TOWN OF ALBION – Those who worked to build and then restore a home here were separated by more than 155 years but had similar aspirations.
John Bullis and his family were looking for opportunity when they came from New York in 1848 to settle on this oak savanna and prairie in southeastern Dane County. This is where they later dug limestone by hand to construct a two-story farmhouse and cobble out a living as farmers.
Likewise, the more than 100 teenagers and young adults who helped refurbish the house over several months this year are hoping their experience will help reboot their lives and prepare them for the future.
Alanna McClain, 18, of Madison, dropped out of East High School but is pursuing a GED and has hopes of college where she can study psychology. But since April, she has been a member of Operation Fresh Start, a Dane County program founded in 1970 that has helped put more than 8,000 disconnected young people on a path to self-sufficiency.
For McClain, who had no exposure to rural life before entering the OFS program, the path this year has included clearing brush, planting vegetables and repairing the stone work of a farmhouse that is one of the centerpieces of Silverwood County Park.
“At first it was kind of hard because I wasn’t used to working so hard,” McClain said. “It was different and a quiet environment. But it all came together and looks really nice.”
The efforts of the pioneers and, over the past three years, OFS workers, countless volunteers and the county, have combined to create a 300-acre living museum where tourism, history, nature and agriculture have merged. This is where visitors can explore Rice Lake, tromp a trail system, grow vegetables and get an up-close view of how homes were built before there were nail guns, electric saws or a Menards.
Officials gathered here last week to celebrate the development and restoration of the Silverwood farmstead and recognize the generosity of Irene Silverwood, a former business education teacher at Edgerton High School who donated the property to the county in 2001. Silverwood died in 2003 at the age of 84.
Her family purchased the farm in 1870. “This farm is history to us,” Silverwood said in 2001. “Now this property is always going to be here for everybody.”
Since 2001, the county has rented much of the land to local farmers and continues to do so, but over the past three years it has invested $300,000 to prepare the park for public use. Buildings have been restored and repaired, prairies planted, trail systems created and garden plots developed.
Other partners in the project have included the Renegades 4-H Club; Freedom Inc., a Madison organization that works with minorities to promote healthy lifestyles; the Edgerton School District; and the Friends of Silverwood, whose projects have included the restoration of a 100-foot-long and 20 foot-high wooden corn crib.
Laura Hicklin, the county’s deputy director of land and water resources, said keeping the land in farming and providing educational opportunities were central for the Silverwoods. How some of the land is used for agriculture is still being developed.
“What it looks like moving forward is going to rely on what partners can bring to the table,” Hicklin said. “The county is saying the park is available but we’re trying not to prescribe what happens. It will evolve over time but since it’s so new we’re feeling it out with those partners.”
For example, the Friends of Silverwood are using about 16 acres for garden plots, while UW-Madison is using 44 acres for a demonstration project on switch grass. A local farmer has rented 133 acres for row crops and, beginning next year, another farmer will rent 25 acres for organic crops. More land, a hoop house and a trio of small research greenhouses could be available for other organizations, Hicklin said.
Irene and Russell Silverwood had discussed donating the land for the park long before Russell died in 1988. Russell served on the Dane County Board from 1949 to 1963, while Irene retired from teaching in 1984 after 36 years and was a longtime volunteer at the Dane County Fair.
“I think she’d be very, very pleased with this,” said Darren Marsh, the county’s parks director, as he toured the park last week. “Our goal was to stabilize the property and to get the property moving forward where we could provide public access.”
For decades the original farmhouse has been the centerpiece of the property, located near the Jefferson County line and about two miles northwest of Lake Koshkonong. The home is believed to have been built in the 1840s or 1850s according to research by Julia Ince, a history professor at UW-Whitewater who studies 18th and 19th century American domestic architecture.
The home was no longer being lived in and was in disrepair when Irene Silverwood donated the land to the county. The roof was sagging, plaster covered the interior walls, the floors had shag carpeting and mice were prolific. Beginning in January, OFS crews began gutting the house, now the park’s visitor center, and repairing the stone work. The second floor was removed to create a more open and inviting space, while the plaster was slowly removed to expose the stonework.
“It was a painstaking process with hammer and chisels. We were in here for probably four weeks just chiseling away every last bit,” said Kevin Dodds, a crew supervisor for OFS for the past two years who spent 13 years as a preservationist at Taliesin in Spring Green.
“It came off the wall in pieces about the size of the palm of your hand. Not the crew’s favorite part of the work but it was rewarding because as you can see, the result is really beautiful. It really shows you the character of this old building.”
An old garage that had been built on to the west side of the house in later years was removed and replaced with a new structure with accessible bathrooms. Limestone from old silos on the property was used to add matching stone work to the exterior walls of the addition, while wood salvaged from the removal of the second floor was used to build a porch and railings.
“To be honest, most of (the OFS crew) have never picked up a hammer before becoming here,” said Dodds, who went through the program as a youth. “This is the basics of carpentry and masonry work as it was done 150 years ago. They got a really unique experience here from start to finish.”
The visitor center will be used for historical displays, events, classes and ultimately may be used for parties and small weddings.
A gigantic oak tree that likely predates the construction of the house, towers over the north side of the building but adds to the character and historical significance of the property.
Other work by OFS crews included removing invasive species, cleaning out old buildings and improving access to the lake. They also built a makeshift vegetable cooler in a shed by using an air conditioner, insulation and plywood. In the last three years, OFS crews, in cooperation with the Friends of Silverwood, have grown potatoes, radishes, carrots, tomatoes and green beans, adding to the educational experience for the crews.
Produce grown by OFS crews has been used in its own kitchen for breakfast and lunch offerings with some donated to food pantries. Porchlight Products, a Madison nonprofit that jars locally grown produce, has received some of the tomatoes to make sauce.
“We wanted to try sort of an agricultural work platform and get our young people engaged in that so they can understand where their food comes from,” said Greg Markle, executive director of OFS. “We’ve been working in parks for probably 20 years but the whole idea of building a park was new and different and pretty massive compared to what we’ve done in the past.”