In the beginning, 175 years ago, the new land in Middle America beckoned to settlers with waves of endless fertile prairies, undisturbed oak-openings, springs of clear water, and flowing creeks and rivers with Native American names. And it was good….
|Wisconsin in 1718|
The land of “Wild Rushing Waters”—called Meskonsin or Ouisconsin or Wiskonsan or, the final choice, Wisconsin— had finally become part of the United States. The nation had succeeded in acquiring, winning, and finagling it from the French, the British and then the Indians (although the latter remain as 12 nations within the state). The good news then, in 1787, was that anybody—French, English or otherwise—who wanted to remain in America’s new official Northwest Territory could and that, importantly, slavery was abolished within the Territory.
|U.S.A. map of 1783|
In the 1830s the American government began surveying its new lands west of Lake Michigan. Surveys divided the land into more counties, one of which became Rock County, previously part of Brown County and later part of Milwaukee County, named for a famous landmark rock near the river. And the counties were divided into townships and sections, which allowed the U.S. government to sell the land for the first time in 1837, a year after the Wisconsin Territory was established in 1836.
The buyers, mostly eager migrants or land speculators who lived elsewhere, out East in New England for instance, or overseas in the British Isles. Sometimes buyers were early trappers, entrepreneurs and “squatters” that had already “discovered” the land and made their “claims,” often associated with companies that had long pursued fur-trading and mineral-extraction.
|Wisconsin Territory in 1836|
The genesis of Cooksville was in 1837. That was the year that brothers John and Daniel Cook of Ohio purchased their portion of Wisconsin from the U.S. government for $1.25 an acre. The Cooks’ land, between the two new small settlements of Janesville and Madison, bordered on the fish-filled Waucoma Creek, later to be re-named the Badfish Creek, in the Town of Oak, later re-named the Town of Porter in 1847.
And it was a good choice. The Cook brothers and families arrived in oxen-drawn wagons in 1840, usually following Indian trails, to their fertile, well-watered, wood-filled land on the promising frontier of an expanding 59-year-old nation.
In the beginning, the new settlers used their wagons as shelters but quickly built rough log cabins and animal shelters. Thanks to an early saw mill on the Badfish Creek, lumber sawn from oak and other trees soon provided construction materials for houses and barns and the nearby limestone hills supplied blocks of stone for foundations as well as for a few early houses.
The Village of Cooksville was formally founded and drawn up by its eponymous founders in 1842, 175 years ago. The plat of their new little town on the prairie consisted of just three blocks divided into a number of lots for sale along its several platted streets. And the Cooks built the first house for themselves that same year of 1842, as well as that first saw mill on the creek.
And it was good. But there was no time to rest after these early efforts—except maybe on the seventh day when an itinerant Primitive Methodist preacher presided over church services in the saw mill—because Cooksville quickly began to grow.
|Waucoma plat map of 1846|
The settlement along the Badfish Creek quadrupled in size in 1846. That is when Dr. John Porter and his brother Dr. Isaac Porte of Massachusetts laid out their own new village across the street from the Cook brothers’ village. The new village was four-times as big as its neighbor and stretched eastward along the creek —which the Porters learned was called “Waucoma” by Native Americans and which became the genesis of the name the Porters gave to their new community: the Village of Waucoma. They hoped it would be a successful and lucrative speculative land development, as well as a new home.
For Waucoma the Porters created a “New England” style layout with a large Public Square in the middle for all to use and enjoy, with 14 blocks each usually with 14 building lots and wide streets and alleys. John Porter had purchased the land from U.S. Senator Daniel Webster, so a street was named in his honor: “Webster Street.” Soon two brickyards were producing tens of thousands of vermilion-colored clay bricks that would add handsome brick houses to the simple, graceful pioneer architecture of the village and nearby farms.
Both villages attracted eager settlers to the new fertile farmlands where hunting, fishing and wild fruits, along with their productive vegetable gardens, would sustain them. Of course, occasional imports of salt, tea, coffee, gun powder and oysters were obtained now and then from the growing settlements of Milwaukee and Chicago. More solid, well-constructed, handsome American homes rose on the prairie, usually designed like very simplified Greek temples, a foreign architectural style popular at the time. And soon several mercantile stores and blacksmith shops were built to serve the growing community of pioneers.
In the 1840s, the area was serviced by a stagecoach. At that time, only the little Village of Union existed on the stagecoach route between Mr. Jane’s village and President Madison’s eponymously-named settlement on the Four Lakes. Union provided the needed change of horses and a hotel at the halfway point between those two settlements until the new Village of Cooksville—then often called Waucoma—was established on the route, becoming a stagecoach stop for the growing area. Soon “Waucoma House,” a stagecoach stop, hotel and tavern for travelers was erected. From there, stages dashed from Cooksville up Old Stage Road to join the old Territorial Road, the first well-traveled route through Rock and Dane counties.
However, in the late 1850s when railroads traversed Rock County, replacing stagecoaches, Cooksville was bypassed. The village slumbered, but its sturdy, well-designed 1840s and 1850s buildings continued to shelter the old pioneers and their children, and then those children’s children. The peak population was about 175 during the Civil War era but its growth stopped and its population dwindled. Early maps often called the village “Waucoma,” although the name “Cooksville” would prevail, thanks to the Post Office housed in the old General Store in the Cooks’ village.
By the beginning of the 20th century some of the residences had become “summer homes” in the quiet old rural community. The saw mill, which became a grist mill, ground to a halt; the village’s second-floor “Opera House” above the local meat-market was lost to fire in 1893; Waucoma House hotel fell into disrepair; and the Farm Implement Factory, the first in Wisconsin, was torn down in 1928.
|"Cooksville 1938" by Dorothy Kramer|
|"Cooksville, 1955" by Dorothy Kramer|
Cooksville became the special little historic “town that time forgot.” In some respects, it is indeed a revelation that the village has survived and even thrived in its own unique way during those many years of quiet rural life in the 19th, 20th and 21st.centuries. Many other similar early settlements have disappeared or had their earliest beginnings vanquished by progress and new construction.
And now, in 2017, the Village of Cooksville, an officially-designated National, State and Local Historic District, is able to celebrate 175 years of existence, which is old for a Ouisconsin or a Wiskonsan or, finally, a Wisconsin village. (Governor James Doty urged spelling the Territory’s name “Wiskonsan” but was over-ruled by the government in 1845, so “Wisconsin” it is.)
And so “Cooksville”— as well as “Waucoma,” the legal name for many of its properties —remains an early Wisconsin pioneer village from 1842, a “wee bit of New England in Wisconsin.”
|"Cooksville Tour Map, 1984" by Mike Saternus|
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[The Cooksville Archives and Collections welcomes photographs and other documents related to the history of Cooksville and the Town of Porter. Contact Larry Reed for more information. (608) 873-5066.]