History Of the City of Jefferson

Settling In Jefferson

    The first settlement in the present City of Jefferson was made in the year 1836.  On December 18, 1836 Rodney J. Currier, Daniel Lansing, Robert Masters - with his daughter Imogene, David Sargeant, Peter Rogan, Rufus C. Dodge, Edward and Alvin Foster and from Bark River Mills and Milwaukee and located in the vicinity of Jefferson.  But it wasn't until 1840 when quite a few more residents moved to the Jefferson area.  Among them may be mentioned:  George Crist, the residences of E.G. Darling (the Jefferson House) and Abram Vanderpool.  In the following year Andrew Lansing and R.J. Currier erected homes on Main Street.  There was also erected several years previous a little shack on the northwest corner of the public square which served as a register's office.

    During the spring and summer of 1841 E.G. Darling planted a field of wheat on his fraction, which produced a good crop and was ground at the Whitewater mill.  In the fall of that year George Crist and D.H. Miller constructed a double log house as a residence.  In the winter of 1841 Laban Hoyt put up a shanty on Racine Street.  During this winter ordinary commodities such as flour, wheat and vegetables commanded a high price, most of the provisions being brought from Whitewater and Milwaukee.

    In the spring of 1842 the first Germans came to Jefferson and located in the village.  In this year Dr. Charles Rogers came to the village, accompanied by a German count, the latter remaining but a short time, Rogers settled and remained here until his death in 1857.  In the spring of this year the first dam was constructed and a sawmill put up on the east side of the river by Darling & Kendall.  In the fall a building was erected on Milwaukee Street near the river on the east side.  During the same season Andrew Lansing built a house on Dodge Street opposite the court house, where he lived with his bride, who was Melissa Brown.

    The year 1843 was another year of progress in the growing village.  A large number of people came in and located.  George Crist's house, Doctor Barley's office and Sherman's blacksmith shop on the present city hall corner were all constructed early.  Sherman started to California at the time of the gold rush of 1849-1850, but died of cholera en route.

    The settlers of this time were forced to content with numerous Indians who camped on the river two or three miles from the village.  They were of the Winnebago, Menominee and Potawatomi tribes and Chief John, as he was known, was the leader.  He was often termed a "good Indian," as he bargained fairly with the white men and was self-supporting.  His living was made by selling furs and venison.  Only once, it is related, did he cause enmity and this was when he threw George Crist in a friendly wrestling match.  In 1844 Crist found Chief John's body in a swamp about three miles northwest of the village where he had been murdered.  A settler was tried for the crime, but was acquitted.  Another man, who emigrated to Iowa, confessed to the crime upon his death-bed some years later.

In 1845 the population was quoted at seventy-five or eighty people.  The village contained a blacksmith shop, Isaac Savage's gunsmith shop; one or two carpenter shops; the county buildings; two lawyers, George F. Markley and Winslow Blake; two physicians, Barbee and Rogers; a schoolhouse near the later Stoppenbach residence; a sawmill and some small stores.  During the summer of 1844 a steamer came up from the Rock River from St. Louis, MO and quite a large celebration was held, including a dance at the Jefferson House.

    In 1849 the first brick building was constructed on the corner of Milwaukee and Third Streets by Andrew Lansing.  The gristmill was commenced and nearly completed during the winter by James Wadsworth and others.  During this year and the next many of the residents of Jefferson became excited over the discovery of gold in the West and left for the long trip over the plains.  The majority of them afterward returned to Jefferson, some died on the way, while others remained in the state of California.

    In 1850 James Barr erected the first brick store of which there is any record.  It was located at the corner of Racine and Main Streets.  This was not the first store building erected, however, as Alonzo Wing had put up a building on Main Street between Milwaukee and Dodge, several years previously, which was devoted to the selling of merchandise.  By 1853 a brick block was erected on Second and Main Streets, the Jefferson House Block, the Universalist Church, a brick block on Milwaukee Street near the City Hall, the Presbyterian Church and also a number of private residences.

