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Milton Historical Society repairs historic cabin

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
August 2, 2010
— To the touch, the rough-hewn oak and gritty lime mortar walls at Milton’s Goodrich cabin feel as though they’re nearly 200 years old.

They’re not, but it’s hardly apparent.


After a year of planning and fundraising by the Milton Historical Society and months of repairs by a crew of historic restoration experts, Milton’s 173-year-old Goodrich cabin has new logs, a new mortar backbone and renewed life.


The cabin has stood along Janesville Street on Milton’s east side since 1839, when it was moved there from Lima Center via wagon, log by log. It serves as the entrance to a tunnel that runs between the cabin and the cellar of the neighboring Milton House Museum.


Historians have long held that escaped slaves used the tunnel to sneak into secret quarters in the cellar of the Milton House, a former inn believed to have been part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War era.


In recent years, rot and weather damage had so badly deteriorated the cabin’s log and mortar walls that restoration crews could poke through them with a pencil tip, said Doug Sutter, a project manager for Madison-based Bachmann Construction, the company that restored the cabin.


Crews finished restoring the cabin a few weeks ago. Work spanned the last nine months and included replacing mortar and 11 rotted logs, a new cedar shingle roof, drainage work, repairs to windows, a chimney and a fireplace.


The work cost $130,000 and was funded largely through a $40,000 federal matching grant and local in-kind and monetary donations, said Milton Historical Society Director Cori Olson.


Sutter said crews sought historical harmony in the restoration.


“The building has a rich history and distinct craftsmanship, and we took great pains to preserve that,” he said.


For instance, crews used white oak logs donated from a local farmer that match original wood in the cabin. A craftsman planed the logs with an adze, an obsolete tool similar to an axe, so that they’d have a hand-hewn look.


Once they’re weathered, the new logs will be indiscernible from the rest of the wood in the cabin, Sutter said.


Jesse Renn, a Milton tradesman who did masonry work at the cabin, said crews used slaked lime mortar instead of Portland cement, which had been used to replace mortar at the cabin during a 1980s renovation.


The mortar came from a Chicago company that sells specialty masonry mixes, and it closely matches lime grout used by early Milton builders. Renn said the mortar is soft, and unlike cement, it won’t trap moisture or contract and expand in the winter.


“It’ll sacrifice itself to the logs instead of sacrificing the logs,” Renn said.


Officials said the renovation should for decades preserve the historic cabin where Milton founder Joseph Goodrich once housed 13 of his relatives.


Today, about 10,000 visitors a year traipse through the cabin and the crooked tunnel that connects it to the Milton House, Olson said.


Olson said historical society officials have been blown away by the generosity of people who helped fund the restoration. Money came from local donors, area school districts and cabin visitors, who Olson said sometimes leave as much as $600 a day in donations.


“I don’t think they realize just how much they’ve done for this building,” she said.


Janet Hudson, a retired Milton teacher who gave a major donation for the project, said she remembers crawling through the tunnel beneath the Goodrich cabin during the mid-1930s, when she was a young girl. At the time, it was a 3-foot-tall dirt crawlspace.


Hudson said she’s glad the building has been preserved for future generations.


“So many communities have difficulty keeping these buildings up. It’s good to know that there are people who still have in interest in serving the past,” she said.



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