Monday, May 22, 2017

Cooksville's Stagecoach Inn (1850-1910):
"Waucoma House" to "Hidden Prairie House"

The story of the Village of Cooksville’s stagecoach inn (and its demise) and the role it played in village life is a part of the long history of Cooksville, founded 175 years ago this year.

Cooksville's stagecoach inn and tavern called "Waucoma House," built about 1850, served as one of several stage stops on the route from Janesville to Madison. The undoubtedly impressive tavern-inn, about midway between the two bigger villages, once stood on the northeast corner of Main and Rock streets (now highways 59 and 138) and was a special hub of Cooksville activity.

Unfortunately, it no longer exists. Nor do any photographs or paintings except for a very simple pencil sketch done from someone’s memory in the mid-20th century. The “Tavern,” as it was usually referred to in the 19th century, was a 2 ½ story, clapboard-sided, frame building. No doubt it exhibited the period’s popular Greek Revival-style of architecture with symmetrical bays or window arrangements, returned eaves, and a columned and roofed front porch. Most likely Waucoma House resembled the other stagecoach inns and taverns of the era such as those in nearby Union, Delavan and Delafield.
Hawks Inn, Delafield
An 1858 map of Cooksville (and its joint village Waucoma) indicates that Waucoma House with its barn faced south on the corner property. Several newspaper clippings and anecdotal stories confirm its existence and the important economic and social role it played in the village.

Records reveal that on July 17, 1850, Nehemiah Parker bought the land (lots 1 and 2, block 2, Plat of Waucoma) for the tavern-inn for $60 from John Porter, the Village of Waucoma’s founder. Shortly thereafter the stagecoach inn was built, and the 1850 census listed J. M. Aldrich as “hotelkeeper” in Cooksville. In addition to Aldrich, Horace Love (1860) and David Johnson (1870) are also listed as innkeepers.

Union Tavern stagecoach inn
A printed handbill promoted the daily services of the Eagle Lines, one of the competing stagecoach companies of that time. Its route ran from Beloit to Cooksville and then eventually further northwest to Roxbury and Helena on the Wisconsin River, passing through a few other villages, like Madison.  The handbill assured the public that, “Passengers wishing to travel from Beloit to Sauk City will find this line not only the most expeditious but cheapest.”  It also stated that “those parties at Helena who desire accommodations for river travel west to Prairie du Chien or Cassville” could do so.  The Cooksville agent for the Eagle Lines was listed as “H. Stebbins, Agent, Cooksville.”      

The area’s early stagecoach companies traveled northwest from Janesville to Madison on the old “Territorial Road” (parts of which are now U.S. Highway 14 and Dane County Highway MM). Stops for mail and passengers were made at Leyden, Fellows Station, Ball Tavern, Union, Cooksville, and then in Dane County at Rutland, Rome Corners, Nine Springs and Madison.

When the route included Cooksville, the stagecoach unloaded and re-loaded in the village and then headed northward to the present Old Stage Road, where it galloped northwesterly to the Rutland stage stop and back onto the Territorial Road to Madison. (Wisconsin was a large Territory from 1836 to 1848, when it became a state with its present smaller boundaries.)

For several decades Waucoma House served as the area’s transportation center for delivery of mail, travelers, and goods, and as a restaurant-tavern and guest hotel and village social center. Besides the daily excitement of the arrival of mail and travelers and the latest news, the inn was the scene for village parties and special occasions, as well as serving as a guesthouse and restaurant.

However, by the1860s, stagecoaches ceased regular trips to Cooksville as well as to other places. Horses were rapidly replaced by the new technology of “iron horses”; the railroad’s steam engines had arrived.

Unfortunately, the Village of Cooksville (or, as it was often called on some maps, Waucoma) did not succeed in luring a railroad company to lay its tracks to the combined villages. But it tried. A local attempt at enticement was made by building a stone railroad bridge over the nearby Caledonia Springs for a proposed railroad route in 1857, but that effort failed. Apparently, the lure of what was probably a free bridge (and probably some local financial investments) was not a lucrative enough offer. Without a railroad, without that new mode of transportation, the need for an inn or a hotel (or for any large commercial building) disappeared.

From then on, Waucoma House struggled to serve its loyal local villagers and farmers. Mail did continue to arrive in Cooksville by horseback from Evansville, which had a rail line, and later by a small mail coach that could transport a few passengers as well on its daily or weekly mail delivery gallops to the village and then onward to Fulton and points east.

On November 20, 1867, the inn’s barn burned down. The blowing wind endangered Henry Duncan’s nearby barn as well as the houses of Hoxie and Wells to the east, as fire-brands flew through the air. But the small fires that erupted were doused by “an active force of women and boys,” it was reported. William Johnson, owner of the hotel’s barn, suffered a $500 loss, partially covered by insurance.

Waucoma House, the tavern, continued to carry on as a business venture.  In 1870, David Johnson, the owner of the hotel, was granted a license to sell “strong spirituous ardent or intoxicating liquors” for one year after depositing money with the Town treasurer. (The usual fermented drink was probably home-brewed cider or beer.)

A recent drawing of Waucoma House
At one point, Waucoma House served as a dancing school where classes were held every two weeks, taught by a Mr. Brown from Oregon. (Cooksville had many social parties, with games, sometimes with costumes and contests, and with music, so knowing how to trip the light fantastic was an important skill for many reasons.)

