01 Mar My Story of the Mansion
February 28, 2021.
The Scott Mansion of Merrill Wisconsin.
It was the late 1960’s in a small city in northern Wisconsin. During those years, the Merrill Area Art Association gathered artists from the area for classes and get togethers. They, along with the Menard Community College and the University of Wisconsin campus in Wausau, participated and even supported the development of the annual Art in the Park. Art communities existed in a corridor from Stevens Point to Wausau through Minocqua, northward to Bayfield. The arts were a strong presence in northcentral Wisconsin.
I remember accompanying my mother and father as we walked through the art fair at the campus and the exhibits in the park. Along the way, they would visit with people named “Red” and “Bonnie”. I remember them by their first names, but I would never have addressed them as such. As that wide-eyed child, I just watched. I listened as they spoke about their works.
It was during those years that my parents took my brother and me to the Scott Mansion. My memories are faint glows, my remnants of a child’s impressionable nature. Their fragments linger still, imprinted upon my artistic soul.
Such is art, is it not?
A Mansion of Wishes
Walking in, I remember its beautiful golden woodwork which ran up the walls further than I had ever seen on a wall. The parlor area was always bright with sunshine. It felt like a gorgeous, grand stage from a movie set or a theater. At least in my child’s eyes, it felt so. My parents were friends with the mansion’s resident at the time, a priest by the name of Father Edmund Binsfield. I do not remember much of him except that he spoke kindly and that he had a monkey as a pet. As a preschooler, that for me was magic.
Father Binsfield had been a member of the art association as well as a writer of church histories at an academic level. But in the 1960’s, Father Binsfield, along with my parents and their artist friends, painted and wrote. They created sculptures. It was a time I remember my mother caning chairs and carving wood. I remember my father painting and woodworking.
And I remember the trips to the Scott Mansion. We would walk the tunnels which veined under the roads and buildings upon the Holy Cross Hill. They never seemed scary. No, they were part of a grand adventure as I would walk with my mom to art classes.
I do not know what ever became of Father Binsfield but I believe he kept writing his historical papers for the church. The area artists with whom I grew up, slowly moved away, passed away or just drifted away into other lives.
But I still can picture “Red”, “Bonnie” and Frank. Father Binsfield. These were the people who had hand-painted refrigerators and almost exotic-colored homes. Their art was magic then and still is today.
A Mansion of Dreams.
A Conservatory. Housing for Visiting Physicians, Artists, Nurses and Clergy. I also dreamed about naming him “Andrew” after Saint Andrew. Those were my intentions many years ago as I began renovation projects in Merrill Wisconsin. It was a building never mine to own.
In the next thirty to forty days, the mansion will be demolished.
A Mansion of History.
I cried. I did not think I would, but I cried as I stood looking at the front porch. Then I smiled. Through the torn plastic sheeting and the plywood which guarded the entrance, my minds eye held the sunshine from decades ago.
There are buildings which capture a person. T B Scott Mansion held for me memories of a priest with a pet monkey who wrote a scriptural-based poem in honor of my birth. As a child, I remember the stories of the curse of the mansion, but more than a curse I remember my parents’ instruction to behave as it was hallowed ground. Cursed? I did not really know what that meant. But a person could recognize ‘holy’. Throughout its lifetime, the mansion became part of a campus which included the Menard complex, the Holy Cross Hospital and Chapel, and the Scott Mansion. The campus and its early primary dwellers, the nuns of the Holy Cross Order, walked the grounds through a series of those tunnels.
A Historical, Holy Hill.
But further back in history, I cannot imagine a holier hillside than that of this one beside the Wisconsin River. Early photos show the cleared hill with the mansion its sole structure. Its geographic features – a simple hill – would catch a person’s breath. Even before the mansion the hill was sacred to the earliest Wisconsinites. Who really was the “Jenny” of Merrill? Is the hill, hers, forever?
Just as years ago, I still like to imagine the work of the builders of the mansion. Not the pose-worthy, completed work, but the hours of dirty, no-way-around-it type toiling. What was it like to transport the materials? The glass? How does a person load paned glass to carry through the woods to a little town named Jenny Bull Falls? How many storms stopped construction?
What would it have been like, as a family, or as the woman of the house, to walk through the door for the first time? Or would you have been carried across the threshhold? (According to its history, sadly, such events never happened.) What was it like, to install the first boiler to heat the home? I wondered at the laughter. Was there ever joy in the mansion, when it was a private home?
Titanic Twists of Fate
Then I wondered at the sorrow surrounding the mansion. The grand building’s history includes sadness, tragedy and the famous curse. Imagine, in northern Wisconsin, the startling twists of fate which tied the mansion’s occupant to the loveliest ship ever built? How would it be possible to connect two distinctly separate worlds – two examples of extreme beauty in architecture and another in marine engineering – into one of the most singularly worst, tragic accidents in human history? How is it, that history wove a northern Wisconsin mansion to the sinking of the USS Titanic?
But it did.
A Snowy “Thank You”.
The snowy Sunday seemed a perfect backdrop for my good bye. The circumstance took moments for me to realize I was bidding farewell to a building I had held in my own dreams. My tears led to a smile which then circled back to a tears. With awe and a notion of romance, the dreamer in me will always wonder, “What if? The mansion itself seems to propose its partnering river and hilly resting place, “What if?”
What if T.B. Scott had honored the lady “Jenny” and her father’s wishes by choosing another site? What might have happened, in each turn of fate, for the last one hundred thirty-seven years?
One can wonder only so long until the realities of history resume weaving their fates. But pausing on this snowy Sunday while looking upon a roof and porch and grounds which have weathered over one hundred years, I am grateful for a story from that building.
To a lady named “Jenny”, her family, and Mr. Thomas Blythe Scott…
…The MAAA artists of my childhood and Father Binsfield…
…Beautiful buildings and with honor to their designers, architects and especially to their builders…
…My mother, father and brother…
To you all, my heart and soul calls to you pioneers,
I hope this writing finds you all healthy and happily at home in the world.
From Winds Paradox to you,
stephanie of winds paradox