Early Industries in Sauk County

Iron Mine near Baraboo

Iron Mine near Baraboo

Paper Read Before the Sauk County Historical Society

Feb. 28, 1910

by Mrs. L.H. Palmer

There was something very alluring to the first exploring home seeker, as he followed the old Indian trails across the lovely prairies, over the beautiful bluffs, along the numerous streams with their prospects of unlimited waterpower and through the gores that were lined with splendid groves of fine timer that could be converted into lumber with comparatively little trouble and expense. 

The most of those “who came and saw” stayed to conquer the many difficulties incident to pioneer life, nor were they disappointed.

Sauk county has fulfilled the best hopes of her early settlers, as with varied soils, altitudes, splendid waterpower, fine timber and good climate she has bountifully repaid the efforts of those who settled within her borders. 

Agriculture, dairying, and fruit growing have been leading industries from the time of the first settlement.  Grains and fruit of all kinds that are adapted to a north temperate climate can be produced in great abundance.  Good beef and mutton are produced on our hillside pastures, and the butter and cheese have taken first prizes when place in competition with the dairy products of other states.  N.W. Morley won first prize at the National Dairymans fair in New York in 1879, also the sweepstakes and a first prize offered by the Higgins Salt company.

Banner Hop Growing Section

Sauk county was the banner hop growing section of the state and almost of the whole Northwest in the “60’s”.  There was probably more money made and lost by those engaged in the business than has ever been handled from any other product of the soil.

There are two products I wish to mention, because they are a little out of the ordinary business.  These are wild honey and ginseng.  The woods abounded in both and many a family were enabled to supply themselves with many home comforts from the money obtained from gathering and selling these wild products of the woods.  Mr. Jassop of Ironton earned the money to pay the government price of 40 acres of land by gathering wild honey and peddling it around in the adjoining towns.  A widow woman gathered wild ginseng root enough, and sold for a dollar a pound, to pay off a mortgage on her home.

Necessity is the mother of invention also the lever that starts the wheels of progress moving, and as the first and greatest needs of our pioneers were lumber and flour, they grasped the opportunity offered by the fine waterpower furnished by the Baraboo river and began to erect mills for swing lumber and making flour.

Abe Wood, the first white man to build a cabin in Baraboo, was also the first to build a dam across the river.  He and his partner, John Rowin, erected a sawmill in 1840.  Matson and Van Slyke commenced one about the same time.  Draper helped Mr. Wood and became a partner, for a short time, selling his interest in 1842 to Levi Moore, Moses Nulph, and Henry Perry.  In 1844 a flood washed out a part of the dam and destroyed the mill.

Mr. Wood bought out his partner and rebuilt the mill the following summer.  J. Clement did the work and soon after purchased Mr. Wood’s interest and run the mill in partnership with Mr. Moore for two years.  The mill not being successful it laid idle until 1859 when M.J. Drown and J.H. Stewart of Beaver Dam took hold of the property.  Stewart soon withdrew, and in 1860, there having been a company formed, a factory for the manufacturing of woolen goods was erected. 

The Baraboo manufacturing company was organized in 1866-7 by a number of prominent business men, and a factory was erected a little north of the woolen mill.  They made bedsteads, tables and chairs mostly and did an extensive business.  They also attempted to manufacture threshing machines, but the machines not proving a brilliant success, that project was abandoned.

There was some controversy among the different claimants of the Baraboo waterpower, but in 1847 James Maxwell purchased a portion of the lower waterpower and began the erection of a sawmill.  In 1840 Maxwell sold a half interest to J.P. Flanders and James McVicker of Milwaukee and they agreed to build a $10,000 mill which was finished in the winter of 1848-9.  In 1850 the property was divided, Flanders and McVicker keeping the sawmill surplus waterpower and land, Maxwell keeping the flour mill with two hundred inches of water to run the mill, also two acres of land.  Brier, who owned a small interest, kept the carding mill with water to run it.

