The town of Madison was a plant of slow growth. In the summer of 1838, the census revealed the presence in the settlement of only sixty-two people, and it is recorded1 that there were at that time "not more than a dozen houses, built and in process of erection, counting every cabin and shanty within three miles of the Capitol;" while Indian wigwams were frequently erected within sight of the doors. For the matter of that, we can still -- sixty-one years later (1899), with a population of nearly 20,000 -- frequently see Winnebago tepees on the shores of Lakes Mendota and Monona; especially upon the latter, a mile-and-a-half from the Capitol.
The little village was charmingly situated in the primeval wilderness. In 1885, the late Jerome R. Brigham--a nephew of the Blue Mounds pioneer, Ebenezer, and himself one of Madison's early teachers--thus wrote of the Madison of his young manhood: "Those who only know of Madison, now, have but a feeble conception of its wonderful and fascinating beauty at the beginning. At the time I first saw our Capital  it had the look of a well-kept lawn, shaded by fine white-oak and burr-oak trees, with a fragrant fringe of red cedar all about the lake shores. There was no growth of underbrush and thicket such as spung up soon, when the semi-annual fires ceased to do the duty of the rake and mower; but the eye had a stretch quite uninterrupted, except as the surface rose in beautiful green knolls on either lake. There was no fence about the square, and none of the present trees, I think. If there were black-oaks among them, they fail to remain in the picture I recall. The lakes then lay in natural silver beauty, prettily framed in pebbly beach, now lost by the dam on Mendota and the railways on Monona. Madison in 1839 was wonderfully beautiful--not rugged or romantic, which is ordinarily picturesque, but for simple, quiet beauty, unequalled by anything I remember."
In the early annals of this peaceful village in the undulating oak grove between Mendota and Monona,--surrounded on every hand by far-stretching lakes and marshes, and thus in a measure isolated from her rural neighbors,--the historian finds little of stirring interest; and that little almost always the reflex of the legislature, which annually came and went with much bustle and sometimes brawl, leaving behind a quiet wake in which the denizens of the hamlet might meditate at will.
Early in the year 1838, Commissioner Bird had stopped "day work" on the Capitol, and the contract for finishing the structure was (April 17) awarded to James Morrison.The respective accounts of Bird and Morrison with the Territory, afterwards became a fruitful source of litigation and legislative claims, extending throughout the entire Territorial period.
During the summer, Bird and Morrison erected the American Hotel, on the site where the First National bank now stands--an establishment which, under a succession of landlords, long made a luminous figure in the history of Madison.
November 26, the legislative assembly first met here. But, as only fifty boarders could be provided for in the place, it was proposed to adjourn to Milwaukee; that village, however, could not promise better accommodations, so a recess was taken until January 21 (1839), when the situation was somewhat improved. Says Mr. Ream:2 "[With the session] came crowds of people.The public houses were literally crammed--shake-downs were looked upon as a luxury, and lucky was the guest considered whose good fortune it was to rest his weary limbs on a straw or hay mattress. * * * We had then no theatres or any places of amusement, and the long winter evenings were spent in playing various games of cards, checkers, and backgammon. Dancing was also much in vogue. Col. [James] Maxwell [member of council from Rock and Walworth] was very gay, and discoursed sweet music on the flute, and Ben. C. Eastman [one of the clerks] was an expert violinist. They two furnished the music for many a French four, cotillion, Virginia reel, and jig, that took place on the puncheon floors of the old log cabins [forming the Madison House]. * * * Want of ceremony, fine dress, classic music, and other evidences of present society life, never deterred us from enjoying ourselves those long winter evenings."
But Madison did not entirely give itself up to the business of boarding and amusing the legislature, although this was long the leading industry. A keen desire to educate the children of the settlement was early manifest, and aroused a laudable public sentiment. In the spring of 1839, Dane county was organized for judicial purposes. The Territorial school code had been somewhat modified by the legislature of that year. "The rate-bill system of taxation, previously in existence, was repealed, and a tax on the whole county for building school-houses and supporting schools was provided for."3 With the county organization came an immediate influx of population, and this fact, together with the improvement in the code, gave rise to a revival of interest in educational matters, which had lain dormant in Madison since the close of Miss Brayton's school. The number of children had materially increased, as many of the new settlers were accompanied by their families.There were now in Madison, fully a score of proper age for elemental instruction.
The taxable value of property was at a low ebb, and the fund accruing from the sale of school lands could not be made available until the organization of a State government, so that for many years the public school moneys had necessarily to be supplemented by rate-bills, even to pay the beggarly salaries then in vogue among district pedagogues. But the spirit of local pride always induced the pioneer residents of the infant capital to be generous, even beyond their means. With large hopes of the future, and a desire not to be outdone elsewhere, a movement to build a school-house was successfully carried through in April. Governor Doty gave permission to the settlers to use for the purpose lot 4, block 98, on the north corner of Pinckney and Dayton streets; and there, out in the "brush," was erected, in time for the summer term, the first building constructed in Madison for school purposes. It would be denominated a cabin in these days, but in those was thought to be an eminently creditable affair, having cost about $70, the amount being raised by popular subscription.
