Nearly 200 years ago, Joseph Goodrich decided to risk everything to change the lives of many.
The Milton Historical Society plans to salute that historic decision at the Milton House’s 175th anniversary picnic Wednesday.
In 1844, Goodrich built a small stagecoach inn and later expanded the property to include a business area and larger hotel. The property features a tunnel that was part of the extensive Underground Railroad that helped people escape slavery.
The building is now the Milton House Museum, a walk-through historical site that teaches people about Goodrich and Milton’s history.
The grout and other materials used to construct the building have required a lot of maintenance, and parts of the building crumbled years ago. But the community has donated time and money to save the main part of the historical property.
Kari Klebba, historical society executive director, said organizers want to thank the community with the free picnic.
“The Milton House is standing today because of the community,” she said. “This is not a building that could’ve survived on its own without the direct preservation and volunteerism from Milton.”
Blackhawk Community Credit Union is sponsoring Wednesday’s event, which starts at 5 p.m. in North Goodrich Park. Piggly Wiggly will cater the food.
“This building represents a lot of different things,” Klebba said. “What it lacks in splendor it makes up for in a truly unique and special story. The Milton House was an epicenter, and it was from here that Milton grew.”
The museum is one of four authenticated sites from the Underground Railroad in Wisconsin, and it is the only site that is open for tours. Last year ,more than 12,000 people visited the museum.
“When people come here, they are quite literally transported,” Klebba said.
Klebba said the museum is looking at future improvements, including updated exhibits that include technology.
For now, she hopes people continue to appreciate the history inside, which locals can see firsthand Wednesday.
“When we are here, we want to make sure there is a personal experience and people understand that places like this matter because they make history come to life.”
Cole N. Ansier
Marshall “Marty” F. Guelker
Richard “Rick” McKee
Joan L. Olson
Esther M. Puhl
Anna M. Reinsbach
Caryl L. Swanson
Tommy Zurhellen started walking east from Portland, Oregon, on April 14, intent on touching lives.
He trudged along one mile. Then another. And another.
The 50-year-old Persian Gulf War veteran averages 22 miles a day, a distance he chose to raise awareness.
Zurhellen cites a 2015 Veterans Administration report saying an average of 22 vets each day take their own lives, which is more than double the suicide rate in the civilian population.
“The biggest issue is getting vets the mental health help they need,” Zurhellen said. “In the military, we are trained not to complain, not to ask questions. So it is tough ...”
On Wednesday, the man with a message will make his way to Beloit, where he will be welcomed Thursday at a Beloit College event.
Zurhellen graduated from Beloit College in 1991, served in the U.S. Navy from 1991 to 1997 and teaches English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
On Friday morning, Zurhellen will leave Beloit and walk to Janesville on Highway 51. The self-described big man with a funny hat invites people, including other vets, to walk with him.
Zurhellen is 6 feet, 5 inches tall and sometimes wears his VFW commander post cap. As commander of the VFW post in Poughkeepsie, he first became aware of the challenges veterans face.
“I get a lot of calls from the VA, nonprofits and individual vets all asking for help from my post,” Zurhellen said. “I figured if this is going on in my town, it has to be going on in other towns across the country.”
The realization motivated his walking adventure, which will end after almost 3,000 miles in Poughkeepsie.
“I knew I wanted to do something to create awareness,” Zurhellen said.
The response has been “really phenomenal,” he said. “I meet veterans every day, and it is great hearing their stories. Once you are a veteran, you see the world through different eyes. You really can’t explain that to others.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs released its newest National Suicide Data Report in June, which is based on data from 2005 through 2015.
The report said:
Zurhellen also is intent on bringing awareness to the average number of homeless vets in America every night: more than 40,000.
“People are very surprised when they hear this number, which is based on a Veterans Administration survey,” Zurhellen said. “A lot of VA programs have been cut in recent years. Homelessness is an ‘everyone’ issue, but we should be taking care of our veterans. They are the ones who protect us, and we should protect them.”
People have a lot of stereotypes about homeless vets, he added.
“We think we know their situations, but we really don’t,” Zurhellen said. “I have worked with many homeless vets, and it really opened my eyes to know that none fit the tired stereotypes. These are hardworking people who have had their medical benefits changed or some other reason to find themselves in financial circumstances they cannot control.”
Zurhellen hopes to raise more than $40,000 for programs to support veterans though a GoFundMe page.
Everyone knows a veteran, and “probably a lot of veterans are struggling, even if we don’t know it,” Zurhellen said. “People need to connect with the veterans they know. It sounds simple, but it is not. Once we raise awareness, we can start identifying vets who need help.”
Zurhellen is more than halfway through his journey, which he hopes will make a difference.
“Things are turning out better than I had hoped,” he said. “Being a New Yorker, I had this fear of no one on the road really caring about what I was doing. But that has not happened at all. People stop all the time and want to talk about the veterans in their lives.”
Patrons of downtown businesses wouldn’t necessarily be peering into street-level living rooms, but if the city moves forward on a new housing idea, the first floors in some storefronts could be partly converted to apartments.
The Janesville Historic Commission on Tuesday will hear more about an idea city planners have to ease a housing shortage—and attract more people who want to live downtown.
Planning Director Duane Cherek said city staff aims to bring to the city council a “minor” zoning change that would permit first-floor residential occupancy—apartments, essentially—inside storefronts in the downtown business district: the corridor of Milwaukee and Main streets.
The idea, he said, came out of a city housing summit last year that identified first-floor spaces in the central business district as an option for market-rate apartments.
Some downtown property owners already have renovated upper-floor spaces for apartments, but street-level apartments currently aren’t allowed.
Cherek said the renovation process would be fleshed out through a conditional-use protocol and would follow local and state fire code rules on access to entrances and exits.
“The intention is to maintain what we’ve been trying to promote and accomplish with downtown revitalization in terms of pedestrian walkability,” Cherek said. “We’ve crafted what’s a reasonable means to allow ground-floor occupancy, which maintains the integrity and authenticity of the downtown district.”
He believes a “limited” number of property owners would consider such apartments.
“We don’t expect this is going to be widespread, but it still provides another opportunity for those who have an underutilized building,” Cherek said.
City council member Sue Conley said Cherek earlier this month gave a presentation on first-floor apartments at a meeting of Downtown Janesville Inc., a nonprofit downtown stakeholders group.
Conley said group members seemed to prefer a “middle-of-the-road” approach to first-floor apartments in storefronts.
She said the proposal likely would limit the apartments to the “spine” of downtown’s business district—Milwaukee and Main streets and a few adjacent streets. That means only “30 to 40%” of downtown storefronts would be considered for street-level apartments, she said, and of those properties, only a fraction of property owners might float a proposal.
Tuesday’s historic commission discussion will be informational, giving city staff a chance to get feedback from the commission. It’s not a public hearing, and the commission will take no action, Cherek said.
A draft ordinance could go to the council next week, but it faces two public hearings before any final vote, Cherek said.
Commission member Jackie Wood said the commission has been interested in expanding a historic overlay on Courthouse Hill to parts of downtown to ensure that renewal projects protect the historic features of downtown commercial buildings.
She said some historic preservationists would not want to see apartment projects that dramatically alter buildings’ appearances.
“The main thing that saves (the proposal) for me is that, based on what I’ve heard, a storefront itself would have to remain commercial or retail,” Wood said. “Depending on the size of a building and how much is being used for a business, you could carve out a decent-size, first-floor apartment behind the store space.”
“You won’t be walking by along Main Street or Milwaukee Street and see some people sleeping behind a plate-glass window that used to be a retail store. That would be weird,” she said.