Charles Cook purchased Mr. Flanders’ portion in 1856 and erected a sawmill on the ruins of the old one that had burned down.  He also built a tannery and purchased Mr. Brier some machinery for the manufacturing of woolen goods.  He became badly involved in 1857 and the property went back to Mr. Flanders.

John Dean leased the property from Flanders, installed a larger plant and did a thriving business for several years, assisted by his brothers, Wm. and James.  He then purchased the Maxwell flour mill and waterpower and moved his woolen mill onto it.  The property changed hands several times, and finally lay idle for several years. 

The middle waterpower was claimed by George W. Brown in 1844.  He built a dam and sawmill that began operations December 1.  The following year he erected a better sawmill and the next season he built a grist mill on the north side of the river.  This was the largest mill on the river at that time.

Delando Pratt purchased a part of the waterpower in 1846 and erected shops in which he placed turning lathe a shingle machine, chair factory and lath saw.  This season the first bridge was built across the river, in the same place now occupied by the present Ash street bridge.

Philarmon Pratt purchased half of the waterpower and the sawmill in 1847.  The mill being burned, he erected a larger one and in 1848 Donald Schermerhorn put up a tannery.  In 1849 the Seaburn Brothers purchased the Pratt property, putting in more cabinet machinery, selling out in 1856 to J.N. and H.T. Savage, who added new features and conducted a much larger business.  H.T. Savage sold his interest to L. Wild.  The stock was increased and they did a fine business until December 1, when the stock and lumber, also Pratt’s hub and spoke factory, was destroyed by fire.

P.S. Bassett and J.P. Sanford in 1853 purchased of the brown estate, their interest in the waterpower and erected a fine large flour mill, with a capacity of 20,000 barrels per year.  Sanburn soon withdrew and for many years Mr. Bassett did a large local and commercial business assisted by his son, William.  Wheat was largely grown those times, and Mr. Bassett purchased large quantities, converted it into flour and drew it overland with oxen to Kilbourn, the nearest shipping point at that time.

Mr. Bassett added a barrel factory to his mill business and not only supplied all of the surrounding mills with barrels, but shipped a great many to Minnesota and other parts of the northwest.

Mr. Bassett, while conducting his business in Baraboo, formed a partnership with William Eikey of Greenfield and a sawmill was erected six miles east of Baraboo.  They did quite _________________________________________________________

which was taken across the bluffs to Helena where it was loaded on flat boats and floated down to market.  Mr. Alex Prentice purchase the mill, turned it into a flour mill and sold it to his son, Andrew, who in after years sold it to Charles Falkenstern, the present owner.

The Willard Brothers and D.C. Barry laid claim to the waterpower at the head of the Baraboo rapids and erected a mill in 1843.  The property changed hands several times and in 1855 Paddock & Waterman, who then owned it, erected a large furniture shop adjoining the sawmill, and in 1855 they enlarged the mill, putting in more and better machinery.  Times becoming dull the business changed hands several times, finally becoming the property of Thomas, Claude and Thomas, who in 1868 placed a set of wagon gearing machinery, capable of turning out the wood for fifty wagons per day.  This mill did the largest lumber business on the river.

The Baraboo river has faithfully served the public in times past and although it is still being used to some extent, it is to be hoped that the power that is going to waste will be more fully utilized in the near future.  While Baraboo people were thus busy training natural resources to serve man’s needs, the residents of other parts of the county were by no means idle.

Robert Bryant built a dam and erected a sawmill in 1841 at the base of a prominent bluff near the mouth of Henry Creek at Prairie du Sac.  He was not successful and sold in 1842 to H.B. Steins who converted the mill into a flour mill and sold it to Mr. Mix who enlarged and improved the property, then sold out to Wilson, who in turn sold to J.R. Woodruff.  Henry Rowel purchased the mill but soon transferred it to Merrihew and Rowel.  They enlarged and improved the mill so much that their flour took first prize at the state fair in 1859. 

Reed, Crosswell and Powell erected a flour and feed mill at Reedsburg in 1848 which burned down in 1860, but in 1861 a new five story 40x60 mill was erected by Moses Mackey.  It had four run of stone and was capable of grinding 1200 bushels of wheat per year.  Mr. Stafford ran a sawmill and factory for making tight barrel staves, for several years doing a fine business.