In 1881, a harness maker moved to Cooksville and opened a shop in the ex-hotel building. Business was good at first, and he “means to secure plenty of work,” stated a local newspaper. The next year, the Evansville Review newspaper reported in a letter from Cooksville that “the old tavern is sold, a stranger takes possession,” and in 1883, the newspaper reported, “The old hotel is empty again. The family that was in it, having moved to Jug Prairie last week.”

By 1885, the building had changed hands yet again. The Cooksville correspondent for the Evansville Review reported that a “family from England are going to occupy it. We hope sometime in the near future a new residence will be erected on the old site.” The building must have been deteriorating by then. In 1889, the newspaper reported that E. T. Stoneburner “bought the old tavern stand and is repairing it and improving the looks of the premises greatly. It has been in a dilapidated condition for a long time….” Stoneburner made it “his new home” with “a new fence and garden.” In 1894 he rented his house to a Miss Stetzer for a dressmaker’s shop.

Unfortunately, the old Waucoma House did not find a sustainable use and was demolished about 1910.

Sometime after the “Tavern” was torn down in the early 20th century, the paving stones laid to provide a “crossing to the old street near the Tavern” were removed by Ralph Warner, who used some of the smoothly-worn stones to construct his small parlor-garden pool at his famous “House Next Door,” the historic Duncan House just east of the demolished Waucoma House.

Although the old stagecoach inn was gone, another building soon took its place on that prominent corner of Cookeville, and its story is part of the history of the village, too.

In April 1913, the Evansville newspaper’s Cooksville correspondent reported that, “Jerry Armstrong has built a fine hen house on the site of the Old Tavern.” This new and smaller commercial building was first used by Oscar Egner as a meat market, then as a tavern, and eventually as a grocery store. In 1923, Franz Holm bought the land, but the records are quiet about its use in the 1920s and’30s.

The next time the new corner “hen house” comes up in records it had been lived in by Paul Savage (1875-1951) from 1940 to 1947. Savage had bought the house-tavern and in about 1947 it was moved to a site north of the Cooksville Cheese Factory (built 1875) on the western edge of Cooksville. The new site was the 10-acre “Morningstar Gardens” created in 1944 by Emil Priebe, Jr. of Milwaukee, where Savage was working as gardener and caretaker. Savage, a long-time resident and handyman in Cooksville, was given a life-lease on the acre with the house-tavern. The Gardens served as a retreat for Priebe from the big city.

In 1950, the ten-acre Morningstar Gardens property including the house-tavern was purchased from Priebe by C. S. (“Star”) Atwood and his wife Cora, who owned the Waucoma Lodge residence on the village’s Public Square. Savage continued to live in the newly-reroofed house-tavern residence until his death in January of 1951, when he succumbed to a heart attack in his outhouse.

In May of 1951, the ten acres were sold by the Atwoods to Chester Holway, a Cooksville resident, journalist and gardener, who with his partner E. Marvin Raney lived in the Duncan House. They re-named the garden property “Emfield” and used the old house-tavern mostly for storage, with their extensive flower gardens and fruit trees surrounding it.

In 1963, Holway sold the property to Karl Wolter, and the old house began its new and revitalized life. Dr. Wolter continued and expanded the tradition of planting the fertile soil with gardens—various specimens of trees, flowers and a large impressive prairie. He also remodeled and expanded the old house-tavern that historically was one-step-removed from being an edificial descendent of Cooksville’s mid-19th century stagecoach inn, the Waucoma House.

Eventually, Karl’s and Patrick Comfert’s horses roamed their “Hidden Prairie” farmland, but their horses were never called upon to pull a stagecoach into or out of Cooksville’s “Waucoma House.” stage stop.
  #   #   #
[Note: The original site of the Waucoma House inn and tavern remained vacant in Cooksville until 1976 when June and Carrol Wall, who had been living in the historic Isaac Hoxie House just to the north, built a new residence on the site. In 1980, the Cooksville Historic District was enlarged to include that property along with historic properties in that part of the old Village of Cooksville. Larry Reed]

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Cooksville Celebrates Arbor Day

More than 36 Cooksville area residents gathered together on April 30 at the Cooksville Community Center to celebratte the addition of three new trees on the Commons, to view eductional posters on arbor culture, and to discuss the plans the Cooksville Commons Conservation Committee has for this treasured space in 2017 and the future.
In his opening remarks for Cooksville's second Arbor Day celebration, Karl Wolter of Cooksville said it best:  "Today is the kind of day a tree loves -- cold, wet and cloudy."

Fosdal's Bakery created an oak leaf cake.
Village residents Meri Lau and Mark Verstegan created commemorative plaques for attendees to finish individually featuring a scene of the Cooksville Community Center (formerly schoolhouse) and the burr oaks.  White pine saplings were available to take home and plant, in keeping with the vision of Arbor Day founder J. Sterling Morton.
Emma Mallon and Meri Lau enjoying the festivities.

The Cooksville Commons Conservation Committee was formed in 2016 as we began plans for celebrating 175 years as a community.  The group has received a matched funds grant through the Wisconsin DNR Urban Forestry Program to help with a tree inventory and management plan for the wood lot on the Commons, as well as tree planting.  For questions about the committee, additional activities planned for the year, joining the group, volunteer opportunities and donations, contact Karl Wolter (873-6998, Mary Kohlman (882-5559) or Meri Lau, email