Lake Mills was a place some called Keyesville and was part of Aztalan Township in early pioneer history. Today Lake Mills is a showcase growing communty with parks on Rock Lake, access to I-94, a historic downtown and other assests. Lake Mills is a place where visitors always return.
Aztalan, a name derived from a ancient Aztec tradition, was a Native American village hosting a blending of Mississippian & local culture. It later became a bustling pioneer center, and is now a wonderful memory of the past.
Aztalan Day is the first Sunday in July, 10am to 3pm on the museum grounds. Aztalan Day features outdoor exhibits, music, food. Aztalan Day is the 1st Sunday in July.
The Founding of Lake Mills, by Elisha W. Keys.
A Reminiscent History of the Village and Town of Lake Mills
embraced in a period of ten years, from 1837 to 1847, and while Wisconsin was a territory.
Ladies and Gentlemen of Lake Mills: To fill up the gap from 1837 to 1894 would require fifty-seven years and those years would only measure the time since my father's family settled here in 1837. To commence at the beginning of this period with a backward look from today; to carefully scan the succeeding ten years, bringing to the fore from that long buried past, the facts, incidents and prominent figures of that early settlement, would seem to be a draft upon one's memory that could not be honored. Yet, knowing myself and tenacity of my memory, from those boyhood days, I know that it is clear, and "True as the needle to the pole, Or as the dial to the sun."
From the storehouse of that memory, I have brought forth the facts and reminiscences embodied in this address. Fiction is given no place and nothing is credited to the imagination. I only fear you may set down as trifling and uninteresting, so much that is necessarily personal to myself in many of the incidents herein related. But, being dear to me, I submit them to your kindly interest.
I remember that once, when I was a boy in Vermont, my father procured an old-fashioned atlas with the apparently unsettled Northwest Territory traced upon it; and, calling my elder brothers about him, pointed with his forefinger on the map to that portion of the Territory which began about the southern point of Lake Michigan and extended there from in a northwesterly direction. He pointed to the mouth of the Milwaukee river; and said he, "Boys, there's where we want to go; that country offers a splendid inducement for settlers. There," said he, "must be water-powers and timber."
At this time I was but seven years of age; still I remember the deep interest I took in the conversation and the impression that it made upon my mind. Following this discussion about locality, in the year 1836, my father wended his way thither, going to Milwaukee and later to Jefferson county, finally making claims to lands in that portion of the county afterwards known as Lake Mills, though the land was not then in the market. Having made up his mind to settle at that point, he communicated with my mother, then resident with her children at Northfield, Vermont, and arranged that the family should start for the country that had just been organized into Wisconsin territory.
In pursuance of this determination, on the second day of May, 1837, the family, consisting of my mother and brothers, Abel and Oliver, and sister Katharine and myself, started in wagons, with a few household goods, for Burlington upon Lake Champlain; thence by steamboat to Whitehall in New York, and from that point by canal. Near Utica, my father, coming from the west, met us upon the way and guided us to our new home. Embarking at Buffalo upon the steamer Bunker Hill, after a very pleasant voyage, with scarcely a ripple upon the lake, we landed in Detroit.
From Detroit we traveled in covered wagons along the swampy roads of Michigan, and through Northern Indiana to Chicago. After dragging our wagons through the muddy streets of that embryo city, little dreaming that some of us would live to see it contain nearly two million people, we started on our winding way for Milwaukee. The road was muddy and the country almost wholly unsettled. In the heavy timber between Racine and Milwaukee, and nearer to the latter city, we became stuck in the mud and were obliged to remain all night, waiting for daylight to extricate ourselves. In the morning we proceeded on our way, and finally, in the afternoon of the 17th day of June, 1837, we emerged from the heavy timber upon the banks of the Milwaukee river at what was then known as Walker’s Point.
We remained in Milwaukee until autumn, occupying a frame building, two stories with basement, on the northeast corner of Onieda and Broadway. This house had been constructed by my father at a place called Navarino on Green Bay, and shipped to Milwaukee where it was put up. Its location at that time was really in the woods. There were no buildings in front of it to the river, and but one between our house and the court house the bush was so thick that I frequently became lost, until I had thoroughly learned the way.
