Field Trip: Vernacular Architecture in Southwest Wisconsin

At least once a year, University of Wisconsin faculty members Anna Andrzejewski (Art History) and Arne Alanen (Landscape Architecture) take their students on a driving tour of the buildings and landscapes of southwest Wisconsin. I grew up in this part of the state and have driven the backroads of the driftless area many times, but every time I come along on this tour (last week marked my third time), I get a new perspective on those familiar hills and barns and silos and tiny towns.

My first version of this trip is probably the most memorable because it was one of my very first steps on my road to studying local Wisconsin history and objects.  I was a UW-Madison undergrad in a class with Prof. Andrzejewski.  One of the structures we were on the lookout for was the local cheese factory–a long building with a lower level built into a hillside. Found every few miles in this part of “Dairyland,” these small operations have long been closed and converted into homes. We’d already passed at least half a dozen of these as we approached my hometown of Mineral Point, and the class pointed out the bus window at another one coming up on the side of the road. I was surprised to see that I recognized the place–I’d even been inside.  It was the home of one of my high school friends, and I’d had no idea of its former existence until then.  This was one of my first inklings of the important stories that could be found in what were–at first glance–everyday, simple, mundane things.

My second field trip experience was as a graduate student, when I had the chance to tag along with a visiting scholar–vernacular architecture historian Tom Carter of the University of Utah.  It was exciting for me to see his enthusiasm for these familiar places.  He was especially impressed by Mineral Point’s High Street and the work the communiy has done to preserve so much of its early architecture.

On my most recent tour–just last week–I accompanied Prof. Andrzejewski’s Vernacular Architecture course and had the chance to share some of my own research on the subject of my hometown.  At Orchard Lawn (the historic house owned by the Mineral Point Historical Society), I presented the class with some examples of locally-made furniture. MPHS president Jim Stroschein and board members Mark Speltz (also a member of the class) and Nancy Pfotenhauer (also my mom) discussed some of the photographic and material evidence the Society has used as they continue the Orchard Lawn restoration.

If you can’t take the tour in real life, there’s a detailed online version available via the UW-Madison Material Culture Program’s website.

Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer.


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