Grignon Mansion, Kaukauna, Wisconsin

Constructed between 1837 and 1839, the Grignon Mansion is an extant memento of Wisconsin’s pre-statehood days. Located in Kaukauna, along the Fox River, formerly one of the state’s most popular waterways for fur traders, the Mansion stands near a trading post that was established as early as 1760. The stone remnants of which can be found behind the dense, overgrown tree lines beyond the dignified home.

Charles Grignon mansion sign

Charles Grignon mansion sign

According to the Outagamie County Historical Society’s pamphlet on the Grignon Mansion, The Mansion in the Woods, Charles A. Grignon’s “family had been active in the fur trade for over 100 years and took over the post in 1830. In 1837, he built this stately property as a wedding gift for his Pennsylvania bride, Mary Elizabeth Meade. An oasis of luxury and civilization on the frontier, it was known as ‘The Mansion in the Woods’ to countless travelers.”

“To paint the picture of what it was like when the Mansion was built,” says Matthew Carpenter, director of the Outagamie County Historical Society (interview with author May 2010), fur trading was moving west to the Dakotas, Montana, and the Northwest. The decade of the 1830s was a time of transition for Wisconsin. Trapping activities were moving westward and fur traders found that their livelihood was becoming obsolete.”

Augustine Grignon, credit- thenavarres

Augustine Grignon, credit- thenavarres

Charles A. Grignon worked as an interpreter and diplomat for the fur trade between 1830 and 1862, brokering many treaties between the US Government and Indian tribes. “Charles was well-connected, literate, with respectability and good credentials,” Carpenter goes on to say. “He was a man who was comfortable in New York, and comfortable in the world of the Menominee, in Wisconsin. He moved through both worlds quite easily.”

The Grignon Mansion’s locally hewed timber frame harmonizes with the national building style of that era, a humble, classical decorum considered a fitting expression of the country’s emerging democracy. “It is a rare, surviving example,” says Carpenter, “of elite, eastern taste on the Wisconsin frontier.”

Carpenter further revealed that “it took a substantial amount of money to build; however, it’s not on the high-end of the Greek revival scale, but more practical. There were many more expensive, elaborate interpretations of Greek Revival in the east.”

Grignon Mansion

Grignon Mansion

The Mansion’s porch balustrades, exterior columns, window siding and frames, among other furnishings, were brought in on boats from New York via the Great Lakes. Its interior indicates a conventional Georgian structure, marked by a central hall symmetrically complemented by large rooms. “This home reflects the visions of a new country looking back to the classical world for their ideals in architecture and politics,” says Carpenter.

The Grignon home served as a relaxing, amusing, family-friendly base for 19th-century European and American travelers and guests. According to Carpenter,“the Grignons prided themselves on their hospitality.” The residence has been restored to the period of 1837-62 and sits on the property of the first land deed in Wisconsin; its status as a pertinent link to the state’s heritage is indubitable.

“Wisconsin,” says Carpenter, “at the time the house was built, with the exception of Green Bay, was a very rudimentary place. And this home offers a unique collection and documentation of the family’s life.”

Indeed, the Charles A. Grignon Mansion tells the tale of not just homestead and retreat but settlement and survival, the rise and decline of the fur trade, and the 1836 Treaty of the Cedars, which opened Menominee lands to European settlement. The profound history of the Grignon family and their home represents the state’s conversion from rough, uncharted country to European extension.

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