Porter’s new village was laid out on land that he purchased from the famous Senator Daniel Webster, who had bought it in 1837 from the U.S. Government when the land first went on sale in the Wisconsin Territory. Porter named his new village “Waucoma,” the Indian name of the present creek, which the American government’s land surveyors had named “Bad Fish” in 1833.
The Public Square was in the center of Porter’s village. He hired surveyor Alanson B. Vaughn of nearby Union (the only other village between Janesville and Madison) to draw up the plat of the new village south of the Badfish Creek immediately next to Cooksville. Waucoma’s layout contained a total of 162 lots within 14 blocks, with the middle Block 8 reserved for the public.
Sometimes called the “village green” or the “common” or the “park,” the central Square was dedicated for common use, which was the practice in Porter’s home-state of Massachusetts, and he included one in his Wisconsin village. The individual lots were arranged along streets that Dr. Porter named Main, Rock, Webster, Wisconsin, Dane, South, Water and Fourth streets. All the lots were for sale, of course, but not all were ever sold for building purposes.
Since 1846, Porter’s New England-style Public Square has been the focus of the little community. It provides a natural, partially-wooded, green space open to all, with an elegant virgin bur oak grove of trees, along with maple, white ash, elm and hickory, a remnant of the original “oak openings” once prominent in southern Wisconsin’s wide, rich prairies.
Many uses have been made of the Public Square in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Where once sheep, cows and horses grazed on the “green,” now people and dogs enjoy strolling, gamboling and picnicking. And the Square has been put to other uses. It has served as the scene for horse races and baseballs games, for Old Settlers Reunions, for family and community picnics, for Fourth of July celebrations, and for “Play Day’ for the children of the Town of Porter’s nine one-room schools. It’s also been the setting for Civil War re-enactments, Cooksville School reunions, family reunions, weddings and wedding receptions in tents, and for events of the Cooksville Community Center housed in the old Schoolhouse on the east side of the Square.
For example, in 1876, on July 4th, Anne Eliza Porter sang two patriotic songs at Cooksville’s Centennial Celebration when a hundred-foot flag pole was erected in the middle of the Square. Three thousand people gathered to watch the raising of this impressive “Liberty Pole.” To erect the flag pole, a ten-foot hole was dug, with a forty-foot trench leading into it, and the flag pole—consisting of two fifty-foot pine tree logs from northern Wisconsin fastened together by local blacksmiths—was rolled into the trench and then lifted upright with ropes and pulleys and sheer brute strength. The ninety-foot symbol of American liberty was a result of the efforts of two local men who disagreed on religion but agreed on democratic principles as they celebrated their nation’s 100th birthday.
The event included community singing led by Thomas Morgan accompanied by his daughter, Nettie playing his popular portable organ-like melodeon. The program also featured a fife and drum corps and “talks” by local residents Thomas Earl, Benjamin Hoxie, Joseph Porter, Harrison Stebbins, James Gillies, John Savage, J.P. Van Vleck and John Dow.
And the Liberty Pole remained in place for six years. In 1882, the Evansville Enterprise newspaper reported that it had been sawn down. (However, photos from about 1910 show a tall flagpole standing in the middle of the Public Square, perhaps a new version.)
The Public Square once had a race track on it, for horses. In 1889, a track was constructed around the perimeter, “which when completed will be very handy for those who have horses to train,” according to a newspaper clipping. Tickets to use the track were purchased at the Post Office (in one of the village’s several stores) or at the Broom Factory across Webster Street on the west side of the Square.
And in the same year, according to an Evansville newspaper article, “there will be a base ball ground laid out and all league clubs including Evansville and Chicago will be invited to play on this ground.” A 1900 photograph shows the Cooksville Cornhuskers baseball team posed for a group picture. Local ball games on the Public Square brought the men and boys of the village and the Town of Porter together on Saturday afternoons.
Beginning in 1901 and for fifty years, Old Settlers Reunions were formally organized and well-attended on the Public Square in June of each year. In addition to picnic food—“tables decorated with choice flowers and fruits, and loaded with the most delectable achievements of the culinary art”—the Old Settlers Reunions featured entertainments with fond reminiscences shared by the descendents of the original pioneers with tributes to those who had passed on. Poetry was composed for the occasion and recited, and short plays (such as “Grandmother’s Story” and “Why the Cannon Wasn’t Fired”) depicting Cooksville events were performed.
Music was an important element in those festive reunions. In the early 20th century, Jack Robertson provided his award-winning fiddle music; the Cooksville Lutheran Quartette and the Janesville Male Quartette sang; Eloise Eager played the violin; June Porter sang vocal solos; and a Drum Corps composed of men from the Town of Porter, Evansville and Janesville got feet tapping with their rousing renditions.
The Public Square has been the scene of another famous annual event: “Play Day.” In the early and mid-20th century the eight rural one-room school houses of the Town of Porter (the ninth, the Stebbinsville Schoolhouse, burned down in 1942) gathered together to celebrate the end of the school year in late spring with a special event of competitive sports and games on the Square on Play Day.
An image of the Square in 1938 (a painting of Cooksville by Dorothy Kramer) shows a dirt road cutting diagonally across the green from the schoolhouse to the northwest corner, perhaps as shortcut to the “business district.” This apparently was before Church Street was completed to the north as a gravel-based road in front of the school, then turning west as Dane Street, as originally planned.
The Public Square park has hosted many events of the Cooksville Community Center—and still does. The Community Center was formally organized in 1962 after the schoolhouse (built in 1886) was closed and quickly purchased by local citizens to be preserved and to serve as the Center’s headquarters. The Community Center has sponsored many historic house and garden tours of the village, wood-carving exhibitions, kite-flying, July Fourth celebrations, and winter fun in the snow on the Square, as well as events held inside the historic schoolhouse.
Unfortunately, in August of 1992 it was evident that some of the old burr oaks were slowly dying. Residents requested an investigation by Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources’ Rock County office. The conclusion from samples taken by a forest entomologist and a forest pathologist was that the burr oaks were suffering from oak wilt disease. Trenches were dug around some of the trees in an attempt to control the spread of the disease through root systems to other trees. But since then the disease appears to have slowly and inevitably spread to other burr oaks. (A couple of years earlier Cooksville had lost its State Champion Scotch Pine Tree, a large magnificent pine tree located in the cemetery, to a different fungus disease.)
The Cooksville Public Square with its open grassy area and the grove of old trees continues to attract people. It is, of course, an important part of the official Cooksville Historic District, which was designated as a significant historic area by the federal, state and local governments in the 1970s. The Square surrounded by original mid-19th buildings, with a few picnic tables and two out-houses, still features its stand of burr oak trees, presenting a panoramic view of Cooksville ‘s landmarks (or Waucoma’s landmarks, to be legally accurate!)
The Square is maintained by the Town of Porter and Rock County as a public park. It can be reserved for special occasions, as can the Community Center’s schoolhouse. An effort to preserve and restore the trees is underway. (See the Cooksville News blog posts of Feb.23 and March 26, 2016).
The famous Public Square remains a quiet, undeveloped oasis surrounded by historic buildings providing a well-maintained green space with a grove of old trees, always available for man, beast and birds—and other wild flora and fauna— to enjoy in a special historic 19th century setting.