Vernon County Museum Notes: Reflections on early Ontario, Whitestown

By KRISTEN PARROTT | Vernon County Museum curator

Summer is winding down, and that means that the historic Sherry-Butt House at 795 N. Main St. in Viroqua is coming to the end of its season. The house is open for tours from 1–5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Labor Day weekend, including Labor Day Monday. After that, the house will be open by appointment only throughout the fall.

Built in the era after the Civil War, the Vernon House in Ontario served travelers and residents into the 20th century. The flood in 1907 reached the second floor of the hotel, but the building later was refurbished. It was razed in roughly the mid-1930s. The Ontario Community Hall was built on the site in 1938, and that building was demolished in 2021, after sustaining damages in the August 2018 flood. Today, a pavilion has taken the Ontario Community Hall’s place at the corner of State and Garden streets.

The Vernon County Museum and History Center will be closed Monday, Sept. 4, for the Labor Day holiday. Regular hours for September are Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; or by appointment.

Remember that our next free public program will be Tuesday, Sept. 5, at 7 p.m. Jean Dowiasch of the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center in La Crosse will present a hands-on program about how to identify ancient spear points and arrowheads.

The stone tools commonly called “arrowheads” are not always actually arrowheads. Sometimes they are spear heads (larger) or dart heads (smaller). The bow and arrow arrived in Wisconsin around 700 A.D., so earlier points found here cannot have been arrowheads. Archaeologists refer to these types of tools — tips fastened to the ends of spears, darts, and arrow shafts — by the more general term, “projectile points”.

Come to this special program to learn how and why we look at the different parts of points and how those parts help us determine the age of points. You are welcome to bring your own artifact collection, if you have one, for a “show and tell.” This presentation will be suitable for both children and adults. Programs are held in the wheelchair-accessible conference room at the history center.

Turning again to the business directories on the 1878 Vernon County plat map, today we’ll look at the town of Whitestown. Of the five businesses listed in this directory, four are in the village of Ontario. The Ontario sesquicentennial history book, “Always the River,” published in 2006, helps to flesh out the descriptions of these businessmen. 

William Sandon advertised on the 1878 map as the proprietor of the Vernon House, an old hotel that he had purchased just a few years earlier. Another Ontario businessman was O. H. Millard, who owned a general store, the oldest in the village. He was also one of the earliest postmasters in Ontario, probably running the post office out of his store, as was common at that time.

J.F. Keeton is listed as a “Dealer in Drugs, Medicines, Paints, Oils, Crockery, Groceries, etc.,” with a store in Ontario. This combination of drug store and paint store was also common for the era. And the final Ontario businessman was Nathan Culver, proprietor of the Ontario Flouring Mills, one of several mills built along the Kickapoo River, which runs through the village. 

Also in the 1878 business directory for Whitestown is Van S. Bennett of Rockton. Like Culver, he operated a grist mill and a sawmill on the Kickapoo River, which flows through Rockton. Additionally, he advertised as a “Dealer in Wagons, Plows and Lumber.” Van Bennett was well known in the area then and is still remembered today. Among his many activities, he platted the village of Rockton, was a major landowner in the county, ran the post office in Rockton during the 1880s, and held several elected offices. 

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