Category Archives: Historical Markers

A Church on the Prairie

 

Before we move on from the Jefferson Prairie Settlement to new interesting things about Clinton Township the story about a Church on the Prairie must be told.

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When people move from one country to another to begin a new life they don’t always leave their beliefs and traditions behind, these things are a part of who they are as a people. This held true for the Norwegian community that formed in the southern part of Clinton Township. Their strong religious beliefs were very much a part of their lives.

At the time that the Natesta brothers came to America, Norway had been a Lutheran country for about three hundred years, previous to this the main religion was Catholicism. In 1536 King Christian III of Denmark ordered a conversion to the Lutheran faith, and as Norway was ruled by Denmark they were also ordered to convert. All other religions were shut down or forced out of the country and Lutheranism became a state religion. Being Lutheran was mandatory and so was church attendance.

Now there are state religions all over the world, this is nothing new. Some are very rigid in their belief systems and structure while others give their members more freedom. In this instance though, the state religion was as oppressive as the social structure of the time. All matters of governance of the church was held by the state. Ministers were assigned and paid by the state and had complete control over educating their parishioners. As a government employee they had a great amount of public authority beyond guiding the faithful. Members of the congregation had no voice in what happened within their chruch and were not allowed to participate in any way.  This seems out of line for us today, but we must remember that this was the process of faith that had been in place for generations, it was the norm and accepted for the time. Things did change, constitutional amendments were passed allowing more freedom and less governance by the state and other religions were eventually allowed back into the country.

There were no Pastors here in America for those first settlers so prayer services were held in the homes of various members of the community. By 1844 Jefferson Prairie was the oldest and largest Norwegian community and they worked to help form three main congregations. Rock Prairie here in Wisconsin, Long Prairie near Capron Illinois and Rock Run near Durand Illinois. Other churches were formed of course as communities spread but these were the first.

Pastor C. L. Clausen was the first to serve these congregations. In February of 1844 he held two services in Jefferson Prairie in the homes of Erik Gulbrandson Skavlem and Thor Helgeson Kirkejorden. He didn’t do any work to organize formal congregations beyond suggesting the idea. He limited himself to his ministerial functions.

Another Pastor that made his way through the area in 1844 was J. W. C. Dietrichson. He did organize a formal church in Jefferson Prairie and a requirement of inclusion into this congregation was the signing of a document stating four things.

  1. They would belong to the Norwegian Lutheran Church.
  2. They would submit themselves to the Norwegian established church procedure.
  3. They would be obedient to the ordained Norwegian Lutheran Minister in his authority as pastor and spiritual advisor in conformity to the Norwegian church ritual.
  4. That by signing, they are being added to and acknowledge joining the congregation under the above conditions.

This seems a bit excessive really, these families were already members of the church. Jefferson Prairie welcomed both Mr. Clausen and Mr. Dietrichson to lead their services until 1846 when they joined the Rock Prairie congregation and asked Mr. Clausen to be their pastor.

In 1847 the members of Jefferson Prairie began to think it was about time they had a church of their own. In March of 1848 the decision was made and 55 members pledged a total of $476.31 to build one. They bought two acres of land east of town for $3.10 and drew up the plans. Members of the church provided all the materials and labor. The small church on the hill was dedicated March 28, 1849.

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Over the course of the next few years membership in the congregation grew to the point that in 1860 a larger building was needed. This time 53 members pledged a total of $1649.50. Land closer to Bergen was acquired, plans were drawn up and again all the construction was done by church members. It is not known when the church was completed and dedicated but it was said that it came in over budget by $11.00 in 1861. To cover this debt, it was decided later that year at the annual meeting that having an established minimum charge for ministerial services should be put in place.

