YORK, PRESENT AND PASTBy Marilyn Jaeger
York is in the most southerly bottom tier of counties of the state of Wisconsin, but in the top tier of towns (as Wisconsin calls “townships”) in that county of Green. To the north is Dane County, wherein lies the state capital of Madison. To the east is the Town of New Glarus and the village by the same name, settled in 1837 by Swiss immigrants. South is the Town of Adams, another strictly rural township like York. On the west border are the counties of Lafayette and Iowa, and straddling their county borders, the village of Blanchardville just one mile from the York boundary.
What reaches out to you first is the beauty of this place. Approach the Town of York from outside its limits and you will probably be “riding a ridge” like State Highway 39 or 78 and County J or A or traversing bottomlands such as Postville Road or Dougherty Creek Road or VW Road. Turn off that ridge road and you soon drop into the lovely twisty valley of Blue Mound Branch or Sawmill Creek or Erickson or Dougherty Creeks.
A paragraph from Jerusalem Creek: Journeys into Driftless Country by Ted Leeson describes this 36-square-mile town accurately:
“Ahead of you, though, the land begins to wrinkle and old, like fingerprint or the creases of an old man’s palm, producing an almost regular alternation of steep-sided ridges and small, deep ravines. . . Two-lane blacktops, shoulderless and unlined, rise and fall with the terrain, twisting around side hills and coiling down the valleys. The farms are smaller here, confined to the narrow plateaus and flatter ridge tops and scattered irregularly along the meandering strips of bottomland; the slopes that rise from valley floors, too steep to till, remain in mixed hardwood forest. . .”
Immigrants, many from Norway and Switzerland, found York to be a land recalling their own heart-full memories of mountains and streams. Willing to work hard to break new ground, they quickly rose above the harshness of the farms many must have left, and wrote letters back to the old country encouraging family and friends to join them in this new place of “limitless” opportunities.
Who were some of the first settlers? In 1838 John Stewart settled in the area that is now called Postville but was formerly named Stewart. Other early settlers in York were William C. Green, Amos Conkey, Albert Green, Albro and William Crowel, and Ezra Wescott. Records from History of Green County, Wisconsin published by Union Publishing Company, Springfield, Illinois, 1884 reflect that Harriet Peebles, the two-year-old daughter of Philander and Hannah Peebles, was the first death, on January 1, 1843. Philander Peebles was one of the early town chairmen (see “Town Board” on the website menu). Adeline Stewart, the wife of first settler John, died September 5, 1844 and is buried on the old John Stewart farm. Many of the pioneers are buried in one of the cemeteries in the town: York Prairie Cemetery (section 23), Old York Cemetery and York Memorial Cemetery (section 5) or the Ula Cemetery (section 17). How many others are lying in unmarked graves on the farmsteads, or in neighboring towns?
Early area settlers’ graves here at the northern edge of York Township are marked with a signpost visible from Lee Valley Road in Perry Township. The graves had been previously marked only by red paint on nearby trees.
Two Norwegian Lutheran churches were established in the Town of York, close to each other, on Highway 39 in Section 5. Before they were built residents traveled to use the services of the old Hauge log church in Town of Perry. In the 1960’s a Baptist church was started in the brick schoolhouse in Postville. That congregation since moved to New Glarus and became the New Glarus Baptist Church—but the old pews are still being used in the York Town Hall. The Old York Church congregation moved to New Glarus and became Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church. York Memorial Church is the only active church building in the Town today.
A sawmill was in operation in the mid-1800’s on the east bank of Sawmill Creek where Sawmill Road crosses the creek. The site is now owned by Skip and Sharon Marunde. By 1890, according to a plat map, there is no record of the sawmill. It served its purpose of providing lumber for farm buildings when homesteads were being claimed and subdued. A number of farmers might still have in their possession old homestead papers signed by the U. S. president in office at the time – President Taylor, President Buchanan, etc.
