SHULLSBURG, Wis. — A series of very unfortunate events happened at Berry Tavern.
But, documentation of those events — a murder, bankruptcy and a cholera outbreak — were lucky for historians.
Most fortunate is the survival of the building itself, the last remnant of a lost mining boom town. And, it is in the process of being restored.
In 2013, the Friends of Berry Tavern formed when the building was purchased.
“The first goal was to preserve it so it wasn’t torn down. We want to make it a public space for people to enjoy,” said Cory Ritterbusch, of the group. “We have a beautiful two-acre space here. There could be car shows or tractor shows. Harley riders who want to pull over and take a break could stop. We just want it to be appreciated. We want the story of Berry Tavern and Gratiot’s Grove to be told.”
Fortunatus Berry came to Gratiot’s Grove, about two miles south of Shullsburg, in the fall of 1827, lured by stories of lodes of lead.
He saw opportunity in the new people arriving every day. In 1829, he opened a bar and inn. It became a post office, school and polling place. In 1840, when the stage coach line made Gratiot’s Grove a stop, he built the 3,500 square-foot Berry Tavern that stands today, with a bar, dining rooms, dance hall and four guest rooms.
“Berry ended up going broke in 1844,” and through bankruptcy proceedings, “we know how many tables were in this room and how many beds were upstairs. So, we have a blueprint.
“He died in 1847. He is most likely buried on the property here, but we don’t know where,” Ritterbusch said.
A cholera victims’ cemetery also is there, from an outbreak in 1854, where as many as two dozen people perished.
“Eventually, we want to restore it as an 1840s stage coach inn and a museum for Gratiot’s Grove and early Shullsburg,” Ritterbusch said.
“It took three outsiders to get it going,” said Ritterbusch, who originally is from Illinois and whose fellow owners are from California and Milwaukee.
“Today we are deconstructing the last room,” said Ritterbusch, pointing out the mustard-colored original 1840s floor under another layer.
“It was a hotel. Through the turnstyle door, the bartenders gave food and drink to the hotel staff. The bar was right here. It was known for its hard cider.”
On one day, Samuel Scales, whose namesake is Scales Mound, Jesse Shull, for whom Shullsburg is named, and Berry met to discuss civic affairs.
“When I heard that, I was hooked,” said Dave Leahy, of Shullsburg, who has volunteered to help with the deconstruction work.
At a ball in 1842 whose guest list read like a who’s who of the frontier, William Caffee didn’t hear his name called to dance with available ladies and protested.
“That’s where the fight started,” Ritterbusch said, pointing to a spot just at the top of the stairs.
The disagreement spread outside, where Caffee shot and killed a man. Caffee was tried, found guilty and hung outside the Walker House in Mineral Point, which he is said to haunt.
A playwright could tell the story which could be “re-created in real time” in the place where it happened, Ritterbusch said.
In 1883, Berry Tavern was converted to a farmhouse, which was its role for the next 130 years.
Max Blackbourn, of Shullsburg, also pitched in on the deconstruction, because he’s seen other historic buildings lost.
“I like primitive log buildings,” he said. In the basement, he shows “score marks from the ax, probably cut from a tree cut down outside from a grove of white oak.”
Vinyl siding protects the original wood frame, and a new roof kept the building dry.
Picnic tables are outside for people who want to use it for gatherings or to star gaze.
“Over 500 people have been through on tours in the last three years,” Ritterbusch said.
But, instead of a stagecoach, history is bringing them.