It would take too long to give even a brief account of the many mills erected in the county.  Local mills were erected on most of the small streams and did good work until scarcity of large timber or modern methods caused them to be back numbers.

There seems to have been a disposition to dabble in all kinds of industries in early times.  There were brick and lime kilns also small breweries and distilleries scattered about the county.  Some of the most important were a brick yard operated by English & Bassett not far from where the McFetridge factory is located.  John Secker Sr. and later his son, the late Charles Secker, did an extensive brick and tile business three miles west of the city.  There was also a brick kiln at one time east of the Ringling winter quarters.  There were several small potteries but none of them were of any commercial value and were soon abandoned.

The burning of lime was quite an industry in the early sixties and later.  William Eikey owned a quarry of magnesian stone that furnished a fine quality of lime for many years, also employment to a number of men quarrying and burning the limestone.

What is known as cobble limestone was found in large quantities along Jeffries Creek three miles southeast of Baraboo.  L. Davies, L. Messenger, N. Shultz, George Glover, Alex Crawford and others were all in the business and at one time there were four kilns in operation.  The largest output of any one kiln in one season was 2600 barrels burned by George Glover.  Fruit culture has driven out the lime industry in that neighborhood.

I am indebted to Mr. Jeff Beaver for the following account of his father’s lime kiln, probably the largest kiln in the county.  Peter Beaver came to Spring Green from Columbus, Columbia Co., in 1861.  He commenced to burn lime in 1862 but closed his kiln in ’63 to enlist for his country’s defence in Co., A., 36th Reg.  He went on with the lime business on his return from the war burning from three to seven kilns a year to 1867, the great hop year, when he burned ten kilns.  The kilns contained seven hundred bushels each, and people came from all parts of the county, there being forty teams there at one time and taking all of one kiln in a day.  Mr. Beaver kept in the lime business for twenty-one years and then turned to general farming on the stage road leading from Spring Green to Reedsburg, on Beaver Hill.

Mankind from pre-historic ages seems to have thought the royal road to wealth led to the hidden treasures of the earth, and the residents of Sauk County have been no exception. D.C. Barry was one of the many prospectors and in company with Harry Perry, while looking for a suitable lumber company in Reedsburg, discovered where Big creek had washed the soil away and uncovered a deposit of copper ore on the S.E. ¼ of Sec. l.  Mr. Perry died the following spring and Mr. Barry took in partnership two Mineral Point miners.  They got out two tons of copper ore that sold at Mineral Point for $90.00 per ton.  He was offered $1500 for his mine but did not sell and after prospecting all summer was obliged to abandon the mine for lack of money.

Iron at Ironton

G.W. Andrews kindly furnished the following account of the Ironton iron business:

It is now over half a century, since James Tower, an iron master of Crown Point, New York, became imbued with the spirit of colonization and the firm belief that great opportunities lay in the “New West”.  He arrived at Mayville, Dodge county, Wisconsin in 1850, and entered into partnership with Captain Bean of that place for the manufacture of pig iron.  Four years later he learned of iron ore owned by William Reeds, founder of the city of Reedsburg, and he made a trip of investigation.  He stood on the big hill southeast of the site of the present village of Ironton and looked out over the beautiful little valley which lay before him.  His trained eye gauged the value of the mineral indications about him, and he resolved to create a new home in this wilderness.  He purchased the mining property for $3000 and returned east to make preparation for his final departure.  A number of his former employees, mostly Irishmen with their families, decided to case their fortunes with him and together with his family and a number of relatives among whom were Charles Keith, Putnam Fuller, Edward and John Towt, he turned his back upon the comforts and refinements of civilization and bravely faced the trials and hardships inseparable from frontier life.

