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The 7 Best Reasons to Visit Milton House Museum (and Underground Railroad Stop) in Wisconsin
Milton, Wisconsin, is a small town in Southeast Wisconsin with a population of around 6,000. Milton is a 90-minute drive southwest of Milwaukee, just under 2 hours from Chicago, and halfway between Madison, Wi, and Rockford, Illinois. Because Milton is such a small town, you would not necessarily expect to see much of anything interesting there. But you would be wrong. The Milton House Museum is rich in history and is worth a stop. Here are the seven best reasons to go out of your way to visit the Milton House Museum in Milton, Wisconsin.
#1 Reason to Visit the Milton House Museum
To Learn How Settlers and Travelers Lived in the 1800s
The Milton House was initially constructed in 1844 by Joseph Goodrich, founder of the town of Milton. Built as a Stagecoach Inn at the intersection of a trail used by militia and a pathway used by Native Americans, the Milton House would quickly become a popular place for travelers to stop and get a night’s rest out of the elements.
I toured the Milton House and enjoyed walking through the rooms and hearing about the travelers’ experience when staying there. In modern-day travel, if I stop at a hotel, I’ll expect my very own room and bathroom; thank you very much. In the mid-1800s, the Stagecoach Inn didn’t have such rules. They crammed as many people as possible into the rooms.
As a traveler, you may be in a 10’ room with seven other strangers. And you were thankful for a place to sleep out of the elements. You were exceptionally fortunate if you had a bed upon which to lay. Many travelers just rolled out some blankets on the floor and did their best to get through the night.
The tour guide will give you the whole scoop on how the guests entered, stayed, and slept, including my favorite part, a look at the “ladies lounge,” where the delicate women of their day could gather away from the buff and brawny, cigar-smoking men and their whiskey. What a great reminder of how far we’ve come! Nowadays, that ladies’ lounge would have its own bar!
#2 Reason to Visit the Milton House Museum
To See Cool Relics From a Time Gone By
I am not a big collector of antiques, but I love looking at them! The Milton House Museum is full of antiques and items from the original Stagecoach Inn. While you tour, you’ll see and hear about the original guest register, an advertising clock that stood in the lobby of a nearby hotel, and many pieces of original furniture and room furnishings.
#3 Reason to Visit the Milton House Museum
To Walk Through a Cool Hexagon-Shaped Building
How many of us can say we’ve walked through a Hexagon-shaped building? I can say it now! The fact is, the hexagon shape has many advantages. A hexagonal house has a simple roof shape, it’s space efficient, much more efficient to heat in cooler temperatures, and is more wind-resistant than a square home. Joseph Goodrich was a wise man in many aspects, and one can assume that he reasoned some of these advantages before building.
Goodrich was also ahead of his time in using poured concrete to construct the Milton House. As you tour the museum, your guide will explain the basics of poured concrete and how it works and will show you an area of the wall where you can see precisely how the poured concrete looks. There are many lessons to be learned in the Milton House. Although I would not have expected a lecture on architecture and building techniques, I was still fascinated.
#4 Reason to Visit the Milton House Museum
To Gain a Better Understanding of the Politics of Abolition
Hold your hats! This peek into the politics of abolition in Wisconsin was a real eye-opener for me. I am the definition of white privilege, being a 50+ woman with alabaster white skin. I like to think of myself as aware of the traumas that affected those enslaved people in America’s history, yet the visit to Milton House was very eye-opening. A significant portion of the tour focuses on the Goodrich Family and the Milton House’s role as a part of the Underground Railroad.
Disclaimer: I am NOT a historian. I am trying to relay information to the best of my understanding. Please research this on your own for accuracy. Please be gentle with me if I’ve misrepresented something here.
Of course, much of our understanding of slavery and the Civil War can be attributed to politics. A group of bills was passed in 1850 that helped to quiet the early whispers of secession of the South. Within these bills was a revised version of the Fugitive Slave Act, rather forcefully compelling citizens to aid in the capture and return of fugitive slaves. When we look at the details of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, it goes without saying how unjust this was and how this act ultimately swayed in favor of the white slave catchers.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
Here are the basics of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in plain English: A slave catcher held all the power. He could ID another human as a fugitive slave, and everyone accepted his word. The fugitive was offered no defense, his word meant nothing, and he was not given a trial by jury. His life depended upon a Southern Commissioner’s (or judge’s) decision.
Slave owners put out hefty rewards for the capture of their “property,” and slave catchers were more concerned with filling their pockets with money than if they actually caught the right person, so in many cases, free black people were caught and turned in to collect a reward.
The Love of Money is the Root of All Evil
Any citizen who tried to stop the capture of another human as a fugitive received a fine of $1,000. If the fugitive escaped, the citizen stepping in was additionally held responsible for the monetary value of the fugitive. Imprisonment of up to six months was also in the cards.
In other words, if you were a white citizen hanging out on the street corner and saw a slave catcher attempting to capture someone, even a free black man, and you stepped in to stop the capture, you were in the wrong in the eyes of the law. You would be fined $1,000 and then made to pay for the enslaved person’s value if he escaped, and then you might get prison time besides. Yikes. A pretty powerful reason to turn the other cheek for the average person. It makes my skin crawl.
Once captured, the fugitive would go before a commissioner who would decide his fate. When the commissioner favored the enslaved person’s master, he received ten dollars. If he favored the enslaved person, he received five dollars; a powerful incentive to find in favor of the enslaver, all while lining the pockets of the wealthy white man.
