Sunday, May 6, 2018

Cooksville’s First Historic House Tour: 65 Years Ago

On a weekend in 1953, the Village of Cooksville conducted its first of many historic open-house and garden tours. And 1953’s was a bigger success than expected. 

During those two days, June 6 and 7, 1953, the crowds came for a chance to tour the historic village and visit some interiors of the historic 1840s and 1850s brick and clapboarded homes and to stroll through their flower gardens.  

The Village of Cooksville in Rock County was established in 1842 on land first sold by the U.S. government in 1837 to John and Daniel Cook. It was expanded in 1846 by a second larger village, named Waucoma, established next door. Waucoma was platted by Dr. John Porter who bought the land from the famous U.S. Senator Daniel Webster. Porter’s village featured a New England-style Public Square or Commons and locally-made vermilion-colored brick houses and locally-sawn clapboard houses from the 19th century. The two villages are now known collectively as Cooksville. 

By the 1950s, with no railroad to stimulate commercial growth, Cooksville had been resting, preserved, on its early architectural laurels of mid-19th-century Greek Revival and Gothic Revival styles of homes. Nick-named a “Wee Bit of New England in Wisconsin,” the village featured a General Store (now the state’s oldest), an early schoolhouse on the Commons, two early churches, two
blacksmith shops, an old cemetery, and many carefully-tended flower gardens.

Interest in the village had been growing in the 20th-century, thanks to Ralph Warner (1875-1941), who beginning about 1912 opened the door of his old home to visitors. He named his handsome Cooksville-brick Duncan House (built in 1848) the “House Next Door.” He had filled it with extensive and varied collections of antiques from the 18th and 19th centuries. And he also gave guests tours of his elaborate gardens.  
"House Next Door"  
Warner’s antiques and his old-fashioned setting—and his simple home-cooked meals that he served guests—were an unusual accomplishment at the time, which enticed more visitors to Cooksville. His enthusiastic “antiquarian” efforts attracted local, state and national attention .Eventually it was a bit more attention than Warner actually wanted. 

Several decades later, on June 6 and 7, 1953, the first, ambitious two-day, open-house tour of historic Cooksville took place sponsored by the Cooksville Mothers’ Club (a precursor of the present-day Cooksville Community Center organization). The event was to serve as a fund-raiser for the “mother-teacher association” of the Cooksville School, the village’s one-room schoolhouse built in 1886, and a popular location for community events then, as it is today. 

Attendance at the two-day 1953 village tour almost overwhelmed the organizers—and earned more money than expected. Over 1,300 visitors attended the tour—many more than the 200 or 300 that were expected. The organizers had to scramble after the first day, spending the night printing more 6-page tour booklets, mixing more punch, and baking more cookies for the bigger crowd anticipated on Sunday, the second day of the event.

For the 50-cent ticket price visitors received tours of five of Cooksville’s historic homes and gardens situated around the village’s historic Public Square. And refreshments were included in the ticket price. The homes and gardens open to the public were the Morgan House (1848) owned by Helen Naysmith, the Longbourne-Robertson House (1854) owned by Miles and Beth Armstrong, the Duncan House (1848) owned by Chester Holway, the Backenstoe-Howard House (1848) owned by C.S. Atwood, and the Benjamin Hoxie House (1852) owned by Arthur and Dorothy Kramer. 

One of the organizers, Chester Holway, whose house and garden were on the tour, wrote a story after the successful tour was completed. It was published in the national “Pathfinder, the Town Journal,” Washington, D.C., magazine the following year.    
“Our village of Cooksville in southern Wisconsin has fewer than one hundred persons, including small children and two neighboring farm families,” wrote Holway. “Yet on a weekend last June we entertained more than 1,300 visitors who came—some from as far as 125 miles—just to see our old homes and gardens. And they paid 50 cents for the pleasure… Although almost every house in Cooksville is curiously interesting for its age and architecture, five houses were chosen to be shown because they have been either kept in their original state or restored and because their furnishings are largely the same age as the houses…” 

Holway’s description continued: “At the door of the school, two of our college girls accepted the 50-cent payments for each person. To each they gave a yellow admission tag on a string and a six-page mimeographed booklet containing a map of the village (and) our historian’s account of village doings since Daniel Webster owned it, and biographies of the five houses that were open. It also pointed out our church, our beautiful cemetery, our fine general store, and urged all to take their time and savor our village atmosphere.” 

