Between the Lines

With columnist Anna Marie Lux.

New book highlights history of Milton House

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, March 11, 2017

MILTON—Sometimes people need to be reminded of the national treasure in their backyards.

Author and historian Doug Welch has written an 81-page book that helps the community and visitors see the Milton House with new appreciation.

The hexagonal building on Milton's far east side is the only verified site in Wisconsin on the Underground Railroad that can be toured.

The Secretary of the Interior even named the museum a National Historic Landmark in 1998 because of its role in helping slaves to freedom.

“Visitors often ask if a book is available,” said Welch, assistant director at the Milton House.

Until now, he had nothing to give them.

In his book, “The Milton House,” Welch updates the fascinating story of Joseph Goodrich, a man with an unwavering moral compass, who founded Milton.

Goodrich completed the Milton House in 1845 and probably soon after dug a 45-foot tunnel connecting the basement of the three-story stagecoach inn to a log cabin behind it.

He used the tunnel to hide runaway slaves before the Civil War.

Goodrich helped fugitives in spite of a tough 1850 law making it unlawful.

“Joseph Goodrich not only risked heavy fines, but he also risked losing his property and imprisonment,” Welch said. “He had the moral courage to stand up and do what he believed to be right.”

Goodrich put everything on the line.

“He thought it was his moral obligation,” Welch said. “He did not consider himself a hero by any means.”

Goodrich, his son Ezra and other Seventh Day Baptists shared “interests of the highest value,” which is the subtitle of Welch's book.

Those interests included the end of slavery.

They were in good company in the mid-1800s because Wisconsin was the foremost state in the West in the anti-slavery movement, according to an Underground Railroad scholar quoted in the book.

Fugitives from Missouri and Arkansas followed the Rock River through Illinois and into Wisconsin.

They eventually hoped to reach Racine, where a well-known abolitionist kept a warehouse on the harbor. Eventually, the fugitives traveled by boat to Canada.

Several oral histories explain how slaves used the tunnel to move from the cabin to the basement of the inn, where travelers on a stage line spent the night.

People touring the Milton House often respond emotionally to the fact that slaves once stopped at the inn in their flight to freedom, Welch said.

An African-American man on a recent tour was especially moved.

“When he walked through the tunnel to the cabin, it was almost like he was having a spiritual experience,” Welch recalled. “He touched the tunnel walls and appeared to whisper to himself. He wanted to see where people had walked on their way to freedom.”

The man had traveled to a slave auction site in West Africa, where his family was sold into bondage. He also knew which slave ship brought his ancestors to the United States.

“Considering all the research he had done, I was flattered that he thought this (Milton House) was a great place,” Welch said.

Many sites in Wisconsin were rumored to be part of the Underground Railroad.

But the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom—an arm of the National Parks Service—validated the Milton House as the real thing.

This precious history could have been lost in 1948 when part of the building collapsed and spewed onto the sidewalk and street.

“It was a ratty property and had fallen into disrepair,” Welch said. “At the time of the collapse, it is amazing the place didn't get bulldozed and lost forever.”

But preservation-minded people of the young Milton Historical Society had other plans. They bought the property from the Goodrich family, took ownership of the rundown site in 1949 and began the transition to a museum.

In his book, Welch talks about how the museum took shape, its journey to become a National Historic Landmark and expansion through today.

A native of Rock County, Welch said he is guilty, like many, of taking the Milton House and its unique history for granted.

“A lot of locals may have come here as children and have not been back,” Welch said. “They drive by and don't think about coming in. I hope this book will help them see the Milton House in a different light.”

Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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