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With Civil War re-enacting, Dousman Stagecoach Inn offers window to Brookfield past

April 29, 2014

When the Dousman Stagecoach Inn opens to the public this weekend, May 3 and 4, more than 100 people in Civil-War garb will be preparing to fight, setting up a medical tent and readying the cannons to re-enact a battle scene as part of the 20th annual Civil War Encampment.

Although Wisconsin wasn't on the front line of the Civil War, at least one aspect of the theater will be perfectly authentic. The Dousman Stagecoach Inn, operated right through the war from the 1850s to 1873, still stands in Brookfield as a relic of the time. It will be open for self-guided tours during the event, offering a glimpse into the earliest days of Brookfield and Elm Grove when the two communities were still one.

Dousman dates to 1842

According to Elmbrook Historical Society President Lynda Thayer, the inn was constructed on land owned by an elite fur trader and speculator, Michael Dousman, who saw potential in the area because of its position on the northwest corner of what is today Bluemound and Watertown Plank roads, at a time when Brookfield and Elm Grove were known as the "Milwaukee Woods."

The Potawatomi had ceded land in the region in 1833 and had been moved in wagon trains to the Mississippi River. Wisconsin became a territory in 1836 and Brookfield a town in 1839.

Watertown Plank Road brought steady stagecoach traffic through the area, and the inn was constructed based on specifications from the stagecoach company that many inns followed, including the whiteboard exterior, green shutters and Greek-revival style. Thayer said the requirements were specific, so passengers knew to look out for them and other inns wouldn't be able to bribe conductors into diverting passengers to their own places.

The inn, known by then as the Dousman, changed ownership in 1857 to Daniel Brown. According to the historical society, Brown charged three pennies for a glass of whiskey, $1 for food and $1.75 for an overnight stay. It operated this way for another 16 years, including the Civil War years, and it is frozen in this time at the inn today.

"It's part of the earliest history of Brookfield," Thayer said. "This is teaching that history, bringing it alive."

But between the years it was operated as an inn and when the historical society got into the property in 1981, time was not frozen. It took community organizing and fundraising to restore the property — an effort that continues to challenge the volunteers committed to it and now involves funds from the city of Brookfield.

An ongoing effort

When Brown sold his inn in 1873 to Frederick Zimdars, it stopped being an inn and instead served as a farmhouse. Charles Dunkel, who bought the place in 1884 and would pasture his sheep where Brookfield Square is now, is believed to have held the building's last dance in the ballroom in 1892, for his niece's wedding, according to the historical society.

Dunkel's grandson, John Behling, sold the lot to the North Shore Savings & Loan Association in 1980, and it was scheduled for demolition. That year, the Elmbrook Historical Society formed with the goal of saving the property.

The city of Brookfield pitched in, putting up funds to receive a matching grant of $10,000 to acquire the property. The historical society raised money to receive a matching grant of $30,000 to move the inn away from the valuable Bluemound Road real estate where North Shore Bank moved in.

"I really think it's important to preserve some of these key ties to the past, and that Stagecoach Inn is certainly historically very significant, so I'm delighted we have the current arrangement for maintaining it on a site that's accessible, but didn't preclude commercial development on Bluemound Road," said Brookfield Mayor Steve Ponto.

According to the historical society's records, at 3 a.m. May 14, 1981, about 60 members "joyfully trailed the house on its truck bed" to its new home on Pilgrim Parkway. Between that effort and all work since then, Thayer said the members have raised $2 million to maintain the Dousman Stagecoach Inn and other buildings on the property.

Taxpayers contributing more

The society has been leasing the property for $1 per year from the city since 1982, under an agreement that the society maintains the building, landscaping and operations, while the city maintains the land, said Parks and Recreation Director Bill Kolstad. But in 2012, the lease was updated to allow the city to help with maintenance at its discretion.

Kolstad said since the lease change, the city has contributed about $20,000 to the inn. Kolstad said the change in the lease gives the historical society a 'better future" by making sure they meet capital improvement requirements. Ponto also said it was a positive arrangement.

"I think it's an important tie to have that be in good shape," Ponto said. "Just here in city hall, we have a huge photograph of it, we have many paintings of it, and I've even thought of featuring it on a Christmas card."

Thayer said the society still needs to fundraise the majority of operation and maintenance costs, and the May Civil War encampment is its biggest moneymaker, usually bringing in about $7,500. She said it costs about $18,000 per year "just to run the place" and do some minor repairs. If it secures the funds, she said the society is hoping to redo the main porch on the Inn this year.

The encampment and the Dousman Stagecoach Inn, 1075 Pilgrim Parkway, will be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, May 3-4. There will not be parking available on the grounds, but free shuttles will leave every 15 minutes from Pilgrim Park Middle School, 1500 Pilgrim Parkway, and North Shore Bank, 15700 W. Bluemound Road. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for kids ages 6 to 12 and free for kids under 5.

JUST THE FACTS

What: Civil War Re-enactment

Where: Dousman Stagecoach Inn, 1075 Pilgrim Parkway

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 3-4

Cost: $5 for adults, $2 for children ages 6-12, free for children under 5

Info: No parking, free shuttles will leave every 15 minutes from Pilgrim Park Middle School, 1500 Pilgrim Parkway, and North Shore Bank, 15700 W. Bluemound Road

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