Mineral Point is tucked in the rolling hills of Southwest Wisconsin in the area described as driftless. Left untouched by the glaciers, minerals at the surface of the land could be readily located and extracted. The discovery of lead in the early nineteenth century gave rise to the first mineral rush in the United States and Mineral Point grew to be the largest, most important settlement in the area.
In 1830 Mineral Point had a population greater than that of Milwaukee and Chicago combined. The Territory of Wisconsin came into being with the inauguration of Henry Dodge as the first governor on July 4, 1836 in Mineral Point. (The same year Texas gained independence from Mexico.) Those heady days of yesteryear are long past, and today the city has a population of about 2,500.
Some of the 19th century Cornish miners' stone houses have been restored at a historical site known as Pendarvis. In the 1960s artists, craftspeople and preservationists began restoration of more historic buildings. In 1971, Mineral Point became the first city in Wisconsin listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Before building those stone houses, many of the original miners dug shelters into the sides of hills near the mines. The appearance of these dens earned the miners the nickname of badgers. Wisconsin is the Badger State because of the miners, not because of the feisty and omnivorous Mustelidae.
Although we had dropped by Pendarvis before and looked into the Visitors Center, we had not done the full tour. Today we did that and it was quite intriguing. Pendarvis, as now configured, is the result of the efforts of two guys to restore some of the old homes. Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum "began [their] life together here" by purchasing two small houses in the 1920s, turning them into a renowned restaurant and antique shop. As time went by, they bought other nearby buildings and restored them. They apparently envisioned a restored 19th century Cornish village, an idea that never came to fruition. Their efforts were not wasted, however, and in 1970 they transferred the half dozen buildings to the care of the Wisconsin Historical Society. The Society then purchased some adjacent property that included an old mine site, installed exhibits and opened the site to the public. The restoration work begun by Bob and Edgar was taken up by others in Mineral Point, as mentioned above, and the downtown area features a number of historic buildings now put to varied uses.
For an interesting take on Neal and Hellum's gay identity, read this Chicago Tribune article.Today Mineral Point is worth a visit because of all the artists who work and sell their creations, often in shops housed in restored historic buildings. The last time we were there, Tom got into a long conversation with Frank Polizzi at Mulberry Pottery and bought a small piece of his work. It sits on the window ledge in our living room, filled with turkey feathers Tom picked up during his wanderings on the property on Berry Road. Today Tom got into a conversation with one of the shop owners about the tension between attracting customers and maintaining the spirit of the old town.
We bought no fine art, but Tom bought me a baseball cap with a beautiful red Welsh dragon on it, a belated birthday present. We had Cornish pasties for lunch at the Red Rooster Cafe. (Think empanada filled with potatoes, rutabagas and ground beef.) The pasty ("Rhymes with nasty, but it's a tasty pastry") is the specialty of the house, but they also feature figgy hobbin. This Cornish treat is a plain pastry cooked with nuts, raisins and honey. They top it with a crumble and pour cream over it. The staff wear bright red tee shirts proclaiming, "There's Always Room for Figgy Hobbin." We didn't give it a try, but I got one of the shirts for myself. I figure it will be a conversation starter, if nothing else. Our waiter insisted I memorize the list of ingredients so that I could answer people who ask me what it is.