Tag Archives: american

Alexian Brothers Novitiate

Alexian Novitiate
Photo: All that remains of the Alexian Brothers Novitiate.

The well-to-do widow of lawyer F. M. Peters, Mrs. Jennie Peters, dearly loved her daughter. In the latter portion of the 1930’s architects John King and Gordon Feldhausen were tasked with creating a unique building just for her. Unlike the farmhouses, barns, and silos typical for the Gresham, WI community this structure would be designed around a single individual. The expansive home surrounded by trees along the banks of the Red River would provide much needed respite to Jennie’s disabled daughter Jane.

Unfortunately Jane would never set foot in the house. She passed away just six weeks after construction began.

Undeterred by the unfortunate events, Mrs. Peters made the mansion in the quiet rural community her home. When completed the stone Georgian colonial building featured 20 rooms. On the first floor the were the drawing room, library, guest room, dining room, kitchen, pantry and laundry. The second floor had three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and four rooms for the maids. A nearby four car garage also had quarters above it. The total cost of the property amounted to $250,000 (or approximately $3.9 million adjusting for inflation).

Alexian Novitiate
Photo: One of the few remaining beautiful architectural flairs in an otherwise empty mansion.

Although Jennie was able to assimilate into the community there were rumors that one day she would give the property away. The rumor bore truth in 1950 when Jennie gifted the 232-acre estate to the Alexian Brothers Novitiate. Shortly thereafter novices preparing for service to the Catholic church moved to the novitiate to begin their training. A $1.5 million (about $12 million today) facility named Peters Hall was built adjacent to the mansion to serve the growing number of faculty, staff, and novices.

The novitiate struggled to keep pace with the edicts of the Second Vatican Council, which required its religious orders provide a college level education to novices. This meant that novices had to travel 55 miles to St. Norbert’s College in De Pere, WI. The commute proved to be time-consuming, expensive, and as anyone who has driven through Wisconsin in the middle of winter knows, dangerous at times. The decision was made in 1968 to relocate the novitiate to Chicago.

In the following years the property received no substantial bids when placed on the market. In 1974 negotiations were in motion with the Green Bay Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council to convert the novitiate into a rehabilitation center. Those plans came to a screeching halt around midnight on New Year’s Eve. The caretaker Joe Plonka, his wife, two children, and two friends were awoken by armed members of the Menominee Warrior Society seizing control of the novitiate buildings. The Menominee Warrior Society began their occupation of the property claiming that the lands rightfully belonged to their tribe.

With experienced Vietnam veterans in their midst the Menominee Warrior Society quickly secured their foothold.  In response local, state, and federal agents quickly descended upon the area. Electricity and telephone service for the novitiate were cut. A perimeter with guarded checkpoints around the area were erected. Tensions ran high as shots were frequently exchanged between the occupiers and government officials. The Menominee Warrior Society’s goals were clear in their negotiations with their motto “deed or death.”

Alexian Novitiate
Photo: The top of the mansion where Menominee Warrior Society members kept watch.

Seeking to avoid bloodshed the Alexian Brothers Novitiate sold the property to the Menominee Tribe for $1. On February 3, 1975 the members of the Menominee Warrior Society willingly turned themselves over to the National Guard. The 34 day standoff ended with no major injuries between the Menominee Warrior Society and officials. The ordeal could have ended a lot sooner as Menominee Warrior Society general Mike Sturdevant later admitted that they ran out of ammunition on January 4.  

As per the negotiated agreement the Menominee Tribe would have to make a “good faith” effort to reimburse the novitiate $750,000 for the property. They were unable to afford upkeep on the facility and ceded control back to the Alexian Brothers Novitiate after just five months. The novitiate fielded several proposals from potential new occupants, but nothing substantial ever materialized.

On the morning of October 11, 1975 the neighbors adjacent to the novitiate noticed smoke billowing above the trees. Due to a dense fog a fire raged for hours within the mansion. Responders to the scene described the inside as a total loss.

After the suspected arson the property changed hands several times. The remaining structures fell into disrepair after decades of neglect. Frequent break-ins and vandalism hastened its decline.  In 2003 everything but the mansion was torn down. Some of the land has since been parceled out, though the main property with the gutted mansion remains.

Video (source): J. Patrick Rick’s documentary “The Abbey & Me.”


Alexian Brothers – Comprehensive history of the Alexian Brothers Novitiate estate in Gresham, WI.

Google News – April 13, 1941 Milwaukee Journal article describing the origins of the mansion.

Google News – January 2, 1975 Milwaukee Journal article on the Menominee Warrior Society occupation.

Google News – February 4, 1975 News and Courier article on the history of the Alexian Brothers.

Google News – March 17, 1975 Milwaukee Journal article on the lack of ammunition.

Google News – October 13, 1975 Lewiston Daily Sun article on the fire in the mansion.

Wikipedia – Entry for Alexian Brothers Novitiate

YouTube – J. Patrick Rick’s documentary “The Abbey & Me.”

Chasing the American Dream

American Dream

I love urbex. My guess is you’re visiting this website because you love urbex too or are at least intrigued by what it is.

The economy in the United States is experiencing an extended period of unemployment hovering around 10%, enduring a foreclosure crisis and seeing an ever widening chasm between the poor and rich. A combination poor government leadership, enduring costly wars without end, living on credit, and allowing companies to squeeze consumers (namely banks and health insurance companies) without restraint is creating an environment where the number of urbex locations will increase. This is potentially great for future American Urbex content.

It isn’t great for college graduates looking to start their careers.