Milwaukee was then but a village of a few hundred inhabitants, yet it was the largest and most important point, if I remember rightly, in all the vast expanse of country west of Milwaukee was more likely to become the great city of the west than Chicago, but subsequently the railroads turned the tide in favor of the latter city.
The year before, which was in the summer of 1836, my father had visited the country now known as Jefferson county, and made claim to about a section of land, now comprising Lake Mills village and its surroundings. He was very anxious to move his family to that point. Therefore, in the latter part of September, we were on the move again to reach, what was then pictured to us to be, “The Promised Land.”
We left Milwaukee with two teams, one of which was a wagon drawn by oxen, containing our household goods and the women of the party, who could not well walk over the rough and muddy roads. We passed Prairieville, now Waukesha, which place had only one or two log houses, and across Summit Prairie through Oconomowoc until we struck the woods, through which we traveled until we reached the present site of the city of Watertown. At a place in the heavy timber, not far from the Rock river known as Sacias, we were overtaken by a heavy rainstorm, and we had to search for the best shelter we could find. In a clearing near at hand we found with the body made of small logs and the roof covered with split timber. Into this we all huddled, and after partaking of the last of our provisions waited for the morning, which finally came and found us thoroughly wet from the storm. We gathered ourselves together, formed anew the procession, and started with the two wagons for Watertown, not very far ahead, at this place we arrived in the afternoon. All we saw at this place was a dam across the river, partially constructed, and the foundation for a sawmill with two shanties not far away. We crossed the river, passing on to our objective point, and at about a mile or so distant, in open country, we reached a log house occupied by the family of Timothy Johnson, where we stayed all night.
The next day was to finish our journey, and while the distance was only about twelve miles, we knew it would be a great undertaking to reach our destination by nightfall. After making the best time we could during the day, we reached the ford at a place now known as Milford, just as the sun was declining in the west, and we ferried across the river in a boat constructed of two Indian canoes, bottomed with split bass wood planks, upon which the wagons rested, the horses and cattle fording the stream. After crossing the river we started through the oak openings with no road, not even an Indian trail, seeing no human being, not even a shanty, until after dark when we struck the present site of Lake Mills, where near the lake, after crossing the slough, on the property now owned by Gherika Bros., we found a floorless shanty shingled with a hay stack. Our horses and oxen were picketed in the best manner possible for the night, and some of our household goods were unloaded from the wagons. We were entirely out of everything to eat, and we were certain to go supperless to bed unless something could be cooked. The sheet iron cook stove was placed upon its legs upon the ground, and a fire started. The program was to make some biscuits and boil the tea-kettle for a cup of tea, and that was to be our supper. A fire was started in the stove but it would not burn. There was no draft. The smoke issued from it in every direction. It commanded our best efforts to make it perform its duty, but it would not. We were nearly discouraged. Our party had gathered around it watching with deep solicitude the result. All the ingenious devices we could think of were applied to it to make it work, and we were all giving up the effort in despair. My father said, “We will try two things more, and if they fail we will give it up.” The first was to set some hay on fire and thrust it into the pipe hole, which was low down, to dry out the dampness, which, he thought, might have gathered there from being so long exposed to the rain during our journey. This was done. No change in the stove. The next and last move was to put up a long stretch of pipe pointing towards the stars, at least, twelve feet. When the pipe was erected, new fuel was applied, and soon the stove was singing away right merrily with a splendid draft that made our hearts glad for we knew it meant a supper for a hungry party. Soon the cakes were mixed and baked, the tea-kettle boiled and tea was made, and we sat around upon the ground partaking of our supper, very thankful that it had been vouchsafed to us.
