Who Put the “Dane” in Dane County?
Painting Takes a Long and Winding Road to its Home in Wisconsin
by Helen Zhang and Lucy Ji
recently made a trip to downtown Madison. Simpson Street Free Press
writers, Lucy Ji, Alex Lee, and Helen Zhang, visited the City-Council
Building looking for another piece of local history. What we found
was a little-known treasure that is both history and art.
see, this treasure has quite a story behind it. Unknown to most Dane
County residents, is the story of how our county got its name. Dane
County is named after Nathan Dane, a Massachusetts representative in
the Continental Congress. Dane also helped draft the Northwest
Ordinance in 1787. This landmark legislation eventually led to the
development of Wisconsin and other Midwestern states. Just a year
after his passing, in 1836, Dane County was established.
this story has many twists and turns. How did a painting of Nathan
Dane end up hanging in a downtown Madison office building? Keep
Tim Kiefer attended UW-Madison and graduated
from Harvard Law School in 1998. Since 2012, Kiefer is also a member
of the Dane County Board. While studying at the Harvard law school
library, a painting of Nathan Dane piqued his interest. It turned out
that Dane was also a Harvard attendee and made a significant donation
to the university. Coincidentally, Kiefer also lived in the Dane Hall
dormitory at Harvard, which was named in honor of Nathan Dane.
“I had been led to believe Dane County was
named for Danish immigrants,” said Kiefer. It all clicked together
when he realized that the county he grew up in was also named after
In 2011, the 175th
anniversary of the founding of Dane Country, Kiefer became interested
in bringing the painting back to Madison. Regrettably, the painting
was too fragile to travel. Determined to bring Nathan Dane back,
Kiefer and the Harvard Club of Wisconsin searched for a current
Harvard student, with Dane County ties, to paint a new portrait of
Nathan Dane. Finding a student who fit these requirements was not a
Finally, in 2012, Neng Thao, a 2011 graduate of
Madison Memorial High School agreed to the task. Thao, sophomore at
that time, was studying genetic engineering and was leaning toward
medical school. Besides academics, he was also an avid artist.
Unfortunately, Thao preferred pencil sketches over oil paintings.
After further research on Nathan Dane, he was thoroughly impressed and
ultimately agreed to paint the portrait.
After several months of work, the painting was
completed. After months of drying and other prep work, Thao’s newly
created masterpiece was ready to travel. It was the summer of 2013.
The painting was officially unveiled in Madison this past winter
during Thao’s holiday break from Harvard. Everyone involved wanted
him to be present at the ceremony.
To visit this impressive painting, go to the
second floor of the City-Council Building. It hangs outside a
conference room near where city council and county board meetings
take place. This painting is impressive, and well worth a trip to
downtown Madison. Equally impressive is the story behind the