Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Historic Cooksville Trust Board Chair Receives State Historic Preservation Award for 2015

The Historic Cooksville Trust’s chairman, Larry Reed, has been recognized by the Wisconsin Historical Society for his many years of historic preservation volunteer work in the Village of Cooksville, Rock County. The 2015 award was presented to Reed by Ellsworth Brown, Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, after approval by the Board of Curators of the Society.

Reed was cited for his “Founding in 1999 of the Historic Cooksville Trust and for Longtime Dedication to the Preservation and Appreciation of Cooksville.” He has spent decades of work helping to preserve the historic Village of Cooksville where he has lived for over 40 years.
Ellsworth Brown, left, Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society, presents the Society’s State Historic Preservation Award certificate to Larry Reed, chair of the Historic Cooksville Trust, and longtime Cooksville preservationist and historian.

The charitable Historic Cooksville Trust with its ten-member Board of Directors has successfully initiated or assisted about a dozen local preservation projects in the Cooksville Historic District in the small Rock County community and has received donations totaling over $200,000 so far. The Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and expanded in 1980.

The mission of the Trust is to help the Cooksville community preserve, conserve, celebrate and enjoy its unique and valuable historical, cultural and natural heritage by assisting with funding building rehabilitations and restorations as well as education and publication projects in the village.

The small village, which is known by many as  “A Wee Bit of New England in Wisconsin” and as “The Town that Time Forgot” because a railroad never came to the community,, was founded 175 years ago by the Cook brothers.

Reed says that preservation in the village really began early, when Ralph Lorenzo Warner arrived in 1911. Warner restored his 1848 home, the “House Next Door” to which he invited visitors to experience his historic house and gardens and enjoy refreshments at lunches, dinners and teas. Local, state and national media applauded his innovative work and brought attention to his special preservation efforts.

According to Reed, “Warner’s project opened people’s hearts and minds to the benefits of preserving and enjoying 19th century Wisconsin life, using historic buildings, historic gardens, and his collection of antiques. Besides receiving wide attention for his accomplishments, he inspired others to do the same, such as his friend Edgar Hellum’s preservation work in Mineral Point in the 1930s where he and Bob Neal created the Pendarvis complex.”

Cooksville has about 35 historic nineteenth century buildings and sites, including the state’s oldest operating general store, two churches, a schoolhouse, a public square, and locally-made brick and frame houses. Settled in 1840, the village was platted in 1842 by the Cook brothers, and soon a second village named Waucoma was established next to it in 1846 by the Porter brothers on land first owned by the famous U.S. Senator Daniel Webster. Cooksville was once suggested as the site of an old world Wisconsin outdoor museum because it was a well-preserved, early “wee bit of New England in Wisconsin.”

The Historic Cooksville Trust, which Reed heads up, is a non-profit, non-membership organization designed to raise funds and assist various preservation and conservation projects in or near Cooksville in the Town of Porter. Tours of the historic district are available, and community events take place in the historic Schoolhouse, which now serves as the Cooksville Community Center.

The Trust has also established the Cooksville Archives to collect and preserve documents, photographs, artifacts and other materials related to the history of Cooksville, and it welcomes such donations.  The Archives are available to the public.

The Cooksville Country Store has available a publication titled “Historic Cooksville: A Guide.”
For more information about the village of the Historic Cooksville Trust, Reed welcomes inquiries and can be contacted at (608) 873-5066.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Cooksville’s Artists and Artisans, Part Four: Dorothy Hansen Kramer Toigo, by Larry Reed

Over the 175 years of its existence, the Village of Cooksville, like every community, had its share of talented artisans, maybe more than most small villages that never had more than 175 residents. Perhaps Cooksville’s “smallness” combined with its special “architectural quaintness” helped attract and create a community supportive of artists, artisans and antiquarians. Its well-cared-for character certainly impressed Wisconsin’s premier architectural historian Richard Perrin to propose in1962 that historic Cooksville would make an excellent place for an “old world Wisconsin” outdoor architectural museum.
Dorothy Kramer (1900-1971)
One of the village’s 20th-century artists was Dorothy Hansen Kramer Toigo (Sept 21, 1900-Oct. 30, 1971). She was an art and crafts teacher and a life-long practicing artist.  Employed in the WPA arts program in Illinois in the mid-1930s, she also was an art teacher at Ferry Hall, Lake Forest, Illinois, in 1958-59, and at Stoughton, Wisconsin, in 1959-60, and then once again at Ferry Hall from 1960-69. She lived about 45 years in Cooksville, always pursing her various artistic endeavors.

Dorothy specialized in ceramics and weaving. She studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1921 to 1924 where she met and soon married Arthur Kramer (1892-1962), an advertising and business teacher. (They also met Elton Breckenridge there who eventually taught at Chicago’s Art Institute and eventually purchased his home in Cooksville in 1952, where he continued his close friendship with the Kramers, helping to decorate some of Dorothy’s pottery; in 1976 “Breck” left the village and his home, “Breckhurst,” with its brick terraces, fountain and statuary  he had created.)

