Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Early History of 207 Commerce

Prairie Oak Artisans gallery is housed in a part-frame and part-stone front building at 207 Commerce Street in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. This building is part of a body of historic buildings that survive in Mineral Point. Old buildings carry with them the story of an interesting past and connections to other stories in history. When and why they were built, by whom, how they have survived these many years is a story worthy of telling and retelling. These historical buildings promise a future of fascinating stories only if they are preserved and cared for so that others can experience their beauty and charm and learn about them.
Key to the preservation of old buildings is finding uses for them that make them valuable enough to justify the cost of preservation yet at the same time do not require so many changes as to erase the history. A nature themed art gallery is one possible use for such an historic treasure. Part of the responsibility of owning such an historical building is seeing to it that the history that remains, remains. Thus, sometimes, the gallery can be a little darker than optimal and the walls and floor can be less than ideal backdrops for art, but preserving them is worth the compromise.
When John Falls O'Neill, a real prince from Ireland, where ruins of the family castle remain, came to Mineral Point, it was not even a town. He went touring the area with the British Army as a clerk, and met a young woman in St. Louis that he asked to marry him. Mary Ann Sublette was from a large family of brothers and cousins, some of whom went on to achieve fame in exploration of the west. The O'Neill came to the area that is now Mineral Point to open a general store for the lead prospectors that were already in the area.
O'Neill and his wife built their frame store and home in 1829 so that it was between the road and the creek. There was no town yet and the area had not yet been surveyed. The survey in 1836 resulted in the O'Neil home and store building straddling the line between two lots, so O'Neill purchased them both. Shortly after, he had Cornish stonemasons build the stone portion to span between the original frame building and the lot line. An 1838 newspaper advertisement tells us that a general store was operating out of a stone storefront, so the 'addition' was complete by then.
The shop level faces Commerce Street, and is where O'Neill bought the lead mineral and sold assorted household staples and mining necessities. The "Old Stand", as a general merchant's store was called then, provided needed goods to both the miners and later to the soldier of the fort that was built across the street. They would have offered such goods as flour, sugar, corn and oat meal, spices, coffee, and beer, as well as tools, clothing, socks, cups, bowls, canvas fabric and other supplies and goods to the transient lead miners. As the settlement became a town and grew, offerings in the "Old Stand" would have been adjusted to accommodate the demand. Also offered at various times were various services. One such was sawmilling. O'Neill engaged in the purchase of the raw lead that was being found in the surrounding hills of the driftless region, which he melted down to purify it and formed into ingots for sale at a profit.
The shopkeepers and their families resided in the lower level that opens to the rear to gardens and the stream. This level was finished off in back just like a residential street front, with doors and windows of these and other shop owners facing the creek. The little strips of land between the buildings and the creek would have been considered the 'front yards' to the homes as well as serving as work courtyards. Spring through fall, the family members likely did a good deal of their work outdoors in the fenced yards, such as laundry and even cooking. In the early years, the town had no law and was probably a rather rowdy place, so the women and children probably did all their work in the downstairs level and never set foot in the shop level, and they probably did all their visiting on the rear 'residential street' that is the alley now.
The top level was rented out to others as short term living space and had a separate entrance in the wooden front. Because the lower level had a constant temperature of around 55 degrees with bedrock as walls and as parts of the floor, it would have been cool in summer and naturally warmer than the outdoors in winter, so would have been considered a much better place to live than the drafty top level upstairs.
The front of the building had one door to the store level and another to the upstairs until the 1980's renovation by Jennifer and John Sharp. Their renovation preserved the best of what remained of the history and made major structural restorations that stabilized the building to ensure its continue survival. They used the "Old Stand" level as studio and gallery for Jennifer's water colors and John's wood carving. Merriam Nessett finished the upper level as living space in the late 1990's, and ran an antique and decorating store in the street level gallery.
The oldest standing commercial building in Mineral Point, 207 Commerce is features hand hewn posts and beams in the timber section and limestone walls in the stone section, and mortise and tennon joints and pegged joints can be seen in the walls. The original floors show where the room partitions were, where the heating stoves were, and even show axe marks where firewood for the fires was split and burn marks where coals popped out of the stove and burned pits in the wood. The original oak ceiling joists are exposed in the gallery level showing saw kerfs that reveal that they were 'pit sawn', though such sawing in the area was usually done with above ground frameworks rather than below ground pits due to the proximity of bedrock to the surface. There are remnants of original plaster on the wall that show the first soft gritty thick yellowy layer that was reinforced with horse hair, and the thin hard white or grey surface layer. The attic retains much of the original wood, including a less-than-perfectly-straight ridge beam made of a minimally processed log. The basement has support posts that have also been minimally processed and retain some of their bark. A section of accordion lath that would have formed the structure for plaster on interior walls was rescued from the trash by a neighbor and is on display in the basement stairway.
The street level of the building now serves as gallery space to Prairie Oak Artisans and as my studio space. The upstairs is living space, and the basement is utility and storage. The front and rear gardens feature prairie plants that remind us of what was on the land when Native Americans were the only inhabitants and bison still roamed.
When you are in Mineral Point to shop, feel free to ask questions about the building and its history, and if you want more of a detailed tour before or after hours, call 630-728-9998 to arrange for an appointment. Living and working inside an antique has its challenges, but also its rewards, and I'd love to share them with you!