Trolls aren’t the only reason to visit Mount Horeb’s new — and free — Driftless Historium
At the entrance to Mount Horeb’s new Driftless Historium, visitors are greeted by a pair of three-foot-tall wooden trolls. The Norse gnomes are posed with a pitchfork to resemble the rural Midwestern farmer and his spouse from Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting.
“It’s only fitting that we have trolls,” said Destinee Udelhoven, the museum and research center’s executive director. “After all this is Mount Horeb, Troll Capitol of the World. But we’re a lot more than that.
“We believe that at the core of our history here in the southwest corner of Dane County is the interaction and enduring connection between our Drifltess landscape and all of its inhabitants, from pre-history to modern-day.”
Above the trolls in the Historium’s tall atrium floats a hanging sculpture dubbed “Driftless Sanctuary,” crafted by metal artist and blacksmith John Pahlas, whose Center Ground Studios is around the corner from the Historium. The sculpture has a metal redtailed hawk at its center, surrounded by a circle of manmade tools and pieces of equipment that represent a nest inhabited by other birds.
“We did a lot of museum touring and found that a number of them had bold art pieces in their entrances, and we decided that we wanted to make a statement like that, too,” said Udelhoven, a native of South Dakota who is part Lakota Sioux and was the director of the Indian Agency House museum in Portage for six years.
Udelhoven said the new, three-building Historium is the culmination of a decade-long effort to create a showplace for the Mount Horeb Area Historical Society’s artifacts, as well as a research center and a place for cultural programs and classes.
The Historium covers three-quarters of a block in downtown Mount Horeb just off Main St. (also known as the Trollway). The museum is actually a collection of three buildings: the 125-year-old Gilbertson Building, which was home to the historical society for two
decades; the Troll Inn, a former bar and bowling alley that was entirely replaced; and a replica of the Mount Horeb House, which dated to 1882 and was a railroad inn.
Udelhoven said the new museum cost $1.7 million, half of which came from the prosperous Duluth Trading Company, which has a major presence in Mount Horeb, and the Schlecht Family Foundation.
Though the main exhibit area in the old Gilbertson Building is still under development, part of it includes the Bobby Dent general store from Montrose Township, south of Mount Horeb. It was in use from the 1890s to the 1980s, and Udelhoven said it was “everyone’s favorite from the old museum, so we decided to keep it because it fits well with the timeline theme.”
The Gilbertson section of the museum also includes a gallery room for lectures, classes and children’s activities. It currently has a display that tells about the three buildings that stood on the site of the Historium, as as well as an exhibit on quack medicine devices popular in the 1880s and early 1900s.
The special exhibit room, which is in the Mount Horeb House section of the museum, has an exhibit about how the village came to be known as the "troll capital of the world."
To get to it, you must pass the first troll carved for the town by Michael Feeney. It once had a chicken on its head, but the elements took their toll on the gnome and the bird fell off.
“This part of Dane County was settled by not only Norwegians, but Irish, Germans, Swiss and others,” Udelhoven said. “So we are Scandinavian, but just as much the other ethnic groups, too.”
But the area’s Norwegian heritage was highlighted by Little Norway, a popular tourist and cultural attraction north of Mount Horeb that closed in 2012. It was founded by Scott Winner’s family in the 1930s and included a stave church that was built in Orkdal, Norway, for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The church was later taken apart by Norwegian craftsmen, shipped home and reassembled in Orkdal.
Though Little Norway is closed, the Historium has murals, cabinets, a chair carved from a whole log and other artifacts donated by the Winner family, which owned Little Norway. Visitors can take a three-dimensional tour of the structure, led by Scott Winner, thanks to a scan done by the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Udelhoven said several other buildings, including a “hanging barn” used by Swiss settlers and another church, will become part of the 3D project.
Another key piece of the troll story is Oljanna Cunneen, who was well known in Mount Horeb for her rosemaling paintings and the numerous trolls she made
for local businesses. Cunneen died in 1969, but her trolls lived on.
The gnomes got a boost in the mid-1970s, when the owners of a Norse gift shop called Open House Imports began placing trolls on their lawn to lure visitors into their shop. They were an immediate hit.
A decade later, the state Transportation Department decided to build a bypass around Mount Horeb. Business owners worried about the loss of traffic, so the Chamber of Commerce came up with the Trollway theme as a way to attract visitors to its downtown. The plan was successful, though some residents considered the gnome theme kitschy and still do.
Udelhoven said she hopes people will use the Historium and its thousands of documents and artifacts for research and come to the facility for programs. Upcoming classes this spring include an American Indian flute-making workshop led by Bill Quackenbush, tribal historian of the Ho Chunk nation. Another will deal with making thread with drop spindles.
“The Historium is about more than trolls, although we certainly celebrate them, too.” she said.
More information: The Driftless Historium is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is free.
See mthorebhistory.org or call (608)
Getting there: The museum is at 100 S. 2nd St., Mount Horeb, about 100 miles west of Milwaukee via I-94 and Highways 18 and 151.
The first troll carved by Michael Feeney is on display in the Driftless Historium.
A general store from the Montrose Township, south of Mount Horeb, is on display at the Driftless Historium.