Sunday, February 20, 2011

The "Early Settlers Reunions" in Cooksville

Fifty Years of Picnics and Remembrances
by Larry Reed

The “Early Settlers Reunions” were a very important part of the life of Cooksville for fifty years, from 1901 to 1951. These picnic-like gatherings of the original Cooksville settlers and their descendents succeeded in perpetuating a real sense of time and place and personality—a sense of shared community— especially as the fast-paced 20th century took hold of the lives of the 19th century pioneers.

And the sentimental gatherings also provided a valuable time for sharing and re-living the history of the village, for maintaining and renewing friendships, and for re-uniting with the best of their difficult but rewarding “pioneer” past.

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

They listened to reminiscences from Gideon E. Newman, chosen chairman for the event, and Benjamin Hoxie, Isaac Hoxie, and Joseph K.P. Porter. The assembly was also treated to “two or three humorous stories” by Will Gillies. A “memento letter” from J. T. Dow was read, and Helen P. Richardson sang a song that “proved her a true descendent of her nightingale mother,” Ann Eliza Bacon Porter, wife of Joseph K.P. Porter, one of the three nephews who helped their uncle, John Porter, lay-out the new Village of Waucoma in 1846 next to Cooksville (platted in 1842).

“For this one day the rush of life was checked,” reported Ms. Wells, “ its cankering cares forgotten, and gazing into each others eyes they clasped hands, thanked God and took courage.” The Masonic hall “was handsomely carpeted and well lighted. The resident ladies had arranged draperies, pictures and potted plants most effectively; at the west end of the room were several tables decorated with choice flowers and fruits, and loaded with the most delectable achievements of the culinary art.”

So enthusiastic were the participants that they resolved to form the meeting into a permanent organization to be known as the “Early Settlers’ Reunion of Cooksville,” to gather folks together each year.

Succeeding Early Settlers Reunions were held on the Public Square, although inclement weather —possible frost was predicted on the new “wireless’— necessitated that the second gathering on September 9, 1902, be held in the basement of the Cooksville Congregational Church. Several pioneers spoke at that gathering, including John Porter who “alluded to melon patches and youthful escapades,” and music was provided by Helen Richardson and the four daughters of Sanford Soverhill.

Pioneers who had died during the previous year were memorialized by Minnie Stebbins Savage (who also was the reporter for this event). Ms. Savage “spoke of the harvest of affection brought in from the field of life by William Porter; her early recollections of bluff, genial, hospitable Hamilton Wells; the Scottish accent and loving Scotch loyalty of Mrs. J.G. Robertson; the inspiration of Benjamin Hoxie’s life in the use made by him of the days’ margins; the reverent, sincere devotion of James Gillies, instinct with the sacredness of religion; and the courage with which Mrs. Noah Davenport met the duties of life after the death of her husband.”

These reports of the Early Settlers Reunions provide some of the best glimpses into the lives and personalities of the settlers themselves—their devotion to their new community and to their country, their pride in their pioneering past, their delight in the present and their confidence in the future. Their eager and fulsome expressiveness and the sharing of their talents, and, most vividly, their sincere affection and concern for each other are all very evident.

From then on, for fifty years, the picnic Reunions were held on the third or fourth Thursdays in June of every year, usually on the Public Square under the stand of virgin burr oak trees with a feast of picnic food. In addition to the fond reminiscences shared by the old pioneers and the tributes to those who had passed on, poetry was composed for the occasion and recited, and short plays (such as “Grandmother’s Story” and “Why the Cannon Wasn’t Fired”) depicting Cooksville events were performed.

Music, too, was an important element in the festivities over the years. Jack Robertson provided his award-winning violin music as well as his tricks with his violin; the Cooksville Lutheran Quartette and the Janesville Male Quartette sang; Webster Johnson played his bagpipes; Eloise Eager played the violin; June Porter sang vocal solos; and a Drum Corps composed of men from the Town of Porter, Evansville and Janesville got feet tapping with their rousing rendition of “Marching Through Georgia.”

In 1927, Gideon Newman, sixty-six at the time (and the man who would commission Frank Lloyd Wright in 1934 to design a chapel for Cooksville to be called “A Memorial to the Soil”—but that’s another story!) wrote a letter from his retirement in Dallas, Texas, probably in response to a request for recollections, to be read at the upcoming Old Settlers’ Picnic.

Newman fondly reminisced about the old settlers, including some of their tonsorial styles: “I spend much time visiting again and again with the old bewhiskered pioneers who settled in and around the Badfish Valley,” he wrote. “Do you know the only clean shaven men that I can bring to mind are John Savage and David Gillies. The only bewhiskered sons of the Old Guard are James Gillies and Chap Stebbins. There are probably more but I cannot recall any. There was no set style of tonsorial achievement sought. Isaac Porter and Ezra Stoneburner were very proud of their beautiful upper lips. Tom Longbourne also wanted everyone to admire with him his splendid mouth”

Newman continued on: “Then there were the wonderful heads of hair. I think if vanity visited the men of Cooksville it certainly evidenced itself in the attention given to the arrangement of the hair of their heads. We will have to except from that standing the hair on the head of the senior Newman and Joel Sturtevant. I don’t think father ever combed his himself, and I know Joel’s was never combed by anybody. No one would have known him if it had been combed. On the other hand, visualize the cupid-like curl on top of George Gillies’s head and the glossy slick perfections on top of John Dow’s head. I don’t think Dow shampooed his hair when he took a bath.

“I like to call the roll of all the men and women who ever lived in that community and dwell upon their varied qualities, eccentricities and peculiarities. Of course, I think I like best to live among their frailties rather than their virtues. But who stands out as the greatest man among them all? Call the roll and measure them, one with another, and pick the leader or leaders. I wonder. I stand them up in a row. The Gillieses, the Porters, Millers, Dow, Hoxie, Stebbins, Earle, Van Vleck… You know this last name has lingered much in my mind. He had vision and some genius. His corn planter was not quite as big as the McCormick reaper, but the planter to him was as big an achievement as was the reaper to McCormick. The list of rivals for greatness seems to stop time….”

“How big a niche in the Hall of Fame will it take to house E.G. Stoneburner, Bill Johnson, John Courter, Horace Wells, Tom Morgan or Charlie Woodbury,” Newman wrote. “But I have forgotten or left out one name that in my mind belongs to or among the rivals for the place of honor. Bill Graves [the blacksmith]. If man can achieve his goal, Bill Graves did. He was endowed with nothing but a stout right arm. And with only that right arm for nearly two generations he made it possible for all the other men to plow and sow and reap success out of the wilderness….”

Gideon Newman’s Cooksville “Hall of Fame” has, of course, grown since 1927— with both men and women— eighty-four more years of stout arms, virtuosos, friends, artists, eccentrics, dreamers, and still counting. And the Village still echoes with the Old Settlers names and their achievements, as well as with the many new ones continuously being added.

The Blacksmith Shop