Menomonee and Montrealer: Milwaukee’s first power couple

MILWAUKEE
I spent weeks leading up to this trip telling people excitedly that I was headed to Wisconsin and their response was nearly unanimous: “ … ?”

That’s probably the reaction Solomon Juneau got when he told his fellow Montrealers he was headed to Wisconsin and you know what he did while he was here? Founded a whole damn city, that’s what.

Old Solomo wasn’t the first Quebec fur trader to come to Wisconsin, but he made the deepest imprint. He took over a small trading post by the lake from Jacques Vieaux in the 1830s and transformed it from a pit stop along the Michigan-Mississippi route into what we now call Milwaukee.

History calls him founder, entrepreneur, postmaster, first mayor, and relates that he was widely respected. But the best thing history remembers is his intense love for his young bride, the Métis daughter of Vieaux, Josette.

Josette was the granddaughter of Menomonee Indian Chief Ah-ke-ne-po-way (Standing Earth). She bore 17 children, 13 of whom survived, and was clearly her husband’s partner in all endeavours. A 1916 biography of Solomon, written by their granddaughter Isabella Fox, at first appears to downplay her strengths: “Although young in years at the time of her marriage, she was adept in the art of housekeeping.”

Then the truth comes out: She was also a midwife, nurse, and alongside Solomon a great philanthropist. Her work with the poor would be noted even by Pope Leo XII. She was fluent in French, of course, but also spoke many aboriginal languages, and so served alongside her husband as translator and collaborator.

Together they gave away land and help build churches and entertained the most influential of Wisconsin’s elite. They straddled a world of luxury and simplicity and eventually, together, nearly emptied their coffers with their goodwill.

Josette had had enough of city life anyway, and so they retired to Theresa, a town north of Milwaukee that Solomon had founded and named for his mother, Thérese. They lived only a few quiet years before Josette grew gravely ill and died in 1855. Solomon succumbed to his broken heart soon after.

The Theresa Historical Society says “700 Indians including Chiefs Oshkosh, Corrow, Larriet, and Keshena marched with his funeral bier to the burial grounds at the Keshena reservation.”

Their bodies were eventually moved to Milwaukee, but the location of their final resting place matters less than that they are together still.

Charles Milwaukee Sivyer, an otherwise upstanding Wisconsin businessman, said of Josette a decade after her death, “Had she the education of a white woman, she would have shone as brightly as any of her white sisters. Why all these orators don’t give that good woman more praise, I don’t know.

“Why, the last words of Solomon Juneau were, ‘Dear wife, I come to you’.”

(Posted with extra love on the occasion of the marriage of another power couple, Erin Stropes and Jordan Knoll. Live happily ever after)

It had to be Fargo

At an alien-themed restaurant somewhere in North Dakota.
At an alien-themed restaurant somewhere in North Dakota.

We’re in Tomah, Wis. We’d hoped to get as far as Madison, but we’re all beat from two hard, long days, and Melani saw the sign on the side of the road: “Econolodge. 24-hour pool.” I think it was even hyphenated, so, y’know, bonus.

 Swimming with the kids, I met a soldier stationed at a base near here. He’s training fresh boys, but there’s no more room in the barracks, so the poor soul and his three underlings have to stay here in the hotel with the pool. We had a good chat in the hot tub while he sipped a Budweiser, talking about how army guys hate journalists and how many journalists really do want to tell the story – we didn’t get political and we didn’t argue about what the real story might be. He was a sweet guy and when Melani and I went back to the pool once the kids were in bed, I was hoping he was still there – I felt stupid because during our conversation I blanked on the name Petawawa and I wanted to redeem myself.

 He wasn’t there, but his buddy Rob was. Rob was drinking, too, which was okay because I’d gone to the car for my last can of Alexander Keiths.

 He gets in the hot tub right after me and after a quick introduction (he’s from New York, and his mom’s French Canadian), his leg is suddenly right under mine. The water’s buoyant, though; it can happen. As I generally do in these situations, I just sorta freeze up, but my eyes widen a bit when he’s suddenly playing footsie with me. I tactfully move away and there’s a huge burst of bubbles from his crotch region.

 “It’s the jets!” he promises. “My pants just fill right up. I oughtta take ’em right off.”

 Melani shows up then and he’s overjoyed that I’ve brought a friend. “Isn’t this just your lucky day?” I suggest, and he’s all smiles. Smiles and footsie.

 “They’re filling up again!” he announces and grabs my hand. “Feel this!”

 “You want me to feel your pants?”

 And because I’m halfway through my beer, of course I do, and off course the air that’s built up inside them releases and there’s bubbles all over.

Ella's Diner in Madison, Wis.
Ella's Diner in Madison, Wis.

The House on the Rock

I could show you pictures of the World’s Largest Carousel at the House on the Rock. I could probably even find some YouTube of it somewhere. But until you’ve been there yourself … until you’ve walked into that basement and been blinded by thousands on thousands of lights and assaulted by the loudest carousel music ever … until you’ve stood there and stared up at hundreds of mythical creatures going round and round and round … there is no way you’d understand. It is a thing of beauty.

The House on the Rock, built by collector and visionary Alex Jordan, is a wonder itself. It is (and this will shock you) built into the rock. It’s huge, but built small. There are staircases leading everywhere, through narrow hallways with low ceilings. Bookcases are built into every cranny, as are long, low benches with dark cushions.

Infinity room at the House on the Rock. It goes on for ... well, y'know.
Infinity room at the House on the Rock. It goes on for ... well, y'know.

A mountain stream runs through the house, coming inside as a small waterfall along the rocks that make up one wall. It’s so, so beautiful. After touring the house, there are two more tours, filled with animatronic wonders. And then, of course, there is the World’s Largest Carousel. Just down the road a few miles is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, which we oohed and aahed at but did not tour.

As I write this, we are in Wisconsin Dells, Wis. We’re not far from where we were yesterday morning (in the peaceful home of Benet and his wonderful wife), but it’s because we spent so long having fun at the House, taking pictures of Taliesin and touring the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum.

Trojan coaster in Wisconsin Dells, Wis.
Trojan coaster in Wisconsin Dells, Wis.

For your continued viewing pleasure, here’s a small piece of the Madison, Wis., Monona Terrace community centre, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright:

They came in 50 great motherships ...
They came in 50 great motherships ...

As far as Wisconsin

“The speed limit is 50 miles per hour,” Melani tells me as we take the fork toward Madison, Wis. “They went to the trouble of putting it right on the sign, so they probably mean it.”

That was near the end of the day, and I was pretty much letting the car make the decisions for me. Four states in nine hours: Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin. We’ve gone and crossed a time zone and everything, but it feels very much as though we are still in the East; there’s too much civilization and far too much construction.

The kids have been peach-picking and to a county fair (that’s them down below, leaving the fairgrounds), but driving takes a toll, especially on the one of us who isn’t used to hard travelling. Today I hope there will be more relaxation and fewer tears.

Also, less civilization and, if we’re lucky, a little Prairie?

At a county fair in Michigan
At a county fair in Michigan