You can explore and experience Island history for yourself in many ways. The most comprehensive exploration of Island history can be found at the Madeline Island Museum. Picturesque and historic Madeline Island first cast its spell on Leo Capser in 1903. In the mid-1950s, the love he felt for the island manifested itself in the Madeline Island Museum.
Enchanted by Madeline Island’s rich mix of history and natural beauty, the Capsers made preservation of the island’s story their personal mission, by assembling a large collection of relics documenting every chapter of the island’s long and storied history.
The museum was created by joining four historic log structures end to end – a small 1835 warehouse from the historic American Fur Company complex, the former LaPointe town jail, a Scandinavian-style barn, and the Old Sailors’ Home, originally built as a memorial to a drowned sailor. On June 15, 1958, the Madeline Island Museum opened its’ doors to the public.
In the late 1960s the Capsers donated the museum to the Wisconsin Historical Society. In 1991, the endowment established by the Capsers provided the means to add the new Capser Center which is as it looks today.
The Island is named after Madeleine Cadotte, daughter of Chief White Crane and wife of fur trader Michael Cadotte. The Ojibwe (Chippewa) and other native peoples made their home here for hundreds of years before European contact. Etienne Brule, a French explorer, visited Madeline Island about the same time as the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. About 1660, two explorer/fur traders, Groseilliers and Radisson, made their way to Chequamegon Bay. Five years later, Jesuit Father Claude Allouez and Father Jacques Marquette arrived. A mission was soon established at LaPointe, on Madeline Island. For the next 150 years it was an important outpost for French, British and American fur traders.
After the 1855 construction of the locks at Sault St. Marie, Michigan, Lake Superior country was opened. The eventual development of rail and road systems led to the disappearance of all ferry boats except those connecting Bayfield and the Island. Ferries have run for nearly a century and a half here, with early sailing ferries giving way finally to gas and diesel boats making for modern transportation.
The Heritage Center of the Madeline Island Historical Preservation Association on the edge of downtown features a group of buildings preserved from the Island’s history and are open for touring during high season, a glimpse of the past.
There are numerous other sites on the island which are easily found on the CD driving tour of Madeline Island, or on a short, self-guided walking tour of the downtown area.