Monday, May 22, 2017

Cooksville's Stagecoach Inn (1850-1910):
"Waucoma House" to "Hidden Prairie House"

The story of the Village of Cooksville’s stagecoach inn (and its demise) and the role it played in village life is a part of the long history of Cooksville, founded 175 years ago this year.

Cooksville's stagecoach inn and tavern called "Waucoma House," built about 1850, served as one of several stage stops on the route from Janesville to Madison. The undoubtedly impressive tavern-inn, about midway between the two bigger villages, once stood on the northeast corner of Main and Rock streets (now highways 59 and 138) and was a special hub of Cooksville activity.

Unfortunately, it no longer exists. Nor do any photographs or paintings except for a very simple pencil sketch done from someone’s memory in the mid-20th century. The “Tavern,” as it was usually referred to in the 19th century, was a 2 ½ story, clapboard-sided, frame building. No doubt it exhibited the period’s popular Greek Revival-style of architecture with symmetrical bays or window arrangements, returned eaves, and a columned and roofed front porch. Most likely Waucoma House resembled the other stagecoach inns and taverns of the era such as those in nearby Union, Delavan and Delafield.
Hawks Inn, Delafield
An 1858 map of Cooksville (and its joint village Waucoma) indicates that Waucoma House with its barn faced south on the corner property. Several newspaper clippings and anecdotal stories confirm its existence and the important economic and social role it played in the village.

Records reveal that on July 17, 1850, Nehemiah Parker bought the land (lots 1 and 2, block 2, Plat of Waucoma) for the tavern-inn for $60 from John Porter, the Village of Waucoma’s founder. Shortly thereafter the stagecoach inn was built, and the 1850 census listed J. M. Aldrich as “hotelkeeper” in Cooksville. In addition to Aldrich, Horace Love (1860) and David Johnson (1870) are also listed as innkeepers.

Union Tavern stagecoach inn
A printed handbill promoted the daily services of the Eagle Lines, one of the competing stagecoach companies of that time. Its route ran from Beloit to Cooksville and then eventually further northwest to Roxbury and Helena on the Wisconsin River, passing through a few other villages, like Madison.  The handbill assured the public that, “Passengers wishing to travel from Beloit to Sauk City will find this line not only the most expeditious but cheapest.”  It also stated that “those parties at Helena who desire accommodations for river travel west to Prairie du Chien or Cassville” could do so.  The Cooksville agent for the Eagle Lines was listed as “H. Stebbins, Agent, Cooksville.”      

The area’s early stagecoach companies traveled northwest from Janesville to Madison on the old “Territorial Road” (parts of which are now U.S. Highway 14 and Dane County Highway MM). Stops for mail and passengers were made at Leyden, Fellows Station, Ball Tavern, Union, Cooksville, and then in Dane County at Rutland, Rome Corners, Nine Springs and Madison.

When the route included Cooksville, the stagecoach unloaded and re-loaded in the village and then headed northward to the present Old Stage Road, where it galloped northwesterly to the Rutland stage stop and back onto the Territorial Road to Madison. (Wisconsin was a large Territory from 1836 to 1848, when it became a state with its present smaller boundaries.)

For several decades Waucoma House served as the area’s transportation center for delivery of mail, travelers, and goods, and as a restaurant-tavern and guest hotel and village social center. Besides the daily excitement of the arrival of mail and travelers and the latest news, the inn was the scene for village parties and special occasions, as well as serving as a guesthouse and restaurant.

However, by the1860s, stagecoaches ceased regular trips to Cooksville as well as to other places. Horses were rapidly replaced by the new technology of “iron horses”; the railroad’s steam engines had arrived.

Unfortunately, the Village of Cooksville (or, as it was often called on some maps, Waucoma) did not succeed in luring a railroad company to lay its tracks to the combined villages. But it tried. A local attempt at enticement was made by building a stone railroad bridge over the nearby Caledonia Springs for a proposed railroad route in 1857, but that effort failed. Apparently, the lure of what was probably a free bridge (and probably some local financial investments) was not a lucrative enough offer. Without a railroad, without that new mode of transportation, the need for an inn or a hotel (or for any large commercial building) disappeared.

From then on, Waucoma House struggled to serve its loyal local villagers and farmers. Mail did continue to arrive in Cooksville by horseback from Evansville, which had a rail line, and later by a small mail coach that could transport a few passengers as well on its daily or weekly mail delivery gallops to the village and then onward to Fulton and points east.

On November 20, 1867, the inn’s barn burned down. The blowing wind endangered Henry Duncan’s nearby barn as well as the houses of Hoxie and Wells to the east, as fire-brands flew through the air. But the small fires that erupted were doused by “an active force of women and boys,” it was reported. William Johnson, owner of the hotel’s barn, suffered a $500 loss, partially covered by insurance.

