History of Clark County Wisconsin

Lumbering History, Clark County, Wisconsin

Compiled by Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge,
Chicago and Winona, H. C. Cooper Jr., & Co., 1918



The picture above is from a very old engraving.  The description,

as appearing in connection with it, reads:--"Largest Load of Logs

hauled by four horses for the Standard Lumber Company"

Amos Elliott, in a paper prepared in 1907, tells something of the operations in those days. In his narrative he states that he was born in Chester County, Pa., in 1822, and came to Black River Falls in 1845. Myrick, of La Crosse, was then logging with Jacob Spaulding, on the river above Neillsville.  Mr. Elliott hired out as an ox teamster to Myrick, who furnished four yoke of cattle, and board for men and team, and paid 50 cents a thousand for the work. He left Black River Falls in September, 1845, and went through where Neillsville now is, and found Henry O’Neill, brother of James O’Neill, Sr., building a shanty on the creek. Elliott logged the winter of 1845-46 on the east side of Black River, above Cawley Creek, and that same winter, William T. Price logged below him on the west side of the river, having his camp on the river bank.


The winter of 1846-47, Mr. Elliott states that he went up the river from the Falls, with Tom Wilson, an old Quaker from Pennsylvania, and put in logs for one Grover, just opposite the mouth of Cunningham Creek; they stayed there all that winter, without a letter, paper, or communication whatever with the outside world. They had no stoves in those days, and all the cooking was done in the fireplace. In the fall of 1848, Mr. Elliott formed a partnership with William T. Price, which continued for several years. The winter of 1848-49, Elliot run a camp for the partnership, putting in logs on the west side of Black River, four miles above Cawley Creek. These logs wee put in for Col. B. F. Johnson.


The winter of 1849-50, according to Mr. Elliot, the snow throughout Clark County was very deep, deeper, in his opinion, than it was some years later in, 1856-57, a winter that has ever since been known as the “winter of the deep snow.” In the fall of 1850, Mr. Elliot took a logging job from Andrew Sheppard, on the East Side of Black River, two or three miles below what is now Greenwood. That winter, T. J. La Flesh worked for him.


Early Logging in Greenwood, Clark Co., Wisconsin

The above photo was added 2021 from the Steve Roberts Postcard Collection

In 1853, Samuel Weston, accompanied by David Robinson and several others, came from Maine and located at what has since been known as Weston’s Rapids, two miles above Neillsville. They commenced running logs down the Black River and thus became the first local loggers in Clark County independent of the local mills, those previous to them, not connected with the local mills, having been residents of La Crosse or Black River Falls. In 1860 this logging center was a spirited little village with a store, a saw and grist mill, a furniture establishment, a large public house, a post office, a lawyer and some 260 inhabitants.

Chapter V First Settlement

The first occupancy of Clark County was brought about by the wealth of animal life in the forests, by its geographical advantages tributary to the Wisconsin, Chippewa and Black Rivers, and by its position as the common hunting-ground of the Chippewa, Dakota, Winnebago and, possibly, the Menominee Indians.

It was in the autumn of 1836, when the falling leaves had spread a soft carpet in the forest glades; when few of the wild flowers were left; when the feathered songsters had taken their departure, and the wild geese and ducks in great flocks were wending their south-bound flight with raucous cries, and when the fur-clad denizens of forest and stream had assumed their winter coats, or were making ready for their period of hybernation, that a party of French and Canadian trappers and fur traders, in the employ of the American Fur Company, appeared on the East Fork of the Black River and established a temporary post. Living in close touch with Nature in all her moods, and themselves almost an integral part of the savage landscape, the long and dreary winter had for them few terrors, and to the inconveniences they were accustomed and hardened by long experience. Constructing a comfortable shack in the thick forests overlooking the winding stream, they made it their headquarters until the following spring, and from it set forth on their winter expeditions, penetrating into the surrounding wilderness to Indian villages in all directions, and returning from time to time with their hard-earned booty. Many a blustering night passed when the members of the party, assembled around the roaring hearth and narrating by turns their wild and adventurous experiences, passed about the social glass, or broke forth into some wild and stirring song of the frontier, or, it may be, some gentler ditty reminiscent of more civilized scenes and arousing for the moment more tender emotions.

Visiting Indians from time to time camped nearby, adding picturesque ness to the scene and variety to the lives of the traders, the smudge from their campfires mingling with the smoke from the cabin, and the sound of their tom-toms and native singing and dancing vying with the roistering hilarity of the whites.

With the traders, as a packer, was a lad, Norbert St. Germaine, then but 16 years of age. The imagination is stirred in contemplating the experiences of this courageous boy, far from home and youthful companions, accompanying these hardened adventurers on their excursions through the bitter cold of the snowbound forests, witnessing the haggling with the savage natives over the exchange of furs and trinkets, and then returning over the dreary route to the isolated cabin, his slender shoulders bowed with the heavy pack of valuable fur.

