My series on this lovely region is picking up today with a visit to one of my favorite Wisconsin towns. Mineral Point is a beautiful, authentic town; a melding of history, art and the everyday. It is a place that has truly called to my heart and mended my spirit.
Mineral Point is located in southwestern Wisconsin in a region known as the Driftless area. The Driftless is so called because it was bypassed by the glaciers of the last ice age and left a lush, undulating landscape characterized by a topography not commonly found in Midwest America.
I first visited this town just over a year ago at the suggestion of a neighbor, and returned again in mid-September of this year. I was seeking solace and inspiration. I found both and much more. I suppose I expected a place more touristy, more gimmicky, but what I found was a place that felt undeniably real. It is steeped in history, real history, not the brand that has been gussied-up to evoke nostalgia. It is steeped in art, handmade objects offered by those who made them. Mixed in with galleries and antique stores are the callings of the everyday, a hardware store, library and thrift store among others. Mineral Point is not an escape from reality but an offering of many realities coexisting to create a truly authentic experience.
I am deeply captivated by the co-existence of art and history here. In this place history is a beautiful and poignant backdrop for art. Its presence keeps us attuned to the raw and fleeting nature of our existence, it is art that gives that rawness meaning and draws out its beauty.
A Mineral Point guidebook describes the early history of the community in this way:
“Mineral Point began, in 1828, with mining. In search of lead, miners pushed their way north from Galena; when they found ore, they dug, hunkering down in crude shelters carved into the hillsides. An early wit called them badger holes, and so was born Wisconsin’s nickname: the Badger State…
In 1971, Mineral Point was the first Wisconsin city to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Recently, The National Trust for Historic Preservation honored the town as one of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations, it was the People’s Choice for best small town in Wisconsin for a historic getaway and the most beautiful small town in Wisconsin and Wisconsin Trails named it the best History Town in the state.”
There is much to be discovered in this community and I have yet to experience all that it has to offer. Each time I visit my list of places not to miss grows longer. Here are a few!
De La Pear,12 Fountain Street; Johnston Gallery, 245 High Street; Howdle Studios, Inc.,225 Commerce Street Brewery Creek Brewpub, 23 Commerce Street
Pendarvis and Merry Christmas Mine Hill Historic Sites
114 Shake Rag Street
In 1935 Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum began a preservation project that became a Wisconsin historic site and is now operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society. The site is a beautiful collection of buildings that date to the earliest settlement of the community.
The collection can be experienced via a tour led by a costumed interpreter or by self-guided tour with a detailed brochure. Perhaps because I am an introvert I have a tendency to choose self-guided options when they are available. I like to roam at my own pace, with my own thoughts. And that is how I experienced Pendarvis. Visitors are welcomed through a series of buildings that house interpretive materials describing both the history of the community and buildings and their preservation by Neal and Hellum; who are credited with initiating what has become a legacy of preservation in Mineral Point. This is a beautiful move at your own pace collection that invites reflection and pause.
Across Shake Rag Street is another gem, the Merry Christmas Mine Hill trail. It is the site of a 1905 zinc discovery made during the Christmas season.
This mile long trail consists of two loops that wind visitors up a modest mountain that captures picturesque views of the surrounding landscape. It is an interpretive trail marked by signage and artifacts that tell the story of the mine hill's history. It is a moderate hike not to be missed.
76 Shake Rag Street
This is the quintessential artist residence and studio. Housed in a massive 1850 brewery building, this mutual space is alive with the creative spirit. A beautiful gallery showcasing the work of dozens of artists is complemented by a working pottery studio. This place is old and new; beauty and decay at once, history and art intertwining.
I spent nearly an hour here in mid-September taking in the collection and having the privilege of talking at length with artist and co-gallery owner Tom Johnston. Yes, even though I prefer self-guided tours I savor the personal stories of creative people, the sharing their work and interests. This gallery is one of the treasured experiences to be had in Mineral Point
Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts
18 Shake Rag Street
Such a unique and welcoming place, Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts is another pure example of history and art melding into one another. A place that elicits exhale.
My treasured retreat, the Stagecoach House at Shake Rag Alley. This mid-nineteenth century stagecoach stop now serves as the offices for the arts center campus and offers three private, guest rooms upstairs. Retreat is all I can say. I have to save the rest for next weeks post...
The Foundry Books
105 Commerce Street
Heaven for the casual browser and the academic alike. The foundry offers a well recognized collection of out of print books, books on the history of Wisconsin and the upper Midwest, and an extensive collection of early regional maps.
This lovely shop is also an invitation to pause, the essence of what I have found Mineral Point to be; a true invitation to move at your own pace, to make personal discovery while exploring an eclectic environment.
As I write, reflecting on my experience in this unique town, authentic is the word I keep coming back to. Authentic in how it exists and authenticity is what it invites from visitors. The opportunity to meld into yourself. To be your own art despite your history.
The discovery of a place that helps you discover yourself is a true gift. I would recommend one travel any distance to experience this place.