Category Archives: History

Our First State Fair

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This weeks Historical Marker is placed north of Court House Park, in Janesville Wisconsin and tells a brief story of Wisconsin’s first State Fair. The fair was planned by the Agricultural and Mechanics Institute; Partly to increase membership to the organization, and also because the process of farming was changing, and a fair could show off the new technology and agricultural products available.

The fair took place on the first and second day of October in 1851 on a six-acre plot near the Rock River. This was the first of its kind in Wisconsin, and was a terrific success. Attendance for the two-day event was estimated at 8 to 12 thousand people. There was such a large crowd that finding a room for the night was not an easy task.

For the cost of ten cents fair goers could enjoy farm machinery and product displays. There was also a variety of other things to see like produce, animals, and flowers among other competitions. The first was ploughing which took place east of the fairground; Each of the ten competitors had a quarter acre to work. The winner was J. Milton May, with a time of 26 minutes using his team of oxen, who later drew a lot of interest. The best job of ploughing was done by Alexander Ainslio of Rock.

Some of the other competitions and winners were:

Animals

Short Horn Bulls – E. Perkins of dodge Co.
S.A. Thurston of Racine

Oxen – H.H Simons of Janesville

Stallions – R. M. Wheeler of Janesville

Matched Horses – Addison Baker of Racine

Fruit 

Plums – Mr. J.C. Howard of Milwaukee

Apples – F.K. Paruix of Delavan who had a display of 35 variety’s
Harrison Ludington of Milwaukee

Flowers

Charles Gifford from Spring St. Nursery in Milwaukee
S. P. Beedier of Milwaukee

The winners of the competitions took home prizes ranging from $1.50 to $3.00 as well as bragging rights associated with being a part of our first state fair!

Before the fair found a permanent home in West Allis in 1892, it bounced around from city to city each year. Some of the host communities were Watertown, Fon du Lac, Madison, and Milwaukee.

In its 166-year history, the fair has only been canceled five times. The first three were during the Civil War of 1861, ’62 and ’63. The fourth cancellation was during the Columbian Expo held in Chicago in 1893. The most recent was in 1945, by request of the war department at the end of WWII.

As the fair grew each year new attractions were added. Drawing more interest to this state and people to the growing communities.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Moundbuilders

When I began this blog my focus was on telling the stories of the communities and people that settled in this beautiful county, raised families and built communities. Milton was the first that I chose to write about, but some issues caused me to put this aspect of my overall vision for the blog on the back burner. I do intend to get back to telling the stores of who we were and how the communities began; some grew, some didn’t. But within each community there are amazing stories of men, women, bravery, hardship and joy to be told.

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It came to me that in order to tell our story in the most accurate way I must go back to the beginning. To a time before trappers began coming to the area and before the Native Americans that now live in what became Wisconsin, and tell the story of The Mound Builders. This group of Ancient Americans were here before the Native American cultures we know today. They lived in and around the southern part of the state, migrating with the seasons and the available food supplies. One of the most interesting things about this group of people is that they constructed earthen mounds that were a part of their spiritual and daily lives, perhaps they were even a form of communication between the various clans somehow.

There are several questions that come to mind about the mound builders. Who were they and how did they live? What about the mounds, what were they for? What happened to them?

So who were the Mound Builders

The Mound Builders lived in and around the midwest, including Wisconsin from about 7000B.C to 1700 A.D. This vast period of time breaks down into three groups defined by how they lived. These periods are:

  • The Archaic Period – 7000 to 1000 B.C. The people of this period were mostly nomadic hunter gatherers, living in semi permanent villages that followed seasonal food sources. The mounds constructed near the end of this period were dome shaped and used for burial purposes.
  • The Woodland Period – 500B.C. to 1300 A.D. This period saw a lot of change. Some of the clans settled into permanent villages and began farming. The bow/arrow and pottery had been introduced and the mounds began to take on animal shapes.
  • Mississippian Period – 1000 to 1700 A.D. The biggest change in this time period is the introduction of pyramid style mounds from a culture outside Wisconsin. The villages were more organized. They had a type of hierarchy within the community.

