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.