by Benson Gardner, PortalWisconsin.org
Old photographs can be misleading. All our lives, images of the 1800s have come to us in drab shades of sepia. But that doesn't mean everyone at the time conformed to a boring aestheticin look or in deed.
Villa Louis, located in Prairie du Chien, is a great place to learn this lesson. You can feast your eyes on the rich colors and patterns of an unusually bright turn-of-the-century home. And, looking into the background of the builders and owners, you'll realize that life was not monochromatic in old Wisconsin.
Villa Louis, one of the eight historic sites operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society, was built in 1870 by H. Louis Dousman and his mother, Jane, heirs to Hercules Dousman, a fur trader, businessman and, it seems, professional opportunist.
The Villa Louis is currently in the later stages of restoration. And sometimes faded pictures can be a great helpthe restoration has been made possible largely by a trunk of photographs left by one of Dousman's descendants. (Read an earlier PortalWisconsin.org feature story about the restoration of the Villa Louis.) The house already looks much as it did in 1885, when it was decorated in British Arts and Crafts style. "This is one of the great collections," says Site Director Michael Douglass. "Ninety percent of the stuff is here." The museum has restored some signature rooms: rooms filled with bold, blue patterns; wild-west red upholstery that would make saloon owners drool; and, in one case, floral wallpaper containingcount 'em22 different colors.
In the dining room, Villa staff have recreated a family birthday party for the Dousmans' younger daughter, who described the event in a letter to her sister in St. Paul. (Take a virtual tour of the dining room.) It appears this was purely a family get-together, but the Dousman children also had local companionsunlike the adults of the house, who favored friendships with their social equivalents in St. Paul.
A sterling tea service with an interesting history rests among other silver items on a sideboard in the dining room. Between 1825 and 1850 or so, the U.S. government wanted to acquire large amounts of Native American land. To broker the treaties, it needed the social expertise of white people who'd worked with the tribespeople like Hercules Dousman and other fur traders. But since the treaties were to take vast tracts of land out of Native hands, they would certainly spell the final death knell of the already-floundering fur trade. So as an incentive, the government decided it would pay the traders for all debts owed to them by any Indian anywhere. Well-connected fur traders like Dousman heard of the plans in advance, and immediately began giving away as much possible to Native Americans, recording the value of the gifts as debts. When the government finally made the land deals it was looking for, Dousman and his partners raked in $350,000 in "debts" owed. With his money, Dousman expanded the beginnings of the family estate (the main building was no less magnificent for its day as the Villa Louis to come), and purchased a number of fancy items, including five of the pieces on the sideboard.
More than a century later, in 1981, the tea service was stolen from Villa Louis. Silver prices were high at the time, and Villa staffers resigned themselves to never seeing the set intact again. But in 1999, the FBI informed the museum it had recovered the set somewhere in Texas. It let the details remain a mystery.
It's a fitting artifact for a house built by a family with a colorful history of its own. Hercules Dousman practiced law without formal training (not required at the time), had a long-running extramarital affair, and fathered an illegitimate son (in whom it seems he may have lost all interest after having a legitimate son). "They were a long way from the concerns of society out here," says Douglass. Wisconsin was, after all, the frontier in the mid-1800s. Nowhere does that past come alive more vibrantly than at this country mansion in Prairie du Chien.
For information on visiting Villa Louis, see the Wisconsin Historical Society Web site.