    Prior to the year 1857 the Village of Jefferson was under the same government as the town.  In 1857 the village was incorporated and represented in the township board of supervisors.  This continued until 1878 when as act "to incorporate the City of Jefferson" was passed by the Legislature of Wisconsin and approved March 19 of the same year.  There are no records of the town prior to April 5, 1845 in existence.

    The government of the village was first, in 1857, vested in a president, four trustees, a marshal, a treasurer and an assessor.  They were elected annually, on the first Tuesday in May.  At the first election held in pursuance of the act of incorporation N.C. Hurlburt, Charles Stoppenbach, George Trucks and E.G. Fifield were chosen trustees, with J.E. Holmes, president and Charles T. Clothier, clerk.  So long as the municipal government was that of a board of trustees the following served as presidents:  Charles T. Clothier, George Crist, Ira W. Bird, Charles Stoppenbach, John Jung, Edward McMahon, Gerrit T. Thorne, Charles Grimm, Nicholas Jung, P.N. Waterbury, S.T. McKenney and W.H. Porter.
In 1867 the charter was amended by dividing the village into four districts and increasing the number of trustees to eight, upon which basis the election of that and subsequent years.

    By an act of the Legislature, approved March 19, 1878, the Village of Jefferson was incorporated as a city, divided into three wards, and provisions made for the election of regular city officials.  In obedience to the provisions of the charter the first city election was held April 9, 1878.

Public Utilities

    The first step toward the establishment of electric lights was in February 1893, when a franchise was granted to George Grimm for the construction of an electric light plant.  This plant was constructed and shortly became the property of a concern called the Jefferson Electric Company, which corporation was maintained until July 6, 1900.  At this point the city council passed an ordinance "providing for the purchase of the electric lighting system of the City of Jefferson and the matter of such purchase."  The sum of $25,000 was named in the ordinance, to be raised by city bonds.  A special election upon the proposition was ordered to be held August 14.  This resulted favorably to the proposition.  In due time the purchase was fully made and the city came into ownership.  In November 1901, a board of water and light commissioners was created in the city, consisting of three citizens, the mayor and one alderman.

    The first steps toward the present efficient water system of Jefferson were taken in March 1893, when a franchise was granted to Edward Mueller for the construction of a water pipe line along Main and Mechanic Street, the water to be supplied from the city brewery.  On June 22, 1901, the common council enacted an ordinance giving permission to John H. Brown to operate a system of water works.  Thereafter this ordinance was transferred to the Jefferson Water Company, a corporation.  On November 19, 1901, the council passed another ordinance accepting the water works as satisfactory.  Also on the same date, an ordinance was enacted "purchasing the water works system of and from the Jefferson Water Company," for the consideration of $40,000, which the sum was raised in city bonds.  This completed the purchase of the system.
The first paving in Jefferson was done in 1903.  In October of that year paying bonds for $5,500 were issued for the improvement of Main and Racine Streets.  Sewers were first constructed in 1908.

