Tales of the First Settlers by Jessie Sprague | Chapter 1

Jessie Sprague at her Brodhead's Public Library desk in 1909
Jessie was Brodhead's Librarian for three decades

Tales of the First Settlers

By Jessie E. Sprague,  written in 1925

Ancient Indian trails doubtless crossed Sand Prairie near where Brodhead is now located. The old Half-Way Tree that still stands on the Charles Warner farm, south of town, is on an Indian trail, and marks a spot half way between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.
The Half-Way Tree

There was an old ford across Sugar River a little north of town, and another just south of the bridge at Clarence. The Big Spring was at the left as you turn towards Pine Bluff a deep, clear, beautiful spring. Long after Brodhead was settled; bands of Winnebagoes still camped there every spring on their way north, trapping muskrats and other game and wandering through the village. It was great sport for the school boys of the time to visit their camps.

An illustrated Winnebago camp | 1820's

After a few days or weeks the Indians would go on up the river to Decatur; some in canoes and others with the ponies and dogs along the old trail. Below the dam at Decatur was the site of a large Indian camp that must be very old. Many arrowheads and quantities of chip flints were found there and the ruin of an ancient Council House still stood as late as 1847 when it was destroyed by fire.

Between this place and Exeter there were fifty or more Indian mounds. Some of them were opened by the early settlers and found to be burial mounds. There is no record of any early settlement where Brodhead now is. The prairie was was covered with grass and flowers and was a common pasture for droves of cattle from the nearby farms. Doubtless herds of Indian ponies grazed here before the coming of the white men.
Winnebago sites along the Sugar & Rock rivers
1820's & 1830's Green County, Wisconsin

There were no trees on Sand Prairie except a few scattering native oaks that somehow managed to outlive the prairie fires that were set by the Indians every year. A few of these oaks are still standing, in the north part of town; two of them in Putnam Park.

These veterans of the prairie fires are not old enough to have seen the French voyageurs or the Jesuit priests who quite possibly may have passed along the Indian trails, but they have seen Indian signal fires blazing from the top of old Pine Bluff, and the light of many a council fire at Decatur. A little to the north of town the stage road from Milwaukee  to Prairie du Chien is passed, crossing the Charley Wooster farm, now owned by Guerney Condon. As all the principal roads followed Indian trails, this stage road, with the old ford across the river, was probably a very ancient route between the Lake and the River.

They saw the early adventurers on their way to the lead mines, and later the ox-teams and covered wagons of the first settlers. After 1840, there was a stage road from Milwaukee to Galena that passed the future site of Brodhead, a little north of town.

For many years the old trees saw four-horse stage go by, creeping through the mud and ruts or hidden in clouds of dust, carrying the U.S. Mail to and from Milwaukee. Even after Brodhead was platted, the first settlers had to go to Decatur for their mail. The trees saw, too, gay parties of young people ride by on their way to Decatur or Monroe, or Clarence, to dances.

For years after Brodhead became a town it still seemed almost incredible that with all the fertile country around, people should choose to live in the treeless sand of perhaps the only desert spot in this part of Wisconsin.

Crops withered and died in the scanty soil, kinneburrs flourished in the streets of the town, and only the old settlers know the heroic toil and courage that went into the long fight to make trees and grass take root; and that finally changed the arid, sandy wasteland into the beautiful garden spot that is now Brodhead.
Edward Brodhead

It was, of course, the coming of the Railroad that located Brodhead. The land here was owned by half a dozen men, who donated the right of way and grounds for the Depot. Edward Brodhead, of Milwaukee, chief engineer of the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad, was one of the promoters. E.D. Clinton, I.F. Mack, John P. Dixon, John L. Thomas and John L. McNair, E.A. West and Erastus Smith were others.
E. D. Clinton

Mr. Brodhead gave the town his name, and a bell for the first Church building, which was the Methodist.

Brodhead's Methodist Church

  Streets in the new town were named for each of the other men. The town was platted, one mile square, in the spring of 1856, just sixty nine years ago, and the railway and depot grounds were located. Immediately a boom for the new town set in. There was a rapid sale of lots at good prices. Dwellings went up that summer as fast as workmen could be found to put them up. Store buildings were moved over from Clarence and Decatur. Lumber for the first buildings was hauled from Milwaukee by ox-teams. The first Lumber Yard in Green County was established by Laird, McLaren & Co., in the spot where it is still located. Before the end of the second year, Brodhead had a population of six hundred.
Railroad Station & Depot | Brodhead, Wis

The depot was built and the railroad completed as far as Brodhead by the fall of 1857. At that time Decatur was a flourishing village of 400 inhabitants, with five stores, two hotels, and other business places. Nearly all of these were immediately moved over to Brodhead.
Brodhead Railway Station & Depot

Two brothers, Thomas and John Hendrie, owned and operated the flour and feed mill at Decatur. There was no water power at Brodhead, and in order to induce the Hendrie Brothers to move their milling business over her the gigantic enterprise of digging a canal, the present mill race, three and a half miles long, was undertaken.
Capital was raised by subscription, in amounts from $500 to $5, many citizens also contributing days' labor. Four years before, Decatur had refused to contribute money or land to induce the railroad to come there, and now Brodhead, with many of the same citizens, raised a cash bonus of $8000 toward the cost of the Race. In 1862, when the work was about two thirds completed, the digging was stopped for lack of funds to go on. It was at this time that Stephen C. Pierce and H. B. Stewart bought a half interest in the property for $7000. In May, 1863, the flouring mill was put in operation, at a cost of $28,000 for the enterprise.

Brodhead had sectional differences from the beginning. Dixon Street on the South Side rivaled Clinton Street on the North as a residence section, and for several years the business houses along Center Street were mostly on the South Side of the railroad.
East Exchange Street

Myron Halstead built a two story frame store on the corner of Center Street and Cook Street, just south of the Park, in 1857. In the spring of 1858 he brought his stock of goods over from Clarence, where he had been in business, and opened a general store in Brodhead.

The Manley House, a hotel built in 1856-57, stood on the opposite corner, where the Gombar dwelling is now. Other business houses occupied the rest of these blocks on either side of the street.
The Harvey Moore Family

West of the Manley House was a planing mill. Colonel Harvey Moore, P.T. Moore's father, came to Brodhead in January, 1857, and built a grain warehouse, on the corner of Cooke and Clinton Streets, north of the corner where S.J. Stair's house now stands. The family lived in rooms up stairs.

For many years a little one-story "lock-up" stood next to this warehouse on the east, and was the only penitentiary building the city ever boasted.  Before it was built, offenders were locked up in a freight car for safe-keeping. 

L.S. Fisher came here in 1856, and opened a boot and shoe store on Coooke Street, in the house now occupied by Charles Beattie. Taylor & Frye had a general store on the South Side.
19th Century Brodhead Store

The first house built and occupied as a dwelling was built by R. H. Rugg, in 1856, and is still standing, just west of the Asbury Cooley residence.

R. H. Rugg House
(no longer standing in 21st century Brodhead)

A number of good residences were built on Dixon Street. Mr. John McNair, a brother of Miles McNair, built one at the end of the street, afterwards known as the Joseph Barber place. This is one of the oldest houses in town.

The Huntington's Block, Brodhead's first (and last) apartment building stood on the east side of Dixon Street, opposite the Don Collin's house.