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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The First Book in Wisconsin

Printing presses were not something that pioneer settlers wanted to carry west. They were made of cast iron and weighed as much a winter's worth of provisions. To be useful, they had to be accompanied by an equally heavy load of lead type. Hauling them overland was impossible and shipping them down the Great Lakes was problematic. So it was not until 1831 or 1832 that a printer tried to bring one into the wilderness of Wisconsin.

Our First Printer

That was Albert Ellis (1800-1885), who had apprenticed in a print shop in New York before coming west with the Oneida Indians as a teacher. In the winter of 1830-31, he accompanied a tribal delegation to Washington, D.C., for treaty negotiations, and on the way back he ordered a press and type while passing through Detroit.

Raising the necessary capital and having the equipment shipped to Green Bay took longer than anticipated, so it was not until the fall of 1833 that Ellis and his partner produced the inaugural issue of The Green Bay Intelligencer, Wisconsin's first newspaper.

Our First Book

Earlier that year, the region's only Catholic priest, Samuel Mazzuchelli (1806-1864), had been forced to travel all the way to Detroit to have a little prayer book in Ho-Chunk printed. His principal missionary work lay among the Ojibwe, though, so he set about compiling a liturgical almanac that listed and explained the Catholic holy days in the Ojibwe language. This was printed in Green Bay in 1834, and typographic analysis proves that it was printed on Ellis's press, making it the first book printed in Wisconsin -- if it really qualifies as a book at all.

Kikinawadendamoiwewin or Almanac, wa aiongin obiboniman debeniminang Iesos, as it's called, is tiny (about 4 x 6.5 inches) and only 14 pages long. Each page is printed on just one side, and the whole thing was bound in plain paper covers. Mazzuchelli had Ellis print only 150 copies, most of which were of course quickly distributed to his Indian parishioners. Only a single copy survives today, in the Library of Congress, but you can examine a reproduction of the whole book here, among the Native American language materials at Turning Points in Wisconsin History, and learn more about it in the Wisconsin Magazine of History archives.

Father Mazuchelli's Later Career

Mazzuchelli went on to oversee the creation of more than 24 churches in the region, and to found schools in New Diggings, Sinsinawa, and Benton, in southwestern Wisconsin. At Sinsinawa he also established a community of Dominican Sisters who went on to start more schools and colleges for women, including Dominican University in River Forest, Ill., and Edgewood College in Madison. He taught at the St. Clara Female Academy in Benton, Wis., until his death.

:: Posted in Curiosities on August 7, 2013
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