At every Great American Treasures site, there are stories from America’s past to be told that will fascinate, inspire, and bring history to life. These stories garnered from generations before are never as far off into a distant past as they may seem.
This year, the Historic Indian Agency House, a Great American Treasure located in Portage, Wisconsin, celebrated its 90th season as a museum. The Historic Indian Agency House is a residence built in 1832 by the federal government as a frontier Indian Agency—essentially an embassy—between the Ho-Chunk Nation and the United States government. John H. Kinzie and his wife, Juliette Augusta Magill Kinzie, lived there, serving as diplomats.
Now one of the oldest houses in Wisconsin, it has been preserved and outfitted with furnishings and household items, as well as fascinating Native American artifacts that give visitors an authentic sense of what it was like to live in the Midwest in the early 19th century.
As the museum celebrated its 90th season, they centered the moment with the theme of ‘Remembering,’ focusing on the ways in which history is preserved and passed down through time. The Indian Agency House was able to see this theme of remembrance come to life when 94-year old Ann (Roberts) Kemnitz made a visit to the Indian Agency House on September 30, 2021.
Ann’s father, H. Roger Roberts, was a farmer who, in 1931-32, was hired as a foreman under Madison architect Frank Riley to oversee the initial restoration of the 1832 Indian Agency House.
Ann, herself, is perhaps the only person still alive to recall the unofficial grand opening of the preserved Historic Indian Agency House. At age four, her name and those of her parents appear in the museum’s guest book under June 13, 1931.
“This is the Agency House’s 90th season as a museum, which is no small feat in itself, but to have the additional privilege of walking down memory lane with someone who remembers being here at the museum’s grand opening was really something,” said Adam Novey, director and curator of the Historic Indian Agency House.
During her visit, Ann said that being there brought back many memories. She still remembered the tall clock in the hallway and even the stories that caretaker Walter English told during her childhood visits to the stately old home. She also recalled her father’s stories.
When the Depression hit in 1929, Ann’s father found himself having to move the family into town. Upon finding work restoring the historic home, he facilitated some of the fascinating discoveries in the museum’s early history.
One of these finds, which Kemnitz has remembered for the past 90 years was when her father began to meticulously peel back the wallpaper which had built up on the parlor wall over the years. His effort paid off in his discovery of the original wallpaper pattern brought West by the Kinzies a century earlier.
Kemnitz’ September visit to the Agency House gave her an opportunity to see the very section of wallpaper, brick, mortar, and plaster which was carefully preserved by her father at the time of the 1930s restoration.
“I’ve been hearing about that wallpaper my whole life,” Kemnitz said.
“Thanks to generations of efforts in stewardship and preservation at the house, Ann was able to see something that her father had worked on 90 years ago. It was an accomplishment that had meant so much to him,” said Novey. “One can only imagine the satisfaction she felt when the artifact was brought out from storage for her to see.”
During their visit, Kemnitz and her daughter, Judy Kemnitz Lalor, brought their own preserved artifacts to share as well —family photographs. One depicts four-year-old Ann at the Agency House in 1931 on the lap of a “Mrs. Hotchkiss,” likely a member of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Wisconsin which headed up efforts to restore the house as one of Wisconsin’s first museums. The story of these efforts has recently been recorded in detail in the addendum of the 2021 Historic Preservation Edition of Wau-Bun, a book that was first published in 1856 by the Agency House’s first resident, Juliette Kinzie.
During the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America’s existence since 1891, its members have been champions, caretakers, stewards, and rescuers of history, so that history and the artifacts that help us remember are preserved and shared for years to come.