Exploring art, history, and community at the Rising Star Mill
NELSONVILLE, Wis. (WSAW) - After entering through its doors, people seem to find a piece of themselves at the Rising Star Mill in Nelsonville.
It gave Robert Rosen the confidence to continue pursuing photography.
“It was the first place I ever showed any of my photography to the public,” he said. “I didn’t sell anything, but I got positive feedback and that was important.”
It gave Jim Walker, now the president of the Rising Star Mill Committee and self-described facilitator of community and volunteers for the space, a place to engage his aspiration to become a teacher.
“...never fulfilling that because I-- sitting in class one day says I’m not going to put up with that stuff,” he laughed, “that I saw my teachers putting up with.”
The space seems to have this aura that captures the imagination and entices those who love history, art, community, and culture.
“There’s (sic) so many stories that the building itself tells,” Bill McKee said, who helped restore the building.
“It’s fun to be here,” Tim Siebert of the Portage County Historical Society said. “You open some of these shoots where the flour came out and it still comes out. I mean the stuff is still in there!”
“It’s inviting. It’s warm. It’s community spirit, which has gotten to me,” Rosen noted.
It is the last flour mill standing in Portage County, though it no longer operates as a mill. Ask any one of the volunteers that help tend to it and they will say it has been a centerpiece to the village since it was constructed.
The mill is on the state and National Register of Historic Places as of 2018 and 2019 respectively. It was built in 1868 after Jerome Nelson, the person the village is named after, came back from the Civil War. It stored and supplied flour and seed to area farmers. At one point it also helped to power the village.
“At the end of the day when there was enough water left in the pond, the dam was able to generate electricity for the village,” Walker said. “At a certain period of time at night when the water was getting down too low and they knew it was going to be insufficient to generate enough electricity, they would then blink the lights, blink the power so the village would know that the power was going to be shut off imminently.”
In the 1980s, the Department of Natural Resources was planning to demolish the dam to help preserve the trout habitat. It also planned to raze the building.
“The last operator and owner of the mill turned it on for us and it was an amazing experience,” Siebert said, giddy with excitement. “The whole building just shook as all of the belts and the wheels began to turn. Dust came out of everywhere. It was just an amazing experience. And we just decided this was a place we had to have just to preserve the history of this community.”
The Portage County Historical Society worked out an agreement with the DNR and purchased the building for $1. The DNR still owns the land it is on.
“It was great uncovering the building,” McKee said.
McKee, who is a self-described urban archeologist, was critical to the clean-up that was required after PCHS obtained the mill.
“This place was an unbelievable mess,” Siebert said.
McKee captured photos of that time, helping to preserve that piece of its history.
After coming out of the mill dust, PCHS had to decide how it would use the space.
“We couldn’t run it because, obviously, the head was gone from the pond, but (the plan was for it was) to be used as a museum,” Siebert began. “But then it kind of evolved into this community art and theatre kind of thing and it has really just mushroomed tremendously with that theme in mind, which is terrific.”
For the last 40 or so years that is how it has been used. Friday, volunteers were readying the space for another gallery show, “Portrait of the Mill,” which runs Sept. 18-19 and is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The show features artwork of the mill, including those photos McKee captured, as well as Rosen’s collection of photographs he took of the mill in 1990. Twenty percent of Rosen’s photographs sold will go towards maintaining the mill and funding more events there.
While the people who love the mill say it is a treasure in the community, it is clear the people in the community are the true treasure. Walker said people regularly volunteer their time or give their money to preserve this building. He said they keep an eye on it, making sure to tend to plants, the lawn, and the endless grain that falls on the floor that has wedged itself in the structure over the century.
People like Walker volunteer their time to educate people to learn more about the local history. He invests in finding answers to questions he does not know and he gives tours on all levels to ignite that curiosity.
“There are two things that the kids all get a kick out of; I can explain how these mills worked and how important they were for the farming community at the time that it existed,” he began. “The two things that they get a kick out of: One is when we talk about the telephones, the old telephones because there’s an old PBX machine in there. They are familiar with their little hand-held devices, so they get a kick out of that. And the other thing happens to be the old toilet, the mill toilet in the back. I am never ceased to be amazed by the interest level of middle school kids when they see how those old toilets worked.”
For those interested in seeing that toilet, phone, and other interesting things about this community fixture, they encourage people to come to the gallery show over the weekend. They also encourage people to join them for the annual open house Oct. 2-3, which will feature 75 of 1,500 art pieces of Portage County barns, many of which no longer exist.
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