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Oaklawn Inn: A living piece of Menomonie history

Bed and breakfast was originally built in 1889 on 518 acres

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June 24, 2024

MENOMONIE – As someone who spent more than three decades in Tennessee, with some of those years being in Nashville – the “Music City” – Stephanie Perry said she never thought she would end up in Wisconsin.

However, Perry said her familial ties to the city – her great grandfather Burton E. Nelson served as the president of the University of Wisconsin-Stout (Stout) for 23 years – would eventually bring her to Menomonie – and more than once.

But, it was the Oaklawn Inn (423 Technology Drive E.), she said, that would inspire her to stay in the area for good. 

The inn, Perry said, has become her livelihood – the place where she both lives and works.

As the newest owner of the historic property, she said the story behind the now bed and breakfast led her to truly appreciate the house and Menomonie as a whole. 

Oaklawn Inn’s history

The history of the Oaklawn Inn, Perry said, is rich and vast – dating back to 1889.

But, to get the whole picture, she said you have to go back a bit further than that – to when four men – Andrew Tainter, William Wilson, John Holly Knapp and Henry Stout – helped develop the City of Menomonie.

According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, Wilson and Knapp bought a sawmill on the Red Cedar River in 1846 – known as Knapp, Wilson and Co.

In 1850, Tainter became a partner (becoming Knapp-Tainter Lumber Company), and by 1853, Stout joined the partnership – transitioning its name to Knapp, Stout & Co. 

“The lumber company ended up owning a million acres at the Red Cedar Valley,” Perry said. “They (constructed) Lake Menomin, Lake Tainter, Rice Lake and all the dams up the Red Cedar River. They pretty much controlled the town.”

The Oaklawn Inn was originally built in 1889, and was used as the supervisor’s house for the stock farm. Photo Courtesy of Oaklawn Inn

Tainter also owned a livery service in downtown Menomonie, which Perry said was run by one of his daughters, Lottie, and her husband, George Seeley.

In 1889, Perry said the livery service was torn down to build the Mabel Tainter Theater, which was in honor of Tainter’s 19-year-old daughter, Mabel, who had passed away.

Thanks to the success of Knapp, Stout & Co., Tainter also built the Oaklawn Stock Farm, which was supervised by Lottie and George.

The 518-acre horse racing farm featured three race tracks – two of which were covered – a horse hospital, a 16-sided barn with livestock and eight additional buildings.

The farm also had a supervisor’s house for Lottie and George – the building that Perry said houses the Oaklawn Inn today.

“The house has a close connection to the history of Menomonie,” she said.

Though the racing stock was sold in 1903, she said the farm continued under the Tainter family until 1948 when it was purchased by the John P. Dale family.

Perry said the Dale family continued to live at Oaklawn until 1990, which is when construction began for the Stout Technology Park.

In 1997, Maggie Foote purchased the house and its 2.8 acres of land and started the Oaklawn Inn – running it for 23 years.

A new owner purchased the B&B in December 2021 – and this, Perry said, is where she came in.

A history of her own

When Perry first visited Menomonie in 2020 to learn more about her great-grandfather’s time as president of Stout, she said she stayed at the Oaklawn Inn.

“I did not understand the historical value of the house when I was staying here the first time,” she said. “It was represented as a farmhouse… it wasn’t decorated ornately.”

When the house was first built, the Wisconsin Historical Society said it was a Queen Anne-style home – meaning it was abundantly decorated and had bold patterns and colors, along with other features.

“Maggie didn’t believe in living in a museum – that was her statement,” Perry said. “She had contemporary furniture… She didn’t want it to have a Victorian feel and look even though it was built in the Gilded Age.”

Though Foote’s style differed from that of when it was originally built, Perry said she did a “phenomenal job” at getting the B&B to the point where it was at.

“She put in the bathrooms, she did a lot of external work to the building that needed to be done,” she said. 

After she visited West Central Wisconsin, Perry said she returned home to Nashville, “but kept thinking about Menomonie.”