Artifacts like arrowheads and pottery have been found that place Mound Building cultures in South Central Wisconsin to the late Woodland and Mississippian periods. They were a people in transition.

The earliest settlers of this area appear to have been a melting pot of several races and cultures migrating to this area from different parts of the American Continent. These people are considered pre Columbian because they were here long before Columbus, the Spanish or any other people that found their way here. Some may have come up from South America through Mexico and South from what would be Canada.

Two different types of mound builders found their way to the Great Lakes area and South Central Wisconsin. The first group consisted of family clans that were mostly nomadic, hunter gatherers. They made their camps near a water source and followed the seasonal migration of animals and available food. These people are the main focus of this blog.

The second group was the pyramid mound builders of the Mississippian period. While this group is interesting their culture was more formal and advanced in that they built walled communities and had a governmental and spiritual leadership hierarchy. The Mississippians also did not construct dome or effigy mounds like the ancient people of this area.

In Wisconsin, the mound builders lived from about Green Bay across to the Mississippi and down. They lived near lakes and rivers in semi permanent camps that followed seasonal food sources. Several changes in the way the mound builder lived began at the end of the Archaic Period through the Woodland Period that altered their lives, and perhaps brought on their disappearance. During this time interactions between the mound builders and tribes moving west to get away from the white people coming from Europe encouraged trade. Two big things that were gained was the use of the bow & arrow and stronger pottery. Having these two tools made a big difference in the way they lived. With easier hunting and better food storage now possible less seasonal migration was necessary and some clans settled into more permanent villages and began farming vegetables such as squash, goosefoot (Lambs Quarters) and sunflowers. Lake Koshkonong had an abundance of wild rice which drew many birds and with deer and other small game this was a wonderful place to settle. The practice of mound building could very well have been something gained during trade between other native clans such as the Hopewell or other people from across North America.

Their homes were dome shaped, covered with bark and thatch. They had a small opening giving access into and out of the structure and also had openings at the top for ventilation that could be closed when not in use.

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This picture was taken at the Hoard Museum in Fort Atkinson

What about the mounds, what were they for

Near the end of the Archaic period something changed in the way the Ancient Americans lived. They began to construct and bury their dead in mounds that can be found across central and southern Wisconsin. The building of mounds was a very labor intensive task. All work was done manually one basket of dirt at a time. Conical mounds were the first type built. They varied in size from a relatively small, holding one or two deceased members of a clan to mounds that were in use over long periods of time and may have held generations of deceased clan members.

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At one point in time the area around Lake Koshkonong had about 13 groups with a total of about 500 mounds around it. Unfortunately with the coming of Europeans many went under the plow or were taken apart by weekend treasure hunters. Chances are that not much was found in the treasure hunts, as the mound builders did not often bury their clan members with personal items. The mounds that are left around the lake, if they still exist, are on private land and should not be approached without permission.

Near the end of the Woodland period that something changed again within the culture of the ancients and the mound builders began constructing effigy mounds. Several animal shapes have been found such as birds, turtles, bears, panthers and even human figures. These mounds were built in harmony with their surroundings. Some mounds seem to be placed where they conform to the land the best. They also appear to depict the spiritual beliefs system of the Ancient Americans. Near the higher elevations of an area bird mounds were constructed representing the upper world. The middle elevations are where bear, panther, deer and human shapes are found representing the middle world at the lower elevations, usually near water turtles and other types of water creatures can be found.

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Even though there is a great deal of time between the construction of conical and effigy mounds, they can usually be found near each other. Which makes one think that these locations had significant importance and were visited frequently for ceremonial purposes.

When the mounds began to be identified there were several ideas floating around about who might have constructed them. Stories of a lost race were spread. Some even speculated that it was the Ancient Romans, Greeks or even the Aztecs. Nobody wanted to believe that it was Native Americans. Their culture was so different from anything that the Europeans knew that they couldn’t believe any Native American was capable of constructing the mounds.

