President of historical society shifts her focus to French-Canadian history

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Mary Elise Antoine developed a love for local French-Canadian history, mostly after she restored her own log cabin home of this style. She recently stepped down from her president role on the PdC Historical Society in order to spend more time interpreting her passion at the St. Germain dit Gauthier-Coorough House on St. Feriole Island. (Courier Press file photo)

By Correne Martin


In late April this year, historian Mary Antoine stepped down from her role as president of the Prairie du Chien Historical Society Board. She was re-elected to the board and has agreed to serve the remainder of her three-year term, however. She also resigned from the Prairie du Chien Design and Preservation Commission simultaneously (and Janet Finn took her place). 

Mary has been a member of the PDCHS board for over 20 of the society’s 26 years of existence. She was vice-president under the late Fred Huebsch and then elected president in 2014.

“I have always believed that a person who holds an office and has great responsibilities should know when to say ‘when.’ I am therefore going to follow my own advice,” she stated in a letter to the board and staff of the PDCHS. “I’m really shifting my focus to my stronger interests, which is early French Canadian history, and the log house on St. Feriole Island.”

The St. Germain dit Gauthier-Coorough House is indeed her passion, presently. Her desire, and that of the historical society’s, is to expand interpretation and interactive programming at that log house.

“We feel there is where people can get involved in some sort of life experience, maybe food, music or crafts, etc.,” she said, sharing that an increase in such activities are targeted to begin in 2023. “That’s really the way of museums these days.”

Born and raised here, Mary Elise Antoine (as she pens most of her work) started working at the Villa Louis when she was 16 years old. She has been engrained in Prairie du Chien history and its main economy of tourism for most of her life. She has a Master of Arts in history museum studies and has worked at historic sites in upstate New York and, of course, Wisconsin. She is currently curator at the Villa Louis as well.

Now, with her adjustment in focus, Mary will continue to be at the Fort Crawford Museum and Museum of Prairie du Chien site just once a week, instead of daily. With her depth of knowledge of the local history, and particularly objects, she has offered to help when information is needed. 

But, she’ll more likely be found at the log house. She enjoys conducting restoration tours of the house to visitors of all ages and curiosities, including groups from Viking River Cruises. She trains volunteers to provide tours as well. 

“The interest of people who live in Minneapolis and Chicago is overwhelming,” she noted. 

Furthermore, Mary has and will carry on contributing to the French Heritage Corridor, a French Heritage Society initiative, as an ambassador for Wisconsin. In addition to her knowledge and love of this layer of history, Mary’s resume includes her guidance in the restoration and National Register of Historic Places listing of about a dozen French-Canadian log houses in the Prairie du Chien area—most of which are privately owned. 

Mary said there’s one on County K, the house she owns on North Main Street, and a Sheckler family home on the same street are just a few she’s done.

“Green Bay only has two. Minnesota doesn’t have any,” she added, talking about French-Canadian log houses remaining today. 

Through her years of dedication to local history, Mary’s initiatives were all put forth with the intent to improve programming offered and to make the history a more visible part of the community. 

“I wish the community and businesses would become more involved. One of the easiest ways to do that is to become a member of the museums and the Friends groups,” she said. “You get a newsletter and free admission. There are so many people who come [to the Fort Crawford Musuem] from all over the world and say this is one of the most well-run museums they’ve visited.”

The current Prairie du Chien Historical Society Board includes Brandon Brockway, executive director of the museums; Chad Fradette, president; and Janet Finn, secretary. The vice-president seat is currently vacant. Anyone intersted in joining the society should contact the museum at 326-6960.

Mary is also working on up and coming books: “Enslaved, Indentured, Free: Five Black Women on the Upper Mississippi, 1800-1850” and “Frenchtown Cemetery: Old Catholic Burying Ground, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin - 1816-1840.”

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