At first, Dorothy Kramer lived part-time in Cooksville in the historic Benjamin Hoxie House, which her father bought for her in 1926; he then also bought the Robertson Blacksmith Shop property next door for her in 1930. She lived there permanently beginning about that year and with her husband Arthur operated a very active pottery studio there from 1952-56.
Dorothy Kramer pottery

In 1953, the Cooksville School’s student journal-newsletter reported that “Arthur Kramer has an interesting hobby of making pottery. He uses some Cooksville clay, taken from the bottom of the Badfish creek. The clay is shaped by turning it on a potter’s wheel. It is fired and glazed in an electric kiln at a temperature of about 1923 degrees F. When the clay is fired, it is a deep buff, but when it is freshly dug, it is gray. Some of the things he makes are pottery mugs, vases, ash trays, bowls, and jam jars.”  Arthur had been commuting to Cooksville from Chicago, where he worked during the week, but spent his weekends setting up his and Dorothy’s artist work spaces.
Apparently, Arthur made his pottery in the Blacksmith Shop-studio, with Dorothy doing the decorating and glazing. But soon, according to a family report, “they couldn’t work together so she started doing it herself. Plates, bowls, cups.”  Arthur also built looms for his creatively active wife who began weaving various items (place mats, napkins). She probably taught her nearby neighbor Marvin to hook rag rugs.

Map of Cooksville by D. Kramer 1955
Together, Dorothy and Marvin Raney operated the “Cooksville House” where they sold their arts and crafts in the mid-1950s, along with weavings and blacksmith-forged and silver items by others. (Marvin was an antique collector and dealer in Cooksville as well as a weaver and owned the Duncan House and “Waucoma Lodge.”). The Cooksville House shop was first located in the old Duncan House barn and then in the Backenstoe-Howard House (“Waucoma Lodge”) in the late-1950s. A note came with each purchased piece stating, “Your gift from Old Cooksville in Wisconsin is a genuine hand-crafted work, created with the same high regard for honest craftsmanship that has distinguished our arts for more than a hundred years…. It comes to you with some of the craftsman’s heart in it, and a little bit of the beauty of the old village.”

Dorothy’s artful pottery had a distinctive style, based on her admiration of the forms and colors of ceramic pottery from thirteenth century Korea. Her green glaze apparently was based on this early Korean pottery, a piece of which was gifted to her by a nephew. Her pottery pieces in that distinguishing style are highly valued. She also produced small, simple pottery pieces that were sold to visitors to old Cooksville—tea cups, coffee cups, saucers, jam pots, ashtrays, decorative square ceramic tiles, many with her charming, simple, hand-painted portraits of Cooksville’s buildings. She also painted at least two primitive maps of Cooksville-Waucoma in 1938 and 1955, which are valuable documents of the co-joined villages.

Hoxie House tile painted by D. Kramer
In 1970 after Art Kramer died, Dorothy married John Toigo in Cooksville. She had met Toigo earlier in Chicago in the 1920s, and they lived briefly in New York City in 1970, returning to Cooksville in 1971, where she died of cancer. She is buried in the Cooksville Cemetery.

Dorothy’s sister, Helen Rose Hansen Naysmith Toigo Bradley (1906–1989), also lived in Cooksville beginning in the 1930s in the Morgan House, first as a summer home, then after 1945 permanently, when she taught in several area schools. Many happy Hansen family reunions took place in Dorothy’s and Helen’s backyards of their historic Cooksville houses. Helen’s son Jim Naysmith now lives in the Morgan House.

[Material for this story came from the Cooksville Archives and from “The History of the Hansens & Salisburys in Europe and America 1020-2010 and beyond,” by Mary E. Osgood and Charles F. Osgood, 2014.]

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Cooksville’s Artists and Artisans, Part Three: Benjamin Hoxie and Jack Robertson, by Larry Reed

These two men— Benjamin Hoxie and Jack Robinson—one an architect-carpenter, the other a blacksmith-musician— lived and worked in the same house and the same shop in Cooksville but at different times and in different occupations. Their artistic contributions to life in the village, like the other local artists, artisans and crafts persons, added to the special cultural life and history of the small community.
Benjamin Hoxie, c.1880s

Benjamin Hoxie (1827-1901)

Benjamin Hoxie, a self-taught architect, carpenter, and avid horticulturist, came to Cooksville in 1846 from Maine with his family. In1851, Hoxie married and began the design and construction of his Cooksville-brick Gothic Revival style home, which was completed in 1852. He constructed a workshop just to the north, which he used to make furniture. (Later the little shop was used as a Broom Factory and then as a Blacksmith Shop by Jack Robertson.)

Hoxie quickly became a very active, talented, important architect-designer and builder-carpenter of a number of houses and structures in Cooksville, including the Hoxie House (1852), an expansion of the General Store for the Masonic Lodge (1864), the Cooksville Cheese factory (1875), and the Cooksville Congregational Church (1879). He also built residences, churches and public buildings elsewhere in the area, including Albany and Evansville, and was a maker of bee hives, butter churns, and furniture. 