Holway wrote that after the unexpectedly large crowd on the first day, even more were expected on Sunday. “Mothers rushed off to their kitchens and after supper, started baking more cookies. Some were still watching their ovens after midnight… Sunday noon the cars started coming even earlier… visitors lined up in front of the schoolhouse a half-block long… It took the first comers almost two hours to reach the fifth and last house…” 

“That Sunday night, the Mothers’ Club was richer by $603. Expenses, including the guide booklets and the punch (cookies, signs, publicity materials were donated) totaled only $43, making the net profit for the school fund $560.” 

“In all our homes nothing was broken, nothing stolen, nothing marred…there was not a mark on the floors or rugs to show it.” 

Since that first village house tour in 1953, Cooksville has had a total of eight other open-house or garden tours over the years— in 1957, 1982, 1984, 1986, 1990, 1996, 2000, and 2005— all well-attended and profitable, with no litter or other problems encountered. In addition, many small-group, non-open-house walking tours have been arranged.

The Village of Cooksville’s early rural charm and its historic heritage, preserved over the years, continues to attract attention, as the “Town that Time Forgot.” And the community continues to share and celebrate its past with others.

*   *   *   *

[The Cooksville Community Center, located in the historic Cooksville Schoolhouse, is available for special events, and small group tours of the village may be arranged. Contact Bill Zimmerman (608-628-8566) about renting the Community Center or Larry Reed (608-873-5066) about non-open-house, group walking tours.]

Saturday, April 21, 2018

A Letter from an Irishman to a Cousin in Wisconsin

In the 1840s, Irish immigrants to the Town of Porter in the Wisconsin Territory brought their skills, determination, and hopes for a better life to the new, fifty-some year-old America. Others from Ireland followed, along with various European immigrants and settlers from the American East Coast, attracted by the available, fertile, cheap land.
An Irish village

Irish new-comers settled on newly-purchased farmlands or began work as hired farm-workers or as merchants in the Village of Cooksville. The village was formally established in 1842 and then expanded in 1846 by the next-door village of “Waucoma” founded by the Porter family. (The township in which the villages are located is named after the Porter family.)

The new-comers—the Irish, Dutch, English, New Englanders, New Yorkers and, eventually, Norwegians— found prosperous lives for themselves, or, in a few cases, soon moved further west to Iowa or the Dakotas to seek their fortunes.
St. Michael's Church

Irish immigrants built the first church in the Cooksville area. Located on nearby Caledonia Road, it was named St. Michael’s Catholic Church, or more formally St. Michael the Holy Archangel Church. The church was a log structure erected about 1843, destroyed by fire in 1867, and replaced by a small clapboarded church. It was dismantled 1955 and sold for salvage for $800.  But St. Michael’s Cemetery with headstones engraved with Irish names—Sweeneys, O’Briens, Sullivans, Boyles, McBride, and many, many McCarthys—remains on the property. The nearby handsome McCarthy House on old Caledonia Road built about 1850 by skillful stone masons also remains.
McCarthy House

The McCarthy family recalled the early days when deer, bears and wolves roamed the area—at times, fire brands had to be lit in the house windows to drive away the howling wolves. And fishing was too easy to be a sport: just put a gunny-sack over a barrel hoop, place it into the Caledonia Springs Creek and beat the water with branches to net a sack-full of white bass. Eventually a stone bridge would be built nearby over Caledonia Springs Creek in 1857 in an attempt to lure a proposed railroad to the Cooksville area, but the railroad company went bankrupt and later decided to lay the new railroad along another route. 

 The produce local farmers that McCarthy produced was often transported by an ox team to Milwaukee, which took two days to get there and one-and-a-half to return—about twice the time it took for a man just to walk there, which occasionally happened if a man was in a hurry to get to the land office to claim his small part of the American dream in the early1840s, as Dennis J. McCarthy did in 1843.

The Irish immigrants to America wrote letters home proclaiming their happiness and success in their new-found land. And for many years, on into the 20th century, they sent money back home to relatives in a troubled Ireland.

One grateful person in Ireland sent a thank-you letter to his immigrant cousin for money he had sent from America, and that letter ended up in the Cooksville Archives. The letter is only identified as from a cousin “Dennis” in Queenstown, Ireland, to “His Dear Cousin” (unnamed) who was probably living near Cooksville. The one-page letter expresses envy and happiness for the success of his Catholic cousin and relates a bit of local news—and reveals very strong anti-British feelings and the on-going antagonism between Irish Catholics and Protestants.