It was Increase Lapham that made the connection between the mounds and the Ancient Americans. Lapham was born in Palmyra N.Y. in 1811. He went to work at the age of 13 and worked his way from a laborer to become an engineer. At the age of 25 in 1836 Lapham moved to Wisconsin and in time became Wisconsin’s first scientist. He wrote about 80 books and pamphlets on subjects covering the flora and fauna of Wisconsin. His book “The Antiquities of Wisconsin” was a study of Wisconsin’s Indian Mounds.

Any idea of what the mounds purposes could have been beyond being a burial sight is  speculation. It is thought that because mounds were built in groups that seemed to have specific placements, it’s possible that they served as ceremonial places or seasonal meeting areas for clans to meet and practice their spiritual beliefs. Some evidence has been found to indicate this is the case.

In my research I found a terrific website by Andrew Khitsun which documents the mound sites here in Wisconsin. You can find that link here.

In the Rock County area there are a couple of different mounds sites. Between Milton and Fort Atkinson is the Jefferson County Indian Mounds and Train Park. Within the small park eleven mounds can be seen, both conical and effigy. There were originally as many as 72 in this group that was spread out over a mile. Whitewater has a site at 288 S. Indian Mound Parkway  that is a little unusual because there is no water source of water nearby. There may have been when this group was constructed and the lake or creek dried up.

Fort Atkinson has a very rare mound, as a matter of fact it is thought to be the only remaining one like in the country. It is a Panther Intaglio. A Intaglio is a reverse effigy. Instead of building a mound up, it is dug out, like a pit. It can be found along the Rock River.

What happened to the mound builders?

This is one of those nobody really knows for sure questions. The transition from the Late Woodland to the Mississippian period brought more trade and more change. The coming of Pyramid Mound builders up from the south introduced corn and beans to the local peoples as well as a way of life that was totally different from what they knew.

The pyramid mound builders are thought to be outposts of the Cahokia people from western Illinois near St. Louis. This culture, like the mound builders of this area, had no written language so it is not known what they called themselves. At it’s peak the community was as large as six square miles and was home to as many as 20,000 people with more living outside the city. They were a melting pot of races living peacefully from various areas of the south. The Cahokia people had a well established system of government and their community was enclosed as was the community that settled on Crawfish River at what is now Aztalan near Lake Mills.

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Aztalan was only inhabited for a period of about 300 years. The city was then abandoned for reasons unknown. It could be that they were driven off by mound builders native to the area, but the question remains. What happened to our mound builders? They also mysteriously disappeared.

There are a few different scenarios to consider. The first is that the two cultures merged over time and became one group. Around 1200 ad there was a cooling off period in the weather. This would have made it difficult to raise crops so perhaps they moved out of the area. A final possibility is that the mound builders were driven off by more aggressive native Americans moving west.

Perhaps the Ancient Americans were the ancestors of the Native peoples of Wisconsin, like the Chippewa, Winnebago and the Sauk. Whatever happened to them, the ancient Americans left us a legacy of their culture in the landscape we call Rock County.

 

Back to the Beginning

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I stopped by to tell you guys that I appreciate you all so much and I hope you have a wonderful Christmas. As you know I haven’t posted in some time. I do intend to get back to something similar to a regular schedule soon, but it will most likely be a monthly post not a weekly one. My Rock County Park posts are on hold till Spring. I have another cool and interesting Rock County History thing lined up to begin in the spring as well and  there is a post in the works that I am hoping to have completed soon.

When I began this blog it was with the intent to speak to the history of the County and how it’s towns and villages began and grew from what some would consider a wilderness to what we are now. I hit a bit of a research snag and that portion of my project was put on the back burner for a bit. I do have every intent to get back to that aspect of my project, but the snag was actually a good thing.

What I first thought was a roadblock was actually a detour that led me back to the beginning. I recognized that although white people didn’t begin coming into this area until the late 1700’s, there were people already here before the trappers began to arrive! And, this is where Rock County’s story must begin.  I have been researching these Native Americans and they are an interesting group of people with a story that should be told and I hope to have this post ready for you soon.