The recurring thoughts of the city, she said, led her to realize she “was ready for a shift.”

“My husband had passed away about five years before that,” she said. “I knew I was ready to move and do something drastic before I got too old – I’m 57 now… I was ready to create a new life for myself, someplace completely different.”

Originally 518 acres, the Oaklawn Stock Farm had three horse racing tracks, a 16-sided barn and eight additional buildings. Photo Courtesy of Oaklawn Inn

And the Midwest, Perry said, was where she decided to make that happen.

“I wasn’t sure what my life was going to be like up here,” she said. “I thought I’d continue to work remotely and live a simple life in Menomonie. It’s a small town, it’s a sweet town.”

Around Labor Day in 2021, Perry said she returned to Menomonie to look at houses in the area. 

“I like to remodel houses – I always feel like it gives back to a community,” she said. “I’m going to change any house I live in… I always make it better, so I may as well buy something that needs help. I knew I had the skills to make it happen.”

During her visit, Perry said she again stayed at the Oaklawn Inn, where she had the chance to catch up with Foote.

“I told her all about the different houses I looked at…,” she said. “And she goes, ‘you know, I’ve been wanting to sell this place.’”

Perry said purchasing a 4,000-square-foot house was not on her wish list – “I was going to downsize.”

The morning after her conversation with Foote, Perry said she started to do the math and considered purchasing the B&B more seriously.

“After looking at all these houses, I started to do my numbers – ‘well, it’s going to cost this much, and then it’s going to cost this much to change it,’” she said. “I woke up the next morning and thought, ‘maybe I could do this.’”

After giving both herself and Foote a week to think about it, Perry said she found herself next in line to take over the inn. 

“I’m amazed now when I look back at how many people helped me – how all my friends in Nashville were there for me,” she said. “It was so beautiful… It seemed like everything flowed and was in alignment.”

At the end of 2021, Perry said she moved into her new home – and then immediately got to work. 

Renovations, old glory

Once she was owner, Perry said she knew she wanted to bring the visual historical aspect of the home back to life.

“I didn’t want it to be frilly Victorian – I wanted it to be farmhouse Victorian and elegant Victorian,” she said. “I didn’t follow all the Victorian rules – Victorian design is complex.”

Right off the bat, she said she returned the former 11-foot ceilings to their original glory by removing the drop ceilings and adding Victorian chandeliers.

“It was a huge mess…,” she said. “When you (have already made) a big mess, you may as well keep fixing everything that needs to be fixed.”

From there, Perry said she had the 14 doors in the house stripped down to the bare pine, stained a darker color and then cleaned the hinges and doorknobs.

“There was a lot of detail that was done,” she said. “Every wall, ceiling and floor was touched up in the entire house – every one of them.”

Using Benjamin Moore’s Historical Colors paint line, Perry said she also went with colors that matched one another and tied in with the gilded theme.

Each of the four available bedrooms in the house are named after the color they’re painted: The Grey Room, The Gold Room, The Blue Room and The Peach Room. 

When Stephanie Perry took over ownership of the Inn at the end of 2021, she said she spent the next year renovating and bringing back the original Victorian feel to the house. Photo Courtesy of Oaklawn Inn

Though Foote took a more modern approach to the bed and breakfast, Perry said she wanted to have the historic feel throughout the house, which is why she restored and/or added Victorian furniture.

“A lot in this house is refinished furniture,” she said. “There’s a beautiful velvet satay that had springs sticking out of it when I got it. Now it’s a beautiful part of the parlor. I have fallen in love with Victorian furniture because it reminds me of the craftsmanship of the day and the abilities people have to make useful art.”

Inside the Gold Room, Perry said, is a piece of history that’s “very special” and ties back to John Holly Knapp. 

“In the Gold Room, you’ll see there’s this nine-foot headboard bed… that came from his estate,” she said. “The bed is from 1870… (There’s also) the dresser and the dry sink.”

While going through renovations, Perry said it was important for her to stay true to the home’s Victorian history – meaning she enlisted the help of others in the community.

