Sunday, December 9, 2012

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Chapel for Cooksville By Larry Reed

It’s a little-known fact that in 1934, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a chapel for Cooksville, which he named the “Memorial to the Soil Chapel.” The chapel was commissioned for the Gideon Newman family of Cooksville, one of the early families to settle in the village.

According to Wright, the small Prairie School style family chapel was to be a “Chapel Cast in Concrete” that was inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”
Wright’s Cooksville Chapel drawing

However, the project was never built, and its exact proposed location is unknown. The only existing evidence of the chapel is an exquisite prospective elevation and plan drawn by Wright, as well as several brief mentions of the project in the Madison Capital Times newspaper in 1934.

Wright’s plan for the Cooksville Chapel became better known in 1992 when it was featured on the cover of the catalogue for an exhibit in Milwaukee celebrating the 125th anniversary of Wright’s birth. The exhibit was titled, “The Wright State: Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin.”

Apparently, the chapel was designed for the side of a small hill, and, as a Milwaukee newspaper described it in 1992, “[The chapel] breaks from the brow of a hill—a smooth-walled, flat-roofed jewel of parallel lines. Molded from cast concrete, the building both accentuates and pays tribute to the land it embraces.”

On the only existing drawing of the chapel, Wright wrote a description of his design as a “Memorial to the tiller of the ground making the earth a feature of the monument or vice versa.” The plan is a Wrightian design, very horizontal, with very simple geometric shapes inside and out.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Unfortunately, not much more is known about the project. The proposed location near Cooksville is not known, nor is the story behind the Newman family’s commission known. And the reason it was not built is likewise unknown.

The family of Gideon Newman commissioned the chapel. But which family member(s) actually dealt with Frank Lloyd Wright is not known. And the “Gideon Newman family” was a large family that included two “Gideon Newman” members: one, the original pioneer settler of Cooksville and the second, his youngest son with the same name.

The elder Gideon Ellis Newman (1823-1911) and his family settled in Cooksville in 1850, where he lived in what is now the Cooksville Farmhouse Inn on the northwest corner of State Highways 59 and 138,. Newman was a prosperous farmer on land northwest of Cooksville and north of the Badfish Creek.

His youngest son, who may have instigated the project, was also named Gideon Ellis Newman (1860-1944). He attended the University of Wisconsin in the 1880s, taught at the Cooksville School, and owned the family farm for a while and was a lawyer in Nebraska, a banker in northern Wisconsin, and an operator of an orange grove for a time in Alabama. He also lived in Chicago, Dallas, Janesville, Evansville, and San Francisco, where he died.

This younger Gideon Newman may have known Frank Lloyd Wright at the University of Wisconsin, where both were in attendance in 1886, and Newman most likely knew of this famous architect by the 1930s. It seems very likely that he initiated the 1934 Wright commission for the family. (Of course it is possible another member of the “Gideon Newman” family—children or grandchildren—may have played a role in commissioning the design of the “Cooksville Chapel” for the pioneering “Gideon Newman family.”)

And it seems reasonable that the proposed location for the Cooksville chapel may have been on the old Newman farmland north of the village on the north side of the Badfish Creek.

Unfortunately, the “Memorial to the Soil Chapel,” was never built in or near Cooksville. It would have been a unique addition to the architecture and the history of “the Town that Time Forgot.”

A Wright-designed window

Monday, December 3, 2012


Cooksvillians found many ways to entertain themselves, according to newspaper clippings, diary entries and remembered anecdotes found in the Cooksville Archives.
Jack Robertson, award-winning fiddler, c. 1920
The Centennial of the U.S.A. in 1876 was celebrated in several ways. In Cooksville a 100-foot flag pole was erected on the Public Square with appropriate patriotic music, songs and speeches. Also, in 1876, as the Evansville Review reported, the people of Cooksville were “celebrating the 17th of June, in Mr. Dow’s beautiful grove, with some appropriate national jollification ….with a fine breeze, excellent music…They always have a good time over there.”

An “Apron and Necktie Supper” party in Cooksville scheduled for December 11, 1886, was announced in the Evansville Review by its Cooksville Correspondent: “The Good Templars [a temperance group] will give an Apron Sociable in the basement of the [Congregational] church Sat. Evening, Dec. 11th. Each lady will please make an apron leaving six inches unhemmed and a necktie of the same material as the apron. The neckties will be placed in envelopes and sold. Each gentleman is to finish hemming the apron like his necktie. Two prizes will be given, one to the best hemmer, and one to the poorest hemmer. Each lady will provide supper for two. Apron, necktie and supper all for twenty-five cents. It is astonishing how patiently and perseveringly the boys are practicing sewing in preparation for this event. There promises to be quite a strife for the best prize—and for aught your humble correspondent can tell, the prize may be the neatest little housekeeper in town, providing of course, that the winner is not already married, in which case a wig may be substituted.” (Two weeks later it was reported in the newspaper that, “The first prize at the Apron Social was a moustache cup, and a young fellow won it who hadn’t a sign of down on his lip!’)

