Weston Rapids Nearly Stole The County Seat

Compiled by Stan Schwarze


But for 17 votes cast in what later became the Town of Levis, the county seat of Clark County might today be at Weston Rapids, two miles north of Neillsville.

As it was, Weston Rapids almost stole it. The whole fiasco started in 1853, and it lives in legend today. That was the year Samuel Weston, accompanied by David Robinson and others from the state of Maine, came into the area. They settled on the Black River at a place two miles north of O’Neill’s Mills, as Neillsville was known then. The men started running logs down stream from that point.

That same year, when the state Legislature set out to cut Clark County loose from Crawford County, it had also the task of selecting a county seat. A petition praying that the county seat be located at O’Neill’s Mills had been submitted to the legislature. Or so James O’Neill, Benjamin F. French and their supporters thought; at least they had made up such a petition and sent it on its way to Madison.

Nobody ever has accused anybody of a misdeed or anything like that, but somehow when the petition reached the Legislature the name of Weston Rapids had been substituted for O’Neill’s Mills. Whether it was done enroute to Madison, or by skillful lobbying in committee, it is not known. Samuel Weston at that time was credited with skill or complicity, depending on which person was telling the story.

At any rate, when they heard of the perfidy, James O’Neill and his supporters became indignant, to put it mildly. They were fully determined to reverse the action of the Legislature. They sought help from a good friend in Madison, a legislator with influence named Gibson. He prevailed on the Legislature to set aside its original action and to submit the naming of a county seat to a vote of the people.

The election took place in Nov. 1854.

Because the largest area of population in Clark County at the time was south of Weston Rapids, the two polling places designated were also south of Weston Rapids. One was located in O’Neill’s Mills, and the other in Parker’s Tavern, eleven miles south of O’Neill’s Mills.

Preparations for the elections were frantic, particularly among O’Neill’s Mills supporters. James O’Neill is given credit in folklore with an action which may have had some adverse influence in the size of the vote for Weston Rapids. A group of O’Neill’s men bought a barrel of whiskey in La Crosse and brought it back here the night before the election. The next morning, bright and early, they installed the barrel on the north side of O’Neill Creek, and hung out a "Free Whiskey" sign.

The idea was that people from Weston Rapids would stop to refresh themselves with a belt or two of whiskey, then, being the rough-and-tumble type of people who worked the woods and the frontiers of the day, they might just settle down to some serious drinking, as long as it was free. That either would delay their crossing to the voting place too long, or it would make walking the narrow log boom across the creek too hazardous. After all, it was November and cold, and who wanted to get sopping wet and half-frozen just to vote? People could die of two things: snake bite and pneumonia.

The day was bright and the air crisp as it can be on a November day in Wisconsin. Voting was fairly brisk, perhaps, as one historian put it, " at neither place were the ballots of imported voters rejected."

The voting a O’Neill’s Mills favored Weston Rapids by four tallies; but Parker’s Tavern vote, in what later became the Town of Levis, turned a vote of 21 majority for O’Neill’s Mills. That gave O’Neill’s Mills a majority of 17 over Weston Rapids.

The community of Weston Rapids since has vanished. One farm house remains there at the rapids of the Black River, which was named after pioneer sawmill man Samuel Weston.

Post Office mural depicts election of 1854

On the North wall of the Neillsville, Clark County Post Office lobby, there is a historical mural done in 1940 under a federal grant by John VanKoert, who, at the time, was an art instructor at the University of Wisconsin.

The picture depicts election day in Nov. 1854, in Neillsville, a day in which a vote was taken to determine whether the county seat of Clark County would be at O’Neill’s Mills (the original name of Neillsville) or at Weston Rapids, three mile north on Black River.

(See story above)

The mural, as it was painted, erred in that it displays the whiskey barrel on the wrong side of O’Neill Creek.

Weston Rapids original plat; View the map.

