Best of the Best: “The Best Historic Town in Wisconsin”

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Cathy Best

Cathy Best

By Cathy Best

We have arrived. Mineral Point, Wisconsin is a charming town of about 2,500. A visit here will treat you to an interesting history as to how, and why, the area was settled, historic architecture, daily historic home tours, great restaurants, a thriving art community, galleries, studios, antiques, a craft brewery, opera house, historic lodging, and nice people. We found the area to have many of the same drawing cards as Madison.

Established in 1827, Mineral Point is one of the oldest communities in the state. [Areas of the state, known as “driftless,” were left untouched by glaciers, leaving minerals easily accessible at the surface. Lead deposits provided quick rewards to early prospectors and adventurers who swarmed the hills and lived in crude shelters resembling badger holes. Wisconsin would later adopt The Badger State as its nickname. In the 1830s, news of these rich lead deposits, in the Mineral Point area, reached Cornwall, England. Hoping to reap the benefits of easy mining, Cornish miners, and their families, left their homeland to begin again in Mineral Point. Early immigrants possessed advanced mining skills as well as expertise in stone building construction. Their legacy is reflected in a remarkable inventory of mid-19th century architecture.]

Richard and I were fascinated by the historic, residential, and commercial, limestone structures. In the mid-1930s, way before historic preservation was on the national radar, Robert Neal and Edgar Hellum bought a decaying stone cottage in the Shake Rag area of Mineral, Point. What began as the preservation of a cottage became Pendarvis State Historical Site. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the site has a collection of Neal and Hellum’s restored Cornish miners’ cabins, mining tools and antiques. The structures and acreage were acquired by the state Historical Society at the time of Neal and Hellum’s retirement in 1970. Closed since 1970, the small Pendarvis House Restaurant, located downstairs in the original restored cottage, which was home to Neal and Hellum, operated for 35 years. At one time, the restaurant was internationally known and listed as one of the top seven restaurants in the United States. Pendarvis State Historical Site is opened seasonally for self-guided tours.

At Pendarvis Visitor Center you can pick up a trail map to Merry Christmas Mine Hill. “The hill preserves vestiges of both lead and zinc mining, as well as 43 acres of restored prairie. The prairie is thriving, once again, with indigenous grasses and flowering plants. Marked trails traverse the mine property and the adjoining prairie, and provide lovely vistas recalling the frontier landscape that greeted the first settlers.”

In town, you can walk the trails through Don Hawkins Community Oak Savanna. A local company is three years into a five-year employee team project, restoring the savanna on a five-acre site, adjacent to the local elementary school. “Oak savannas refer to plant communities with ‘open-grown’ oaks that were historically part of larger areas of vegetation bordering prairies in Western North America.” Today, oak savannas are in danger of extinction. Thanks to Don Hawkins’ inspiration, and the local company’s initiative the savanna is a jewel in the crown of community service.

We lodged in the historic 1836 Miner’s Cottage. The cottage is owned by the state and rented to Brewery Creek Inn. The Inn has five guest rooms and two historic cottages, as well as an award-winning brewery. Adjacent to our cottage, we stumbled on Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts. The center is a series of historic cottages along a garden alley, off Shake Rag Street, where, during the summer season, you can participate in classes for the visual arts. The Alley Stage, a nationally recognized theater company, is located up the hill behind the Miner’s cottage. The outdoor venue hosts a summer season of theater, readings and music. While visiting, Richard and I sat out under the stars at Alley Stage and enjoyed the music of The Mascot Theory.

Weather threating, we headed home way before we had exhausted all there is to do and see in Mineral Point. We missed shopping in many of the galleries, pottery studios and antique stores. The ones we strolled through are worth a return visit. We saved the historic Opera House, host to the annual Driftless Film Festival, and the restored train depot, for our next visit. I’d love to return the third weekend in October to attend the annual Fall Art Tour. As you can tell, I’m smitten with Mineral Point, Wisconsin. Like the Cornish– we just scratched the surface.

You’ll find this sweet spot about 50 miles southwest of Madison, WI, the state’s capital, and about 132 miles southwest of Milwaukee. There are daily flights from Atlanta to both cities. I have to say, Mineral Point warrants the 2011 distinction as “Best Town in Wisconsin,” and the recently bestowed title, from Wisconsin Trails magazine, “The Best Historic Town in Wisconsin.”

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