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Apple Fest brings aroma of Portage history

October 9, 2017 GMT

“We’re holding down the fort.”

The minute Nancy Burns said that, she realized she’d made a play on words.

One of Wisconsin’s oldest historic sites, the Fort Winnebago Surgeons Quarters, is between executive directors at the moment.

But that didn’t stop members of the Daughters of the American Revolution from traveling from all over Wisconsin to host Saturday’s Apple Fest. And it didn’t stop a trickle of tourists, from Wisconsin and beyond, from braving the intermittent rain to sample cider fresh from the hand-cranked press, and tour a building that dates back almost two centuries.

The Wisconsin Society Daughters of the American Revolution, of which Burns, of Green Lake, is state curator, owns the site, located on Highway 33 east of downtown Portage.

Saturday marked the last day of the site’s season, which runs from May through October.

Even though the sun wasn’t shining and many of the leaves on surrounding trees were still green, autumn was definitely in the air.

The air around the site was filled with the aroma of apples – about 200 pounds of them, many of which were sliced and fed into the cider press.

Karen Broman of Mequon and her daughter, Mariah Broman, said visitors could take home fresh cider once it had been filtered.

DAR members from all over Wisconsin were asked to bring apples, of any variety.

“To make good apple cider,” Karen Broman said, “you have to have more than one variety of apple.”

That’s why DAR members brought apples from various orchards all over Wisconsin.

“See, I stole some from my brother’s tree when he wasn’t looking,” said Kate Ullman of Antigo.

Three years ago, the DAR celebrated 75 years of owning, operating and maintaining the Surgeons Quarters – the only structure still standing from Fort Winnebago, a military installation that was active from 1828 to 1845.

The DAR acquired the site in 1939, and it took about 15 years for them to restore the structure to its use while Fort Winnebago was operating, first as a store for settlers, then as the home of medical officers and their families.

Now, Burns said, the DAR is planning a bicentennial celebration for next year.

Although the sign at the site says the Surgeons Quarters structure was built in 1824, the origin of the tamarack log structure that became the Surgeons Quarters actually goes back to 1819, when Francois LeRoi – who was of both French and American Indian descent – built the structure as his house. LeRoi operated a fur-trading business that also included portaging (carrying canoes) between the Wisconsin and Fox rivers. That’s why the earliest European settlers referred to the area as “The Portage.”

Since 2018 will mark the beginning of the site’s 200th year since its utilization by people of European descent, Burns said, the DAR is planning a celebration next year.

Tim Burns, Nancy’s husband, said people came to the Apple Fest even in less than ideal weather largely because they see history as not just interesting, but vital.

“To think that in the 1600s, Marquette and Joliet were here,” he said, as he pointed northwest.

“There are more people,” he said, “who realize the need to understand the roots of our country – to understand its values and traditions.”