by Benson Gardner, PortalWisconsin.org
The Cornish pub at the Pendarvis State Historic Site in Mineral Point is a room with more than one story to tell.
From 1830 to about 1850, Mineral Point attracted a large number of immigrants from Cornwall, a peninsula jutting from the southwestern coast of England. The Cornish were expert miners but, at that time, Cornish tin mines were drying up, prompting people to seek new shores.
Mineral Pointits name is no accidentheld great promise for these miners. The Cornish also liked the area because the countryside bore similarities to Cornwall, and the land held an abundance of distinctive, light-colored galena limestone. They used this limestone to build houses that looked like the ones they'd left behind. If you stand in one of the courtyards at the Pendarvis site, you can feel the influence of those Cornish settlers. In fact, you might swear you've been transported to the British Isles. (Take a virtual tour of a Pendarvis courtyard.)
Nowadays, the mines at Mineral Point have now run their course, but the charming ambience of the Cornish buildings continues to strongly influence the life of the town.
The historic feel that visitors to Mineral Point enjoy today might not have seemed likely in the 1930s. By then, Mineral Point's younger generation generally wanted newer buildings, not quaint older ones. One notable exception was Bob Neal, an admirer of old homes whose Cornish grandmother lived in the town. In 1935, Neal met a man from Stoughton who had come to Mineral Point for old building materials. Edgar Hellum and Neal discovered their shared interest in old buildings, and thus began a lifetime of business and domestic partnership.
Neal and Hellum were the first to restore what is now known as Pendarvis State Historic Site. Hellum later said they weren't sure what they were going to do with the buildings once they restored them or how they'd make a living. They ended up opening a tiny restaurant in one of the houses, seating about 20 by reservation only, and serving only one entreauthentic Cornish pasty.
While they never paid for advertising, the story of their unusual endeavor spread, eventually attracting the likes of Sinclair Lewis, Duncan Hines, and, so a story goes, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was turned away after arriving late for her reservation. This was standard practice for the men, who prepared a party's pasty to be ready exactly upon arrival. If you were late, your pasty went to two friends, the Fernekesstarving artists who, like Neal and Hellum, were drawn to Mineral Point by the picturesque stone houses.
These two couples sowed the seeds for an artists' community that, in recent years, has helped make Mineral Point a tourist destination. Downtown streets are lined with studios, art galleries and antique shops.
Neal and Hellum ran their restaurant from 1935 to 1970. They also gradually bought the buildings surrounding Pendarvis. Hellum spotted a closed-up basement in one building. He explored it and found that it was shaped exactly like a traditional Cornish pub. Visitors from Cornwall say the pub is very authentic. Recently, the Wisconsin Historical Society started serving drinks there occasionally, for the first time in many years.
So, the Cornish pub speaks of two histories: the coming of Cornish miners to young Mineral Point, and the beginning of Mineral Point's legacy of historic preservation and artistic creation. But perhaps it is really one story after allof the complex relationship between a community's past and present, and of a town whose economic character has changed while its appearance has maintained some unusual continuity.
Writer's note: This article refers greatly to "On the Shake Rag," published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (now the Wisconsin Historical Society) in 1990, which features interviews with Edgar Hellum and excerpts from a 1946 article by Bob Neal.
If you go: The Pendarvis State Historic Site is located in southwestern Wisconsin in Mineral Point. Driving directions and visitor information can be found on the Web site of the Wisconsin Historical Society.