Whether or not the writer meant it, the letter is also darkly humorous in parts. The brief, neatly typed letter reads as follows:

“Dear Cousin:

          “Your welcome letter received, and me and your Aunt Bridget thank you kindly for the money you sent. May God bless you. We had seven masses said for your grandfather and grandmother. God rest their souls.

          “You have gone high places in America, God bless you. I hope you’ll not be putting on airs and forgetting your native land.

          “Your cousin McSweeney was hung in market place last week for killing a policeman. May God rest his soul. And may God’s curse be on Jimmy Rogers, the informer, and may he burn in hell, God forgive me. 
          “Times are not as bad as they might be. The herring is back, and nearly everyone has a heart in making ends meet, and the price of fish is good, thanks be to God.

          “We had a grand time at Paul Muldoon’s wake. He was an old Blatherskite, and it looked good to see him stretched out with his big mouth shut. He is better off dead, and he’ll burn till the damned place freezes over. He had too many friends among the Orangemen, God curse the lot of them.

          “Bless your heart, I almost forgot to tell you about your Uncle Dinny. He took a pot shot at a turncoat from in back of a hedge, but he had too much to drink in him, and missed. God’s curse on the whiskey.

          “I hope this letter finds you in good health and may God keep reminding you to keep sending the money.

          “The Brennans are 100% strong around here since they stopped going to America. They have kids running all over the country.

          “Father O’Flatherty who baptized you, is now feeble minded, and sends you his blessing.

          "Mollie O’Brien, the brat you used to go to school with, married an Englishman. She’ll have no luck.

          “May God take care of the lot of you and keep you from sudden death.

                   Your devoted cousin,

“P.S. Things look bright again. Every police barracks and every Protestant church has been burned to the ground, and thanks be to God.

“P.P.S. Keep sending money.”

The strong feelings of Dennis' letter could have been written in the 1840s---in the "Potato Famine" time of troubles and the Catholic-Protestant conflicts---but the neatly-typed letter is dated "December
10, 1940." The letter expresses in a deeply-felt way the on-going struggles as Ireland attempted to gain its independence and to achieve religious tolerance. And the struggle continues today.

Wisconsin Historical Marker
And the letter could not have been typed in the 1840s because the typewriter was not invented until 1869, in Milwaukee.


[This letter is contained in materials about the Sweeny, McCarthy and Roherty Irish families donated  to the Cooksville Archives by descendent Roger Chapman of Fitchburg, Wisconsin, great-grandson of Miles Sweeney. The letter’s writer and its recipient may have been a McCarthy or a Sweeney.
The Cooksville Archives welcomes copies of letters and other documents that tell the story of the settlers in and near the historic Village of Cooksville (established in 1842) in southern  Wisconsin. Send items to: Historic Cooksville Trust, 12035 W. State Road 59, Evansville WI  53536.]

Sunday, February 25, 2018

“Birds Flock Together in Cooksville ‘Suburb’”: A Newspaper Story From 1953

In the early1950s, probably1953, a newspaper reporter “rambling around Wisconsin,” most likely from the Milwaukee Journal, discovered the “birders” of Cooksville— the bird watchers. 

The reporter’s story, entitled “Birds Flock Together in Cooksville ‘Suburb,’” appears in an undated clipping filed in the Cooksville Archives. The writer, Richard S. Davis, describes some very serious bird-watching that was happening in and near Cooksville in the 1950s—a hobby that continued on through the years. 

The story focuses on the Porter family, especially Lyell (1896-1997) and Olga (1901-1986) Porter, who lived on the historic J.K.P. Porter farm next to Cooksville in Rock County. They and their family members were the main “birders” in the article. 

As the reporter wrote:

“This visit to Cooksville took only a few hours, but it should have run on and on. The  reporter, even now, should be sitting on the front porch of the Porters talking about birds, or beef cattle, or fence posts, or poetry, or something else truly important.

“The Porters, come to think of it, don’t actually live in Cooksville, but they might be called suburbanites. They live on a farm in the town of Porter, a beautiful farm that has been in the family ever since the grandfather, J.K.P. Porter, came along from the east [in 1846. ed.]…

 “The Porters are Lyle [actually spelled Lyell. ed.], and his good wife, Olga; his elder brother Joe; his daughter, Barbara, and his son, John… Their farm is the kind of a place a city man dreams about as he builds his castles in the air.

