Sunday, February 25, 2018

“Birds Flock Together in Cooksville ‘Suburb’”: A Newspaper Story From 1953

In the early1950s, probably1953, a newspaper reporter “rambling around Wisconsin,” most likely from the Milwaukee Journal, discovered the “birders” of Cooksville— the bird watchers. 

The reporter’s story, entitled “Birds Flock Together in Cooksville ‘Suburb,’” appears in an undated clipping filed in the Cooksville Archives. The writer, Richard S. Davis, describes some very serious bird-watching that was happening in and near Cooksville in the 1950s—a hobby that continued on through the years. 

The story focuses on the Porter family, especially Lyell (1896-1997) and Olga (1901-1986) Porter, who lived on the historic J.K.P. Porter farm next to Cooksville in Rock County. They and their family members were the main “birders” in the article. 

As the reporter wrote:

“This visit to Cooksville took only a few hours, but it should have run on and on. The  reporter, even now, should be sitting on the front porch of the Porters talking about birds, or beef cattle, or fence posts, or poetry, or something else truly important.

“The Porters, come to think of it, don’t actually live in Cooksville, but they might be called suburbanites. They live on a farm in the town of Porter, a beautiful farm that has been in the family ever since the grandfather, J.K.P. Porter, came along from the east [in 1846. ed.]…

 “The Porters are Lyle [actually spelled Lyell. ed.], and his good wife, Olga; his elder brother Joe; his daughter, Barbara, and his son, John… Their farm is the kind of a place a city man dreams about as he builds his castles in the air.

"Every member of the family is apparently a "birder," which means a person who can take one quick look and identify the flitting visitor...  Mrs. Porter brought out a notebook in the huddle on the porch and read off a list of other farm tenants as long as your arm. All the birds listed had been found to nest on the place. ....

“There seems to be no point in mentioning here the more common varieties, but you ought to be told that the following live in the quiet places of Rock County: The blue and the green heron, the American and the least bittern, the wood duck and his familiar cousins, the black billed cuckoo, the long eared owl and his uncles, the ruby throated hummingbird, the flicker, the yellow bellied sapsucker, the king bird, the crested flycatcher, the phoebe, the wood peewee, the least flycatcher, and the black capped chickadee. 
From "A Guide to Field Identification: Birds of North America," 1983

“Take a deep breath, because the list goes on: The white and red breasted nuthatch, the brown creeper, the short billed marsh wren, the catbird, the brown thrasher, the cedar waxwing, the migrant shrike, the red eyed and the yellow throated vireo, the orange sora rail, the killdeer, the woodcock, the upland plover, Wilson’s snipe, the spotted sandpiper, the black tern, the bobolink, the Baltimore oriole, the red wing and the yellow headed blackbird, the cardinal, the indigo bunting, the goldfinch, the red eyed towhee and the dickcissel.
From "Audubon Bird Guide: Eastern Land Birds," 1946
“[T]he reporter is frank enough to admit that he sat with his mouth agape as they discussed their intimate friends…. 

“Badfish creek, which rises near Oregon, Wis., and flows into the Yahara, crosses the Porter farm. As everyone should know, there is nothing like a creek to observe in its tuneful meanderings. The Porters, in addition, have a suspension bridge over their section of the Badfish and nothing could be more picturesque than that….. 

“It came time for lunch and everyone drove off a few miles to the roadside cafĂ© [in Cooksville. ed.] presided over by Mrs. Clara Ortman… Hamburgers and malted milks are Mrs. Ortman’s specialty. She offered this helpful piece of information: ‘Raw onions with hamburgers don’t seem to have quite the staying power that cooked onions do. People who are really thoughtful about others, I find, always order the uncooked kind….’ 

“The real Cooksville, your agent discovered, is only a handful of houses, but charm lives in every one of them. Marvin Raney shares the one with the biggest garden and he took delight in showing the place [the Duncan house. ed.] inside and out… At this time in June, Cooksville is radiant with lilacs, lupin (sic), iris, poppies, roses, daisies and peonies… 

“’I wish you were going to be here over the weekend,’ Raney said.  ‘That is when we’re holding our garden and house tour for the benefit of the Cooksville Mothers’ club. The club is the guardian angel of our school. The school has 28 pupils and Mrs. Helen Naysmith is the teacher. 

“’In addition to this house of ours, the tour will visit the homes of Mrs. Naysmith, M.T. Armstrong, C.S. Atwood and A.J. Kramer. [Note: the five historic homes were the Duncan, Morgan, Longbourne, Backenstoe-Howard, and Benjamin Hoxie houses. ed.] The charge is 50 cents a person…  Each visitor is to receive a booklet on the old houses and tea and cookies as well.’  

“It would have been wonderful to stay in Cooksville for the garden tour. There is nothing like a cooky (sic) to bring a man back to real values.”  

So the reporter ended his story.  It should be noted that the 1953 house tour was so well-attended that the cookies were depleted the first day and more had to baked Saturday night for the Sunday crowd of tourists. 
"In the Hand," painting by John Wilde, 1957

In the 1960s and 1970s, other “birders” appeared on the Cooksville scene. John and Shirley Wilde bought land near Lyell and Olga Porter’s farm, built a house, and joined the others as avid birders and annual bird-counters. John included many birds and bird-creatures in his “Wilde World” paintings.
"A Red-Breasted Nuthatch (Lady Bird Series)," painting by John Wilde, 1982
And soon Karl Wolter and Patrick Comfert began rehabilitating wounded birds or homeless feathered friends, among other creatures, at their Cooksville farm and aviary. Some of them, like a very tame and friendly blue jay and large black crow, visited Cooksville folks for handouts of peanuts and bits of meat, which they would eat or secrete in the trees or under fallen leaves. And more recently, Karl and Patrick provided new feathered visitors from their sanctuary-farm: peacocks and sand-hill cranes strolled elegantly and sometimes loudly through the village.  

Birds, large and small, some more easily recognized than others, still visit the historic Village of Cooksville and the nearby farmlands, restored prairies and the Badfish marshlands next to the little old community, where bird-feeders are kept very busy. 

*   *  
 [The Cooksville Archives and Collections provided the newspaper clippings, the 1953 house-tour information, and several bird-identification books. Larry Reed.]