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It was around this time that a split began which would break the church apart. The initial cause of the split was within the church doctrine. The pastors brought in to lead their congregation were trained in Norway. It is only natural then that they would be leading the church under those beliefs and rituals held sacred to the home church in Norway. Although their faith was probably strong, these pastors did not see that by the 1860’s many of the immigrants had been here for over 20 years. They spoke English, they were settled onto well-established farms. Their children were American Citizens, and they were in the process of becoming citizens as well. Living around people of differing faiths may have advanced ideas and attitudes toward the process of their faith. Perhaps a service in English rather than Norwegian.

One of the beliefs in question came about when the pastors formed a synod and joined with churches from the south where slavery was accepted. The Jefferson Prairie pastors agreed with the southern body that slavery was not necessarily a sin as well as other theological doctrine relating to school and laymen performing devotional services. Some of the congregation were not pleased with this.

The slavery issue did not go away with the end of the civil war, as a matter of fact it continued to be a sore spot for many members. At the annual meeting in March of 1869, the pastor was asked to explain his stand on the question of laymen participation within the chruch and that of slavery. The response was that they wouldn’t discuss slavery openly anymore. But, it did come up again, more than once and the pastor said it was a fortunate thing that they were brought here to America where they could be converted. Eventually the question of slavery went back to Norway. The response that came back didn’t answer the question.

As time passed other issues came up to divide the congregation even deeper and ultimately in 1871 the church split into two groups and then three. Members of the community remained friends and neighbors for six days a week then separated on the sabbath. Little by little the issues that divided the Jefferson Prairie church faded. Talk began between the groups and as there were no real differences in their core beliefs the church became one again in March of 1892.

After all the legal matters were said and done it was decided that the reunited congregation needed a new church to worship in. The two church properties were sold and that money went to purchase a piece of land across the road from the present church. When construction of the magnificent church that sits at 23184 Bergen Rd was ready to happen, the land was sold and the church built.

 

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I have had the extreme pleasure of visiting this beautiful church and talking with several of its members. They were very open, kind and welcoming to this stranger asking questions. I appreciated their patience and kindness. If you would like to visit, Sunday worship services are held at 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. with Sunday School and coffee hour at 9:30 a.m. The Jefferson Prairie Church has come a long way but they continue to be good people doing good work.

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A Little Bit of Background

 

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Many thanks to the RCHS

The story of Ole and Ansten Nattestad (Natesta is the Americanized version of their name) is not unlike many other coming to America stories. We are all descendants of people who made the journey because they wanted a better life than the one they left behind. But this is their story and one that must be told. Through these brave men many other Norwegian families found their way to America and a better life than the one they would have had in Norway at that period in its history.

Life was not at all easy in Norway during the pre-industrial era. The state of Norway itself was in its infancy. The financial system was not stable, bureaucracy was out of control and led by a very distinct class system of privileged aristocracy. If you were not a part of this “Upper Class” you existed in one of three groups:

  1. The land holding farmers
  2. Tennent farmers
  3. Servants

There was such a tight grip on the lives of these three groups that very little hope existed to move up in life. Ole and Ansten were born to a land holding farmer. On the surface this may seem like a good thing to us, but at that time in Norway’s history the only person to inherit was the first-born son. This left both Ole and Ansten out in the cold. The only hope they had was being a tenant farmer or eking out a living any other way they could. Ole attempted to save and buy land of his own but the very tight bureaucratic system did not allow it.

This left Ole and Ansten to find their own way in life. With very little options in front of them, America sounded like the best bet. So, they saved enough for their passage and in April of 1837 set out for Stavanger to join a group that was setting sail for America. Things didn’t go as planned. One evening on their journey a man came to them and said they had been given the wrong travel papers and if they continued and tried to join the group, the only future in store was prison.

With this knowledge the pair avoided Stavanger and went to Sweden. Once there, they found passage on a cargo ship headed to America where they would begin to build a life.

That story is for another day!

