Local log house opens to public with French-Canadian, 4th Ward exhibits

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The St. Germain dit Gauthier house, built in 1820, and restored 200 years later, is a new historical point of interest in Prairie du Chien, which depicts French-Canadian hewn log construction of two centuries ago. The site, opening this weekend, will display exhibits that share the history of the home, of other similar homes in the community, the Main Village 4th Ward and floods there. (Photos by Correne Martin)

The St. Germain dit Gauthier house on St. Feriole Island consists of an original 1820 log house structure (walls and beams) with some windows and second story floor that are native to the house. It’s decorated with many French-Canadian period pieces, and the Prairie du Chien Historical Society has more on its wish list.

The St. Germain dit Gauthier-Coorough House will open to the public June 12-13 with French-Canadian music, dance, and workshops. The two-day event will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, with a formal ribbon-cutting by the Prairie du Chien Chamber of Commerce. Visitors will then be invited to tour the newly-restored house and participate in entertainment and food.

Saturday, at 10:30 a.m., noon and 2 p.m., and Sunday, at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., there will be performances of “Fete on the River.”  Minnesotan dancer Jane Skinner Peck and fiddler/dancer Danielle Enblom will perform this costumed presentation of French-Canadian and Metis music, song and dance.  They will include songs that were sung in Prairie du Chien by Reuben Valley in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Expect storytelling and audience participation.

Between “Fete on the River” performances, there will be hands-on workshops conducted by Marianne Carolan, from which one can learn to play the penny whistle and keep time to French-Canadian songs with wooden spoons. She will also guide people to participate in the fun of dancing to the traditional music.

Refreshments will be available.

House history

The St. Germain dit Gauthier house is located in the former Main Village of Prairie du Chien. Within its structural details are several elements consistent with a method of French-Canadian construction called “piece sur piece a que d’aronde.” In this method of log construction, the house is constructed of hewn logs set horizontally and joined at the corners by dovetails. Also, the length of the house is a multiple of 13 feet and the hewn logs are on average five inches wide. When this house was constructed, there were no trees on the prairie and only small openings of oak or sugar maple trees were present on the bluffs, so timber for a house had to be located along the Wisconsin, Yellow or Chippewa Rivers. After the trees were cut, the logs were hand hewn on site. To indicate the order in which the logs were to be set at the house site, Roman numerals were notched at one end of the log. There are Roman numerals present at the corners St. Germain dit Gauthier House timbers.

The St. Germain dit Gauthier house was constructed on Main Village Lot No. 7 as delineated in the 1820 Isaac Lee map of Prairie du Chien. Main Village Lot No. 7 was confirmed to Jean Baptiste Caron, as he and others occupied the lot since 1790. Jean Baptiste Caron came to Prairie du Chien from Montreal in the employ of Berthelot and Rolette Company.

The next occupant of Main Village Lot No. 7 was Guillaume St. Germain. He was from Yamaska, Province of Quebec. St. Germain also signed an agreement to work in the fur trade. He engaged to work for Forsyth, Richardson & Company at Michilimackinac for three years. At the end of his engagement, St. Germain remained in the pays d’en haut (upper country). He moved to Green Bay. There, he married Madelaine Brunet, the daughter of Pierre Brunet and Menominee woman. They traveled westward, arriving at Prairie du Chien about 1825. They acquired Lot No. 7 when Caron relocated to work in the Missouri River fur trade.

Three generations of the St. Germain dit Gauthier family occupied the house and property until 1890. By that date, the Dousman family owned the land that surrounded the house. Nina Dousman wished to acquire the land on which the house stood, so the property was sold to Nina Dousman McBride. Mrs. McBride first rented and then sold the house to Charles Gremore. 

Charles Gremore purchased the house, and he moved the house in 1900 to its present location.

George Coorough purchased the house and property from Charles Gremore in 1902. It stayed in the Coorough family until 1978. Merilla Coorough was the last person to live there. 

Restoration

The house was purchased by the city of Prairie du Chien as part of the relocation of the residents of the Prairie du Chien 4th Ward in the 1980s. The St. Germain dit Gauthier/Coorough house was one of three homes that were not demolished or relocated as part of the project accomplished by the Corps of Engineers and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The house stood vacant for over 30 years. In 2016, the Prairie du Chien Historical Society requested the city of Prairie du Chien give the house to the local historical society. Under the historical society’s guidance, the St. Germain dit Gauthier-Coorough House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The society acquired Artisan Restoration of Kasota, Minn, to complete the structural restoration of the house in 2020. An HVAC system and electrical wiring were installed by Mezera Heating and Wagner Electric. Leaf Chief finished the interior and painted the trim. 

Exhibits

A new exhibit on the history of the house, other French-Canadian houses in Prairie du Chien, and the 4th Ward was designed by Joshua Wachuta and Rachel Lewis. The house has been decorated with furnishings based upon an 1840 inventory of the belongings of Guillaume and Magdelaine St. Germain. Several of the pieces have an area history and are French-Canadian in style.

The restored St. Germain dit Gauthier-Coorough House, with furnishings and exhibits, will be publicly viewed for the first time on Saturday. The house will be open for touring throughout the summer and fall.

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