Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Stage Coach to Cooksville – Part 3 by Larry Reed

The arrival and departure of stagecoaches to and from Cooksville was an exciting and important event, probably the highlight of the day when the dusty stages pulled up in front of the Waucoma Inn on the corner.

All along the way, the stage driver would blow his horn to announce his arrival at each tavern and post office, warning folks to be ready for his quick stop, because the stages tried to run promptly on their scheduled times. The names of some of the drivers have come down to us: Nay Smith, Martin Saxie, Warren Briggs, Ed Lovejoy, Joshua Nichols, and Tommy Lee. Lee drove four white horses and about him it was said: “He was a good driver, but a hard one, and it was a bad day when he did not come in on time.”

The stagecoach vehicle itself had evolved from a wagon with benches and a light roof with leather curtains to an elegant egg-shaped body suspended on thick leather straps or metal spring-braces. The famous Concord, New Hampshire coach, which appeared about 1827, made the earlier models obsolete. The Concord, with side-doors and seats both inside and on top outside, was comfortably suspended on the axles and had the typical large rear wheels and smaller front wheels. It was used until the end of the century.

The exchange of mail was an important part of the stage lines service. The early cost of postage then was 14.5 cents (or more) per one-page letter—expensive for the time— and the postage was collected in cash from the recipient-addressee at the receiving end. Then in 1845, the official U.S. postage rate was set at 6.3 cents for a ½-ounce letter sent less than 500 miles and twice as much for more than 500 miles. In 1851, the rate was 5 cents for up to 3,000 miles and if prepaid was lowered to a flat 3 cents per ½ ounce for any destination.

Another stage coach line apparently served Cooksville for at least for a brief period of time, as stage lines competed for the travelers’ business in the growing southern portion of Wisconsin. An old handbill-poster promoting the “Eagle Lines” describes a daily line of coaches from Beloit to Helena (on the Wisconsin River near Spring Green) via Cooksville, Roxbury and Sauk City, with “H. Stebbins, Agent, Cooksville.” Passengers who desired “accommodations for river travel west to Prairie du Chien or Cassville” could make arrangements with “F. Pyre, Eagle Agent” in Helena. Although not much is known about this stage line, it probably did not flourish because some of the communities it served (e.g., Cooksville, Roxbury, Helena) did not themselves grow or flourish.

Letters, packages and shipments of goods, as well as the arrival and departure of passengers, made the appearance of the stagecoach an exciting and important event in the daily lives of the small and rather isolated frontier communities along the stage route.

However, the arrival of the “iron steed”— the railroad—in the late 1850s and 1860s would soon end the era of galloping horses pulling their stagecoaches. And Cooksville, without a railroad and eventually without a stagecoach line, had to rely on mail delivery by horseback from Union and later by horse-drawn mail coaches that traveled to the village from Evansville enroute to Edgerton. People often hitched rides on those mail wagons. But Cooksville, not served by the new and expanding railroads, was off the beaten path.

However, in fifty years there would be new “horseless carriages.”

[Excerpt from “The Village of Cooksville: A Chronicle of the Town that Time Forgot,” by Larry Reed]