"Every member of the family is apparently a "birder," which means a person who can take one quick look and identify the flitting visitor...  Mrs. Porter brought out a notebook in the huddle on the porch and read off a list of other farm tenants as long as your arm. All the birds listed had been found to nest on the place. ....

“There seems to be no point in mentioning here the more common varieties, but you ought to be told that the following live in the quiet places of Rock County: The blue and the green heron, the American and the least bittern, the wood duck and his familiar cousins, the black billed cuckoo, the long eared owl and his uncles, the ruby throated hummingbird, the flicker, the yellow bellied sapsucker, the king bird, the crested flycatcher, the phoebe, the wood peewee, the least flycatcher, and the black capped chickadee. 
From "A Guide to Field Identification: Birds of North America," 1983

“Take a deep breath, because the list goes on: The white and red breasted nuthatch, the brown creeper, the short billed marsh wren, the catbird, the brown thrasher, the cedar waxwing, the migrant shrike, the red eyed and the yellow throated vireo, the orange sora rail, the killdeer, the woodcock, the upland plover, Wilson’s snipe, the spotted sandpiper, the black tern, the bobolink, the Baltimore oriole, the red wing and the yellow headed blackbird, the cardinal, the indigo bunting, the goldfinch, the red eyed towhee and the dickcissel.
From "Audubon Bird Guide: Eastern Land Birds," 1946
“[T]he reporter is frank enough to admit that he sat with his mouth agape as they discussed their intimate friends…. 

“Badfish creek, which rises near Oregon, Wis., and flows into the Yahara, crosses the Porter farm. As everyone should know, there is nothing like a creek to observe in its tuneful meanderings. The Porters, in addition, have a suspension bridge over their section of the Badfish and nothing could be more picturesque than that….. 

“It came time for lunch and everyone drove off a few miles to the roadside cafĂ© [in Cooksville. ed.] presided over by Mrs. Clara Ortman… Hamburgers and malted milks are Mrs. Ortman’s specialty. She offered this helpful piece of information: ‘Raw onions with hamburgers don’t seem to have quite the staying power that cooked onions do. People who are really thoughtful about others, I find, always order the uncooked kind….’ 

“The real Cooksville, your agent discovered, is only a handful of houses, but charm lives in every one of them. Marvin Raney shares the one with the biggest garden and he took delight in showing the place [the Duncan house. ed.] inside and out… At this time in June, Cooksville is radiant with lilacs, lupin (sic), iris, poppies, roses, daisies and peonies… 

“’I wish you were going to be here over the weekend,’ Raney said.  ‘That is when we’re holding our garden and house tour for the benefit of the Cooksville Mothers’ club. The club is the guardian angel of our school. The school has 28 pupils and Mrs. Helen Naysmith is the teacher. 

“’In addition to this house of ours, the tour will visit the homes of Mrs. Naysmith, M.T. Armstrong, C.S. Atwood and A.J. Kramer. [Note: the five historic homes were the Duncan, Morgan, Longbourne, Backenstoe-Howard, and Benjamin Hoxie houses. ed.] The charge is 50 cents a person…  Each visitor is to receive a booklet on the old houses and tea and cookies as well.’  

“It would have been wonderful to stay in Cooksville for the garden tour. There is nothing like a cooky (sic) to bring a man back to real values.”  

So the reporter ended his story.  It should be noted that the 1953 house tour was so well-attended that the cookies were depleted the first day and more had to baked Saturday night for the Sunday crowd of tourists. 
"In the Hand," painting by John Wilde, 1957

In the 1960s and 1970s, other “birders” appeared on the Cooksville scene. John and Shirley Wilde bought land near Lyell and Olga Porter’s farm, built a house, and joined the others as avid birders and annual bird-counters. John included many birds and bird-creatures in his “Wilde World” paintings.
"A Red-Breasted Nuthatch (Lady Bird Series)," painting by John Wilde, 1982
And soon Karl Wolter and Patrick Comfert began rehabilitating wounded birds or homeless feathered friends, among other creatures, at their Cooksville farm and aviary. Some of them, like a very tame and friendly blue jay and large black crow, visited Cooksville folks for handouts of peanuts and bits of meat, which they would eat or secrete in the trees or under fallen leaves. And more recently, Karl and Patrick provided new feathered visitors from their sanctuary-farm: peacocks and sand-hill cranes strolled elegantly and sometimes loudly through the village.  

