History of Pepin County

History of Pepin County | People and Events of Pepin County | Old Historical Courthouse Museum

Pepin County was created by a special act of the Wisconsin Legislature on February 25, 1858; ten years after Wisconsin became a state. Before that, Pepin was part of Dunn County, and before that, part of Chippewa County. The lands including Pepin County were acquired by the Federal government by treaty with the Dakota Indians in 1837.

The indigenous people, of course, had been living here for thousands of years before the first European explorers ventured in to the region. We don’t know much about the Woodlands People, the Oneota, Dakota, Ojibwa or other native people, because they didn’t have a written language.

Most of the information we have about these ancient people is what we have found in their village dumpsites and their graves; broken pottery, arrowheads, animal bones, beads, kernels of corn and seeds…things that tells us what they ate, how they hunted, how advanced they were. Here in Pepin County there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ancient burial mounds, some of which have been dug up and historic artifacts removed.

The Native Americans also left us some of their oral history. Stories were passed from one generation to the next through songs and poems, which were likely overheard by or translated for the early European explorers, missionaries, and traders, giving rise to many myths and legends about the pre-historic people. One such story is the “Legend of the Maiden Rock”. During the past 200 years, many versions have been written about the tragic suicide of a young Indian maiden, whose father refused to permit her marriage to a brave from an enemy tribe. The bluff from which she threw herself, the Maiden Rock, has been a Lake Pepin landmark for river travelers for centuries.

The Eastern Dakota were the principal inhabitants of this region when the first European explorers began to arrive here. These explorers kept journals and diaries and wrote letters about their adventures. With their arrival, Pepin County's written history began.

Pierre Esprit Radisson, an early French explorer, is believed to have been writing about the Eastern Dakota in his journal in the mid-1600's, referring to them as the “Nation of the Beef”. He described them as living in a town with large cabins covered with skins and mats. They subsisted by hunting bison, large herds of which are believed to have roamed the Chippewa River Valley, and which may explain why Radisson called them the Nation of the Beef. They also harvested wild rice and exploited other abundant flora and fauna of the riverine environment.

Another Frenchman, Nicolas Perrot, described the Eastern Dakota as living in swampy territory, “…nothing but lakes and marshes full of wild oats…in a tract 50 leagues square with the Mississippi River flowing through the middle.” Perrot could have been talking about the Chippewa River delta at the foot of Lake Pepin.

By the mid-1600’s, the French had begun to send expeditions into Wisconsin via the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. King Louis XIII of France is believed to have granted a huge piece of land in the Upper Mississippi River Valley to two brothers, Etiene Pepin de la Fond and Guillaume dit Tranchemontagne. Two of Gillaume’s sons, Pierre Pepin and Jean Pepin du Cardonnets, later explored and traded in this area, and their name somehow became attached to the lake, and ultimately to the village and the county.

In February, 1680, Father Louis Hennepin and two lay Frenchmen, Anthony Augelle and Michael Accault, set out in a birch bark canoe to explore the upper Mississippi River. On April 12th, soon after their arrival at Lake Pepin, they were taken captive by a band of the Assati Sioux (Dakota). During two months of captivity, they were taken up the Mississippi as far as St. Anthony Falls. Hennepin preached the gospel to his captors and accompanied them hunting buffalo. Eventually, the three Frenchmen were given a canoe, a gun, a knife, and a robe of beaver skins and were released. They started back down the Mississippi, continuing as far as the mouth of the Chippewa River. By Hennepin's account, they ascended the Chippewa to the mouth of another river, which was likely the Eau Galle or the Red Cedar. Hennepin and his companions were the first white men to see the site of the present City of Durand and the surrounding area.