After supper, with darkness having set in all around us, my father found another most difficult problem to solve. The question was, “Where were we all to sleep?” It must be in some manner beneath the shelter of the hay stack that topped the shanty. Across one end of the same my father gathered away the chips and chunks and limbs and old musty hay, supplying in their places hay of a better quality over which were spread some blankets, and one large resting place was provided. When it was ready we gathered around and went to bed in the following order. Next to the logs was placed my brother Abe/; next to him Mr. George Farmer; then came his wife and my sister Kate; then my youngest brother Oliver, and next in order was myself; and when we were all packed in snugly my father took the outside, and his place came mainly upon the ground with nothing between. I will state here that Mr. George Farmer and wife accompanied us from Milwaukee, and that my mother left us in the Watertown woods in order to lighten our load, and went to Aztalan in company with other travelers.
While we were occupants of the shanty, we had some rather interesting times and varied experiences. From the south, toward Illinois, my father had secured a yoke of oxen for labor, and a cow had followed them in, which animal was designed for food. As we had no feed for her, it became necessary that she should be dispatched and made into beef. So one bright morning all hands were called together to participate in the slaughter. We had corralled the animal in the bush, in fact surrounded her, and George Farmer with his rifle was to bee the executioner. The cow was as wild as a deer, and seemed to anticipate what was in store for her. It was some time before an opportunity was presented for a shot. The rifle went off with a loud report, and away went the cow-over the hills and out of sight. We all rushed after and surrounded her again. All were very much excited. Soon another shot was made-aimed at her head by George Farmer, the marksman, though not a farmer. The cow shook her head and away she went again. This was very discouraging. My father became alarmed. He thought we were going to lose our hold upon the animal. The time came when there was another opportunity for the rifle to be brought into play. My father shouted to Farmer at the top of his voice, saying, “Shoot again. If you can’t hit her in the head this time, shoot her in the paunch.” The rifle sounded again and the cow came down, and an ax finished the final effort. This occurred a little way from our shanty and the dressing took place where the cow fell. We had made sure of our beef. We did not wish it to become food for the wolves. We wanted it ourselves. It was brought in and protected as fully as possible, but that night a drove of gray wolves surrounded the shanty. The smell of blood had sharpened their appetites, and portions of the animal had been seized by them and dragged quite a distance, but we all rallied to save it from loss.
The next night it was arranged to lie in wait for the savage brutes. No sleep for us that night. Volney Foster, who joined us, was posted in a secure place armed with a rifle. As the night progressed the howling of the wolves was head, and some of them approached within a few feet of the shanty. Soon the report of the rifle rang out loud and clear and a big, gray wolf fell pierced with a rifle rang out loud and clear and a big, gray wolf fell pierced with a rifle ball through his body. Though not dead my father finished his career with a blow upon the head with an ax.
We occupied this primitive habitation for a number of weeks, but it was necessary for us to have a better place than this to live in during the winter; therefore, my father proceeded at once to construct a log house upon the site now occupied by W. H. Raynes’ dwelling. It was built and ready for occupancy before the cold weather came. In this house we lived for several years. We had very little, if any, furniture to furnish the house with after it was finished. Only a few of the most essential articles could be moved from the eastern home. No chairs, no tables, no bedsteads, nothing hardly but the old traditional feather bed, and a meager lot of crockery for the table. I remember very well the manner of construction of our log house. Logs were rolled one upon the other, crossing at the ends and interlocked together and between the logs we put wedges of split oak, filling the chinks in with mud from the bank. The floors were made from plank split from oak, and the shingles were turned out in the same manner. The table, which we used for many years, was made of oak, and the chairs were simply three-legged stools with plank to cover the three legs. Old settlers have a keen recollection of them. In the end of our log house was an old-fashioned chimney, with a hole cut through the end for the stone work, with the chimney, extending to the top of the roof, built of split oak and mud. It was several years after this log house was constructed before a frame house was erected in any part of the county. After the saw mill commenced operations and we could saw boards for building purposes, a frame addition of one room and chamber was built on the north end of our log house. It was a great addition and was appreciated very highly. The old land marks, the log houses, have now almost wholly disappeared, and with the old pioneers will soon have returned to dust.
My father had selected this site upon the stream near the lake with the intention of constructing a saw mill and a grist mill there. The former was built and in running order in ’39, and the grist mill in ’42. All his efforts during this period, and under the most discouraging circumstances, were devoted to the construction of the mills, which, I think, were about the first, if not the first built in Jefferson county.
