History: Clark County, Wisconsin (1900)

Transcriber: Marge Rakovec

----Sources: The article below was written around 1900 by an unknown author.

Clark County was named after the intrepid explorer who, in the Lewis and Clark expedition, blazed a way across the continent, then a vast pathless wilderness, and proclaimed to the world the wonderful resources of the great area west of the Mississippi. It was five years after the state was admitted to the union. It had but a sparse population at that time and few persons dreamed that within two generations it would be far-famed as an agricultural paradise, particularly for dairying and stock raising.

In those early days it was not unknown to fame, however, as the great forests of white pine along the banks of the Black River and its tributaries had attracted the covetous eyes of the pioneer nation builders from the days of the first explorers.

The primitive red men who inhabited the hills and valleys of what is now Clark County were of the Chippewa tribe, the dividing line between them and the more quarrelsome Winnebagoes being at the confluence of the East Fork with the Black River, near the present county line between Clark and Jackson. The Chippewas were more intelligent and cleanly than the Winnebagoes, were very friendly to the early white explorers and settlers, and although given to the stealing, it was the boast of the Chippewa chiefs that none of that tribe had shed the blood of a white man or his family.

St. Germain was probably the first white man to touch foot to what is now Clark County soil. In the fall of 1836, when he was in his sixteenth year, he hired out in Canada to the American Fur Company and made his way to the then territory of Wisconsin by the Lake Superior route, and was sent south with a party of trappers, passing the ensuing winter on the East Fork of the Black River. Eight years later, in 1844, a number of Mormons, attracted by the immense pine forests, came up the Black River, cut a supply of logs, which they floated down to Black River Falls and thence as lumber down the Mississippi for use at Nauvoo in the erection of a great Mormon tabernacle projected at that point. For a year after their departure, Clark County was uninhabited by white men.

It was in the spring of 1845 that the first white persons who became permanent settlers, arrived in Clark County. James and Alexander O'Neill, who had come in 1839 from New York State and stopped at Prairie du Chien, decided to push on and found a new community of civilization in the wealth of the trackless wilderness to the north. They loaded a canoe with provisions and some meager household goods and proceeded up the Mississippi and up the Black River to Black River Falls, erected a mill and for six years did a large and profitable business. Six years later, in 1845, they decided to push still farther on and James and Henry O'Neill, with E.L. Brockway, Samuel and William Ferguson and a number of laborers, came to the site of the present city of Neillsville and became the first settlers of Clark County. They came overland in a wagon drawn by an ox-team, cutting their way through brush and over-fallen logs, and were two days on the trip. This was the first road ever made in the county.

At that time, the wilderness into which these pioneers had come, was full of game -- deer, wolves, otter, mink, beaver, and martin. The kindly Chippewas made the new comers welcome. A rough cabin 18'x24 was erected on the bank of O'Neill creek near where the mill was soon afterwards built. The mill had one upright saw with a capacity of 4000 feet a day. The lumber was rafted to the foot of the creek and there combined and arranged and sent on down to the falls where large rafts of 40 to 50 thousand feet were run on down to Burlington, consigned to Alexander O'Neill, the elder brother of the lumbermen, who sold the product at an average price of $10 a thousand.

The next year few newcomers settled in Clark County, but James O'Neill built a more commodious house on site of what is now the Brooks residence. The old log house was undermined by the stream fell and floated down towards the Mississippi. During this second year, Mr. O'Neill, tired of trying to keep house without the aid of woman's skillful supervision, induced Mrs. Robert Kennedy, accompanied by her husband, to take charge of his household, and so the first argument for woman's suffrage followed shortly after the first settlers in Clark County.

The Mormons had retained their interests in the pine forests along the Black River. One of them named Cunningham, slipped into the creek while logging and drowned. The creek is known to this day as Cunningham Creek. His was the first death of a white man in Clark County. In 1846 Andrew Grover, together with Hamilton McCullom and a man named Beebe, built a mill on Cunningham's creek two miles below Neillsville. Jonathan Nicholas and John Perry and wife located in what is now the town of Weston. It was in 1846 that James O'Neill courted Miss Jane Douglas, much to the rejoicing of the little community. This happy event followed and presumably was occasioned by a Christmas Eve dancing party at Mr. O'Neill's house, to which everyone was invited. Miss Douglas was one of the guests and the dance was kept up till dawn, when the host escorted the young lady, who undoubtedly was the belle of the ball, to the Douglas farm, near Melrose, going down Black River on the ice, and no young swain or maiden now resident of Clark County, can doubt that the witchery of the early morning ride, the tingle of the snappy dawn, the echo of the merry fiddlers, and the innate desire of sturdy men and lovely women, led this pioneer to make the proposition which led to the first holy matrimony of Clark County settlers. It was not performed in Clark County, however, the ceremony being at Melrose in Jackson County by a Justice of the Peace, on March 7, 1847. The happy couple came to Neillsville to live, however, the first marriage in the present limits of Clark County is said to have been performed the same year when Simon Winfield took to wife a girl in the employ of Mr. O'Neill, but they soon left the community and were heard of no more.

