Atwood, Ormsby and Green family papers, 1853-1998


Joshua Atwood (1812-1896) was one of the early settlers of Briggsville, Wisconsin, and in 1857 he and Edward R. Cudworth bought the title to Bonnie Oaks, an 80-acre estate in Marquette County. Joshua Atwood, son of Parker Atwood (1788-1853) and Lovicy/Lovisa Gale (1792-1878), was originally from Vermont but moved to Wisconsin where he met and married Rosina (Willson) Atwood (1815-1881). They spent much of their time at Bonnie Oaks with their children, including their daughter Alma (1843-1893), who gave the estate its name.

In 1866 Alma Atwood married John Whitney Ormsby (1842-1916). John Whitney Ormsby was one of three sons and two daughters of John H. Ormsby and Betsy A. Corrill. John H. Ormsby was one of the early Mormons in Ohio but was excommunicated and eventually moved to Wisconsin around 1850. As a result of unsuccessful forays into the milling and distillery businesses John H. Ormsby and his wife and children decided to relocate to Petaluma, California. John Whitney, however, stayed in Wisconsin and worked as a clerk in Oxford. David G. Ormsby, John Whitney's uncle, also remained in Wisconsin for a short time but then he too decided to relocate to Erie, Pennsylvania. In time, John Whitney Ormsby also made his way to Erie where he worked for H. Jarecki & Co., an oil refining business operated by his uncle. Later, John Whitney returned to Wisconsin.

It was in Milwaukee that John Whitney Ormsby made his permanent residence with Alma and their children. He again took up business, working as president of the Ormsby Cement and Lime Company, which had branches at Grafton, Hayton, and Brillion, Wisconsin. The Ormsby family spent the majority of their time in Milwaukee, but in 1869 when the title to Bonnie Oaks was conveyed to Alma Atwood Ormsby, the family began to use Bonnie Oaks as a summer residence.

The Ormsbys made considerable changes to the Bonnie Oaks estate and built many of the structures still there today. In the 1870s or 1880s John Whitney Ormsby built the main house for his wife's parents, Joshua and Rosina Atwood. Around this time John Whitney also built the structure known as the Log House on the site of an earlier log cabin, one originally used by Joshua and Rosina Atwood. A three-story square frame building known as the Tower was built circa 1890, to be used as a two-story guest house, with a water tank on the third floor to provide irrigation to the lawns. During the late nineteenth century John Whitney Ormsby also relocated the original barn by removing portions of it above the fieldstone and erecting a new foundation northwest of the original. The remaining foundation was later converted by the Greens into a garage. Also, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century John Whitney Ormsby built a new barn, two stories on a one-story fieldstone foundation, probably obtained from Ormsby's Lime Company. Several other smaller outbuildings were also erected circa 1890.

In 1897 the Ormsby's daughter Mildred (1872-1964) married the prominent Milwaukee lawyer Harrison Samuel Green (1873-1955), son of Harrison L. Green and Harriett Harrison. Harrison S. and Mildred Ormsby Green had three children, Katherine (b. 1901), Margot (b. 1908), and Eleanor (b. 1911), and made their home in Milwaukee.

Following the death of John Whitney Ormsby in 1916 the Greens became the owners of Bonnie Oaks, and they also maintained the estate as a summer residence. It was through Mildred Ormsby Green that the estate became known as an informal artist's retreat in the 1920s-1930s.

Intensely interested in the arts, Mildred Ormsby Green opened her estate to many aspiring and experienced artists. In 1922 Mildred Ormsby Green invited pianist and Juilliard teacher Josef Lhevinne (1874-1944) to Bonnie Oaks. For twenty-two years, from the first visit until his death, Lhevinne spent a part of each summer in the Tower at Bonnie Oaks. He generally visited with his wife Rosina (1880-1976), also a noted pianist and a Juilliard teacher, and frequently brought along a student for intensive study. With the encouragement and favor of Mildred Green, Lhevinne encouraged his associates to visit Bonnie Oaks, including Franz Proschowski, a voice teacher of Paul Robeson.

Other visitors to Bonnie Oaks included close friend and writer Zona Gale (1874-1938), a distant relative through Lovicy Gale and a well known author at the time, who spent much of her time in Portage, a short distance from Bonnie Oaks. She brought many protégés to the estate, such as writers William Maxwell (b. 1908) and Margery Latimer (1899-1932), each of whom became friends with the Greens.

In fact, Maxwell had come to Bonnie Oaks while still in high school to do odd jobs around the estate. After a period of stress and ill health, Maxwell was taken in by Mildred Green. He spent much of his time in the Tower and it was there that he completed his first novel, Bright Center of Heaven (1934), apparently inspired by the lifestyle at Bonnie Oaks. Maxwell wrote several other novels and later became an editor at the New Yorker.

Margery Latimer was another writer who visited Bonnie Oaks, and wrote letters frequently, exchanging ideas with its inhabitants. Both Latimer and Zona Gale were involved with the Gurdjieff philosophy, one that dictates the practice of an elaborate system of mental and physical exercises designed to develop the individual's emotional and mental powers, integrate them with the body and bring them under self-control and self-direction. In the summer of 1931 when Jean Toomer (1894-1967), a published writer of the Harlem Renaissance and a known leader of the Gurdjieff philosophy in the Midwest, conducted the “Portage Experiment” at Big Slough, Margery Latimer and Katherine Green were among the participants. In this experiment, a group of male and female students lived together (with a chaperone) in an effort to disintegrate the personalities of the participants and then rebuild them according to the Gurdjieff principles. As the Portage Experiment occurred not far from Bonnie Oaks and both Katherine Green and Margery Latimer were involved, Toomer and his students visited Bonnie Oaks several times. The experiment was eventually terminated when it became a source of scandal, dubbed by the press as a free-love cult. Following the experiment Latimer, a white woman, and Toomer, a black man, married secretly in 1931, and in August of 1932 Latimer died giving birth to the couple's daughter.

Toomer soon made headlines again when he and Charles (a.k.a Chaus) Dupee were arrested at Margery Latimer's former home, though it was Dupee and not Toomer who was the source of the trouble. Dupee, the son of a socially prominent and wealthy Oconomowoc family, was charged with abandoning his wife and children, a state his wife blamed on his participation in the Portage Experiment. As fellow participants, both Jean Toomer and Katherine Green had known and grown close to Charles Dupee during this time. Charles Dupee and Katherine Green were married sometime between 1932 and 1935, though they eventually divorced.

All three Green sisters married in the 1930s. In 1934 Margot Green married Faun Freeborn; the two had several children and remained together. Eleanor Green married a noted poet and translator of classical literature, Robert Fitzgerald (b. 1910) in 1936. At this time Eleanor Green herself was an aspiring author, having written her first novel while at Bonnie Oaks. That novel, The Hill, was published in 1936 and received widespread acclaim. In 1945 Green and Fitzgerald divorced, and she later married William Piel, Jr. (1911-1998) with whom she remained married until his death.

Bonnie Oaks, the site and inspiration of so much creativity, still exists and is currently listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The estate remained in the Atwood, Ormsby, and Green families for 125 years, until 1982, when it was bought by William and Grace Schultz.