In 1865 at the end of the Civil War, in the city, then known as Kilbourn, a proud Civil War veteran came home – disabled – unable to practice his former profession as a carpenter. So in 1865, he started his photography business. That veteran was Henry Hamilton Bennett.
Through the years he developed great skill and recognition as a prominent 19th century landscape photographer and inventor. He was an avid promoter of his work and the Dells of the Wisconsin River. He established the community, now known as Wisconsin Dells, as a tourist destination starting in 1865. His mentor from Milwaukee, William Metcalf encouraged his artistry and also lent him money in 1875 to build his own state of the art studio in the location where it stands today at 215 Broadway in downtown Wisconsin Dells. Bennett prospered, his store was known for selling photographs and souvenirs, including local Ho-chunk basketry and bead work. Metcalf, on his own 60th birthday forgave the balance of the loan to Bennett and to this day Metcalf’s picture is hanging in the Studio in recognition of his generosity and friendship. The Friends created an award called Metcalf/Bennett Award. It is given annually to someone who is a generous and supportive friend of the Foundation.
Bennett died in 1908 and his family continued to run the business for 90 years. First, his wife Evaline, then daughters Miriam and Ruth and then granddaughter Jean and her husband Oliver Reese. The family had already established a small Museum in the back of the store displaying Bennett’s many historic achievements. But, by the 1990s, it was clear that there weren’t any more family members interested in working in the family business. So Ollie and Jean began discussions with the Wisconsin Historical Society and also created a Foundation which could receive funds to accomplish the major task of transforming this family business into a Wisconsin Historic Site.
Not only did the Foundation they created support the transformation, but it has continuously supported the Studio operations. In early 2013, the retiring Bennett Studio Director asked Debbie Kinder and Betsy Grant, great granddaughters of H.H. Bennett, and Cheryl Boehmke to create a Friends group to support the Studio. A few more interested community people were invited to the project and the Foundation was morphed into the Friends of H.H. Bennett Studio membership group. The mission of the Foundation “to support and promote the HH Bennett Studio” has never changed. Providing volunteer resources was a new addition.
After a year of awareness building, the first Friends Annual Meeting was held in April 2014. There have been collaborations with the Dells Masonic Lodge, Little Eagle Arts Foundation, and Stewards of the Dells of the Wisconsin River, Kilbourn Public Library, Ho- Chunk House of Wellness, Adams County Historical Society, Adams Community Theatre, HO-chunk Nation of Wisconsin and the Downtown Dells Committee Wine Walk.
Awareness is important but increased revenues and gifts for the Foundation and the Site are needed to help upgrade the Museum exhibits regularly. Our volunteers will help with Bennett Studio events and activities and our fundraising will contribute to Museum upgrades.
We hope you are as excited as we are and join us as we continue the journey to continuously reinvent the H.H. Bennett Studio in Downtown Dells.