A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library. ~Shelby Foote

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Little Help

So, I mentioned a while back that part of the reason my blogging has been light recently is that I'm working on a book on the history of the town I currently live. Getting paid and everything. Anyway, much of it is done and so I would like you (all three of you) to read bits of it and offer thoughts, critiques and ask questions. Is it interesting? Too wordy? Not wordy enough? Confusing? Love it? Hate it?

The following is the prelude. Give it a once over, please, and then offer me any thoughts, advice or commentary. Thanks much! I appreciate any input greatly.


Over 160 years ago, in 1842, the Township of Caledonia was formed in the Northeastern corner of Racine County. The central and eastern portions of the Town were heavily forested, and sometimes swampy, while the western half featured prairie lands intermingled with woods. Winding in a generally southeastern direction from Milwaukee County, the Root River meandered through the middle of the Town before exiting into Mount Pleasant near the rapids below the Horlick Dam. Because of the inclusion of the spur of land, known then as North Point and today as Wind Point, extending to Lake Michigan, Caledonia comprises the entirety of Township 4, Range 22 and roughly a third of Range 23. Because of this, Caledonia was the largest township in the state, with just over 47 square miles of land.

But before we begin our look at the people, places and events that have shaped Caledonia’s history, it is important to remember what was here before Territorial Governor James Doty signed the act creating Caledonia on February 7, 1842. Wisconsin had become a territory only six years before, and Racine County had been carved out of Milwaukee County only four years earlier. Before 1833, the entire area belonged to the Potawatomi Indians, and the first permanent white settlers did not stake out their homesteads until 1835.

Prior to the arrival of those settlers, the only white man in the area was Jacques Jambeau, sometimes written as Vieax, who had established a trading post at Skunk’s Grove—the area just to the east of present day Franksville. Jambeau arrived in the area sometime in the 1790s and had a good relationship with the local tribes. Indeed, he had married a local Potawatomi woman and traded with them and with travelers heading between Chicago and Green Bay or Milwaukee. Jambeau remained in the area until 1837, when he sold his claim to Daniel Rork, who arrived in Caledonia in June of 1837. According to an 1871 speech by Judge Charles E. Dyer in Burlington, Jambeau originally asked $2000 for his stake, but eventually sold the parcel to Rork for only $525. After selling his property, Jambeau followed the Native American tribes West, across the Mississippi River. (2)

A number of hardy pioneers preceded Rork’s arrival in Caledonia, with some arriving prior to 1836 when the land was officially opened to settlement. Elam Beardsley and John Davis each have a claim to being the first settlers of the area. Both arrived early in 1835, and while Beardsley claimed to be the first settler, it is likely that Davis was the first to actually stake a claim to property in what was then known as the Root River settlement. Beardsley’s wife was the first white woman to become a resident of the area. (2)

Close behind Beardsley and Davis were Levi Blake and his three sons, C.H., E.S. and Lucius S. Blake. In 1857, Lucius wrote a short “sketch” of the group’s 1835 excursion to Caledonia, and the story is a vivid illustration of the hardships and perils the early settlers of Caledonia had to face on a daily basis.

According to Lucius (1), the four Blakes, two strong horses, and a wagon left in February of 1835 from Beedsley’s Prairie, an area in the Southwestern corner of Michigan near present day Niles and the Indiana state line. Arriving in Chicago, they re-supplied and, after staying for a day or two, headed north towards Gross Point, a trading post about eighteen miles away.

They spent the night at Gross Point, then headed out early the next morning, though the weather had turned much colder. The snow became deeper as they went, and it became nearly impossible to continue with the wagon. Blake’s simple prose captures the direness of their situation:

We stopped in a grove, about three miles west of what is now called Waukegan,
and the night being very cold, we were compelled to stand around the fire, which
we had much difficulty in kindling. Every match in our possession, except the last, had failed to light the fire.

How anxiously we watched father as he carefully struck that last one, as that was the only match within thirty miles of us, and if it failed we must surely perish.

