About 20 minutes northeast of Janesville, Wisconsin, you’ll discover the small town of Milton. In addition to a fantastic winery and some beautiful historic houses, this community is also home to the Milton House Museum.
Built in 1845, this three-story hexagonal building was once a bustling stagecoach inn. But the Milton House Hotel’s influence extends far beyond its walls. Similarly, the hotel’s founders, the Goodrich family, had a huge impact on the growth of this progressive Wisconsin community.
Over the years, the hotel has welcomed hundreds of guests, many passing through the area on their way from Chicago to Madison. But the Milton House Hotel also served a different clientele. For many years, the hotel’s founder Joseph Goodrich made helping fugitive slaves escape to Canada on the Underground Railroad an essential part of his work.
Today, Milton House has been named a National Historic Landmark, and is the last certified Underground Railroad station in Wisconsin. While the Milton House Museum is an incredible way to learn about the area’s early history, its story of social equality and the difference one person can make rings especially true today.
When I visited the Milton House museum, we were lucky enough to get a tour from the Milton Historical Society’s Executive Director Kari Klebba. Not only is Kari a phenomenal, funny storyteller, but she also does an incredible job sharing the hugely important history that Milton House holds.
A Bit of History About the Goodrich Family
Without the Goodrich family, it’s likely that the town of Milton wouldn’t exist as it does today. In 1838, Joseph Goodrich and his wife, Nancy, set out west from their home in New York. The Goodrich family and a group of fellow Seventh Day Baptists planned to file claims on unsettled land in Wisconsin.
The group ultimately claimed the land along the Rock River that would later become Milton. It was here that Joseph constructed the family’s log cabin. The town began to grow quickly and the Goodrich family soon ran out of room to house their guests.
By 1845, traffic through Milton had grown so much that the Goodrich family needed even more space. So they constructed the three-story grout building that still stands today. The building is the oldest of its kind remaining in the U.S. But even as business boomed, the log cabin remained as an outbuilding of the hotel.
By the late 1870s, more than 25 stagecoaches were visiting Milton House every day. Even with rail travel gaining prominence, traffic to the hotel didn’t slow. During its heyday, the Goodrich family hosted all sorts of influential guests, including abolitionist Sojourner Truth and President Grover Cleveland.
Experiencing a Piece of the Underground Railroad
The Goodrich family, and the Seventh Day Baptist congregation they led, were known for being progressive people who believed in social equality in many forms. So it comes as no surprise that throughout its history, the Milton House served as a welcoming way-station for all. Among them were fugitive slaves hoping for safe passage to freedom.
In the Goodrich’s case, their Underground Railroad station truly was underground. Beneath the parlors where hotel guests congregated, fugitive slaves received a safe place to stay and a warm meal.
While the original entrance to the cellar’s secret entrance has been lost over the years, historians are fairly certain that the hidden passageway was built right into the limestone foundation of the hotel. That means that even if it wasn’t always in use, Joseph Goodrich always intended there to be a secret exit from his hotel.
The museum’s historians believe that the tunnel was initially only about three to five feet tall. In reality, the passageway was really more of a dirt crawlspace than a true tunnel. When the hotel became a museum, the tunnel was expanded and lined with brick so visitors could more easily experience the passageway.
Down the narrow passage and up a steep set of stairs, visitors find themselves inside the Goodrich’s 1837 log cabin. The small, unassuming building that helped the family get their start in Milton also helped countless slaves find their way to freedom. As the hotel grew, the cabin continued to serve as the kitchen for its many guests. So it wasn’t unusual for people to be coming and going from the building at all hours.
It’s both a somber and uplifting experience to tread the same path as the people the Goodrich family helped escape such horrible injustice. I can’t even imagine what that experience must have been like. But I was grateful for the opportunity to reflect on this dark part of our country’s history. Above all else, the Milton House is an extraordinary reminder of what one ordinary person can acheive when they stand up for what they believe in.
If you Visit the Milton House Museum
The museum is open daily Memorial Day through Labor Day with guided tours beginning every 30 minutes. During the off-season, tours of the Milton House Museum must be scheduled ahead of time.
Tours typically take between an hour and 75 minutes, and are absolutely worth your time. On your visit to the Milton House Museum you’ll learn about the history of the community, get to know the Goodrich family, and experience what their role in the underground railroad looked like firsthand.
It was truly inspiring to see the change and impact one family made on the rest of their community as well as the lives of so many strangers. If you plan to visit one historical attraction in southern Wisconsin, it should absolutely be the Milton House Museum.
Admission: $8 Adults / $6 Seniors / $4 Youth
Milton House Museum, 18 S. Janesville Street in Milton, Wisconsin
I would love to hear from you! Have you experienced Civil War history like this? Have you been to the Milton House Musem before?
Looking for more things to do in the Janesville region? Check out the other places I visited on my road trip.