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Making a House an American Home

In 1872, Eau Claire - a mill town on the Wisconsin lumber frontier - officially became a city. On the city council approving the incorporation was Herman Schlegelmilch, gunsmith, store owner, and German immigrant. Only the year before, he and his wife Augusta had commissioned a new home on the edge of the downtown area. They had built their house out of brick so that it would be safe from the fires that raged through the rapidly growing "sawdust city." Members of the Schlegelmilch family lived in that house until the late 1970's when one of them, Agnes Barland Mc Daniel, a nurse trained at Johns Hopkins who had spent much of her life as a medical missionary in Siam, gave the house to the Chippewa Valley Museum (CVM).

Just outside of Eau Claire in the town of Wheaton, in the early 1860's, Norwegian immigrants Lars and Greta Anderson commissioned Gabriel Jensen to build a log house on their farm. He built it out of local materials using shipbuilding techniques. Jensen was a shipbuilder in his native Norway, but discovered a greater demand for his skills in home construction in his new land. In this three-room cabin with an upstairs loft, the Andersons raised six children and the Big Elk Creek Lutheran Church held its first services. Members of the Anderson family lived in this house though the 1940's, adding several rooms. In 1977 Leonard and Gertrude Anderson donated the house to CVM and moved it to the museum grounds.

In 1903, Waldemar Ager, a Norwegian immigrant and novelist who had come to Eau Claire to work as a typesetter and journalist for the Norwegian language temperance newspaper Reform, bought a house a couple of miles away from the Schlegelmilch house on Chestnut Street. Brady Anderson, another immigrant from Norway who worked as a carpenter had built the house a few years earlier for his own family. In that house, Waldemar Ager and his wife Gurolle raised nine children while Reform grew in popularity. On the eve of the First World War its circulation reached 10,000 copies and its readership stretched from northern Illinois and the Dakotas to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Ager family owned the house until 1962 when Luther Hospital purchased it. In 1993 Luther Hospital donated the house to the Waldemar Ager Association (WAA) and moved it two blocks to its current location.

The stories of these preserved structures reveal how residents of the Chippewa Valley built their community. The story of their community is part of the larger story of immigration to America in the nineteenth century.

The Center for History Teaching and Learning received a National Endowment for the Humanities consultation grant for 2004 to help us figure out how to develop a single interpretation that will use these structures to communicate this story to the public. Kate Lang directed this phase of the project and we invited well known historians of immigration to the Midwest, Professor Kathleen Conzen from the University of Chicago, Professor Russell Kazal from the University of Toronto, and Professor Tobias Brinkmann from the University of Southampton, along with Max van Balgooy, Director of Interpretation and Education at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Stephen Long,Vice President of Collections and Education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

The Tenement Museum is a model for our project.