Birds, large and small, some more easily recognized than others, still visit the historic Village of Cooksville and the nearby farmlands, restored prairies and the Badfish marshlands next to the little old community, where bird-feeders are kept very busy. 

*   *  
 [The Cooksville Archives and Collections provided the newspaper clippings, the 1953 house-tour information, and several bird-identification books. Larry Reed.]

Monday, January 29, 2018

2018 Cooksville Community Events

Saturday, April 28: Community Center Clean-Up Day (10:00am-1:00pm,Schoolhouse) All are welcome to come out with their favorite cleaning tools to air out the schoolhouse, sweep out overwintering beetles, and tidy up after the winter’s window restoration project. Donuts for all participants.

 Sunday, April 29: Arbor Day Celebration on the Commons (1:00pm-4:00pm, Commons, reception at schoolhouse) Hear an update from the Cooksville Tree Committee about the state of the Oak restoration project and the health of the area’s woods and environment. Rain or shine!

Wednesday, May 30: Cooksville Live at the English Barn (7:00pm-9:00pm, Cooksville Farmhouse Inn) A local talent review featuring area musicians, singers, and performers held in the lovely English Barn behind the Farmhouse Inn. Ample parking behind the barn. Free.

Wednesday, June 6: Stoughton Chamber Singers Concert (7:00pm-9:30pm, Congregational Church) Tickets are available from McGlynn’s Pharmacy in Stoughton, from the Singers, or at the door. $5.00 admission benefits the singers and the CCC.  A reception will follow at the schoolhouse.

Tuesday, June 19:  Genealogy 101 (7:00pm-9:00pm, Schoolhouse) Lisa Imhoff will help you launch your journey into family history. Nominal fee of $1 to cover handouts. Bring a pencil with an eraser! 

Wednesday, July 4: Independence Day Picnic (12:30pm-2:30pm, Commons) Potluck community meal under the Oaks. Share your favorite picnic fare and outdoor games. Rain location is the schoolhouse.

Tuesday, July 10: Wellness Series part I: Tai Chi workshop (6:30-8:30pm, Schoolhouse)Introduction to Tai Chi: Lisa Imhoff and her friends at Lotus Transforming Tai Chi Club will introduce you to this soft martial art of slow, gentle movements that improves balance, flexibility and strength. Bring comfortable shoes, water. Dress comfortably. Free admission.

Tuesday, July 17: Wellness Series Part II: Yoga workshop (6:30-8:30pm, Schoolhouse)Workshop for both new and experienced practitioners. Yoga offers physical, mental, and spiritual exercise and mindfulness training. Dress comfortably. Please bring an exercise mat if you have one, and a water bottle.

Wednesday, July 18: Old Settler’s Stories with Ruth Ann Montgomery (7:00pm-9:00pm, Schoolhouse) A presentation on some of the fascinating history of our area told by local Rock County historian, Ruth Ann Montgomery. Meet and greet to follow. Free event.

Saturday, August 11: Christmas in Summer (1:30pm-2:30pm, Schoolhouse) Experience a one-room schoolhouse holiday pageant as it was remembered by local residents who grew up attending small rural schools and enjoyed performing for their classmates and families. Always fun and full of surprises! Free event.

Monday, September 17: CCC Annual Meeting& Ice Cream Social  (6:30pm-8:30pm, Schoolhouse) All Community Center members are invited to hear about the state of the organization from its Board of Directors, and participate in Board elections. The community is welcome for ice cream before the meeting. New to the Community Center? Join us with a $25.00 lifetime membership.

Saturday, October 20: Cooksville Halloween Party (6:30pm-9:00pm, Schoolhouse) Old-fashioned harvest-time fun with crafts and games, a snack and dessert potluck, hot cider, bonfire, and outdoor scavenger hunt. A good time for all ages. Free event.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Village of Cooksville in the 1954 Book ,“Wisconsin Heritage”

In 1954, a large format book by Bertha Kitchell Whyte, titled “Wisconsin Heritage,” was published in Boston, containing sixteen chapters, with one chapter devoted to “Ralph Warner and Cooksville.” Other chapters in the book addressed such topics as Wisconsin’s early taverns, octagonal houses and barns, the lumber era, potteries and glass works, and Norwegian heirlooms.
In Chapter 15, Whyte focused on the historic village and its famous resident Ralph Lorenzo Warner (1875-1941) and his antiquarian work of art, the “House Next Door.” She wrote:

             “So successful was he in choosing for his setting the town, the house, the furnishings, the very flowers in the garden and food for the table, that for twenty years his home was a mecca for all who shared his pleasure in such things.”