An article from the local Jefferson WI newspaper of the time, the Banner, dated February 24, 1898, shows James Lytle as the Vice-President of the Banner Printing Company, Jefferson's newspaper company.  In that same paper, the following article was written by James Lytle.  I believe it shows the intelligence, business skill and leadership qualities that he apparently had.  It tells us something concrete about the far-sighted kind of man James was. 
"To the Editor:  During the past week or two there has been a great deal of discussion and much interest manifested by our citizens in a franchise asked for by Chicago parties for a plant for furnishing gas to the city and its residents.  The principal opposition to the granting of such a franchise has been made by the owners of the electric light works, who by their zeal and activity in opposition appear to concede in advance the danger of such a system to the value of their property.  A great deal of unfair and thoughtless criticism of the management of the electric works has been indulged in, upon the theory that the charges which they have made for lighting have  been unreasonably large and their profits greater than the times and conditions warrant.  It is an axion in business that when the risks are great, the profits, if any, should be large.  If this were not the rule, capital would seek only the safest investments.  Five per cent is considered safer and more satisfactory by many, when well secured, than a possible 10 per cent subject to the chances of business.  In electric lighting the risks are large.  A single flash of lightning may destroy a dynamo and many transformers, causing damage of hundreds of dollars.  I understand that no protection of insurance can be secured against such risks.  The use of electricity for furnishing power and light is of quite recent date.  Invention follows invention in utilizing, cheapening and rendering it more effective. The complete plant of today may be obsolete and out-of-date in a year or two,  making necessary many and expensive changes.  Under such circumstances, the earnings must be large in order that a fair and safe surplus may be built up.  It is easy to make charges of the kind mentioned, but it is unfair to do so unless backed up by proof of their accuracy.  Probably no one is prepared to furnish such proof--it being mere conjecture and wholly worthless.  Equity and fair consideration for our fellow citizens, who own the works, demand the suppression and withdrawal of unsupported charges which may tend to injure their reputation, for honorable dealing, with the community.  It is no heresay however to state that electric lighting is an expensive luxury--that it is beyond the means of prudent and careful laboring men or of those of small salaries--and that if gas for lighting and heating can be had a small cost, the general welfare should be held superior to the interests and profits of the few. The latter is good democratic doctrine and an article of our faith.  No one desires that those who have invested their means in the electric light works should lose any part of their investment.  At its inception it was a public spirited enterprise, which required courage to undertake and much skill and labor to build up.
I do not think that our friends of the electric light plant should permit themselves to become panic-stricken over the situation.  If they will exercise as much energy and zeal, as they have already shown in opposition to the threatened invasion by the outside gas company, in adding to, building up, and strengthening their own property, they can easily place themselves in an impregnable position, in which they cannot be disturbed by any future or present competition. Organize an  Electric Light and Water Works Company. Secure a franchise. The city council will doubtless grant it without opposition.  Merge the present plant into the new organization by putting it in at a fair and reasonable valuation, as offered in the proposition made in the last issue of the Banner.  Stockholders of the present company should surrender their stock, and take its value in stock of the new corporation in payment thereof.  Sell stock at home of the new company to as large an extent as possible, and bond the whole plant for as much more as may be necessary to complete it. Make the shares $25 each and induce every one possible to subscribe.  Get every one who rents a house or owns one, and every merchant and manufacturer interested and a part owner of the property.  Distribute the stock so generally that a meeting of the stockholders will mean a mass meeting of our citizens.  Place it so universally that unjust criticism of the company will be impossible, unless someone wishes to play the cuckoo's part by "fouling his own nest."  Make fair terms with the city for necessary hydrants and fire protection and charge consumers such a price for water as will make the plant self-supporting and the investment reasonably profitable.
I would suggest to Judge Grimm, manager of the electric light works, that this is a project worthy of his best efforts--that the man who identifies himself with it and who represents in himself the earnest wishes of the people of this city for a water works system, and who carries it through to a successful issue, will build for himself an enduring monument in the esteem and good will of his fellow citizens."  Jefferson, Wis., Feb. 14, 1898, J. Lytle

 Water Power

    In 1908 the city purchased from C. Stoppenbach the estate upon which water power could be secured for the Water and Light Company, paying $75,000 for the property.

    During the session of the Territorial Legislature in 1842 an act was passed empowering D.G. and Gilmore Kendall to construct a dam across the Rock River for the purposes of improving the navigation of that stream and affording motive power to be applied to the running of mills, etc.  The act was approved on February 4, 1842 and on the first of May the construction of the dam was begun by D.G. Kendall and E.G. Darling, Gilmore Kendall having conveyed his interest in the latter.  George Crist, a carpenter, assisted in the work.  They built a crib-work of logs for piers, at short distances apart across the river on the top of which were placed stringers of heavy logs, surmounted by spars of tamarack timbers from eight to twelve inches in thickness and about twenty feet long, one end of which was supported by the stringers, the opposite end slanting down on the up-stream side and resting upon the river bed.  The interstices were filled up with thinly hewn pieces of timber, gravel etc.  The work was completed during the winter of that or the following year.  During the next spring Darling and Kendall constructed a saw-mill on the east side of the river, near the foot of Dodge Street.  This mill was torn down in 1877.  In July 1843, Alonzo Wing bought Enoch Darling's interest in the water power and later bought Kendall's share also.

