Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Bridge Never Used: The Caledonia Springs Railroad Bridge Near Cooksville, by Larry Reed



Caledonia Springs Railroad Bridge, painting by Dorothy Kramer c.1950
As is well-known, the railroad never came to the historic Village of Cooksville. The “town that time forgot” was forgotten because a railway builder’s plans went bust.

This all happened—or, actually, didn’t happen— back in about 1857.

But there is a remnant near Cooksville dating from the 1850s when a railroad company did plan to come through the village: a small stone railroad bridge.  But plans went astray.

Caledonia Springs Railroad Bridge 1948, with Marvin Raney
The remnant (an archeological ruin, really) is the “Caledonia Springs Railroad Bridge” hidden in the wild, over-grown woods near dozens of equally hidden, bubbling “Caledonia Springs.” The old stone bridge, or culvert, arching over a small creek was constructed about 160 years ago as part of the plans to lay tracks through Cooksville on the way to Madison from Janesville.

On a recent spring day, a successful excursion led by the Makoutz family—Josh and Jill and their three young children, Ruby, Dylan and one-and-a-half-year-old Sawyer, carried by Dad—with pathfinder Josh in the lead hiked next to cornfields and through woods, brambles, and years of overgrowth to view the old stone bridge and the quiet burbling springs.

The bridge with Jill, Dylan, Josh and Sawyer, today
The Makoutz family lives near Cooksville on Caledonia Road in the handsome historic McCarthy stone house. When not guiding someone to the ruined stone bridge, Jill and Josh operate Bradbury’s, a highly-praised coffee house in Madison that specializes in delicious crepes, located at 127 N. Hamilton St., just off the Capitol Square.

Jill and Josh kindly offered to lead the way to this hidden historic site and natural springs south of Caledonia Road in the Town of Porter, not far from Cooksville. They’d hiked into the ravines several times before.
Town of Porter 1858 map with the proposed railroad

Not many details are known about the history of the small Caledonia Springs railroad bridge. Who hauled those huge stones there? And who laid them up like an ancient Roman archway, and why didn’t the planned railway ever cross it?

Many railroad companies had quickly formed in southern Wisconsin in the mid-19th century (and some had quickly failed), and this new transportation technology was heavily invested in by local landowners and others. Successful railroad lines brought progress and profits, of course, and multiple train routes were planned to connect Milwaukee and Chicago with points north and west.

The company that planned to diagonally cross the Town of Porter was the Chicago, St. Paul and Fond du Lac Railroad, coming northwestward from Janesville, which it had reached in 1855.

Preliminary plans and surveys were conducted to continue the route from Janesville through the Town of Porter crossing the Caledonia Springs area, then traveling through Joseph K. P. Porter’s farm just east of Cooksville (or “Waucoma” as it was then known) and crossing the Badfish Creek at that point.

Thus the stone bridge was constructed at the Caledonia Springs creek in anticipation of that route to Madison.

Had that route been laid with railroad tracks, Cooksville (and Waucoma) would no doubt have grown and expanded eastward toward the tracks and the small village would have grown. And it might not be what it is today: a historic “wee bit of New England in Wisconsin.”

But the train did not arrive. Instead, the financial Panic of 1857 happened. A general national economic downturn bankrupted many of the ambitious and under-funded railroad companies and many plans were abandoned. In 1859, when the economy recovered, the newly-formed railroad company changed its plans to reach Madison. Instead it built tracks from Janesville northward to Minnesota Junction near Fond du Lac, joining lines from Milwaukee that headed toward Minnesota. And eventually, of course, other railroads were built through nearby Stoughton and Evansville.

The bridge over Caledonia Springs today
The little arched Caledonia Springs Railroad Bridge built to serve as a culvert over the creek never supported any railroad tracks. But much of it still stands hidden away arching over a ravine, some of it collapsed into the creek formed by the many local springs whose waters flow northward to the Badfish Creek and then three rivers later into the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s a bit of a hike from Caledonia Road to the bridge site but worth the effort, especially if iced tea and wild black raspberry scones await the hikers at Jill and Josh’s handsome stone house after a traipse through the nearby woods and fields on a sunny spring day.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Cooksville and the Civil War, by Larry Reed



Major R.W. Hubbel, left, and unidentified soldier, tintype c.1862, Civil War album, perhaps from Rock County
The Civil War in America ended 150 years ago in 1865. Like all communities, Cooksville and the surrounding area were deeply affected by the four years of the War.  Although there are few documents and even fewer anecdotes about Cooksville and its citizens during the War years of the1860s, a few facts are known.