She further praised Warner’s accomplishments:

            “Nothing was put in the house that did not belong in a home of the period or that could not be blended into a harmonious whole by the sensitive touch of the new owner… No telephone or other anachronism was permitted to break the spell of the interior. Many of the rugs the owner hooked himself in his workshop in the barn where he also had his loom…..  
Warner's parlor in the "House Next Door"
            “He was one of the earliest and most intelligent collectors in the state and knew better than anyone else how to display, and make desirable his own treasures. Usually these treasures were not for sale. A story he told with particular relish concerned one distinguished visitor, Joseph Hergesheimer, the author (popular 1920s novelist and passionate antique collector. Ed.), who rolled on the lawn in rage when he was not permitted to purchase a certain Stiegel bottle.” (Henry Stiegel was a mid-18th century American glass maker. Ed.) 
Visitors to the "House Next Door"
Whyte included eight photos in her story about Warner and the village, which she noted had been attracting visitors for about forty years. (And still does.)

Regarding the village, Whyte wrote:

             “Cooksville itself deserves a niche in any consideration of Wisconsin villages, a niche that is not in proportion to its present size. In its spacious central Common laid out according to the ancient pattern of commons in Colonial America and the charming mid- nineteenth century red brick houses which border it, it represents a part of New England that our pioneer ancestors transplanted to the prairies of southern Wisconsin.” 

The author ended her ten-page story about the village with:

              “Cooksville would make a lovely setting for a novel.”

 Unfortunately, Whyte made a number of factual errors in her Cooksville story. The inaccuracies, discovered just after the book was published, were pointed out by the new owners of Warner’s house at the time, Chester Holway (1908-1986) and Marvin Raney (1918-1980). In a letter to Whyte in early 1955, Holway lamented the fact that he had not been consulted when she was writing about his house and the village. (Nor had Raney, the local historian.) Holway— himself a writer, editor, journalist and gardener— listed “a number of errors” and misrepresentations in his long letter.  

Whyte replied that she hoped some of the errors would be corrected if the Boston publisher agreed and if a second edition were to be printed. (Apparently a second edition was published about 1961, but it is not in the Cooksville Archives.) 

Chester Holway
Here are some of the inaccuracies pointed out by Holway:

·         It was not true that the late Ralph Warner’s house could no longer be seen by visitors. “It has, in fact, been visited in these recent years by numerous individuals and by several groups,” Holway wrote to Whyte.
·         One photo labeled “Parlor” was actually Warner’s Morning-room.
·         The photo labeled “Porter home” is actually the Hoxie House, not a Porter home.
·         Warner purchased the house in 1911, not 1912.
·         Warner died in 1941, not 1939.
·         Chester Holway was not the “nephew” of Warner.
·         Warner did have a modern “anachronism” in the house that he concealed from guests: outlets for electrical lights.
·         The Old Settlers’ Picnic was no longer an annual event, having been discontinued after 1950.
·         Warner’s garden did not contain only old-fashioned flowers but included many new,  fashionable and exotic plantings, and was more “English” than “19th Century American.” 

However, Holway did compliment Whyte on her effort and assured her that her book, even with its errors, “does not diminish an appreciation of the labor you have assuredly put into ‘Wisconsin Heritage.’ And it is a volume that is most welcome.”
Duncan House, or the "House Next Door"

*   *   *

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Christmas at the "Cooksville House" in 1953

Almost 65 years ago, preparations were being made at the “Cooksville House” for holiday gift-buyers. This village gift shop was in the old barn in the backyard of the historic Duncan House in the center of Cooksville. The shop was owned and operated by Marvin Raney, resident of the Duncan House.  
Marvin Raney at work
Raney had created the gift shop in his barn in order to display and sell the artful creations of his Cooksville neighbors and friends, especially Dorothy Kramer who specialized in ceramics and weavings. 