Fearing to lie down my father suggested the idea that we make a sled, and leave the
wagon in the grove until our return, and as we were all mechanics, and fortunately had an ax and an auger, we sat about making a sled. (1)

Having survived the night, they once more headed north in the morning, resting around noon west of present day Kenosha. There they were caught up by a U.S. mail carrier on his pony. The carrier, a Frenchman named Pilkey, gave the Blakes some landmarks to follow as they headed for Skunk Grove.

Despite the help, the Blake party did not reach the grove until nearly eight that evening, well after darkness lay heavy on the land, with their horses exhausted and the cold gnawing at their bones. The sight of Jambeau’s trading post must have been an incredible relief to the Blakes, and as Lucius notes, “If ever a wigwam or shanty looked like living, that place did, as they had a great fire and plenty to eat and drink, in their own way, which at the time seemed better than anything I have enjoyed since.” (1)

Even after making it to Skunk Grove, the Blakes’ trials were not over, as one of their horses froze “…so badly that he was of no use.” (3) They staked out what they thought were four claims, but was later discovered to only be sufficient land for two claims near the junction of Skunk Creek, later known as Hood’s Creek, and the Root River. After viewing the region for a few days, Levi and his sons headed back to Michigan. Lucius and one of his brothers returned a little later in the year to hold the claims, plow the ground and erect some fencing. The rest of the family returned in 1837, and the Blakes’ large log house became something of a landmark in the area. It was always open to settlers, and the hospitality of Levi Blake and his family earned it the name of “Our House” with the area’s residents.

A number of other settlers arrived later in 1835, including: Edward Bradley and his brother; Simeon, Isaac and Thomas Butler; Joseph Adams; Trystam Davis; Mr. Fowler; Mr. Stillman; Hugh and Hiram Bennett; and the mysterious “border ruffian” Shintafer. Additionally, Sheridan Kimball, Ira Hurlbutt, Elisha Raymond and Ezra Beardsley, father of Elam, settled in the town during 1835 and early 1836. Elisha Raymond soon removed himself to the west, settling near a ford of the West Branch of the Root River in the township that would eventually bear his name.

Walter Cooley came to Caledonia in May, 1835, but when he returned in September, he had to relocate north of his original claim, southwest of the Rapids, after it was discovered to be partially on another man’s claim.

Eldad Smith also arrived in 1835, initially living in Racine before purchasing John Davis’ claim of 240 acres. Smith’s house was built by the simple expediency of rolling up logs and putting on logs made of split white oak shingles. What remained of the Potawatomi tribe frequently encamped near Smith’s house during the winter of 1835-36.

Despite the hardships of life in those early times, the settlers were open, friendly people who were very welcoming of new arrivals to the small community. In December of 1835, Sheridan Kimball settled in Caledonia, but the previous summer he had toured the area and had been welcomed by all whom he visited. Indeed, when word spread that Kimball and his traveling companions, Sandford Blake and Stephen Sanford had arrived at nearby Sunderland’s Tavern, some of the settlers called at the cabin at night and talked cheerfully of the richness and future of the land.

During his initial visit, Kimball also visited the Davis, Hood and Butler homes, and was welcomed warmly at all. Symmes Butler served as Kimball’s guide, and helped Kimball find his way through the dense forests of that time. With Butler’s help, Kimball made his claim, property that he could purchase for a meager $1.25 per acre. When he returned in December, he settled on the land, and in February of 1836 returned to Chicago and immediately began preparations to move his entire family to the Root River settlement. Leonard Kimball, Sheridan's brother, left ahead of Sheridan and his parents in order to prepare the claim for their arrival. With three yoke of oxen and a wagon, the Kimball’s headed out in the middle of March for their new home—a journey which took them nearly two weeks time.

With the oxen and the wagon, Mr. Kimball delivered stone from the Caledonia area to Chicago for work on the harbor. While in Chicago, he would collect a load of wheat from his brother, and then transport it to a mill on the Fox River, where it was ground into flour. He then took the flour back to Wisconsin, where he could sell it for as much as $12 a barrel.

The first child born to a settler arrived on September 2nd of 1835, when Maria was born to Joseph Adams and his wife. Whether Maria was the first white child born in the entire county is uncertain, as Helen Mars, daughter of Samuel Mars, was born in Mount Pleasant in the late summer of 1835 as well.