Waucoma House, the tavern, continued to carry on as a business venture.  In 1870, David Johnson, the owner of the hotel, was granted a license to sell “strong spirituous ardent or intoxicating liquors” for one year after depositing money with the Town treasurer. (The usual fermented drink was probably home-brewed cider or beer.)

A recent drawing of Waucoma House
At one point, Waucoma House served as a dancing school where classes were held every two weeks, taught by a Mr. Brown from Oregon. (Cooksville had many social parties, with games, sometimes with costumes and contests, and with music, so knowing how to trip the light fantastic was an important skill for many reasons.)

In 1881, a harness maker moved to Cooksville and opened a shop in the ex-hotel building. Business was good at first, and he “means to secure plenty of work,” stated a local newspaper. The next year, the Evansville Review newspaper reported in a letter from Cooksville that “the old tavern is sold, a stranger takes possession,” and in 1883, the newspaper reported, “The old hotel is empty again. The family that was in it, having moved to Jug Prairie last week.”

By 1885, the building had changed hands yet again. The Cooksville correspondent for the Evansville Review reported that a “family from England are going to occupy it. We hope sometime in the near future a new residence will be erected on the old site.” The building must have been deteriorating by then. In 1889, the newspaper reported that E. T. Stoneburner “bought the old tavern stand and is repairing it and improving the looks of the premises greatly. It has been in a dilapidated condition for a long time….” Stoneburner made it “his new home” with “a new fence and garden.” In 1894 he rented his house to a Miss Stetzer for a dressmaker’s shop.

Unfortunately, the old Waucoma House did not find a sustainable use and was demolished about 1910.

Sometime after the “Tavern” was torn down in the early 20th century, the paving stones laid to provide a “crossing to the old street near the Tavern” were removed by Ralph Warner, who used some of the smoothly-worn stones to construct his small parlor-garden pool at his famous “House Next Door,” the historic Duncan House just east of the demolished Waucoma House.

Although the old stagecoach inn was gone, another building soon took its place on that prominent corner of Cookeville, and its story is part of the history of the village, too.

In April 1913, the Evansville newspaper’s Cooksville correspondent reported that, “Jerry Armstrong has built a fine hen house on the site of the Old Tavern.” This new and smaller commercial building was first used by Oscar Egner as a meat market, then as a tavern, and eventually as a grocery store. In 1923, Franz Holm bought the land, but the records are quiet about its use in the 1920s and’30s.

The next time the new corner “hen house” comes up in records it had been lived in by Paul Savage (1875-1951) from 1940 to 1947. Savage had bought the house-tavern and in about 1947 it was moved to a site north of the Cooksville Cheese Factory (built 1875) on the western edge of Cooksville. The new site was the 10-acre “Morningstar Gardens” created in 1944 by Emil Priebe, Jr. of Milwaukee, where Savage was working as gardener and caretaker. Savage, a long-time resident and handyman in Cooksville, was given a life-lease on the acre with the house-tavern. The Gardens served as a retreat for Priebe from the big city.

In 1950, the ten-acre Morningstar Gardens property including the house-tavern was purchased from Priebe by C. S. (“Star”) Atwood and his wife Cora, who owned the Waucoma Lodge residence on the village’s Public Square. Savage continued to live in the newly-reroofed house-tavern residence until his death in January of 1951, when he succumbed to a heart attack in his outhouse.

In May of 1951, the ten acres were sold by the Atwoods to Chester Holway, a Cooksville resident, journalist and gardener, who with his partner E. Marvin Raney lived in the Duncan House. They re-named the garden property “Emfield” and used the old house-tavern mostly for storage, with their extensive flower gardens and fruit trees surrounding it.

In 1963, Holway sold the property to Karl Wolter, and the old house began its new and revitalized life. Dr. Wolter continued and expanded the tradition of planting the fertile soil with gardens—various specimens of trees, flowers and a large impressive prairie. He also remodeled and expanded the old house-tavern that historically was one-step-removed from being an edificial descendent of Cooksville’s mid-19th century stagecoach inn, the Waucoma House.

Eventually, Karl’s and Patrick Comfert’s horses roamed their “Hidden Prairie” farmland, but their horses were never called upon to pull a stagecoach into or out of Cooksville’s “Waucoma House.” stage stop.
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[Note: The original site of the Waucoma House inn and tavern remained vacant in Cooksville until 1976 when June and Carrol Wall, who had been living in the historic Isaac Hoxie House just to the north, built a new residence on the site. In 1980, the Cooksville Historic District was enlarged to include that property along with historic properties in that part of the old Village of Cooksville. Larry Reed]

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Cooksville Celebrates Arbor Day

More than 36 Cooksville area residents gathered together on April 30 at the Cooksville Community Center to celebratte the addition of three new trees on the Commons, to view eductional posters on arbor culture, and to discuss the plans the Cooksville Commons Conservation Committee has for this treasured space in 2017 and the future.
In his opening remarks for Cooksville's second Arbor Day celebration, Karl Wolter of Cooksville said it best:  "Today is the kind of day a tree loves -- cold, wet and cloudy."

