David Michael Miller
Sometimes procrastination gets rewarded. That's how my wife and I discovered Mineral Point.
Each summer, about the time of our wedding anniversary, we book a weekend of plays at American Players Theatre in Spring Green. The play tickets we buy early (thanks to the early-bird discount), but somehow we never get around to reserving a place to stay until much later. By then there's no room at any of Spring Green's inns.
Yet my tardiness has paid off in helping us discover some lovely bed-and-breakfast locations in places like Plain and Reedsburg. Last summer, it took us to the Mineral Point Hotel - and changed our summer plans forever.
Located 30 miles south of Spring Green and 50 miles west-southwest of Madison, Mineral Point has managed to simultaneously evolve into a vibrant travel destination while remaining largely unspoiled. It may still be among Wisconsin's best-kept secrets. The town's rich cultural heritage can be seen in the old stone buildings that march up the community's steel hillsides like the miners with tools and shovels who trudged out each day to dig the granite and rock from the hillsides that drew the first English settlers here more than a century and a half ago.
The community is in the heart of southwest Wisconsin's "Driftless Area," so called because it was left untouched by the glaciers of the last Ice Age that slid over much of the rest of the state.
"People in the Driftless Area are different than people anywhere else in the world," says Gayle Bull, who buys and sells antiquarian and out-of-print literature at the Foundry Books on Commerce Street. "We are fiercely independent, we are fiercely opinionated - but not all in the same way - and we believe in things."
Bull and her husband fell in love with Mineral Point when they first visited in 1963, not long after he joined the faculty at UW-Platteville. They vowed to retire to the community and, in anticipation of that eventuality, opened the bookstore in 1976, operating on weekends only. ("I only buy books for the shop that I want to read," she warns.) They followed through on the retirement promise seven years ago; Bull's husband died two years later.
"Kids grow up in this area and they can't wait to get out," Bull says. "But once they're out, they can't wait to get back."
Her son is a case in point, having lived in Sicily, Washington, D.C., New York, Minnesota and Texas before getting squeezed out of his corporate job midway through earning an MBA. He got a master's degree in education and now teaches industrial technology in the Potosi public high school.
In the 1830s, immigrants from Cornwall settled what became Mineral Point to join the lead-mining boom that swept the region before giving way to even more prosperous zinc mining. Their history is traced at Pendarvis, the collection of historic stone buildings on Shake Rag Street, just northeast of the city's downtown. The dwellings are a few of those that remain of the homes and shops built by the Cornish in the manner of the buildings they left behind in southwestern England.
Restored by Robert Neal and Edgar Hellum starting in the Great Depression, Pendarvis is now run by the Wisconsin Historical Society as an interpretive site to tell the history and culture of the miners of lead and later zinc in the region.
Over the last four decades the community has quietly become an artist's haven. Ceramics artist Bruce Howdle, who grew up on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin and later earned his master of fine arts degree in Arizona, came back to Mineral Point in 1976. He set up a studio in one of those old buildings owned by a friend and built a clientele for his work. Later he bought an 1830s-era structure for just $7,000, restoring it to the condition it was in from a photograph dating to the 1890s.
The stone architecture didn't just set Mineral Point apart aesthetically - it helped prevent the scourge of fire that sooner or later swept cities from Chicago to Milwaukee to Galena, Ill. "The city never, ever burned," Howdle points out. "There were fires, but they were contained. So when you look up the street, you see buildings from 1830 and upward. The continuity that survived in the architecture is unlike anywhere else."
A range of other artists have also gravitated to the community, and galleries selling pottery, paintings, traditional and avant-garde works can offer an afternoon or more of perambulating art grazing. In 2004 a group of them started Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts, growing it from an after-school program for kids and weekend workshops into a year-round center for teaching the arts of all kinds to children and adults.
The center is managed by Courtney Henson, who came to work there shortly after moving to Madison from St. Louis to be closer to her boyfriend. "I was blown away by the art and the culture - both historical and all the fine characters who live and work in Mineral Point," Henson says.
Our weekend stay last summer was not, in fact, our first visit to Mineral Point. Two summers before we had driven down for a couple of hours on our way home from the Spring Green area after I learned of the Mineral Point Railroad Museum.
