Sunday, May 6, 2018

Cooksville’s First Historic House Tour: 65 Years Ago

On a weekend in 1953, the Village of Cooksville conducted its first of many historic open-house and garden tours. And 1953’s was a bigger success than expected. 

During those two days, June 6 and 7, 1953, the crowds came for a chance to tour the historic village and visit some interiors of the historic 1840s and 1850s brick and clapboarded homes and to stroll through their flower gardens.  

The Village of Cooksville in Rock County was established in 1842 on land first sold by the U.S. government in 1837 to John and Daniel Cook. It was expanded in 1846 by a second larger village, named Waucoma, established next door. Waucoma was platted by Dr. John Porter who bought the land from the famous U.S. Senator Daniel Webster. Porter’s village featured a New England-style Public Square or Commons and locally-made vermilion-colored brick houses and locally-sawn clapboard houses from the 19th century. The two villages are now known collectively as Cooksville. 

By the 1950s, with no railroad to stimulate commercial growth, Cooksville had been resting, preserved, on its early architectural laurels of mid-19th-century Greek Revival and Gothic Revival styles of homes. Nick-named a “Wee Bit of New England in Wisconsin,” the village featured a General Store (now the state’s oldest), an early schoolhouse on the Commons, two early churches, two
blacksmith shops, an old cemetery, and many carefully-tended flower gardens.

Interest in the village had been growing in the 20th-century, thanks to Ralph Warner (1875-1941), who beginning about 1912 opened the door of his old home to visitors. He named his handsome Cooksville-brick Duncan House (built in 1848) the “House Next Door.” He had filled it with extensive and varied collections of antiques from the 18th and 19th centuries. And he also gave guests tours of his elaborate gardens.  
"House Next Door"  
Warner’s antiques and his old-fashioned setting—and his simple home-cooked meals that he served guests—were an unusual accomplishment at the time, which enticed more visitors to Cooksville. His enthusiastic “antiquarian” efforts attracted local, state and national attention .Eventually it was a bit more attention than Warner actually wanted. 

Several decades later, on June 6 and 7, 1953, the first, ambitious two-day, open-house tour of historic Cooksville took place sponsored by the Cooksville Mothers’ Club (a precursor of the present-day Cooksville Community Center organization). The event was to serve as a fund-raiser for the “mother-teacher association” of the Cooksville School, the village’s one-room schoolhouse built in 1886, and a popular location for community events then, as it is today. 

Attendance at the two-day 1953 village tour almost overwhelmed the organizers—and earned more money than expected. Over 1,300 visitors attended the tour—many more than the 200 or 300 that were expected. The organizers had to scramble after the first day, spending the night printing more 6-page tour booklets, mixing more punch, and baking more cookies for the bigger crowd anticipated on Sunday, the second day of the event.

For the 50-cent ticket price visitors received tours of five of Cooksville’s historic homes and gardens situated around the village’s historic Public Square. And refreshments were included in the ticket price. The homes and gardens open to the public were the Morgan House (1848) owned by Helen Naysmith, the Longbourne-Robertson House (1854) owned by Miles and Beth Armstrong, the Duncan House (1848) owned by Chester Holway, the Backenstoe-Howard House (1848) owned by C.S. Atwood, and the Benjamin Hoxie House (1852) owned by Arthur and Dorothy Kramer. 

One of the organizers, Chester Holway, whose house and garden were on the tour, wrote a story after the successful tour was completed. It was published in the national “Pathfinder, the Town Journal,” Washington, D.C., magazine the following year.    
“Our village of Cooksville in southern Wisconsin has fewer than one hundred persons, including small children and two neighboring farm families,” wrote Holway. “Yet on a weekend last June we entertained more than 1,300 visitors who came—some from as far as 125 miles—just to see our old homes and gardens. And they paid 50 cents for the pleasure… Although almost every house in Cooksville is curiously interesting for its age and architecture, five houses were chosen to be shown because they have been either kept in their original state or restored and because their furnishings are largely the same age as the houses…” 

Holway’s description continued: “At the door of the school, two of our college girls accepted the 50-cent payments for each person. To each they gave a yellow admission tag on a string and a six-page mimeographed booklet containing a map of the village (and) our historian’s account of village doings since Daniel Webster owned it, and biographies of the five houses that were open. It also pointed out our church, our beautiful cemetery, our fine general store, and urged all to take their time and savor our village atmosphere.” 

Holway wrote that after the unexpectedly large crowd on the first day, even more were expected on Sunday. “Mothers rushed off to their kitchens and after supper, started baking more cookies. Some were still watching their ovens after midnight… Sunday noon the cars started coming even earlier… visitors lined up in front of the schoolhouse a half-block long… It took the first comers almost two hours to reach the fifth and last house…” 

“That Sunday night, the Mothers’ Club was richer by $603. Expenses, including the guide booklets and the punch (cookies, signs, publicity materials were donated) totaled only $43, making the net profit for the school fund $560.” 

“In all our homes nothing was broken, nothing stolen, nothing marred…there was not a mark on the floors or rugs to show it.” 

Since that first village house tour in 1953, Cooksville has had a total of eight other open-house or garden tours over the years— in 1957, 1982, 1984, 1986, 1990, 1996, 2000, and 2005— all well-attended and profitable, with no litter or other problems encountered. In addition, many small-group, non-open-house walking tours have been arranged.

The Village of Cooksville’s early rural charm and its historic heritage, preserved over the years, continues to attract attention, as the “Town that Time Forgot.” And the community continues to share and celebrate its past with others.

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[The Cooksville Community Center, located in the historic Cooksville Schoolhouse, is available for special events, and small group tours of the village may be arranged. Contact Bill Zimmerman (608-628-8566) about renting the Community Center or Larry Reed (608-873-5066) about non-open-house, group walking tours.]