Friday, November 8, 2019

Life in Old Cooksville: Families and Friends

Lillian Graves Smith’s memories of life in the Village of Cooksville provide a window into the past. Lillian (1875- 1977) grew up in Cooksville, and later in life, thanks to her son, she recorded many fond memories—and some not so fond—of  life among those first settlers in the Cook brothers’ village  as well as next door in the Porters’ Village of Waucoma.

Here are a few of Lillian’s Vignettes,” in her own words, recorded in 1973, recalling those 19th-century pioneers and their families in an early Wisconsin settlement.

The Joseph Porters.  “The Porter families were such an institution in Cooksville that they can scarcely be ignored. I remember “Aunt” Eliza Porter [1821-1890, ed.] as a woman of great personal charm and undeniable talents.  She used to call upon my mother and they would discuss the latest in literature and the arts. 

"One remembers the large dining table in the Porter Homestead where the tables were extended cornerwise across the room in order to accommodate the many men who worked on the Porter Farms. As domestic help was plentiful, Aunt Eliza always had several “hired girls” in the kitchen and dining room. While the help consumed the hearty meals, Aunt Eliza would entertain them at the piano. 

"When daughter Helen Rebecca Porter Richardson was home, I would often go down and ask to play with baby Clara and wheel her around the yard. If any neighborhood children were around at meal time, they were always invited to stay and eat.

"Aunt Eliza," as we always called her, was also an elocutionist and would give readings at church or village gatherings. She was intensely dramatic, and the poems and sagas were usually accompanied by gestures as was the custom in those days. When she read from Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life” —the lines “Be not like dumb-driven cattle”—she would quickly drop to all fours on the floor, and as quickly straighten up with hand raised skyward on the following verse: “Be a hero in the strife!” Of course, this was a little much for the uninitiated who found it somewhat amusing, but as children, we were all duly impressed.”

William Porter
The William Porters. “William Porter [Joseph’s brother, ed.] lived across the street from the Congregational Church. In fact, he gave the land on which the church was built. I look back with some amusement regarding my father’s attitude to this location which he heartily disapproved. He did not want the church to be built down in Bill Porter’s sheep pen... For this reason and some others, he seldom if ever attended services.
William Porter House
“These Porters had four children: Susie, Phoebe, William and Frank. Susie never married and taught school in Racine for many years. She acquired the old Backenstoe home on the Square, and divided her summer vacation between Cooksville and the Maine Coast. The last time I saw her was at the Old Settlers Picnic many years ago. She was always a very charming person. 
Susan Porter
 "Phoebe died young from a tumor that grew to gargantuan proportions. This was sad when one realizes what modern surgery might have done for her. Frank Porter was always very popular with the Cooksville children, as any child who wished was free to go to the pasture and ride on Frank’s pony. In later years, Frank’s mind became affected and he was in and out of mental institutions. His sister Susie tried to look after him for a time, but finally had to have him institutionalized.”

The Isaac Porters.  “Isaac Porter [Joseph’s other brother, ed.] lived in the large brick house facing south on the north side of the Square. As a child, I thought that this was the most beautiful home I had ever seen, and only hoped that one day I might have one as fine as this. Isaac Porter was a gentleman of the old school. I do not remember his wife who died young leaving four children: John, Anna, Henry and Edward. Isaac was always kind to the children in Cooksville, and I recall that he once took Avis Savage and me to the Sunday School Picnic at Lake Kegonsa when we had no way to get there. He stayed around all day and saw us safely home.  
Isaac Porter
“Henry Porter married Ethel Van Vleck who lived close by on the Square…. For a time, Ethel and Henry lived in the old Isaac Porter home, but later purchased a farm a few miles southwest of Evansville. They had four children….John Porter married Carrie Evans and lived in Evansville. He was the Cashier of the Grange Store….Anna Porter married Sanford Soverhill and lived in Janesville…. Eddie Porter was a great favorite with the Cooksville children. He was never too busy, or in too much of a hurry to stop and pick up the youngsters in his wagon and give them short rides. He was a kind and generous young man, and we all mourned his early passing. He had taken his girl friend to a dance on perhaps the coldest night of the winter, and probably became thoroughly chilled riding in an open cutter. His was a lingering illness and during that time, his beard had been allowed to grow, and it was somewhat of a shock when we saw him for the last time in his casket.”       

The Ray Boys.  “Two middle-ages bachelors lived on the Square for a time and owned some farm land outside the village. They worked their farm with a pair of mules which made them somewhat unique. They were unique in some other respects also, as they became the butt of numerous practical jokes on the part of village boys. Actually, they were very decent men and considerate of their neighbors. The boys really liked them and would go over and visit with them in the evening. However, this did not preclude their pranks on those unsuspecting old bachelors.

“One night, the boys—my two younger brothers, Wayne and Willie included—managed to get the mules out of the barn and change their color from brown to white by administering liberal coats of whitewash. Then Wayne and another boy went out to call upon the Ray brothers who were sitting on their front porch. The other boys had been delegated to hitch up the mules and drive them by the Ray home. As they came in sight, one of the Ray brothers remarked with some surprise: “Other folks have mules as well as we.” This simple yarn was repeated over and again in Cooksville, and almost became a folk legend.”