After the departure of the traders, the cabin crumbled in disuse, the wilderness crept into the little clearing, the visiting Indians pitched their tepees elsewhere, and, undisturbed, the beaver played in the streams, and the deer and bear roamed the woods.

Next came the Mormons, seeking timber for the erection of their tabernacle at Nauvoo, Ill. These sturdy religionists, who established a settlement at Black River Falls, in 1841, came up the Black River into Clark County in 1844, cut logs from the vast forests along the river, floated them down to Black River Falls, and there sawed them into lumber, thence to be run down the Black and Mississippi Rivers to their destination. For a time the wild arches of timber rang with the sound of axes and reverberated with the crash of falling trees, and the solemn night was made more somber with the chant of dirge-like hymns and the sinister preaching of a strange religion, while the hearts of the woodmen beat high with the false and fantastic hopes of a day when their little colony in Illinois would dominate a vast area of which they were to be the rulers and elders. One of their number, Jonathan Cunningham, by a sacrifice of his life, perpetuated his name forever in the annals of Clark County, as the designation of one of its important streams. While engaged with his Mormon companions in running logs down the creek, which now bears his name, Cunningham slipped into the icy water and was drowned before assistance could reach him. His body was recovered and sorrowfully borne to Black River Falls, where it is interred according to the rites of his church. For a time Mormon activities flourished in this region, but the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith at Carthage in 1844, and the troubles immediately following, called many of the members to Nauvoo, while the westward hegira early in 1846 caused the Mormon efforts at Black River Falls to be abandoned.

Evidence of the Mormon occupancy of Clark County long remained in four places along the Black River, one at the Mormon Riffle below the mouth of Wedge's Creek, one on the west bank of the river, about a mile below Neillsville, at a spot long known as the Herrian Farm, one near Weston's Rapids, and one south of Greenwood. In 1854, these four camping places were grown up with wild plum trees. Remains of the log cabins, built of unhewed logs and chinked with mud, were still in evidence, and holes still told of where the root cellars had been excavated. Broken crockery has been at various times been unearthed at all four of these locations.

In the meantime influences were at work which were to give to the wilderness of Clark County its first permanent settlers, and thus prepare the way for its development, first into a busy lumbering region, and later into a rich dairy county. This occupancy was brought about by the stretches of forest, so situated as to be accessible by water to the great lumber markets of the upper Mississippi.

Near Black River Falls, James and Alexander O'Neill, the pioneer lumbermen, were conducting a sawmill. Previous to this they had been residents of Prairie du Chien. From there, in the summer of 1839, a colony had set out for the Black River country, and had located at the present site of Black River Falls. In the autumn the O'Neill brothers likewise determined to try their fortunes in that region. With the followers they came up the Mississippi and Black Rivers, in September, and located a few miles from Black River Falls, on the bottoms of Robinson's Creek, where they spent the winter in getting out timber. Before spring they moved to the mouth of Perry Creek in the same locality and erected a frame mill. In a few years, however, they became convinced that there were better opportunities further up the river, and with this purpose in view made a visit to what is now Clark County in the fall of 1844, and selected a promising site on the stream which now bears their name.

In June, 1845, James O'Neill, Henry O'Neill (who died in 1858), with E.L. Brockway and Samuel F. and William Ferguson, accompanied by a number of laborers, removed to this new site, and became the first permanent settlers in what has since been organized as Clark County. The party came overland in a wagon, drawn by an ox team, cutting their way through the brush and other obstructions, and was two days on the trip. This was the first road ever made in the county.

At that time the whole county was still an uninhabited wilderness. Game of all kinds was abundant; deer, wolves, otter, mink, beaver, and marten were very plentiful. Deer could be shot from the door of O'Neill's log cabin, and wolves would frequently chase them around into the clearing, the deer escaping by taking refuge in the dam behind the mill. The Indians then inhabiting the county were principally Chippewa's. They received the newcomers in a friendly spirit, and as settlers began to come in, brought peltries to sell or exchange for pork and flour.

Immediately upon the arrival of the O'Neill family trees were felled, hewn and shaped, and within a brief period a rough log cabin, 18 by 24, was erected on the banks of O'Neill Creek, near where the mill was afterwards built. This was the first house built in the county. It was, as compared with the domiciles, which have since been substituted, a cheerless abode, but for the times, comfortable, if not luxurious. Upon the completion of the cabin the mill was begun, and before the closing of the year was in readiness for work. Constructed of logs and located in the present bed of the creek, it was supplied with one upright saw, with a capacity of 4,000 feet every twelve hours, and worked continuously. The pine logs were easily obtained along O'Neill Creek and floated down to the mill. The lumber was rafted at the foot of the mill, run to the mouth of the creek and combined in rafts, which usually contained 10,000 feet. Having reached the falls, these rafts were again combined into still larger ones, containing 40,000 to 50,000 feet, and run to the Mississippi, thence to Burlington, Iowa, consigned to Alexander O'Neill, and sold for an average of $10 per thousand.

