Site 9 Briggsville

Welcome to Briggsville, named after its founder, Alexander Ellis Briggs, shown below.  When John Muir moved to Marquette County in 1849, there were already settlers living here and the county government was up and operational.  Briggsville is one of the many small communities that were beginning to organize in Marquette County.  It was built, like so many others, along a river where water power was available and where the First People had already hunted, foraged, and lived for thousands of years. 

As you may have learned at other sites, mills were essential for early settler's lives and it is no different here.  In the fall of 1850, Alexander Ellis BRIGGS of Vermont arrived here with a group of homesteaders. Mr. Briggs became a partner of  Amplius Chamberlain and the two men negotiated for the right to build a dam across Neenah Creek to provide water power for a sawmill. The first lumber manufactured was some heavy oak planks and joists used in the building of the first jail at Portage. The dam, begun in the fall of 1850, made a lake to the west about about three miles in length. It was named Lake Mason for the carpenter who built the mill.

        According to the Portrait and Biographical Album of 1890, Briggsville:  has a population of about 150. It contains two churches, flour and carding mills, a district school and several stores. William Murphy is postmaster. The other principal business men are F. J. and W. C. Kimball, P. E. Peterson and Charles Waldo, proprietors of general stores; Joseph Champney & Son, proprietors of flouring mills; A. O. Dean, dealer in pianos an organs; H. T. Dean, harnessmaker; H. H. Dyer, hotel-keeper; J. H. Dyer, carding-mill owner; E. C. Gray, millwright; Evan Hanson, dealer in boots and shoes; W. C. Kimball, dealer in sewing machines; and Thomas O'Connor, wagonmaker.

        Still standing, but no longer operating in the downtown is the Kimball store, long a gathering spot and mainstay of Briggsville business.  The Portrait and Biographical Album of 1890 says:   F. J. Kimball, a leading merchant of Briggsville, Marquette County, born in New York, in 1846, is one of six children, whose parents were James M. and Elmina (Atwood) Kimball; both of whom were natives of Vermont, the former born in 1811, the latter in 1810.  They were married in the Green Mountain State in 1843, and in 1846 removed to New York, where they continued to make their home until their emigration to Wisconsin in the spring of 1853.  They settled in the town of Douglas, Marquette County, where Mrs. Kimball is still living.  Mr. Kimball was a mason by trade but followed the occupation of farming during his residence in this State.  He died in 1864, at the age of fifty years, his death being caused by inflammation of the lungs.  Our subject (FC, son of James) was but seven years of age when he came with the family to Wisconsin.  He has witnessed much of the
growth and progress of Marquette County, has borne his share in the hardships of frontier life and has nobly done his part to advance the interests of the community.  On the death of his father, being the eldest son of the family, he took charge of the home farm and ably looked after the interests of his mother and younger brother until 1870, when he laid aside agricultural pursuits and secured an engagement as traveling salesman with the Davis Sewing Machine Company of Chicago, in whose employ he remained for several years, during which time he traveled extensively over Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.  Returning to Marquette County, in 1884, he formed a partnership
with his brother William in the mercantile business, which connection still continues.  They carry a full line of general merchandise and are doing a good business as the result of their push and enterprise combined with excellent management.  The store is shown below to the right of the creamery.

Creameries started popping up all over Marquette County like the one shown above in Briggsville. Marquette County mirrored the rest of Wisconsin in agricultural production and dairy herds came to the state later than wheat, rye and other crops.  The years 1858 and 1859 were disastrous years for all crops because of drought.  A mild winter had farmers sowing wheat in March, but because of the drought, it did not sprout for a month.  When it did, however, 1860 was one of the best years for wheat, called the “golden year.”   Just as the Civil War began, the wheat harvest helped meet the needs of a nation in conflict.  The 1860 agriculture census showed that Marquette County produced 171,000 bushels of wheat.  Across the state, wheat yields fell and were replaced by corn, oats and hay whose rise was mirrored by livestock, cheese and butter production.  Once silage began being made to feed cows through the winter, dairying took off and creameries sprung up.         

    Creameries were vital places where people not only brought their milk, but also learned about the news of the day and caught up on what was happening with their neighbors.   Some creameries were cooperative ventures, farmers joining together to improve their market for the sale of their milk or the products made from it like cheese and butter.  Creameries once dotted the landscape of Marquette County and other rural areas, springing up in locations that made it easy for farmers to haul their milk in the days before refrigeration. 

