Saturday, May 30, 2015

Cooksville’s Artists, Artisans, and Craftsmen: 1846 – 2015, Part One, by Larry Reed

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.}

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Bridge Never Used: The Caledonia Springs Railroad Bridge Near Cooksville, by Larry Reed

Caledonia Springs Railroad Bridge, painting by Dorothy Kramer c.1950
As is well-known, the railroad never came to the historic Village of Cooksville. The “town that time forgot” was forgotten because a railway builder’s plans went bust.

This all happened—or, actually, didn’t happen— back in about 1857.

But there is a remnant near Cooksville dating from the 1850s when a railroad company did plan to come through the village: a small stone railroad bridge.  But plans went astray.

Caledonia Springs Railroad Bridge 1948, with Marvin Raney
The remnant (an archeological ruin, really) is the “Caledonia Springs Railroad Bridge” hidden in the wild, over-grown woods near dozens of equally hidden, bubbling “Caledonia Springs.” The old stone bridge, or culvert, arching over a small creek was constructed about 160 years ago as part of the plans to lay tracks through Cooksville on the way to Madison from Janesville.

On a recent spring day, a successful excursion led by the Makoutz family—Josh and Jill and their three young children, Ruby, Dylan and one-and-a-half-year-old Sawyer, carried by Dad—with pathfinder Josh in the lead hiked next to cornfields and through woods, brambles, and years of overgrowth to view the old stone bridge and the quiet burbling springs.

The bridge with Jill, Dylan, Josh and Sawyer, today
The Makoutz family lives near Cooksville on Caledonia Road in the handsome historic McCarthy stone house. When not guiding someone to the ruined stone bridge, Jill and Josh operate Bradbury’s, a highly-praised coffee house in Madison that specializes in delicious crepes, located at 127 N. Hamilton St., just off the Capitol Square.

Jill and Josh kindly offered to lead the way to this hidden historic site and natural springs south of Caledonia Road in the Town of Porter, not far from Cooksville. They’d hiked into the ravines several times before.
Town of Porter 1858 map with the proposed railroad

Not many details are known about the history of the small Caledonia Springs railroad bridge. Who hauled those huge stones there? And who laid them up like an ancient Roman archway, and why didn’t the planned railway ever cross it?

Many railroad companies had quickly formed in southern Wisconsin in the mid-19th century (and some had quickly failed), and this new transportation technology was heavily invested in by local landowners and others. Successful railroad lines brought progress and profits, of course, and multiple train routes were planned to connect Milwaukee and Chicago with points north and west.

The company that planned to diagonally cross the Town of Porter was the Chicago, St. Paul and Fond du Lac Railroad, coming northwestward from Janesville, which it had reached in 1855.

Preliminary plans and surveys were conducted to continue the route from Janesville through the Town of Porter crossing the Caledonia Springs area, then traveling through Joseph K. P. Porter’s farm just east of Cooksville (or “Waucoma” as it was then known) and crossing the Badfish Creek at that point.

Thus the stone bridge was constructed at the Caledonia Springs creek in anticipation of that route to Madison.

Had that route been laid with railroad tracks, Cooksville (and Waucoma) would no doubt have grown and expanded eastward toward the tracks and the small village would have grown. And it might not be what it is today: a historic “wee bit of New England in Wisconsin.”

But the train did not arrive. Instead, the financial Panic of 1857 happened. A general national economic downturn bankrupted many of the ambitious and under-funded railroad companies and many plans were abandoned. In 1859, when the economy recovered, the newly-formed railroad company changed its plans to reach Madison. Instead it built tracks from Janesville northward to Minnesota Junction near Fond du Lac, joining lines from Milwaukee that headed toward Minnesota. And eventually, of course, other railroads were built through nearby Stoughton and Evansville.

The bridge over Caledonia Springs today
The little arched Caledonia Springs Railroad Bridge built to serve as a culvert over the creek never supported any railroad tracks. But much of it still stands hidden away arching over a ravine, some of it collapsed into the creek formed by the many local springs whose waters flow northward to the Badfish Creek and then three rivers later into the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s a bit of a hike from Caledonia Road to the bridge site but worth the effort, especially if iced tea and wild black raspberry scones await the hikers at Jill and Josh’s handsome stone house after a traipse through the nearby woods and fields on a sunny spring day.