The Cassville Story
One of the oldest towns in the state of Wisconsin is a charming little village nestled between imposing 300' high bluffs on one side and the mighty Mississippi River on the other. Cassville is the southern most Wisconsin community located directly on the banks of the river.
First recorded mention of the present site of Cassville was made by Henry Schoolcraft in 1820.. But it wasn't until 1827 that signs of a real settlement appeared when John York Sawyer built a smelting furnace and the first real house was built.
Wisconsin was initially governed by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and subsequently as part of the Indiana, Illinois and Michigan Territories. Cassville took its name from Lewis B. Cass, at one time governor of the Michigan Territory. In 1836, after surrounding territories broke away to become states, it became the new Wisconsin Territory and included all of present day Iowa, Minnesota and eastern Dakotas.
This brought great expectation to the area, and Cassville in particular which was seen as the perfect choice for becoming the territorial capital because it was rather central to the population centers. And, most importantly, because of its commercial position as a port of entry on the busy Mississippi River. Col. William S. Hamilton, son of Alexander Hamilton, promoted the idea.
Seizing the opportunity, a company called Daniels and Denniston Company was formed between several Albany and New York speculators who moved quickly to begin erection of the Denniston House designed to house the legislators and state officials to-be. Including the basement, the mammoth building stood five stories high with the top floor being the ballroom and a band shell decorating the roof. The following articles appeared in the Albany, NY Daily Advertiser of 30 April 1836:
The Subscriber is desirous of engaging a number of Stone masons to proceed to the Wisconsin Territory, to be employed five or six months in the erection of buildings, to who liberal wages will be given. Apply to John C. Ward, Hudson St. between Hallenbake and Eagle St.s. J. C. Ward AP 30.
A splendid Hotel is about to be erected at CASSVILLE, Wisconsin Territory, on the east bank of the Mississippi, about forty miles below the mouth of the Wisconsin River. Cassville is to be the seat of government for the new territory. A cops of artificers are about proceeding from this city to erect the Hotel.
At a cost of $30,000, the "Big Brick", as it was proudly called, was built of solid brick on a limestone foundation by bricklayers imported from New York who used the sturdy Flemish bond method of laying brick. That distinguishing characteristic is still visible on the building that is now on the state registry of historic places.
But by the end of that year, it became evident the company's plans for the town were never to be realized. At the first territorial convention held at Belmont, a wealthy Madison landowner named Doty overshadowed other bids with a generous gift of land there (even though it was unknown, unsurveyed and without a house on it). Cassville lost out by one vote.
It became further absorbed in the financial panic of 1837, and a sense of doom seemed to settle over the area. It took several years to shake off the perception, but by 1843 there was a noticeable change for the better.
Into this picture must come the name of Nelson Dewey. Born in Lebanon, Conn. in 1813, he attended Hamilton Academy in Hamilton, N. Y., "read" the law, as they said, with a Samuel Bowen in Cooperstown, and also studied with his lawyer father.
But in 1836 he set out on his own and chose to come to Cassville, perhaps influenced by glowing articles about the town in the Albany newspaper. He took a job with the new Daniels and Denniston company as clerk and very quickly became involved in the political affairs of the area. When Grant County was formed he was elected its first Register of Deeds, earned his law degree and served in the territorial legislature.
When Wisconsin was granted statehood in 1848, Nelson Dewey was elected its first Governor. He served two successive terms, and during that time married Catherine Dunn, daughter of Charles Dunn, first chief justice of the territory.
She had high hopes he would go on into national politics, but he was determined to return to Cassville and revive what he had seen as great potential when he first arrived there.
Because of the failed Denniston project the town lay under litigation, making it impossible to secure titles to town lots. With customary energy Dewey proceeded to buy up the entire development, made order out of confusion of land titles and soon attracted scores of settlers.
Between 1855 and 1856 the population grew from 142 to 421 and to 600 by 1858. Dewey invested $15,000 in the Denniston House and converted it into a hotel. The town now had three hotels, three saloons, three blacksmith shops, one wagon shop, two cooper shops, two shoe stores, two tailor shops, one hardware store, one cabinet shop and several carpenter and joiner shops.
A levee was built at a cost of $6000 and soon there were three large warehouses and three mercantile firms doing an annual business of $200,000. There was a smelting furnace, a steam sawmill cutting at the rate of 10,000 feet per day, a brewery and 50 other buildings. A Catholic church was erected and religious services for other denominations were held in private homes.
Cassville was on its way!
