by Benson Gardner, PortalWisconsin.org
On Madeline Island, history never rains, but it poursand sometimes burns.
On much of the only settled island in Lake Superior's Apostle chain, it's hard to find evidence of people from the past. That's not to say they haven't been there. Ojibwe are believed to have come to the island around 1400-1600 A.D., after leaving the East Coast. French-Canadians, British, Scandinavians and Yankees have also had significant influences on Madeline. But if you look for their physical remains, says Steve Cotherman, site director of the Madeline Island Historical Museum, "There's not as much historical material remaining as you'd like there to be."
One of the reasons for that is fire. A catastrophic one in the 1800s wrecked much of La Pointethe island's only cityincluding parts of the harbor and the short street that comprises downtown. On top of that, Cotherman says, there seems to be a tradition of buildings burning down mysteriously in the middle of the night on Madeline Island.
Yet where the old structures are preserved, sometimes there's more there than you bargained for.
That's not exactly true of the aged cemetery on the edge of town, where you'll find graves of prominent Ojibwe leaders and other early inhabitants. It's a great site to visit, with timeworn gravestones, crosses and Spirit Houses (a burial custom among some Ojibwe). But the mission and school that used to sit next to the cemetery have been replaced by the end of a paved street. And while Cotherman says the waterway next to the graveyard is a centuries-old Ojibwe route, the canal is modernized now, leaving us only to imagine the original natural form. (Take a virtual tour of the cemetery.)
But at the Madeline Island Historic Museum, run by the Wisconsin Historical Society, history veritably pours. Though relatively small in size, the site is more than just a museum. Much of it is, in fact, a preservation of a museum. "A museum within a museum, preserved in amber," quips Cotherman.
Visitors enter at a more modern section of the site. But down a short hallway, they emerge into a time capsule from the 1960s, a look at what people in the mid-20th century did when they wanted to preserve their local history. Each room was originally a different historic building, brought from somewhere on the island and filled with artifacts. "Filled" meaning that every inch of space has something leaning, sitting or hanging on it, often accompanied by a label tersely revealingin a font so old it's stylish againthe name and sometimes function of the tool or object. (Take a virtual tour of the museum.)
The museum was the brainchild of a couple from St. Paul who started summering on Madeline in 1903. Cotherman calls Leo Capser the "visionary financier" behind the project, while his wife, Bella, put her art training to use in the presentation arena. It was their enchantment with the island and its culture that provided the momentum. Lifelong resident Al Galazen supplied building skills and a large collection of relics from his practice of amateur archaeology ("That's a nice way of saying he was a pothunter," observes Cotherman wryly). Many islanders helped in similar ways. A friend of the Capsers named Hamilton Nelson Ross ("Ham" to his pals) adopted the history of the island as his amateur calling, traveling as far as Washington, D.C., and Paris to find records relating to Madeline's past.
"Man, did he do his homework," says Cotherman. While many of the records relating to the fur trade in Wisconsin were destroyed in Paris during the French Revolution, Ross seems to have uncovered most of what was left about Madeline's past, there or anywhere. "Very little primary source material has come to light since Ross did his work," Cotherman raves.
The museum houses the island's first post office (a rickety, white desk with cubbies), a set of Jesuit robes, the rotating lamp from a lighthouse (ask the staff to turn it on!), and many assorted tools and other items representing the industries and cultures which figure large in Madeline's history.
When the founders of the museum deeded it to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in 1968, they did so with many conditions, one being that nothing inside would be changed. The founders even planned for that time-honored force on the island, fire. If the museum burns down, it is not to be replaced, not with anything more elaborate than green space. History buffs will simply have to hope that this small, history-saturated plot on Madeline Island can avoid such a fate, and remain the exception to the rule.