Nelson brings Plover home history to light in new book
By Kris Leonhardt
PLOVER – “If a man knew enough, he could write a whole book…about one particular juniper tree,” Wendell Nelson quotes Edward Abbey as he explains his latest book, “Plover’s Greek Masterpiece.”
In his latest historical chronicle, Nelson traces the history of a home built in Plover Village for Charles and Mary Rice, when Portage County was in its infancy – a project that he happened upon, but was born to write.
“My interest in architectural history came second. My chief interest in old houses is their human history–the ghosts of the past, who owned the houses, what sort of people were they – saints, sinners, beautiful, ugly; were their lives short and tragic, or long and happy or vice versa on both counts?” Nelson explained. “I’ve always been interested in history, from grade school on, when I listened people reminisce about the old days.
“But, when I began studying old houses – inspired by an undergraduate classmate who later became a professor of art history and antiques at the University of Minnesota – I quickly discovered that I needed to know nomenclature, terminology, what to call the parts of a house. Just as a mechanic has to know the names of a car’s parts, so an architectural historian needs to know the names of the parts of a building.
“So, I began reading histories of Western architecture, the histories of architectural periods – Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne, et. al. – and histories of specific world-famous buildings. And I accumulated a library architectural guides and dictionaries, so I could look up parts I didn’t know the names of; which I still do.”
Nelson said that all of those years of accumulating facts and history, while researching and writing other works, set the stage for his latest book. However, five years ago, he became focused on tracing history on the Rice-Cate-Potts-Whiteside house.
Coming across the home on an old glass negative, he asked the UWSP Archive staff what house it was, but no one had the answer.
“So I made notes, so I could find the negatives again, and began nosing around,” he said.
With the home identified on what is now Post Road/Business Highway 51, Nelson was drawn deeper into the home’s lifetime.
“I had most of the research done two years ago, but I knew almost nothing about the first owner, Charles P. Rice. I couldn’t publish the book with that vacuum of information, so I kept looking,” he recalled.
“Finally, Lora Hagen, my computer genius, former partner, landlady, and friend, found Rice’s great-great-great grandnephew, John Rice, on Ancestry.com. I emailed John Rice, who, bless his heart, has done tons of research on that Rice family (It’s a common English and Irish surname), and was (may he have a long, prosperous life) eager to share his information with me.
“The most significant fact or facts I learned while researching this house, was sort of an architectural, technical one. As I wrote in the first chapter, the house was very sophisticated for a raw, barely-there frontier village of circa 1848. Its high-style, punctilious reproduction of an ancient Greek temple in the Wisconsin wilderness is noteworthy, odd, almost bizarre. And then the question: Where did Rice get the materials from?
“Central Wisconsin sawmills could not have been technically advanced and sophisticated enough to have produced those fluted (grooved) columns and those little dentils (teeth) for under the eaves. So they must have been bought in, and shipped from, Chicago, Milwaukee, or the Fox Cities, including Green Bay.”
Nelson not only learned surprising facts about the home’s history, but also that of its stewards.
“The most important historical facts I learned were those about Dr. George D. Whiteside,” he explained. “Here was a nondescript, obscure man, a country doctor, who rose to build and run 5,000-bed hospitals in France and Belgium, near World War I battlefields, that served and saved thousands of soldiers from several nations. Then, he returned to Europe to build and run more hospitals – in Poland and Russia – jumping into the Russian Civil War (that had nothing directly to do with him, but he saw a profound need), risking his life more than once. He fought famines and epidemics, in the midst of battles, and saved thousands of starving, homeless refugees, including hundreds of war orphans.
“And Dr. Whiteside’s heroic history was buried in the ghost of this lost house.”
Nelson’s latest book is available at AGORA – Local Maker’s Market, Stevens Point; through the Portage County Historical Society, or from the author. Nelson may be reached at 715-498-0226 or [email protected]