On May 11, 1861, the citizens of the Town of Porter met “to listen to addresses on the present crisis of our national affairs, and to appoint a committee to receive subscriptions to the fund for the equipment of volunteers to the war, and for the support of the families of those who join the army for the purposes of putting down rebellion and sustaining the government.” The committee then presented a lengthy Town of Porter resolution “to maintain and defend before the world the principles of liberty and justice…”

At the end of the meeting, “Mrs. J.K.P. Porter and Mr. Charles Stokes sung [sic] the Star Spangled Banner in which they were enthusiastically joined by the whole audience.”
The patriotic meeting was reported in the Daily Gazette of Janesville on May 15, 1861.

Marshall Cook, tintype c.1862, perhaps from Wisconsin
About 90 men from the Town of Porter enlisted and served in the Civil War, eight of whom appeared to have been from the Village of Cooksville.  (The Town of Porter’s population in the 1860 census was 1269.) Records identify the local men who served in the Civil War as being from the township of “Porter” so it can be difficult to determine how many lived in the village of “Cooksville.” Most were recruited through the “enlistment bounty” system whereby men who volunteered for military service were paid by the Town of Porter an enticing fee or bounty of $200 each to sign-up. This system of recruitment bounties avoided the need for localities to establish drafts to fill enlistment quotas.
Van Vleck’s Farm Implement Factory, photo c.1900

News of the progress of the on-going War was brought to the village by courier on horseback, and Cooksville’s citizens gathered in Van Vleck’s Lyceum Hall, above his farm implement factory at the corner of Webster and Dane streets, to hear the latest reports. Sometimes news of the War was shouted to the community’s citizens from the second-story porch of the factory. The Van Vleck Implement Factory (1861-1928), manufactured wagons, corn and potato planters, farm gates, and other implements, as well as repairing them; the second floor housed the Lyceum Hall and the Cooksville Academy, a private, advanced school. The factory was called Wisconsin’s first farm implement factory when it was abandoned and demolished in 1928.

Three unidentified men, tintype c.1860s, perhaps from Cooksville
According to records of enlisted men serving in Rock County’s companies of the 13th Regiment of Wisconsin Volunteers, no local Porter men were killed in action. Four were wounded, eight died of disease, and six deserted. (The same records indicate that most of the volunteers ranged in age from 15 to 26 years old, with the most popular occupations of volunteers being farmer, carpenter, clerk, laborer and mechanic, in that order .)

However, local records indicate that twelve Cooksville area men had died from diseases during the War and were buried in the South. A wooden marker was erected after the War in the Cooksville Cemetery to memorialize those twelve men, but the marker and the names it contained were lost in the early 20th century. Four of the men have been identified as Perry L. Brooks, Ira Sturtevant, John Shurrum and James M. Van Vleck, all of whom apparently died of diseases at Vicksburg and Memphis in 1864. An effort made by Cooksville historian Cora Atwood in 1944 to identify the other eight men whose names had been painted on the old memorial did not succeed. In the mid-20th century, a modern flag pole was erected on the grassy memorial mound near the south end of the cemetery, the site of the original wooden memorial.

Ultimately, about ten old Civil War veterans were buried in the Cooksville Cemetery and marked with grave stones.  

Veterans from other wars—the Indian War, the Spanish War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War— are also buried in the village’s historic cemetery.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Early Buildings of Historic Cooksville - Part II, by Larry Reed



The Village of Cooksville had talented, self-trained craftsmen from the very beginning who designed and built its structures in the 1840s, 175 years ago. These included carpenters like John Fisher, masons like Charles Howard, and the self-trained architect and cabinet-maker Benjamin Hoxie and his brother Isaac Hoxie, as well as others who practiced their skillful building crafts in the earliest years of the village.

In short, talented men and women—as well as the raw materials— were at hand to build the new frontier village next to the spring-fed Badfish Creek.

Benjamin Hoxie (1827-1901)
 By 1842 the village had a saw mill on the creek and would soon have two brickyard operations and a thriving door and sash factory operated by Isaac Hoxie. The factory, powered by a horse walking in a circle, provided the energy to manufacture window frames, doors and blinds (shutters) for buildings and structures in the village and throughout Porter Township. Many of these original doors, windows and shutters remain in use. (The factory, which later became Wisconsin’s first producer of farm implements, was demolished in 1928.)
McCarthy House (1850)
Limestone from nearby hills was used not only for foundations but also, cut and dressed, stones were used for entire houses in the area. The results of the skillful stone masons were very impressive, as in the handsome McCarthy House (c.1850) built by expert Irish masons and still standing east of Cooksville near St. Michael’s Cemetery.  (The Stebbins House, another nearby stone house built in 1850 near Cooksville, was recently demolished.)
Richardson Grout House (c.1849)
A rare and unusual construction technique was used for another house. It was a re-invented form of concrete, called grout, made from lime, sand and gravel, and water, and was used to build the Richardson Grout House (1849) east of Cooksville. The poured grout created thick, solid, concrete walls. A number of examples of these unusual grout buildings are found in south central Wisconsin.

