when sufficient funds could not be acquired. This week’s archival rediscovery is one of many advertisements for the impending theater project. It was printed in the 1966 edition of the Hiawatha Pioneer Trail guidebook, along with a project-area diorama detailing the location slated for development (now the parking loop at the end of Agency House Road). DID YOU KNOW? The earthen berm along the edge of the Agency House’s parking lot was installed as a means to block the HIAH visitor center from the playhouse’s view.
Post #7: Turn Your Radio On
Our next archival rediscovery is a typewritten transcript of a radio talk by noted historian Louise Phelps Kellogg, a Senior Research Associate at the Wisconsin Historical Society who took a great interest in the effort to save the Agency House from destruction starting in 1929. In her speech, you’ll “hear” her discuss the fact that Wisconsin had, as of 1931, preserved few of its historic structures and explain why it was important to save the Agency House. One of the listeners who saw the advertisement for her talk was high school teacher Walter English of Wyocena who preserved a copy for his records. Just a few years later, after the restoration of the Agency House, English would serve as one of the museum’s first caretakers, performing that role for more than a decade.
Post #8: Where's That Door?
If you have ever toured the Historic Indian Agency House, you will detect something amiss with this photo. A door is now present where the clock stands in the photograph of the front hall. When the house was restored in 1931-32, it was assumed that this hall was a dead end, leaving the small room behind it accessible only from the dining room. Used as a gift shop during the museum’s early days, the small room was then thought to be the likely location of John Kinzie’s office. What perplexed the home’s auditors was the fact that John’s office could not be accessed from the front door. During the 1960s, this problem was solved with the cutting of a doorway into the end of the front hall. Whether or not this change was driven by physical evidence is uncertain. Whatever the case, nearly everyone who has visited the house in the last half-century has passed through this corridor. The question remains, did the Kinzies?
Post #9: Those Who Couldn't Make It
October 22, 1932, marked a momentous day for the Agency House: the dedication of the site as a museum. Dignitaries of all sorts were invited, but some turned down the invitation. John and Juliette Kinzie’s grandson, G. Arthur Gordon, of Savannah, GA, made up for his inability to attend by sending a letter which was read aloud to the audience gathered at the dedication. But we can’t fault him for not being in attendance. Neither were President and Mrs. Hoover! On May 15, 2021, the Agency House will commemorate another momentous occasion: the commencement of its 90th season as a museum!
May, Part 1
Watch for this post in mid-May