Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Early Buildings of Historic Cooksville - Part II, by Larry Reed

The Village of Cooksville had talented, self-trained craftsmen from the very beginning who designed and built its structures in the 1840s, 175 years ago. These included carpenters like John Fisher, masons like Charles Howard, and the self-trained architect and cabinet-maker Benjamin Hoxie and his brother Isaac Hoxie, as well as others who practiced their skillful building crafts in the earliest years of the village.

In short, talented men and women—as well as the raw materials— were at hand to build the new frontier village next to the spring-fed Badfish Creek.

Benjamin Hoxie (1827-1901)
 By 1842 the village had a saw mill on the creek and would soon have two brickyard operations and a thriving door and sash factory operated by Isaac Hoxie. The factory, powered by a horse walking in a circle, provided the energy to manufacture window frames, doors and blinds (shutters) for buildings and structures in the village and throughout Porter Township. Many of these original doors, windows and shutters remain in use. (The factory, which later became Wisconsin’s first producer of farm implements, was demolished in 1928.)
McCarthy House (1850)
Limestone from nearby hills was used not only for foundations but also, cut and dressed, stones were used for entire houses in the area. The results of the skillful stone masons were very impressive, as in the handsome McCarthy House (c.1850) built by expert Irish masons and still standing east of Cooksville near St. Michael’s Cemetery.  (The Stebbins House, another nearby stone house built in 1850 near Cooksville, was recently demolished.)
Richardson Grout House (c.1849)
A rare and unusual construction technique was used for another house. It was a re-invented form of concrete, called grout, made from lime, sand and gravel, and water, and was used to build the Richardson Grout House (1849) east of Cooksville. The poured grout created thick, solid, concrete walls. A number of examples of these unusual grout buildings are found in south central Wisconsin.

The basic framework for Cooksville’s early houses, both wood-framed clapboard houses and locally-fired brick houses, was post-and-beam or braced-frame construction.  Large hand-hewn oak beams and vertical posts fastened with wooden pegs were used for framing, and the mill-sawn joists, rafters, floorboards and clapboards were fastened with cut square-headed nails. (The lighter “balloon” frame construction technique would come later.)

The interiors of both the Greek and Gothic revival style homes featured oak and pine wood for trim and moldings, usually painted to hide the undesirable appearance of plain, raw lumber. Floors of very wide, random-width pine or oak boards were frequently painted as well.

In between many of the walls of the wood-framed houses was “brick nogging” which was soft Cooksville bricks that were not sufficiently baked to hold up to exterior weathering. The nogging was held in place with mortar and provided insulation and structural reinforcement. And made good use of soft, porous bricks.

Interior walls were plastered, sometimes using riven or split lath made from wide thin boards that were riven or stretched apart to hold the plaster; later, sawed wood lath was used.  Plain white-wash usually covered the walls, and at least one house had a decorative garland-and-swag design stenciled in paint on the walls near the ceiling. Soon affordable paint colors became available, as did colorful patterned wallpaper shipped in from the East via Chicago or Milwaukee. Sometimes dates appear carved into walls, or old newspapers were stuffed into cracks. A hand-drawn dove in an artful swirl of graphite was found on the plastered basement wall under wallpaper in the 1879 Congregational Church, and false-grained painting decorated the church’s upstairs interior pine doors. 

Other original mid-19th century elements remain in some buildings. Interior hardware such as cast-iron thumb-latches and hinges were used for doors, and wavy-glass, sometimes with bubbles, is seen in small–paned windows. Brick or stone cisterns for rain-water storage were discovered under some kitchen wings.
Erickson Barn (1914)
 One-horse village barns were immediately built next to almost every Cooksville dwelling for the horse and carriage and perhaps the cow. Other farm buildings—small barns, sheds, chicken coops, granaries, ice houses — were constructed, eventually including larger barns like the 1914 Erickson Barn when dairying became an important industry. Wells were dug for water, and when the cisterns ran dry in the winter, especially when snow was light, ice was hauled from the mill ponds to be melted and used as fresh water. Ice was also stored in ice-houses or cellars in straw to be used for cooling and making ice-cream in the summer. And, of course, outhouses or “necessary houses,” were built and moved about on the property and set onto new holes in the ground whenever “over-use” necessitated. 

Cooksville once contained as many as eight or more commercial and industrial buildings in the mid-to-late 1800s.  Besides the saw mill and the stagecoach inn, several mercantile stores, the door and sash factory and a small cheese factory were quickly added. Blacksmith shops sprang up in a number of different locations; at times as many as four were in operation. And, of course, a school—first of logs, then of brick and finally of wood construction—existed from the very beginning. By the late 19th century, two churches were added to the landscape. All were locally constructed using local designs, local labor and mostly local materials. Hardware was obtained from Eastern companies, if local blacksmiths could not hammer it out; some items like the Congregational Church’s stained glass windows were shipped in from Chicago.

As is well-known, Cooksville was by-passed by the railroad in the 1850s so growth slowed to a stop. By 1900 the village was slumbering quietly. Fires and some demolition eventually took their toll of most of the commercial structures as they were abandoned. But the early houses remain in the village, well- maintained and well-used, as do the two churches, the schoolhouse and the cheese factory, along with the public square, the village cemetery and a re-constructed blacksmith shop..