One can see how dangerous it would be to oppose this law, yet the Goodrich family, with their staunchly conservative views and deeply held religious beliefs, did their best to do just that. They used the Milton House as an active stop on Wisconsin’s Underground Railroad.
#5 Reason to Visit the Milton House Museum
To See Amazing Murals
First and foremost, I learned a new term while at the Milton House Museum. I had frequently thought of runaway slaves as just that, yet after hearing our guide use the term “Freedom Seeker” throughout the tour, my mind began to shift in thinking. Rather than characterizing escaped slaves as poor, helpless souls at the mercy of the white men around them, I started thinking of them as courageous humans who took an active part in being the hero of their own stories.
A little more of my white privilege snuck up on me when we learned that whites were the minority on the underground railroad. That’s right. White history tells of the valiant white sympathizers who stepped up to help the poor and enslaved, yet the truth is Freedom Seekers were masters of their futures. Although there were white sympathizers, more importantly, countless formerly enslaved and free black citizens were instrumental in assisting these freedom seekers to safety.
Further, it makes sense. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to put your trust in a person with white skin, knowing your history with that population? The Goodrich family helped provide the stop and move the Freedom Seekers through one night of their journey North, but there were many more black citizens moving their people through the underground railroad. The Freedom Seekers put everything at risk for their futures and were not dependent solely on the mercy of white men.
The Murals Are Moving
As we made our way through the museum, we traveled down from the third to the lowest level, but the artwork lining the walls of the stairwells stopped me in my tracks. Gorgeous, brightly-colored murals tell the story of the black experience from life on a plantation to the arrival at the Milton House along the journey to freedom. The longer I looked at these works of art, the more details I saw. When I visit next time, I will spend much more time studying and enjoying the artwork!
Huge kudos to artist Larry Schultz, who shared his artistic genius. In 2019, the museum commissioned Mr. Schultz, a local artist, to paint these murals. This level of artistry is exceptional, and his use of color is phenomenal. I can’t gush enough about the beauty and power in these images.
Hip Grandma Tip: When you tour, pay particular attention to the stairwell ceiling on your last steps leading into the basement. It’s incredibly gorgeous!
#6 Reason to Visit the Milton House Museum
To Experience the Feeling of Being a Freedom Seeker on the Underground Railroad
Once we arrived at the lowest level, aka the basement, our guide ushered us into a dark, unfinished space and told the tale of how the Freedom Seekers made their way into this dark and gloomy basement (with no natural light) to hide from the slave catchers.
Modern-day convenience allowed dim lighting in the room, making it slightly less scary. Still, I could imagine crouching on the cold cement floor behind cobwebs and various boxes, listening to every creak and groan of the floor above, and praying no one would come barging through that door. The fact is, there was little to no way of escaping.
A Scary Escape Tunnel
The only escape was a small, concealed doorway leading to a lone, dark dirt tunnel and up a ladder into a log cabin still sitting behind the Milton House. At the top of the ladder, a hatch opens in the floor of the little cabin bringing Freedom Seekers back to ground level, then out the door to continue their journey.
We made our way through that underground tunnel, adjusted for modern-day tourism, made taller so we could walk, not crawl, and outfitted with dim lighting the length of it. Instead of climbing a ladder at the end, we climbed stairs. Even with all of these modern adjustments, the smell, air temperature, and feeling of the narrow walls brushing my arms were claustrophobic and spooky. I can and cannot imagine crawling through that tunnel in pitch-black darkness while running for my life.
To know that real people have traveled that path before me merely to stay alive left me mentally exhausted. Yet I’m glad to have the experience to carry forward. The human experience is so unique. As Steve Jobs says, “The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” Experiencing this has broadened my understanding. I hope it does the same for every person who visits.
#7 Reason to Visit the Milton House Museum
To See How a Community Rallies Around a Historic Site
Whew – now back to today. Over 100 years after being constructed, and after the Milton House welcomed countless travelers, served as a stop for Freedom Seekers, and underwent numerous redesigns and additions, the building collapsed on April 30, 1948. Not the entire building, but rather a portion of the building. Surprisingly, no one died in the collapse, although one man had a close call. The building was rendered unusable.
But as history would have it, before the collapse, the Milton Historical Society (MHS) had already negotiated to purchase the building and convert it into a museum. In 1951 the Wisconsin State Legislature granted a sum of $15,000 to the MHS, which is about $167,000 in 2022. Now that they had the building and the money, how would they get the work done and open the museum? Simple. You guessed it. Volunteers!
Volunteers around Milton showed great pride in this project by coming out to get the job done. They painted, cleaned, hammered, shoveled, and did whatever needed doing to get that museum up and running. And their work did not stop there. In the early years after the museum opened, volunteers took turns guiding visitors through the museum.
A note about accessibility: The Milton House has stairs everywhere, but the website shows that the museum is handicap accessible everywhere except for the tunnel. Parking is very close and easy to access. There is air conditioning throughout the museum.
Wrapping It All Up
Today the Milton House Museum is the only authenticated underground railroad stop in the state of Wisconsin. It is a national historic landmark on the United States register of historic places. The museum is easy to find, located at 18 S Janesville St in Milton, Wisconsin. If you’re bringing a group, please schedule in advance, and walk-in tours operate on the hour during the summer from early June through Labor Day.
Trust me when I tell you it’s worth a visit. Have you been? What was your favorite part? I’d love to hear about it! Please tell me in the comments or in my Facebook Group!
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