DURAND — Pepin County may be the smallest county in Wisconsin by land area, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking its fair share of history.
Tucked just a couple of blocks away from the Chippewa River, the Old Courthouse Museum and Jail is standing proof of that.
Constructed in the early 1870s and 1895 respectively, the courthouse and jail — not to mention the volunteers who run the museum — have plenty of history to tell visitors who stop by.
The county itself may be small and the museum focused on sharing its history, but the stories that come out of them can be “universal,” said Terry Mesch, who manages the museum.
The most notorious county-specific historical story to come out of the Durand courthouse was the November 1881 lynching of a man accused in the July 1881 shooting of local law officers, Mesch said.
The national manhunt before the accused was captured had made front pages across the country, and the illegal execution of the man after he was seized walking down from the upstairs courtroom and hanged left Durand with a poor reputation for years following the incident, Mesch said.
Museum visitors will find a display on the incident and all that led up to it in the main hall and can take the same winding stairs up to walk through the close-to-original courtroom.
The courthouse is the last remaining wood-framed courthouse in the state and is also notable for being constructed in the Greek Revival style, which includes features such as the building’s front portico, lunette window and segmental arch windows.
Both the courthouse and jail — the old sheriff’s residence, which housed the jail in an addition, is next door to the courthouse — retain some original features, although some modern amenities, such as electricity, were added throughout the years and parts of the buildings underwent renovations.
The upstairs courtroom is “as original as it gets,” Mesch said.
Also upstairs, visitors can viewed several original pieces of artwork done by local artist C.H. Gleason, the largest of which came to the museum after hanging above the altar of Little Plum Lutheran Church for many years, Mesch said.
The museum’s themed exhibit rooms are housed downstairs.
The Durand Room includes exhibits on Helen Parkhurst, a world-renowned American educator famous for the Dalton method of teaching; Miles Durand Prindle, the city’s founder; the bridges of Pepin County; and more.
The People in Uniform Room contains a variety of old uniforms, including those of athletes, soldiers and musical groups. Visitors are encouraged to snap a selfie with a vintage silver-colored firefighter’s suit.
Poet Elizabeth Clarke Hardy is featured in the Household Room, and visitors can view additional rooms dedicated to agriculture, medicine and the railroad and related photos, equipment and more.
In addition to the display on the 1881 hanging, the museum’s main hall features the history of the courthouse as well as other artifacts, including several from indigenous inhabitants of the area.
Several rooms feature small models of important buildings, including the railroad depot, a one-room schoolhouse and a barn.
The museum is working on another room set to be dedicated to commerce in the area, Mesch said.
Each piece selected for the museum works toward the goal of telling the “history and traditions of Pepin County,” he said.
The jail next door is part of that history as well. The 1895 jail building, which connected to the sheriff’s office and home, contains a jail cell ordered in 1881 before the project was thrown off track when the county seat was temporarily moved to Arkansaw.
When the jail was finally built years later, it was done so around the cell, Mesch said.
The county used the jail until the 1980s despite being out of compliance with various regulations for about 50 years, Mesch said. Some of spots where some renovations were made to be more compliant are still visible, as are bits of graffiti left by former inmates.
The museum has been in existence since 1985 and is under the purview of the Pepin County Historical Society. It welcomes somewhere around 850 to 1,000 visitors in a good year, Mesch said.
Admission to the museum is free, but donations are accepted. Pepin County, which owns the courthouse building and some surrounding land, contributes toward the museum’s expenses, and membership fees, grants and fundraisers also help fund the museum, Mesch said.
While the museum is open as usual this summer, they are recognizing and recommending social distancing for visitors, Mesch said. Although the museum is not typically overcrowded, they want to be conscious of the safety of others, he said.