Courageous battles seem to be a cliché in the media today. I’m not saying people don’t struggle, many overcoming, or succumbing to, horrible ordeals, and I don’t mean to demean those stories as exaggerations of ones fortitude. As I give this some thought, everyone one has had strife to endure in their life. Some battles are more profound, or maybe simply more public, than others. I just feel that, these days, the media outlets salivate over the next cancer survivor or harassed transgendered individual.
In museums, places you know I love if you’re a frequent reader of my blog, there are many examples of toil and struggle. It seems examples of life’s hardships are everywhere. Yet, a few days ago, I sat in an old root cellar and contemplated the words courage and brave, as I vividly sensed what those men and women, who used the cellar for safe passage, must have felt.
It was there, amongst pioneer period artifacts, that I realized I’m not as benevolent as I would like to believe. I doubt I would have had the resolve, the courage, the ingenuity or planning to have pulled off what Joseph Goodrich achieved. Spurred by a religious belief, borne from the Seven Day Baptist faith, he helped many attain their freedom. I’m not going to say he gave them their freedom, everyone he helped fought equally hard and were genuinely brave for chasing that dream. However, Joseph Goodrich, blessed with both hearty morals and sound business sense, provided a path of hope for those souls brave enough to follow it.
I’ll write a short background, before recalling my tour. Like I mentioned, Joseph Goodrich was a Seven Day Baptist, arriving in Milton before Wisconsin reached statehood. The Seven Day Baptist faith is a very strict religion, frowning upon Alcohol, Tobacco and, most importantly to my visit, slavery. As a matter of fact, Seven Day Baptists were abolitionists before it was a popular movement in the Northern States.
Also important to note, while Wisconsin was not a slave state, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 prohibited the aide of runaway slaves. This was enforced with severe financial penalties, and Jail time. Not to mention, slaves were often maimed, or worse, when returned to their masters.
Today I visit a structure that ignored those laws, putting a higher value on God’s will and Freedom.
When I begin the tour, It has nothing to do with the underground railroad. Instead, there is another plight for freedom and the American dream being aided. I stand in a lobby, where many pioneers chasing a fresh start at life, once stood in search of a comfortable bed. The building’s shape and material is of great interest, being that of a hexagon and constructed of limestone mortar, said to be the first in the country of such material.
I delight at an authentic registry book as signatures with great penmanship, despite the use of a quill, gives a glimpse at the men and women who spent the night. We climb the winding staircase that adheres to the six walls of the building.
As we reach the top, we find small rooms that would have provided much needed rest. The building does have a sense of classiness. It was definitely not designed for the well to do, yet, not a crude rudimentary boarding house either. There is a dignified and refined aura that anyone traveling by wagon, and later by train, would have felt.
Attached to the hexagonal hotel is what the tour guides call a ‘frontier strip mall’. Businesses enjoyed prominence in the city of Milton inside this rectangular building. Today, the museum lobby and an old ‘General Store’ among a few other things are housed in the structure, which was refaced due to a fault with the limestone mortar.
Set apart from these structures are old cabins, which Joseph Goodrich and his family once lived in before the newer buildings were built. That becomes important later.
We approach the civil war portion of the tour. Here, in an upstairs room, we learn of the city of Milton’s involvement in the war. What I find cool, besides the rifles and a bugle from the period, is a photo of the survivors of the conflict. Every single man in the photo told of life foreign, yet, somehow familiar to my upbringing. Their well manicured mustache’s and Union Uniforms seem evidence of a past that my Grandparents brought to life, by tales of their own Grandparents.
We descend into the root cellar, where folding chairs wait a sober audience. The disparity of the rooms of the hotel and the grit of the cellar are glaring. Here, the evidence of Joseph Goodrich’s involvement in the under ground railroad is on display. We are shown a written account of a freed slave talking of the Milton House as a safe haven. However, the coolest evidence is waiting just around a corner.
Before I get to that, I’d like to explain the route that is believed these slaves followed. It is believed they were from the Western part of the south, coming from states like Arkansas. They followed the Mississippi River, branching off to the rock river, and then cut across southern Wisconsin. They reached the shore of lake Michigan, in Racine, and were ferried to Canada. There is written account of about 100 slaves gaining freedom from the boat in Lake Michigan.
The coolest part of the tour is the underground tunnel, which brought the slaves from a log cabin to the root cellar. The tunnel can’t be more than two feet wide, but is quite tall. When we arrive at the cabin, which now is graced with a staircase instead of the original hole in the floor, I’m stunned at how authentic and well preserved the structure is. I imagine being on the run, hurried into the most simplistic of log cabins, dropped into a tunnel and hiding in a root cellar, which was directly under the hotel dining table.
I’ve never experienced a museum quite like this. It’s pioneer hotel meets local history and first and foremost, an authentically preserved piece of the underground railroad.
This place brings to light the most turbulent time of the United States past, giving credit to some of its heroes.
I apologize for no photos of the tour. It was requested that I didn’t take any, of course I obliged.
Unfortunately the museum hours are rather minimal. 10-4 Monday-thursday