Harold’s Favorite Places – Iowa County

The settings of Harold Thorpe’s novels and children’s books are deeply inspired by real-life places he has been to in Iowa County, Door County and Butte des Morts, Wisconsin. In his Harold’s Favorite Places posts, he’ll take you to locales that are close to his heart, and integral to his family history and writing.

Wisconsin River Farm at Avoca

Wisconsin River Farm at Avoca

“They began moving day in the rolling hills of Southwest Wisconsin, crossed the Military Ridge, and then slowly descended crests and valleys toward their new home on the Wisconsin River… At dusk a breeze swept down from the bluffs and cleared the fog away, and then he saw it: a plain, double story house with double-hung windows. They rode another ten minutes and turned onto a long, snow covered drive.”  — Bittersweet Harvest   Harold’s Favorite Places: The Farm at ‘Willow’ As Bittersweet Harvest begins, Will and Mary O’Shaughnessy and their three daughters have reached their new farm at Willow, Wisconsin, along the Wisconsin River.  Will has convinced his family to leave behind their home in Ashley Springs, Wisconsin, and his Ford Dealership there, to return to farming. The move has taken an entire day, through the snow. Their belongings follow on packed sleds. In the O’Shaughnessy Chronicles novels, Willow and Ashley Springs are fictionalized names of real places in Iowa County, Wisconsin. Willow, in real life, is the village of Avoca on State Hwy. 133 in northern Iowa County, near the Sauk County line. Ashley Springs, in real life, is the city of Mineral Point in southern Iowa County. The two, real-life communities are separated by about 50 miles of winding hills and soaring bluffs. About three miles east of the village of Avoca there still exists a farm that is very special to me, and to my family.  It is the farm in Bittersweet Harvest. My grandparents, Will and Elizabeth Fitzsimons, moved their family from Mineral Point to this farm around 1918, when my mother, Laura Annette Fitzsimons, was in the seventh grade. Places aren’t the only real-life elements in my novels. When I sat down to write the O’Shaughnessy Chronicles, I drew much of my material from my mother’s 1999 memoir, From High on the Bluff. I strove in my novels to remain as true to her real-life story as possible, while fictionally filling in gaps and allowing myself some creative freedom. In the O’Shaughnessy Chronicles, the fictional characters of Will and Mary O’Shaughnessy are based on my grandparents. Will and Mary’s three daughters – Catherine, Sharon, and Ruby – are based on my mother and her two sisters, Annie and Alice. My mother also had a third sister and a brother that I did not include in my novels. Here’s how my mother, in From High on the Bluff, recalls her family’s arrival at Avoca. “We didn’t know a soul around Avoca and had never lived on a farm before, so it was kind of scary for me and Alice. But there were horses, cows, pigs, chickens, cats, and a wonderful dog, Teddy.” I made sure to include Teddy in the O’Shaughnessy Chronicles. In Bittersweet Harvest, the O’Shaughnessy family inherits a black-and-white English sheepdog, named Teddy, from the previous owner of the farm at Willow....

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Downtown Mineral Point

Downtown Mineral Point

  Downtown Mineral Point, Wisconsin, holds a special place in my thoughts and memories. In my O’Shaughnessy Chronicles novels, Mineral Point is fictionalized as Ashley Springs. “Ashley Springs’ main business district, High Street, ran uphill a half mile from Commerce Street at the lower end of town to the state road on the village’s northwest perimeter. Samuels’ Department Store seemed as good a place as any to start his search. So he raced down High Street and entered the door underneath the cast-iron dog. – Giddyap Tin Lizzie   When I was an infant, we lived on my grandparents’ farm outside Mineral Point. In 1949, when I was eleven years old, we moved to Mineral Point. We lived at 611 Wisconsin Street, on the south side. Across the street from us lived Ruth and Bob Mitchell, the owners of Mitchell Hardware. Mitchell Hardware was the inspiration for Mason’s Hardware in Giddyap Tin Lizzie. We lived in Mineral Point until 1953. I graduated from Barneveld High School in 1955. Because we didn’t own a car in those years, I walked –usually ran — the steep hills of Mineral Point. From our house, it was ten blocks to downtown. Sometimes I’d take the even longer route through the old cemetery, past the gravesites of my great-great grandparents. I’d walk down to Commerce Street and imagine that this may have been where my Grandpa Will Fitzsimons, Will O’Shaughnessy in the O’Shaughnessy Chronicles, had his Ford dealership. Then I’d walk up High Street to my favorite place in town — the old rock Mineral Point Library. In the seventh and eighth grades, I read every age-appropriate book in that library. I still remember my two favorite stories, Circus Shoes and The Green Turtle Mystery. Thanks to preservation efforts, downtown Mineral Point remains a special place today. Construction in the downtown commercial district began in earnest in the mid-19th Century, as mining for lead, zinc and other minerals exploded and the population soared. The architecture of many of the commercial buildings is reminiscent of Cornwall, England. Many early Mineral Point settlers – some of whom were builders – emigrated from Cornwall. Downtown Mineral Point soon grew into a thriving commercial area with scores of shops by the 1850s that sold everything from groceries to boots to jewelry. There were several hotels. Local residents who had amassed fortunes in mining and other pursuits built large, elegant homes in the surrounding neighborhoods. The city of Mineral Point was incorporated in 1857. In 1897, a fire swept down High Street, destroying several businesses. In the years after that, as local mining declined in the 20th Century, many homes and businesses fell into disrepair. Many older structures were demolished. That began to turn around in the 1930s, with the restoration of Pendarvis, a group of limestone cottages that are now a Wisconsin Historical Society site. In 1971, downtown Mineral Point was added to...

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A Grove of Fitzsimonses

On the north side of Mineral Point, where Pine Street turns westward into Garden and Alice streets, is a cluster of properties that is no longer owned by my mother’s family, but once was a Fitzsimons compound of sorts. It once held the homes of several close-knit generations of my mother’s family. In her 1999 memoire, From High on the Bluff, my mother, Laura Annette Fitzsimons, refers often to this “Grove of Fitzsimonses.”  Mother was born here in 1906, in a rambling, ten-room house that was previously part of an old German schoolhouse. It sat on a plot of land between what are now Ridge, Garden and West Commerce streets. Unfortunately, it has since burned down. Her father, Will Fitzsimons, infamously relocated the schoolhouse from its original location a half-mile down the hill; I fictionalize this moving day in Giddyap Tin Lizzie.  My mother’s parents, Will and Elizabeth Fitzsimons, are the inspiration for Will and Mary O’Shaughnessy in the O’Shaughnessy Chronicles novels. Other nearby homes in which my mother’s family resided remain standing today, including one my great-grandparents, Ed and Elizabeth Fitzsimons, built on Alice Street in 1894. It’s just down the hill and past a buggy shed from the home where my mother grew up. Some of the outbuildings around my great-grandparents’ home remain, including that buggy shed, which is mentioned in From High on the Bluff.  Homes that once belonged to some of my mother’s aunts and uncles — and great aunts and uncles — also remain standing on Garden and Pine...

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