In 1888, an unusual kind of party popular in Cooksville was reported in the Evansville Tribune of Feb. 4, 1888. Apparently, folks would burst into someone’s home, unannounced, to instigate a party. “They call ‘em surprise parties, one came to our house last Tuesday as we were gathered around our evening meal, with our favorite dish of raw onions and vinegar for desert (sic). We ‘riz right up’ and made them welcome, then we played all the kissing games from Copenhagen to ‘spat ‘em out’ and finished up with a good old fashioned codtillion (sic), while the good Deacon looked on and wished, alas, that he was young and could trip the ‘light fantastic toe’ its way home to the music of the ‘bells, bells, bells.’” Wild times in Cooksville, with this party probably at the home of one of the Danish Hansens. (Maybe you had to be there.)
Pony cart on the Square with the flag pole, c. 1900
The Cooksville Public Square was the scene of many community events, especially picnics. In 1889, a race track was constructed around the perimeter, “which when completed will be very handy for those who have horses to train.” Tickets to use the track could be purchased at the Post Office (in one of the Stores) or at the Broom Factory across Webster Street on the west side of the Square. And in the same year, according to this Evansville newspaper article, “there will be a base ball ground laid out and all league clubs including Evansville and Chicago will be invited to play on this ground.” The ball games on the Public Square brought the men and boys of the village together on Saturday afternoons. A 1900 photograph shows the Cooksville Cornhuskers baseball team posed for a group picture. And in the winter, “The boys had fine sport skating on the mill pond.”
The Cooksville Cornhuskers baseball team, 1900.
There was even a wrestling match in Cooksville reported in 1858: “The contest between Graves of Cooksville and Lane of Fond du Lac came off at Cooksville Tuesday—Graves won the stake of $100. Everything went off pleasantly.” In the late 1880s, the circus came to Cooksville—or, at least, it passed through the village. As a child, Lillian Graves remembered it: “Circuses would perform in Stoughton and then travel overland to Evansville by way of Cooksville. My father would get us up at 4 a.m. on circus day, and we would line up on Main Street to see the animals and circus wagons as they went by. The calliope would play in parade and horses, elephants and camels were led on foot with the wagon cages displaying the more ferocious beasts. It never occurred to us that we might attend a circus performance, and this brief glimpse of circus life was quiet sufficient. We would talk about it for days.” Another form of entertainment, occasionally presented at the Cooksville Schoolhouse for the children, was the ‘panorama show.” This was an early form of a “picture show” in which a series of scenes or pictures, sometimes of Civil War battles, that had been painted on large, rolled-up canvases were slowly unrolled in panoramic succession before the audience, like a moving mural. In 1886, the children eagerly watched the pictures unfold before their eyes, although the adults apparently were not so fascinated by this old-fashioned “class of entertainment.” “Play Day” was an exciting and eagerly-anticipated event for the Cooksville School children and for the kids from the other Town of Porter schools who came to the Public Square to compete in sports and other events, and those happy Days were fondly remembered long after all those one-room schools closed in the early 1960s. In the mid-20th century out-door movies arrived in Cooksville. In 2012, when the Cooksville General Store was being re-painted, it was reported that, “Jerry [Julseth] is enjoying watching the store being painted and now that they are painting the north side, he plans to go over and tell Mr. Imhoff [the painter] about how the Cooksville store showed movies on that side of the store on Saturday evenings in the summer. The village kids remember going into the store and getting pop corn and watching Roy Rogers and other cowboy movies which were projected on the side of the store. They would bring their blankets along and enjoy the show.” Life in old Cooksville also included its share of “fun” pranks that amused the village, or at least pleased the pranksters. One of the more “popular” and frequent pranks reported was the stealthy late-night opening of the gates on the mill pond, which lowered the water level and left the Cooksville mill inoperable and the miller unable to grind that day.
Making apple cider with Ralph Warner, 1917
Other pranks recorded included the Halloween-night tarring of Ralph Warner’s front stoop—sticky steps that may or may not have amused the owner. At another time, the rope was taken from the flagpole on the Public Square and stretched across the road and broken into pieces (either by horse-drawn carriages or Model-T Fords). And William Porter’s water pump got filled with sand, and Mr. Newell’s hay-mower mysteriously ended up on top of his blacksmith shop one night. “Who did it?” The answer given in the reports was often, “The Boys.” Asked one reporter, “Is it ‘The Boys’ that lower people’s woodpiles in the night?” Another prank—really, a turning of the tables on young Halloween pranksters who loved tipping over outhouses— was the moving of his out-house by Mr. Van Wormer himself, about three feet off its foundation and away from its hole-in-the-ground, so that the nighttime pranksters who approached the outhouse, no doubt to turn it over or steal it, had an unexpected and unpleasant “drop-in” down the hole— much to Mr. Van Wormer’s great delight, no doubt. In the 1890s, village boys played an elaborate prank on William and Marshall Ray. The Rays were two middle-aged bachelor brothers who lived on the Square and owned farmland outside the village, which they worked with a pair of mules. The ownership of mules was unusual at the time. The Rays brothers were well-liked and the local boys would often visit them. According to Lillian Graves’ reminiscences, one evening, village boys, including her two younger brothers, Wayne and Willie, “managed to get the two mules out of the barn and changed their colors from brown to white by administering liberal coats of whitewash. Then Wayne and another boy went to call on the Ray brothers who were sitting on their front porch. Two other young pranksters had been delegated to hitch up the mules and drive them by the Ray home. As they came into sight, one of the [Ray] brothers remarked with some surprise, ‘Other folks have mules as well as we.’ This simple yarn was repeated over and again in Cooksville, and almost became a folk legend.” Even Cooksville’s young pranksters helped to entertain the village.

[These bits of Cooksville life and history—and many more— are found in the diaries, memoires, newspaper clippings, letters, personal interviews and oral histories, all of which are contained in the Cooksville Archives. The Archives is available to interested persons. Donations of photographs, clippings, anecdotes, family histories, etc., are welcomed. Contact Larry Reed, (608) 873-5066 or email]