Dewey, meanwhile moved his family about the county, continuing his law practice and serving in various governmental capacities on state as well as local levels until he was able to acquire 2000 acres of land just outside of the village of Cassville for his dream farm which he named Stonefield. It extended from the edge of the Mississippi River up over the bluffs and contained cropland, orchards, a vineyard, cattle and imported horses.
By 1868 he completed a beautiful neo-gothic style mansion which one newspaper called a "palace in the wilderness." But Mrs. Dewey did not relish this rural atmosphere, so when daughter Kate was ready for college she moved to Madison with her and never returned to Cassville
Tragedy struck in 1873 on a snowy day in January when a terrible fire swept through the house. Another financial panic that same year forced him into bankruptcy, and he was never able to recover his losses. He died a pauper in 1889 in the Denniston House, the venture that first brought him to Cassville.
The house stood in ruins until Walter Cass Newberry of Chicago acquired the property and undertook necessary restorations. Using the foundation and standing walls of the house, he had it reconstructed but eliminated a third floor and the Gothic styling of the original building, which is how it is seen today.
In 1936, through efforts of Cassville and Grant County, the state of Wisconsin purchased 800 acres of Dewey's original estate plus the buildings, and dedicated it as a state park. The site was also designated as the location for the State Agricultural Museum, and the State Historical Society of Wisconsin added a recreated turn-of-the century village which it named Stonefield.
Cassville, meanwhile, continued a steady growth, and the Mississippi River played a big part in many successful ventures. Ferry service was established as early as 1836 and remained important not only to passenger trade, but later on as a means of transporting produce from the fertile Iowa bottom lands to the Klindt and Geiger Canning Company built in Cassville in 1893. The company canned tomatoes, sauerkraut, pickles and peas and for many years was the largest corn canning plant in Wisconsin.
Early ferries were powered by horses working on a treadmill, but they were replaced by gasoline engines about 1913.
Commercial fishing and ice harvesting were important business ventures provided by the river. Pearling was another river industry which operated in Cassville from 1890 to 1920. One pearl found during that period reportedly sold for $1500, but most brought only a few hundred dollars. Clam shells were also harvested, bringing $6 to $8 a ton and were sold to button factories in Cassville and Guttenberg, IA.
Modern day clammers still ply their trade in this part of the river but sell to Japan oyster farmers who implant bits of shell in the oysters to initiate pearl development.
But nothing quite so exciting as the entertainment brought to the community via the river, notably the Floating Palace Theater which visited towns along the river once a year and became the social outing of the season. Excursion boats that came to port offered more social diversion, providing cruises of varying lengths along with music for dancing and entertainment.
An old mooring ring in Riverside Park, once used by deckhands for tying riverboats to the shore, still displays its legacy there to the interested visitor.
River commerce declined, however, as railroads took over more and more transportation business. A single track railroad was laid through Cassville in 1885 by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (now the Burlington Northern) and double track was laid in 1913. The Cassville depot was a busy facility throughout the first half of the century but was closed when passenger service was eliminated. However, rail traffic through town continues at a heavy pace with over 25 trains a day at times.
Like most other small towns, Cassville weathered World War I, the Great Depression and World War II with each era changing the face of the community in various ways.
Most drastic, perhaps, were the changes brought on by use of the automobile that allowed people to travel to larger cities, shop at larger stores, find better employment and enjoy a wider variety of activities and entertainment. During the last 50 to 60 years, Cassville leaders worked hard to accommodate those changes and adapt to different needs while still maintaining an environment for a healthy economy and attractive living conditions.
One person who should not go unmentioned is R. J. "Penny" Eckstein who served on the village board for 50 years, most of that time as village president. Through his urging, Wisconsin was one of the early proponents of the Great River Road idea, and he was on the ten state planning commission for many years, eventually being elected to the office of Pilot.
Although the designated route went to the Iowa side in this stretch of the river, Cassville eventually was included in the secondary spur line of the Wisconsin Great River Road and continues to have representation on the Mississippi Parkway Commission.
Eckstein also worked tirelessly to attract two electric power plants to Cassville. First, the Dairyland Power Coop Company, now Mid-American Power LLC and then Wisconsin Power & Light Company. Taxes from the two utilities made Cassville an almost tax-free community until state law changed to give utility tax money to the state for redistribution. Nevertheless, it spurred a risk taking attitude that led to street development, installation of curb and gutters, construction of an airport, modern school buildings and a host of other village improvements.
Despite the changes more than 160 years have brought to the town, Col. Hamilton would still be able to say that one could find here "everything necessary for the promotion of man's comfort and the exercise of his energies; where nature has done all in her power to make it one of the most delightful spots in the upper Midwest."