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Odd Wisconsin Archives: Madison

Madison -- "Not Fit for Any Civilized Nation"

The first visitor to leave a written account of the isthmus that would become Madison was Ebenezer Brigham, who crossed it in May of 1829 while returning from Portage to Blue Mounds. He later told an acquaintance that "The site was at the time an open prairie, on which grew dwarf oaks, while thickets covered the lower grounds." Struck with... :: Posted on August 11, 2013

Madison's Castle

No, not the UW's Red Gym but a real castle. In 1861, a melancholy Englishman named Benjamin Walker brought his family across the Atlantic to settle on what were then the outskirts of Madison. No one seems to know why he left home or why he chose our capital, but in 1863 he erected a medieval castle on E. Gorham... :: Posted on May 1, 2013

A Midwinter Survey Party

The southern half of Wisconsin is getting another dose of snow this morning and forecasters are predicting frigid temperatures next week. Still, this is nothing compared to conditions that met the surveyors who laid out the state's capital in 1837. Survey Crew Arrives When the first territorial legislative session in Belmont ended in December 1836, promoter James Doty hired Moses... :: Posted on December 26, 2012

The First Rhythm & Booms

"Pshaw, talk about the time that tried men's soul, just as if a woman had none --- " That's the way Roseline Peck remembered the first Independence Day celebration in Madison. Only a few weeks after she'd arrived on the barren isthmus, the cornerstone for the state capitol was to be laid, on July 4, 1837. She was responsible for... :: Posted on July 10, 2009

Longfellow on Madison

One of America's best poets wrote one of his worst poems about our capital. In 1876, a centennial exhibition was organized in Philadelphia to celebrate the nation's first century. The participation of Wisconsin's women was spearheaded by Mrs. J.G. Thorpe of Madison, whose son had married a daughter of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She persuaded the famous author to write an... :: Posted on November 17, 2008

Drunks, Gamblers, Thieves, and Other Pioneers

We easily get the impression that all our pioneer ancestors were hard-working, upstanding, church-going pillars of a proud community. That's because they were the ones who took the pictures, wrote the histories, and operated the libraries and museums where such records are kept. But in reality they shared the world with "such unpleasant sights as often greet the eye on... :: Posted on April 27, 2006

Madison's First Child

"I shall be glad when it is all over and I am gone, too," burst out Wisconsiana Hawley to a reporter in 1917. She had been the first settlers' child born in Madison, and she was tired of hearing about it. "The papers have had a lot of stuff about us, but all the reporters know is what they are... :: Posted on April 13, 2006

Madison's Most Important Phone Call

Richard Valentine, a telegraph operator in Janesville, went to Chicago in 1874 to see a man named Elisha Gray, who was experimenting with sending music over wires. He came back and strung a telegraph wire between his home and his brother's, stuck one of Gray's primitive devices on either end, and made the first Wisconsin phone call. Soon the two... :: Posted on April 9, 2006

John Muir's Dorm Room

"I can vividly recall the tall clock which he made," wrote Grace Lindsley in 1935, "and which was connected with his bed in such a way that when the time came for which he had set it, the mechanism was released which tipped up the bed and threw the occupant on the floor, and at the same time struck a... :: Posted on April 8, 2006

Jefferson's Madison Descendants

Rumors that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with a slave, Sally Hemings, started 200 years ago with this 1802 article in a Richmond, Virginia, newspaper. Recent DNA analysis has persuaded most historians that Jefferson was indeed the likely father of Eston Hemings (1808-1856), who moved to Madison in 1852 with his wife and three children. A cabinet-maker and musician, Eston Hemings... :: Posted on April 8, 2006

Murder in the Capitol !

On February 11, 1842, the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature was interrupted by the shooting of one member by another. While they were deliberating, Representative Charles C.P. Arndt implied that fellow member James R. Vineyard had lied. During a break in the proceedings, Arndt approached Vineyard's desk and the two continued their disagreement. Tensions escalated, Arndt punched Vineyard in the head, and... :: Posted on April 5, 2006

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... :: Posted on April 4, 2006

The Wolves of Madison

"Bears were common," wrote H.A. Tenney of Madison in 1845, "wolves innumerable, and other wild animals in proportion... The present generation have not the faintest conception of the enormous profusion of that period." Everyone loved the ducks, geese, and fish, but they found the wolves troublesome since they ate the settlers' pigs and chickens. Robert Ream, who took over the... :: Posted on April 3, 2006

Early Madison Fish Tales

Many observers commented on the abundance of fish and game around the Four Lakes at the time that Madison was founded. "On the first day of May in 1839," wrote the first postmaster, John Catlin, he and a friend "discovered a large catfish near the shore of the head of Third Lake [Lake Monona] and I suggested the idea of... :: Posted on April 3, 2006

The Port of Madison?

Before Wisconsin was a state, some leading citizens of the hamlet called Milwaukee suggested a canal be dug between Lake Michigan and the Lead Region. The canal's proposed route would have passed roughly through Menomonee Falls, Pewaukee, Delafield, and Fort Atkinson, where it would have joined the Rock River. Lead from Mineral Point, New Diggings, Platteville, and other southwest Wisconsin... :: Posted on April 2, 2006

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