David C. Reed, an early settler of what was to become the city of Reedsburg, arrived in the territory in 1847 and began buying land along the Baraboo River near a crossing which had been used by the Ho-Chunk people. Other settlers arrived during the ensuing years, and the little settlement began to grow.
In order to establish a new settlement and organize a thriving, self-sustaining community, it was imperative to attract newcomers to your particular village.
Horace Croswell and Joseph Green were appointed to a “Welcome” committee, and it was their job to evaluate new arrivals and point them in the proper direction. Each stranger was asked if he or she was married, had children, or was single. Married couples with children were offered property within the village. Childless couples were placed a mile or two outside the village limits and single men were told there was no property available within five or six miles. The citizens were determined to build up the village, and would take no one that could not help populate the village with more than himself and his wife.
Reed and George H. Irwin (husband of Eliza nee Reed, a first cousin of David) owned most of the land north and south of Main Street. The village of Reedsburg was laid out in 1852, however, the village charter was not obtained until April 1868.
E.G. Wheeler and his family arrived in Reedsburg in 1850. Bella French’s American Sketchbook, 1875, recounts their ﬁrst impression of the village. “Mr. Wheeler found in a few hours after his coming that most, if not all, of the men indulged in the use of ardent spirits, and he declared emphatically, in the evening of that day, that he never felt more like delivering a temperance lecture in his life, and wished that he had a place to deliver one. The people took him at his word, and in less than a half hour, Shanty No. 2 had been put in order, and nearly every man, woman and child in the neighborhood had seated themselves therein, in readiness to hear the lecture. Mr. Wheeler was taken a little aback, when he learned that he was really expected to lecture, but he did not ask to be excused. He took up the temperance question and handled it so ably, that all were pleased beyond measure.”
Many settlers went barefoot during the warm summer months and donned moccasins in the winter. Women wore hoops and shawls when it was cold, sunbonnets and “Shakers” in the summer. They were stiff and white, shaped like the top of a covered wagon, with a small cape sewn around the bottom. “When a ribbon was added and drawn across the middle with a square bow aloft, they were considered quite ‘dressy’” noted Ruth M. Southard in a letter to the Old Settlers in 1927.
Elizabeth (Cole) Smith passed through Reedsburg with her mother and father, Alworth Smith, early in 1851. She recounted those days in a 1901 letter to the Old Settlers, “Main Street lead directly over ground which could only then be crossed by an agile footman leaping from bog to bog. The mill which was at the foot of Main Street, was reached by driving on the ridge between the sloughs.”
Early pioneers were frugal by necessity, as goods and livestock were not readily available on the frontier. One settler used his ingenuity to ﬁll a doctor’s prescription. “Some of his family were ill and mutton soup had been ordered by the doctor. He had several sheep, but he did not like to kill them, merely for a little soup, so he hit upon a plan by which he hoped to retain all the sheep and have the soup as well. He cut off the tails of the animals, and thus manufactured the needed article without slaughtering any of them.”
Another strange malady suffered by early villagers was the “Prairie Itch.” It is said that the symptoms were alleviated by conducting “scratching bees.”
Even though the early pioneers who settled the village of Reedsburg met with hard times during those early years, they were a hearty bunch who persevered.
Additional events in the lives of Reedsburg’s early settlers will be recounted in future articles.