Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Cooksville’s Artists and Artisans, Part Three: Benjamin Hoxie and Jack Robertson, by Larry Reed

These two men— Benjamin Hoxie and Jack Robinson—one an architect-carpenter, the other a blacksmith-musician— lived and worked in the same house and the same shop in Cooksville but at different times and in different occupations. Their artistic contributions to life in the village, like the other local artists, artisans and crafts persons, added to the special cultural life and history of the small community.
Benjamin Hoxie, c.1880s

Benjamin Hoxie (1827-1901)

Benjamin Hoxie, a self-taught architect, carpenter, and avid horticulturist, came to Cooksville in 1846 from Maine with his family. In1851, Hoxie married and began the design and construction of his Cooksville-brick Gothic Revival style home, which was completed in 1852. He constructed a workshop just to the north, which he used to make furniture. (Later the little shop was used as a Broom Factory and then as a Blacksmith Shop by Jack Robertson.)

Hoxie quickly became a very active, talented, important architect-designer and builder-carpenter of a number of houses and structures in Cooksville, including the Hoxie House (1852), an expansion of the General Store for the Masonic Lodge (1864), the Cooksville Cheese factory (1875), and the Cooksville Congregational Church (1879). He also built residences, churches and public buildings elsewhere in the area, including Albany and Evansville, and was a maker of bee hives, butter churns, and furniture. 

Hoxie House, c.1920
In 1875, Hoxie designed, built and organized the Cooksville Cheese Factory as a business venture. He had long campaigned for grassland farming and promoted Wisconsin as a dairyland and eventually served as an officer in the State Horticultural Society. He was also an ardent prohibitionist.

He had an especially keen interest in agriculture and horticulture, and was the manager of the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society’s exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

Benjamin Hoxie’s brother, Isaac, also was a carpenter and businessman, and the brothers operated a Door and Sash Factory located north of Benjamin’s house. (It is now the archeological site of the important Van Vleck Implement Factory.) Their factory produced doors, windows, and shutters for the houses as well as other wooden items for new buildings in the area. Benjamin often lived in the communities where he supervised the design and construction of his many buildings (His brother Isaac became a newspaperman, founding the Evansville Review newspaper and eventually owning and publishing several other area newspapers.)

In 1884, Benjamin sold his property to Julius Savage and moved to his new house in Evansville. When he died in 1901, he was praised for “His influence in moulding the character of the communities in which he lived” and “through his efforts legislation was secured for Arbor Day in Wisconsin,” and praised for being “highly prized not only for his unusual skill in building, but he was a man of unusual talent in a literary line, always helping” various state and local organizations in their architectural, horticultural and agricultural efforts.  

The small shop on Hoxie’s property, under Savage’s new ownership, then became a Broom Factory. The “Broom Manufacturers of Cooksville,” as the Evansville Tribune newspaper called the enterprise, began making “the best brooms that can be made” and selling them “at wholesale as cheap as any this side of Chicago,” according to the newspaper.

By 1890, however, the broom business lost its bloom, and Savage’s Broom Factory was converted into a tin shop and then into a blacksmith shop in 1894, operated by the popular fiddle artist, John (“Jack”) G. Robertson, Jr., who bought the property in 1906.

John (“Jack”) Robertson (1858-1930)
Jack Robertson, c.1920

John Robertson was a famous character in the village. A blacksmith by trade, he operated the Robertson Blacksmith Shop in the former Broom Factory for about 40 years. But he was a black sheep by inclination, with troubles in his personal life. But he gained wide fame and popularity as a fiddler, winning fiddling contests around the countryside.

Jack, as he was popularly known, was a skillful fiddler renown throughout southern Wisconsin as a superb trick fiddler. At a fiddling contest in Fort Atkinson, Robertson won five prizes: a card table, a clock, a pair of woolen blankets, a flour bin and a two-dollar piece of bacon.  A week later, he won big at the Edgerton fiddlers’ contest: a mantel clock with candlesticks to match, a cut glass sugar bowl and creamer, cigar box, and a silk umbrella.  One area columnist wrote: “He ought to go into vaudeville, he can do more things with a violin than a Ford owner can do with a screw-driver… That boy can play a fiddle in bed with a quilt over him better than most of them.”

Many older people in the vicinity remembered Jack Robertson fondly as a man with a genial personality and exceptional musical talent. During his mature years he performed all over the southern part of the state with the fiddle held between his legs, over his head or behind his back or, apparently, with a blanket over his head, and with a willingness to perform at all occasions.

