MILTON -- As we celebrate Black History Month we highlight Wisconsin-- being at the forefront of the anti-slavery movement. Milton House Museum, in Milton, Wisconsin, is one of the tangible proofs of that effort. Some slaves escaped on the underground railroad, taking temporary refuge at the hexagon-shaped Milton House from 1845 to the mid-1860s.
By the early 1850s, Milton House was a bustling Inn, serving as the stage coach and railway hub of north east Rock County. Think of it as a bus station with sleeping quarters.
Owner and abolitionist, Joseph Goodrich, had a profound secret lurking underneath. Kari Klebba, executive director of the iconic Milton House Museum, led us to cabin behind the Milton House that served as a kitchen and also where fugitive slaves would enter. "Outside that door would have been maybe a cart piled high with potatoes, firewood", she said. "Something that would have hidden a man or woman underneath." Underground railroad conductors would drive the wagons to transport the runaways.
Once in the kitchen the slaves were slipped into a dark makeshift root cellar through a trap door that covered a hole that led to a 45-foot long tunnel, only about three-and-a-half feet in height. The tunnel led to the cellar of the Inn, underneath the hustle and bustle of the travelers above. "This is where we know they slept", said Klebba. "This where we know they sought shelter."
There is not a lot of documentation about the goings on at the Inn. Probably because of the risk of fines and jail to the Goodrich family and the rest of the abolitionists if proof of the underground railroad got into the wrong hands. But one fugitive slave's past is having a huge impact on the present, Andrew Pratt.
Uncovered in the Goodrich family documents: a scrap piece of paper with his name, a reference to the underground passage and the year 1861. That was enough to get Milton House authenticated by the Network of Freedom as having underground railroad activity. And, it is the only site so designated in Wisconsin that can be toured.
Researchers recently discovered more about Pratt 'the man'. "Now we're sort of connecting some of those dots even 170 years later," said Doug Welch, assistant dir. of Milton House museum. It started with a Minnesota census record from 1880 with his name. Then, Milton House researchers located his 1863 registration for draft, listing him as 28.
"That", said Klebba, "helps us verify him with those records we had been made aware of, the census records."
In October of last year, a historian just happened to come to Milton House and asked if they'd heard of Andrew Pratt. "He brought to our attention the letter that we had not been aware of previously", said Klebba. "This letter is so remarkable". It is a dated letter to Wisconsin Governor Edward Salomon, asking that he as a "colored man" be allowed to enlist in the union army. Just as remarkable, the governor wrote him back.
The census put Pratt in Wells, Minnesota after leaving Milton. Records show he was a barber, bought land, got married to a white woman and had children. There is even documentation of his life insurance-- will-- and obituary.
He died at age 55. "we actually believe we've found his descendents, Klebba said with excitement. And we're in contact with one. No kidding."
So, Pratt's story is far from over.