Formally organized groups and clubs abounded in 19th century America, even in the Village of Cooksville. These organizations provided entertainment, amusement and sometimes intellectual stimulation for the residents in this small, isolated village by-passed by the railroad — “the town that time forgot.”
|Wilder Newell, c.1880, farmer|
The Cooksville Debating Society spoke out on a number of subjects. For instance, on February 27, 1860, the debate at the schoolhouse by six local men was on the subject, “Secret Organizations are contrary to the spirit of Free Government,” which was decided in the negative. Another debate on March 5, 1860, was on the subject, “Woman’s Rights should be identical with Man’s”; six men and women debated, but the records do not indicate which side prevailed. The debate still goes on in some circles.
|Dinner party: Margaret Rice, daughter and dressmaker, Anna Belle, and friends, c.1890|
On February 16, 1864, the Stoughton Reporter announced, “The young ladies of Cooksville have a ‘Grand Leap Year Party’ [planned] at the Masonic Hall in that place, Friday evening. The tickets read ‘yourself and gentleman are respectfully invited.’ Room managers, Ellen Galt, Stella Savage, Melvina Howard, and Electa Johnson. Music by Love’s Band. Tickets 25ȼ.”
The Masonic Hall above the General Store was the scene of many such social gatherings, as was the Schoolhouse and the new Cooksville Congregational Church and its basement. Van Vleck’s Hall (the Opera House) on the second floor of the meat market was another venue for certain events, but the record of its use is sparse, except for the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Troupe—which was performing there when the Opera House burned down in 1893.
|Fred Miller, farmer, Evansville hotel owner, c.1895|
The Cooksville Dramatic Club was a very active cultural institution. Its first productions, presented at the schoolhouse on Saturday evening, January 25, 1873, were “Miriam’s Crime,” a “glowing comedy,” and “The Irish Tutor,” a “laughable farce,” according to the handbill. Performances began promptly at “7½” and admission was 15 cents, 10 cents for children. So well-received were the plays that the Club had new “scenery painted in Evansville, which will aid in rendering their life-like plays more real still,” and took the productions on the road to Eagle School (Porter Township), and to Stoughton and Fulton. “Down by the Sea” was performed at the Cooksville Congregational Church in 1882, at which “Anderson’s Band will furnish the orchestra music and also for a dance which is to follow at Masonic Hall,” all this after an oyster supper in the church basement. The newspaper reported that the event and “social hop” dance raised “over 60 dollars… towards the church debt.” Other plays performed were “The Irish Tutor,” “Lost in London” and “Nevada, or the Lost Mine,” which were taken on the road to Stoughton, Brooklyn and the Stebbensville Church. A very busy group of local thespians.
|Myrtle Dow, actress, Buenos Aires, London, c.1895|
In early 1881, the Cooksville Glee Club gave an entertainment in the new Congregational Church that consisted of “a concert of vocal and instrumental music to conclude with that inimitable play ‘Cool as a Cucumber!’” Later in 1881, the Glee Club, assisted by Porter’s Orchestra Band, presented another concert which concluded “with that mirth-provoking play: “Who is Who? or, All in the Fog.” Most of the funds raised by the ticket sales went to pay for the furnishing in the new church built in 1879, the first and only religious structure in the village for almost 20 years.
The Jolly Club of Cooksville (about which little is known, unfortunately) gave “a rousing New Year’s Party at the Masonic Hall” in early 1886, with about thirty couples in attendance at its first dance. The Evansville newspaper reported it was “a very pleasant party” and also announced that there would be another dance party in February at the Hall and that “arrangements are in progress for the laying of a new canvass so the ladies can wear their Cinderella slippers. Music by the Albion Band, four pieces.” (Rough wooden floorboards with splinters may have been a problem for the dancers.)
|Avis, teacher, and brother Paul Savage, farmer, c.1900|
In November 1893, the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Troupe arrived in Cooksville for a three-week stay at the Cooksville Opera House, otherwise known as Van Vleck’s Hall, located on the second floor above Van Patten’s and Newkirk’s meat market on the corner of Main and Dane streets. Led by Dr. Red Wolf, the Medicine Troupe performed a series of lectures and entertainments, with “a crowd of small boys are on hand every time,” according to the Evansville Enterprise newspaper. Dr. Red Wolf had a large display of “old and rare coins, medicines, paraphernalia, etc.” as well as musical instruments used by himself and his two assistants. Unfortunately, a fire broke out on December 5, 1893, and the Cooksville Opera House and Meat Market burned to the ground. Not one article of Dr, Red Wolf’s paraphernalia was rescued from the devastating fire.
|Joseph B. Porter, farmer, c.1884|
Beginning in 1901 and for fifty years, Old Settlers Reunions were formally organized and took place on the Public Square in June of every year, weather permitting. (Previously in the late 19th century “Pioneer Reunions” had taken place now and then.) In addition to the picnic food—“tables decorated with choice flowers and fruits, and loaded with the most delectable achievements of the culinary art” —the Old Settlers Reunions featured entertainments with fond reminiscences shared by the descendents of the old pioneers and with 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 was an important element in the festivities. Jack Robertson provided his award-winning fiddle music as well as tricks with his violin in the 1930s; 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.” By the 1950s, the descendents of the 19th century pioneer settlers had mostly marched on to other locales, and the Reunions ceased.
Later, in the mid-20th century, the Cooksville Mothers’ Club and the Cooksville Community Center continued the tradition of providing the village with social events, educational programs, and organized activities, in the old Schoolhouse and in the old Congregational Church, as well as in the Cooksville Lutheran Church, which had been constructed in 1897.
|Anna Graves, teacher, c.1888|
All in all, the Cooksville community embraced their pleasures, enjoyed their leisure, and had a good time. In fact, in 1885 the Evansville Enterprise newspaper concluded that, “The Cooksville people seem to enjoy themselves about the best of any community we know…they have had some delightful gatherings where all joined together as one family without any jealousies or hard feelings, and no scandals or brawls have their starting place there. As a progressive, literary, talented people we think they are above the average.”
[These bits of Cooksville life and history—and many more— are found in the diaries, written memoires, newspaper clippings, letters, personal interviews and stories told to me, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.]