Browsing the Archives
Dust off the Agency House archives with us! Explore curiosities from old scrapbooks, fascinating documents, and more.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
A Home's Essentials
Wells and Outhouses. No 19th century home was without this pair of necessities. While the home’s last owner, Mayor Edmund Baker, indicated that the original well shaft was a few hundred feet away, a brick-lined well is sunk just off the side of the Agency House porch, opposite a cistern of an earlier date. It may also interest some to know that the Kinzies had a six-foot by eight-foot outhouse. The superstructures of both of these utilities have gone the way of all the Agency’s outbuildings, which leaves us with the question of how they were arranged. In the opening years of this century, plans were drawn up for a potential recreation of these structures. With nothing more than outer dimensions to go on, period research and interpretation filled in the details. Enjoy this unusual “Rediscovery” from the archives.
Old Houses and Unusual Finds
Sometimes unusual things turn up during the restoration of old homes, such as this unique rediscovery. This bottle was presented to the NSCDA-WI collection by restoration architect Frank Riley in 1932. Although it is dated too late for the Agency House's display collection, the museum eagerly accepted it. Why? The bottle was found INSIDE the wall of the home during the restoration! Apparently left by one of the home's early remodelers, the whiskey flask dates to the Agency House's era as a tavern.
A Reputable Report
In 1941, when the Agency House had been a museum for only a decade, the museum's garden committee sought to persuade the Wisconsin Conservation Commission to establish the museum estate as a wildlife refuge. To build their case, the planners contacted conservation legend Aldo Leopold to review the site. Leopold found that the site was not well-suited for a mammal or bird sanctuary. However, he discovered a myriad of native prairie plant species—rare survivors from the day of the Kinzies when Portage was positioned on the northern edge of a prairie ecosystem covering much of southern Wisconsin. While hopes of a wildlife refuge were stymied, Leopold's optimistic report on the site's prairie potential set the stage for ongoing efforts to steward this valuable remnant of the early days. Enjoy Aldo Leopold's July 31, 1942 report from the HIAH archives.
For further reading: The winter 2020 issue of the Wisconsin Magazine of History featured an article titled, "Reading the Landscape: Aldo Leopold's Use of History," in which a further aspect of Leopold's connection with the Agency House property is discussed. Read the full article here.
That Infamous Old Davis
Throughout our existence as a historic site, it has been rumored that our museum owns a “Davis” (one of the elaborate bureaus described by Juliette Kinzie as having been built by Jefferson Davis to furnish the Kinzies’ quarters at Fort Winnebago). At times, some purported that the “Davis” was actually a sideboard rather than a bureau, while others alleged that a "Davis" had been installed in the Agency House by Davis, himself, (even though the house was built after Davis left Fort Winnebago). While it is surely not a “Davis,” the furnishing that has largely been at the center of the debate is the Collins Sideboard which was offered to the collection during the early 1930s restoration of the home. In 1898, it was first mentioned that Portage’s Collins family owned Juliette’s original sideboard. The Collinses donated the piece to the Agency House, and this week’s “rediscovery” is subsequent correspondence with the family about the furnishing. Whether or not Juliette ever owned this specific sideboard, it has had an interesting sojourn nonetheless.
A New Appearance
The architect who stepped forward in 1931 to volunteer his services in restoring the Agency House was Frank M. Riley, who has been described as the most important architect to practice in Madison in the first quarter of the 20th century. Riley prided himself on his attention to detail and worked to make the house look as new as it had in 1832. As the house took shape and began to shed the mystical feel of an abandoned structure, Riley’s May 5, 1931, telegram illustrates that some changes — such as a shortening of the roofline — were met with mixed reactions. Regardless of the recipient’s apprehensions about the “new appearance,” in the end, Riley's words of reassurance must have proven acceptable, for the home did not change substantially from 1932 until the discovery of new evidence at the turn of the 21st century.
