Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI

June 7, 1995, Page 11

Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.

Index of "Oldies" Articles 



Good Old Days


By Dee Zimmerman


Neillsville痴 first Heritage Days Celebration is to be held this weekend and the event痴 title is very appropriately chosen as the city does have an interesting history.  Being the first village in the county and through the efforts of its founder, James O誰eill and friends, the Clark County seat was chosen to be here in 1853.


Two James O誰eills were prominent in the early history of Neillsville.  They were uncle and nephew.


The first James O誰eill was born in Lawrenceville, N.Y., along the St. Lawrence River.  He was a rugged pioneer lumberman and saw mill operator and became the area痴 first representative in the first legislature convened in the State of Wisconsin.


The second James O誰eill was born on a farm in Lawrenceville, N. Y., in September of 1839.  His father, Andrew was a brother to the first James O誰eill.  He came to Neillsville where he became a prominent practicing attorney and served as circuit judge from 1889 to 1921.  He died in June of 1929.


The first James O誰eill, the founder, was the third of nine children.  His father was Andrew O誰eill, Sr., a native of Ireland.  His family was distantly related to the O誰eills who historically had large land holdings around Lake Neagh, and whose members were famous in the political history of Ireland.  His family had engaged in the Irish wars on the side of the English kings.  In his youth, Andrew, Sr. received a university education.  After the American Revolution in about 1775, Andrew O誰eill came to this country, first Washington D.C., then New York and then Canada.  He worked in surveying, taught school in Canada, married in 1796 and as a family settled in St. Lawrence County, N.Y.


James left home at the age of 17.  He spent two years with an older brother, Thomas, engaged as a clerk in his brother痴 business at Edwardsburg.


At the age of 20, O誰eill and a brother, Andrew, lumbered on the American side of the St. Lawrence River.  In the spring of 1831, they floated their lumber down the river to Montreal.  That late summer, he was struck by a fever which took him two months to recover from and was the first ailment of a series throughout his lifetime.


In the spring of 1831, he kept a store for his brother, John, who had become a wealthy merchant in Ohio, working at a store for him in Ogdensburg, N. Y.  The next four years, he worked at lumbering in Canada, on his own.


That lumbering business proved profitable for the first three years, gaining $1,200, which was all lost on the fourth year.  In the winters of 1835-36, he worked with brothers, Henry and Alexander, lumbering in Lisbon, N.Y.  The spring of 1836, he bid his parents goodbye for the last time and ventured west. 


Traveling around eventually, he made his way up the Mississippi River to Prairie du Chien.  In the fall of 1839 he and brother, Alexander, bought a large canoe, filled it with provisions and paddled their way up the Mississippi and Black River to a site three miles south of Black River Falls.  There they built and operated a saw mill on a creek east of the river, later joined by a brother, Henry.


In the spring of 1845, they decided to change their base of operations even though they had a lucrative business near Black River Falls.  They made their way up the Black River seeking the pineries of the northern frontier.  As they paddled up the river, they came to the mouth of a creek which emptied into the Black River, and it appeared interesting enough to investigate. The current picked up as it tumbled over each descent, toward the river, providing power for a saw mill which they built on its banks, the creek to be named O誰eill, located adjacent to the present Hewett Street Bridge over the O誰eill Creek.


The first structure built there was an 18 x 24 log hut, on the banks of the Creek where the saw mill was later constructed.  A year later, 1846, O誰eill built a house on the south side of the creek, present location of the Hewett Street Concern Apartments.


An up-and-down saw mill, 22 feet by 44 feet, was constructed, lasting for 15 years, which had a capacity of 4,000 board feet in 12 hours.  After burning, it was replaced by another modest size mill.  O誰eill bought out his brother痴 interest in the business in 1858.  The brothers left the area.

A 1870s photo of early Neillsville businesses by O誰eill Creek;  The mill on the right, north bank of the creek is O誰eill痴 saw mill, probably the second mill on that site.  It discontinued operation about mid 1870.  After the mill was razed, the city electric power plant was built on that lot.  When the city power plant discontinued, switching to Northern State Power, the machinery was transported to the Dearborn, Michigan museum where it was displayed as a pioneer system in the electrical power systems.  At the left is the old Blakeslee gristmill, now location of the new city fire hall.


O誰eill married Jane Douglas in 1846.  They had two daughters and a son; the son died in 1862; the daughters, Isabella and Marie, lived here for a number of years.


O誰eill was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 1848, a member of the first Legislature in January of 1849.  At that time Jackson and Clark County were a part of Crawford County, (Clark County became its own entity in 1853).


O誰eill was elected to his second term in the Assembly in 1868.  From 1861 to 1865 he served as county treasurer; for 15 years he served as Chairman of the Clark County Board of Supervisors; at various times he held posts of justice of peace, town treasurer, and other offices.


After the Civil War, he built the O誰eill House, a luxurious hotel visited by those from far and near who came for a weekend of dining, dancing and relaxation, also place for community social gatherings.


O誰eill served as peacemaker in the early days, helping lumberjacks settle their differences when they could resolve disputes themselves.


The amount of land holdings and the locations were such that O誰eill could have been financially wealthy.  However, he was a generous man, giving in many ways.  A block of land donated for the site to build the court house when the county was instituted, and lots were provided for the Methodist Church as Mrs. O誰eill was an active member of that congregation.  He was known to have been generous with other gifts of land, also.  The destitute knew they could go to him for financial aid when there seemed no other way out of their hard times.


Having toured the eastern half of the United States and Canada, in his younger years, O誰eill finally took roots when he came to central Wisconsin and the city he founded, leaving only on occasions for visiting or business trips. It seems right that our city bears his name for the help he gave in its beginnings.


O誰eill passed away on April 28, 1882, the year Neillsville was chartered by the Legislature.  He was 71 and was buried at the Neillsville Cemetery.

Neillsville痴 founder was James O誰eill.  This early photo of O誰eill was presumably taken before he left New York to journey westward.  This photo is now owned by the Clark County Historical Society Jail Museum.


An early 1900痴 view of Neillsville, from the top of the first water tower, which collapsed in 1926; The Clark County Court House and Jail are at the center of the photograph.  To the left, foreground, is the present home of Alan Hoesly.



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