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Odd Wisconsin Archive

First House Never Occupied

Madison's first house is usually considered to be the Peck cabin, built near the intersection of Butler and Wilson (a little uphill from the modern Cleveland's Diner), pictured here. But in fact that was the second house constructed in the newborn town. The first one was never occupied.

When he was stranded by a blizzard across Lake Mendota in February of 1837, John Catlin hired fur trader Michel St. Cyr to build a log house on the isthmus that Catlin could occupy when he returned. St. Cyr quickly erected the shell, and in the spring Catlin went to work completing the interior. "I drew the pine lumber to finish the house from Helena on the Wisconsin River at a cost of over $90 per thousand feet, and was so unfortunate after its completion in very good style as to have the inside burnt out before any one lived in it." So the first house built in Madison burnt down before it was inhabited.

While Catlin figured out what to do next, Madison's first settlers had arrived. These were Eben and Roseline Peck who had just emigrated from western New York to Blue Mounds. When they heard that Madison had been voted the capital, they decided to move there and build a hotel where the first residents and later legislators could stay (even though she was five months pregnant).

She later recalled, "Mr. Peck purchased some lots and immediately sent hands and teams to erect three large rooms or buildings for their occupancy. The buildings were put up before I saw them... The men employed to erect this first house were two Frenchmen, one named Joe Pellkie, the name of the other is forgotten; they were with a party of Winnebagoes who had spent that winter at the largest of the Blue Mounds, and one Abraham Wood superintended the work. Wood then lived at Strawberry or Squaw Point since better known as Winnequah, on the eastern side of Third Lake... During the erection of these cabins, which was in March, Mr. Peck made two excursions with teams to Madison [from Blue Mounds] to carry out supplies and give directions about the work. There was then snow on the ground, and the lakes were frozen so that Mr. Peck crossed on the ice to Strawberry Point..."

The cabin was habitable by April, and the Peck's kept adding to it "until it was capacious enough to entertain comfortably the travelers and first settlers who visited Madison, and it was then a great accommodation," according to Catlin. We'll hear more about it in coming installments of Odd Wisconsin.

[Sources: the articles linked above and Daniel Durrie's 1874 History of Madison.]

For the next few weeks we'll feature episodes from early Madison history, not all of them odd, to help celebrate our state capital's 150th anniversary.

:: Posted in Madison on March 30, 2006

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