In February of 1836, James Kinzie brought in the first pigs to the region, a drove of hogs that were known as “prairie racers”. Rev. Cyrus Nichols was the first preacher to settle in Caledonia, arriving in the fall of 1836 and purchasing a claim upon which he built a log house. Nichols traversed the county to do his preaching, and on one occasion had to rebuke Lucius Blake and some of the other settlers for bringing guns to his service.

Others whom arrived in 1836, after the formal government land sale was complete, were William Sears, Luther Sears, James Bussey, Joel Horner, Emanuel Horner, Alexander Logan, Thomas Spencer, and Daniel Wooster and his sons. The Woosters had left the town of Derby in Connecticut on January 1st of 1836 and traveled by land through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois before arriving in Wisconsin in March. Other members of the Wooster family joined them later in the year.

1836 was a year of hardship for the early settlers, as the weather was cold, and the settlers received a shipment of bad flour from Michigan. Known as “sick flour” in those days, the spoiled flour nearly cost several of the settlers their lives, and at a cost of upwards to $22 a barrel, it was a tremendous financial burden as well.

From 1836 until the area became a town in February, 1842, many more settlers arrived in the area, and soon nearly all of the available land was claimed. Among these early pioneers were John Wheeler, Joseph Cannon, Samuel Hood, George and Henry Roberts, John Trumbull, Timothy Morris, Isaac Place, and the aforementioned Daniel Rork.

The story of Westward settlement is well-worn in American history, and Racine County was no exception to the pattern. Spurred by the pressure of population growth in the Eastern states, combined with the siren call of cheap, fertile land, New Englanders, also called Yankees, and newly arrived immigrants headed west. As these groups pushed further west, the Native American tribes that had lived on the land for generations were moved out of the way to make room. In Caledonia, this process was virtually complete by 1836, when the U.S. Government formally opened the area to settlement, though a few bands of Potawatomi remained for the next few years.

By the time Caledonia became a township in 1842, much of the southern, western and west-central portions were already settled, and nearly all of the land was claimed. These early settlers were truly living a frontier life—carving out farms from the woods and prairies with lots of determination, sweat and ingenuity. Sickness and death were never far away, yet they persevered and Caledonia’s bright future owes a huge debt to their efforts and sacrifices. This book is, in large measure, a testament to them and to those who continued their work after the Root River Settlement became the Town of Caledonia.

So, whattcha tink?


Hi Nick.. long time since I chcked in. Congrats on the book.. you rock and I am sure it will be great, could you produce anything else. I have been away as I have also been very busy with the new Job and the move. We are now settled into MI and things are quieting down a bit. Go Blue!!! they got robbed:)
As for advice on your book content..... sorry but if i am forced to choose between reading a prelude from a book on the history of Caledonia and being consumed from within via flesh eating beatles from "The Mummy" I think I would go with the beatles.
Hope to touch base with you and the remaining "gang" when I drive in for the holidays.

Since your bloggggg list thingy is dieing out lately..I have a non-political topical one for you...
Best all time Milwaukee Bucks... Mr. Redd is impressing me more and more every day and rocketing up that list leaving the likes of Ray Allen and Marques Johnson in his wake......
Might I suggest that you start with the last two paragraphs? That way your audience has a frame for the historical details to follow.

Somehow the tone of the book isn't as lively as your blog. Obviously a book is a book and a blog is a blog, but your trademark wittiness doesn't seem to be coming through. I'm sure that's partially because of the subject matter, but I think your audience could greatly benefit from not just your historical knowledge but your writing abilities.

Also, it might help to think about your audience: How much do they already know? What is their interest in reading this book? What kind of style, vocabulary, etc. would best suit them? How can your writing keep their interest and best serve them?

Hope this is helpful. Feel free to post more and I will try to give you more comments/suggestions.

Take care
Thanks Mama H-- that is very helpful, and I appreciate the perspective. I don't think I can make the book as "lively" as my blog, but perhaps I can tweak it to be a bit more informal. And I think you're right-- the last two paragraphs would fit nicely at the beginning.

Glad someone had something to offer other than "I'd rather be eaten alive by bugs than read your stuff."
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