“I can’t put a Victorian bed there and a Home Depot cabinet – it doesn’t work,” she said. “A friend of mine has been doing a lot of salvage work, and he’s been in Menomonie forever. He salvaged a 1937 pedestal sink from Harvey Hall (at UW-Stout).”

When her friend showed her the sink, Perry said, “it was perfect,” though it had some damage.

“We took the faucets off and brought it to a company in Eau Claire, and they sanded it down and refinished it – now it looks brand new,” she said. “It’s beautiful – and I love that it was an intricate part of the university.”

In addition to the four rooms, Perry said the house also has a “beautiful great room” that has a seating area and a table for playing board games.

On par with a Queen Anne-style home, the B&B also has a screened-in wraparound porch.

“This whole house is (now) in the center of a tech park,” she said. “It has Phillips Medisize on one side, there’s a nursery on the other and then we’re in the center section that looks down a city park… I feel like this is an oasis in the middle.”

To keep the history of the inn alive, Perry said she also created a book of different photos and articles on its past, which she enjoys sharing with guests. 

She said Stout also donated 50 years of yearbooks to Oaklawn, which date to 1909.

Renovations for the bed and breakfast took almost exactly a year, Perry said, in which it was closed down – before reopening in December 2022. 

A LUX place to stay

Since reopening, Perry said people from all over the globe have stayed at the Oaklawn Inn and “love the house.”

“I think people were impressed by the changes,” she said. 

So impressed, that Perry said the Oaklawn Inn was nominated and won as one of the 2024 Best Historic B&Bs in Wisconsin by LUXlife, an England-based magazine.

Pictured here is John Holly Knapp’s bed frame, which is in the Oaklawn Inn’s Gold Room. Knapp was one of the partners in Knapp, Stout & Co., the old lumber mill in Menomonie. Photo Courtesy of Oaklawn Inn

“I’ve had several people from England stay here,” she said. “I don’t know who nominated me, but it was sweet.”

Bringing people together

In running a bed and breakfast, Perry said she loves being a space that can bring people together.

“I get many people from all over the country and the world,” she said. “They come and sit down at the dining room table for breakfast, and they have a conversation for an hour-and-a-half, two hours. They enjoy hearing each other’s stories, which is a neat thing. You don’t get that when you go to a hotel.”

Another part of bringing the community together, Perry said, meant going back to her Nashville roots.

“Nashville has a lot of musicians, and there are a lot of venues and house concerts,” she said. “I used to have many house concerts in my old house, and I missed that. I missed having artists and performers around.”

With 11-foot ceilings, Perry said she knew Oaklawn would make for great acoustics – which is why she decided to get in contact with Juliana Schmidt, the director of the Menomonie Singers.

“We’ve decided to do (a classical music series),” she said. “We did one in May to test it out… I think it’s important to have venues for artists to show their work.”

Menomonie ‘should be celebrated’

Perry said she would also like to start hosting lectures on the history of Menomonie – and what better place to do so than at the Oaklawn Inn?

“The Menomonie history… it’s fascinating to me,” she said. “It is something to be proud of, and I’m finding a lot of people don’t know the history.”

For example, she said three inventions have come out of Menomonie “that changed the world.”

Those inventions are:

  • The Tainter gate – a type of floodgate used in dams to control water flow, created by Jeremiah Burnham Tainter
  • The outboard motor – a propulsion system for boats, ideated by Harry Miller but brought to fruition by his coworker Ole Evinrude
  • Swiss Miss – the first instant hot cocoa mix, created by Charles Sanna

“(These inventions) should be celebrated, and it’s almost ignored…,” she said. “I think if you invent something everybody uses, then that should be celebrated. There should be a monument here for that.”

Perry said she believes celebrating the city’s achievements and educating the community about them, can help continue to inspire innovation.

“It’s the history you want your children to know that it came from here, so maybe they will feel there is an opening and decide to innovate more on top of it,” she said. “It makes you feel like, ‘if they could do it with all of the challenges they had then I can do it.’”

To learn more about the Oaklawn Inn, visit

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