Sunday, January 12, 2020

Cooksville Founded 180 Years Ago in 1840


The history of Cooksville began 180 years ago, on May 9, 1840, when its eponymous founder John Cook, from Ohio, first purchased 40 acres on America’s frontier in the new Wisconsin Territory (1836-1848).

Later, on June 22, 1840, records indicate he purchased an additional adjacent 120 acres, owning a total of 160 acres. The cost at the time was just $1.25 per acre.

Then, 180 years ago, John Cook with his brother, Daniel, and other fellow travelers set out for their new Wisconsin lands. Besides John and Daniel, the pioneering group included Daniel’s wife Elizabeth and daughter Rhoda; Mrs. Cook’s brother James Shurrum and his wife Hannah Courter; and Hannah’s sister Angeline Courter Johnson and her husband David Johnson and their three children.

The Cooks, Shurrums and Johnsons traveled in wagons, probably covered, and  pulled by yoked oxen, probably accompanied by a horse or two, probably with a cow or two, and no doubt with chickens. 

They were a typical family group migrating westward, traveling from Ohio to Wisconsin across prairies, over rivers, through oak openings and oak savannas, and typically following dirt trails made by government land surveyors, by soldiers, and by early traders and Native Americans.

Union Stagecoach Inn and Tavern built c.1837

On June 25, 1840, the families arrived at the growing village of Union in Rock County, the midway stagecoach stop between Janesville and Madison and the only village in the area. Union already had a stagecoach inn and tavern and was a jumping off place for new settlers at this point in Rock County.

According to a daughter of the Johnson’s, when the families arrived in Janesville, there were several houses and one general store, and only one house stood between Janesville and Union.  Besides the stagecoach inn and tavern, she observed only two houses in Union, which was the only settlement for many miles around,

Cook’s new lands lay three miles further to the east of Union. The Johnson family remained in Union, but the Cooks and the Shurrums traveled the three miles further east to Cook’s prairie land in the oak-openings along a fast-flowing, fish-filled creek. The creek originally was called “Waucoma” by the Native Americans, apparently named after an American Indian chief.  But the creek was soon re-named “Bad Fish” by surveyors and map-makers in the 1830s.

When the Cooks and Shurrums arrived at their destination that day in 1840, they initially resided in their wagons and tents. Most likely, before winter set in, they built themselves a log cabin—the first dwelling in Cooksville—to shelter the families and probably also built a log shelter for their animals (sometimes barns for the animals were built first). The log house was about 14 feet square without floors or doors or windows, probably with a crude earthen and stone fireplace on a dirt floor, with a split log floor typically added later.

Typical log cabin in the area

Reportedly, the families were bothered by howling prairie wolves and frequent deer foraging in their gardens.
 
Cooksville Saw Mill (1842-1910), painting by Leila Dow c.1900

The Cooks built a saw mill on the Bad Fish Creek in 1842, which provided sawn lumber for their new permanent house built in 1842, which featured hand-hewn beams and some hand-split or riven lath to hold the plaster on the interior walls. The Cook House remains standing as the oldest house in Cooksville.



Also in 1842, the Cooks officially platted three blocks of a village they named “Cooksville.”  Located on the edge of their quarter-section of land, Cooks’ village plat included three blocks of six lots each, all on the west side of what became  the village’s “Main Street,” now State Highway 138.

Cook House c.1910
Apparently, John Cook married his wife, Nancy Ann, sometime after 1840.  Little, in fact, is known about John and Daniel Cook and their families, or about the Shurrums. The Cooks did not stay long in Wisconsin. By 1850, the Cooks had all gone further west, to West Union, Iowa. 
Cook House as Van Wormer's Groceries, c.1920

Cook House c.1930s

Of course, other migrants soon followed, settling in the southern part of the Wisconsin Territory. In fact, the population of Wisconsin jumped dramatically from about 3,000 in 1830 to 11,683 in 1836, and then to 305,391 in 1850 after becoming a state in 1848.  One by one, family by family, the early settlers arrived, lured by inexpensive land and great expectations.

Several other villages were planned and “platted” nearby in the area. They were named “Saratoga,” “Carramana,” “Van Buren,” and “Warsaw”— but the speculators’ lands mostly went unsold and those “paper villages” went unsettled.

Cook House as The Red Door Antique Shop, c.1960

In 1849, John Cook sold his holdings and moved west to West Union, Iowa, never to return. His pioneering brother Daniel would follow him in a year. There they operated a general store as well as the first hotel in town.
Cook House 
The Cooks left behind a flourishing, growing and lively little Village of Cooksville, which continued to attract more settlers, reaching a total population of about 175 persons, even after the expanding railroads by-passed the village in the 1850s and ‘60s. And the Cooks also left behind a very nice accomplishment: their name on a village.
The historic Village of Cooksville was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, with the NRHP listing expanded in 1980. The Cook families would be pleased.

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