Passion and preservation | Play chronicles gay couples efforts to save Mineral Point

Mike Muckian, Contributing writer

Mineral Point residents are familiar with the story of how Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum coordinated an effort 80 years ago to save what is now one of Wisconsin’s most significant historical sites. Now a pair of Chicago-area authors is taking the story of the closeted gay couple and their preservation work to the stage and, perhaps, the silver screen.

In “The Bachelors,” authors Rick Kinnebrew and Martha Meyer chronicle the efforts by Neal and Hellum during the 1930s and ’40s to preserve the historic stone cottages of Cornish lead miners who settled the Iowa County community of Mineral Point a century earlier. Carried out over decades – and at a time when there was little area interest in historic preservation – Neal and Hellum’s efforts to save the cottages from the wrecking ball eventually resulted in the creation of Pendarvis, a “neighborhood,” now owned by the Wisconsin Historical Society. Pendarvis is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

The authors, both of whom work for the Evanston Public Library system, first tackled the story as a screenplay, which was a semi-finalist in Pride Films and Plays’ Great Gay Screenplay Competition. Now, in a reversal of the usual process, Kinnebrew and Meyer are reworking their screenplay into a stage work.

“The Bachelors,” which has received several dramatic readings, arrives June 2 in the town where it all began, in a sense. Alley Stage, Mineral Point’s local theatrical troupe, is performing the work at the beautifully restored Mineral Point Opera House – one of the many buildings that have benefited from Neal and Hellum’s preservationist vision. Their vision has helped turn Mineral Point into the thriving artists colony and tourist destination that it is today.

Kinnebrew and Meyer first visited Mineral Point during their honeymoon in the area. The couple’s discovery of Pendarvis and, especially, the lives of the two men behind its restoration, led them to write the screenplay, Meyer says.

“(Neal and Hellum) demonstrate what a good working marriage can do – not just for the couple, but for the whole community in which they live,” says Meyer. “Right now, we are all hungry for stories of healthy, long-term LGBT partnerships. Bob and Edgar’s contribution to Mineral Point continues to this day.”

Neal, a Mineral Point native who worked as a designer in both London and New York, met Hellum, originally from Stoughton, Wis., when the two attended the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1934, the couple moved back to Neal’s hometown and began what became a lifetime of preservation work.

To survive, the two men ran Pendarvis House, a restaurant serving Cornish pasties, or meat pies. Although not terribly popular among locals, the restaurant was the favorite of another area resident, architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Mineral Point residents viewed Neal and Hellum as “eccentric” and thought their efforts were “pixilated,” a Cornish term for “crazy.”

“The Bachelors” chronicles not only their restoration work, but especially the men’s relationship. Kinnebrew and Meyer did much of their research in the Mineral Point Public Library and also heavily tapped “A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture” by Milwaukee author Will Fellows. The book was especially useful because of its perspective on restoration and Fellows’ 1997 interview with Hellum, who was then 91 years old.

“As far as I know, my interview with Hellum was the only time he sat down with an interviewer who asked him about being gay and his life with Bob as his life partner,” Fellows says. “It was evident from how he engaged with me on the topic that he wanted to talk about it, but his many years of mask-wearing in a small town made it difficult for him to do so comfortably.”

The pair’s relationship is what made the story of Neal and Hellum a good candidate for drama in the first place, Meyer says.

“This is a love story, one of a cosmopolitan man who is savvy in the gay world miraculously finding a way to hold on to someone who has mostly lived in small rural towns and had to leave town every time a relationship developed,” Meyer says. “One partner is emotionally intelligent, the other learned only in the history of British tea cups.  It is the stuff of which movies are made!”

The first Chicago reading of “The Bachelors” in January raised $540, which Kinnebrew and Meyer donated to the Mineral Point Public Library in Neal’s name. A second Chicago reading was scheduled for May 29 at Stage 773. The June 2 Mineral Point reading is being made possible with the help of Alley Stage officials, who are enthusiastic about the production.

“As a Mineral Point resident and a history-lover, Pendarvis is a point of pride,” says Ainsley Anderson, Alley Stage’s general manager. “The story about Bob and Edgar’s relationship deserves to be told.  Their relationship – their legacy – is more than just the buildings they saved.”

Fellows agrees: “’The Bachelors’” is a fine work, notable for many reasons, not least of which is that it is, to my knowledge, the first dramatic work to focus on a chapter from Wisconsin’s gay history. And it took a non-gay couple to see the dramatic potential of the Pendarvis story and tell it.” 

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