The basic framework for Cooksville’s early houses, both wood-framed clapboard houses and locally-fired brick houses, was post-and-beam or braced-frame construction.  Large hand-hewn oak beams and vertical posts fastened with wooden pegs were used for framing, and the mill-sawn joists, rafters, floorboards and clapboards were fastened with cut square-headed nails. (The lighter “balloon” frame construction technique would come later.)

The interiors of both the Greek and Gothic revival style homes featured oak and pine wood for trim and moldings, usually painted to hide the undesirable appearance of plain, raw lumber. Floors of very wide, random-width pine or oak boards were frequently painted as well.

In between many of the walls of the wood-framed houses was “brick nogging” which was soft Cooksville bricks that were not sufficiently baked to hold up to exterior weathering. The nogging was held in place with mortar and provided insulation and structural reinforcement. And made good use of soft, porous bricks.

Interior walls were plastered, sometimes using riven or split lath made from wide thin boards that were riven or stretched apart to hold the plaster; later, sawed wood lath was used.  Plain white-wash usually covered the walls, and at least one house had a decorative garland-and-swag design stenciled in paint on the walls near the ceiling. Soon affordable paint colors became available, as did colorful patterned wallpaper shipped in from the East via Chicago or Milwaukee. Sometimes dates appear carved into walls, or old newspapers were stuffed into cracks. A hand-drawn dove in an artful swirl of graphite was found on the plastered basement wall under wallpaper in the 1879 Congregational Church, and false-grained painting decorated the church’s upstairs interior pine doors. 

Other original mid-19th century elements remain in some buildings. Interior hardware such as cast-iron thumb-latches and hinges were used for doors, and wavy-glass, sometimes with bubbles, is seen in small–paned windows. Brick or stone cisterns for rain-water storage were discovered under some kitchen wings.
Erickson Barn (1914)
 One-horse village barns were immediately built next to almost every Cooksville dwelling for the horse and carriage and perhaps the cow. Other farm buildings—small barns, sheds, chicken coops, granaries, ice houses — were constructed, eventually including larger barns like the 1914 Erickson Barn when dairying became an important industry. Wells were dug for water, and when the cisterns ran dry in the winter, especially when snow was light, ice was hauled from the mill ponds to be melted and used as fresh water. Ice was also stored in ice-houses or cellars in straw to be used for cooling and making ice-cream in the summer. And, of course, outhouses or “necessary houses,” were built and moved about on the property and set onto new holes in the ground whenever “over-use” necessitated. 

Cooksville once contained as many as eight or more commercial and industrial buildings in the mid-to-late 1800s.  Besides the saw mill and the stagecoach inn, several mercantile stores, the door and sash factory and a small cheese factory were quickly added. Blacksmith shops sprang up in a number of different locations; at times as many as four were in operation. And, of course, a school—first of logs, then of brick and finally of wood construction—existed from the very beginning. By the late 19th century, two churches were added to the landscape. All were locally constructed using local designs, local labor and mostly local materials. Hardware was obtained from Eastern companies, if local blacksmiths could not hammer it out; some items like the Congregational Church’s stained glass windows were shipped in from Chicago.

As is well-known, Cooksville was by-passed by the railroad in the 1850s so growth slowed to a stop. By 1900 the village was slumbering quietly. Fires and some demolition eventually took their toll of most of the commercial structures as they were abandoned. But the early houses remain in the village, well- maintained and well-used, as do the two churches, the schoolhouse and the cheese factory, along with the public square, the village cemetery and a re-constructed blacksmith shop..

In 1973 and 1980, the state and federal governments officially recognized Cooksville’s special history and architecture by establishing and then expanding the Cooksville Historic District listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the second district to be so designated in Wisconsin. Other nearby historic houses associated with Cooksville were also listed in the National Register.
Michael Saternus (1936-1990)
 Successful preservation and rehabilitation efforts over recent decades by the owners with assistance from architects like Michael Saternus (1936-1990) and Michael Bolster have enabled people to experience, remember and celebrate the Village Cooksville, “the town that time forgot.”

[More information about historic Cooksville—and more photos— can be found in the new booklet “Historic Cooksville: A Guide” available at the Cooksville Country Store.]