In 1973 and 1980, the state and federal governments officially recognized Cooksville’s special history and architecture by establishing and then expanding the Cooksville Historic District listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the second district to be so designated in Wisconsin. Other nearby historic houses associated with Cooksville were also listed in the National Register.
Michael Saternus (1936-1990)
 Successful preservation and rehabilitation efforts over recent decades by the owners with assistance from architects like Michael Saternus (1936-1990) and Michael Bolster have enabled people to experience, remember and celebrate the Village Cooksville, “the town that time forgot.”

[More information about historic Cooksville—and more photos— can be found in the new booklet “Historic Cooksville: A Guide” available at the Cooksville Country Store.]

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Early Buildings of Historic Cooksville – Part I, by Larry Reed

The early buildings of the Village of Cooksville, constructed  in the 1840s and 1850s by the first settlers, were study and serviceable with just enough architectural detail to define their simple styles and to distinguish them as works of genuine merit recognizable today, almost 175 years later.  Restoration and rehabilitation efforts during the past 50 years have helped reveal those significant characteristics.

The mid-19th century construction techniques and architectural designs were early American styles brought to the frontier from New England and New York, which in turn had come from the British Isles and Europe.  These building forms and styles were, of course, simplified and modified to meet the needs of the American frontier, including the Village of Cooksville established in the 1840s on the Wisconsin prairie in oak openings alongside the Badfish Creek.

The earliest style of village architecture, other than the utilitarian log cabin, was Greek Revival, a popular style inspired in America by Greece’s democratic revolution in the 1820s, which had created admiration for ancient Greek architecture with its columns and symmetrical formality. The style of Cooksville’s houses was a simplified “country” Greek Revival. Its distinctive symmetry and vaguely temple-like facades interpreted with flattened columns (pilasters), modest cornices and trim boards at the roof lines, and returned eaves and hooded doors and windows.  These elements are visible in the Van Vleck House, Newell House, Van Buren House and other early homes, which were invariably painted white to resemble the weathered bare-stones of ancient Greek temple ruins (but which actually originally had been painted very bright colors).
Van Vleck House, c. 1852

Van Buren House, c. 1848
The construction of Cooksville’s early residences and commercial buildings was simple, practical, and solid. Structurally they were post-and-beam or braced-frame construction with hand-hewn structural members and locally milled floor boards, trim, and exterior clapboards   Some houses were constructed of the famous locally-made Cooksville brick from the village’s two brickyards, with soft, sandy, light-colored mortar.

Cooksville bricks are a distinguishing feature of the architecture in the village and the area. The handsome vermilion-colored brick resulted from the local clay being baked for weeks with wood-burning fires, resulting in the special pink-orange color. One brickyard was located on the southern edge of the village operated by Hubbard Champney and later William Johnson, and the other was on the John Dow farm just west of the village.

Frequently, soft bricks that had not been suitably baked and hardened for exterior use were inserted as brick- nogging in the interior walls of some homes, for insulation and structural support.

Foundations were generally constructed of limestone cut from “quarry hill” north of Cooksville, and chimneys for the heating and cook stoves were made of Cooksville brick. (Only one original wood-burning fireplace was constructed inside a Cooksville home: it still functions in the Duncan House.)

Cooksville’s commercial buildings were most likely built in a “vernacular” style, which meant a simple local, functional design with few if any stylistic architectural details, such as the extant General Store. One exception was the village’s tavern and inn, Waucoma House, no longer standing. According to a simple sketch it was a Greek Revival building resembling other such stage-coach inns of that era. Like the residences, these commercial buildings were generally one or two-stories, well-proportioned, well-crafted, solid, simple and graceful. Unfortunately, most of the commercial buildings—the saw mill, the farm implement factory, the meat market, the “opera house,” Waucoma House, and several blacksmith shops—have been lost to fire or demolition. The existing General Store, Graves Blacksmith Shop, and the Cheese Factory represent three examples of functional commercial vernacular design, as do photographs of the lost buildings.

When the new Gothic Revival style of architecture became popular in America beginning in the mid- 19th century, replacing Greek Revival, it too appeared in Cooksville. Gothic design featured steeper roofs, pointed-arch windows and hoods, decorative sawn-work in barge-boards and trim (“gingerbread”) at the roof line or on porches. Some of these elements can be seen in the Longbourne and Isaac Porter houses. Again, this Gothic style was simplified by the local self-trained Cooksville designers and carpenters who may have consulted popular architectural books of the time, such as A.J. Downing’s The Architecture of Country Houses (1853).
Longbourne House, c. 1854

Late 19th century architectural styles also appeared in the village, here and there, in simplified form, such as Romanesque Revival, Queen Ann and other “picturesque” styles.  Some of these newer stylistic elements were incorporated in the design of the Cooksville Congregational Church (1879) and the Norwegian Lutheran Church (1897). They also influenced the exterior up-dating or “remodeling” of the exteriors of a few residences in the late 19th century as the village tried to keep up-to-date, architecturally. Such elements as projecting bay-windows, decorative brackets, and fish-scale shingles in the gables can be seen, and in several instances the remodeling engulfed the older existing Greek Revival building as “modernization” took place.
William Porter House, c. 1855 and c. 1890

As time went by, these architectural efforts of the pioneers gained greater appreciation by later generations of family members, new-comers, architectural historians, historic preservationists and visitors.
[To be continued.]