Palmer, the writer, gathers the bits and pieces of Cooksville’s past—the people, the events, the struggles, the successes, the failures—and tells the story of the Cook brothers arrival in 1840, the founding of the village of “Cooksville” in 1842. Then in 1846 came the arrival of Porter family members, founding their village called “Waucoma” right next door, with both villages along the Bad Fish Creek (so named by American land surveyors), otherwise known as “Waucoma Creek” (so named by Native Americans). Both villages would soon be located in the Town of Porter, so re-named in 1847 (previously named “Oak”) as Rock County got re-organized by the Territorial government.
Palmer praises the talented pioneers. Their accomplishments transformed the prairie landscape of oak-openings into hewn wood beams and converted the flowing creek waters into powered saws for lumber to build the sturdy Cooksville homes and barns. And the early settlers also shaped the local clay into kiln-fired bricks for beautiful vermilion-colored brick homes, designed by themselves in simplified Greek Revival and Gothic Revival styles of architecture. And, of course, the talented settlers became skilled farmers as they and their children plowed the rich soil and planted the grains, vegetables and fruits that grew so plentifully they could feed them to their animals as well as to their growing families.
“Benjamin Hoxie was an amazing man. Although he had little formal education, he was exceptionally well-read. By trade a carpenter and self-taught architect, he designed and built a number of Cooksville’s houses, among them his own, a striking example of American Gothic style. He also designed and built the Congregational Church in Cooksville, as well as numerous homes, schools and churches in Evansville, Albany, Stoughton, and Edgerton. Besides the building, which he did, Benjamin Hoxie established Cooksville’s first cheese factory, patented a bee hive, was a constant propagandist for dairy farming as the key to Wisconsin’s agricultural future, was a notable experimenter in horticulture, and has a considerable interest in spiritualism.”
|Cooksville Congregational Church (1879)|
Palmer writes about the consequences of towns without railroads, but adds:
“In Cooksville, however, although the blow might have been painful, it was by no means immediately fatal…. Cooksville’s population remained about the same. People were absorbed in the literary society, church activities, the Unity Society, the temperance organization, singing schools and elocution contests, and regular meetings of the Grange. In short, railroad or no railroad, Cooksville was too busy living to die.”
But the village did not thrive.
“By the late 1880’s, however, Cooksville was definitely on the wane. Many of the old Yankee settlers were dead. And their sons and daughters had left to follow the frontier to new land in the West. It was about this time that the first Norwegian Lutheran Church was established in 1892, and its lutefisk suppers became an attraction for the whole countryside. The industrious Norwegian element proved to be a bright strand in the closely knit village.”
The first Norwegian Lutheran Church, 1892-1896
Like most writers about Cooksville, Palmer introduces the famous Ralph Lorenzo Warner into her story:
“When Ralph Warner settled in Cooksville [in 1911] it was all but a ghost town… However, Ralph Warner had a certain instinct for old things… he began collecting furnishings of the correct period to go with his house [Duncan House, 1848]. His taste… made him one of the earliest and best antique collectors in a day when you could visit any farm house and buy a wagon load of ‘that old junk’ for three dollars….
"House Next Door" parlor
"Warner was, also, an extremely successful gardener… It didn’t take long for word of his artistic restoration to spread, and many who heard of it wanted to see The House Next Door for themselves… For over twenty years, until Ralph Warner suffered a stroke in the early 1930’s, Cooksville was a mecca for people who enjoyed beautiful things.
|Ralph's dining room|
"The influence Ralph Warner had on Cooksville was, and still is, far reaching. This forgotten hamlet remains unspoiled, largely because of the precedent he established. Even today, Cooksville lives on, unique, lovely, and secure in its quiet charm—the town that time forgot.”
Fifty-four years later, Virginia Palmer’s tale of Cooksville, with five photos and a map to guide her Wisconsin Tales and Trails readers, still serves those who seek a trail (or Hwy 59 or 138) to a special part of Wisconsin’s early history.
|Map of Cooksville, 1955, by Dorothy Kramer|
The Cooksville Historic District is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the State Register of Historic Places, and is a designated Town of Porter Historic District in Rock County.
Booklets for a self-guided tour of the historic village—“Historic Cooksville: A Guide”—are available at the historic Cooksville Country Store, the oldest operating General Store in Wisconsin.******
[The Cooksville Archives, maintained by the Historic Cooksville Trust, Inc., welcomes additions and donations. Larry Reed (608) 873-5066.]