As someone wrote, “Jack was one of those personalities that journalists write profiles about and obituary writers love to memorialize.” He was married twice and apparently never refused a drink but probably should have.  In a 1925 article in a Stoughton newspaper he was called “a jack-of-all-trades, master fiddler and village blacksmith,” who played his fiddle at the many contests as well as at Cooksville’s Old Settlers’ Picnics and as head of the “Woodchuck Orchestra,” a regional dance band. He also shoed horses, repaired wagons, sharpened plows, forged wrought-iron weather vanes in the old blacksmith shop, and enjoyed “getting into his cups.”

Robertson Blacksmith Shop, c.1910
When Jack sold the Hoxie House property in 1926, he continued to live alone in the shop next door, which he operated until at the age of 72 when the “old time fiddler played his last tune” and the Cooksville “smithy” silenced the music with a small-gauge shotgun, committing suicide on May 21, 1930, in his room at the back of his blacksmith shop. His health had been failing and he had been despondent.

Jack Robertson’s suicide is recounted in the diary of Norman Kastler (who lived nearby in the Van Buren House) in an entry for May 21, 1930: “Just as we sat down for supper, at 6:45, Ken Olson & Francie Holm [age 12] came dashing in from Ralph’s [Ralph Warner], announcing that Jack Robertson, the blacksmith, had shot himself—suicide! Don [his brother]& I both went over; but Lloyd had succeeded in locating the county coroner, who arrived presently; so we left.  A most dreadful sight, in the dim old shop, lit by auto head & spot lights.” The prize-winning fiddler was dead.

In 1939, the Hoxie House and the Robertson Blacksmith Shop were purchased by Arthur and Dorothy Kramer. About 1953 the shop began serving as their pottery studio with a kiln, and the “tradition” of artisans living in the Hoxie House and working in the Shop continued. Unfortunately, the Shop (which apparently had been the seventh blacksmith shop to operate in Cooksville) was destroyed by fire in 1956.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

Cooksville Lutheran Church Fall Festival, “A Day in the Country,” Sept 13th

Members of the Cooksville Lutheran Church are busy preparing for their 20th annual Fall Festival on Sunday, September 13st, rain or shine. Guests are invited to begin the day with worship at 10:00 A.M., followed by a meal, live music and entertainment.

A meal will be served from 11:30 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. Tickets for food will be sold in the Fellowship Room and outside the entrance to the Fellowship Room, weather permitting.

The meal includes a take-out or sit-down option. There will be three meal choices: pulled pork sandwich or vegetarian lasagna with baked potato and toppings, baked beans, coleslaw, dessert (including homemade pie) and beverage; or a kids meal with a hot dog and chips. Ice-cold sodas and bottled water will be for sale throughout the day.

Live music and circus entertainment will be offered from noon to 3 PM.

The Wayne Road Band, which includes some members of the Oak Park Band, will perform country and bluegrass music from 12 – 1:30 PM and 2:15 - 3 PM until the raffle begins.

A new addition to the Festival this year is the world famous clown Alfredo Trotellini from the Wild Rumpus Circus. He will entertain people of all ages, not just kids, between 1:30 – 2:15 PM. He will be the horn-juggling host for a lively and engaging performance of hilarious clowning with aerial artistry, fantastic stilt characters with mask theater and rapid fire juggling.

Visitors will be pleased to note the return of several popular activities for people of all age: yard games and a scavenger hunt, plus wagon rides through the village,  which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Larry Reed, the village historian, will point out historic and architecturally significant sites during the tour.

The Fall Flower Market Stand will be dazzling with gigantic mums in a variety of fall colors. The Bake Sale Booth will offer a variety of homemade baked goods, including fresh pies, Frozen Take and Bake Pies, and lefse. The Farmer’s Market will have fresh produce, jellies, pickles, and more for sale. Other favorite sites on the Church grounds, that you will want to visit, are the Silent Auction and Treasures, the Craft and Collectible Booth, and the Book Nook.

Raffle tickets can be purchased from Church members or the Cooksville Store in advance of the event or on the day of Fall Festival. The raffle will be at 3:30 P.M. Winners do not need to be present to win.

The grand raffle prize will be a queen-sized handcrafted quilt by Carl Povlick (now deceased) former owner of Naeset-Roe B & B in Stoughton and finished by Pat Foltz, member of Cooksville Lutheran Church. Other prizes include cash prizes and gift certificates from local businesses!

The Church is located at 11927 W. Church Street in the village of Cooksville, in northern Rock County, near the Cooksville Cemetery and the junction of State Roads 59 and 138. The Church is handicapped accessible and air-conditioned.