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Weekly Column

Each week a small segment of Vernon County history is published in the county papers.


For the week of 10/14/2018
by Kristen Parrott, curator

With all the rain and flooding in Vernon County recently, people have been thinking a lot about rivers and creeks, and why the pioneers of 150+ years ago settled along them. Hydropower was one reason – all that water could be used to power mills of various kinds. Settlers built gristmills, sawmills, and other types of mills along the waterways beginning in the mid-19th century.

By the 1880’s, 19 out of the county’s 21 townships had mills of some kind, according to the 1878 Vernon County plat map and the 1884 History of Vernon County book. Only the Towns of Franklin and Union appear to have had no mills. Mills were often one of the first businesses in a new community. This was certainly true along the Kickapoo River and its tributaries, where the villages of Avalanche, Bloomingdale, La Farge, Ontario, Readstown, and Viola all began with mills.

Sawmills were usually built first. In her book, The Memorable Kickapoo Valley, Grace Hocking wrote that in the late 1850’s, “Mr. [Giles] White made a dam on the Kickapoo River southeast of the Village [of Ontario] and built a sawmill, one of the next necessities after building log cabins, about 14 feet square to live in. The timber must be cleared off the land, sawed into logs, then into lumber and rafted to market as that would be the only income for quite some time.”

Next came the gristmills. Thriving villages grew up around gristmills, as people waiting for their grain to be ground into feed or flour had time to shop at local stores. Springville, in the Town of Jefferson, is one of the oldest communities in Vernon County, and its first gristmill was built in 1848 by John Graham.

The city of Hillsboro had one of the largest milling operations in this region, built along the Baraboo River. According to the 1884 history book, Klopfleisch and Schlolmich constructed the first sawmill there in 1854; subsequently the first store opened in 1855, the village was surveyed in 1856, and a grist mill business began in 1857. The Hillsboro Mill Company changed hands in 1908, and the name of the business changed to the Vernon County Milling Company. The mill closed in the mid-1950’s, ending a century of milling in Hillsboro.

The importance of mills in Vernon County can be seen by the number of communities that had Mill Streets in 1896. According to the 1896 plat maps, Bloomingdale, Chaseburg, Hillsboro, Mechanics Point/Manning, Newton, and Readstown all had a Mill Street. Mill ponds, mill races, and dams are also indicated on these maps. And the mills themselves are marked on many villages, including Avalanche, Bloomingdale, Chaseburg, Coon Valley, Genoa, Hillsboro, Newton, Readstown, Starr, Valley, Victory, and Viola. Ontario wins the prize for the most mills on the 1896 map, with two saw mills, a grist mill, and a “mill”.

So, there’s a reason why so many communities in Vernon County sprang up alongside waterways – the water powered the mill, and the mill powered the community.


Rockton Mills
Saw mill (left) and grist mill (right) at Rockton.


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For the week of 10/7/2018
by Kristen Parrott, curator

A letter received in a Westby home 100 years ago read, “Bennie was a very good soldier and was well thought of by officers and men of his company. He died nobly and in a great cause, and while we all mourn his death, we all respect him for paying the full price for our glorious victory... Believe me you have the deepest sympathy of myself and the whole company in your home of sorrow.”

This letter was written by Lieutenant Robert Batman, the commanding officer for Private Bennie Maldor Frydenberg. Writing these letters must have been a painful task for the lieutenant, and one he had to perform frequently in the final days of World War I.

Bennie was born in Westby on March 23, 1895, to Martin and Josephine (Hallingstad) Frydenberg, immigrants from Norway. He grew up in Westby and then went west after school. He was working on a farm near Roundup, Montana, when he was drafted to fight in the Great War.

Private Frydenberg entered military service in April 1918, and trained at Camp Lewis, Washington, with the Wild West Division. He was transferred to Company I of the 361st Infantry of the 91st Division, and left camp for the battlefields of Europe on June 23, 1918. He arrived in France on August 4.

Bennie was a bomb thrower, which sounds incredibly dangerous, but he didn’t die in a bomb accident. Instead, he was killed in action by a single gunshot, while advancing on Hill 255 during the Battle of the Argonne Forest, in France. He had been serving on the front line for 13 days.

Bennie died exactly 100 years ago, on October 9, 1918. His friend A.R. Motner was with him when he died, and wrote afterward:
“I remember well the early smoky morning on which Bennie Frydenberg was killed. He was only four feet on my right when he was hit... Bennie did not say much, but I imagined he was suffering terribly... A few minutes after, I and some others carried him into the edge of the woods and we called for first aid men.

“I stayed there until first aid was brought to him and then was compelled to leave and follow my company. Bennie did not speak much. Until he was shot he was very calm on the front and always anxious to go.”

Private Frydenberg died within the hour, and was buried temporarily in a military cemetery in France. His body was returned to Westby a few years later, in August 1921.

The community held a military funeral for him then, with the Westby band leading the procession. His funeral wagon was pulled by four horses, mounted by Roy Fremstad, Henry Stigen, Joslyn Running, and Palmer Hoveland. The pallbearers were Reuben Swiggum, Markey Galstad, Gus Hanson, Milton Lindvig, Morris Hoff, and Archie Aarness.

Coon Prairie Lutheran Cemetery is now Bennie’s final resting place. His grave is in section two. It’s a peaceful place, far from the field of battle where he fell 100 years ago.



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The previous two articles:

September 30, 2018

September 23, 2018