Thursday, July 29, 2021

The 175th Anniversary of the Village of Waucoma (1846-2021), Part of Cooksville

The year 2021 marks the 175th anniversary of the founding of Cooksville’s larger “sister-village,” the Village of Waucoma, established in1846 by the Porter family of New England.

Waucoma was founded on Wisconsin Territorial land that was first placed on sale by the U.S. Government in 1837 and was quickly purchased by the famous Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster. Then in 1842, Webster sold 952.22 acres of his new land to his Massachusetts friend and physician, Dr. John Porter for $1,572.00.

Doctors John and Isaac Porter

In June 1846, Dr. John Porter and his nephew Joseph K.P. Porter, son of his brother Dr. Isaac Porter, travelled to the Wisconsin Territory to inspect his new land. They hired Alanson Vaughn of the nearby Village of Union to survey the land and to draw up the plat of a new, large, 14- block village adjoining the three blocks of the earlier Village of Cooksville adjacent to the west, which had been established in 1842 by John and Daniel Cook. Both villages would share a joint north-south Main Street.

1846 Village of Waucoma plat map

The Porters named their new village “Waucoma,” a name suggested to the Porters by Governor Doty, who said Waucoma was the Native American name for the creek that flowed just north of the two villages. Doty said the name meant “clear water.” The undeserved name “Bad Fish Creek” came later.

1858 Map of Waucoma with Cooksville on the left

Waucoma was much larger than next-door Cooksville, which contained about 15 lots or parcels for sale. The new Waucoma village contained 160 lots in 13 blocks, all for sale, with a 14th block reserved as a Public Square for community use, a nod to the New England tradition. The many street names of Waucoma included Washington, Wisconsin, Rock, Water, South and Fourth streets, as well as Webster and Dane. The two villages shared the soon-bustling commercial Main Street area.

1873 Map of Waucoma 

The name Waucoma appeared on maps for a time because it was much larger than the Cook brothers’ village. The name was also used for the Mason’s “Waucoma Lodge No. 90” of 1858 because it was first located in Waucoma, and for the village’s cemetery originally named Waucoma Cemetery because of its location. (The name was later changed to the “Cooksville Cemetery.”)

In 1847, the township name was officially changed from the Town of Oak to the Town of Porter, to honor the Porter family.

Dr. John Porter, like other purchasers of land in the new Western frontier, must have been pleased to buy the choice prairie land where woods, water and fertile wheat-growing soil was plentiful. It would soon become the new home for the Porters, especially the three sons of Dr. Isaac Porter: Isaac, William and Joseph, who would soon settle in Waucoma, or in Cooksville, or near Cooksville.

The villages, Cooksville and Waucoma, linked by their shared Main Street, attracted many newly-established businesses to accommodate the rush to settle Wisconsin. The villages included about 175 residents at its peak with many nearby farm-owners. However, the new railroads that came to southern Wisconsin by-passed the villages in1857, which, of course, slowed their growth.

By 1900, the single name of “Cooksville” became popular, and the quiet village was soon called  “the town that time forgot.”

The two village names, however, still legally exist on land records. The local U.S. Post Office had changed locations from one village to the other during the years, depending on which store-owner was appointed as the U.S. Post Master, Then in 1917, the last village Post Office formally closed, and since it had been located on the Cooksville side of Main Street (now State Highway 138), the name of “Cooksville” was commonly accepted for both villages.

1904 Map of Cooksville, with Waucoma in fine print

And 175 years later, the Village of Waucoma and the 179-year-old Village of Cooksville, remain as a combined historic village with many original buildings still standing , including historic homes, barns, churches, a schoolhouse, a store, a blacksmith shop, a cemetery, and the historic Public Square  Nearby are other important historic buildings.