Logs were hewn, and rude houses erected on the flats, near the Little Baraboo River while Indians came to gaze stolidly at the new people, and the first sawmill that was soon in operation.  The construction of mill, foundry and blast furnace was now begun, and the installation of the heavy machinery, which was hauled from Portage, 35 miles distant, was attended with great difficulty.  But in four years the plant was in _______________

and its products were of a superior grade.  John Shaw, afterwards of Milwaukee, was the first book-keeper.  Others came from the old home to join the little colony among whom was John F. Smith, a young man destined to bear a prominent part in the later development of the place and who in 1862 took charge of the office work.

For six years Mr. Tower labored unceasingly for the success and up building of the new project, and the welfare of those who had joined in the undertaking.  But he was not to enjoy the fruits of his industry, nor to see the fulfillment of his hopes and plans:--he was fated to be a sower that others might reap.  His health had been undermined by the cares and responsibilities and various burdens imposed upon him and he succumbed after a brief sickness, Oct. 24, 1864, at the age of 64 years.  He was laid at rest in the little new cemetery within sight of the village, he had loved and founded.  Two years previous Mr. Smith had became a partner in the firm and the business was continued under his management for three year when the Tower heirs sold to him their entire interest and he became sole owner of the estate.  He was a man of lofty character and keen perception and recognized the value of the opportunity thus offered him.  His possessions now included 5500 acres of land and furnished employment to 150 men.  Prosperity was at its height and the output of his foundry yielded an immense profit.  Pig iron sold in Chicago, Rockford, Milwaukee, EauClaire, Whitewater, and Beloit, Wis., and in Winona and Stillwater, Minn., for $60 to $90 per ton.  The castings were mostly sleigh-shoes and cauldron kettles were sold from the Kickapoo Valley to Iowa at corresponding prices.  A “company store,” blacksmith and repair shops were now a part of the equipment, and the whole formed a unique scene.

Oxen were used to haul the crude ore from the mine and to cart out the slag left as refuse.

It was a gorgeous sight casting at time to see the white hot molten mass pour out into the beds prepared for it in the black sand.  In the surrounding forests, expert charcoal burners watched their kilns by night and by day, for much depended upon the quality of the fuel.

Strong teams with lusty teamsters took long hauls over difficult, sometimes almost impassable roads with their two ton loads, to the nearest shipping points—Mauston 20 miles, and Lone Rock 30 miles away.  In 1870 the Northwestern railroad was extended from Madison to Sparta, and the business was brought into closer connection with the outside world.

Mr. Smith’s wealth increased rapidly, but lonely and reserved he was indefatigable as ever in his labor.  He was stricken suddenly with the sickness that terminated in his death six weeks later, at the age of 52 years.  A handsome granite shaft from the quarries of his native Vermont hills marks his grave near that of Mr. Tower.  When he realized his earthly career was nearly ended he sent for his sister, Mrs. Jeanette Herrick of Vermont who became his heiress, and her son-in-law, M.R. Doyon, who had accompanied her, assumed the management of the varied interests involved.  Young in years, ___________________________  in the iron business, and without previous knowledge of western conditions, his position was a difficult one.  But his grasp of affairs, his ready and unerring judgment soon proved him a captain of industry, second to neither of his predecessors.  He was ably assisted by his cousin, T.E. Doyon, now of Redfield, S.D., who was an efficient ally and contributed greatly to the success of the regime.

In 1881 a sale of the property was effected to D.M. Sabin, of Stillwater, Minn., afterwards U.S. Senator from that state, who formed a corporation known as Seymour, Sabin & Co., which later became the Iron Mountain Ore and Furnace Co.  Francis Byrne, who had entered the foundry in boyhood as a molder, and had been closely identified with it during every stage of its progress, the foreman and confident of progress, the foreman confident of Mr. Smith, now became manager of the entire estate.  George W. Andrews was installed as book-keeper.

For several years the business was successfully conducted, but with the advance in value of timber, the cost of charcoal was much increased and along about 1890 there was a great slump in the price of pig iron, so that with a furnace that was not modern, the manufacture of iron became much less profitable.

Mr. Byrne resigned from his position in 1890, but still lives in the village in the old colonial house which Mr. Tower built for his own occupancy and upon the dissolution of the Iron Co., about 1895, Mr. Byrne purchased the original Tower lands, and he is still the owner of them.