You might drive by 18 S. Janesville St. once or twice a day. You know it’s the Milton House because it says so right on the building. You maybe have been on the grounds and in the buildings often. Or, maybe you’ve never been to the Milton House (and living in Milton or the Milton school district, you hope no one finds that out).
On July 17, the Milton Historical Society hosted a community picnic to celebrate the building of the Milton House. Cowley’s Piggly Wiggly catered the cookout, which was free thanks to Blackhawk Community Credit Union.
The meal began at 5 p.m. and most of the food was gone within maybe an hour or so. Still, people kept coming through the doors even though they were advised the food was gone.
The Milton Courier asked picnic attendees: “What does the Milton House mean to you?”
Here are some of the answers we received.
Milton Historical Society President Mike Pierce said: “It’s the icon of Milton. It’s the No. 1 tourist attraction in Rock County. There’s a lot of our history here. It’s kind of a cornerstone for Milton. It’s who we are.”
Rebecca Kordatzky, educational coach/tutor and retired educator, Milton resident said: “History of community.”
Her husband John Kordatzky said: “It’s the heritage.” Boy Scouts of America Troop 471 founded in 1973, obtained permission to use the Milton House image on its neckerchiefs. Kordatzky reminds the “rabble-rousers” lived on the other side of town (Milton Junction).
Susan Blumer resident of Milton since 1963 and a vocal music professor at Milton College from 1963-1981 said: “It really impresses me. History. And what people in this community risked in helping the slaves escape. It really makes me get shivers.”
Slavery was prohibited in Wisconsin under the 1787 Northwest Ordinance. However, in 1850 the federal government passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which forced all citizens to help return any escaping slaves to their owners. Anyone who refused to assist the authorities, or who helped slaves to escape, was subject to heavy penalties. The Fugitive Slave Act became a rallying point for abolitionists, who felt morally compelled to disobey it and so became criminals in the eyes of the law. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society. https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS566.
Skip Drew of Milton (former city council member, former Milton College Preservation Society president) said: Joseph Goodrich was such a far-sighted man to build the Milton House on the stagecoach trail and also bring what really made Milton more than just a stop on the stagecoach trail was that he influenced the powers that be to get the railroad through (because we don’t have a river). He had the progressive foresight to know that even though slavery was the law of the land at the time, it was wrong. He was a key player in the Underground Railroad and this was an Underground Railroad station. I’m just really happy he did the right thing and started Milton Academy, which became Milton College.”
A banner on the Milton House website says it’s the last certified Underground Railroad Station in Wisconsin.
Between 1842 and 1861 more than 100 escaping slaves were helped to freedom in Canada by Wisconsin residents. But, because both the slaves and their helpers had to conceal their work, details of how fugitives passed through Wisconsin are scarce.
A.P. Dutton and Maximillian Heck of Racine later admitted that between 1854 and 1861 a number of that city’s residents conspired to help fugitive slaves board steamers bound for Ontario, often taking up collections to cover their expenses. They recalled that most of their “passengers” came up the Illinois River to Chicago and then overland along the shore to Kenosha, Racine or Milwaukee. Others came up the Rock River to Beloit, then to Janesville, where the Tallman House was a well-known refuge, then to Milton, where the Milton House provided another safe house. Finally, the ex-slaves were transported across the prairie to one of the lake ports, where several ship captains were willing to conduct them to Canadian cities. (Source: www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS566)
Amanda Heine with her sons Avery, 9, and Axavior, 10: “My grandfather was born and raised here (Milton area). That’s what brought us here today,” Amanda grew up in the Wisconsin Dells area and moved to Janesville about 5 years. “It’s good to know the history. We drive past here all the time but we don’t know anything about this building.”
Elizabeth Moore, a member of the Milton High School Class of 2007, from Johnstown Center said: “It was one of the first field trips I remember going on.” She was a high school volunteer who helped move objects from the Goodrich House to the Milton House when the new addition was built.
Following the designation of the Milton House as a National Historic Landmark, the Milton Historical Society began fundraising efforts to complete an addition that would allow the museum to be open year-round and once again serve as a community gathering place. The addition, completed in 2006, replicates the original Goodrich Block wing that stood prior to its 1948 collapse. Source: Images of America Milton by Doug Welch and the Milton Historical Society.
For those who hadn’t been to the Milton House in a while, the community picnic gave them not only a free meal, but an opportunity to view the new “Steps to Freedom/Follow the Drinking Gourd” mural and mosaic.
With the help of the community, Pierce said many projects have been accomplished.
An upcoming project is raising funds for a new boiler.
With the picnic moved inside due to the heat and humidity and a heat advisory issued for the following day, he said, “Tonight’s not the night to do that, it’s a little hot.”
Milton Historical Society Board of Directors include: Mike Pierce (president), Serena Westlund (vice president), Chuck Jackson (secretary/treasurer), John Arndt, Gene Bier, Al Bortles, Kelly Conger, Linda Miller, Mary Pierce, Wendel Sisson, Terry Williamson. Kari Klebba is the executive director and Doug Welch is the assistant director.
The Milton House has been listed on the National Register since 1972, the State Register since 1989. National Historic Landmark Status was granted in 1998.