In 1847 there were but few newcomers. Among them were Samuel Cawley who gave his name to Cawley Creek; I.S. Mason, Thomas La Flesh, Nathan Myrick, H.J. (Scoots) Miller, and a man named Dible who built a mill on Cunningham creek. Jonathan Nichols built a mill on Cawley Creek. On June 7, 1847, there was a disastrous flood that practically washed away all the improvements so laboriously planned and executed, and it was about this time that the first murder in the county occurred. Bill Flynn, a logger, because involved in a drunken row with a Chippewa Indian and so injured him in a hand-to-hand encounter that death ensued. Flynn fled and was never apprehended.

In 1848 the emigration to Clark County brought J.W. Sturdevant, Mr. Van Dusen, Mr. Waterman, Leander Merrill, Benjamin Merrill, John Morrison, probably Moses Clark, John Lane, Robert Ross, Elijah Eaton, Albert Lambert, and perhaps a few others. The Merrills built a mill; also Lane, also Morrison, and Myrick and Miller had already built one. Van Dusen and Waterman began milling 18 miles above Neillsville and so did Albert Lambert. Later Elijah Eaton bought the Van Dusen mill and operated it for years, giving his name to the town of Eaton. In March 1849, Isabella Jane O'Neill was born to James and Jane O'Neill, the first birth in the county and the most important arrival of the year.

In 1850 about 50 acres of land were cleared, including the ground where the school house now stands, and little by little the mill owners added agriculture to their logging activities, and with such good results that one clearing appeared after another rapidly. The California fever at this time prevented emigration to Clark County and few if any newcomers appeared for several years, and as a rule the lumber jacks refused to stay after the run of logs had been started. The prospects that Clark County would ever be dotted with fully developed farms with commodious houses, immense barns and silos, with herds of thoroughbred cattle grazing the broad acres, seemed poor indeed, and it is doubtful if even the most sanguine of those pioneers ever dreamed of the development which has actually taken place in two or three generations. In those days all supplies came from La Crosse, Burlington, St. Louis, and other markets, landed at the mouth of Black River and laboriously poled up the swift current in craft of the most primitive construction.

It was in 1853, on July 6, that Clark County was created out of Jackson County, with the same area that it now contains, except that the north tier of towns was added from Taylor County in 1875. When organized, the county had but a single town - Pine Valley - and James O'Neill was chairman of the board of supervisors and Hugh Wedge and James French were side supervisors; B.F. French, treasurer; Samuel C. Boardman, clerk. It was in this year that Samuel Weston, with Davis Robinson, came from Maine and located above Neillsville and established a village. Later he gave his name to the town of Weston. When the proceedings to have the county created were pending, the petition to the legislature that the county seat be located at Neillsville, was changed some way and Weston was substituted for Neillsville in which shape the petition was granted. As can be readily understood, this created consternation, indignation, and determination to offset the alleged treachery. An act of legislature was passed authorizing the people to vote a change from Weston to Neillsville and a lively struggle took place. There were two polling places, O'Neill's Tavern at the village and Parker's Tavern, 11 miles below, and according to reliable reports, imported voters were not rejected. The result at the Neillsville polling place was 4 majority for Weston, while at Parker's the vote resulted 21 in favor of Neillsville, making a net lead of 17 votes out of 104 cast, for Neillsville, thus determining probably for all time the location of the metropolis and county seat of the new county. In the fall of 1854 G. Hall was elected sheriff, B.F. French treasurer, S.C. Boardman county clerk and register of deeds. County Judge Chauncey Blakeslee was soon succeeded by R. Dewhurst. New arrivals came each year and the town of Levis was apportioned in 1857; Weston in 1859; Lynn in 1862; Loyal in 1863; Mentor in 1867; Grant in 1868; Eaton in 1870; Beaver in 1871; York, Hixton and Sherman in 1873; Colby, Unity, Mayville, and Washburn in 1874; Sherwood, Forest, Hewett, and Warner in 1875; Thorp in 1876; Withee in 1880; and the newer towns in later years. At the new county seat, James O'Neill appropriated four acres to village purposes and the same was surveyed and platted by Allen Boardman, surveyor. There were only two or three cabins, Robert Roix's hotel, Dr. Baxter's hut, and the humble domiciles of James O'Neill, Nathan Boardman, Nathan Clapp, B.F. French and Mr. Dickey.

The growth of population was slow. Indians abounded and rough characters came for a season or two in the woods and went again. A man named Battengill with his partner, Page, engaged in an altercation with Indians during which three of the red men were killed and later a half-breed was shot at Hunsicker's tavern 12 miles north of Neillsville. The chief made complaint to Mr. O'Neill but nothing was done about it. In 1856-7, the settlers suffered hard times. Money often became worthless in a day and wages dropped to nothing. From 1857 to 1865, there were more exits than entrances upon the Clark County stage, but after the Civil War, the value of lumber appreciated and a large number of newcomers were attracted to the immense pine forests. 1867, the Village of Greenwood was laid out, and in 1869, Humbird was apportioned. Neillsville grew gradually until 1876 when it began to develop more quickly, due to the railroad from Humbird. The first courthouse was of frame, two stories high, 40 x 50 in dimension, built at a cost of $1,800 and located in the center of the village. In 1875, it was removed and the present handsome structure erected of brick, two stories high and surmounted by a cupola on which a statue of Justice stands. It cost $35,000. The county jail was built in 1881. The county farm was located in the Town of York in 1880, 160 acres of fertile land with a large house and several barns and out buildings, which makes a model institution for the care of the indigent.