Hoxie House, c.1920
In 1875, Hoxie designed, built and organized the Cooksville Cheese Factory as a business venture. He had long campaigned for grassland farming and promoted Wisconsin as a dairyland and eventually served as an officer in the State Horticultural Society. He was also an ardent prohibitionist.

He had an especially keen interest in agriculture and horticulture, and was the manager of the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society’s exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

Benjamin Hoxie’s brother, Isaac, also was a carpenter and businessman, and the brothers operated a Door and Sash Factory located north of Benjamin’s house. (It is now the archeological site of the important Van Vleck Implement Factory.) Their factory produced doors, windows, and shutters for the houses as well as other wooden items for new buildings in the area. Benjamin often lived in the communities where he supervised the design and construction of his many buildings (His brother Isaac became a newspaperman, founding the Evansville Review newspaper and eventually owning and publishing several other area newspapers.)

In 1884, Benjamin sold his property to Julius Savage and moved to his new house in Evansville. When he died in 1901, he was praised for “His influence in moulding the character of the communities in which he lived” and “through his efforts legislation was secured for Arbor Day in Wisconsin,” and praised for being “highly prized not only for his unusual skill in building, but he was a man of unusual talent in a literary line, always helping” various state and local organizations in their architectural, horticultural and agricultural efforts.  

The small shop on Hoxie’s property, under Savage’s new ownership, then became a Broom Factory. The “Broom Manufacturers of Cooksville,” as the Evansville Tribune newspaper called the enterprise, began making “the best brooms that can be made” and selling them “at wholesale as cheap as any this side of Chicago,” according to the newspaper.

By 1890, however, the broom business lost its bloom, and Savage’s Broom Factory was converted into a tin shop and then into a blacksmith shop in 1894, operated by the popular fiddle artist, John (“Jack”) G. Robertson, Jr., who bought the property in 1906.

John (“Jack”) Robertson (1858-1930)
Jack Robertson, c.1920

John Robertson was a famous character in the village. A blacksmith by trade, he operated the Robertson Blacksmith Shop in the former Broom Factory for about 40 years. But he was a black sheep by inclination, with troubles in his personal life. But he gained wide fame and popularity as a fiddler, winning fiddling contests around the countryside.

Jack, as he was popularly known, was a skillful fiddler renown throughout southern Wisconsin as a superb trick fiddler. At a fiddling contest in Fort Atkinson, Robertson won five prizes: a card table, a clock, a pair of woolen blankets, a flour bin and a two-dollar piece of bacon.  A week later, he won big at the Edgerton fiddlers’ contest: a mantel clock with candlesticks to match, a cut glass sugar bowl and creamer, cigar box, and a silk umbrella.  One area columnist wrote: “He ought to go into vaudeville, he can do more things with a violin than a Ford owner can do with a screw-driver… That boy can play a fiddle in bed with a quilt over him better than most of them.”

Many older people in the vicinity remembered Jack Robertson fondly as a man with a genial personality and exceptional musical talent. During his mature years he performed all over the southern part of the state with the fiddle held between his legs, over his head or behind his back or, apparently, with a blanket over his head, and with a willingness to perform at all occasions.

As someone wrote, “Jack was one of those personalities that journalists write profiles about and obituary writers love to memorialize.” He was married twice and apparently never refused a drink but probably should have.  In a 1925 article in a Stoughton newspaper he was called “a jack-of-all-trades, master fiddler and village blacksmith,” who played his fiddle at the many contests as well as at Cooksville’s Old Settlers’ Picnics and as head of the “Woodchuck Orchestra,” a regional dance band. He also shoed horses, repaired wagons, sharpened plows, forged wrought-iron weather vanes in the old blacksmith shop, and enjoyed “getting into his cups.”

Robertson Blacksmith Shop, c.1910
When Jack sold the Hoxie House property in 1926, he continued to live alone in the shop next door, which he operated until at the age of 72 when the “old time fiddler played his last tune” and the Cooksville “smithy” silenced the music with a small-gauge shotgun, committing suicide on May 21, 1930, in his room at the back of his blacksmith shop. His health had been failing and he had been despondent.

Jack Robertson’s suicide is recounted in the diary of Norman Kastler (who lived nearby in the Van Buren House) in an entry for May 21, 1930: “Just as we sat down for supper, at 6:45, Ken Olson & Francie Holm [age 12] came dashing in from Ralph’s [Ralph Warner], announcing that Jack Robertson, the blacksmith, had shot himself—suicide! Don [his brother]& I both went over; but Lloyd had succeeded in locating the county coroner, who arrived presently; so we left.  A most dreadful sight, in the dim old shop, lit by auto head & spot lights.” The prize-winning fiddler was dead.

In 1939, the Hoxie House and the Robertson Blacksmith Shop were purchased by Arthur and Dorothy Kramer. About 1953 the shop began serving as their pottery studio with a kiln, and the “tradition” of artisans living in the Hoxie House and working in the Shop continued. Unfortunately, the Shop (which apparently had been the seventh blacksmith shop to operate in Cooksville) was destroyed by fire in 1956.