You’re listening to Parks and Landmarks, an exploration of the underappreciated, outdoors. This isn’t exactly a memorial day episode, but I’d like to take my time today to eulogize one of my favorite weird little roadside attractions: Wisconsin’s own Rock in the House.
As I did the last time I wrote about this place, I should make it immediately clear: we are not talking about the House on the Rock today. Most Wisconsinites are familiar on some level with the crazy house in the hills above Spring Green, Alex Jordan’s midcentury middle finger to Frank Lloyd Wright. Again, that is emphatically not the house we’re talking about today. The House on the Rock is a mansion built on top of a rock, the Rock in the House was just a normal house that a boulder happened to fall into.
Though the two attractions’ names bear a surface similarity, they could not be more different in purpose. The House on the Rock is a four hour long march through an immense collection of everything and nothing. It technically qualifies as a museum, though it seems to be curated by the same guy who writes the dreams I have after stuffing myself with too much Chinese takeout. Its only theme, so far as I can figure out, is the excesses of the 19th and 20th century American empire.
On the other hand, the Rock in the House is the complete opposite. It’s a tiny museum, maybe an acre if you count the yard outside, but the little space is laser focused on examining a single moment in time. Specifically, April 24th, 1995, 11:38am.
On that morning, Maxine Anderson stood in her kitchen in Fountain City, Wisconsin. Fountain City is a community on the state’s very west edge, carved in the meager space between tall, wooded bluffs and the mighty, blue Mississippi. Though the world has changed vastly in the last century, the Mississippi River will always be a commercial artery. Despite everything, the town’s population has remained about the same for as long as we’ve had census data.
This constancy is reflected in the city’s architecture. Other than a small Kwik Trip, and the occasional bed and breakfast, it’s clear that not a lot new has been built here in a while. There’s a lot of wood siding, brick, and just older styles of home construction in general. The Andersons’ home is particularly interesting, because it appears to be an amalgamation, built out and added to over time.
The house is at 440 North Shore Drive, the very north end of town. Here, the bluffs loom especially close, mere yards from the river. This leaves just enough room for a row of single family homes, the two lanes of state highway 35, two sets of train tracks, and an Army Corps of Engineers base. You can mostly only see the west face of the house from the road, so consequently, that’s the side of the house that looks the best. It’s a combination of concrete and red brick, standing tall above a narrow sidewalk. The yard slopes such that it’s actually the basement that steps out to this walk. More brick and concrete frame the stairs that lead up to the actual front entrance. A pair of small stone lions flank the door to the sunroom, on the north side of the building. This entrance, too, is locked, but you can see some of the Andersons’ furniture, stored inside.
Continuing along a brick path, under the shade of a maple canopy, you come to the actual entrance: a white metal storm door, which leads you right from a covered concrete patio to the kitchen. It was in this kitchen, with its white and blue cupboards and butcher block counters, in which Maxine Anderson stood, 27 Aprils ago. It was 11:38am, perhaps she was thinking of preparing an early lunch. Then, without warning, a 55 ton chunk of rock freed itself from the bluff above. Rolling, it ripped through the trees, and came to a crashing halt in the master bedroom, not ten feet from where Maxine stood.
It was a near miss, but Maxine and Dwight were unharmed. The house, of course, was not so lucky. Big chunks of the kitchen ceiling now hung down, and there were smaller cracks in the wallboard throughout the house. But the damage was concentrated at the point of impact. The bedroom was flattened; Thin wood walls and a tin roof gave no resistance, and now a meteor stood in their place. Though, despite being a rough disk in shape, the rock didn’t roll any further. Miraculously, the rest of the house was still pretty liveable.
Of course, technically liveable is not the same standard as actually feeling like a home. I don’t know whether the Andersons were particularly religious, but I imagine it would be easy to take this event as a pretty clear sign it was time to move. The only issue was, who would buy a house that seems just a bit cursed? We don’t have time to get into it, but this wasn’t even the first time this happened. A rock fell on the same house in April of 1907, and it actually killed someone the first time.
Perhaps the outcome we got was the best one possible. A local real estate investor bought the house, and preserved it, more or less exactly as it was the day the rock fell. For just two dollars, anyone could take a self guided tour, see the rock, and try to imagine themselves in the Andersons’ shoes. So it was for a quarter of a century, a simple little museum in an idyllic corner of Wisconsin.
This memorial Day, my wife and I happened to be driving through the area, and we stopped. Something had changed. The door was locked, and taped to the glass was a new handwritten note: “Someone took away your privilege of seeing the rock and info about it by taking the money box and destroying the property. -Owner”
So that’s it, I guess. After all these years, the Rock in the House is dead. Since no one more qualified has stepped up, let’s do an autopsy, shall we?
The money box the note refers to was a rusty metal toolbox, strapped to the house’s low, wrought iron fence. They asked each visitor to donate two dollars, and secured the cash with a couple five dollar padlocks. By this, I mean they asked in more handwritten notes. Everything about the Rock in the House was run on the honor system. There were no employees, or even cameras. Even with the nicest guests in the world, I’d be really surprised if this was the first time the money box was stolen.
Even if it was, even if 100% of the donations were going straight to the owners, I can’t imagine that covered the cost of this place. In addition to property taxes, they were for some reason paying to keep the water and electricity running. That means they were paying for heat as well, if for no other reason than to keep pipes from bursting in the winter. They were paying for a whole house full of expenses, and for what, so we could gawk with all the proper context? I can see how that would get old after a couple decades. Throw a little vandalism in the mix, and I can totally see how we got here.
Luckily, if you haven’t seen the rock yet, there’s some good news. The owners still allow visitors, but you can only explore around the outside. Thankfully, this includes walking right up to the rock. Additionally, the house is registered as a historic site, so even if they wanted to sell, I doubt the next owner could change much without going through a couple committees first.
It’s a little sad that visitors can’t get the full museum experience anymore, but the Rock in the House is still absolutely worth seeing if you’re in the area. Though, if you’re visiting in April, keep an ear to the ground. You never know when the impossible might happen again.
If you’d like to suggest a topic for Parks and Landmarks to cover, please send it my way, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell me about your favorite underrated spot outdoors, or whatever you feel is related. This segment’s title is intentionally broad, so just go for it. I’d love to hear from you guys.
Photo: Sean Bull 2022
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