In 1686, Nicolas Perrot, standing along the shores of the Lake of Tears (later Lake Pepin), claimed in the name of the King of France, all the land that drained to the Mississippi River. Perrot built a stockade to serve as a fort and trading post on this site, a prominence offering a broad view of the river, protected by the bluffs, and sloping gently down to a quiet bay. An archeological survey conducted in 1994 verified French presence on just such a site located within two miles down river from the present Village of Stockholm. For years, it has been believed to be the site of Fort St. Antoine, Perrot's premier fort on Lake Pepin. However, the artifacts found in 1994 were more consistent with those of the French of the 1720's, rather than 40 to 50 years earlier.

French trappers and traders dominated commerce along the Mississippi River for the next hundred years, despite British attempts to move into the area. The French influence in Pepin County continued with the opening of the Chippewa River Valley for logging in the 1800's. French Canadians arrived in such numbers, they became the founders of many villages in the area. In Pepin County, they built their homes in and around the Arkansaw-Porcupine region. Birth, baptismal, and marriage certificates from the earliest days of white settlement in the area recorded dozens of French surnames, many of which continue to be recorded today.

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John McCain is believed to have been the first European to settle in this county. He built the first home here in 1846; a small log house on a parcel of land located about two miles west of what is now the Village of Pepin. He was of English-Scottish descent, born in Pennsylvania in 1814. McCain lived on his Pepin County farm until his death in 1887. He was reported to be a tall, powerful, well-built man ready to face any danger and hardship. Historical accounts also indicate he was a favorite with children to whom he was known as Uncle Mack.

W. B. Newcomb arrived the same year as McCain and built a cabin in what is now the Village of Pepin. During the mid-1800's, Pepin was the jumping off point for lumberjacks and other men looking for work in the great white pine forests to the north along the Chippewa River. Early entrepreneurs saw Pepin's potential to become an important river port. The gently sloped riverbank served early vessels well; however, the water was too shallow to accommodate the larger boats, which came later in the century.

Alexander Babatz arrived in Pepin County about 1850 and was the first settler on the site of the present day City of Durand. In 1856, Miles Durand Prindle set out from New England with the express purpose to establish a town. He founded his town on the east bank of the Chippewa River twenty miles upstream from the Mississippi on land he acquired from the Federal government. Prindle named it after his mother's maiden name.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Legislature carved Pepin County from Dunn County, named the Village of Pepin the first county seat, and appointed Henry D. Barron the county's first judge. The first term of court was held in the spring of 1858.

By 1860, Durand had grown dramatically and, by virtue of a majority of voters in the county, laid claim to the county seat and obtained leave to test the question at the polls. It lost that year, but the question was brought before the voters again, and it won. In 1867, Durand was declared county seat following a lawsuit decided in La Crosse County Court

In 1871, Miles Durand Prindle offered the county one-and-a-half acres of land in Durand for the sum of one dollar in return for a promise that a courthouse would be built within five years. Construction of the new courthouse was begun in 1873 and completed in 1874 at a cost of less than $12,000. Nonetheless, the location of the seat of government for Pepin County remained unsettled for years to come.

In late 1881, voters approved removal of the county seat to Arkansaw, an unincorporated village three miles west of Durand, which had also seen considerable growth and development. A proclamation by the governor made the transfer official on December 15, 1881. Another vote taken in 1882 reaffirmed the wishes of county voters to keep the county seat in Arkansaw. For the next five years, a large frame building in Arkansaw was rented by the county and used as a courthouse.

Miles Durand Prindle was understandably upset by these events, especially when the county board of supervisors, after vacating the premises, moved the District Attorney's office into the now empty courthouse building in Durand. One day, while the D.A. was out of his office, Prindle locked and secured the doors, claiming the conditions of his deed had been broken.
Pepin County filed a lawsuit seeking repossession, but the judge ruled in favor of Prindle. He eventually transferred the property to a group of four businessmen, who subsequently deeded the building to the Village (now City) of Durand. In 1886, Durand transferred the building back to Pepin County, following yet another vote, which moved the county seat back to Durand once and for all by a vote of 937 to 618.

