"After eight years of this dreary work of clearing the Fountain Lake Farm, fencing it and getting it in perfect order, building a frame house and the necessary outbuildings for the cattle and horses,---after all this had been victoriously accomplished, and we had made out to escape with life, ---father bought a half-section of wild land about four or five miles to the eastward and began all over again to clear and fence and break up other fields…..” John Muir in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth
The Hickory Hill home still stands today, privately owned by an Irish family that has farmed the land there for five generations. It has been added onto and is covered in bricks now, but the character of the original home is still present.
The drawing above is by John Muir. Take note of the tree on the right side of the drawing. You'll see it again a little farther down in this information.
It was common for Scottish settlers to build their homes on hills and far off the road due to, it is believed, the legacy of invasion in their history and wanting to be able to defend their lands. Daniel Muir did just that when he chose this site for their second home.
Look up the hill and imagine it standing alone when the Muirs first built it. While in Prairie du Chien, John wrote to a friend about his sister Joanna,
"The dear folk at home wanted me to come home awhile. I felt like pushing every thing away and complying. Joanna looked down Hickory hill many times. The dear sweet little lady, she wrote me another long letter."
At the end of the school term when he attended the University in Madison, he recalled that when he came home, the family collie ran down the hill to greet him.
Hickory Hill is owned by the Kearns family. Their history in Marquette County goes almost as far back as the Muirs and the Kearns have lived in the home far longer than the Muirs did. Learning a little about the Kearns helps us understand the legacy of farming and a connection to the land that runs deep in Marquette County.
The Kearns came to Wisconsin from Ireland some years before the Muirs moved here from Scotland. They landed in Rhode Island and then the Kearns settled west of Portage. Thomas Kearns and two of his brothers all bought farms and helped each other raise wheat and sell wood in order to pay for the land. Thomas purchased Hickory Hill in 1873. Harry, son of Thomas, remembered that his father told him that Daniel Muir had his sons cut all the white oaks, but not the black oaks. The Kearns have farmed the land ever since.
Thomas Kearns made changes to the home including putting on a brick veneer and adding two wings. The photo above shows Harry Kearns. The family has always cherished the heritage and history of their home once being the home of John Muir. Maurice Kearns was Harry's son and when he died in 2015, he passed it on to his own children and grandchildren.
Daniel Muir started the farm and built the home and the barn in 1856. He left it in the hands of Margaret and John Reid, his daughter and son in law, in 1861 when he and wife Ann moved to Portage, but they returned to the farm in 1865. Daniel sold it finally to the McKays in 1873 who owned it less than a year when the Kearns bought it.
Dr. Bonnie Gisel stands with Maurice Kearns in front of the barn at Hickory Hill Farm. Gisel is a John Muir Scholar and environmental historian who was brought to Marquette County by the Thyme Shares Master Gardeners as a part of the Montello Historic Preservation Society’s Year of John Muir in 2010. Mr. Kearns died in 2015 at 86. His son Paul now owns and operates the farm.
Below is John Muir in 1863 when he went to the University in Madison. He came home to Hickory Hill often.
This is a photo of John Muir in 1863. It is how he would have looked when he lived at Hickory Hill and when he left for first the Wisconsin State Fair with his whittled inventions in 1860 and then to the University of Wisconsin in 1861. He came back to visit Hickory Hill and the neighbors several times including in 1863 at the time of the photo.
If you look through the trees up the hill, you'll see the Hickory Hill home. This is how it looks today. It has a lovely view of the surrounding countryside. There is a burr oak tree next to the home that was there when Muir lived there. Perhaps it is now the size of the tree that John wanted to use to hang a large clock on, but Daniel was afraid it would bring too many curiosity seekers.
Daniel Muir was a hard task master, but he told John he could get up early to work on his projects. John would rise at 1 in the morning and go to the basement to work on his inventions which he eventually took to the Wisconsin State Fair at the urging of the neighbor families. These steps lead to that basement from the outside of the house. The steps were laid by the Muirs and the Kearns, in later years, capped them with concrete.
The corner of the basement where John Muir worked on his inventions after father Daniel let him rise early and do whatever he wanted to before working on the farm. The small window is now bricked up, but it was open to the light at the time John worked here, although he was up working before dawn. When the Kearns moved into Hickory Hill the sold a wagon load of whittled odds and ends to a traveling tinker/junk man.
“Therefore, I prudently decided to go down cellar and begin work on a model of a self-setting sawmill I had invented….Next morning I managed to get up at the same gloriously early hour and though the temperature of the cellar was a little below the freezing point, and my light was only a tallow candle, the mill work went joyfully on.” John Muir in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth
“One morning, after the dreary bore was about eighty feet deep, my life was all but lost in deadly choke-damp…..” John recalls in My Boyhood and Youth, his near-death experience digging the 80 foot well at Hickory Hill. After Daniel hauled John up barely conscious, word got around the area and Scottish neighbor William Duncan taught John and his father Daniel how to check for choke damp by dropping a candle tied to a rope down to the bottom to see if the choke-damp would put it out and to stir up the air with branches. This photo shows a windmill today over the well that John dug. The Kearns family dug the well even deeper. The windmill stands 50 feet tall. It was used by the Kearns family for their water until about 2014 when they had a new well dug.
The barn that the Muirs built also still stands, now raised for dairy cows on the bottom floor. When the Muirs built it in 1857, it would not have had the lower floor. The Kearns raised the barn in 1907. The upper floor is for hay and the lower floor for milking and stalls. They are called bank barns for the soil that was banked up to provide access to the upper loft.
You can print off or view the John Muir Neighborhood booklet by clicking the button below. It will show you other John Muir related locations in Marquette County. If you drive east on Grouse Road, then south on Hwy 22 to CM, you will see a small brick one-room school on the north side of CM just after you turn west onto CM. That schoolhouse is now used by the Amish community, but was once Browning School. Before being called Browning, it was Eddy and before that Midland. The first building was a log school building, the one that John Muir attended. He wrote a poem about the log school, part of which you can read in the information provided at Site 12. We're not sure if the present brick school building sits on the exact site of the first log school here, but it is close.
Use the John Muir Neighborhood booklet to also find your way to Knight's Lake, now called Mulhern Lake. Go west on Grouse and south on 13th Road. The lake will be on your left or on the east side of the road. There is no pull off area, but you can see the lake nicely from your vehicle. This is where Daniel Muir took his family to re-baptize them because the Disciples of Christ did not believe in infant baptism. They practiced what was written in the New Testament and that was adult baptism. We believe the full immersion baptisms took place on the east side of the lake. Many people through the years were baptized there in the lake and some older residents recall as children, hiding behind trees to watch the event in more recent years.