“You never know what you’re going to find tucked away in someone’s closet.”
Author and historian Rick Durbin recently experienced this truism via his friendship with fellow historian Bud Gussel, and the result is the preservation of a unique historical record of the earliest attempts to build a city near where Wisconsin Dells stands today.
The “closet” in this case was “the attic of an old farm building near the Dells,” according to Durbin. While there, Gussel’s brother-in-law Clark Wynn stumbled across a journal more than 150 years old, containing an early record of efforts to build a dam on the Wisconsin River and establish Dells predecessor city Kilbourn City nearby.
The aging journal’s original leather-bound cover was crumbling by the time Wynn discovered it and turned it over to Gussel, a long-time supporter of historic preservation efforts in the city he calls home.
But the journal’s hand-written contents remained almost perfectly preserved and revealed the little-known story of Byron Kilbourn’s mid-19th-Century efforts to harness the river and establish the city bearing his name.
Durbin, the author of the 1997 book “The Wisconsin River: An Odyssey Through Time and Space,” discovered the journal’s existence while researching his current project, a book about the history of the dam. Gussel lent him the aging volume, and Durbin instantly knew he’d encountered an important historical artifact.
The journal contains the hydraulic company’s minutes, recorded by various hands of people who witnessed the proceedings by which the hydraulic company worked with the La Crosse and Milwaukee Rail Road, the latter for whom Byron Kilbourn served as president, between 1855 and 1862 in the new city and dam building effort.
“I have never run across anything else which described what really happened both within the company and what that company’s relationship was with the people in Newport,” Durbin said by telephone recently. “The majority of book is the record of the meetings held when the city that became Wisconsin Dells was being formed.”
Famed local Civil War hero Joseph Bailey served as the dam’s construction superintendent, according to Durbin’s and Gussel’s readings of the journal, but Bailey’s dam-building skills were no match for a fall flood in 1858 that caused “major damage” and a rebuilding effort.
Although the company’s attempts to build the dam ultimately failed, Kilbourn City remained and eventually saw the river’s successful harnessing with a dam of the same name.
In the process of studying the journal, Durbin also realized its binding and covers would soon disintegrate.
“It had begun to degrade – time and continual use were beginning to take their toll,” he said. “The spine was nearly broken and the steer-hide cover was slowly turning to dust. But the paper and ink were still in excellent condition.”
Recognizing its importance to Wisconsin Dells’ creation story, Durbin and Gussel decided a proper restoration was in order. Ultimately they turned the journal over to La Crosse-based book restorer James Tomey for a full restoration to the “binding, covers and all,” Durbin said.
Tomey and his wife also constructed a preservation box for safe keeping and a digitized the book’s written contents.
A copy of those digitized contents now resides in the possession of Kilbourn Public Library Director Cathy Borck. The original document, meanwhile, sits safely within the confines of Bank of Wisconsin Dells, where the bank’s senior vice president, Kevin Bernander, hopes it someday soon will be displayed for everyone to behold.
“Bud wants the bank to hold it in safe storage for the purpose of making sure it finds the right home,” Bernander said recently from behind his desk at the bank as Gussel sat and nodded nearby with the restored journal in hand. “We’re probably going to look at a place in the bank to have it for people to view.”
Durbin, who continues to publicize the historic finding by distributing digital copies of the journal’s contents to libraries and universities across the state and to the Wisconsin Historical Society, believes the Dells-base bank is the perfect place for the valuable original.
“On display at the bank in a very nice presentation, that’s a nice thing to do,” he said.