Fosdal's Bakery created an oak leaf cake.
Village residents Meri Lau and Mark Verstegan created commemorative plaques for attendees to finish individually featuring a scene of the Cooksville Community Center (formerly schoolhouse) and the burr oaks.  White pine saplings were available to take home and plant, in keeping with the vision of Arbor Day founder J. Sterling Morton.
Emma Mallon and Meri Lau enjoying the festivities.

The Cooksville Commons Conservation Committee was formed in 2016 as we began plans for celebrating 175 years as a community.  The group has received a matched funds grant through the Wisconsin DNR Urban Forestry Program to help with a tree inventory and management plan for the wood lot on the Commons, as well as tree planting.  For questions about the committee, additional activities planned for the year, joining the group, volunteer opportunities and donations, contact Karl Wolter (873-6998, Mary Kohlman (882-5559) or Meri Lau, email

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Mystery of Three Tombstones in Search of Their Graves

Three old marble tombstones inscribed with names and dates reside in pieces (if not in peace) in the Village of Cooksville’s historic Duncan House Barn. They have been in storage there for many decades—obviously not where they were intended to be. 

Where did those grave markers come from? How did they end up there? Who were those three people memorialized with their names carved into marble on three weathered, broken headstones, one with a traditional weeping willow at the top?  All three died in the 1850s, according to their inscriptions. 

Not much was initially known except the names and dates, so an attempt has been made recently to try to get to know some of the “unknowns.”  

What little was known to begin with was that the pieces of the three memorial stones were discovered (or “rediscovered”) in 1989. Two were lying face-down on the grounds of the Backenstoe-Howard House—the “Waucoma Lodge—in Cooksville, apparently as a path to the front door; the third was lying inside the neighboring Duncan House Barn adjoining the property, all far from their purposed use, waiting for their mysteries to be solved. All are now in that barn. 

And although mysterious ghostly apparitions have reportedly roamed the village over the years, sometimes inside houses, none of the reports of “wandering souls” seemed to be connected to these three tombstones resting—perhaps restlessly— in broken pieces in the old village barn. Or was there a connection? After all, the deaths of the three people do seem untimely and unsettling.  

At any rate, the first and most important clues were the three inscriptions on the stones, as follows:  

Laura Wells Hicks marker:  “Laura W. wife of James Hicks Died Mar. 6, 1857 Æ 33 yrs.” 
                               Laura W. Hicks (1824-1857)

Alexander Richardson marker:  “Alexander Richardson died Jan. 12, 1852 Æ 38 yrs Native of Selkirk in Scotland.  Tho’ Lost to sight In Memory dear.”   
                          Alexander Richardson (1814-1853) 

Anthony Warren marker:  “In Memory of Anthony Warren Native of Suffolk Eng. Who died May 21, 1851, Æ 27 yrs. He is not lost but gone before.”
Anthony Warren (1824-1851) 
All three headstones may have been removed from their original locations or “rescued” in an attempt to save them from destruction or loss or maybe because two were damaged. But were they from a nearby cemetery? Or? 

One complicating factor is that the present Cooksville Cemetery was not established until 1861, so these 1850s gravestones could not have been erected there upon their deaths. (In 1861 John Porter sold the land for $25 to establish the new grave yard by the “Waucoma Cemetery Association,” the cemetery’s first name.) Also, there are three other cemeteries elsewhere in the Town of Porter: the Ball Tavern, St. Michael’s, and Fulton cemeteries. And occasionally, some farm families buried their relatives on a quiet corner of the family farm. In other words, burials happened elsewhere in the area. 

The Village of Cooksville, founded in 1842 (and Waucoma, next-door, in 1846) undoubtedly was visited by the Grim Reaper before 1861 and his victims were buried somewhere. Records indicate that there was an earlier local burying ground in use before 1861 but it was abandoned in that year. Those first burials were west of the Cooksville General Store, off Spring and Mills streets— streets that like the burying ground have been vacated. The records vary but generally indicate that those earliest burials and tombstones were (possibly) moved to the new1861 cemetery.  

Research of the Cooksville Archives and the Cooksville Cemetery records along with visits to the Cooksville Cemetery itself clarified some of the mystery of the tombstones, or at least helped provide some clues. The following has been revealed so far: 

Laura W. Hicks 

In the case of the Laura Wells Hicks’ broken tombstone, cemetery records indicate that she was eventually buried (and remains buried) in the present Cooksville Cemetery but without a tombstone of her own. She is buried in the southern-most “Old” section of the cemetery where early burials were not done in an orderly fashion as in the later surveyed sections that have numbered blocks and lots. Therefore, exact locations of some “old” burials (and possible re-burials) in that section may be unknown and unmarked.  