The Joseph K.P. Porter Farmhouse near Cooksville, 1895

In 1973, the Cooksville Historic District was listed in the National Register and the State Register of Historic Places, and in 1980 the listings were expanded to include more historic village buildings as well as important places near Cooksville that contribute to what some refer to as “a wee bit of New England in Wisconsin.”

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Thursday, July 8, 2021

Cooksville Community Celebrates the Fourth of July with El Grito Taqueria

The Village of Cooksville in Rock County celebrated its traditional Fourth of July this year with friends and neighbors---some near and some far---on the village's historic (1846) Public Square, sponsored by the Cooksville Community Center, with help from the El Grito Taqueria. 

About 50 people attended the event under the shade of the old burr oak trees on a  sunny July Fourth Sunday. A few new oak trees have been planted to replace the old oaks and to help conserve the original "oak opening" in what was once a vast "prairie savannah" before the land was opened for sale by the U.S. government in 1837. The historic Cooksville Schoolhouse (1886), home of the Community Center, stands next to the Square. 

The Porter family of Massachusetts, who had purchased this land in 1842 from their neighbor Senator Daniel Webster, established  this public "green" square as part of their new "Village of Waucoma" in 1846. The Porters platted their village next-door to the earlier village that the brothers Cook (John and Daniel) had platted in 1842 on land the brothers had purchased from the U.S. Government in 1837. The two historic villages now stand side-by-side. And the Square remains a public park maintained by the Town of Porter.

Picnic tables and folding  chairs were set up on the grassy Square, or "commons," that occupies the center of  the Porters' village layout. 

The special food event at this year's Fourth was provided by the generous El Grito Taqueria Food Truck, which served free tacos to the gathered folks. El Grito is inspired by the history and culture of street food from around the world and caters its food in Madison and the surrounding area, now including Cooksville. 

El Grito at a wedding

El Grito Taqueria brings the flavors of Mexico to the streets of Madison---and  to a Cooksville picnic---to pay homage to the Mexican tacos that have been served for generations in the different regions of Mexico. El Grito is passionate about the food  it serves and about the Madison area's eclectic community --- which  El Grito is proud to call home.

El Grito in Madison

The proprietor  of  El Grito is Matthew Danky, who grew up near Cooksville with his parents, Jim Danky and Christine Schelshorn. And Matthew has now established El Grito's working kitchen in Cooksville's historic General Store (1847).

(Thanks to Chris Beebe for providing the photographs of this year's July Fourth picnic.)

Saturday, May 29, 2021


The “Old Settlers” picnic reunions of the early Cooksville pioneers and their descendants made big news in The Wisconsin State Journal newspaper in 1941, along with Hitler complaining about Russia and the University of Wisconsin buying Picnic Point property in Madison.

The Cooksville gatherings, which began formally in 1901, celebrated the village’s beginnings and commemorated the first settlers’ successful role in Wisconsin’s early history. These feelings were especially meaningful as the fast-paced 20th century took hold of the lives of those 19th century pioneers of the 1840s.

The sentimental annual gatherings over the years were a time for remembering and sharing the history of the village. The settlers renewed friendships and celebrated the best of their difficult but rewarding “pioneer” past, and the picnic provided a time for recitals, music, plays and reminiscing on the village’s Public Square and in the old Cooksville Schoolhouse. Some gatherings were held in the old General Store and in the old Congregational Church, as well.

The first Old Settlers’ Picnic, apparently initiated by Mrs. Belle Lee and Mrs. Ellen Wells Love on September 26, 1901, took place in the Masonic Lodge above the General Store. About 150 people, “present and former residents of this pretty rural hamlet,” attended, according to Irene M. Wells, the village’s newspaper reporter in 1901. 

[The Wisconsin State Journal, June 22, 1941, page 8.]

Forty years later, the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper article from Sunday, June 22, 1941, described the 40th of these nostalgic gatherings with big headlines and several photographs.

The major headline read, “Clover, Bagpipes, and Coffee Spell Nostalgia at Cooksville,” and the smaller sub-headline added, “Old Settlers Gather for 40thTime.”