In 1846, James O'Neill, however, erected a more commodious house to live in, and the abandoned log cabin, undermined by the water, fell into the creek. In the summer, John Kennedy and his wife arrived, and Mrs. Kennedy, the first white woman in the county, became housekeeper at the O'Neill place, where all the colony then boarded.

Two marriages of Clark County people took place this year. One was that of Simon Winfield, an O'Neill employee, to a young lady whom Mrs. Kennedy secured to help her in the O'Neill home. A justice was secured, and the marriage was duly celebrated by a party given to all his friends and employees by James O'Neill. The other marriage was that of William K. Levis. Levis, who was a lumberman, arrived in Black River Falls in 1842, and erected a mill in Jackson County. In 1846, he came to what is now Clark County. As a housekeeper he employed a woman who had formerly been of the Mormon faith. After a short time their association ripened to love, and they were married by R.R. Wood, a justice of the peace, at the shack of James Browning, near the present boundary of Clark and Jackson counties, on the east fork of the Black River.

On Christmas Eve, 1846, James O'Neill gave a dancing party at his house. Among those who attended were: W.T. Pierce, Jacob Spaulding, Jonathan Nichols, Thomas Sturges, B.F. Johnson, Levi Avery, Mr. And Mrs. John Perry, Hiram Yeatman, Mr. And Mrs. Isaac Van Austin and daughter, Joseph Stickney, Alonzo Stickney, Susan Stickney, Benjamin Wright, Samuel Wright, Thomas Douglas, Robert Douglas, Mark Douglas, Isabella and Jane Douglas, Lucinda Nichols and some few others, nearly all the guests being from what is now Jackson County. Hudson Nichols and James Bennett were the fiddlers, and the dance was kept up till daylight, Christmas morning. That day the guests returned to their homes, and Mr. O'Neill, hitching up his team, accompanied the Douglas's to their farm near Melrose, going thither on the ice, up Black River. It is to be presumed, as the sleighs glided beneath the branches, which, silvered with frost, overreached Black River, on that lovely Christmas morning, the maidens were as happy, and their lovers' hearts were as strongly moved with the tender passion as are those of lovers today, when the forests have given way to the beautiful farms and thriving villages. Here began the courtship of James O'Neill, which culminated in his marriage to Jane Douglas, the event being celebrated on March 7, 1847, at Melrose, now in Jackson County, John Valentine officiating in his capacity of Justice of the Peace.

Two other settlements came into existence in 1846, one on Cunningham's Creek, two miles below the O'Neill settlement, and one on Cawley's Creek, three miles below the O'Neill settlement.

The Cunningham Creek settlement was started by Andrew Grover, Hamilton McCullom and James Beebe, who came up from Black River Falls, and opened a mill of the same dimensions and capacity as the O'Neill mill.

The settlement on Cawley's Creek was started by Jonathan Nichols and John Perry, the latter being accompanied by his wife.

In 1847 emigration to Clark County was extremely limited. Among those who came were: Samuel Cawley, after whom Cawley's Creek is named; I.S. Mason, Thomas J. LaFlesh, Nathan Myrick H.J.B. (Scoots) Miller, and William Dibble, who built a mill on Cunningham's Creek.

June 7, 1847, came the great flood, which wiped out many of the improvements, and caused general suffering throughout the settled portions of the Black River Valley. On the afternoon of the previous day the rain began to fall and the refreshing shower was hailed with delight. With each succeeding hour the area of the storm was increased, and from gentle drops, which were eagerly lapped up by the parched earth, it gradually assumed a violence never before witnessed. The rain fell in torrents until after midnight, and when morning dawned Black River had risen twenty-five feet and was flooding the country in all directions. As a result every mill on that stream was swept off, causing great damage, which required months to repair. But as day advanced, the sun came out, the waters receded, the river retired within its banks, and within twenty-four hours after the rains had ceased, the debris of mills, logs which had been left far in the woods, and other evidences of loss, were all that reminded one of the resent war with the elements.

About this time occurred the first murder in the county, which happened under the following conditions: William Flynn, a logger on Black River, became involved in a quarrel with one of the Chippewa Indians and the altercation resulted in a hand to hand encounter, during which the latter received injuries which were speedily followed by death. Thereupon Flynn fled and the Indians sought his whereabouts without avail. He escaped the penalty of his crime, but never returned to the vicinity of its commission.