Also, instead of her own grave marker the new cemetery, Laura Wells Hicks’ name and dates are inscribed on one side of a tall four-sided family memorial monument with its base labeled “Miller.” On the other three sides two Miller family members and one Cole family member are memorialized. All four are related to each other. It may be presumed that Hicks’ actual burial site is somewhere nearby. 

Perhaps Laura Hicks’ broken gravestone was removed from the first burying ground or from the Cooksville Cemetery at some point in the past because it was broken but was not repaired and was not replaced. Perhaps then her name was added to the Miller monument with the three others. And her own personal broken gravestone ended up in the village barn. 

Why Laura Hicks’ gravestone was not repaired and placed or re-placed in the Cooksville Cemetery is unknown. It would be possible now, of course, to repair and re-erect her old marble tombstone since she is listed as being buried there. 

Alexander Richardson 

In the case of Alexander Richardson’s gravestone, the fact that it now is in the Duncan barn is recorded in notes in the Cooksville Archives, and they provide the answer. It most likely was an attempt to save his stone from possible loss or abandonment many decades ago. 

Here’s the story: Richardson’s original grave site was on his family farm southeast of Cooksville. He was born in 1814 and died at a young age from a farm wagon accident on an icy road. (Either he was hauling a wagon-load of lumber from Indian Ford that fell on him, or he was returning from Milwaukee when he fell off the wagon because he was drunk and was killed, according to two differing stories of his accidental death.) He was buried on his family farm, probably somewhere behind the historic Richardson Grout House southeast of the village  

According to Archive notes, Richardson’s son, Alexander, Jr., removed his father’s gravestone in about 1886 from that Richardson family burial site because the farm was to be sold to the John Porter family. Perhaps the son removed it hoping to preserve the gravestone from possible loss or neglect. The stone was stored in his son’s barn on the historic Van Vleck House property in Cooksville, which the son used as a summer home. Later, when that village property was to be sold by the Richardson family in 1955, the gravestone itself was sold to E. Marvin Raney, the Cooksville historian and antique collector who lived nearby in the Duncan House at the time. Raney stored the stone in his own barn there. No doubt, Raney bought the stone to keep it in the village and to preserve it, and there it has remained.  

Thus, the present resting place of Alexander Richardson’s original “rescued” gravestone is about two miles from his actual grave on the old family farm.  Past attempts to locate the exact burial site were unsuccessful. 

Anthony Warren 

In the case of Anthony Warren’s mysteriously absented tombstone, nothing is known at this time—not where it came from nor why it ended up in the village, nor anything else about his life.  

Perhaps as with Hicks’ stone, Warren’s stone may have been removed from the old abandoned burying ground and never placed at his new burial site, wherever that is. It’s possible his burial was in another distant cemetery or on a farm. At any rate, Warren’s burial site is not recorded in the Cooksville Cemetery’s records. His stone’s mystery remains.  

The research continues. More information, perhaps shared by relatives or others, is needed to fully resolve all the gravestones’ peripatetic histories, especially the story of Warren and his lonesome monument. All the gravestones presently remain in the Duncan barn and not in a cemetery. 

The historic Cooksville Cemetery is part of the Cooksville Historic District listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Its many lovely, old, fading memorial stones (and many new ones) mark burials of friends and relatives since 1861; some even memorialize people who are not buried there.   
 Under old pine trees and amongst shrubs and flowers, many early pioneers and settlers are interred in the old cemetery, including some of their children and grandchildren. Also buried there are veterans of the Civil War and the five (or more) succeeding wars, as well as many Norwegian immigrant families and recent residents of Cooksville and Porter Township, along with many friends of Cooksville— people young and old, but hopefully, not too young. The earliest born person interred is Charlotte Rose Love (1772-1868). All are resting in peace on the southern edge of historic Cooksville, next to farm fields and near the historic Cooksville Lutheran Church. 

But time takes its toll even on marble and granite stones—and on a few of the tall old pines trees as well. A few old grave markers have been damaged and are resting in pieces in need of repairs, and some need to be straightened and anchored in place.  

The Cooksville Cemetery Association continues its efforts to maintain, repair and improve the beautiful historic cemetery to ensure that the quiet historic burying ground remains as it has been for one-hundred and fifty-six years. 

