Artifact Number One
by Peter Shrake
Among the thousands of historical objects found in the Jacob Van Orden mansion on Fourth Avenue in Baraboo, Wis., which houses the Sauk County Historical Museum, is a simple artifact. It is unassuming, crude, and extremely heavy. Most visitors rarely notice it; those who do probably give it little thought. It is a ovoid quartzite rock just a little smaller than a basketball. On the top is a hand-forged iron eyebolt secured firmly into the stone. When the Sauk County Historical Society acquired the artifact it was attributed to the fur trade era. The donor, William Dennis of Merrimac, Wis., found it while digging a cellar for his house. He lived along the Wisconsin River and immediately assumed it was an anchor used by an early French voyageur to secure a canoe or bateau when he stopped for breaks on his long voyages. William concluded the ancient anchor was so stuck in the mud that its user abandoned it.
It may indeed be an anchor. But whether this unusual piece is from the French era is almost impossible to tell. The hand-forged eyebolt indicates it was made before the Civil War. Society member Mark Tully, an expert on the French period, points out that such anchors were impractical to the voyageurs. Why lug around a heavy anchor, in addition to a heavy cargo of furs and trade goods, when you can just as easily tie the canoe to a tree or lift it onto the riverbank?
While it may not be from the French period, the anchor is one of the most significant artifacts in the Society's collection for an entirely different reason. Its catalog designation is number 1 and it was given to the Society in May 1905.
The anchor is the first artifact ever donated to Society. So, perhaps it is not a pretty object, and perhaps it is one easily overlooked, but its significance cannot be underrated. For among the thousands of artifacts and archival material within the Museum, it is unique, if for no other reason than it preceded them all.