Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Historic Cooksville General Store

The Cooksville General Store has a record of about 165 years serving the small village of Cooksville in Rock County, Wisconsin. Most likely it is the oldest General Store operating in Wisconsin.

The General Store dates from about 1847. In that year, Charles Smith acquired from John Cook, founder of the village in 1842, a corner lot, 26 feet by 66 feet, at Main and Spring streets and built and began operating his store in the small Village of Cooksville.

In 1864, the building was sold to the second floor tenant, Waucoma Lodge No. 90. The lodge had been chartered in 1858 and had been leasing the second floor of the building. Thus begun the long association of the Masonic Lodge with the General Store.

The Masons made several improvements to the building. In 1879 shutter blinds were hung on the building’s windows, and the Masonic hall on the second floor acquired new chairs, hanging lamps, carpets, and wallpaper. In 1882 the large glass front windows were installed and new paint was applied and the “store looks very nobby,” reported the nearby Evansville newspaper at the time.

Old diaries provide details of the store’s business dealings—purchases of raisins, cream of tartar, a barrel of Spitzenberg apples, fifty pounds of flour, and delivery to the store of 19 ½ pounds of cheese—and records of luxury goods for those times such a shipment of oysters in 1872, most probably destined for an oyster supper at the Lodge (oysters were actually a frequent component of a special supper). And in June 1874 rare lemons arrived.

In 1890 the Masons bought 18 feet of land west of the building for expansion of the building, accomplished in 1894 and, as the Badger newspaper of Evansville wrote, “the room over the new part will be used as a dining room” for the Masonic Hall.

In 1893, in a jocular but nonetheless fairly accurate newspaper story, the store owner was described as a “dealer in soft and hard coal, ice cream, wood, lime, cement, perfumery, nails, putty, spectacles and tomato catsup, chocolate caramels and tar roofing, hides, tallow and maple syrup, fine gold jewelry, silverware, salt, glue, codfish and gents neckwear, full line of patent medicines, diseases of horses and children a specialty.”

The Cooksville General Store was, like most early stores, a basic dry goods, grocery and produce store. It the early days there were cracker and pickle and flour barrels, and cookies and tea in bulk tins. At times, the Cooksville Store also included fuels and building materials and hardware. Eventually, the store sold such widely assorted things as Cornish game hens, lag bolts, wash pans, clothesline, bone-meal, garden seeds, drill bits, underwear, anchovies, overshoes, lamp chimneys, paint, tobacco cloth, and kitchen utensils, as well as dairy and meat products and hot sandwiches and newspapers.

The barter system was used for many of the early years, and credit was given, even in later years, and the storekeeper functioned in some ways as a middleman for locally-grown produce.

By the mid-20th century, traveling salesman and their companies’ delivery trucks kept the rural Cooksville General Store supplied with everything on the market. That most famous of country store institutions, the” hot stove league,” weakened by many factors of modern life, such as television. was there throughout the 20th century providing written and oral communications, as well as other services for the community such as receiving and mailing packages or a place to turn to when in need of emergency assistance.

By the end of the 20th century, having been in business in the same location since 1847, the Cooksville General Store had achieved the status of the oldest operating general store in Wisconsin. At least no one has disputed the title.

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[Written by Larry Reed, 2011]

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Archeology of Historic Cooksville, by Larry Reed

Like most communities, the Village of Cooksville and the Town of Porter has evidence of its history (and prehistory) that is found both hidden underground and is visible on top of the ground.

In addition to the dozens of visible historic houses and buildings, Cooksville has several significant historic archeological sites—once-important features of the village that have disappeared from view but retain important, significant information about the community’s history found beneath the ground.

Three of these sites are within the village and are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and one of them, also listed in the National Register, is located just to the northwest of Cooksville.

One village archeological site, the Hoxie Sash and Door Factor that later housed the important Van Vleck Implement Factory, is located near the northwest corner of Webster and Dane streets. Isaac Hoxie (brother of self-trained architect, Benjamin Hoxie) built his sash and door carpentry shop in 1848 to supply the area with doors, windows and blinds (shutters). Powered by a horse walking in a circle to turn the gears, the workshop ceased operation in 1858, when the local “building boom” ended.

Shortly afterward the building became the Van Vleck Implement Factory (1861-1928), manufacturing 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. News about the Civil War was shouted to the citizens from the second-story porch.

When the deteriorated Van Vleck building was demolished in 1928, a Wisconsin newspaper printed a photograph of the deteriorated structure and called it “Wisconsin’s first implement factory.”

Another important archeological site is the Cooksville Mill Site, west of the Main Street (State Road 138) bridge over the Badfish Creek. Built as a sawmill by John Cook in 1842, it became a gristmill by 1847, grinding locally-grown wheat, oats and corn, and operated by a series of owners. The dam and pond were abandoned in 1897, and the mill building was used as a family residence for a time, and, later, the derelict structure served as shelter for homeless tramps and then as storage. It burned down in 1905.

A third archeological site is the Champney Brickyard and House Site, located on the south side of the village, on Church Street (then South Street). Hubbard Champney was the brick-maker (and farmer) and operated the brickyard for about ten years, making the distinctive vermilion-colored Cooksville brick. Others operated the brickyard until about 1860, when the property was turned into farmland. Shards of brick, glass and pottery have been found in the area. (A second Cooksville brickyard was located just west of Cooksville, but little evidence of its location remains.)

The fourth officially-designated archeological site is the Leedle Mill Truss Bridge and Mill Site, located just northwest of Cooksville on the Badfish Creek in the Town of Union. The mill was built about 1849, owned by various operators including William Leedle, who enlarged the dam and the mill. The dam washed out a number of times, permanently about 1918, and the mill’s wood frame structure and most of the foundation were demolished in the late 1950s.

Unfortunately, the historic Leedle Mill Pratt truss bridge constructed about 1916 over the Badfish Creek at the location of the mill, which had been closed to traffic for many years, was demolished in 2011 and a new bridge has replaced it.

Other undiscovered archeological sites, prehistoric and historic, in or near Cooksville, may lie hidden from view—or almost hidden. For instance, the remains of a blacksmith shop’s brick foundation can be seen near the Gunn House at Breckhurst; two outhouse foundations remain in the yard of the Cooksville Congregational Church; dozens of horseshoes, doorknobs, hinges, etc., have been found in the ground near the historic Van Buren House and Barn, along with many shards of pottery and an almost-intact bourbon bottle from 1825. Probably every Cooksville property owner has uncovered similar pieces of pottery, china or metal in their backyards, especially in the cultivated gardens.

And perhaps evidence of Cooksville’s long-lost stage coach inn, the Waucoma House, and the village’s Opera House remains buried in the ground. Or there may exist, along the Badfish Creek, Native American sites that pre-date the existence of Cooksville and the State of Wisconsin.

Several prehistoric and historic Native American archeological sites have been previously reported east of Cooksville in the Town of Porter, classified as campsites or village sites, probably because arrowheads or other artifacts had been discovered there. These sites, recorded in Wisconsin’s Archeological Sites Inventory, remain uninvestigated and unevaluated.

Other interesting archeological sites and artifacts undoubtedly remain in or near historic Cooksville, undiscovered, unexamined and unevaluated, a hidden part of the area’s long history.

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