    The season of 1844 brought an unusual rise in the river, causing not a little damage to property alongside, and was made the basis of a suit by the Town of Aztalan.  It was during this summer also that a steamer came up as far as Jefferson from the Mississippi, tying up at a point just north of the bridge crossing the Crawfish on the west side.  In May 1845, the owners of the dam were indicted for maintaining a nuisance, by the Jefferson County Grand Jury, but after an amount of litigation the action was dropped.  Later other actions were brought against the dam's owners because of water damage to property above it.  In February 1848, Mr. Wing sold a quarter interest to Merick Sawyer and the two began the erection of a saw-mill.  This mill performed good service, but in later years made way for the Jefferson Woolen Mills.  George Hulburt later became a part owner of the water power.  He put up a large flouring mill in conjunction with James Wadsworth.  It was constructed of brick.  Dwight Hillyer, Orrin Henry, John Seifert, Charles Stoppenbach and David Johnson were later interested in the estate.  Various owners came until the purchase of the water power by the city.


    On October 4, 1907, a meeting was called by some of the businessmen to organize a city library.  A board of directors were appointed and rooms secured over a hardware store.  One hundred and twenty-five dollars was raised by subscription.  The rooms were furnished.  Many of the books were contributed by citizens, some were borrowed from the Wisconsin Library Commission.  The rooms were opened to the public November 7, 1907, on Wednesday and Saturday from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

    In 1908 a reading room with periodicals was opened to the public.  This time the library was supported through the efforts of the Woman's Club and Promotors Club and all services had been given free of charge.

    In November 1908, the library was turned over to the city free from debt and became known as the Free Public Library of Jefferson.  In 1909, a librarian was employed.  In 1910 the site for the new library building was bought by the Promotors Club.  The following year contracts were let for the building, after receiving $10,000 from Andrew Carnegie.  The new building was dedicated on November 30, 1911 and was occupied almost immediately.

Fire Protection

    It was not until the City of Jefferson had suffered several severe losses by fire, involving the destruction of a large brick grist-mill, foundry and machine shops, and many other buildings, that citizens felt the need of a fire apparatus.  In the summer of 1871 a call for a meeting of citizens was issued.  This was held, but a discussion as to whether a hand or a steam fire-engine should be purchased arose and continued for a long time, eventually being decided in favor of the steam engine.  A committee was appointed to secure this engine.  This body concluded a contract for a Silsby rotary engine, together with a hose-cart and 1,000 feet of hose for $7,813.75.  In the meantime the organization of a company was in progress and on August 14, 1871, a number of citizens assembled at the furniture stores of J.C. Tilton for the work of organization.  The company was organized and was composed of the following:  J.C. Tilton, W.H. Porter, Thomas Conan, G.J. Smith, Paul Kielsing, Alois Beischel, A.J. Vandewater, Martin Friedel and Henry Walther.  The village board at once issued plans and specifications for the building of an engine house, hooks, ladders, trucks etc., and at a meeting on September 3, 1871, the former was let to Charles Stoppenbach for $3,750 and the latter to Beischel & Ruel for $459.  A handsome brick structure was erected on the corner of Milwaukee and Second Streets.  In the month of November following a hook and ladder company was organized.  This was the beginning of the present efficient volunteer fire fighting system in Jefferson.

Post Office

    Enoch G. Darling was the first postmaster in the City of Jefferson.  The office was established early in the 1940s and the headquarters of the postmaster was at the Jefferson House, then the property of A.T. Holmes.  It is said that Darling carried the mail in his hat (probably a tile) during the greater part of his term of service.  He was succeeded by A.T. Holmes, who moved the office to a small house which had been constructed on Main Street.  The office has been moved so many times that an inventory of a different places it has occupied would be impossible.