And there is space available for others who may need a peaceful spot to rest for eternity—hopefully not too soon. And the Cemetery Association welcomes financial donations to assist its efforts. Contact Anne Haines (608) 201-1996 or go to

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[Thanks to Cooksville’s past historians for saving clippings, notes, diaries and other records now in the Cooksville Archives, and thanks also to Jim Danky, Chris Beebe, Mark Verstegen, Jennifer Ehle and Helen Porter for helping to tell the stories of the tombstones. Larry Reed]

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Smart Family: Early Life Near Cooksville, by Larry Reed

The Cooksville area of southern Wisconsin attracted many immigrants from the British Isles as well as from New England and New York when land was first opened for sale by the U.S. government in the 1830s and 1840s. Fortunately for us today, some of these settlers (and their children) wrote about their early experiences.

 In 1920, Charles A. Smart (1858-1936) wrote about his experiences growing up in a pioneering family from Scotland on a farm near Cooksville. He wrote fondly and with great detail about his parents and his childhood in the family's log cabin. A copy of his memoire was recently shared by his descendants and is now in the Cooksville Archives.

Charles Smart (1858-1936)
Here are a few excerpts from Judge Smart’s remembrance of life near Cooksville in the mid-19th century.  (Charles went on to become a prominent lawyer and jurist in Kansas.) 

 “The brief story that I am about to relate is not written because of anything eventful or out of the ordinary, but because it is believed that as the years go by, it may be interesting to those who live then. I am persuaded that this may be true because of the fact that I would be glad indeed if I could go back more than two generations and ascertain anything touching my ancestors, but as they were all humble people, very little can be found except perhaps the old church records of Scotland where I might find the names, but they would be names only.

 “Robert Smart, my father's grandfather, was born about 1743… in Scotland.  My father assured me that 1743 was about the date of his birth. He died about 1838, and was buried in the parish of Monemeal, Scotland.  He is said to have been a very strong man, both in mind and body. I never learned his occupation, except he was a land owner. When quite a young man, he married Jennett Scott, in Auchtermuchty, in Fifeshire.  Of this union there were born three children, Jennett, David and Andrew. Andrew [Charles’ grandfather], the second son was born in 1796 in Fifeshire, Scotland…
Andrew Smart (1796-1880)

“In 1823 Andrew married Ellen Taylor… Andrew Smart owned a small farm [and to him] and Ellen his wife were born five children who grew to manhood and womanhood, and one other who died in infancy. Robert Smart, the oldest son, was my father, born at Auchtermuchty in Fifeshire, on November 18th, 1824….

 “Robert Smart [1824-1903], my father, was married to Euphemia McArthur, my mother, at Edinburgh, Scotland, May 2, 1847, and lived in Glasgow, Scotland, until 1849. To this union were born nine children, eight of whom are still living [in 1920].  Their names and date and place of births are as follows:  Andrew J., July 9 1848, Perth, Scotland;  Elizabeth, August 6, 1849, Perth, Scotland; Frank R. July 4, 1852, Janesville, Wisconsin;  James H., June 15, 1855, Edgerton, Wisconsin; Charles A. January 5, 1858, Edgerton, Wisconsin; Ellen Taylor, October 19, 1860, Edgerton, Wisconsin; Arthur Hodge, April 1, 1863, Edgerton, Wisconsin; Winfield S., 1868, Edgerton, Wisconsin; Effie Hoy, December 7, 1870, Edgerton, Wisconsin….

Helen Drummond Smart (1811-1886) tombstone, 
second wife of Andrew, Cooksville Cemetery
 “It may be interesting to note how my grandfather Andrew Smart came to leave Scotland and locate in the new State of Wisconsin. It came about in this way. He was a landowner, and that made his name on any financial obligation worth par. In the village of Auchtermuchty a man the name of John White was a cloth manufacturer, employing several people to do weaving…White was a dishonest man, and got into difficulty with his creditors I conclude, and was arrested under some proceedings under the laws of that country for imprisoning men of that character…. [H]e was released upon a bond signed by my grandfather Andrew Smart, and he at once bade adieu to the hills and heather of his native land, and located in Wisconsin. My grandfather had to sell his farm to pay this obligation, and concluded that he would take his children, all then unmarried except my father, and follow this man White to the United States and endeavor to collect.

 “About ten days before my grandfather was to leave Scotland with his family, my father visited him and concluded that the old gentleman was not equal to the task, and he at once made up his mind that he would accompany his father to the new land, which he did, leaving my mother with her sister in the old country. This was in the spring of 1849, and they landed at Janesville, Wisconsin, then a small village, in Rock County. 

