Gay couple credited with preserving Mineral Point

Mike Muckian, Contributing writer

Along High Street, the steep thoroughfare that threads through hilly Mineral Point, mornings start quietly with a stirring of locals gathered for breakfast at The Red Rooster Café, 158 High St. The main street’s relative peace, flanked by quiet neighborhoods dappled with fall-colored leaves, make it hard to believe that back in 1830, this rural southwest Wisconsin community of 2,500 had a population greater than that of Milwaukee and Chicago combined.

In many ways, Mineral Point was the starting point for Wisconsin’s history, and that history continues in its impact today. Settled by Cornish lead miners in the early 19th century, Mineral Point in 1836 saw Henry Dodge sworn in as the first governor of the Wisconsin Territory, 12 years before statehood was granted. By 1857, mining and farming had combined to make the community a prosperous commercial hub and bustling railroad destination.

Times changed and commerce found other hubs to inhabit, eventually leaving much of the community’s historical buildings to decay and disrepair. But in 1971, Mineral Point became the first Wisconsin community listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The designation was due initially to the restoration of the miners’ stone cottages in what is now Pendarvis, 114 Shakerag St., one of the state’s most important historical sites. That designation was but a milestone in the community’s continued rebirth and renewal.

Mineral Point’s restoration efforts were first spearheaded by community native Robert Neal and Stoughton, Wis., native Edgar Hellum, who met at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1935, they moved as a closeted gay couple to the community and began reviving areas that had fallen into ruin. Considered “eccentric” at the time, Neal and Hellum supported themselves by running Pendarvis House, a restaurant serving Cornish specialties. The eatery was a favorite of “neighbor” Frank Lloyd Wright.

But the couple was also busily reviving Mineral Point’s history. Since then, historic restoration efforts have continued along High Street, thanks largely to a community of artists, both gay and straight, who have made the Iowa County community both an artistic and historic destination. Those two emphases combine Oct. 14-16 when Mineral Point becomes the hub of the Fall Art Tour, an annual event that also encompasses artists in Baraboo, Dodgeville and Spring Green.

“This is the busiest weekend for our artists and provides a huge economic boost for the community,” says Joy Gieseke, who heads the Mineral Point Chamber of Commerce. “This is an opportunity for visitors to see the artists at work.”

Nearly 5,000 art aficionados are expected to descend on Mineral Point, home to more than 20 artists working in glass, pottery, painting, wood, photography, fiber, jewelry, collage, furniture, mosaics, sculpture, metal and other media.

“It’s the live demonstrations and personal invitations into home studios that make this weekend stand out,” Gieseke says.

Art and architecture combine as two of Mineral Point’s key attractions. Nineteenth-century immigrants brought with them stonemason skills that led to the construction of the sandstone and limestone cottages that characterize the community. Restoration efforts last year included the beautifully refurbished Mineral Point Opera House, 139 High St. The former vaudeville venue, designed and built in 1914 by noted Madison architects Claude and Stark, was restored last year to the tune of $2.25 million.

The venue, which originally seated 725, in its time hosted performances by Burns and Allen, Bing Crosby and even a speech by presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. Its successful restoration continues the efforts begun by Neal and Hellum more than 75 years ago.

“Most people around here would tell you that Neal and Hellum saved Mineral
Point,” says community resident Coleman, an out playwright and theater producer who operates Alley Stage. His production of Caleb Stone’s “Faux Poe” will appear at the Opera House over the Art Tour weekend.

“It was their drive that kept the community’s economic engine going and prevented all these wonderful old buildings from being torn down,” Coleman says of his gay predecessors.

The couple’s presence also helped lay the groundwork for an environment that some describe today as being among the state’s most gay-friendly. During their lifetimes, Neal and Hellum remained closeted, with their orientation largely unaccepted by the community. (Reports say many local teens were not allowed to wait tables at Pendarvis House because of the owners’ “eccentricities.”)

But the couple’s community impact has been undeniably felt, according to Coleman, who in 1998 moved with his domestic partner to Mineral Point from Chicago.

“Neal and Hellum instilled in this town a love of its own old architecture, and helped make the community a welcome home for artistic people,” he says. “Mineral Point is not anyone’s idea of a gay Mecca, and it’s not trying to be. It’s just a place where people are accepted for who they are, and it happens to have a lot of great artists, shopkeepers and farmers who do a pretty good job of getting along.”

Details: www.mineralpoint.com.

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