Under the top headline were three large photographs of people at the gathering with this italicized description underneath:

          “The old, and the young, and the ‘in between’ had a good Thursday, just getting together at the annual old settlers’ picnic in Porter’s grove or square near Cooksville.

          One of the most inconspicuous of the 300 or more persons there was Henry Porter, 81, a descendent of the family which bought the grove from Daniel Webster, then turned it over to the township of Porter. Henry is shown at the left above. [Actually, his photo is on the right. Ed.]

          Next to him is Webster Webb Johnson, 74, who sounded out one of specials on the program, a bit of bagpipe music.

          There’s nothing better than a cold drink from a well-worked pump, as the three girls in the next picture could tell you. Marjorie Nelson, 8, dressed as a boy, is shown gulping a drink, while her sister, Yvonne, 11, and Norma Hatlen, 6, work the pump. Before that picture was taken, they had been in a Norwegian song and dance presentation, with appropriate costumes.”

Then the 1941 article by Fred J. Curran with pictures by Robert C. Oething began. Here are some excerpts:

 “COOKSVILLE—To anyone who ever has been near a farm, there is nothing more nostalgic than the smell of new mown hay, that pungent scent of fresh cut timothy, that cloying odor of clipped off clover.

“They had those nostalgic scents at the 40th “old settlers” picnic in the heavily oaked grove which once belonged to Daniel Webster, back in the days when one of America’s firsts had more land than he knew what to do with. He sold this.

“He sold it to the Porter family, and in 1846, the grove, bounded now by green fields of fresh hay, was turned over to the town of Porter, It’s known as Cooksville square or grove, and it’s a grand place for a picnic, as some 300 or so persons could have told you Thursday afternoon.


[Old Settlers picnic of 1945, four of the attendees, left to right, George McGee, 83; Frank Newman, 93; James Gillis, 95; and Webster Johnson,80.]

“The third Thursday in June is the time for this remembering get-together, and the folks come from all around, from as far away as Madison and Chicago. They don’t forget home.

 “The grove is about six miles south of Stoughton. It has no signs, no billboards. It just has old oak trees and, now, the new mown hay.

 “Thursday they didn’t go in so much for historical speeches, but mostly visited and listened to a varied program of entertainment.


[A 1946  Old Settlers Picnic postcard invitation.]

“At least at one time, the only historical reference came when Alex Richardson, president of the old settlers group, let out that he had just been telling a reporter about Daniel Webster and the Porter place, and would Henry Porter, a descendent of the family, please let the photographer know where he was.

 “Henry did.

 “Henry is 81, and the son of Isaac Porter, who was the brother of John Porter. Like all the other men at the picnic, Henry was comfortable in his shirtsleeves… Everybody just came and had a good time. They brought their own lunches, and got ice cream and coffee.

 “One of the special attractions on the program was the bag-pipe playing of Webster “Webb” Johnson… Other scheduled attractions were music by the Brooklyn band… dances by rural school pupils… But probably the best of the program was the chance to get together again, in shirt sleeves and suspenders, or in the modern sun-suits of the young.

 “And always around was the unforgettable scent of the new mown hay, a sign another year for everyone’s life.”

     So ends the article of the 1941 Old Settlers Picnic in Cooksville.....


[The 1928 Cooksville Picnic flyer, planning for 500 people.]

[Note: The 1941 Wisconsin State Journal newspaper (all 28 pages) with this story was provided by John Diefenthaler, the grandson of Henry Porter, who is described in the article. John is a Board member of the Historic Cooksville Trust.]

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Saturday, April 24, 2021

Remembering Karl E. Wolter (1930-2021)


Karl E. Wolter

Karl Erich Wolter, a longtime resident of Cooksville, died on April 5, 2021, after a 90-year-long active, productive and fulfilled life.

