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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Pigs Beneath the Legislature


Madison first hosted the legislature in February of 1838, when lawmakers gathered to consider the profound political and economic issues of the day. Unfortunately, the Capitol building wasn't finished and they found conditions unbearable:

"The floors were laid with green oak boards full of ice," one of them wrote later; "the walls of the room were iced over; green oak seats and desks made of rough boards; one fire-place and one small stove. In a few days the flooring near the stove and fire-place so shrunk on account of the heat that a person could run his hands between the boards. The basement story was all open, and James Morrison's large drove of hogs had taken possession. The weather was cold, the halls were cold, our ink would freeze so that when we could stand it no longer we passed a joint resolution to adjourn for twenty days, and I was appointed by the two houses to procure carpeting for both halls. During the recess I bought all I could find in the territory and brought it to Madison and put it down, after covering the floor with a thick coating of hay. After this we were more comfortable."

Pig-owner James Morrison had come to Madison to build the Capitol, and never left; he opened the first store, as well as erecting the American House hotel. Since he'd built the Capitol, perhaps he felt he had a right to quarter his pigs under it. He served in a variety of public offices and private concerns until his death in 1860.

Although the Capitol was soon made habitable, the pigs remained for at least another decade and sometimes proved quite useful. Charles Harper, who knew Wisconsin's first governor and Supreme Court justice, claimed that once when a motion to adjourn was voted down, its sponsor "seized a long pole used in raising the windows and poked it down between the wide cracks in the rough board floor. [There] ensued a chorus of grunts and squeals and the sound of trampling feet made by the pigs, which had taken up their residence beneath the floor. Such clouds of dust began to rise between the cracks in the floor that lawmakers all started to squeeze and cough. This time the motion to adjourn was carried."

And James Secor of Racine, who was a member of the convention that drafted the Wisconsin Constitution in the winter of 1847-48, remembered them as a prominent feature when our founding document was drafted. "The convention met in an old stone building used as the capitol of the territory," he recalled in old age. "Breaches had been made in the foundation of this building and stray pigs would take refuge from the cold and storm therein. Sometimes in our discussions we were almost drowned out by the squealing of the quarrelsome animals" (Secor was also one of the Racine abolitionists who rushed to Milwaukee in 1854 to liberate Joshua Glover; see pages 3-4 of his recollections).

Until April 10th, Odd Wisconsin will feature episodes from early Madison history (not all of them odd) to help celebrate our state capital's 150th anniversary.


:: Posted in Madison on April 4, 2006

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