The stately courthouse, which today is the only remaining wood-framed courthouse in Wisconsin, served the people of Pepin County for 110 years. This gracious old building today stands proudly on Washington Square, a testament to the strength and devotion of the citizens of Pepin County and the City of Durand. The Old Courthouse Museum and the Jail next door are both on the National Register of Historic Places.

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The year 1881 was a particularly tragic year for the then-village of Durand. The removal of the county seat to Arkansaw in late 1881 was preceded by the hanging of Edward Maxwell by an angry lynch-mob on the courthouse lawn on November 19, 1881. The lynching climaxed a sensational nation-wide manhunt for Maxwell and his brother, Alonzo, following a shoot-out the previous July in Durand, during which two local law enforcement officers, brothers Charles and Milton Coleman, were killed. The Colemans, both highly regarded family men, were the first two law officers to die in the line of duty following Wisconsin's statehood. Ed Maxwell was captured in Grand Island, Nebraska, and brought back to Durand to face charges.

Immediately following the adjournment of a boisterous preliminary hearing in the upstairs courtroom of the Pepin County Courthouse, some members of the audience spontaneously formed a mob, subdued peace officers quickly, grabbed hold of Maxwell, got a noose around his neck, dragged him down the stairs, out the door, across the porch and down the steps of the courthouse, and up a tree. The mob violence ended quickly. After a few moments of stunned silence, the angry mob slowly dispersed. The event created a public image of Durand as a "hangin' town", which affected it for years to come and likely influenced the voters' decision to remove the county seat to Arkansaw.

Climaxing the events of 1881, the worst fire in its history wiped out most of Durand's downtown on Christmas Day. The fire destroyed 34 businesses, many of which were under-insured. During the subsequent reconstruction, the previous wood-framed buildings consumed in the fire were replaced with brick and mortar structures. Fortunately, the wood-framed county courthouse stood apart from the other buildings downtown and survived the fire.

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People & Events of Pepin County

Cadwallader Colden Washburn

One very ambitious and well-respected gentleman made a lot of money in Pepin County. He was a Congressman and a one-term Governor of Wisconsin. Cadwallader Colden Washburn was Governor of Wisconsin from 1872 to 1874. Before that, he served as a highly regarded officer for the Union Army during the American Civil War. He was a very successful businessman, whose ties to the Town of Waubeek in Pepin County made him very wealthy.

Born on a farm near Livermore, Maine, in 1818, Washburn was one of ten children. His ancestors first arrived in Massachusetts in the 1630's. Both his grandfathers fought in the Revolutionary War. Washburn and three of his brothers were all elected to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Two of the brothers became governors and one was even a candidate for President of the United States.

At age 21, Washburn left Maine, intending to settle in some community along the Mississippi River. He had numerous jobs over the course of the next three years, but also managed to study law and was admitted to the Wisconsin Bar in 1842.

He set up a law practice in Mineral Point and soon formed a business partnership with Cyrus Woodman. The two men were speculators and began buying large tracts of pine forests. One such tract was 12,000 acres, very near the present Pepin-Dunn county line on the southwest fringe of the great white pine forests of northern Wisconsin. Most of their land was located around Waubeek Mound, a well known Chippewa River landmark, a few miles upriver from the site of the present City of Durand.

In 1855, Washburn built a lumber mill on the Chippewa River in the shadow of Waubeek Mound. It was said to be the largest Wisconsin lumber mill of the pre-Civil War days.

When the Civil War broke out, Washburn, being a zealous abolitionist, raised and led the 2nd Cavalry Regiment of the Wisconsin Volunteers, who fought admirably for the Union and distinguished themselves in campaigns in Texas and Tennessee. Following the war, he retired from the military with a rank of major general.

Washburn returned to Wisconsin only to find his Waubeek lumber mill had been badly managed during his absence and was now saddled with a large debt. So, he regretfully sold his mill to Knapp, Stout and Co. at Menomonie. At the same time, he agreed to sell them his timber holdings as well; however, not for cash, but rather for future delivery. When he finally collected his money several years later, the timber had quadrupled in value and Waubeek had made him a very rich man.

