Walker House in Mineral Point is a restored stagecoach stop.
Editor’s Note: Contributing food and travel writer Mary Bergin provides periodic updates on Wisconsin destinations that are still open –though often in modified form to ensure the safety of diners, shoppers and guests. This week’s report takes her to Mineral Point.
Our first indoor restaurant meal in three months was a one-hour drive from home, and we didn’t make the trip because of edgy cuisine, a grand opening or five-star review. What we craved and received was a simple but classy, affordable lunch served with reassurance at the 1836 Walker House in Mineral Point, population 2,500 in Iowa County.
Innkeepers Dan and Kathy Vaillancourt promise a private entrance, private dining room and private bathroom for each lunch reservation. He does the cooking: Cornish pasties (best in Wisconsin, declared the Food Network), flatbread folds and daily specials (example: grilled top sirloin with creamy cognac sauce). She wears a face mask and handles front-of-house tasks: customer greeting, seating, serving, payment processing.
Our setting was the banquet room, whose wooden floor doubles as a labyrinth (not walkable because of a partition).
Our table: near windows and roughly 15 feet from where pre-ordered meals (from an online menu) were delivered for us to retrieve. Coffee, tea and water were serve-yourself. Kathy popped in occasionally, to see what else was needed.
The meal: under $20 for two, including little salads, non-alcoholic beverages and one dessert to share. Reasonable portions. No leftovers.
Outside of our door and at the table was sanitizer.
The Vaillancourts in June began accommodating five indoor and two outdoor reservations at a time. Lunch is served 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Fridays and Mondays. Customers are encouraged to linger.
It’s an extraordinary effort for six hours of business, but this couple – both 73 years old – seem driven by community service more than profits.
Walker House offered a free, grab-and-go brunch for 50 people on Easter and has provided brunch twice a month since then. The meal is not quick-fix, soup kitchen grub. Think pork tenderloin with maple-mustard sauce, asparagus with berries, nuts and seeds.
“We were asked to put out a tip jar, and that covers about 50 percent of our costs, so we can continue,” Kathy said. These pay-what-you-want brunches – reservations required – are scheduled through July.
Much of hilly Mineral Point is on the National Register of Historic Places. Pandemic concerns had kept shuttered two of the biggest reasons to visit: 4.6-acre Pendarvis (a state historic site about Cornish heritage and mining) and earthy Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts (home to 200-plus workshops and retreats during a typical year). But Shake Rag Alley Executive Director Sara Lomasz Flesch told UpNorthNews their “small but mighty staff” has reopened and they “continue to safely offer small-scale arts and crafts workshops for adults, are offering our summer Youth Program via alternative delivery, and have some of the most unique guest lodging in our fair city.”
Other parts of the artists’ town seem too quiet too, but the Vaillancourts were rethinking work and purpose several years before coronavirus would compromise life as we know it.
They moved to Mineral Point in 1975 but did not invest in Walker House until nearly 40 years later. By then it was a long-neglected hotel, and the new owners used retirement funds to save it.
The project fit in well with a lifelong philosophy.
Dan Vaillancourt, a Fulbright scholar and humanities department chair at Loyola University Chicago, before retirement earned awards for his research into aesthetics and corresponding belief that beauty can change the world.
His work made a point of distinguishing “standard beauty” from “extreme beauty.”
The first “freezes you and compares you to impossible ideals,” he explained to me in 2013. Extreme beauty acknowledges “every human is flawed, broken” and “the goal is to find beauty in the brokenness.”
That pertains to creaky buildings too.
The 42-room and three-story Walker House is a former stagecoach stop. A part was carved into a hillside of bedrock, back when Mineral Point’s miners chiseled for lead and zinc. In the inn’s Cornish Pub are “Badger holes,” little caverns where miners lived.
The Vaillancourts consider it all a sacred space, which they turned into an event and retreat destination. That changes somewhat too, because of the pandemic, and fewer Walker House rooms are for rent, to ensure each party has a private bathroom.
“We’re going to have to adjust to our new reality,” said Kathy, who prefers a half-full look toward the future. As in finding new ways to find, strengthen and come together as a community.
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to remove a reference to Shake Rag Alley being closed.