Preservation takes a certain measure of passion. And so it was fortunate for the town of Mineral Point, Wisconsin, that two men passionate about the past settled down in this quiet rural corner of the state and applied their love of antiques, art, and architecture to preserving the Cornish mining history of Mineral Point.
A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Mineral Point native, Bob Neal met Edgar Hellum in 1934, as the historic Cornish miners’ cottages of Shake Rag, the community across from the mine, were falling into decay. They decided to preserve one, buying an 1890s stone miner’s cottage. Artists found these old homes inexpensive, but in need of a great deal of work.
To support their restoration efforts, the couple applied their gourmet cooking skills to open a restaurant they called Pendarvis, featuring Cornish food. John’s Cousin Gertie, who lived in nearby Dubuque, dined at Pendarvis during its heyday, as did Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and other literati. It’s said that Frank Lloyd Wright, who also lived not far away, was a regular.
Pendarvis started out as a tea room and expanded into a destination restaurant. Neal and Hellum gave it the name after a town on the map of Cornwall whose name they especially liked.
Pendarvis today is a complex of historic buildings maintained by the Wisconsin Historical Society. It includes several restored miner’s homes as well as interpretive displays. An interpretive trail connects each of the buildings in the complex.
Homes and History
The first stop provides general information on Pendarvis – the historic restaurant and homestead – as well as the Merry Christmas Hill Mine across the road, which produced ore through the early 1900s.
Entering the next cottage on the ground floor, you see exhibits on mining, including miner’s equipment and minerals found in the Mineral Point area. Climbing upstairs, you walk through rooms furnished to the period when the miners lived in this neighborhood. A root cellar burrows into the hillside behind the home.
Pendarvis, where Neal and Hellum lived, is restored to look like the 1940s, its living room filled with classy antiques, and restaurant ephemera showcased in the kitchen and dining areas. Stone terraces provided additional outdoor seating and a view of the Olympic-sized pool across the road, built by the CCC adjacent to the mines.
A path leads to a “rowhouse” cluster past the divot of the location of a former home. It now includes staff space, an art gallery, and event venue, but is anchored at the end by an 1830s cabin where a miner’s family once lived. This miner, and many others, hightailed it out of Mineral Point in 1849 for the California Gold Rush, figuring they’d make more money with gold than with zinc.
In 1970, Neal and Hellum decided to retire, and wanted the historic complex to go into the right hands. A year later, Mineral Point became the first Wisconsin community on the National Register of Historic Places. Its new owners, the Wisconsin Historical Society, opened Pendarvis for public tours.
Mineral Point Mining
Cross the street to Merry Christmas Mine Hill to explore the old mine. A hiking trail guides you up the steep hill.
The earliest mines here were to extract lead. In the 1820s, miners would dig holes with picks and shovels. Since these looked like big badger holes, the “badger” nickname for the miners would eventually lead to Wisconsin being known as “The Badger State.” If you’ve ever been to the State Capitol Building, the Badger has a place of honor there.
But in the heyday of Mineral Point, zinc was the mineral of interest. It was then that deep shafts were sunk and tracks laid to use ore carts and skips to remove larger quantities of ore from the hill. It’s best to stick to the trail, since there are still mine shafts in the woods and fields on the hill.
Along the hike, you’ll pass an ore cart on your way to the top of the hill. As you follow the trail, there are other bits and pieces of history to peek into, including large buckets, a steam engine, and the main building for the mine.
As you hike on Merry Christms Mine Hill, a restored 43-acre patch of Wisconsin prairie rolls off into the distance. It’s a colorful, wildflower-rich reminder of what was a primary habitat across this southwestern portion of Wisconsin prior to agriculture taking root, converting prairie to pasture and cornfields.
Pendarvis is open May-Oct daily 10-5, with guided tours. $10 adult admission.