Six country schools in the Town of York echoed with learning and laughter through the years. Bem School was in Section 12, on Highway 39. The old merry-go-round is still prominent in the front yard, and the school has been turned into a residence. The building for York Center School on York Center Road in Section 15 still stands but is abandoned. Sunnyside School was in Section 18, tucked back into a branch of the small valley. Only the foundation can still be seen. Postville School was a sturdy brick building, and it metamorphosized from a school to a church to the present house. Loyalty School stands on the top of a hill in Section 29. Over the front door of the school, now a home, reads “Loyalty School, where all the smart Norwegians come from, 1858-1965”. Of Sunnyside and Loyalty Schools particularly, oldtimers say “You had to go uphill both ways, both going to and coming home from school!” Farmers School was on the corner of County J and County H. The original building is gone but there is another residence at the site.
Cheese factories were vital to the life of all York residents. Fifteen factories were humming at one time; now six of them have been turned into residences and the rest are completely gone. York Prairie Valley (Section 4) is now the dwelling of the Thomas Dobson family. Step Valley (Section 5, north of York Church and off of Highway 78), McPeace (Section 7, off Highway 78 between the Robert Marks’ and the Rick Fredrickson’s), and Brager (Section 7 at intersection of Buckeye Road and Sunnyside Road) have only a few piles of stones indicating where they were. York Center (Section 10, residence of the Kurt Fellers), Poplar Grove (Section 12, far southeast corner), and Hay Hollow (Section 16, now the home of the Tony and Mindy Winchester and where their pottery is also produced using the cooling waters of Sawmill Creek) can still be seen. Hay Hollow was the last operating cheese factory that closed in the late 1980’s. Blue Ribbon, Section 19, is on the York-Blanchard town line on County H, the old Ed Lageson farm and now “Gray Gables”. Sawmill cheese factory is now the home of Steve and Barb Jackson, on Loyalty Road in Section 29. South of the Wenger farm buildings on County H in Section 23 was the Postville factory. Not far from there was the Walnut Grove factory (Section 27) on County A land, presently owned by Ron Strommen. Farmers Grove was in Section 25 north of the junction of County Roads H and J. The Vinger factory was on Yankee Hollow Road, Section 33, below the Bob Helmeid farm, and Strommen was on Gould Hill Road in Section 31 where Jamie and Michelle Ritschard now live.
A copy of the articles of Association for the “York Prairie Cheese and Butter Manufacturing Company” of the Town of York, Green County, Wisconsin show the principals to be Lewis Lewis, Ole Burgeson, Henry Jordee, Henry Legler and Fred Legler. This factory was just south of Kuenzi Lane directly across from the former Fjelstad barn an eighth mile west of County J. This factory was registered on November 3, 1888. When it ceased operating as a factory it served as sleeping quarters for the workmen that built the Fjelstad farmhouse around 1910. The lumber was salvaged only to be reconstructed in the “Company” shed just north of the Dane/Green line on the west side of County JG. A company shed housed the threshing machines for oats or barley, corn shredders and silo fillers. The neighbors worked together to accomplish these tasks throughout the year at the appropriate harvest time.
There were at least three post offices in the Town at the turn of the twentieth century, in Stewart (now Postville), at the Ula farm, and at Bem which is now Strahm corners where Highway 39 and County J intersect. Mail was brought from Mineral Point through the Town of Moscow and to these stations by stagecoach on the way to Monroe, county seat of Green County.
The 23,050 acres of land in York became “civilized” predominately by dairy farms. At one time there were nigh unto 200 farms raising cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, horses and growing wheat, oats, barley, corn and soybeans. Now in the year 2004 there are 32 dairy farms and 26 farms running heifers and steers but without milking facilities. Three farms currently raise sheep and/or goats, and five farms have 3 or more horses. Most of the current farms have one or both partners working off the farm; many commute to Monroe, Madison, and Dodgeville. York has become an attractive location for those who desire the rural, pastoral atmosphere but can still get to jobs in less than an hour. Thus to continue having viable farms as well as provide home for people seeking country living is an ongoing challenge.
(Thanks to former Town Clerk, Quinten Syse, as well as David Hermanson and Bill Kuenzi for valuable information.)