Karl had discovered the Village of Cooksville—and his first new village friends, Marvin Raney and Chester Holway—in the 1960s. He soon bought a 10-acre garden-property from Chester next to the village with an old house on it, and in 1967 Karl moved to the village from Madison.

Karl had come to Wisconsin in 1958, living in Madison and studying at the University of Wisconsin. He began working at the nearby U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in 1963, and finished his Ph.D. in 1964 in the study of botany and plant physiology. Karl continued his work at the Lab, “developing a tissue culture system for the propagation of superior tree species from single cell cultures,” as he described it.

Karl and a potted plant

His discovery of Cooksville in the early 1960s —with its enthusiastic gardeners, active social circle, plant specialists, and tree-lovers— was meant to be.

Karl rehabilitated the old house on his 10-acres and began restoring, re-working and expanding the property’s previous plantings, adding many special and unusual trees. He established a prairie and a large vegetable garden and enjoyed the existing woods and the nearby Badfish Creek And he and friends enjoyed his new, heated, Finnish-style sauna at the edge of the woods.

Born in 1930, in the South Bronx, New York City, of German immigrant parents, Karl grew up a city-boy who loved nature. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and served as a Captain in Korea in 1950-52 in a medical unit. After completing his undergraduate work at Syracuse on the G.I. Bill, Karl received a scholarship to the UW-Madison near the Forest Products Lab where he soon began working, studying and experimenting full-time, as well as teaching and traveling as part of his specialized study of plant growth and wood microbiology and completing his doctorate. In the early 1980s, he was invited to teach in Japan, where he spent a year and a half.

Karl retired from the Forest Products Lab in 1986. He spent his time at home gardening, advising neighbors and visitors, and socializing with his large group of friends in and near the historic Village of Cooksville, as well as with Madison friends. His July picnics and his famous Christmas wreath-making parties (with pine branches trimmed from his pine trees, of course) were big and popular. And Karl served for several years on the Planning and Zoning Commission of the Town of Porter where Cooksville is located.

Karl in a Moroccan garden

Many of Karl’s friends were avid horticulturists, nature lovers, preservationists and conservationists, world travelers, artists, and music and opera-lovers, like himself. Retirement was a busy and enjoyable time.

Karl and Patrick

In 1989, Karl met his partner, Patrick Comfert, and together they expanded their “farm,” tended their gardens and the trails that led across their prairie and through the woods under the shade of their old and new trees and through beds of newly-planted wild flowers. Karl and Patrick’s rescued and rehabilitated animals— they filled the barn, roamed the pasture and prairie, birds gathered in trees, and many creatures gathered on their backyard deck to greet guests—and some lived inside Karl and Patrick’s home, as well.

Karl, sometimes called “Eric” by old acquaintances, will be remembered fondly by many friends and probably by many other thankful animals and pets. 


Fond memories, Karl....thanks.

Larry Reed, Cooksville




Wednesday, March 3, 2021


 In 1929, Susan Malvina Porter of Cooksville wrote a remembrance—or a “sketch,” as she called it— of her Grandmother, Amey Pitman Potter Porter (1789-1871). Susan recited her story as part of a family reunion or part of the many popular annual “Old Settlers Picnics” held in the village. And she may have used the Cooksville Cemetery as a backdrop for her story.

Susan Porter (1859-1939)

Grandmother Amey Porter was born in Rhode Island and married Dr. Isaac Porter (1783-1854). They had three children: William Micaiah, Joseph Kinnicutt, Phebe Rebecca and Isaac Gallup. The family decided to settle in the new lands of Wisconsin, but unfortunately when Dr, Porter traveled later to join his family in Wisconsin, he acquired cholera from an ill boat passenger whom he had treated on the voyage through the Great Lakes. The Porters’ daughter Phebe, unfortunately, also died of cholera that same year. After the deaths, Grandmother Amey continued to live in Wisconsin with her sons.