The early settlers of Lake Mills and Jefferson county were all men of small means. They had but little money. Many of them found it difficult to furnish bread for their families during the time the ground was being cleared and broken in order to produce a crop. At the time, and for several years subsequent, provisions were very high, and the market of the early settlers had was in Milwaukee, some fifty or more miles distant, with the roads almost impassable. I remember that in the spring of ’38, we had gotten out of provisions, and my father started for Milwaukee for some flour and pork. The weather was bad and the roads almost impassable. After an absence of over three weeks, during which time the family was very much alarmed for his safety, he returned, having spent all his money, with just one barrel of flour. This was nearly all loaned out in a short time to the settlers, who had not even money enough for their necessary wants. A kindly and fraternal feeling prevailed most emphatically among all the early settlers. There was no fighting, no wrangling. They all agreed and were desirous of helping one another in whatever they had on hand to do. If one had a barrel of flour and a little pork, he most cheerfully loaned a portion of it to his neighbor, and thus some families were enabled to subsist that otherwise would certainly have gone hungry.
It hardly seems possible in this day of plenty to realize the condition of things which then existed. There was a time when the settlers in the vicinity of Lake Mills and Aztalan really suffered from hunger. They were apprehensive that they and their families might starve to death. A meeting was held one Sunday in a log house at Aztalan occupied by Capt. Thomas Brayton, where the settlers came together and considered this difficult problem, which had become to them a serious one, that is, what they were to do for something to eat. At this meeting the oxen in the settlement, which were about the only beasts of burden, were counted up and an estimate made as to how long the band of settlers could subsist upon them in case they should be reduced to that extremity. The question was most carefully and prayerfully considered by the men and women who were present at that meeting. I have seen my father with his head bowed low upon his hands in deep thought and meditation, and when my mother attempted to arouse him by the inquiry, “Joseph, what is the matter?” he would lift up his head and say, “Olive, I know not where we are to get provisions to live upon much longer.” I recollect one instance, which I shall never forget, when we were entirely out of provisions of every kind, and my father started in the afternoon for Capt. Brayton’s at Aztalan to see if he could not borrow a few pounds of flour. The sun went down, and he had not yet returned. Darkness came, and my mother and the children were much worried for fear some accident had befallen him. He had gone on horseback, leaving one house in the stable. About nine o’clock we heard the neighing of a house in the distance, which was answered by its mate in the stable, and shortly afterward my father emerged from the opening across the creek, and soon reached the door, leading his horse, and from the open door and by the light of the fire, which shone through it, we saw something had happened to him. He was wet and muddy, and held in his arms a little bag or bundle. His first remark to my mother was, “Olive, we are ruined.” He proceeded to relate that upon his homeward way in crossing the Big Slough, about midway between the two places, his horse had stumbled upon the floating logs, and thrown him and the bag of flour he carried into the mud and mire, where the horse and rider and flour remained until he succeeded in extricating himself. He then grasped the bag of flour and carried it to dry land., the horse following. Thence he wended his way homeward. The flour had been soaked in the muddy water of the slough, and he had reason to think that it was entirely destroyed; but my mother, who always took a hopeful view of things, endeavored to comfort him by saying that perhaps it was not so bad as he expected. The horse was put in the log stable, and the bag of flour brought in and laid upon the floor, and my father and mother and us children gathered around the bag as the strings were unfastened waiting in eager expectancy for the result. As the top of the bag was opened, sure enough, so it appeared, the muddy water had done its work, but soon the dough cracked open, and inside there appeared good dry flour. The end of the bag was turned backward, and the dry flour taken out. After this had been secured, then the dough, the result of the mixture of the marsh water with the flour, was carefully scraped off and sacredly preserved and eaten by the family. For a little while we had two kinds of bread upon the table, that made of the mixture I have spoken of for the children, and the better quality for the older people, but the children did not complain. We were satisfied with it because it would appease our hunger.
This is the first ten pages of this booklet. To read the rest of this account, you can find this booklet at the L. D. Fargo Public Library in Lake Mills or it can be purchased at the Lake Mills Aztalan Museum.