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Historic back porch gets an upgrade

Wisconsin State Journal

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    MADISON, Wisconsin (Wisconsin State Journal) — There isn’t much remaining of the town of Blooming Grove.

Once a rural enclave east of Lake Monona, most of the town over the years has been consumed by the cities of Madison and Monona.

It’s been dissected by Interstate 39-90 and the Beltline. The fire department was dissolved in 2015 and the town now receives fire protection and ambulance service from the Madison Fire Department. The Dane County Sheriff’s Office provides police services, but by 2027 what’s left of the town, much of it east of the interstate, will be absorbed by the city of Madison.

There was a time when Schenk’s Corners, Monona Drive, much of Cottage Grove Road and the land that is now home to Olbrich Botanical Gardens were in the town. The wood for Eben Peck’s cabin, the first home of a white settler in Madison, was harvested in 1837 in what would later become the town. Vacationers in the 1880s and 1890s rode a steamboat across Lake Monona from Madison to stay at the Tonyawatha Springs Hotel until it burned in 1895. That was 43 years before a portion of the town was transformed into the village of Monona, which would become a city in 1969.

Even the Historic Blooming Grove Historical Society is out of the town’s boundaries. It’s now in the city of Madison and housed in the Nathaniel Dean House along Monona Drive. The home, constructed in 1856, is furnished as if it were the middle 1800s and also holds a small museum that is a repository of all things town of Blooming Grove.

And now, a new back porch could help further spread the story of the diminishing town and help bring in much needed revenue to fund Historical Society programs and upkeep of the property.

‘More comfortable experience’
The $95,000 project, which is nearly completed, which will allow for a more comfortable experience for the annual rummage sale, ice cream socials and concerts. The society is also hoping to rent the space out for private events such as weddings, anniversaries, recitals and parties.

Ceiling fans will keep the air moving through the porch, and clear, polycarbonate shields over the screen windows will extend the use of the porch in the spring and fall. And because the shields can be easily removed, the new setup will allow breezes in while keeping the mosquitoes out in the depths of summer and provide protection from an unexpected cold snap or rain storm.

The former porch was falling apart — its dilapidated screens covered with plastic for half of the year — the cement floor was sporting cracks, the wood was peeling. The overall appearance stood in contrast to the beauty of the restored Dean House.

“Over the years, it just got awfuller and awfuller. I mean it was just deteriorating … it really needed serious work,” said Ann Waidelich, the society’s president and curator. “It’s been rather expensive, but we’re just thrilled to death with the transformation.”

Funds are still needed to pay for the project, but philanthropist power couple W. Jerome Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland have each contributed $20,000 to the project. Frautschi’s grandfather developed some of the land east of the house, and nearby Jerome Street is named in his honor. Rowland was asked to contribute because she is a passionate advocate for reading and education and the Dean House is regularly open for school tours where the day includes washing clothes with a washtub and ringer set up on the porch.

“The kids love sloshing around,” said Waidelich, a retired librarian who lives in a historic house a block off Lake Monona on Madison’s East Side.

Historical roots
Nathaniel Dean came to Madison in 1842 from Massachusetts and opened a dry goods store at King and Pinckney streets. He married Harriet Morrison in 1847 and sold his store in 1856 to move to a 508-acre farm in the town of Blooming Grove, which was organized in 1850. That’s where the couple raised wheat and a herd of dairy cows and built an Italianate-style, cream-brick farmhouse. But in 1871, after tiring from the rural lifestyle, they moved into the new Park Hotel on Capitol Square and rented the farm to tenant farmers.

“Both of them were really city people,” Waidelich said.

After Nathaniel died in 1880 at age 63, the farmhouse was sold to Frank Allis and later owned by Adolph Kayser. But in 1926 the farm was converted to an 18-hole private golf course and the house became the clubhouse. That’s when the back porch was added as a place for golfers to unwind before or after a round of play. The city of Madison purchased the property in 1936 and when La Follette High School was constructed in 1963, the course was reduced to nine holes.

The house was slated for demolition when the city built a new clubhouse in 1972, but the efforts of Robert Bean, a high school teacher, led to the home being saved and the formation of the Historic Blooming Grove Historical Society. The city of Madison continues to own the house, but the society leases the property for $1 a year and also maintains the property. Over the years the house has been restored and filled with period furniture.

There’s a hand pump in the kitchen and a pantry room filled with butter churns, irons, hand-turned meat grinders, utensils, bowls, old milk bottles and jars. Fireplaces are absent as the Deans preferred wood stoves. A room on the second floor of the house is home to a museum dedicated to town of Blooming Grove history. The house is open for tours on the second Sunday of each month, which will likely resume in late May.

“We thoroughly enjoy showing people the house,” Waidelich said. “We’re anxious to get that going again.”

For the porch project, the society brought in Daniels Construction for the custom build and Peter Rott, owner of Isthmus Architecture, for design. Rott and his firm specialize in historic preservation projects, which include the Washburn Observatory and North and South halls at UW-Madison, the reading room at the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Al. Ringling Theatre in Baraboo.

“They wanted to use (the porch) even more fully, and what they wanted to do made a lot of sense,” Rott said. “It’s a pretty darn cool porch. It’s preservation, but adaptive, and even more functional than it was.”

The porch will get a good workout this year.

A mini garage sale is planned for late April, and the primary annual garage sale is slated for May 13-15. There is a Back Porch Concert Series on Thursday evenings in July and early August and an ice cream social on Aug. 5.

“We’re so excited to share it with the community,” Waidelich said.

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