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Early Madison Hand-Carved Table

Early hand-carved table made by Levi Havemann, a German immigrant to Madison,
c. 1860.

(Museum object #1998.21.1)

German-born Levi Havemann came to Madison, Wisconsin in 1854 as a skilled wood carver and cabinet maker. He lived at several locations around the city including a home on Gorham Street near today’s James Madison Park on Lake Mendota. According to family history, the wood used to make this table was harvested from that land.

Havemann’s pedestal table features curving, fluid form and decoration indicative of the Rococo Revival style, pervasive in American furniture construction from 1840-1870. The table’s turtle-shaped top is consistent with the period, and its decoration consists primarily of solidly carved acanthus leaves and vines borderd by carved S-shaped scrolls. The central pillar support features reeding, parallel convex moldings, and carved acanthus leaves. Havemann added four carved drop pendants. The table’s finish is not original.

Havemann's obituary in the Wisconsin State Journal notes that he crafted most of the decorative carving in the Senate and Assembly chambers during the construction of the second Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison during the late 1850s.

At a later date, Havemann constructed the cabinet for the taxidermied “Old Abe”, the bald eagle that served as the mascot for the 8th Regiment of the Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. The cabinet and the stuffed eagle were lost in the 1904 Capitol fire.

Historians have the responsibility to substantiate the family histories that come with historical objects. This table’s story proved to be quite challenging. The donor, Eunice Rognlie, stated that the table (and other donated items) came from her long time business partner Leta Pettibone Meehan McNitt, who said that she was the great-granddaughter of the maker. McNitt’s 1965 will substantiated this provenance but did not give the actual name of the great-grandfather. Rognlie wrote in a letter to the Wisconsin Historical Society that the maker’s name was Meehan and that the wood came from the family’s property near Lake Mendota.

Rognlie’s 1998 will further documented her own understanding of the story. It stated that Meehan was an Irish immigrant “brought over to Madison from Ireland to carve decorative woodwork at the original State Capitol…” Since construction began on the first Capitol in Madison in 1836 and Irish did not arrive in Dane County until the 1840s, Society staff questioned the story’s validity.

Staff researchers first attempted to verify Rognlie’s story by constructing Mrs. McNitt’s family tree through census research. McNitt did have a great-grandfather of Irish birth named Patrick Meehan but he did not arrive in Wisconsin until the late 1850s, too late to work on the first Madison Capitol as Rognlie had written. Moreover, the census records could neither document that he ever lived in Madison nor that he was a skilled craftsman, but the information did not disprove the donor's story either.

Next, researchers investigated the three other great-grandfathers of Mrs. McNitt. Census records revealed that one of them, Levi Havemann, was living in Madison in the 1850s and documented his occupation as a wood carver. Listings in Madison city directories showed that he lived at a couple of locations on East Gorham Street near Lake Mendota.

By this point Havemann appeared to be the table’s maker, but researchers could not confirm that information until they located one final piece of evidence, his obituary, in which Havemann is noted for his decorative carving in the former State Capitol. The donor’s original story was close, but not exactly correct as it included the wrong Capitol and the wrong immigrant great-grandfather. But through careful research, the table and its wonderful story of an immigrant’s contribution to Wisconsin has been reestablished.

JEK


Posted on March 30, 2006

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