More Than Meets the Eye
This week’s “rediscovery” is a photograph with a lot to say. Taken in 1931, the Agency House was still in a state of disrepair, although it was quickly taking shape. The loose, warped siding visible in pre-restoration pictures had now been straightened on the side of the home visible in the picture. This is the side which featured the largest number of original clapboards. Moving back to the kitchen roof, a crude scaffold can be seen extending off the side of the picture. During the home’s lifespan, the structure’s two chimney stacks were narrowed and moved. The scaffolding bears testimony to architect Frank Riley’s reconstruction of the chimneys so they approached their original dimensions. The building in the foreground is another peculiarity in this photograph. From records, it appears that this structure was dismantled so that its large wooden beams could be utilized in building a caretaker’s cottage on-site. As one of the farm-era buildings, little significance was placed on it. Last, but not least, the photographer’s car is parked in the gravel drive alongside the Agency House. It is a brand new Model A Ford which likely brought its passenger halfway across the state from Milwaukee.
Vision and Enthusiasm Outlive Historical Blunders
Our next "rediscovery” is a newspaper clipping pasted into one of the Agency House's 1930s scrapbooks. Announcing the momentous October, 1930, decision of the NSCDA-WI to bolster the faltering initiative to save the Agency House, the article gives a feel for the excitement over the project which lay ahead. While the Agency House was not built in 1830, nor did it serve as a fur trading post as the article mistakenly indicates, the historical blunders in the midst of the pre-restoration excitement are overshadowed by the NSCDA-WI's commitment to historic preservation forged on the day the 91-year-old newspaper article commemorates.
Looking Good, But Not Yet Done
Did you know that the Agency House unofficially opened for a season in 1931, prior to the official dedication of the completed home in October, 1932? As architect Frank Riley peeled away the layers of time on the Agency House over the course of the spring of 1931, the underlying structure which was revealed piqued his architectural fascination. He and NSCDA-WI president Bertha Holbrook decided to halt work for the summer and allow all those who had supported the home’s rescue the opportunity to see the inner workings of the structure. This week’s “Rediscovery” depicts a Flag Day gathering at the house on June 13, 1931. Note that the front of the home is only half painted. Inside, much of the hand-split lath was left un-plastered to allow it—and the home’s other unique architectural elements—to be seen by the summer’s curious visitors.
Historic American Building Survey
In 1933, the Indian Agency House was included in the Historic American Building Survey: a Depression-era New Deal program which produced architectural drawings of the Nation’s historic buildings. The Agency House’s drawings may be found here. This week’s “Rediscovery” is a set of photographs of the abandoned William T. Bonniwell House in the area of Mequon, Wisconsin. Built in the late 1830s, this home—which for a while served as a meeting place for the Washington County board of commissioners—was also surveyed by HABS, but unlike the Agency House, the Bonniwell House would not survive many years longer. Why do the photos appear in HIAH’s restoration scrapbook? We don’t know for sure. Perhaps it was to provide comparisons with the Agency House’s architecture. Maybe the photos were taken in preparation for a future restoration project which never materialized. Whatever the case, enjoy these intriguing photos of a long-since destroyed site which shared HIAH’s distinction on the Historic American Building Survey. It is also a reminder of how fortunate we are that a dedicated group of people in the early 20th century noted the value of the Agency House and worked tirelessly to rescue, restore, and preserve this important piece of history for the benefit of future generations. You can read the fascinating account of how this was accomplished in the appendix of our 2021 Historic Preservation Edition of Wau-Bun: The Early Day in the Northwest.
She's a Celebrity in Our Book
Ann (Roberts) Kemnitz visited the Historic Indian Agency House on September 30, 2021, but this was no ordinary visit. It was a homecoming of sorts. Ann was 4 years old when her father was hired to assist architect Frank Riley in the restoration of the 1832 house. It was a walk down memory lane, 90 years in the making. She was here at our grand opening in 1931 (her name is in our guest book), and she returned during our 90th season as a museum. That's really something!
