Durkee mansion tour

The Durkee Mansion, 6501 Third Avenue, part of the Kemper Center, was open today from 1 pm to 5 pm for free tours.  Come see the mansion, which was once home to United States Senator Charles Durkee.  The Durkee Mansion is a cream-brick, Italianate Victorian home.  It originally had an ornate, wooden wrap-around porch and a widow’s walk.  One of the striking features is the suspension stairway, located in the foyer.  It is the largest stairway of its type in the state.  The bedrooms on the second floor and the third floor (formerly the ballroom) have fireplaces, parquet floors, and louvered windows.  The third floor was not available for viewing and has been closed for years.

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The entire home is furnished with period furniture and fixtures. It has a gracious feel and a magnificent view of Lake Michigan.  The mansion is an historic landmark recognized by the National Trust for Historic Places and the Society for Preservation of Wisconsin’s Landmarks.  It is a fitting monument to a Kenoshan who was a major influence on national and local politics.

Charles Durkee, a native of Royalton, Vermont, came to Wisconsin as part of the generation that settled the area now contained within the state of Wisconsin.  He had little formal schooling, as was true of many of the pioneers, but had an abundance of energy and a desire to make a home for his new wife, Catherine, and their family in the new lands to the west.  They left early in 1836, arriving in Chicago, the first major stop on the journey.

Their original idea was to settle in the small hamlet of Milwaukee, but the trip from Chicago, on an exceptionally rough Lake Michigan, proved to be daunting enough to cause them to ask the captain to put them ashore at the entrance to Pike Creek – in the area today known as Kenosha.  They had intended to rest up and continue on to Milwaukee, but were enchanted by the beauty that surrounded them on the Lake Michigan shore.

Durkee built his log cabin of solid oak and black walnut, and wrote home to tell of the wonderful homesite they had found.  He must have been convincing, because during the summer of 1836, his brother, Harvey, his brother-in-law, Ruben H. Deming (with his family), and Catherine’s sister, who was engaged to brother Harvey, all came to join the Durkees in Wisconsin.

The two loved the area and bought land extending from the center of the town to the lake shore.  But, their happiness was to be short-lived.  In 1837, the 25-year-old Catherine fell ill, died, and was buried a short time later on the shores of the lake that she had so loved.

Durkee was never to forget his first love, but his interest in business and politics was to fill his time.  He soon became the largest landowner in the area, and made a point of making land available to newcomers at modest prices and on easy credit terms.  This earned him local fame as “the working-man’s friend.”

His keen interest in politics and his ambitious plans for Southport led him to spearhead the efforts to have port facilities in the town.

When it became obvious that every town wanted a port, and that the political wrangling would be a lengthy process, Durkee banded together with two friends and built a wharf twelve feet wide and extending 20 rods into the lake.  Included was a T-shaped structure 80 feet long and 40 feet wide.  It turned out to be a sound investment for the town and for the local entrepreneurs.

When Wisconsin gained territorial status in 1836, the territorial legislature was composed of a Council of Thirteen, elected to four-year terms, and a House of Representatives, elected biennially.  Durkee would serve as one of the 26 members of the House.  In the first session of the legislature, the capital was chosen, mounted militias were created for each county, and the issue of a school for the area was discussed.

When Durkee returned to Southport, after his two-year term, he found a community of 300 – a community which would be incorporated as a village in 1841.  By mid-decade, the population had reached 2,500; it was the third largest town in the state.  Southport had become an active and productive port.  Seventy thousand bushels of wheat were exported in 1843.

During this time, Durkee met and married his second wife, Caroline.  In 1843, he built the Durkee House, the largest and most luxurious hotel in Wisconsin.  Unfortunately, this landmark structure was destroyed by a fire in 1871, a catastrophe which cost six lives.

Durkee was a most influential settler, resident, businessman, politician, and patron of the arts.  He served as president of the local Franklin Lyceum, which brought lecturers and debates to the community, and, with Michael Frank, was an active and vocal supporter of free education for the community.  Later, Kenoshans were to recognize the efforts of these pioneers in education by naming schools in their honor.  The Durkee school was built in 1878.

Durkee helped organize the Wisconsin Liberty Party, contributed heavily to the establishment of the American Freeman, the newspaper founded in Southport in 1844.  Durkee became one of only three free-soilers to be elected to Congress in 1848.  His record shows his support of internal improvements in the form of government subsidies for construction of roads, canals, bridges, and harbors, and supported cheap western lands in the form of a homestead law that provided a limited amount of free land to pioneers.  He served two terms in Congress, and in 1853, he returned to Kenosha, as it was now known.

In the 1854 elections, Durkee was elected United States Senator from Wisconsin.  He returned to Washington, where he championed workers’ issues, and fought for a homestead law that would assure free land for those willing to settle it.  He returned to Kenosha, at the age of 56, intending to settle down in the new home he and his wife had planned.  They began construction in 1861, and soon moved into the home on a ten-acre site on the lake shore.

The couple enjoyed their home for four years, until Senator Durkee’s chronic rheumatism flared up again, and his health began to fail.  On the advice of his physician, Durkee sought a political appointment where the climate would be kinder.  President Andrew Johnson appointed him territorial governor of Utah.  Durkee would never again see the home he had built; he was to die as he returned to Kenosha.

Senator Durkee became an enormously wealthy man.  His investments in railroads are another example of his faith in the future development of the country.  At his death, it was rumored that he was to receive $64,623,000 worth of U.S. Treasury bonds in order to insure completion of the Union Pacific Railroad.  The bonds were to have been waiting for him in Washington when he left Utah to return home.  Their whereabouts were never discovered, and the story added to the aura of magnificence that the mansion has always preserved.

This is a very nice place to stop in and see before or after the Gallery of Trees exhibit at the Anderson Arts Center.  Hours and days of operation are:

  • Monday, November 26th, through Friday, November 30th – 1 pm to 7 pm
  • Saturday, December 1st, and Sunday, December 2nd – 1 pm to 5 pm
  • Monday, December 3rd, through Sunday, December 9th – 1 to 4 pm
  • Friday, December 14th, through Sunday, December 16th, Friday, December 21st, through Sunday, December 23rd, and Friday, December 28th, through Sunday, December 30th – 1 to 4 pm

Admission is free and open to the public.  Volunteer docents will be on hand ot answer questions.  For further information, call:  (262) 657-6005.

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