    One of the first manufacturing plants started in Jefferson was that of the Jefferson Woolen Manufacturing Company.  It was located on the west bank of the Rock River and drew its power from that stream.  The company was incorporated April 2, 1856 by Alonzo Wing, Edward McMahon, N. Jung, Charles Copeland, Charles Stoppenbach, William A. Whipple, N. Groh, J. Bruenig and A. Grimm with a capital stock of $25,000.  Cashmeres, flannels and blankets were the main products of this concern.

    The Wisconsin Manufacturing Company was organized in 1856.  It was the outgrowth of an extensive furniture factory which had been started several years before Clark, Cole & Ostrander.  The manufacture of beds and chairs was first undertaken in a building later used as a barn, while motive power was supplied by horses.  Jones & McLean were the proprietors at this time, but shortly went west and the Waldo brothers with O.C. Cole, took up the business at the corner of Main and Dodge Streets.  Early in 1856 Mr. Cole became associated with Clark and Ostrander and at the end of the year they constructed a building at the end of the Milwaukee Street Bridge.  The firm weathered the financial panic of 1857, despite the fact that all their productions had to be hauled by wagon to Madison and Whitewater for transportation to outside markets.  In 1866 the growth of the business necessitated the enlargement of the working facilities and, also at this time, the business was reorganized and a stock company formed.  The output of this factory, which is principally chairs, was one of the most important industries of Jefferson County.

    In the spring of 1875 John Gulden, a mechanic, opened a machine and blacksmith shop on East Racine Street, near the junction with Darling.  This was the start of the Jefferson Foundry.  In 1877 C. Vaughn became associated with him.  The manufacture of plows and other agricultural implements evolved into Vaughn Manufacturing Company, the outgrowth of the first small business.  Wagons for farm use are also produced by this concern and extensive shipments were made from the county seat to all parts of the country.

    In the spring of 1868 George Copeland and Lewis Ryder left Bridgewater, Massachusetts and came to Jefferson.  Their object was to establish a business which was then comparatively little known in Wisconsin.  They made arrangements without delay and on May 1 they began operations in a small frame building on First Street, in the western part of the village, manufacturing boots and shoes.  The plant had a good start and was bound to grow into one of the most successful of Jefferson's industries.  It was known as the Copeland & Ryder Company.

    Other major companies that located in Jefferson were:  The Jefferson Rope and Cordage Works, 1865, and later became Thomas Illing & Sons in 1875; Chas. Stoppenbach Sons, 1879; The Evaporated Milk Company; the Waverly Manufacturing Company; the Union Upholstering Company; the Johnson & Wolf Flouring Mill; Neuer & Geiglein's Brewery; Downer & Heger's Brewery; F. Heger Malt and Brewing Co.; Baireuther's and John Heimerl's tanneries; the Ellis Schweiger Soda Water Manufactory and the Riverside Cheese Factory

Newspaper Headlines

The Banner of March 9, 1854 "Business Prospects in Jefferson"

"When we took up our residence here last March we did not anticipate that in eight or nine months we would have the pleasure of giving publicity to the fact that business of all kinds has been steadily increasing up to the present.  The sawmills have done well and made money and the number of saw logs passing through our village, on their way to the mills, gives the village a thriving and business appearance.  The flouring mills have likewise had a full share.  He has bought largely of the farmers, and has transported a considerable quantity of flour to Milwaukee and elsewhere.  Some of our merchants have commenced packing pork.  The number of railroad ties cared in here during the summer and fall, chiefly by the hardy Germans, have amounted to 75,000 - valued at $15,000.  This source of wealth is yet in its infancy, as the forests around can furnish ties for any number of railroads if necessary; and with the prospect of two in this place - the Valley and Wisconsin Central - we can transport them wherever they are wanted, instead of being obliged to raft them down the Rock River as now.  Real Estate is high twenty odd acres were sold at full $50 per acre.  As much as $400 or $500 is asked for vacant corner lots on Main and from $200 to $300 for those on some of the back streets.  Five hundred and fifty dollars was refused for two lots situated near the courthouse.  A number of new building have been erected within the time specified.  One brick church is nearly completed and will be opened in the near spring.  Another of larger dimensions is to be commenced as soon as the weather will permit to be built of brick, besides a number of private residences."