 “My grandfather purchased a small farm about nine miles west of Edgerton, Wisconsin, near the little village of Cooksville, where he lived the remainder of his days. He never collected the obligation from Mr. White, although for many years they were neighbors…

 “In the early spring of 1850, my mother with her two children, one about 20 months old, and the other about 7, left Scotland on a sailing vessel for New York. She was seven weeks on the Atlantic Ocean. Arriving in New York, she made her way by rail, canal and lake boats, to Milwaukee, 65 miles from Janesville. It will be remembered there was neither railroad nor stagecoach, nor any other regular method of passenger conveyance between Milwaukee and Janesville at that time. The country was new. The roads were mere trails cut through the woods. There was no telegraphic or other means of communication, so it was quite impossible for my father to know when she would arrive in Milwaukee. The best she could do was to employ a teamster who had drawn grain from Janesville to Milwaukee and was engaged in taking merchandise back on his return trip, and with him she secured transportation, crude as it was, between these two points. It took them about two days to make the trip. My father had erected a small house in the little village of Janesville where he and my mother at once commenced their new home in the new land.

 “I have omitted to state that my father was a carpenter and builder of high order, and about the time that my mother arrived, together with Robert Hodge, the husband of his sister, opened a small wagon shop in Janesville that has since grown to be the Janesville Carriage Works. My father remained in that business until 1855, when he purchased the farm of 80 acres, five miles west of Edgerton, Wisconsin, where I was born [half-way to Cooksville]. 

 “Neither he nor my mother had any knowledge of farming. While his father had owned a small farm in Scotland, I do not understand that he ever worked upon it, and this venture at farming was indeed a dreary undertaking. This little eighty-acre tract was reached by a winding trail through the heavy timber, 15 miles from Janesville. There were practically no improvements on the farm except a little log cabin built in the midst of heavy timber by the side of a little lake. 

 “There was no way of knowing just where the public highways would be located, and when a public highway was located, it proved to be about a quarter of a mile away from this cabin. It was fifteen years before my mother returned to Janesville. All of the children except the oldest three were born on this farm. The farm was a poor one, and my father was a poor farmer. The net result of this combination was the direst poverty. The family lived in this log cabin until about 1868, when my father purchased another eighty acres of land, upon which there were some frame buildings that he moved to the site of the old log cabin, and made out of them a reasonably comfortable house. The long years spent in clearing up his farm, by clearing, I mean grubbing out timber and breaking up the ground, entailed great hardships.

 “My father was never out of debt until he left and sold that farm. I can well remember of hearing the word ‘mortgage’ long years before I had the slightest conception of what it was. I only knew that it was a thing that consumed that net proceeds of the poor farm in the fall. My father never would have been able to retain the farm had it not been for the fact that his services were in demand as a carpenter, though wages were small.  Both before and after the great fire in Chicago [1871], he spent many months in that city as a contractor, leaving my mother at home with the children on the farm. She often said later in life, that she never could think of any one moving onto a farm, without a shutter.

 “It may be interesting to those who read this little story, to have explained a little more in detail, the log cabin in which we lived. It was a very crude structure, about 20 feet square, built of rough logs of different lengths. That is to say, at the corners on the outside the logs would protrude some three feet, some four, leaving a very convenient stairway for the boys to climb to the loft.  The roof was made of what they call in the back woods of Wisconsin, shakes, which were imitation shingles, split out of rough timber. The floors, both the lower and upper one, were of rough boards. The chamber, or rather the garret, was reached at one time I remember, by a crude ladder, but when the ladder gave way by reason of the assaults upon it by a crowd of healthy, vigorous boys, it was never replaced, and those of us who used the garret as sleeping quarters, reached that apartment by climbing the logs, and we became experts. Of course my mother couldn't get up there, and so we boys were the only clamber [sic] maids that ever visited that particular locality. There was but one door and no porch. There were three windows, as I remember, and screens were unknown at the time, even in houses of greater pretensions. On extra special occasions, when the meals were spread, some one of the children was delegated to stand by the table with a small branch of tree and ‘shoo’ the flies.

 “Depressing as the situation was, our lives in the log cabin were not entirely without fun. One incident will suffice. Some kind neighbor gave to one of the boys a little lamb. It was the first of its kind that we ever had, and it was a great pet. We named it Nellie, and Nellie grew with the same rapidity that the boys did, and we shared each other’s joys and sorrows. When Nellie was about a year old, my father commenced to talk about shearing her. We boys had no knowledge of just what that meant, or what the operation would be. Neither did Nellie. And I am persuaded that my father was about as ignorant touching the situation as we were. But the time came when Nellie was to be shorn, and my father undertook the job about sundown one summer night. He undertook to do the work with a pair of dull scissors, and instead of keeping the fleeces as a unit, as is the custom with sheep shearers, he took each separate lock when clipped and laid it aside. 

 “Poor Nellie was forced into some diverse and sundry positions during the hours that were consumed in de-fleecing her. Sometimes she would sit upright and make a bold attempt to assume an appearance of contentment. Then again she would be placed prone upon her back with a child holding each foot, while my father proceeded to pluck the wool, more after the style of picking a chicken than shearing a sheep... I don't know just how long this process continued, because one by one the children grew sleepy and retired. Now to retire frequently meant to curl up in one corner on the floor and go to sleep…. 

