Hess Cooperage artifacts at the Dean House, Madison


Three barrels produced by the Hess Cooperage, Madison, 1904-1966.

Three barrels produced by the Hess Cooperage, Madison, 1904-1966.

A few weeks ago I received an email from Ann Waidelich, curator for the Historic Blooming Grove Historical Society in Madison. The HBGHS operates the Nathaniel Dean House, the 1856 home of the Dean family, who were early farmers and merchants in the community. Ann wondered if I might be interested in their collection of artifacts from the Hess Cooperage, one of the last manufactories in the country to produce hand-hewn oak beer barrels, but she wasn’t sure if the objects fit into the category of “decorative arts.”

I was so glad Ann approached me, because the Hess Cooperage barrels are a great example of the kind of objects I’m looking for. They tell a fascinating story of an immigrant craftsman, Frank Hess, who brought a traditional craft to Wisconsin and passed it on to the next generation. Not only that, but the barrels are only one part of the surviving history of the Hess Cooperage. Descendant Gary Hess has assembled a wonderful collection of tools, materials, newspaper clippings, and photographs related to his family’s craft.

“Decorative arts” is a somewhat confusing label, and my project definitely goes beyond what the word “decorative” might imply. The barrels are a great example of the fact that an object doesn’t have to be “pretty” to be interesting! A seemingly mundane object can have some great stories to tell. Not only that, but I am always open to new leads–I welcome tips and suggestions on objects, craftspeople, and collections. Even if something might not fit in the categories I’ve laid out in the database, it could point me towards some exciting discoveries. 

Posted by Emily Pfotenhauer.


2 responses to “Hess Cooperage artifacts at the Dean House, Madison

  1. Nice picture, Emily! Good stuff. I sent this link to a student writing her MS thesis on the archaeological study of casks at East Carolina University.

  2. I’m hoping someday some enlightened soul will provide us with a history of the Hess cooperage, a topic I’m fascinated with but have nearly zero knowledge. Growing up in Madison I was an ardent beer can collector, and as a result I became knowledgeable of subject of interest to the brewing industry. Of course, cooperages were part of this legacy, one which seems to be forgotten for the most part. Glad to find this site mentioning the old Hess cooperage in Madison.

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