Change Over Time
These four photographs all share a place in the Agency House’s archive, yet they illustrate distinct phases in the home’s preservation story. The alterations which have been made over the past 90 years reflect discoveries through research, as well as changing ideas about preservation. From the pre-restoration photo to the 1933 photograph, you will see a change in the home’s roofline which was made to bring the home more in line with the prevailing architectural style of the home, as well as the addition of a side porch which evidence indicated had originally been present. From 1933 to the turn of the century, not much changed on the exterior, but in the first years of the new century, the home was painted brown. Why? Evidence had been discovered indicating that the house had at some time in its past been painted brown. Fast forward to 2012. The roof was again extended as seen in pre-restoration photos and the home was re-painted white. The former was done to reflect the early photographs of the home, reversing the 1930s decision that the roofline should reflect a pure Federal architectural design. The latter was done because the Agency House was associated with Fort Winnebago, and new research revealed the military’s practice of painting such structures white. These are just a few examples of some unique changes which occurred over the home’s existence as a museum in response to ongoing research and emerging theories about how the buildings of the past should be remembered and presented.
On the Boardwalk
Did you know that early visitors to the museum had the unique opportunity to watch the Portage Canal’s Fort Winnebago lock in action? This photograph, taken in approximately 1931, provides an artistic view of the lock. The Agency House is just out of view on the right side of the photograph. The banks of the canal were kept immaculately landscaped by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Portage’s seasoned residents can still recall the day when the last boat traversed the historic canal prior to its closure in 1951. As a visitor today, you can still view the remains of the Fort Winnebago lock along the pedestrian bridge at the end of Agency House Road.
A Book of Remembrance
While the Agency House was being restored in 1931-32, the prospect of furnishing the completed home faced the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Wisconsin. At the time, the NSCDA-WI hoped to furnish the home as a memorial to the state’s early pioneers, so they put out the call for donations of furniture and belongings passed down from the region’s pioneering generation. The response was impressive. Within the space of a year, the home was sufficiently furnished to be pronounced livable, with an additional room (now interpreted as the servant’s room) reserved for those pioneering artifacts which were significant, although not correct for the time period. To recognize the contributions of the “sons of the pioneers” to the new museum, a ledger called The Book of Remembrance was compiled. Highlighting the ancestral heritage of donors of artifacts and finances alike, the entries spanned two volumes and more than two decades of community support. Volume I, shown here, records the gifts received in the museum’s early days, such as a kettle associated with Ft. Winnebago's Captain William Weir (Civil War veteran, Co. C, 33rd Wis. Inf., 1819-1877).
Wrong Turn at Alexandria
During the 1960s and early 1970s, the Agency House’s artifact collection went through a major refinement to ensure that all furnishings were from the time of the Kinzies. Artifacts ranging from Victorian couches to mid-century dishware found homes at more appropriate museums such as the Kilbourntown House in Shorewood, Old World Wisconsin in Eagle, and Hawks Inn in Delafield. New items were acquired in their stead which more closely matched the period of the house. Perhaps the most unusual item discovered in this refinement process was identified in this September 12, 1974, letter. “How on earth did the Agency House get these two bottles?” queried the astonished curator at the Corning Museum of Glass who had been commissioned to examine glassware in the collection. Somewhere along the line, two ancient 7th-9th century Egyptian Kohl flasks had made their way into the site’s collection. Regardless of how they were acquired, this archival “Rediscovery” aptly illustrates the occasional surprises when a site curates a period collection.
As a special treat, we have fully digitized one of our three 90 year-old scrapbooks commemorating the site’s preservation for your perusing pleasure. Filled with photographs, memorabilia, and newspaper clippings, you may even recognize a couple pages from earlier “Rediscoveries." For further stories, photos, and more about the Agency House’s restoration and preservation, check out the addendum in our 2021 Historic Preservation Edition of Juliette Kinzie’s memoir, Wau-Bun!