The Jefferson Prairie Settlement

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Life sometimes gets in the way of things we enjoy doing. This blog is one of those things for me. I have rethought the process of sharing our lovely counties story and have decided to tell our stories one township at a time. I am beginning with Clinton Township in the south-eastern corner of the county with the story of:

The Jefferson Prairie Settlement

This story of this historical marker begins with a man named Ole K. Natesta (alternate spelling Nattestad). He was born in or near the Numedal Valley, in December of 1807. In 1836 Ole and his brother Ansten were visiting a neighboring city and learned of the opportunities in America. They liked what they heard so in 1837 the pair boarded a ship and came to check it out. I have conflicting information as to where they landed. One source said that they landed in Massachusetts and another said Rhode Island. In either case the two eventually found their way to Illinois later that year where they joined an existing Norwegian community.

In 1838 Anesten returned to Norway to let people know that they had found America a wonderful place to be. During this time the community in Illinois broke up due to illness and Ole moved North into what would be Clinton Township. He put in a claim for 80 acres of land five miles south of Clinton, and built himself what was described as a log hut. He then and went to work for a farmer named Stephan Dowers for his meals.

Ansten returned the following year with 100 emigrants. Some of stayed in Jefferson Prairie and others moved west to Rock Prairie.

There is more to tell, but that is for another day!

Sharon

 

 

Black Hawk Grove

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This historical marker highlights the second stop on Black Hawks journey through Wisconsin during the event that has come to be known as the Black Hawk War. 

In April of 1832 Black Hawk, angry about having his tribes home stolen from them, moved up the Rock River into Wisconsin with a small group of warriors, women, children and elders. They entered our state through Rock County. Their first stop was near Beloit at Turtle Village, an established Ho – Chunk community where the Turtle Creek meets the Rock River. Black Hawk and his people were offered some amount of help but the Ho-Chunk were not in any hurry to have the Government come down on them. They had enough problems of their own and didn’t need this on top of it. Accepting whatever supplies may have been offered, Black Hawk and his people spent the night then continued north and made camp along the bank of Spring Brook Creek in what is now Black Hawk Golf Course.  

With a water source right there and the bluff for protection from behind, this must have made a nice spot to stay and rest. It is thought that the band stayed for a couple of weeks, resting and hunting for food and needed supplies but these were in short supply. With Atkinson on their trail they moved north to Lake Koshkonong where they spent a good amount of time. As the white population grew in this area after the war there were stories that Tipi poles and camp fire pits could still be seen in the grove. 

 

Storrs Lake

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This Historical Marker, and the lake it talks about is one that I wrote about last year in a post about County Parks. The marker is mounted on the side of the barn at the Milton House. Storrs Lake is a mile east beyond the Milton House, and is a lovely natural space with nice hiking trails and fishing. This lake is a part of the Historical Marker system because General Atkinson spent the night by the lake while in pursuit of Blackhawk during the Blackhawk War/Massacre.

The post about Storrs Lake and Blackhawk can be read by following the links the links.

 

Burr Robbins Circus

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This historical marker tells the story of Burr Robbins, his circus and how it came to Rock County. You can find this marker alongside the parking lot at Dawson Field, 920 Beloit Ave, in Janesville.

Burr Robbins was born in the beautifully scenic town in upstate New York called Union in August of 1837. Robbins parents had hoped that he would be a minister when he grew up but he had a great head for business and a strong determination to make something of himself, and a desire for excitement. So, at the age of 18 he left home and found his way to Milwaukee in 1855. For the first couple of years he found work where he could then in 1858 the thrill of circus life found him. Burr Robbins became the property boy for bareback rider Charles Fish of the Spaulding & Rogers North American Circus out of St. Louis. For this he was paid $15.00 a month. The seed had been planted and the rest of his working life would be spent entertaining people.

His career spanned 29 years in the traveling show business and it all began in 1859 when he and a few other gentlemen formed a group called the Harmonium Bairds. This partnership only lasted a few months. After the separation of this group Robbins purchased McBullwell’s Panorama of the Revolutionary War.