Robert (1824-1903) and Euphemia (1825-1915) Smart
 “My mother…Euphemia McArthur Smart… Her early life illy fitted her for the hardships she encountered in the new land. Although her parents were poor people in Scotland, she was tenderly reared…. I well remember as a boy, of thinking as I observed my mother from day to day, and more especially on Sundays, that I could observe in her demeanor a longing to return to the hills of Scotland, and to the place where as a girl she had been tenderly and happily reared, and as I have grown older, I believe my thoughts of her were correct, although as the years passed by and old age commenced to creep over her, she frequently said that she had no desire to return to Scotland. I have never quite understood why she did not keep up a correspondence with her people there. My father frequently wrote letters to her people and received letters from them, but I don't remember of my mother writing to them at all. This is the more strange to me when I reflect that in her later years, even after she had passed the eighty mark, she was a voluminous writer, and had the ability to concentrate. That is, to say much in few words….”

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[A copy of Judge Charles Smart’s story of his youth is available in the Cooksville Archives, as is a brief biography of the Judge’s later life. Both were edited and updated by Kenneth C. Bower in 2010, and were recently given by Arielle Olson to the Archives. Thanks to Arielle for sharing this story. Excerpts are printed here with permission.  Edited by Larry Reed.]

Thursday, March 30, 2017

In the Beginning, There Was….. Cooksville, by Larry Reed

In the beginning, 175 years ago, the new land in Middle America beckoned to settlers with waves of endless fertile prairies, undisturbed oak-openings, springs of clear water, and flowing creeks and rivers with Native American names. And it was good….

Wisconsin in 1718
The land of “Wild Rushing Waters”—called Meskonsin or Ouisconsin or Wiskonsan or, the final choice, Wisconsin— had finally become part of the United States. The nation had succeeded in acquiring, winning, and finagling it from the French, the British and then the Indians (although the latter remain as 12 nations within the state). The good news then, in 1787, was that anybody—French, English or otherwise—who wanted to remain in America’s new official Northwest Territory could and that, importantly, slavery was abolished within the Territory.

U.S.A. map of 1783

In the 1830s the American government began surveying its new lands west of Lake Michigan. Surveys divided the land into more counties, one of which became Rock County, previously part of Brown County and later part of Milwaukee County, named for a famous landmark rock near the river. And the counties were divided into townships and sections, which allowed the U.S. government to sell the land for the first time in 1837, a year after the Wisconsin Territory was established in 1836.

The buyers, mostly eager migrants or land speculators who lived elsewhere, out East in New England for instance, or overseas in the British Isles. Sometimes buyers were early trappers, entrepreneurs and “squatters” that had already “discovered” the land and made their “claims,” often associated with companies that had long pursued fur-trading and mineral-extraction.

Wisconsin Territory in 1836
The genesis of Cooksville was in 1837. That was the year that brothers John and Daniel Cook of Ohio purchased their portion of Wisconsin from the U.S. government for $1.25 an acre. The Cooks’ land, between the two new small settlements of Janesville and Madison, bordered on the fish-filled Waucoma Creek, later to be re-named the Badfish Creek, in the Town of Oak, later re-named the Town of Porter in 1847.

And it was a good choice. The Cook brothers and families arrived in oxen-drawn wagons in 1840, usually following Indian trails, to their fertile, well-watered, wood-filled land on the promising frontier of an expanding 59-year-old nation.

In the beginning, the new settlers used their wagons as shelters but quickly built rough log cabins and animal shelters. Thanks to an early saw mill on the Badfish Creek, lumber sawn from oak and other trees soon provided construction materials for houses and barns and the nearby limestone hills supplied blocks of stone for foundations as well as for a few early houses. 

The Village of Cooksville was formally founded and drawn up by its eponymous founders in 1842, 175 years ago. The plat of their new little town on the prairie consisted of just three blocks divided into a number of lots for sale along its several platted streets. And the Cooks built the first house for themselves that same year of 1842, as well as that first saw mill on the creek.

And it was good. But there was no time to rest after these early efforts—except maybe on the seventh day when an itinerant Primitive Methodist preacher presided over church services in the saw mill—because Cooksville quickly began to grow.

Waucoma plat map of 1846
The settlement along the Badfish Creek quadrupled in size in 1846. That is when Dr. John Porter and his brother Dr. Isaac Porte of Massachusetts laid out their own new village across the street from the Cook brothers’ village. The new village was four-times as big as its neighbor and stretched eastward along the creek —which the Porters learned was called “Waucoma” by Native Americans and which became the genesis of the name the Porters gave to their new community:  the Village of Waucoma. They hoped it would be a successful and lucrative speculative land development, as well as a new home.