Susan Porter (1859-1939) was the daughter of William Micaiah Porter (1818-1891), one of the three Porter brothers born to Amey in Massachusetts. All three brothers eventually settled in and near Cooksville. William had traveled to South America (his diary of that trip is in the Cooksville Archives) and came to Cooksville in 1849, but soon joined the Gold Rush to California. He eHereturned in 1852 and married Aura Virginia Wheeler (1832-1884) in nearby Green County. William and Aura lived there before settling down in Cooksville, near William’s two brothers.

Susan was a life-long teacher in various southern Wisconsin communities. She wrote this brief story about her Grandmother, which provides glimpses of early life in the Wisconsin frontier settlement established by the Porters in 1846 on land they had purchased from the famous Senator Daniel Webster. The Porters named their newly-platted village “Waucoma,” which they located next to John and Daniel Cook’s earlier Village of Cooksville platted in 1842.

Here is Susan’s hand-written story from 1929, titled “Amey Pitman Potter Porter.” 

"Our Grandmother, Amey Pitman Potter Porter, was born 140 years ago in Providence, R. I., that is, in 1789, six years after the Revolutionary War ended. She was the daughter of Capt. Wm. Potter and Amey Pitman. Capt. Wm. Potter raised a company in Providence, R. I., was chosen Lieut, but acted as captain, and then marched during the night to join the force at Boston. They had already reached Dorchester Heights when the battle of Bunker Hill had begun.

Amey Porter's D.A.R. plaque in the Cooksville Cemetery

Our Grandmother, Amey Pitman Potter Porter, was the oldest daughter of Capt. Wm. Potter in a family of eight. She had great beauty and intelligence. After she returned from Boarding School, she had many suitors who sought her in marriage. The successful wooer was Dr. Isaac Porter, at that time a student in Brown University, Providence. He took his degree from Brown in 1808 and received his medical degree from Dartmouth College in 1814.

Our Grandmother, Amey Pitman Potter Porter, was married to Dr. Isaac Porter in 1817. They established a home at Charlton, Mass., fifty miles from Boston. Four children were born to them: William, Joseph, Phebe Rebecca, and Isaac.

William Micaiah Porter (1818-1891), son of Amey.: Susan Porter's father

Joseph K.P. Porter (1819-1907) son of Amey, and wife Ann Eliza Porter

Isaac Gallup Porter (1827-1899), son of Amey, and his wife, Anna (1827-1866)

Dr. Porter was especially skilled in surgery and much of his practice was in Boston. Our Grandmother was proud of her able husband, but she longed for more of his companionship in their home. She always encouraged her sons to take up the independent life of a farmer.

The Middle West was beckoning. Wisconsin had a fair name.

This very spot on which the Cemetery is located is a part of the area taken up by Daniel Webster in 1837. He planned to have his sons establish an estate here. They were not of that mind. In 1842, he sold the land to his friend and physician, Dr. John Porter, brother of Dr. Isaac Porter. He had six sons whom he expected to place upon this area. The Golden West lured them, and they settled in California.

The sons of Dr. Isaac and Amey Pitman Potter Porter bought these fair acres and reared their families here. But to go back to Massachusetts: The whole family decided to migrate to Wisconsin. Dr. Porter was detained by business.

And now a crushing blow fell upon our Grandmother. As Dr. Isaac Porter was voyaging to Wisconsin, a case of Asiatic cholera developed on the boat. He volunteered to care for the patient.

When he reached Porter, Wis., he fell ill. As he rested on his bed the day of his arrival at Porter, he looked over the broad fields of golden grain and said to his son, “William, if it should be that I have but a few days to live, I am thankful I am here to see this rich and beautiful land.” In three days he had passed to the other shore—a victim of Asiatic cholera.

But this was not the only sorrow that came to our Grandmother. In three weeks her only daughter, Phebe Rebecca—dearly beloved and lovely in mind and heart—was stricken with the same dread disease, Asiatic cholera, and died.

