The Muskego Manifesto

August 24, 2011

Campaigning in Iowa a few weeks back, presidential candidate Michele Bachmann made reference to the “Muskego Manifesto” and its impact on her ancestors’ decision to migrate to the United States. Be that as it may, since it was a “manifesto” the Muskego document must be a weighty declaration on some matter of great import, right?

It certainly was important to the eighty men who signed it. They were Norwegian immigrants, among the first Norse to settle in Wisconsin. They had followed the age old immigrant pattern of following those who had come before and settled in the vicinity of what became the Waukesha county village of Muskego.

The first Norse settled at Muskego in 1839. Many others followed, and Muskego became a sort of Plymouth Colony for Wisconsin Norwegians. If you could say you stopped in Muskego before moving on to found or join one of the many other Norwegian communities in southern Wisconsin, you could say “I was among the first.”

There were plenty of reasons for immigrants not to stay in 1840’s Muskego. The name derives from the Potawatomi term for—pick one—swamp, bog or mosquito. The cold, the damp, the insects, and the fact that it was a transit stop with a steady tide of migrants bearing who knows what fevers, agues and ills, Muskego experienced more than one “season of sorrow.”  .

Letters went home to Norway, “filled with foreboding and discouragement,” along with “thoughtless rumors, accompanied in cases by curses and expressions of contempt for America…”

By the autumn of 1844, the Norwegian residents who planned to stay in Muskego and had been graciously hosting the transients, decided to tell the homefolks their version of the story. They mailed the “manifesto” as an “open letter” to newspapers in Norway and it was first published in Oslo in April, 1845.

The first Norwegian Lutheran Church in the United States, Muskego, in its latter years. (Wisconsin Historical Society)

Yes, it said, they had had a hard winter or two in Wisconsin, and yes they had had to beg family and friends back home to send kroner so they could build the first Norwegian Lutheran church in the United States, but “we have no reason to regret the decision that brought us to this country.”

“We have no expectation of gaining riches; but we live under a liberal government in a fruitful land, where freedom and equality are the rule in religious as in civil matters, and where each one of us it at liberty to earn his living practically as he chooses.”

It was a classic statement of the immigrant’s idyllic vision of America. For the majority of Norwegians, and other newcomers from Europe, it became real.

One of them was Hans Christian Heg. Born in Norway in 1829, he came to Muskego with his parents in 1840.  He grew up to be an abolitionist who helped organize the Republican Party in Wisconsin and, when the Civil War began, Heg was commissioned Colonel of the 15th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment.

He made it the “Scandinavian Regiment,” by touring the Norwegian, Swedish and Danish settlements throughout the state and declaring:

Hans Christian Heg (Wisconsin Historical Society)

“Scandinavians! Let us understand the situation, our duty and our responsibility. Shall the future ask, where were the Scandinavians when the Fatherland was saved?”

The Fatherland to be saved was not across the Atlantic. It was the United States. The people Heg called to save it were not Scandinavians. They were Americans.

The 15th Wisconsin saw plenty of gun fire and bloodshed, chiefly in Tennessee and Georgia. Promoted to brigadier general, Heg led his troops into battle at Chickamauga in September, 1863.  He was shot in the abdomen and died one day later in an army field hospital.

A statue was erected in his honor on the Capitol Square in Madison. His body was buried in the cemetery of the Lutheran Church in the Town of Norway, near Muskego.

He believed in the high ideals of the Manifesto, lived and died to extend its vision to all Americans.

–Michael Goc


Hixon House, La Crosse, Wisconsin

August 19, 2011

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Gideon Cooley Hixon (1826-1892) accumulated a fortune in lumber, finance, and business, and this nineteenth-century baron utilized the very best of the La Crosse, Wisconsin area’s wood for his own home. The Hixon House reflects Hixon’s contemporary preferences while providing a peek back in time at an authentic Victorian existence.

Hixon House

Begun in 1859, the Italianate house features gorgeous woodwork, opulent interior decoration, and an abundance of local wood – including a walnut entry, oak and birch parlor, and stunning cherry dining room – at a time when the sawmill was king. Gideon’s wife, Ellen, lovingly adorned the Hixon House in the Aesthetic fashion. There is a pervasive Oriental and Arabic influence in the house décor, which includes a teak ivory desk imported from China and parquet flooring.