State of Wisconsin, County of Clark

I hereby certify that I did survey for Samuel L. Weston on the 10th days of Feb. A.D. 1859, the village of Weston Rapids, situated on Lot Three & Lot Seven & up on the North East quarter of the south east quarter, all in Section two (2), Town twenty four (24), Range two (2) west, in the county of Clark, and that this is a true and correct plat of the said village of Weston Rapids as surveyed by me & further the corners of the lots mark O, are the stones for future survey.

Moses Clark, Surveyor

Signed, Sealed & Acknowledged and delivered in person of:

Joseph W. Lorey & Frank S. Emery, State of Wisconsin, County of La Crosse

Samuel L. Weston & Sarah B. Weston

Be it remembered that on the 21st day of February A.D. 1859, personally offered before me Samuel L. Weston and Sarah B. Weston, his wife, to me well known to be the persons who signed the within plat of the village of Weston Rapids to be platted & made who severally acknowledge the execution & making of the same to be their free act & deed, and at also Moses Clark, the surveyor who made said plat, who only certified that the same were true & correct & properly made.

Joseph W. Lorey, Notary Public, La Crosse, Wis.


Workmen were busy moving several bodies from the old Weston Rapids cemetery, about two miles south of Neillsville, to the cemetery in Neillsville.  Source: Clark Co. Press 10 June 1998 in reference to a June 1898 article.


Mrs. C. W. Stern Tells of Weston Rapids

Transcribed by Lani Bartelt.


Another woman who came as a pioneer and lived through those active and stirring times but who now watches beside the passing tide of life in a quiet way is Mrs. Charlotte Sterns. The writer spent four very pleasant years in her home and an interview meant merely a calling to mind many of the things he had often talked over before. Mr. and Mrs. Sterns came to Weston's Rapids in 1856.  The Coburns owned the saw mill and grist mill there and carried on big lumbering operations up the river. Sam Weston, known locally as "Old Sock”, was the head man.  A man named Searls who later moved to Augusta ran a boarding house. There were only a few women there and many rough looking men, but Mrs. Sterns says they all treated her with greatest respect.  Many of the LaCrosse men who later became wealthy were familiar figures up and down the river. One night a flood carried away the bridge leaving Mr. Sterns’ cow on the other side of the river.  N. H. Withee, who was conducting the log drive, told him to wait till the logs got past and he would get the cow over. He crossed the river in a canoe, caught the cow and paddling the canoe back he led the cow which swam after him. “I remember” said Mrs. Sterns “what was probably the first funeral in the County. A young man from Maine named Chas. Locke was drowned just below the dam. My husband made the coffin. There was no minister here. Someone read a chapter from the Bible, a prayer was offered and there were some who could sing a hymn. The coffin was carried by six men, on poles (there being no handles) to a place east of where Sol Johnson’s old cabin stood and he was buried there. Shortly after another man named Hall, also from Maine died and was buried close by.”


Christmas did not count for much then.” I think I remember their having dances at the holidays.”


“Political excitement ran high the first fall we were here was the Fremont-Buchanan election, and later the Civil War came on.” A school was established in a log house left by a family that moved out. Maria Dore taught there and later a young lady from the South of much refinement and education was the teacher.” Under the excitement of the times she was suspected of being a Rebel spy.” I knew Pattengill the Indian trader very well; always disliked him and never let him come into my house.”


Follow-on Notes

There is some additional information on the Weston Rapids article.  Henry Bieneck who purchased the town-site acreage in 1907 was the great-grandfather of Roy Bieneck.  The Weston Rapids logger’s boarding house was renovated into a one-story home and is now owned by Roy and Sandy Bieneck.


Another building, saved from the Weston Rapids village, was the horse and oxen barn on the west side of the river.


Charles Appleyard employed the Art Gress Movers to move the barn from the river bank site to his farmstead along Grand Avenue.  Stone-masonry walls were placed under the jacked-up barn, completing an extension to the main barn.


(If anyone has photos of the Weston Rapids village or buildings that were in the village, we would like to copy those.  Once copied, the photos are returned.)




Past local history portion of Clark County Press; Courthouse documents, and various historical sketches.


Return to the Weston Twp. Main site




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