Monday, November 21, 2016

The Brickyards and Brick Houses of Historic Cooksville, by Larry Reed

"Waucoma Lodge," the Backenstoe-Howard House

The historic Village of Cooksville is well-known for a number of reasons—for being a “Wee Bit of New England in Wisconsin,” for  being the home-town of “John Savage the Best Dam Man in the World,” for having the Oldest General Store operating in Wisconsin—and,  to a lesser extent, as the site of the proposed Frank Lloyd Wright “Cooksville Chapel” (which was never built) and for the actress Sigourney Weaver’s suggestion that Cooksville  would be “a wonderful place for a Summer Little Theater” (which never happened, either).

But Cooksville is probably most famous for its early architecture— its historic homes, barns, churches, Store, Public Square and a one-room Schoolhouse—and especially for the many historic houses constructed of its distinctively-colored, locally-made brick.  

Wisconsin’s premier architectural historian Richard W.E. Perrin greatly admired Cooksville’s brick houses. He wrote that the brick houses were of “excellent vermilion color” and were “all treated with domestic feeling, individuality and simplicity not always evident in this period.” (Perrin also suggested that “Cooksville is the sort of unspoiled community that would lend itself admirably to a historic preservation project for which specimens from the surrounding area could be brought in to join with the existing structures in an open-air historic museum.” That didn’t happen at Cooksville, of course, but instead near Eagle, at what is now the large and impressive “Old World Wisconsin” outdoor museum.)

Cooksville in its hay-day (or perhaps its “clay-day”) had two very productive brickyards, thanks to the thick pink-orange clay that ran just beneath the surface of the village. It became the source for the distinctive vermilion brick used in the 1840s-1850s to construct the brick residences, the first schoolhouse, and for several nearby farmhouses.

Longbourne House
 One brickyard, operated by Hubbard Champney (1808-1879) from Maine and later by William Johnson, was located just south of the village across South Street (or now, Church Street), and remained in operation until about 1860. The Champney site has been farmland since 1875.

The second brick factory was located west of Cooksville, on the John Dow Farm between the farmhouse and the Badfish Creek. It was initially operated by Champney for a time, but like the earlier brickyard, it was abandoned by1865. That was when Mr. Dow and his farmhands filled in the old deep, dug-out brickyard holes with brush, weeds, and soil, and then scraped and plowed the site that summer. Shards of bricks can still be found at both brickyard locations.

Brick-making took time, about three months, to produce a batch of bricks. First, to dig and prepare the reddish clay, to mold the clay in the wooden molds, and to air-dry the bricks. Then the raw bricks were stacked in a circular tower inside a large kiln in the center of which was built a huge fire that was kept constantly burning for seven days and nights, or longer, to bake the bricks. The fired clay hardened into the distinctive pink-orange color; parts of some bricks closest to the fire were partially glazed and burned to a darker, glassy color. A total of about 24,000 bricks were produced at a time in each batch, enough for about a half a house

A modern Cooksville fireplace with old bricks
Some bricks did not bake hard enough to withstand weathering on the exterior of buildings.  But they were put to good use as “brick nogging” inside the walls of several of Cooksville’s wood-framed houses. These softer bricks, mortared together, served to insulate and solidify the wooden structures. Lath and plaster were applied on the inside walls and clapboards on the exterior. Some of these “soft” bricks discovered in the walls doing 20th-century rehabilitations have been replaced by modern insulation, and these under-baked bricks have been re-purposed to construct interior fireplaces in new additions.

Brick nogging in a wall
The village’s historic vermilion brick houses include the Duncan House (1848), the Longbourne House (1854), the Backenstoe-Howard House (1848), the Isaac Porter House (1856), the Chambers- Porter Cottage (1856), the Collins House (1856), and the Frank Seaver House (1850) Also, the first Schoolhouse was brick (replaced in 1886 with a wood-frame school,) and a village blacksmith shop, long-gone, was apparently constructed of local brick.  (The recently reconstructed Grave’s Blacksmith Shop from the 1880s was re-built using its original lighter cream-colored imported brick.)

Frank Seaver House
Just outside the village are three additional historic Cooksville brick houses: the Lovejoy-Dow House (1850), the Cooper-Gillies House (1850-53), and the Miller House (1853-56).

Talented local masons and brick-layers such as Charles Howard and Richard Houfe are credited with constructing these sturdy brick houses in and near the village.

The first settlers in Cooksville were multi-talented and versatile men and women—they had to be in these isolated first settlements. They knew how to use the raw materials—the clay, the limestone from quarry hill,  the tall trees for lumber, the water to power of the sawmill on the Badfish Creek—that were at hand to build their new frontier village in the 1840s and 1850s.

This brief period of brick construction played a major role in the development and character of Cooksville. The village, founded in 1842 by John and Daniel Cook and added to by John Porter’s next-door Village of Waucoma in 1846, owes its distinctive appearance to the excellent examples of early pioneer construction in Wisconsin, especially those featuring locally-made bricks. 

And as time went by, these early architectural efforts and construction techniques gained greater appreciation by succeeding generations of family members, new-comers, architectural historians, historic preservationists and visitors to historic Cooksville. Their pioneer work has stood the test of time.