Tag Archives: Rock county Our Story

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.


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.


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.


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.


A Little Bit of Background



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!

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:


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


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


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.



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


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 Decision


Well the Surface Transportation Board has made its decision. It’s been a long road for hundreds of families along the proposed GLBT route. About 18 months ago Frank Patton decided he wanted to build a rail line to speed the processing of trains through Chicago’s busy rail yard. Some trains take several hours or days to get on their way, but this is an issue that the city has been working on for some time. The line would have begun in Indiana, bypassed Chicago then traveled up through Illinois into Wisconsin, coming to a stop east of Milton where it would branch out to existing lines.  

Patton’s bypass would have been built on land gained by claiming eminent domain. Putting farm land and wildlife habitats along the 261-mile route out of service and permanently unusable. Some farmers would have lost land that generations of their families before them worked. That in itself was a bad enough but this line running full speed could have had as many as 110 trains a day passing by their homes at high rates of speed.  

The announcement was made yesterday and happily Patton and the GLTB was denied permission to build! This decision was based on lack of financial information provided to the board, and it leaves me wondering if there is a possibility that all of this might begin again if Mr. Patton decided to be a little more forthcoming about the financial end of his plan.  Going forward, what can be done to protect farmers and their land? What can be done to protect wild life habitats?

This is an issue that can’t or couldn’t be dropped. The question, What Now, must be asked. The first thought that came to mind is that the eminent domain laws should be rewritten to protect natural habitats and the livelihoods of private citizens. There must be options out there. 

For more information or to read the document released by the STB you can check the Rock against the Rail Facebook page. 





Happy Hollow Park



Our County Parks

I have to say that this park was a let down. The name, Happy Hollow, put the vision of someplace almost magickal in my mind. Unfortunately this was not the case. Getting to the park was complicated. There were turns I couldn’t find because they no longer exist. This park is located at 1731 Happy Hollow Rd., about half way between Janesville and Beloit. Once I knew I was on the right track I was expecting a large sign like the other parks have to welcome visitors but there wasn’t one.


The road into the Happy Hollow was rather epic. It reminded of a drive up to a large Antebellum home. What I found was not at all epic.

When you reach the park, what you find is space for maybe two cars to park, two picnic tables and a pit toilet rest room. Near the table is a covered seating area that once had a water pump. I noticed a small sign that pointed the way to a bridal path but there was not place to park a horse trailer. The county parks I have previously visited had a station with park maps available to visitors which show hiking and horse back trail routes but there were none to be found.

There were no trash can in sight but I did see some damage to the lawn. My normal habit is to check out the cleanliness of the restroom but the torn up lawn and lack of parking left me so disenchanted I didn’t want to know. I noticed the drive went around a corner so I kept going to see that was next.


After a couple of curves that took me a good quarter-mile further I wound up at a fairly large parking area with two overflowing trash bins at the far end and a small boat launch to the Rock River. This lot could accomodate horse and boat trailers. Fishing is allowed on the river and from shore. There is a board with catch limits and boat launch fees posted. Envelopes with a secure drop site is near the board. This end of the park had one picnic table but no rest room facilities.

I must admit that the scenery and the river was lovely. The area is peaceful and listening to the birds singing was nice, but that is about all that I can say about this park that is positive. I intended to take a hike up a path from the parking area until I found several alcohol bottles and evidence of drug activity. The remoteness of this park must make it quite the party spot. I would like to say that this is a park I would visit again but I simply can’t. This is a park I would never go to alone.

Like all the county parks this site is open from dawn to dusk.