     Butter was made at home at first and often used at trade in stores.Cheese factories were built early on in Wisconsin and used whole milk, unlike butter factories, while both made a product that extended the life of the raw product, milk.Creameries were not all the same.Some separated out the cream and the skim milk was often taken home to be used as animal feed.There were also condenseries. 

Be sure to visit the Pheasant Inn close to the dam in Briggsville.  Alexander Briggs  built his log cabin on that site and ran a trading post.  Many Indians also camped here and their legacy goes back thousands of years before European and Yankee settlers moved here.  In fact, when Lake Mason was formed by damming Neenah Creek, the rising water covered over several Indian mounds.

The carpenter who built the mill for Briggs also built him a hotel called Lake House.  The photo is below.  Today the Pheasant Inn stands on that spot. The original building burned in 1912.  Inside today's restaurant, stone Indian artifacts can be seen in the fireplace surround that were found in the area. 

Below are pictures that give you a sense of history of Briggsville when John Muir lived here and other settlers were making their way in building homes in Marquette County.  Civil War Veterans gathered in Briggsville in the second photo below, and Lila Atwood shows the style of women's clothing that would have been seen in the 1860s in the US. 

          Wisconsin has produced and inspired many influential naturalists including John Muir, Owen Gromme, Fran Hamerstrom, and Aldo Leopold.  Marquette County served as inspiration to both Gromme and Muir. Owen Gromme lived and painted in Briggsville in the later part of his life.  He is buried in the Briggsville cemetery.  He had a farm just outside of town.  His field notes contain information about Marquette County among other locations and are fascinating to read.  The dates that birds arrived and left on migration and where they were seen can be compared to today.  Some birds are no longer here or their numbers are greatly reduced.  Use the link to his field notes at Edgewood College to learn more. 

         From the Museum of Wisconsin Art

  Owen Gromme
Born 1896 in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
Died 1991 in Briggsville, Wisconsin

One of the finest decoy makers in Wisconsin, Owen Gromme has frequently been referred to as the "Dean of American Wildlife Artists.”

Gromme began his career at 21 as a taxidermist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. After World War I he worked at the Milwaukee County Museum (Milwaukee Public Museum) for 43 years as a taxidermist, collector, photographer, movie editor, background painter, botanist, geologist, sculptor, and finally curator of birds and mammals. 

Gromme was famous across the state for his conservation activities and bird paintings which were influenced by both John James Audubon and Louis Azassiz Fuertes.  He won the national competition for the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp (duck stamp) of 1945 with his watercolor of three shoveler ducks in flight. In 1963, Gromme published his guide The Birds of Wisconsin. This scientific volume of paintings was the product of 25 years of work and includes all the birds known to Wisconsin; it is considered to be his biggest achievement.  

In 1978, he designed the first Wisconsin state duck stamp and received the Ducks Unlimited Artist of the Year Award.  Gromme also helped to found the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Limited edition reproductions of his paintings have provided hundreds of thousands of dollars for conservation-oriented projects.  
While Gromme never completed high school and received no formal art education, he received five honorary doctorates for his environmental work.  He persistently defended environmental causes for over half a century and tirelessly donated his time and talents to conservation efforts such as waterfowl habitat protection.

Gromme's 1978 commencement address at Marian College offered a glimpse into his environmental philosophy: “We owe a great deal to those who came before us, and it is our duty to pass on to posterity a world morally and physically as good or better than the one we live in. By every legal means it is our duty to oppose those who out of greed and avarice, or for selfish or other reasons, would pollute, defile or destroy that which means life itself to every living being.”

Take time to view the patch of tall grass prairie in front of Neenah Creek Elementary School on the south end of Briggsville.  Behind the school is a large wetland/prairie that often affords viewing of a number of birds including Bald Eagles.   There is a Bald Eagle's nest just east of the school on the south end of the wetland/prairie behind the school.  It has been there for a number of years and the Eagle pair return to rebuild it each spring.

On a trip to Briggsville at the end of February, 2016, two immature Bald Eagles were soaring near the nest over the prairie and if you look closely, you can see an adult was perched in the tree.  Bald Eagles don't grow their distinctive white feathered heads until they are about 4 to 5 years old.

While you are in Briggsville, you may want to visit the Shrine of St. Philomena which was built by and is maintained by local folks.   It is in front of the Catholic Church.