The Banner of July 5, 1855

"At no former period, we can safely say, has this village displayed such signs or prosperity as it does at the present time.  The brickyard of Waldo & Murray is in successful operation.  They have a number of men employed and have already manufactured a large kiln which is now ready for burning and if the weather remains favorable for the rest of the season will make many more; still the quantity made will be far short of supplying the demand for building purposes.  Many frame buildings are in the process of erection, and more will be put up as soon as the lumber can be seasoned and other materials collected.  Our merchants have sold more goods than they have done heretofore; and our businessmen and mechanics have had as much as they could possible attend to.  Our streets teem with railroad ties, brought here principally by our German population round about, who readily dispose of them to several individuals who are engaged in buying them up.  They are rafted down the Rock River to Janesville and Beloit, and are used for the railroads in process of construction in that section of the country.  The Jefferson Mills have manufactured more flour, we do not hesitate to say, than any other mills in the interior of this state, with the exception probably of those in Janesville; and our sawmills, which are carried on separately by Messrs.  Hillyer, Trucks and Henry have turned out an immense amount of lumber, a large proportion of which goes down the river to Janesville, Beloit and Rockford, yielding handsome profits to those engage in the business.  The Wisconsin Central Railroad is rapidly progressing, a portion of it being already in running order, as the Elkhorn Reporter announces, and when it reaches this place, as sure it must at not distant period, the resources of Jefferson will be fully developed, and wealth and prosperity must follow, which is the only conclusion we can arrive at."

The Banner of December 8, 1959 - The Jefferson House Burns

"Last Friday, between the hours of 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m., an unusual quantity of smoke was discovered issuing from the east chimney of the Jefferson House, which upon examination was found to be also proceeding from a portion of the roof which surrounded the chimney.  Some of the inmates of the house immediately rushed up stairs and found that several of the upper story bedrooms were filled with smoke and that the fire was as yet confined to the roof.  There being no scuttle hole to get up on the roof of the building, some time was lost before ladders could be brought, during which the fire was rapidly gaining ground and as it was the general opinion that the fire had made too much headway to arrest its progress, the joint efforts of those assembled were turned principally to save the furniture and other personal property in the house, which was gone into with a will, and in a very short time the furniture, beds and bedding, trunks and numerous articles belonging to boarders in the house were piled up in heaps in front of the burning building.  By this time the conflagration was rapidly increasing and the fire had reached the second story, where it raged with unbridled fury though every exertion was made by our citizens to arrest its progress.  Two gangs of men were stationed from the house to the Rock River, one handing down empty buckets, and others passing the full ones, which did much to keep the fire in check.  Those who were actively engaged in staying the ravages of the devouring element, seeing that nothing could save the main building, turned their attention to saving the north wing, which as yet had been untouched by the fire.  Strong ropes and chains were procured, which were fastened round the burning timbers ,and a gang of men were ready to pull upon the rope, which generally resulted in pulling down the burning masses, and by a continuation of this process and tearing away a portion of the roof of the north wing it was saved.  We cannot speak too highly of the untiring exertions made by all classes of our citizens in endeavoring to save the Jefferson House and the personal property of Messers.  Stebbins & Pingree who were the principal sufferers from this unlocked for the event.  They had within the last few months, made a great many improvements in the interior arrangements of the house, and likewise upon the stables, and were just beginning to feel a pride in having everything arranged comfortably for the accommodation of man and beast, when this calamity befell them, and the most lamentable part of the catastrophe has yet to be told, and that is, that there was no insurance on the premises.  Loss probably about $3,000."