During the first term, it was unplastered and but ill glazed. A few rough benches were put in--slabs from the saw mill on Lake Mendota, with the flat side uppermost, and supported on pegs. In that period, sawed lumber and "store" furniture were scarce articles, and in many a Madison house the seats were but rough, three-legged stools. The first teacher in this public school was Rhoda Pierce (summer term of 1839); then came Edgar S. Searle, for the winter of 1839-40; among others who followed, were E. M. Williamson, Dr. Timothy Wilcox, Clarissa R. Pierce, Lucia A. Smith, Darwin Clark, Rev. A. M. Badger, Benjamin Holt, David H. Wright, and Matilda A. Smedley--Miss Smedley being the last teacher to occupy the building. The "Little Brick"--costing about $1,100, and much admired by Madisonians of that period, was erected in 1845, and continued in use as a school-house until 1887, when it was torn down to make room for the new Third Ward school.
The school-house was often used for other public purposes. Wood's brass band practiced there for a few seasons, two or three times a week. The first Sunday school was established within its walls. One of the early Congregational pastors, in alluding to this latter fact, thus describes the rude structure: "A few rods northwest of the park, in the thicket of brush, through which a few foot-paths only led, was the primitive school house, a building rudely constructed and poorly seated; almost 18x22 feet upon the ground, and having only low story. * * * Here the first Sunday school in Madison was started by a few ladies, prominent among whom was Mrs. James Morrison."
The entire population of the village at the close of 1839 was but 146, and the school tax raised in the county that year amounted only to $393.13.
On the first Monday in May, 1840, Clarissa R. Pierce opened a "select school for young misses," at $3 per quarter, in a little frame building within the limits of the Capitol park; and there continued her institution for nearly two years. This structure had originally been put up as a tool-house and office for Contractor Morrison, while the Capitol was being erected. It was an uncouth, one-story box, about 12x16 feet on the ground, with low ceiling, and situated some 200 feet in front of where the State Bank is now located. For several reasons, it did duty as a school-house, private and public, and for a time was the place where the village debating club was wont to assemble in the evenings and wisely discuss questions that had puzzled sages since the time of Solomon--the forum :
"Where village statesmen talked with looks profound."
Subsequently, Governor Doty had the old tool-house moved to the spot on Pinckney street where Owen's plumbing establishment is now situated. This site was then a part of the governor's garden; the executive mansion of that period can still be seen on Doty street, just around the corner below, its humble proportions quite lost in the shadows of the neighboring three-story bricks. Charles Doty, the governor's son and private secretary, used the former tool-shed for his office. In 1849, the first revisers of the statutes met there and accomplished their important task. Then Abraham Ogden, J. P., became its occupant, and many a village "cow case" was therein adjudicated.
December 25, 1841, the county school commissioners set apart the town of Madison as a separate school district, denominating it "District No. 1, Town of Madison." This was the first official action taken in Dane county relative to the organization of schools, under the Territorial laws. Heretofore, public education here had been quite informally carried on, in part by county tax and in part by private subscription, with no well-defined regulations. In 1840, the legislature had passed an act designed to secure the more adequate support and government of the schools. Thereafter there was more system, but it was not until twenty years later that Madison teachers began to receive anything approaching adequate compensation, in regular payments. This was owing chiefly to the poverty of the settlers, who were unable to pay heavy taxes.
The settlement made slow progress, in point of population. The census, in 1842, revealed the presence of but 172 people, a gain of 26 in two years; in 1844 there were only 216 Madisonians. Nevertheless, the little band of pioneers was full of hope, and sought courageously to push affairs, as though the Capital were growing apace. Education seems ever to have been uppermost in the public mind, in those struggling days. The grade was still necessarily low in the public school, and some of the leading men--such as John Catlin, Simeon Mills, David Brigham, and James Morrison--organized the Madison Select Female School (May, 1842).
David Brigham, who had himself been one of the instructional corps in Harvard College, was delegated to choose a preceptress. He accordingly engaged Mrs. Maria M. Gay, of Marietta, Ohio--a superior teacher and cultured woman, and eminently well qualified successfully to conduct such a school under more favorable circumstances. But Madison was too ambitious; it could not then support an institution of this character. Her terms were too high for those early days in the backwoods; not meeting with sufficient encouragement she was obliged, after a year's trial, to abandon the enterprise. Five years later, the attempt was renewed in the Madison Female Academy, which had a successful career (in a building on the site of the present high school) from 1847 to 1854, being succeeded by the city high school.
1Robert L. Ream's reminiscences, in Durrie's History of Madison (Madison, 1874), p. 102.
2Durrie's Madison, p. 120.
3History of Dane County, pp. 140, 141.
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