American Urbex is a project that helps occupy the time when I am not looking for a full-time job. More on that in a little bit…

I graduated from UW-Oshkosh with a Bachelors of Education in German and Speech Communication with honors. Getting my instructors license from the Wisconsin Department of Instruction was a bittersweet moment. There are no German or Speech Communication jobs in the state of Wisconsin. Nor do I anticipate one opening up for me in the near future. Teachers nearing retirement age are staying put longer due to the economic uncertainty. I can’t blame them for remaining. From a school district perspective it makes perfect sense to hire someone with at least a few years under their belt. Schools are already facing incredibly difficult budget cuts and each hire needs to come with some insurance that the person is somewhat proven.

For the last year I have been employed at UW-Whitewater as a Technical Support Analyst and I thoroughly enjoy my job. I have put my skills as a teacher to use by developing training sessions, documentation, and other instruction that helps our users better comprehend the technology. I must admit that during some of the downtime between monitoring updates I have worked on American Urbex articles to keep myself intellectually engaged. It is a worthwhile endeavor that creates something useful not only for myself, but for others.

In that downtime and when I get home, however, I spend time looking for a better paying full-time job commensurate with my skills. Without available teaching positions I have been applying for jobs in other sectors. I cannot even recall how many applications I have filled out, but I have tried to make the most of the three interviews I have gotten. In the interviews I try to connect my teaching and technical support experiences to what the employers are looking for. Either it doesn’t directly relate or I stumble through making those connections.

My student loans are now due and I can barely manage to pay. After prescriptions and other bills there is not anything left of my check. There is a roof over my head and food on my plate, and for that, I am greatful. My fear is that this will become the norm in my life. A few years back my dream was to have a steady job to finance travel to urbex locations far away. I was told if you stay in school and work hard that the American Dream could be yours. I stayed in school and worked hard. I’ve put my nose to the ground and chased any lead to the American Dream.

Somewhere along the way I realized that I do not believe in the American Dream.

Ascerbic comedian George Carlin once joked that you would have to be asleep to believe in the American Dream. It wouldn’t be so funny if it didn’t contain some grain of tragic truth. The American Dream is a manufactured ideal that Americans have outsourced to nations that will build it cheaper. It is now only accessible to those lucky enough with a job not outsourced.

Following the model for success offered by the American Dream isn’t working. Tapping local social connections, submitting applications and hoping for the best isn’t working. Getting connected online and using job search resources isn’t working. The maxim “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” has been a grinding exercise in frustration looking for a job. Albert Einstein said insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Perhaps it is my German education experience that inclines me to hold Einstein’s bit of advice as more sage. If I were to go into teaching German or Speech Communications I would be engaged in something I love, but would be actively promoting a hypocrisy spread in schools. Working hard and doing well in school no longer guarantees an individual access to a job with a comfortable wage.

When I am photographing an urbex location I see remnants of the American Dream. I see it in the ingenuity of the massive steel machines left behind in factories. I see it in the peeling paint on an abandoned home. I see it in the fading logo of an American made pickup trapped in a collapsed garage. When reconciling the past with the present I can’t help but wonder when America will wake up from the dream. One thing I try to accomplish with my photography is to show comfortable Americans that, yes, this nightmare is the part of the American Dream that is conveniently omitted.

What I do believe in is an American Reality.

Unlike the now outsourced and manufactured American Dream, the American Reality can only be crafted by an individual. For me that means reevaluating my skills and trying to apply them towards a new career. For American Urbex that means holding off on traveling to the next big urbex adventure until I figure out what to do. The reality is I can’t afford to dream and neither can my fellow struggling American citizen. At this moment my American Reality is in a state of chaos.

Comments are open for debate, criticism and job leads.

Call for Interviews

Die hellen Treppen

Hey there urban explorers! It is time to expand American Urbex beyond the scope of my own adventures. I’d like to hear from you!

Answer these following short questions in the comments or via email ( americanurbex / at / gmail . com ). I will select a few of you to follow up with for future American Urbex posts. I’d love to highlight other urbexers’ work here.

  1. Who are you?
  2. How did you get involved in urbex?
  3. What gear do you take with you when you go urban exploring?
  4. What is your favorite type of urbex location?
  5. Where do you publish your urbex photos?


American Urbex Funding


American Urbex is raising funds to offset the cost associated with documenting urbex locations. Pitching in a few dollars will help offset the cost of transportation, lodging and food. There are perks for giving a contribution in any amount. To contribute to American Urbex please visit the project page at IndieGoGo. The goal is to raise $500 by mid August and hit the road to find those abandoned places not listed in any travel guide. They are, after all, far more interesting than any tourist trap.

07/12 Update: Nick F. has contributed $60 cash to the American Urbex project. Kelly H., Phil F. and Lindsey A. have also contributed to American Urbex already. I can’t stress how wonderful it is to know that there are good people out there who support this.

07/14 Update: Matt E., along with two other donors who wish to remain anonymous, have contributed to American Urbex. Muchos gracias!

07/30 Update: Paul B. and Matt C. have donated to American Urbex. Thanks so much! I’m getting closer to the goal!

08/04 Update: An anonymous contributor generously donated to American Urbex. Thanks random anonymous.

I will be taking a road trip in the next few weeks once grad school finishes up this summer. I have my heart set on doing some urbex in the Gary, Indiana area. This is where you, the American Urbex reader, come in. Please take a look at the project page and contribute a few bucks today! Any amount, no matter how small, is greatly appreciated.

Thanks for your time,
Ken Fager