The museum is in an old stone depot that is the oldest surviving train station in the state. It was built to serve the local Mineral Point Railroad and then went on to become a stop for the Milwaukee Road (full name, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific). Restoration of the depot was completed in 2004. Today it houses not only a collection of artifacts from its operational heyday but a detailed operating HO-scale model layout depicting the railroad district as it looked at the turn of the last century - catnip for this train buff, and for any young or old.
There are other attractions nearby. Governor Dodge State Park is 20 minutes away, the Blackhawk State Recreation Area 30 minutes, and Spring Green, with Taliesin as well as American Players Theatre to recommend it, about 35 minutes. An hour and 15 minutes west is the Mississippi River, which is met by the Wisconsin River at Wyalusing State Park, prime eagle-watching territory.
Food and lodging are both plentiful in the community. The Red Rooster Café and the Pointer Café are both popular local breakfast spots and remain open through lunch. Both are among the restaurants that serve the local Cornish meat pies called pasties (rhymes with "nasty," but they're tasty).
For world-class dining, there's MP Dining Company, which opened last summer and serves sophisticated American cuisine crafted with originality and flair. About the same time, U.S. born Chris Messer and his Japanese wife, Hiroko Messer, opened Kusaka, having come to Mineral Point to escape the damage wrought by the earthquake and tsunami that caused the subsequent Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.
The Brewery Creek Inn serves originally styled pub food and a range of indigenous brews. It also provides lodging, offering a five-room inn or a choice of two cottages. There are a dozen other bed-and-breakfast-style lodging options.
The place we booked last summer by happenstance is the Mineral Point Hotel, a casually elegant, two-story, five-room inn with spacious rooms, antique-style baths and simple but delicious breakfast fare such as quiche and pastries for a modest additional cost. (Now for sale, it's managed by Courtney Henson of Shake Rag Alley.)
The community has two motels as well: one locally owned and one chain establishment.
For Barbara Selvin, a journalism professor from Long Island, and husband Craig Werle, discovering Mineral Point last summer was "one of the best surprises we'd had in many years of traveling." It was also a lesson in serendipity.
"We were spending a week last August touring Wisconsin, starting with three nights in Door County, then driving down to the Driftless Area, which my brother, a UW alum, insisted was a must-see," says Selvin, a graduate school classmate of mine. Nothing in Spring Green excited them, but the Brewery Creek Inn "had an offbeat quality that spoke to us." They spent a couple of nights in the inn's Miner's Cottage and took meals both at MP Dining Co. and Brewery Creek. At the latter, "the dessert menu was so terrific that the two of us ordered three desserts - okay, truth be told, my husband ordered one and I ordered two."
Jackie Anderson moved to the area from Chicago with her longtime partner, Kyle McBaine, as the two contemplated settling down somewhere closer to family members in Wisconsin. McBaine trades commodities, but as Anderson notes, "the trading floor is pretty much gone now, so he does everything online."
Anderson managed the Mineral Point Hotel for about nine months. With the owners putting it up for sale, the couple passed on the opportunity to buy it and considered moving closer to Madison.
"But we just really wanted to stay," Anderson says. "We were heartbroken, we were so in love with Mineral Point."
A job opportunity at Lands' End in Dodgeville, just 15 minutes away, came to their rescue. "I was so happy there's a company that's this close," Anderson says.
The unique physical and cultural landscape, the historic buildings and the distinctive mixture of cosmopolitan community and down-home atmosphere all combined to make the town stand out for Anderson. "It feels like home."
As for us? This year, we didn't put it off. We booked our rooms in Mineral Point right after we bought this summer's theater tickets.
105 Commerce St. 608-987-4363
114 Shake Rag St. 608-987-2122
Visitor appreciation day is June 2, 10 am-5 pm; discounted admission is $2 per person. All other days admission is $10 adults, $8.50 students and seniors, $5 kids 5-17, and family for $27. Open May 8-Oct. 31 daily 10 am-5 pm.
225 Commerce St. 608-987-3590
Summer hours daily 10 am-5 pm.
18 Shake Rag St. 608-987-3292
11 Commerce St. 608-987-2695
Open 10 am-4 pm Thurs.-Sat. and noon-4 pm Sun.; admission charged.
The Red Rooster Café
158 High St. 608-987-9936
The Pointer Café
809 Ridge St. 608-987-3733
20 Commerce St. 608-987-0006
148 High St. 608-341-6764
23 Commerce St. 608-987-3298
121 Commerce St. 608-987-3889