Phebe Porter (1824-1854)
Grandmother weakened in body under these great sorrows, but she was a true daughter of a Revolutionary soldier and her spirit was not quenched: she lived seventeen years after these sad events.

She used to sit by the fireside in her black silk dress and white lace cap and kerchief and cheer and advise her sons as they met the difficulties of pioneer life.

Grandmother was over fond of her grandchildren and because she thought we were so dear and good, we tried to be.

 Blessing and being blessed, Grandmother finally said good-bye to us and passed to the house not made with hands.”

Amey Porter's tombstone, Cooksville Cemetery

So concludes Susan Porter’s story of her Grandmother, which she apparently recited at an event in the old Waucoma Cemetery (now the Cooksville Cemetery) where many of the Porter family members are buried.

Susan Porter  at home in Cooksville, 1938

More such stories of the early village settlers written by relatives would be nice to have. Even now, stories of more recent or present-day people living in or near Cooksville in the Town of Porter would be welcome additions to the Archives, for future generations to read and enjoy.

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Friday, January 8, 2021

Cooksville Archives and Collections: More Images

Here are more images from the Cooksville Archives and Collections, documenting, in part, the history of the village since the 1840s to the present...

Cooksville School Class, 1954: "Save the Badfish Creek"

Eddie Julseth (1915-2011), Cooksville General Store owner.

Katie and Dennis Ehle in the Cooksville General Store, owners, photo c.1987.

John Savage (1879-1967) with Chinese children, c.1944, where he designed the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. John grew up in Cooksville with its three dams on the Badfish Creek.

Larry Reed signing the Three Gorges Dam Museum
guest book after donating John Savage materials
from Cooksville to China in 2000

Most of the subjects of John Wilde's "15 Cooksvillians" painting and print, at the Schoolhouse, 1997.

Bob and Martha Degner's Cooksville Float on their historic truck.

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Friday, January 1, 2021

The Cooksville Archives: More Photographs and Other Collected Items

For the past 180 years (almost), people in the Village of Cooksville and the Town of Porter have been saving and collecting items that tell the stories of their lives. Those items---photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, diaries, books, ledgers, memoires, paintings, art works, property records and genealogies, as well as furniture, rugs, utensils, pottery, and other objects---have been gathered together by residents over the years to create a "Cooksville Archives and Collections," in order to preserve and share the items. 

And items continue to be donated and added to the collection.

Here are some of the photographs and other images, old and new, that help tell the stories of Cooksville and the surrounding area.
Justin Wells and Mary Jane Woodbury, Cooksville wedding photo 1866.
150 years later, the 2015 Molly Zimmerman and Matt Brody wedding, Cooksville Schoolhouse.

Cooksville Cornhuskers baseball team, 1900.

About 120 years later, the Cooksville 59ers baseball team.

                              Log cabin near Cooksville, c.1840s.

Wallin Log Cabin, Town of Porter, c.1840s.

Land speculators platted "paper cities," named Van Buren and Warsaw, 
north and east  of Cooksville, in the1830s-40s. Othernamed Saratoga and Caramana were also "plotted" nearby. 
But no buyers,  no communities.       
A 1903 essay about the origins of the name "Wisconsin."

A  c.1930 pamphlet about the Agency House at Fort Winnebago.
Another pamphlet: "Paul Bunyan Tales," 1922.

John Van Vleck's obituary, 1910.


George and Eunice Mattakat  at their Red Door Antique Shop in the historic Cook House (1842). They lived nearby in the Van Vleck House (c.1852).

A cute"outhouse" pamphlet, 1930.

One of the "gems": The Tourist.

Another "gem": The Sportsman, for hunting and traveling trips.

Elton Breckenridge, newspaper photo, 1975, as he worked  to create his "Breckhurst" from the old Gunn House in Cooksville.

The old Gunn House before Elton Breckenridge transformed it.

                           (To be continued....)