Milton's historical landmarks face uncertain futures
MILTON—In the Milton House basement, Kari Klebba walked to the entrance of the only Underground Railroad tunnel in Wisconsin and offered a disclaimer.
It isn't the original tunnel, said Klebba, Milton House's executive director, and she doesn't know how it used to look.
Nobody took photos before a 1950s restoration project that raised the ceiling, paved the floor, added stone walls and installed light fixtures.
Even if the original condition of the tunnel is unknown, Klebba's enthusiasm hasn't dampened for the passage that once transported fugitive slaves to temporary safety.
“This is that moment where I can say history happened here,” she said. “We are walking the very same footsteps of these men and women who came here to the Milton House.”
The city of Milton grew up around Milton House, and the building has been a key part of the city's history. But financial challenges have made it difficult for the museum to meet rising operational costs, raising the question of what the city's role should be in its preservation.
Milton House and the former Milton College find themselves in similar positions—historical city landmarks with fiscal struggles. But the city is dealing with a tight budget as well, forcing it to prioritize municipal services over nonprofit donations.
With limited revenue, Milton House and Milton College must focus on raising enough money each year to keep lights on and doors open.
The financial patchwork creates murky futures for buildings with such historical prominence.
City founder Joseph Goodrich built Milton House as a stagecoach inn in 1844. Its history and architecture—it's an eye-catching hexagonal structure with a white grout exterior—make it as significant to Milton as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, Klebba said.
Goodrich was a staunch abolitionist, and Milton House soon became a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Written records of hosted slaves were not kept, so Klebba isn't sure how many people walked through the underground path connecting the building's cellar to an adjacent cabin.
Goodrich was an important figure, and Klebba speculates that townspeople knew what was happening beneath the inn.
“I think sometimes that's why Milton (residents) don't even appreciate how rare this is. It's just who they are,” she said. “I sometimes think they forget just how amazing their heritage is.”
In 1844, Goodrich also established Milton Academy, which later became Milton College. The liberal arts institution thrived on a hill in the city's center for more than a century, despite having an enrollment that never surpassed 1,000 students, said Judy Scheehle, Milton College Preservation Society curator.
Scheehle is not a Milton College alumna, but she grew up down the street and remembers how intertwined the campus was with the community. She regularly went to college plays and football games as a child, she said.
Celebrities such as Duke Ellington, Paul Newman and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar visited the college decades ago. They would not have come to Milton without the school, Scheehle said.
“There (were) people coming into this community who didn't even know this community was here because of the college,” she said.
Despite the flow of famous folks, Milton College suffered financially during its final years.
Some professors declined paychecks while continuing to teach in hopes of preserving the school, but it closed in 1982, Scheehle said.
When the college closed, the bank planned to demolish the buildings, but investors saved three structures. The Milton College Preservation Society owns Main Hall, built in 1854, and operates a museum in its former classrooms.
To save money on utility costs, only the main office and a downstairs lounge are heated. In the winter, Scheehle wears a pair of earmuffs anytime she enters the hallway.
She and other volunteers take garbage home to avoid trash pickup costs—anything to meet the organization's $43,000 annual budget, she said.
For years, the city gave $500 annually to the preservation society and recently increased that to $1,000. This year, Milton dropped its financial support of the college, though city employees help mow the campus lawn, Scheehle said.
“It kind of hurt,” she said. “We're important, but we're not $1,000 important.”
Milton College and Milton House rely heavily on donations and membership support to pay bills. Scheehle and Klebba said grants aren't much help because grant organizations want their money to go to specific projects, not operational costs.
At City Hall, revenue caps and expenditure restraints have tightened municipal finances. But nonprofits remained at the center of November's budget debate.
A Nov. 15 motion to reduce the public works budget and reallocate money to Milton House and The Gathering Place, a local senior center, split the council. Mayor Anissa Welch broke the tie in favor of the nonprofits.
Two weeks later, the council remained divided on nonprofit funding, and Welch again cast a tie-breaking vote before Milton adopted its final 2017 budget. Milton House received $10,000 from the city—$3,000 less than the $13,000 it requested.
Councilwoman Lynda Clark supported giving city money to Milton House. The city needs to show more support to its local landmark, she said.
Councilman Dave Adams held the opposite view. He called Milton House a “crown jewel,” but he said the council's job was to keep the city functional, not hand out donations.
“As long as it's not part of actual city government, I don't think in good conscience we can levy the taxpayer to support those organizations,” Adams said. “I wish there was a way we could, but unless the taxpayers come to us overwhelmingly and say, 'Yes we want you to do that'... But nobody is stepping forward to say that.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE
The city regularly uses Milton House and Milton College in its marketing. Photos of the buildings appear on the city website, and the college's bell tower is part of Milton's logo.
Both are an important part of local tourism. But when it comes to municipal funding, the council is dealing with limited resources every year, City Administrator Al Hulick said.
Milton House faces persistent financial challenges, so Klebba considered city support a necessity. She appreciates what city officials gave this year and believes the council would have given more if it could have, she said.
Still, Milton House has a growing list of maintenance needs: whitewashing the main building's exterior, installing a new roof on a stable and restoring a blacksmith shop. It also will redo its parking lot, but the city agreed Feb. 7 to provide some money for that project.
Klebba isn't worried about Milton House closing. But Scheehle fears the Milton College museum eventually will have to shut its doors.
It's been 35 years since the college closed, and its alumni are getting older. Last year, Scheehle estimated that 34 alumni died, ending potential sources of financial support.
Scheehle is trying to build up an endowment fund, but it's difficult to get people to donate when the museum could eventually close. In case that happens, she developed an exhibit of the college's history that will be on permanent display at the Milton Public Library.
The exhibit is part of an effort to change the local mindset surrounding Milton College. It belongs to the entire community, not just its dwindling alumni base, Scheehle said.
“You should always be extremely proud of the heritage of the community you live in. What would people think had they razed all these buildings and this became another street with houses on it?” Scheehle said. “Lots of times people say, 'Well, I really don't care.' But it's kind of a compassion kind of thing for your community.
“We go to other communities and are awed by their history. And there's so much more here than there is in a lot of other little towns.”