The coming of the Civil War put the brakes on his plans for a while. General George B. McClellan saw what a good head for business he had and assigned him to be his wagon boss. He did well and at the end of his service he was the Superintendent of Transportation.

After the war he found work where he could until 1870. In that year the traveling show bug took hold again and he purchased the Magic Lantern show. In time he expanded by buying the Jim McIver side show and toured the Michigan fairs. The next couple of years were spent traveling and buying other shows.

1874 is the year Burr Robbins found Janesville Wisconsin. He liked it so well he decided to make it the winter quarters for the circus. Prior to this the winter quarters were in Paw Paw Michigan. He purchased the 100 acre farm from E. P. Doty, named it Spring Brook and set about building the winter quarters for his menagerie. Spring Brook was a self-contained circus village. In addition to living quarters there were buildings for repairing anything and everything.

Other buildings included a two story barn that housed 80 show horses and all their equipment. The second story was the canvas shop. Another barn held Cleopatra the elephant and the other animals. A third barn housed 50 horses. There was also a building called the Hippodrome that was used for training the acts.

As a young man Burr Robbins had been heard to say that he only wanted three things from life. He wanted a farm with a windmill, a steam boat and $50,000. When he retired from the circus in 1888 he had attained these things and more.

Burr Robbins had a reputation for being an honorable, civic minded man. His circus was one of the top three in the country.

After retirement Robbins moved to Chicago to find new opportunities and excitement. After a lifetime of hard work, travel and excitement he died at the age of 70 in 1908 with net worth of approximately 2 million dollars.

Burr Robbins was certainly a man with a vision and the dedication to make it happen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tobacco Land

 

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This historical marker is a short distance south of Edgerton on highway 51 and tells the story of the rise of tobacco as a cash crop in Wisconsin. Growing tobacco is nothing new. People have been raising and using this plant for personal and spiritual purposes for thousands of years. The indigenous people of our state grew it for ceremonial use. For a time, remnants of their tobacco fields could be seen around Lake Koshkonong. Growing it as a cash crop rather than for personal use would be something entirely new to Wisconsin.

The first exchange of money for tobacco was in 1851. H. C. Russel attended the first meeting of the Agricultural Society & Mechanics Institute held in Janesville and brought with him a sample of his crop. For this he was awarded a prize of .50 cents. It wasn’t until a couple of years later and the arrival of the Pomeroy family that tobacco would be raised as a cash crop.

Ralph, Orrin and William Pomeroy were sons of Thaddeus and Margaret Pomeroy of Suffield Connecticut. The Pomeroy family came to the United States from England in 1630 where they made their living by blacksmithing and gun manufacturing. Thaddeus raised tobacco and passed the knowledge of raising this crop to his sons.

In 1838 at the age of 24 Ralph set out on his own and moved to Montgomery County Ohio where he introduced tobacco to the area. Orrin and WT followed and the three stayed in Ohio for 15 years. This is where the story gets a little smokey. Some of my research states that it was Ralph that first came to Wisconsin, other sources said that it was Orrin. Ultimately it boils down to a family issue because the fact remains that it was a Pomeroy, with decades of tobacco growing experience that moved to Dane County. While there he, with J.J. Heistad, rented a 10 acre plot of land south of Madison and planted a crop of Connecticut Seed tobacco. This produced an excellent crop with a yield of about 1 ton per acre.

Mr. Pomeroy built a two-tier barn and borrowed some fencing to hang the tobacco for drying. After curing and stripping he sold his crop to the Dewey and Chapin Company in Janesville for 3.5 cents per pound. Making this the first commercially grown tobacco in the state of Wisconsin.

After the sale of this crop Pomeroy contacted his brothers with the news of his success and bought a farm near Fulton. By 1860 they also moved to Fulton and tobacco became something of a family business.

The story of this family and their contribution to Rock County is quite interesting. I’ll share more of their story with you later.