By Tallitha Reese
From the outside, the structure called Berry Tavern appears to be just another farmhouse in the rural area two miles south of Shullsburg and only a closer, more in depth look will give away just how historically significant the building is to the area.
In fact Berry Tavern was one of the earliest “houses of entertainment” in the now ghost town of Gratiot’s Grove, a once thriving lead mining community founded in what would later become the state of Wisconsin.
It served as not only a tavern and inn, but also as post office and schoolhouse when needed, as well as a polling place for early elections and a meeting place for settlers to plan Black Hawk war defenses, not to mention home to the Berry family.
Fortunatus Berry moved to Gratiot’s Grove in 1827 and opened a log roadhouse in 1829, the precursor to the currently standing Berry Tavern. Then when the Chicago to Galena stagecoach line extended service to Shullsburg around 1840, Berry decided to build a new wood framed hotel, complete with livery stable, bar, dining rooms, dance hall and a total of seven guest rooms.
That same building, with a few changes through the years, is what visitors see when they travel to the site of Berry Tavern today. Also located on the site is a cholera victims’ cemetery, which houses the remains of several who died during a cholera outbreak at the location in 1854.
Eventually stagecoach gave way to railroads and the lead mines closed, leading to the decline of Gratiot’s Grove. Berry Tavern was adapted into a farmhouse, but still retained the original white oak beams, pine floors and stone walls.
Now, a group called the Friends of Berry Tavern is working to preserve and restore Berry Tavern to its original state and make it into an historic location for people to visit and learn about.
Bill Breihan, of Milwaukee, who is a distant relative of Fortunatus Berry, began the journey that led to the revitalization of interest in Berry Tavern when he inherited his family’s historical papers from his mother about 25 years ago.
Within those papers were about 15 letters postmarked either to or from Berry Tavern in the mid-1830s. They ignited a spark for Breihan, who became determined to learn all he could about Berry Tavern and the people who lived and stayed there.
“It’s become a kind of passion, or what my wife would call an obsession,” said Breihan. “Trying to imagine what it was like when Wisconsin was the wild west on the edge of civilization or even beyond is so intriguing to me.”
About 15 years ago he decided to start looking into finding out if the building was still there, and surprisingly it was, which only fueled his interest. At the time the house was occupied by renters, who Breihan often stopped to visit with, but then just a few years ago in 2011, he stopped by the place and it was abandoned.
He decided to inquire about buying the house and became the new owner of what used to be Berry Tavern in September of 2013. Soon after, Breihan met Cory Ritterbusch and Chris Price, who were also interested in the local history of Berry Tavern.
The three then formed the Friends of Berry Tavern with Breihan as vice president and Ritterbusch as president. They had their first meeting in October of 2013 and have since had several workdays and committee meetings to discuss what is to be done with the historical site just outside of Shullsburg.
Since then interest has only grown in Berry Tavern and the Friends of Berry Tavern group is excited about the future, although they are still in the beginning stages.
“Our long term goal is to restore the tavern and inn and open it to the public so they can learn about the history and importance of the building and Gratiot’s Grove,” said Ritterbusch. “We want to tell the stories and let people see what we see. This place is really probably one of the most significant structures in Wisconsin because of its connection to all historical aspects of this area.”
Chris Price and his family are working on restoring Gratiot House, another building that was once a part of the Gratiot’s Grove community, so for him the ties between his own project and that of Berry Tavern are very personal.
“It just never ceases to amaze me—all of the historical significance of this area and these buildings,” he said.
Price notes that the plan for Berry Tavern will be a very long term project, but he’s sure it won’t fizzle out.
“It’s just been snowballing on itself since we got going with the group and everything and Bill, Cory and myself have a vision for Berry Tavern that we hope will end up being like the first capitol site in Belmont,” explained Price. “We want to make Berry Tavern similar to that and if we can get a lot of people together to do this, it’d be pretty neat for the area.”
For Mary Bradley, another member of the Friends of Berry Tavern, the site just fits so well into the strong historical significance of the area.
“It’s so great that we have a building as physical evidence from that time to go with the stories and letters,” said Bradley. “And with it being a wooden structure that’s survived all these years, it’s just amazing.”
With the development of the Friends of Berry Tavern and the creation of the group’s facebook page, located at www.facebook.com/BerryTavern, interest in Berry Tavern continues to grow, which will hopefully incite more events and activities at the site.
The first of those will be a program and open house on Memorial Day this year, which will mark the 100th anniversary of past area citizens marking the importance of the site with a monument.
There is a granite monument that sits in front of Berry Tavern that reads, “This stone marks the old Chicago stageroad and the tavern built by Fortunatus Berry in 1829.”
This monument was erected on Memorial Day in 1914 by the Daughters of the American Revolution of Shullsburg and is perhaps one of the reasons that this old building escaped being torn down years before.
This year’s Memorial Day will mark the 100th anniversary of the monument being set and so a small Memorial Day program has been planned by the Friends of Berry Tavern at 11:30 a.m. at the tavern. After the program there will be an open house featuring tours of the inside of the tavern, the root cellar and the cholera cemetery. There will also be light food and refreshments available. All are welcome to attend.