Republicans in Ripon: What’s the scoop?

In recognition of this month’s Republican National Convention in New York City, let’s poke at a few myths associated with the GOP. We’ll keep the spotlight on Ripon, a city of 6,800 in Fond du Lac County that has long called itself the Birthplace of the Republican Party.

The Little White Schoolhouse, designated a National Landmark in 1974, is where a group of people met in 1854, to form a new political party to fight slavery. So …

Q. Are there a lot of Republicans in Ripon?

A. “Unfortunately,” jokes Craig Tebon, executive director of Ripon Main Street, which for 15 years has worked to revitalize the downtown. “We’re as close as you can get to Mayberry. Seriously, though, this is a charming small town.”

“A lot of people don’t realize that we’re not affiliated with the Republican Party,” says Sue McConnell, head docent at the Little White Schoolhouse. “And every once in a while, somebody says ‘I’m a Democrat – can I still come in?’ Of course they can.”

This is a historic site, not a political statement, notes Paula Price, Chamber of Commerce executive director. To operate in another manner would mean jeopardizing the schoolhouse’s status as a nonprofit enterprise.

Q. So why are there campaign signs for GOP candidates in the yard of the schoolhouse?

A. Look closer, and take a head-on view. The signs are actually in front of the Republican House, an American-Chinese restaurant. That’s next door.

It can be a pretty good optical illusion. The big sign for Russ Darrow, in particular, seems to bump right up to the schoolhouse property line. Looks bigger than each of the monuments that explain the schoolhouse’s significance, too.

Q. What has his opponent, the other Russ – U.S. Sen. Feingold – ever done on behalf of the city?

A. He and Herb Kohl cemented Ripon’s heritage last spring, by proposing a commemoration of the Republican Party’s150th anniversary in Ripon. The two Senate Democrats got unanimous support, and U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Fond du Lac, successfully worked the other side of Congress. So now it’s all a part of the Congressional Record.

Q. Why should that be such a big deal?

A. The resolution got historians in at least three other U.S. cities hoppin’ mad. Exeter, N.H., Crawfordsville, Iowa, and Jackson, Mich., have each been proclaimed as where the GOP began.

Q. So why did the Senate resolution pass unanimously?

A. It was a voice vote, and the New Hampshire guys weren’t there for it. The Michigan senators, who are Democrats, didn’t object. “They can have it,” the spokeswoman for one Michigan senator told the Associated Press.

And Iowa? Dunno what happened there.

Q. So which city is the actual birthplace?

A. Ripon, says Sue. “We have written data from the meeting” in 1854, she says, “but we acknowledge that Michigan had the first state convention,” which was July 6, 1854.

Go to Exeter in October, though, and you’ll run across an annual observance based on residents’ claims that the GOP met there in 1853.

Tom Petri countered with this, last March: “If anyone doubts this is the birthplace, just appear on ‘Jeopardy!’ If you answer any question about the founding of the Republican Party with anything else than ‘Ripon,’ you’ll lose.”

Q. Why was a schoolhouse chosen to be the GOP birthing room?

A. Process of elimination. “It was too cold to meet outside, and someone’s house would have been too small,” Sue says. “It wasn’t appropriate to hold this type of meeting in a church – the separation of church and state was deliberate when planning this.”

Q. What wrong assumptions do people make about the schoolhouse?

A. “People have the idea that Abe Lincoln has been here,” Sue says. “And the building was only a schoolhouse for seven years, 1853-60. Abe would have never had a reason to be here, but we have his picture up because he was the first Republican president.”

Lincoln was elected in 1860, re-elected in 1864 and assassinated in 1865.

Q. How will you and the GOP celebrate the 150th anniversary during this election year?

A. That party’s over. “We consider March 20 to be the anniversary, so we had several events then,” Paula says. “What we might do is help organize a mock election in the schools. We spearheaded that before the primary.”

Q. What else does Ripon have going for it?

A. Plenty, says Craig. He mentions “a nice collection of retail and specialty shops downtown, making this a good day or weekend trip.”

Among his recommendations for fine dining is The Treasury Restaurant, in a 1930s art deco bank, scheduled to reopen in late summer.

He also notes that beverages at the city’s annual Pumpkin Festival, on Sept. 18, will include Republican Ale and Republican Root Beer, specially produced by Harbor City Brewing Co. in Port Washington.

That’s a fund-raising effort based on city heritage, Craig emphasizes, and not a political statement.

The Little White Schoolhouse, near the corner of Blossom and Blackburn streets (highways 23/44), is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day. It is open on weekends in September, October and May. Call (920) 748-6764 or go to www.riponmainst.com and www.ripon-wi.com. Admission is free but donations are appreciated.