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Two librarians on their honeymoon in central Wisconsin stumbled upon a love story.
A few years ago, when Martha Meyer and Rick Kinnebrew spent their deferred wedding trip in central Wisconsin, they enjoyed the cultural offerings of the American Players Theatre and the Frank Lloyd Wright house. But the theme the couple found was one of broken relationships. At Taliesin the buzz was about Mr. Wright’s mistress, Martha “Mamah” Cheney, who was murdered in 1914, and some of the plays were about unfaithfulness and suspicion.
“We were hungry for a story about love and fidelity and longevity in marriage,” said Ms. Meyer.
Not wanting the vacation to end, said Mr. Kinnebrew, they took the suggestion of a friend – an Evanston Library patron also visiting Spring Green at that time – and went to Mineral Point.
“Rick said, ‘I am not going on a tour,” Ms. Meyer said. “I said, ‘Yes, you are.” And on that tour of the restored rock cottages of Mineral Point, the two found their love story.
They heard the story of Mineral Point’s beginnings as a mining town with the same vein of lead that gave Galena (Ill.) its name, said Ms. Mayer. Once the accessible lead had been mined, there was a need for “deep mining, a specialty of the people of Cornwall [United Kingdom].” Lured to the United States in the 1830s by the promise not just of jobs but of home-ownership, Cornish miners came, mined and built small rock cottages reminiscent of their homes. Many left Wisconsin for California during the gold rush a few decades later and Mineral Point languished. In the story of its revival Mr. Kinnebrew and Ms. Meyer found hints of a hidden, lasting love and business partnership between two men.
Robert Neal and Edgar Hellum were partners in labor and in life. Mr. Neal grew up in Mineral Point. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and became an interior decorator in New York and London before returning home. He and Mr. Hellum had met at the Art Institute, and in the 1930s the two purchased and restored three of the cottages, helping to rejuvenate the town.
“We liked how flaky their business plan was; we liked that they had a good relationship and a good business relationship – and there were economic parallels to today,” Mr. Kinnebrew said. “It was a very improbable business venture – an antiques store in a small town in Wisconsin during the Depression. Mineral Point was no longer a mining town. The bank had failed, the train had stopped running and Mineral Point was about to go under,” said Mr. Kinnebrew. The Pendarvis, their first cottage, became a restaurant. Its success helped to provide the funds for restoring other cottages, creating the business that concealed their love and helped revive the town.
“Their story is about love. They found a way to life together in hiding for almost 40 years,” said Ms. Meyer.
Mr. Kinnebrew and Ms. Meyer began their work on the play that became “The Bachelors.”
The couple was already familiar with the creative process. As children’s librarians, they create plays for the Library’s Summer Reading Game each year.
Their play tells the story of the relationship of the two men and their role in rejuvenating a dying town through historic preservation. The playwrights’ sensitive treatment of the relationship of Mr. Hellum and Mr. Neal, who lived at a time when admitting a gay relationship was taboo and who had no apparent interest in rocking the social boat, placed “The Bachelors” as a semifinalist in the Great Gay Screenplay Competition.
Mr. Kinnebrew and Ms. Meyer appear to be excited about this early enthusiasm for their play. Ms. Meyer said, “I feel like, even though Bob and Edgar would be horrified by the play [because of its openness about homosexuality], we [as a society] have a need they can fulfill. Their example is to be true to themselves and their culture. They were civic individuals first. We [as a modern society] have been through perfect [self-] indulgence. [This play shows] how you stick with each other and stick with your community and make it good for your neighbors.”
David Zak of Pride Films and Plays will direct an enhanced stage reading of “The Bachelors” 2 p.m. on Jan. 13 at Piven Theater, 927 Noyes St. He appears to agree somewhat with Ms. Meyer’s statement that the play might have made Mr. Neal and Mr. Hellum somewhat uncomfortable. “People in that era weren’t able to discuss their relationships,” he said, adding that he believes no current audience member would “be shocked or offended. … We learn so much when we look back at history. I think people will enjoy the history and enjoy the play.”
Proceeds from this performance will benefit the Mineral Point Public Library, where Mr. Kinnebrew and Ms. Meyer spent hours researching this story of love and fidelity to a partner and a community.