In 1848 a few new settlers came. Among them were: J.W. Sturdevant, Leander Merrill, Benjamin Merrill, John Morrison, probably Moses Clark, John Lane, Robert Ross, Albert Lambert, and doubtless a few others. The Merrills built a mill one mile below Myrick & Miller's Cunningham Creek site; Lane, another in the same vicinity, and Morrison near that of Lane. Van Dusen & Waterman began milling eighteen miles above Neillsville, as also did Albert Lambert. Somewhat later Elijah Eaton purchased the mill of Van Dusen & Waterman and carried on the business many years.

The year 1849 was marked by several arrivals. Benjamin F. French, Allen Bidwell, James French and John French came in this year to stay. In March, Isabella Jane O'Neill (Mrs. Wilson S. Covill), daughter to James and Jane O'Neill was born, the first birth in the county. The event took place in the site of which afterward stood the Covill residence.

In the next few years the settlements already founded continued to grow and, in 1853, a new center was established when Samuel Weston and David Robinson, with a number of men, arrived from Maine and located at Weston's Rapids, two miles above Neillsville, for the purpose of getting out logs and running them down the river.

All the settlers who came during the early period were connected with the lumber business. The mill employees and those engaged in rafting timber down the river had no intention of abandoning their chosen pursuits for the occupation of grubbing out a living among the stumps. Pioneers who desired to establish farms could elsewhere find unoccupied land ready for breaking without the long, tedious process of subduing the forest. It was simpler for the lumbermen to buy supplies than to raise them, and while in time gardens were cleared, and later grain farms began to appear here and there, yet for many years following the first settlement, supplies were purchased at Mississippi River points, left at the mouth of the Black River by the Mississippi steamboats, and poled up that river in boats of the most primitive construction.

For the most part the population was a floating one. The loggers and lumberjacks came in the late fall and left in the spring. Their names have not been preserved. A few of the mill employees, however, remained here and a few came back later. Among them may be mentioned George Frantz, who came in 1848, and is still a resident of this county, being the oldest settler now living.

The first farm in the county was opened at Neillsville by James O'Neill, who by 1850, had about 50 acres cleared, the clearing extending up the hill and including the present schoolhouse grounds. In 1850, Hamilton Mc Cullom opened a small farm in connection with his mill near the mouth of Cunningham Creek, and a little later, Moses Clark opened a farm near his mill on that creek.

When the county was organized, in 1854, there were probably not more than twenty-five occupied homes in the county. At this time the occupied portion of the county extended along the Black River and up its tributary streams, from the mouth of the East Fork to the present site of Greenwood. Weston Rapid's and Neillsville were already developing into villages, and in addition to the mill settlements, Hugh Wedge had erected a tavern near the mouth of the creek that bears his name, just above the present bridge.

A correct list of residents of Clark County in the early 1850's is impossible to obtain. Among the more prominent men of the county for that period may be mentioned: James Burke, Allen Boardman, S.C. Boardman, James R. Mc Calep, Samuel Cawley, Israel P. Cummings, Moses Clark, James Conlin, N. M. Clapp, Conrad Dell, Elijah Eaton, George Frantz, Samuel Ferguson, William Fergusen, John French, B.F. French, John Hoofer, James French, Robert French, William Heath, B. Hamilton, Martin Moran, Jack Murphy, J. Mc Laughton, Miles Murray, Eli Mead, James O'Neill, Robert Ross, Henry Rickman, Rueben Roick, Lyman Rodman, Nicholas Snyder, James Sturgeon, Cyrus O. Sturgeon, Washington Short, Harris Searles, James W. Sturdevant, Robert Scott, Edward Tompkins, Hugh Wedge, S.F. Weston, Thomas Wilson.

Prominent among the early settlers of the late 1850's were James Hewett, Richard Dewhurst, John S. Dore, G.W. King, Chauncey Blakeslee, S.N. Dickinson, W.C. Tompkins, L.K. Hubbard, James Lynch, Orson Bacon, James Furlong, Edward Furlong, Anson Green and others who settled in or near Neillsville.

Daniel Gates located in the town of Levis, at the mouth of Wedge's Creek, but afterward moved to a site adjoining the village of Neillsville. David H. Robinson settled at Weston's Rapids, and Leonard Stafford founded the village of Staffordsville.

Settlers east of Neillsville, toward the county line, were Nelson Marsh, Levi Marsh, Robert Reidel, near Granton (not far from Mapleworks and the Windfall), and Charles Sternitzky, John D. Wage, Archibald Yorkston, William Yorkston, Bartemus Brooks, Carl Schlinsog and Ferdinand Yankee, in or near what is now Lynn Township.

The Huntzickers, Henry, George, and Jacob, were in the central part of the county, some miles south of what is now Greenwood.



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