Have a Wonderful Holiday ❤ Sharon

Rotary Botanical Gardens

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Today’s post is not one of our County Parks and it’s so much more than just a park. It is, like so many others, one I had never been to and I must admit that the Rotary Botanical Gardens in Janesville is a fantastic place to spend an afternoon. It’s filled with one stunning internationally themed garden after another. So much love and care goes into maintaining the grounds. It takes your breath away when you step out of the reception building and look around.

The gardens are located on Palmer Drive just south of the golf course. Parking is free. The lot is a very generous size and admission to the gardens is a reasonable $7.00 for adults over the age of 16 with seniors paying $6.00, children 6 to 15 as well as veterans $5.00, and under 6 is free. After paying, visitors are given a paper wristband to wear that indicates admission has been paid but also gives visitors access to the park throughout the day. If for some reason you must leave the park then wish come back that same day, it isn’t required to pay again as long as you have your wristband on! How cool is that?!  From May through August the Botanical Gardens are open from 8:30am to 8pm. Much of the park is wheelchair accessible making it a lovely outing for the whole family.

There are special events going on at the gardens throughout the year. Coming up on August 30 is a seminar on ornamental grasses. The gardens are available to rent for special events. I am told the Christmas Light Show is quite a spectacular sight. I will definitely check it out this December! You can find out more about upcoming events on their website they also have a Facebook page.

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The idea for what would become such a magnificent refuge from the outside world began with a retired Orthodontist named Dr. Robert Yahr in 1988. His dream was to create an internationally themed garden the community could enjoy. He contacted the two rotary clubs in Janesville at the time to see if they would be interested in joining together for the project. They did and in 1989 this absolutely stunning 20 acre complex of 25 themed gardens is the result.

My son and I were at the Botanical Gardens for about two hours and were not able to see all the gardens, so plan on making it a day. You won’t be sorry.

I will leave you with a slide show of the gardens we visited.

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Our County Parks

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Today’s County Park is not in Rock County (gasp!) but it relates to Lake Koshkonong, and it fits the overall story I am working on. A short distance into Jefferson County is Lake Koshkonong Effigy Mounds Park. It can be a little complicated to get to, but it’s worth the trip.

The parking area accommodates only two or three cars, but in all the times I have been there, I have rarely found anyone else visiting that didn’t walk from a nearby home. There are no amenities like wash rooms, picnic tables, or playground equipment but there are very nice benches scattered along the trail through the park.

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This map is from the brochure provided by the Hoard Historical Museum.
407 Merchant Ave. Fort Atkinson, WI. 53538

This park covers approximately five acres and contains 11 effigy mounds built by Native Americans that predate the Ho-Chunk Nation. There were 72 mounds within an area of about a mile, but with the coming of Europeans and farming, a vast majority were eliminated — making these remaining mounds very precious.

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Nobody really knows why the mounds were constructed in animal shapes, which can only be identified from the air, but it’s widely believed that the purpose was ceremonial. There is the remnant of a trail through the park that is thought to be one the Native Americans traveled during their seasonal migration through the area. These mounds are considered sacred by the Ho-Chunk People, so please be respectful and do not walk on them.

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I found a little bit of conflicting information between the plaque at the entrance of the park, and a brochure I picked up at the beginning of the trail. The plaque indicates that the mounds were thought to have been built between the years of 650-1200 AD. The brochure says that this happened between 300-1642 AD. I thought that the 1642 date seemed late; by this time white men were beginning to come into this area, and I thought the mound builders were a much older culture. After contacting the Hoard Historical Museum, the creator of the brochure, the earlier 650 to 1200 time frame is more correct.

Walking the trail through the park feels wonderful. I love spending time there because the energy of it is so peaceful. As you walk around the various mounds its hard not to imagine what the people who lived in the area, and built these amazing mounds, must have been like. I find it is a great place to meditate. I would recommend taking some time and visiting this park. Also, bring some kind of bug defense, as the park backs up to a thick patch of trees, and is heavily wooded itself.

For more information about this Jefferson County Park you can contact follow this link.

Have a great day!