Coming from the UK, touring old mansion houses is something I’ve done plenty of. You may know the drill, standing behind a rope, trying to peer through a doorway with 20 other people all standing on tip toes trying to look over your shoulders. However, tours at the Lincoln-Tallman House in Janesville, Wisconsin are COMPLETELY different, it lets you experience the house and how life would have been living there.
Lets start from the beginning. William Tallman was a lawyer and politician from New York. He purchased land in Wisconsin, which was a brave move as it had only just recently been declared a State, and decided to build a house so he could keep an eye on things.
Construction started in 1855. The Victorian/Italianate styled house was very grand and technologically ‘advanced’ for the time period and area. The total cost was $42,000 (in gold) and to give you an idea of how much $42k was worth in the 1800’s, 20 regular sized houses could have been built for this price! It was built using Cream City brick, made out of clay from the Milwaukee River (this type of brick can also be seen at the Southport Lighthouse in Kenosha, which was built 11 years later!).
The family moved into the house in 1857, enjoying luxuries such as walk-in wardrobes, pressed wooden tables (yep, pressed…not carved!), an intercom system, a dumbwaiter, running water and an upstairs toilet. William even designed the home to be built with gas piping, even though the area was yet to have this amenity. When Janesville finally had a gas network, the Tallman house was one of the first in town to be connected to the system!
There are so many interesting aspects of the house! From the front, it just looks like a regular square building, but it’s honestly like a rabbit warren. It actually has SIX different floors! You open a door and BOOM hidden staircase! Despite there already being 6 bedrooms (including 2 servant bedrooms), up in the attic there are a further 5!
The Tallman Family had 2 full time servants. They were kept a ‘secret’ as having servants were looked down on in these times. There’s a stained glass window on the first floor that is ridiculously bright and looks out of place with the rest of the decor in the house. The story goes that it acted as a warning signal to slaves coming in on the Rock River (even though the River is quite a distance from the house!). When the green window was illumined this meant it was safe to come up to the house, when it was red, it meant stay away. However this was in a time before red and green were recognised as stop/go road signals!
Me, being me, of course I found the toilet interesting! Just take a look at it:
The big rectangle hole is understandable, that was where the chamber pots were emptied. The little hole on the far right was for small bottoms…the last thing you want is to go and have to rescue your kid from a 20ft hole filled with toilet waste. But TWO adult holes? I asked if it was a ‘his & hers’ thing, other visitors have apparently asked if going to the toilet was a social thing, a bit like when you go to a bar and girls always go together and talk to each other through the walls (yes male readers, this does happen). However no one really knows the answer! It’s just one of those mysteries!
Another story of the family history involved their daughter, Gussie. She unfortunately died 9 months after she got married. Of course the family were upset. Gussie was buried in a nearby cemetery and it is said that her grave could be seen from the little observation room located right up on the roof of the house.
So where does Abraham Lincoln come into this story? He spent 2 nights at the Tallman House back in 1859, BEFORE he was President. Being a politician, William had seen Lincoln do a speech at the Wisconsin State Fair and asked him if he would come and speak in Janesville. Lincoln said he would, but as it was such short notice, he’d need somewhere to stay, so William invited him to stay at his big shiny new house.
As Lincoln’s visit was before he was elected, apparently he felt uncomfortable in the Drawing Room (the main room for entertaining guests…I also never realised that Drawing Room comes from the word ‘withdraw’, the room you go to when you ‘withdraw’ from dinner!) and asked if he could move to a more ‘low key’ room.
Lincoln stayed in the Guest Room. The Guest Room is more fancier than the other bedrooms in the house, with a fancy fireplace, a chandelier and a decorative wash basin. It was another way to make sure guests knew they had money. Lincoln took his boots off when he went to bed and left them outside the door. The servants came and collected his boots to polish them but when he woke up they hadn’t been returned to his room! Back in the 1800’s everyone wore shoes around the house, he didn’t want to leave his room in his socks so stayed in there all day! He missed his train so had to stay for a 2nd night!
After the family had passed away/moved and the house had stood empty for 30 years, it was finally donated to the City of Janesville to be opened as a museum. It’s been operating as a museum since the 1950s, longer than it was actually lived in as a house!
Most of the furniture on display is original. There are only 2 main rooms that visitors are unable to enter, the Dining Room and Gussie’s Bedroom, this is to protect delicate items and structural parts of these rooms from becoming damaged. In the Library (which ironically has no books!), visitors are encouraged to sit on the furniture to be able to get an idea of how low to the ground furniture was in the 1800s!
Visiting the Lincoln-Tallman House
The Rock County Historical Society currently offer 2 different tours of the Lincoln-Tallman House:
The Traditional Tour – which is exactly what it says on the tin, you find out all about the Tallman family and how their day to day life would have been (Adults $8/Children 6-17yrs $4).
‘Help Wanted’ – is more interactive and is enjoyed by both adults ($10) and children ($6)! You follow the life of what it would have been like to have been an immigrant servant, and lets face it, back in those days, most of us as ‘working class’ people would be on the servant side of life! Visitors take part in various chores from being in the basement/kitchen: scrubbing floors, doing laundry, grinding coffee beans to changing the bedsheets in the families bedrooms. The chores vary depending on the size of the group and age of visitors, the aim being that you could do the tour more than once and it *hopefully* be different each time!
Tallmans Technology – this tour will be coming soon. It highlights all the ‘modern’ amenities that made the Tallman House so unique to Janesville!
Spirits in the Night: The Tallman Crypt – a Halloween special tour!
Historic Holiday Tour: The Tallman House gets covered in Christmas decorations! Tour the house and hear about Christmas traditions from the past.
There are also plans to make the House more accessible for the local community through various events and workshops!
You can find out more about the tours at: www.rchs.us/tallman-tours/