Washburn went on to be a two term U.S. Congressman and one term Governor of Wisconsin. He was very likely the richest man ever to be governor of this state. He eventually took his money to Minneapolis and built flour mills there. He died in 1887 and is buried at LaCrosse. Washburn County and the City of Washburn are named for him.

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Laura Ingalls Wilder

Pepin County's most famous resident became known around the world for her stories about her pioneer childhood in Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota. Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in Pepin County in 1867 and lived here for six years. Her very first book, Little House in the Big Woods, published in 1939, was set here in Pepin County and contains stories about her early childhood. Laura went on to write many more books about her life and adventures. She died at the age of 90 in 1957. She is, arguably, still the most popular author of children’s literature in the world.

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Milton and Charles Coleman

An infamous event occurred in Pepin County in 1881. During July of that year, a wild west style shootout took place in Durand and two brothers, Milton and Charles Coleman, both officers of the law, died in a blaze of gunfire. They were the first two law officers to die in the line of duty following Wisconsin’s statehood. The Coleman’s were family men and highly regarded in the community. They were killed in the shootout by two other brothers, Ed and Lon Maxwell, who fled from the area afterwards.

Following an intensive nationwide manhunt, Ed was captured on a farm near Grand Island, Nebraska and brought back to Durand to stand trial. His brother, Lon, apparently escaped and was never heard from again.

Ed, meanwhile, was a fiery young man, who had a few things to say to the people of Durand at his preliminary hearing held at two o'clock on November 19, 1881. According to an eyewitness account of what happened that cold November day, when two o’clock came, the upstairs courtroom in the Pepin County Court House was crowded to suffocation. Maxwell, cool and collected, not showing the faintest trace of nervousness, was led through the aisle between deputies. The crowd surged and pushed to get a better glimpse of him. Threats grew from mutterings to menaces, but he flinched not a whit. His eyes roamed a moment over the crowd, and his lips moved into a half-sneering smile.

This was to be only a preliminary examination and a statement of the charges against Edward Maxwell. When asked for his plea, Maxwell exclaimed, "Not Guilty!" Over the shouts and uproar of the crowd in response to his plea, he continued in a loud voice, "Yer, honor…my brother an’ me…we killed them Coleman boys in self-defense, but didn’t know ‘em from Adam! We was sittin’ in a grove up town when we saw ‘em pass us. They had guns with ‘em and was lookin’ ‘round often, as if searchin’ for somethin’. We knew there was no game ‘bout there, an’ they wouldn’t be huntin’ on Sunday, so we knew they was after us. An’ til then, we hadn’t done nothin’! When they got past us, they started to run. Then we got over the fence an’ followed ‘em up the road, thinkin’ we was surrounded and caught in a trap. We hadn’t gone but a short distance before we met ‘em…and the one nearest the fence fired first, his shot hittin’ Lon in the face and arm. Then Charley fired at me, an’ I at him a second later. His shot struck my arm…an’ he fell to my bullet, but he got on his knee an’ fired again. Lon had shot the other one before that, an’ both was down. Then we turned and ran. It was nothin’ but self-defense, pure an’ simple!"

At this, the crowd went into tremendous uproar and had to be shouted and gaveled down by the Judge. Once order was restored, the Judge bound Maxwell over for trial and adjourned the preliminary examination. The judge had scarcely finished, when, with a growl like a wild beast, a dozen men sprang on Maxwell. Women shrieked as the melee grew. The deputies made resistance, but, in less than a moment, the prisoner was being dragged through the yelling crowd to the door.

A rope had made its appearance as if by magic, and when Maxwell reached the outer door, a noose was already around his neck. The crowd was wild with passion.

It took only seconds to reach the tree. The end of the rope was over the projecting bough in an instant. A shuddering sob went up from the onlookers as the body of the desperado was jerked into the air; a score of willing hands tugging at the other end of the rope.

