Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI

April 22, 1993, Page 28

Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.

Index of "Good Old Days" Articles 




This year, 1993, marks the 140th anniversary of Clark County, when it was legislated as a county in 1853.


The first event in the political history of Clark County was when Neillsville won in the fight over the county seat.  The fight resulted in the selection of O’Neill’s Mill as the location but that site, the present Neillsville won out by a close vote.  The story of that election makes it a colorful event which has been told, probably, many times.


The rival of O’Neill’s Mill for the honor was Weston Rapids.  That flourishing little settlement had been established by Samuel Weston, who came from Maine.  The location was about two miles up the river from Neillsville on what was later known as the Frank Marg farm, across the river from the Appleyard farm.  By the time Clark County was created, Mr. Weston had quite a few buildings in his settlement, and quite a few residents, including one lawyer.


Whether the lawyers’ presence was an influence or not Mr. Weston did some fast maneuvering in an attempt to get the county seat there.  He had the legislative act creating Clark County as to be located on Section two which was his own location.  The act didn’t mention the name of the place, only specified “section two (2), township twenty-four (24), range two (2) west of the fourth principal meridian.”


How that location came to be written into the bill has always been a mystery.  The petition asking the creation of the county, as presented to the legislature, specified O’Neill’s Mill as the location of the county seat.  Apparently, the location was “Slipped over” on Mr. O’Neill and his friend, Gibson, a member of the legislature at that time was a friend of O’Neill.


The act of the legislature creating the county was passed in 1853.  It’s presumed that the discovery of Mr. Weston’s surprise party came quite soon, for James O’Neill with the active assistance of his friend Mr. Gibson secured the passage of another bill, which called for a vote on the county seat, to be taken in the fall election of 1854.


For that election, two polling places were established.  One was at O’Neill’s Mill and the other at Parker’s Tavern, about eleven miles down the river.  The result was 17 for O’Neill’s Mill.


The election was vigorous with the O’Neill contingents thoroughly “awake” and on their “toes,” doing what they could to win.  Samuel Weston was up and at it in his promotional style.  Between the two of them, they managed to get out 163 votes.  The ‘vote’ has been commented upon with great interest by early historians, with some reason to have done so.  R. J. McBride’s history of the county, reported that in 1855, a census revealed there were 232 men, women and children in Clark County.  There were more men than women and children, but it was safe to assume that there couldn’t have been 163 qualified voters in the County.  A census of the 1865 election, when there was a population of 1,001, recorded a total of 138 votes, 25 less than in the county seat fight of 1854.


According to Mr. McBride’s records:


It is evident that a very large number of votes were cast by persons who were not residents of the county.  The contest between O’Neill’s Mill and Weston Rapids (or Hardscrable as its opponents termed it) was very bitter and each side rallied its adherents for the fray.  Not withstanding the abnormal vote that was cast it is a fact well established by the testimony of living witnesses, that a number of the cohorts of the clan Weston, although within a few rods of the polling booth at O’Neill’s house were absolutely unable to cast their votes.  If they had done so, we would have had our county polling more votes than it had residents, including men, women and children.” 


“The story is that at O’Neill’s house, where the polls were held, was a barrel of whiskey in the cellar.  During the morning, and after it was discovered, several of the adherents of O’Neill’s Mill had been helping themselves freely, which aroused the ire of the “gude wife” who ordered it taken out of the house, and thereupon it was moved across O’Neill Creek to the saw mill on the north side.  Shortly after the main body of the Hardscrable voters came on their way to the polls, and found the whiskey.”


“It is claimed that they had a great storage capacity for the fluid, and they soon lowered a goodly portion of the contents of the barrel, and afterwards became in such a condition that many of them were unable to walk across the narrow boom that united the north and south sides of O’Neill Creek, serving as a bridge then and to get to the polls, each would have to “walk the narrow plank.”


“Rome, the great Capitol was, we are told, once saved by the cackling of geese – Neillsville was saved by a barrel of whiskey.”


“This is sad to contemplate, for only a year before the State of Wisconsin enacted Prohibition by a popular vote of the people.  The canvas of the election was made by B. F. French, Town clerk of the Town of Pine Valley, and by Moses Clark, justice of the peace.”


“The law required the canvassing board to consist of the town clerk and two justices, but the record of the canvass, recites that there was no other justice of the peace in the county except Clark.”


(Next week and occasionally throughout the year, we will have county history events in this column, commemorating its 140th Anniversary.  Thanks to Dorothy Meier, formerly of Neillsville, for sharing the photographs.)


The Old Courthouse


The housing of the county government was projected by the supervisors in 1856.  They paid James O’Neill $300 for the land upon which the county building now stands, and levied a tax of $2,000 for the construction of a courthouse.  The contract of the building was let to Edward Furlong upon his bid of $1,895. 


A frame construction building was erected on that site and remained in use until 1876, when it was removed for a new building.  The courthouse was then moved to the south side of Fifth Street, east of Hewett, there for a time until the new structure could be built.


R. J. McBride, a lawyer of Neillsville wrote in his history of the county:


“The old two-story building was painted white.  It comprised within it a very moderate court room and one jury room on the upper floor.  The first floor had six offices.  Persons having business with county officials looked them up at their homes or places of business.  If they simply decided to examine records, they could go in and help themselves as the doors were always unlocked.  By chance, when occasionally the door would be locked, one window could be used as it was never locked.


The 1876 Courthouse: the second building erected on that lot, for a cost of $36,000.  It was razed for a new, larger facility in 1965.  The county jail is visible at the right, background, and remains today as a historical site, the Clark County Historical Society’s Museum open to the public for tours during the summer month.



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