Also for sale were creations by a nearby blacksmith, a silversmith, wood-workers and other weavers. No doubt Raney also included some items from his own antiques collection. (He would later open a larger shop east of Cooksville to sell antique furniture, pottery, glassware, and much more.)  

An article in Madison’s Wisconsin State Journal, dated October 18, 1953, proclaimed:  “In Cooksville Shop, It’s Christmas in October.” Good publicity for a small rural gift shop.

The article’s writer, John Newhouse, describes Marvin Raney and “Mrs. Arthur Kramer” (as the writer refers to Dorothy Kramer) and their entrepreneurial efforts to operate their special Cooksville House gift shop and prepare for the coming holiday shoppers. Here are excerpts from that 1953 article: 

            “COOKSVILLE— A fey shop, if ever there was one, is the Cooksville House, which was once a barn. At the present moment it is decorated in Yule fashion, with Christmas tree and presents underneath.

            “The shop… nicely stocked with ceramics, hand-woven work, decorated wooden-ware, and hand-decorated tiles will be open from 2 to 5 in the afternoon…Depending on the weather.

            “There is no use telephoning the shop, or the home of the owner, Marvin Raney, an engaging young man with no visible means of support, who shudders slightly when the word “work” profanes his prescense (sic. prescience?).

            “He does not have a telephone in the house because they bother him. Occasionally someone figures out the circuitous route by which he may be summoned—at his own convenience—to a neighbor’s phone. ‘It is an imposition,’ he says—though not specifying who is being imposed upon. ‘Once more and I shall have to put in a phone.’ The phone, he says with an amused glint in his eyes, shall be in the barn, where it can ring and ring, unanswered but giving some satisfaction to the person trying to call him. 
Duncan House Barn, photo 1980s
            “The barn… was converted into a gift shop because it bothered him that the talents of a neighbor, Mrs. Arthur Kramer, were going to waste.

            “Mrs. Kramer specializes in weaving and in ceramics, having her own looms and her own kiln. 
Dorothy Kramer
            “Her husband, a Chicago advertising man, comes to Cooksville on weekends, and devotes himself to ‘potting,’ as Raney puts it. He has a potters wheel in a summer house and there he sits, kicking the wheel with an energetic toe and giving life and form to a blob of clay….

            “The pots made by Kramer are decorated by Elton Beckenridge (sic. Breckenridge) a Chicago artist who has bought a house in Cooksville…. 
Kramer pottery
             “And the pots are glazed and fired by Mrs. Kramer….

            “[O]ther artists have brought in their wares. R. L. Woods, a retired blacksmith at Janesville, contributed knives he makes… Mrs. T. O. Nuzum, also of Janesville, brings in weaving. Mr. and Mrs. J. C. Chevalier, of Delavan, are working with silver, and they, too, are contributing.

            “Converting the shop into a barn (or vice versa. Ed.) called for a certain amount of energy, but Raney does not count it as work since it was very interesting.

            “The floor of the barn goes up in spots and down in spots, and threatens to decant the visitor out a door and into the gardens.

            “And these, with their formal walks and rare plantings, are not a bad place to be decanted.

            “The (Duncan) house belonged at one time to Ralph Warner, and was known as ‘The House Next Door.’ Warner, esthete, musical, and a man tremendously interested in gardens and antiques, developed gardens and house in the Early American tradition….

            “The land upon which Cooksville’s square is laid out was once owned by Daniel Webster and—so says an unverified story—he lost it on taxes. The houses, of pink brick, were built in the decade 1848-58, and Cooksville people are inordinately proud of them.” 
The" Cooksville House"  moved to Webster Street

NOTE: The “Cooksville House” was soon moved from the historic Duncan House barn on State Road 59 to the historic house on Webster Street  known as Waucoma Lodge north of Raney’s, where it was managed until the late 1950s by Marvin Raney (1918-1980) and Dorothy Kramer (1900-1971). Unfortunately, the Kramer pottery studio next to Dorothy's and Arthurs's house burned down in 1956. A few years later, Raney would open a large antique store, the “Only Yesterday Shop,” in the historic granary building on the Joseph Porter Farmstead just east of Cooksville, which Raney operated until the early 1970s.  

Some of Kramer’s ceramics and weavings, as well as some of Raney’s rug weaving and antique collection are now in the Cooksville Archives and Collections. For more information, contact Larry Reed.