In 1857, William C. Tompkins was induced to locate in Neillsville and established the pioneer journal of the county, -- the Clark County Advocate. In 1861, The Union and Flag published by Dore and Dickinson, and in 1867, the Clark County Journal made its appearance, and later in the same year, The Clark County Republican. In 1973, the Clark County Press was started and later combined with the Republican and still appears weekly as the Republican and Press. The Enterprise of Colby represented the northern part of the county during the early years, but succumbed and in 1879, the Colby Phonograph was established. The True Republican was started in Neillsville that year and later became the Neillsville Times, and in 1880, the Deutsch Amerikaner made its appearance and has continued since, the sole publication of the German language.

The Clark County Agricultural Society was organized on March 15th, 1873, and bought forty acres of land just outside of Neillsville on which an adequate grandstand and buildings for the annual exhibitions have been erected.

The county includes a rectangular area seven townships long and five ranges wide, being 23 to 29, inclusive and ranges 1 east to 4 west, inclusive, except the town 23, range 4 west, in the southwestern corner of the rectangle, which is a part of Jackson County. Clark County is just northeast of the center of the state. It is traversed by three principal railroads doing business in the state and by two smaller roads, affording easy communication in all directions.

The construction of the first railroad in the county was the result of long contemplated action by the Clark County people, the organization of the Black River Railroad Company resulting on Feb. 26, 1878, H.N. Withee, James Hewett, Daniel Gates, F.D. Lindsey, R.J. McBride, J.L. Gates, G.L. Lloyd, and F.S. Kirkland being the incorporators. The capital stock was $150,000 and the survey was made and work commenced at once. The Town of Pine Valley consented at last, after declining once or twice, to issue bonds to the extent of $10,000 to aid the project while the towns of Grant, Weston, and Hewett agreed to chip in $1,000 each. On account of some complications, Weston and Grant declined to renew their offer which expired, but Pine Valley and Hewett extended the time and work went on, and on July 4, 1881, the first train made its advent into the county seat from Merrillan and was greeted with appreciate welcome. And then the old tote road from Humbird to Neillsville over whose corduroyed levels and planked hills the supplies for the county seat and surrounding camps had been transported for years began to fall into disuse and decay.

Clark County is for the most part gently undulating in surface--drained by the Black River (so-called because its waters take a dark tinge from the swamps where it rises) which flowing from north to south divides the county into nearly equal parts, and by the branches of the Wisconsin River and in its eastern part and the affluence of the Chippewa River in the northwestern section. The pineries were located along the banks of the streams, the hard wood ridges extended across the county. The soil in the northern, central, and south-central portions is a rich clay loam in the southern part sandy loam. The streams afford practically inexhaustible water-power, only a small portion of which has been as yet developed.

The only one in the Silurian formations occurring in this county is the Potsdam sandstone that forms the basement rock of its southern portion, the primary rising to the surface in the northern portion. High bluffs of sandstone occur in several localities in the county, making pleasing landmarks distinguishable for miles around.

The present county officers are: Sheriff, Louis Hantke; Clerk of Court, George Ure; County Clerk, Myron Wilding; Judge of Probate Court, Oscar Schoengarth; County Superintendent of Schools, Miss Elizabeth Kennedy; County Treasurer, Ole C. Anderson; Register of Deeds, E.J. Rossman; District Attorney, W.J. Rush; Member of Assembly, Emery W. Crosby; Superintendent of County Farm, M. Redmond.

And, as for the future of Clark County, what pen is bright enough, what ink is clear enough, what hand is firm enough to write the things which must come, judging from the past of this and other communities. Withal the noble stretches of fully developed farm lands, withal the commodious farm houses, big red barns and round silos, herds of thoroughbred cattle, cheese factories or creameries on almost every other corner, withal wealth of $30,000, 000 among the 4500 farms and the score of prosperous towns and villages--withal these facts, Clark County is but about one-half developed. There are still wide areas of undeveloped land, and many of the farms are still but partly improved. Land values which have doubled during the past seven years now range from $40 to $125 an acre for improved farms, and from $15 to $30 for undeveloped land.

What will Clark County be, what will land values be, when the 783,360 acres are fully developed? What will the products be--from the farms, from the herds, from the creameries and cheese factories? What will the revenues be when the water powers are harnessed to buzzing dynamos?

Clark County in Central Wisconsin is destined to be one of the wealthiest and most prosperous counties in the country--a garden spot of the world.



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