Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

No cameras allowed on these historic premises January 4, 2012

The main entry to the Hearthstone Historic House Museum in Appleton, Wisconsin, located at 625 W. Prospect.

NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED.

Post a sign with that message or speak those words to me and you’ll find yourself with one unhappy woman. I can’t help it. My camera is a natural extension of me, so when I can’t photograph I’m unsettled and discontented.

I never expected to encounter a photo ban at an 1882 historic home I toured in Appleton, Wisconsin on Saturday afternoon. But I hadn’t even reached the wreath-adorned double front doors of the Hearthstone Historic House Museum when my daughter pointed to the sign banning photography.

I automatically hugged my Canon EOS 20-D DSLR closer to my right side as we waited for a tour guide to unlock the front door and allow us access into this Victorian home, the first residence—in the world—electrified from a centrally located hydroelectric plant.

If you think I would simply accept the “no photos” rule without question, then you don’t know me. I asked and was told photography would be disruptive to the tour. “Even without flash?” I pursued.

Yes.

I contemplated for some time how I could sneak in a photo or two. But with tight quarters and visitors packed into the home’s rooms, taking covert photos wasn’t even a remote possibility. Besides, the click of the shutter button would surely give me away and I was not about to become the first tourist kicked out of this lovely mansion.

So you will need to settle for exterior images of this house built for Henry J. Rogers, today’s equivalent of the CEO of the Appleton Paper and Pulp Company. He lived here with his wife, Cremora, and their daughter, Kitty, for some 10 years until the nearby paper mill was destroyed by fire.

The original home of Henry J. Rogers and family sits along the Fox River.

From the exterior, this hilltop riverside home, built for $17,000, isn’t nearly as impressive as I’d expected. But inside, ah, inside, the décor is about as opulent and detailed as any historic residence I’ve ever toured.

Nine fireplaces grace rooms defined by wood—inlaid floors, detailed carvings, wood trim and ceilings and, well, wood everywhere. But I suppose when you live in Wisconsin and head up a paper company, finding wood to construct your mansion isn’t a problem.

An Edison phonograph, a stained glass window in the grand hall entry, floor-to-ceiling windows and a hand-painted ceiling in the parlor, the focal point fireplaces, and a dining room table set for Christmas dinner all impressed me.

A sign explains the house's historical significance. The house is on the National Register of Historic Places.

In retrospect, I suppose I should have been most impressed by the rare 1882 light switches and electroliers still in operation. After all, the lighting ranks as the reason this home holds such historic value. But, honestly, I’m not all that scientific minded. The décor and personal stories shared by our tour guide interested me far more than the hydro-electric powered lighting system.

Our guide informed us that the Rogers family was charged $1 a month per light bulb for the 50 light bulbs in the house. In the 1880s, $50 was a sizeable chunk of money to pay for monthly electrical usage. That reveals the substantial wealth of this family.

Rogers, however, eventually died with only $12 to his name after moving to Chicago and losing money in a silver market that crashed, a second tour guide later told me.

The story, though, that truly snatched my interest involves Kitty. When she became engaged, the Rogers’ daughter verified the authenticity of her diamond by etching her and her fiancé’s initials into a library window (still there). Not to be judgmental here, but I was not at all surprised when the tour guide revealed that the marriage did not last.

Later, while touring the second floor, we were informed that Henry and Cremora slept in separate bedrooms because the couple thought they would catch tuberculosis from one another by breathing in the same night air. OK, then. But, I suppose I must consider the time period and the lack of knowledge regarding diseases.

Finally, the tidbit I found most personally appropriate involved visitors to the Rogers’ mansion. They would leave their calling cards, the equivalent of today’s business cards, on a table in the great hall. Visitors would bend the corners of their cards in a certain way, depending on the reason for their visits. The family would then decide whether they wanted to see the guest.

At that point in the tour, I considered scribbling “Here to take photos” on my business card and dropping it onto the foyer table.

The Rogers' home, which was home to nine other families and which once housed a restaurant called The Hearthstone in the 1930s, is not yet fully-restored to the 1880-1895 time period.

Inside and outside, Hearthstone is decorated with Christmas trees and other holiday decor for a "Victorian Christmas" special event which continues through January 14.

NOTE: Lest you consider me disrespectful of rules, I am not. I understand, somewhat, the “no photography” rule at the Hearthstone house. And I most certainly understand why flash photography would not be permitted in an historic place.

One other point I want to mention: During my tour of the Hearthstone mansion, a visitor’s cell phone rang and she proceeded to answer it, right in the middle of the tour. Now that I found disruptive.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling