George Brown and the Founding of Baraboo

Baraboo News, Aug. 9th, 1906.

(By E.D. Jackson, Minneapolis, Minn.)


The city of Baraboo is supposed to owe its name and location to an early French Indian trader named Baribeau, the Indian pronunciation of which gradually led to the present form.  That the spot was much frequented by the red man in those days is shown by the numerous legends of that primitive people which cluster about Devil’s Lake, and even their presence in large numbers within the memory of men and women still living.  Besides this, many of the early residents of the locality had Indian blood in their veins, such as Abe Wood, the terrible, whose daring deeds have not yet faded from memory.  In those far away days it was no uncommon spectacle to see scores of these blanket Indians lying scattered along either side of the roadway leading from lower, or Brown town, to the hill or upper town, dead to the world in helpless intoxication.  The children of those times were filled with fear from such scenes, and yet still more, by the nightly war dances in front of the taverns and drinking places of lower town in which the painted braves in great numbers took part and made night hideous from their unearthly yells and performances.

But these were not the founders of Baraboo; they came as the true-hearted came, “Not with the roll of the stirring drum or the trumpet that sounds of fame.”  It was the army of the industrious that founded and built up Baraboo in quietness and beauty.  It is pleasant to remember that they were led by a young man named George Brown whose gentle disposition and sterling character stands out in strong relief against the somber background of those crude and turbulent times.  He came single handed and alone in 1842, swimming the Wisconsin river before the day of ferries and bridges.  At Mineral Point where the land office was then located, he entered the site of Baraboo and then returned to Whitewater from whence he soon made his way back with a number of men who helped him build the first house in the city proper.  This was a log house, no doubt long since gone to decay or removed to make room for later improvements.

It was lower town where Baraboo started, and Mr. Brown’s entry included the water site right under the present steel bridge leading to the depot.  Here he constructed the first dam, saw and grist mill about the years 1843 to 1845.  He was killed on Dec. 15th, 1847 by the falling of the great bent which was being raised for the addition to the mill.  It is said that in falling he was so struck that the timbers seemed to crush his head and then rebound leaving the blood streaming from mouth, nose and ears, and yet he seemed to recover consciousness and lived several hours, sitting in the only rocking chair in the place, borrowed from a neighbor.  Long years afterwards this chair had a sort of enchanted place in the memory and was pointed to as where George Brown breathed his life away.  He had spent the evening before in the company of a young lady with whom he was won’t to visit often, and was never in more cheerful spirits than when he took his leave thinking of the great day on the morrow when he would see his mills enlarged for greater usefulness by the addition all ready for the raising.  What a lesson on the fatuity of fate, the uncertainty of life, the cutting down of the good and useful while the rascals and the worthless live on and on!  It is needless to say that the tragic death of the captain of all this activity so auspiciously begun, was a crushing blow to everything.  It left a thick pall of gloom over the people from which they could scarcely arise.  Besides this it was the time of the great financial panic of 1847 all over the country, often mentioned by the oldest living who never forgot the pinch of business that year and many following.

Should the citizens of Baraboo be ever moved to pay a tribute of respect to the memory of the founder of this city beautiful, to one of the choicest natures that ever graced this green earth in the person of a young and aspiring man of affairs, they could scarcely do a more fitting or graceful thing than to place some memorial in stone or bronze on the public square, as a silent witness to the coming generations of the worth of being true and good and useful among men. 

But we cannot long sit at the rear of the chariot with backs to the horses and looking sorrowfully at the past.  Life and its duties are ever before us and so it was with that little handful of pioneers that had wept beside the grave of their hero fallen so tragically.  Gradually they plucked up courage, and went on with the unfinished work he had begun.  Prominent among these was Philorman Pratt who operated on the south side of the river and for many years had a saw mill in operation which was much needed to help supply the demand for lumber in building the city.  His power was from what is called a turbine wheel running under water and so not forced to idleness by freezing during the winter like an overshot wheel.  At the top of the vertical shaft was a large cast skeleton gear or bevel wheel called a pinion to drive the machinery.  Having obtained these parts, he was put to his wits end to get the wooden cogs for the larger or core wheel.  Days and weeks went by, and all seemed hopeless, for great accuracy in fitting the wooden cogs was indespensible (sic.), else the gears would not run together and develop power sufficient to drive the saws.  By merest accident he heard of a farmer in Greenfield who had learned all mechanical trades as it were back east, but being weary of the prison house or machine shop, had sought the freedom of the country.  Straightway Mr. Pratt besought him to come to his assistance.  It was done, and to his dying day he never forgot or ceased to mention how fortunate he was to find such a useful man at a time when as we would now say, he was up against it.

As most of the people of Baraboo well know, Philorman Pratt lived past eighty-four years and left a reputation untarnished.  He passed through the fires of trials innumerable common to those days, but there was no smell of smoke left on his garments.  He was absolutely a man of integrity, very exacting it is true of others, but first set a good example.  That he was of great benefit in giving a young and growing community the right bias, forever upward instead of in the wrong direction, goes without saying.  Would there were more such in these days to stem the tide of overreaching greed that seems so wide-spread and at times threatening to engulf us all.

On the North Side and later on, came P.A. Bassett who well sustained the reputation for enterprise of his predecessors.  But his lot was cast in a more civilized time.  The early roughness had in a measure worn off.  He was in every sense a typical gentleman in manner, habit and dress, a Southerner by birth, he had the gentility and ways of that section of the country ingrained.  He was a great Democrat and not one bit hesitant over exploiting it.  Of course there were then and always have been in Baraboo, a great many Democrat haters but like the temperance people who make exceptions in favor of the jolly beer drinking Dutchmen, and the church people, who would not judge harshly even the Mormon elders that were born of Mormon parents in Utah and nursed on that heresy and relic of barbarism, so Mr. Bassett suffered no injury from his political opponents.  A small man of quick movement, swarthy in complexion, with a black beard cropped rather close, he was a pleasing figure to contemplate.  Though a born, I will not say, aristocrat, yet he could mingle with the farmers, especially the wheat growers, on the most familiar terms and enjoyed their confidence, and more than respect, for very many years.  His flower mills were almost the business center of the town in those days and the output had to seek an outside market.  It was before the days of easy transportation.  For many years the only market was Milwaukee, a hundred miles distant, to which the wheat growers had to haul their surplus over the most wretched of roads and receive perhaps but fifty cents a bushel.  Sometimes in case of a break down the grain would have to be unloaded and left perhaps in or under a sheltering cove along the way until a repair shop, sometimes a long distance off, could be reached and the journey resumed.  Quite all the supplies and stocks for the merchants had to come from Milwaukee, brought by the returning farmers after selling their wheat.  To find an outlet for his flour Mr. Bassett employed enormous wagons with high spreading boxes each drawn by a long line of ox teams to reach the Milwaukee road then recently completed to Kilbourn.  That was a great gain over former conditions, and it seemed as though the world did move, but only the dreamers ever thought of a railroad to Baraboo.

But sales outside required flour barrels, so Mr. Bassett built barrel factories near his mills and installed the latest machinery, such as ponderous machines to slice staves from the oak bolts and others to trim the edges ready to set into the new barrels for the making of which scores of young men of the country and town were steadily employed during many years; and it provided a very satisfactory employment during long cold winters.  The business was so great he found it profitable to manufacture barrels for sale alone.  It was no uncommon sight to see great and expansive loads of these barrels on a sort of a high skeleton rack, being hauled over the south bluffs to Madison or Mazomanie.  In the winter time this was perilous.  Sometimes in the descent, something would give way, and then what a sight, defying description.  The barrels each sprinting down the smooth bluff road as if in a race which should get to the bottom first, looking more like a flock of sheep than anything else.  More than one driver lost his life under such circumstances, falling from the high load upon the frozen ground of the roadway.  So extensive was this manufacture that even the slender trimmings of the edges of the staves made filling for large areas along the shore of the mill pond.

The roar of the water going over the dam those early years was something great.  New comers living near were kept awake by the sound until accustomed from lapse of time.  It gave the locality an air of business and certainly made it conspicuous as the busy center of the town.  The spring freshets were sometimes alarming and threathened (sic) to wash out the mills.  To show the real interest felt far and wide in this part of the village, when such threatening floods came, throngs of people would volunteer with teams and tools to help stay the impending danger.  Great trees were hauled and thrown into the angry waters whole along with huge rocks to protect the mills which always came out unharmed.  The mill buildings were of fine appearance and generous size.  They had ornamental cornice and were painted a sort of chocolate color with white trimmings.  The building of the first dam was a matter of great difficulty, for the river in those days always carried a greater volume of water than since.  It was before the day of caisons (sic.) and coffer dams and the workmen had to wade to the neck in placing the frame work of the dam, and suffered extremely by exposure to the chilling water.  From the period of Mr. Bassett’s operation of the mills we pass into what might be called the recent time within the recollection of the people yet accounted not old, and so this chapter on the early times may properly close.