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Early Buildings of Historic Cooksville – Part I, by Larry Reed



The early buildings of the Village of Cooksville, constructed  in the 1840s and 1850s by the first settlers, were study and serviceable with just enough architectural detail to define their simple styles and to distinguish them as works of genuine merit recognizable today, almost 175 years later.  Restoration and rehabilitation efforts during the past 50 years have helped reveal those significant characteristics.

The mid-19th century construction techniques and architectural designs were early American styles brought to the frontier from New England and New York, which in turn had come from the British Isles and Europe.  These building forms and styles were, of course, simplified and modified to meet the needs of the American frontier, including the Village of Cooksville established in the 1840s on the Wisconsin prairie in oak openings alongside the Badfish Creek.

The earliest style of village architecture, other than the utilitarian log cabin, was Greek Revival, a popular style inspired in America by Greece’s democratic revolution in the 1820s, which had created admiration for ancient Greek architecture with its columns and symmetrical formality. The style of Cooksville’s houses was a simplified “country” Greek Revival. Its distinctive symmetry and vaguely temple-like facades interpreted with flattened columns (pilasters), modest cornices and trim boards at the roof lines, and returned eaves and hooded doors and windows.  These elements are visible in the Van Vleck House, Newell House, Van Buren House and other early homes, which were invariably painted white to resemble the weathered bare-stones of ancient Greek temple ruins (but which actually originally had been painted very bright colors).
Van Vleck House, c. 1852

Van Buren House, c. 1848
The construction of Cooksville’s early residences and commercial buildings was simple, practical, and solid. Structurally they were post-and-beam or braced-frame construction with hand-hewn structural members and locally milled floor boards, trim, and exterior clapboards   Some houses were constructed of the famous locally-made Cooksville brick from the village’s two brickyards, with soft, sandy, light-colored mortar.

Cooksville bricks are a distinguishing feature of the architecture in the village and the area. The handsome vermilion-colored brick resulted from the local clay being baked for weeks with wood-burning fires, resulting in the special pink-orange color. One brickyard was located on the southern edge of the village operated by Hubbard Champney and later William Johnson, and the other was on the John Dow farm just west of the village.

Frequently, soft bricks that had not been suitably baked and hardened for exterior use were inserted as brick- nogging in the interior walls of some homes, for insulation and structural support.

Foundations were generally constructed of limestone cut from “quarry hill” north of Cooksville, and chimneys for the heating and cook stoves were made of Cooksville brick. (Only one original wood-burning fireplace was constructed inside a Cooksville home: it still functions in the Duncan House.)

Cooksville’s commercial buildings were most likely built in a “vernacular” style, which meant a simple local, functional design with few if any stylistic architectural details, such as the extant General Store. One exception was the village’s tavern and inn, Waucoma House, no longer standing. According to a simple sketch it was a Greek Revival building resembling other such stage-coach inns of that era. Like the residences, these commercial buildings were generally one or two-stories, well-proportioned, well-crafted, solid, simple and graceful. Unfortunately, most of the commercial buildings—the saw mill, the farm implement factory, the meat market, the “opera house,” Waucoma House, and several blacksmith shops—have been lost to fire or demolition. The existing General Store, Graves Blacksmith Shop, and the Cheese Factory represent three examples of functional commercial vernacular design, as do photographs of the lost buildings.

When the new Gothic Revival style of architecture became popular in America beginning in the mid- 19th century, replacing Greek Revival, it too appeared in Cooksville. Gothic design featured steeper roofs, pointed-arch windows and hoods, decorative sawn-work in barge-boards and trim (“gingerbread”) at the roof line or on porches. Some of these elements can be seen in the Longbourne and Isaac Porter houses. Again, this Gothic style was simplified by the local self-trained Cooksville designers and carpenters who may have consulted popular architectural books of the time, such as A.J. Downing’s The Architecture of Country Houses (1853).
Longbourne House, c. 1854

Late 19th century architectural styles also appeared in the village, here and there, in simplified form, such as Romanesque Revival, Queen Ann and other “picturesque” styles.  Some of these newer stylistic elements were incorporated in the design of the Cooksville Congregational Church (1879) and the Norwegian Lutheran Church (1897). They also influenced the exterior up-dating or “remodeling” of the exteriors of a few residences in the late 19th century as the village tried to keep up-to-date, architecturally. Such elements as projecting bay-windows, decorative brackets, and fish-scale shingles in the gables can be seen, and in several instances the remodeling engulfed the older existing Greek Revival building as “modernization” took place.
William Porter House, c. 1855 and c. 1890

As time went by, these architectural efforts of the pioneers gained greater appreciation by later generations of family members, new-comers, architectural historians, historic preservationists and visitors.
[To be continued.]