|Dorothy Kramer’s painting of Cooksville, 1955|
Since its beginning, the little Village of Cooksville has been the home to a number of talented local artists and crafts men and women, more than its small size would seem to indicate. During the past 175 years, musicians, painters, singers, potters, weavers, writers, designers, architects and performers flourished and enjoyed practicing their arts in the small community.
Nearby towns occasionally teased Cooksville for being such a culturally active little village—and maybe for being a bit self-satisfied— with its lending library, a young folk’s reading club, a dancing class, a drama club that toured its productions around the area, and an eagerness to sing, act, fiddle and generally entertain one and all. The Evansville newspaper praised the village, “that little cross road burg—Cooksville, where they don’t do things by the halves.”
Certainly, it required many talents to live, survive and thrive in the wilds of the Wisconsin frontier in the 1840s and later. And just as certain, creative talents were essential to make pioneer life enjoyable and fulfilling for individuals and the whole community. This no doubt was a challenge because the talents had to be home-grown (or brought from the East) with very few, if any, existing cultural experiences, opportunities or teachers of the arts.
As Senator Daniel Webster apparently said (maybe to his Massachusetts friend Dr. John Porter, a founder of Cooksville): “Where tillage begins, other arts follow.”
Out of the mists of history—and from crumbling newspaper clippings, remembered stories and anecdotes, and from various works of art — has come knowledge of these creative efforts of Cooksville’s artisans, enough to acknowledge their contributions over the years.
|Cooksville Dramatic Club broadsheet, 1873|
Musical, oratorical and dramatic performances showed off their talents and were frequent in the 19th century (without radio, movies, television and few traveling entertainers). Some products of their creative skills—paintings, pottery, weavings, writings— survive, fortunately, and have been handed down to the community via their families over the past two centuries.
Most of these creative Cooksville artists were self-taught amateurs, although some learned their skills later in the 19th century with the help of talented teachers in nearby schools of higher learning or at the feet of other artists who arrived in the area. These talented Cooksvillians were noted in newspaper articles and diaries of the time, and undoubtedly there were other additional skillful, self-taught creative persons whose works may yet be discovered and appreciated.
Past village artists include such Cooksvillians as Ann Eliza Bacon Porter, perhaps the earliest, and Benjamin Hoxie, Leila Dow, Ralph Lorenzo Warner, Jack Robertson, Helen Porter, Dorothy and Arthur Kramer, E. Marvin Raney, Chester P. Holway, Michael Saternus and John Wilde.
|Eliza Porter with daughter Helen, c.1848|
Ann Eliza Bacon Porter
One of the earliest local artists was Ann Eliza Bacon Porter (she preferred to use “Eliza”). She arrived in Cooksville in 1847, following her newly-wedded husband, Joseph, who had platted the Village of Waucoma in 1846 (next to Cooksville) and was managing the Porter lands for his uncle Dr. John Porter who remained in Massachusetts.
Eliza’s precious piano, shipped from the East, arrived shortly after she did. She is credited with bringing music and dramatic oratory to the frontier village, among other accomplishments. She played the piano for the many guests she entertained in her home on the farm east of Cooksville and sang solos and with local groups with great frequency. Eliza’s piano was a great luxury on the frontier, of course, although soon a small portable melodeon (foot-powered organ) owned by Thomas Morgan served for church music at services in the village’s schoolhouse and elsewhere.
Eliza sang often. She sang at the close of the Town of Porter’s Civil War gathering in 1861 where the town formally resolved to defend the Union; she sang two patriotic songs on July 4, 1876, when Cooksville’s Centennial 100-foot flag pole was erected on the Public Square; and she seems to have sung at the drop of her bonnet not only in Cooksville but in many area communities and for many occasions, usually solo but also in choirs.
She was also a popular orator, reader and interpreter of literature and poetry, acting out all the parts. She also read religious works from the church pulpit, and she appears to have been an eager and much sought-after performance artist, referred to as an “elocutionist.” She also was a prolific writer of poems, reciting them in public, some of which have survived.
Eliza is credited with being the “moving spirit” behind a number of local musical productions, including the operettas “Pinafore” and “Laila.” She also gave piano lessons, not only to her children (her daughter Helen went on to become a professional piano teacher) but to other village children, who sometimes paid for their lessons with summer jobs on the Porter farm.
Eliza and Joseph Porter’s farmhouse, 1867
Mrs. Porter also was a tireless promoter of women’s rights. In 1880, according to a local newspaper, “Mrs. E.B. Porter, ever ready to say or do in word and work to promote and advance the cause of woman….presented (at a public Temperance meeting at the Church) a very forcible paper on ‘How can Woman best promote Temperance Work.’” Eliza also sat next to her husband in church services when she first joined him in Cooksville, which apparently dismayed some people.
Eliza was a tireless leader, supporter and participant in the community’s many cultural, social and political activities from her arrival in 1847 until her death in 1890. And she no doubt inspired many others to pursue, practice and enjoy the arts in Cooksville.
Stories of Ann Eliza Bacon Porter’s life in Cooksville, taken from her diary, can be found in the book, Choice Seeds in the Wilderness, by Lillian Russell Porter published in 1964, and can also be found in materials and photographs in the Cooksville Archives
[The first in a series of stories about Cooksville’s past artists and artisans.}