Tuesday, February 14, 2012
The Cook House, c. 1930
In 2012, Cooksville celebrates 170 years since its founding in 1842— the year the Village of Cooksville was officially platted by John Cook in the newly-opened lands of the Wisconsin Territory.
The recorded history of the Village begins even earlier, on May 9, 1840, when its eponymous founder, John Cook and his younger brother Daniel (both born in Ohio), along with a small contingent from Indiana arrived on America’s new frontier by oxen-drawn wagons. That was the date Cook purchased his piece of the American frontier; soon after, on June 22, he entered two more parcels of land from the same Section 6 in the four-year-old Wisconsin Territory.
John Cook and his fellow travelers had set out for their new lands from Indiana in early 1840. They were a typical immigrant family group in America’s Westward movement, and they traveled to Rock County, Wisconsin, across prairies, through oak openings and oak savannas, arriving on June 25, 1840, in Union, the midway stagecoach stop between Janesville and Madison. The Village of Union was the jumping off place for all new settlers in that area of Rock County—and it was the only village between Janesville and Madison. Cook’s new farmland was just three miles to the east of Union.
Cooks’ group traveled in covered wagons pulled by yoked oxen, probably accompanied by a horse or two, and maybe a cow. The pioneers included the brothers John Cook and Daniel Cook and Daniel’s wife Elizabeth and daughter Rhoda; Mrs. Cook’s brother James Shurrum and his wife Hannah Courter; and Hannah’s sister Angeline Courter Johnson and her husband David Johnson and their three children. The Johnson family remained in Union, but the Shurrums traveled on with the Cooks to their new land in the oak-openings along a little fish-filled creek.
According to a daughter of the Johnson’s, when the families arrived in Wisconsin there were “several houses and one general store” in Janesville, and only one house stood between Janesville and Union. Two houses were in the vicinity of Union; Evansville did not yet exist and only one house was on the stage route from Union to Madison. Union was the only settlement for many miles around at the time.
When the Cooks and Shurrums arrived at the place soon to be known as Cooksville, they initially lived in their wagons and in tents. Then, before winter set in, the Cook brothers built themselves a log cabin—the first house in Cooksville—to shelter the family. They probably built a log barn as well as to shelter their animals; sometimes barns for the animals were built first. The log house was about 14 feet square without floors or doors or windows, probably with a crude earthen and stone fireplace on a dirt floor; a split log floor was typically added later.
When the census taker counted noses at John Cook’s residence in 1840, his family consisted of himself, a bachelor; his younger brother Daniel Cook (born February 27, 1818), the latter’s wife, nee Elizabeth Shurrum, and their young daughter, Rhoda, aged 2. Apparently, John Cook married his wife, Nancy Ann, sometime after 1840. Little, in fact, is known about either John Cook or Daniel Cook.
In 1842, after two years, John Cook must have felt that the growing westward movement of people in America justified an effort to establish a more permanent settlement. To cash in on that westward migration of Americans (and immigrants from the British Isles), in 1842 Cook platted three blocks of a village he named “Cooksville” on the western side of the half-section line from the Badfish Creek on the north to “Union Road” (now State Highway 59) on the south, with the eastern limit being “Main Street” (now State Highway 138).
(Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts owned the land to the east, adjacent to Cook, and in four years Webster’s land, sold to John Porter, would be the site of a second village immediately joined to the Cook brothers, named the Village of Waucoma, which Porter platted in 1846.)
Cook’s 1842 plat included three blocks of six lots each, all on the west side of his Main Street. At the north end of Cook’s village was Block 1, bounded by Front Street on the north, Mill Street on the west, and Spring Street on the south. Block 2 was south of Spring Street, and Block 3 extended south to the road to Union.
In the same year,1842, Cook built a sawmill just north of his new village on the swift-running creek, with a dam and a pond. The Cooksville Mill, a significant addition to the fledgling frontier community, signaled that Cooks’ eponymously named village was firmly on the map, geared up for business, and ready to saw lumber. The industrial age had arrived, on a small scale, and the new village had great expectations of success.
The year 1842 also saw the first church organized in Cooksville: the Free Will Baptist church, with about 15 members. Meetings were held in John Cook’s log cabin and, later, in the sawmill and then, probably, in his new residence. The pastor was Elder Low, who preached without a salary.
Governmental units were also getting organized. The Town of Union was formally organized in 1842 and initially consisted of what are now the towns of Union, Porter, and the northern halves of Magnolia and Center townships. In 1847, the Town of Porter was created separately.
The Cook families did not remain in Cooksville very long. By 1852, Daniel and his family had moved further west to Iowa, and the same may have been true for John and his family.
Other settlers soon followed to Cooksville and to Wisconsin, and the state’s population jumped dramatically from about 3,000 in 1830 to 11,683 in 1836, and to 305,391 in 1850. One by one, family by family, settlers arrived, lured by the inexpensive land and by great expectations. They, too, lived in their wagons and in tents, or crude shelters, quickly constructing small log cabins, staking out their land-holdings, beginning their new lives among the oak-openings on the prairie.
In Cooksville, the fertile soil and the clear-flowing creek, which the Indians had named Waucoma and later became known as the Bad Fish, provided a relatively comfortable, sustainable, and potentially profitable setting for these early pioneers. And logs cabins quickly gave way to solid oak-framed houses, thanks to the early operating saw-mill, and to sturdy brick houses, thanks to the vermilion-colored clay that ran through Cooksville.
It’s interesting to note that other villages were planned for the area near Cooksville. These “paper cities” were usually planned and laid out on paper by speculators and entrepreneurs who hoped to sell individual plots of land to prospective pioneers back East. New waves of settlers were heading West to the Wisconsin Territory as the U.S. government began selling the newly-surveyed land. And money was to be made, they hoped.
Several of these “paper cities” were plotted in the vicinity of Cooksville. But these “imaginary villages” were soon-to-be-forgotten places. For instance, northwest of Cooksville on the present border of Rock Country and Dane County, along the Badfish Creek, the village of “Van Buren” was laid out on December 13, 1836, platted into 61 blocks. By 1843 it had disappeared without a trace into farmland.
Nearby, to the southeast, “Saratoga” was platted on January 6, 1837, with 36 blocks around Caledonia Spring. Apparently, only one sale of land was made. “Carramana,” named for a Winnebago chief of that name and translated as “The Walking Turtle,” was planned near Fulton, at the junction of the Rock and Yahara rivers, and was laid out in early 1836, consisting of about 50 blocks, but it, too, never materialized.
“Warsaw,” just south of Edgerton, with 24 blocks, was platted on September 21, 1836, and disappeared about a year later. “Wisconsin City,” another early, ambitious (containing over 200 blocks) but failed attempt, was to be located just west of Janesville. None of these “paper cities” succeeded in attracting permanent settlers.
Eventually, new villages and cities would be established to the east, west and north of Cooksville, but the little, well-preserved Village of Cooksville established in 1842—“the town that time forgot”— survives as the first historic village in northwestern Rock County.
[Excerpt from “The Village of Cooksville: A Chronicle of the Town that Time Forgot,” by Larry Reed.]