Duncan House
Henry Duncan. “Mr. Duncan [1807-1892 ed.] lived in the “House Next Door”… I can vaguely recall him as a small child. He was totally blind in this last years, and in good weather, various neighbors would volunteer to take Mr. Duncan for a walk around the village so that he might have some exercise and fresh air. One day, my mother instructed my sister Harriet to go over and take “poor Mr. Duncan” for a walk. My sister Harriet complied at once, but during the walk, she allowed her mind to wander and inadvertently led him forthwith into a rather deep ditch. She managed to get the old gentleman back on his feet with no greater injury than perhaps to his pride, and her own deep chagrin.  She did not hear that last of that for some time and my mother scolded her unmercifully for her thoughtlessness. Harriet often related this incident in later years long after her chagrin had quite disappeared when she and other members of the family could get a good laugh out of it.”

Edward Gilley. “Edward Gilley [1811-1897, ed.] came to Porter Township from England in 1843…He owned a good farm just east of Cooksville. “Uncle” Edward, never having married, the property was left to nieces and nephews, none of whom cared for farming, and the place became somewhat run down in later years.

Edward Gilley
"Edward Gilley was quite an elderly man when I knew him, and badly crippled with rheumatism. However, he always managed to drive his horse and buggy to church for services. Avis Savage and I always watched him as he made his laborious way down the aisle to the front of the church as he also was hard of hearing. He would sideways into the hard-backed pew, wait briefly, and the drop into his seat with a dull and sickening thud, whereupon Avis and I would snigger outrageously. Chet Gilley, a nephew of Uncle Edward, was one of my early boy friends, and his older brother Albert married my sister Miriam and moved to Stoughton where they lived the rest of their lives. In Stoughton, they developed a lucrative truck garden and greenhouse business.”

Morgan House
Tom Morgan.  Tom Morgan [1824-1905, ed.] was a native of Wales, and built the house now owned by Helen Hansen Naysmith Toigo. Tom was a carpenter and joiner, but true to his Welsh tradition, considered himself quite a musician.  He directed the Village Choir, and my Father who had previously directed the choir in Clarence, Green County, took a somewhat dim view of Tom Morgan’s musical talents, and refused to sign in the choir.  The Morgans had a son whose name escapes me, and two daughters, Ella and Annette. Ella never married and lived in the old home until she passed away. At one time, she taught in the Cooksville Academy. Annette married Claudin Stebbins who with his brother Ernie operated the store formally owned by Charlie Woodbury…”

John Newell
The Newell Family. “The Newell Family lived next door just across the lane to the west… John Newell’s first wife died, and they had one daughter, Gertie… John’s second wife was a widow named Van Patten. She had one daughter, Lizzie Van Patten. Lizzie had a very fine voice and studied at Oberlin College Conservatory of Music… Mrs. Newell was a good neighbor, but definitely ruled the roost in her own home. Her own daughter Lizzie Van Patten was not expected to do much at home, but Gertie Newell, her husband’s daughter, was required to perform more unpleasant tasks. I recall that Gertie would sit for hours on the top of a circular covered cistern and strip feathers for feather beds. I could think of no worse punishment than to sit by the hour and strip chicken feathers.

“Mrs. Newell kept careful account of her neighbors, and often watched from behind closed blinds. One could easily detect her profile, and on one occasion a Stoughton boy friend who called upon me doffed his hat most gallantly and made an elaborate bow in the direction of Mrs. Newell’s window. We were neither surprised nor disappointed to see the apparition behind the blinds disappear at once.”        

The Savage Family. “Julius [1843?-1905, ed.] and Electa [1845-1927, ed.] Savage lived in the corner brick house  [Duncan house, ed.]. They also lived in the Hoxie House at one time. There were two children: Paul, and Avis who was my best friend. Avis later married Edson Brown and lived on a farm in Center Township, Rock County. I remember very little about son Paul. 

Avis and Paul Savage
"However, “Jule” Savage, as he was called, was a deeply religious man and would never miss a church service or prayer meeting, perhaps because it was some place to go in Cooksville. I can always recall his somewhat repetitious testimony at each and every prayer meeting as follows: “Since I gave my heart to God, I am trying in my feeble way to serve Him.” As a child, I had some difficulty in understanding just how one might physically give his heart to God. 

Electa Savage
“Electa Savage was not especially religious, and to my knowledge, did not attend services. She was a member of the Johnson Family who operated a hotel at one time in Cooksville. Jule Savage, despite his religious protestations, could be quite shrewd in a business deal. While I cannot recall the details, it had something to do with the sale of hogs. My Father in his customary blunt reaction mentioned that “some people wore God Almighty’s Cloak to cover up their deviltry!”

     Thanks for the memories, Lillian....
Lillian Graves Smith
 [The Cooksville Archives welcomes donations of historical materials—photographs, genealogies, stories, newspaper clippings, etc. — that help tell the story of the village. Contact Larry Reed at (608) 873-5066.]


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