Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Cooksville’s Historic Houses: Celebrating 170 Years Old in 2019

Several houses in and near the historic Village of Cooksville are turning 170 years old in 2019, along with one church building that celebrates its 140th anniversary.

Cooksville, established in 1842, had a building boom in the 1840s, thanks to the early settlers who were eager to build and who had available oak trees and lumber from an early sawmill, stones from a nearby quarry, and locally-made bricks baked in two brickyards. And they had especially skillful craftsmen and women among the early settlers. The results were handsome, well-designed, sturdy, long-lasting buildings in the village and on the nearby farms. (One home, the earliest, the Cook House, is 177 years old this year.)

These mid- 19th-century village structures—the houses, churches, school, barns and a store—now stand proudly in the Cooksville Historic District and on nearby farmsteads.

Historic Cooksville and nearby

Although exact construction dates for many of these early “country” Greek Revival-designed  houses are difficult to determine—no building permits or other such official documents existed at the time—but records of land purchases and lumber and brick purchases as well as letters and diaries of property owners allow construction dates (or  at least “circa’ dates) to be assigned.

Celebrating their 170th and 140th building-dates this year are the following:

John Seaver House

John Seaver House (c.1849).   A busy local carpenter and relative of the owner, John Fisher, probably built this l½ story, wood-frame, Greek Revival house for John Seaver, a farmer, the father of William “Frank” Seaver who was building his brick home on a nearby corner in the village. The Seavers had come from Chautauqua County, New York. The Seaver House has been restored in the 1980s, with a new addition to the south in the 1990s.

Morgan House

Morgan House (c.1849).  This 1½ story, clapboard, Greek Revival house with brick nogging between the studs was built by Thomas Morgan, a Welshman and a carpenter, whose brother-in-laws, Benjamin and Isaac Hoxie, both talented carpenters, may have contributed to the building of the house. Morgan lived here until 1905. The house was restored in the 1930s and 1940s with a fireplace in the dining room and a south side porch added.

Duncan House

Lovejoy-Duncan House (1848-49).  The Duncan House, also known as the “House Next Door,” was built about 1848 of local Cooksville vermilion brick in a simple Classic Revival style, reflecting both Federal and Greek Revival elements. The first occupant was Daniel Lovejoy, the village’s first merchant, who sold it to Henry Duncan from Vermont and the only local citizen who listed his occupation as “Private Gentleman.”  Duncan had four children at home and added the clapboard wing. Ralph Lorenzo Warner, a school teacher from Racine, bought the house in 1911 and spent the rest of his life furnishing the house with antiques,  creating gardens, serving meals to visitors, and attracting national attention to the house he had named the ”House Next Door.”

Smith House

Smith-Galt House (1848-49.)  The Smith House is a small wood-frame house with simple Greek Revival style detailing built by David N. Smith about 1848 next to the Cook House.  The house is also known as the Galt House and the “Byhring Brothers House” for Oscar and Carl Byhring, who lived there from about 1918 to 1959.  For 20 years, George and Eunice Mattakat used the house as an adjunct to their Red Door Antique Shop located next door in the Cook House. 

Richardson Grout House

Richardson Grout House (c.1849-50). This vernacular rural cottage east of Cooksville is an important example of grout construction, an early form of concrete material, and is the only grout house in Porter Township. It has a frame porch across the front and a frame saltbox to the rear. A central chimney separates the two main rooms. Scottish-born Alexander Richardson purchased the farm when the house was brand new. The land was deeded from Jonathon Roby to Richardson in December, 1849.

Cooksville Congregational Church, photo c.1910

Cooksville Congregational Church (1879). Built 140 years ago this year, it was the first church constructed in the village. The Congregationalists vowed that the church would be available to “all other Christian denominations and Christian ministers to hold meetings in, and the basement to be rent free for the regular meetings of the Good Templars and the Grange.”

The Church was constructed on the south edge of Cooksville on the corner of “Union Road,” and was designed by local resident, Benjamin Hoxie, “Architect and Builder.”  The little brown church quickly became the center of village life for religious gatherings and other community events. Later it served as the focus of government as the Porter Town Hall in the 1940s and 1950s. 

The Church is designed in a simple combination of Gothic Revival and Romanesque styles and features four tall minarets and a bell tower on the front façade, a round-arched entry with a large fanlight above the doors, and six round-arched windows on the sides and one above the altar. Benjamin Hoxie made the pews; McCully and Miles of Chicago created the windows; Frank Baker of Evansville provided the furnace that could burn either wood or coal.

The building served as a church from 1879 until 1939, although it was not used regularly from about 1910 on, because the early Congregational New England settlers had died or relocated further west. In March 1939, a memorial service was held for the church’s faithful caretaker and “last active supporter,” Susan Porter, who died that year.

It was then determined that ownership of the church property had passed to the Wisconsin Congregational Conference, which then sold it to the Town of Porter on September 15, 1939. The town altered the building (steeples and bell tower were removed, windows were replaced, pews disposed of, and a large opening for the town truck was cut into the basement wall), and the church became the Porter Town Hall.
The Church as Porter Town Hall, photo c.1950s

During World War II, young men gathered in the church-town hall to say farewell to friends before going off to war.  Local resident Eddie Julseth brewed strong coffee for the occasion, and the new recruits joked about how they’d now be able to stay wide awake through the entire war.  Later, a painted wooden sign was erected in front of the Town Hall to commemorate those men from the Town of Porter that were lost in America’s wars.

In the mid- 1960s, the Town Hall moved to the vacant Wilder School nearer to the center of the township, and the old church stood vacant until it was sold under a sealed bid process in March 1971.  The winning bidder was Michael J. Saternus, an architect whose active interest in the historic buildings of Cooksville had begun in the late 1960s and would continue until his death in 1990.

Michael Saternus at work on his Church, c.1976
Saternus designed the church’s restoration. He re-constructed the missing bell tower, minarets, and front porch, and an old bell replaced the missing original. The church was once again painted light brown with darker brown trim.  An original stained-glass window was discovered “hidden” between the walls above the altar, having been plastered over on the inside and covered over by clapboards on the exterior. (The other window panes had been replaced with clear glass.) 

Church interior with the Stoughton Chamber Singers

After Saternus’ death in 1990, his partner, Larry Reed, continued the restoration and rehabilitation project, completing the interior of the church in 1996. The interior was re-plastered, gray paint was removed from the woodwork, and old pews (dated 1875) were installed. The church once again became the scene of weddings, a baptism, a funeral, musical performances, and many curious visitors.
Cooksville Congregational Church
Other historic Cooksville buildings, from 1842, 1845 and 1848, have already celebrated their 170th anniversaries. Others will soon celebrate their early construction dates from the 1850s and later.

 [The Cooksville Archives and Collections contain information about the village’s heritage— its buildings, its people and its everyday life.]

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