The Turkish Nook room features a gold-gilt ceiling nook lined with anaglypta, a thick, embossed paper, covered in aluminum leaf and coated with a layer of amber-tinted varnish.

For the Hixon House restoration of 2005, the Turkish Nook’s surface was cleaned and repaired. Portieres were reproduced for the doorways leading into the nook. The kilm carpets that cover the banquette were cleaned and repaired. The Turkish Nook also includes a harem screen, a portable wall used to keep women from entering or peeking into the men’s private area.

Hixon House, La Crosse, Wisconsin

The dining room of the Hixon House features a wall covering of leaves that was likely painted by interior designer Joseph Twyman’s daughter in 1900-01; the chandelier is made of red pebbled glass.

The Hixon House is filled with dim, masculine colors and leather, which would have been appropriate to the turn of the twentieth century. The folio in the library room is stacked with sumptuous books, including rare sets describing east coast American architecture and foreign antique collections.Over the marble fireplace is a photo of Gideon Hixon.

The Gideon Hixon home stayed in the family until it was donated to La Crosse in 1962. “When the Hixons turned the house over to the historical society,” said Dan Moen of Moen Preservation, owner of the Artisan Preservation, the company which restored the Hixon House (interview with author June 2010). “the house had been intact and unchanged for at least 40 years.”

Hixon House, Wisconsin

Today, it stands a National Landmark Historical site, an excellent example of true Victorian architecture and “original” Victorian furnishings and clothing.

“About 90% of the furnishings in the house are original,” says Moen. “This is a really big deal because it shows that this house has not changed much since the turn of the twentieth century. Honestly, the same elements are in existence, and everything is here. From its inception, the house museum has adhered to the guidelines for historical preservation, and (the house) maintains that strong sense of antiquity and preservation.”

The two-year-long, $1.844 million restoration Moen performed from 2003-2005 included cleaning and rebuffing light fixtures, replacing old and faded carpets with exact reproductions, and reupholstering and reproducing different fabrics. He was especially careful not to undermine the structure’s evocative nature or the aesthetic wholeness of its history.

“Dark corridors remain dark corridors,” says Moen. “I believe that historical sites like this one should exude the feel and idea of total immersion. Here, you are on a little journey.”

The Shape of a Place

August 11, 2011

I’ve only seen it in pictures, but lately the Ashland skyline has captured my imagination. Perched on Lake Superior’s shore since 1916, the Ashland ore dock dominates the silhouette of the small northern Wisconsin city. And from what both residents and travelers tell me, this dock inspires awe. It stands 80 feet tall and stretches 1,800 feet–or about a third of a mile–into the lake.

Ashland native Michael Sullivan submitted the photo of the ore dock that appeared on Portal Wisconsin’s homepage last week (also seen above). He writes: “I grew up in Ashland and the oredock has always been a symbol of home–whether coming from the east or the west into Ashland, you knew you were home when you saw the oredock. As kids, we used to ride our bikes out to the end and there would always be people fishing from it. It’s one of the last remnants, I believe, of what Ashland was at one time.”

By all accounts, Ashlanders love their ore dock. Just last year, mural artists Sue Martinsen and Kelly Meredith paid it tribute in paint, when they completed a life-sized ore dock mural in downtown Ashland as part of the city’s historic Mural Walk. (The mural “truly is as long as the ore dock is long, and as high,” Sue tells me.) The City Council proclaimed it a local landmark in 2002.  Even the public school sports teams are called the Oredockers.

The ore dock remains as a monument to the area’s maritime culture, but not for long. Once used to load ore boats destined for eastern steel mills,  it hasn’t been employed for shipping purposes since the 1960s.  Now the ore dock’s fate rests in the hands of current owner Canadian National Railway, which has plans to dismantle it. Repairing the disintegrating structure would be too costly, the company says, and they have public liability concerns. A couple of years ago, a pair of endangered peregrine falcons nested on the ore dock and thwarted demolition for a while. Then the city raised water quality and right-of-way issues, stalling the process further. But with permitting issues resolved just this month, demolition could begin soon.

What happens to a community when its shape–perhaps its very identity–is so distinctly altered? It’s a fascinating and complicated story, one I’ll continue to follow.

–Tammy Kempfert