For Waucoma the Porters created a “New England” style layout with a large Public Square in the middle for all to use and enjoy, with 14 blocks each usually with 14 building lots and wide streets and alleys. John Porter had purchased the land from U.S. Senator Daniel Webster, so a street was named in his honor: “Webster Street.” Soon two brickyards were producing tens of thousands of vermilion-colored clay bricks that would add handsome brick houses to the simple, graceful pioneer architecture of the village and nearby farms.

Both villages attracted eager settlers to the new fertile farmlands where hunting, fishing and wild fruits, along with their productive vegetable gardens, would sustain them. Of course, occasional imports of salt, tea, coffee, gun powder and oysters were obtained now and then from the growing settlements of Milwaukee and Chicago. More solid, well-constructed, handsome American homes rose on the prairie, usually designed like very simplified Greek temples, a foreign architectural style popular at the time. And soon several mercantile stores and blacksmith shops were built to serve the growing community of pioneers.

In the 1840s, the area was serviced by a stagecoach. At that time, only the little Village of Union existed on the stagecoach route between Mr. Jane’s village and President Madison’s eponymously-named settlement on the Four Lakes. Union provided the needed change of horses and a hotel at the halfway point between those two settlements until the new Village of Cooksville—then often called Waucoma—was established on the route, becoming a stagecoach stop for the growing area. Soon “Waucoma House,” a stagecoach stop, hotel and tavern for travelers was erected. From there, stages dashed from Cooksville up Old Stage Road to join the old Territorial Road, the first well-traveled route through Rock and Dane counties.

However, in the late 1850s when railroads traversed Rock County, replacing stagecoaches, Cooksville was bypassed. The village slumbered, but its sturdy, well-designed 1840s and 1850s buildings continued to shelter the old pioneers and their children, and then those children’s children. The peak population was about 175 during the Civil War era but its growth stopped and its population dwindled. Early maps often called the village “Waucoma,” although the name “Cooksville” would prevail, thanks to the Post Office housed in the old General Store in the Cooks’ village.

Cooksville, 1891
By the beginning of the 20th century some of the residences had become “summer homes” in the quiet old rural community. The saw mill, which became a grist mill, ground to a halt; the village’s second-floor “Opera House” above the local meat-market was lost to fire in 1893; Waucoma House hotel fell into disrepair; and the Farm Implement Factory, the first in Wisconsin, was torn down in 1928.
"Cooksville 1938" by Dorothy Kramer
But—happy revelation!— not all disappeared into the mist of time or in flames and smoke. Historic houses remained standing (and still do) along with the two churches, the schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop and the oldest General Store in Wisconsin housing the Masonic Lodge on the second floor. And the Public Square is still used in common by all, as it once was for picnics, horse-races, the Cooksville Cornhuskers’ ball games, “Old Settlers’ Reunions,” and especially by the children from the one-room schoolhouse facing the Square.

"Cooksville, 1955" by Dorothy Kramer
Cooksville became the special little historic “town that time forgot.” In some respects, it is indeed a revelation that the village has survived and even thrived in its own unique way during those many years of quiet rural life in the 19th, 20th and 21st.centuries. Many other similar early settlements have disappeared or had their earliest beginnings vanquished by progress and new construction.

And now, in 2017, the Village of Cooksville, an officially-designated National, State and Local Historic District, is able to celebrate 175 years of existence, which is old for a Ouisconsin or a Wiskonsan or, finally, a Wisconsin village. (Governor James Doty urged spelling the Territory’s name “Wiskonsan” but was over-ruled by the government in 1845, so “Wisconsin” it is.)

And so “Cooksville”— as well as “Waucoma,” the legal name for many of its properties —remains an early Wisconsin pioneer village from 1842, a “wee bit of New England in Wisconsin.”
"Cooksville Tour Map, 1984" by Mike Saternus
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[The Cooksville Archives and Collections welcomes photographs and other documents related to the history of Cooksville and the Town of Porter. Contact Larry Reed for more information. (608) 873-5066.]

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

News from Tree Restoration Committee of Cooksville

The Tree Restoration Committee received a DNR Grant for Cooksville Urban Forestry and Commons. The grant will be matched with volunteer hours, in-kind services and fund-raising which will help fund or support these components:

  • Tree inventory
  • Professional Tree Management Plan
  • Arbor Day Celebration and Tree Planting
  • Community and Educational Outreach Programming

Future Dates:

Arbor Day Celebration - April 30, Sunday   2-4 pm   Refreshments to follow at the Cooksville Community Center after the proclamation and tree planting on the Commons.

The committee is having a tree inventory work date in late May if anyone is interested in learning how to identify trees, leaves and bark.

June 10 - Art Activity- Tree Art  for all ages on the Commons before and after the Jerry Apps lecture -   Community and Educational Outreach