There were a few spasmodic clutches of the ironed hands. The feet were drawn up once or twice. And then, the head fell over to a sickening droop. And, all was over.

A grand jury, which later convened to investigate the lynching, determined that no local citizens had been involved in the incident beyond watching it. The deed was credited to a few blue and red-shirted loggers and outsiders who started the action. For many years afterward, the good citizens of Durand and Pepin County suffered considerable embarrassment from the city’s undeserved reputation as a hanging town.

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Helen Parkhurst

Helen Parkhurst was born and raised in Pepin County. She graduated valedictorian from Durand High School in 1904. She became known and admired around the world, because she thought children were our most important natural resource.

Helen Parkhurst is considered by many to be one of the most important female educators of the 20th century. She developed a theory of teaching based on individual learning which she tried for the first time in 1920 in a high school in Dalton, Massachusetts. She called her theory the “Dalton Plan” and she eventually founded the Dalton School in New York.

Parkhurst lectured around the world and received numerous awards and recognition from the governments of China, Netherlands, Japan, Denmark and more. Few people in Pepin County today know much about her, even though she spent the first 20 or so years of her life here.
Parkhurst was born in the Town of Durand in Pepin County on March 7th, 1887.

She grew up with her two younger brothers in a large two-story wood-frame house located across the road from her Grandmother Underwood’s house, which was very near the Chippewa River.

Her father was a livestock agent who selected cattle and horses from Wisconsin farmers and delivered them to the stockyards in Chicago. Her father also owned a hotel in the center of the Village of Durand. From time to time during the busy seasons, or when there was a county fair, her family would move the two miles from their house by the river to the hotel in the center of town.

In the 1890’s, Durand was a regional center for farming, logging and shipping. Farmers came from all around the surrounding area; loggers came from the pineries to the north. Strangers were always in town, because it had a train station and the traffic on the river with the side-wheelers traveling to and from the Mississippi.

From her father’s hotel, Parkhurst observed people of all kinds coming and going all day long. Very near to the hotel was a large multi-purpose building, the type found in small towns all over the country at that time. It was, first of all, the county courthouse with the jail next to it, but its second floor auditorium courtroom was used for not only trials and hearings, but also, public meetings, lectures and other community events.

Parkhurst had learned to read by the age of three. Because of that ability, the Pepin County Teachers’ Institute, which met and held seminars in the county courthouse, requested that she be sent to them as a pupil in demonstration classes held there. She was often invited to participate in these model classes and spent much of her time there.

After graduating valedictorian from Durand High School, Parkhurst took her first teaching position in a one-room rural schoolhouse called Black School, which was located near Arkansaw. She had embarked on her teaching career and her lifelong project to discover and preserve the child’s point of view. The Black School where Parkhurst taught still stands, located along County Road Z about three miles northwest of the village of Arkansaw.

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Elizabeth Clark Hardy

The poem, "In Durand", which includes a very respectful and heartfelt description of the City, was written by Elizabeth Clark Hardy, a highly regarded poetess, who was a 25 year resident of the city. Elizabeth Clark was born in New York State in 1849 and eventually married Joseph Hardy of Durand in 1871. They farmed near Red Cedar for many years, and Elizabeth moved to Durand following her husband’s death in 1913.

Hardy was a popular writer of prose and poetry, contributing to many of the leading magazines of the time, including “Woman’s Home Companion” and “Harpers Magazine”. One poem, “When the Tide is Low", was read at the state funerals for both Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding. During the last 18 years of her life, she was the Household Editor for the "Wisconsin Agriculturalist” and each week during those years her columns brought hope and good cheer to thousands of Wisconsin farm women.

At her funeral services on September 8, 1929, her eulogy included the following quote: “The world will move on, the memory of this noble woman will grow dim with the passing years, but …those who have known her…will live better through the years. …that is why I do not want to say we have paid the last tribute to the departed, for I feel, if we do not, some later generation will sometime bring fuller tribute to her goodness and her genius.”

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