By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — In honor of the Colfax Sesquicentennial celebration in July of 2014, the Colfax Messenger will be publishing articles about Colfax history from time to time.
The stories will be compiled from materials provided by Colfax historian Troy Knutson.
Here is the first installment.
Part 1: In the beginning. . .
A variety of sources attribute different dates as to when Colfax actually began as a community.
All of the sources agree that it was sometime in the 1860s.
Dunn County Historian John Russell, in his “Scenes of Yesteryear” column in the February 14, 1999, edition of the Dunn County News, states that two gentlemen from the Waukesha area — Cyrenius Baldwin and James Mathew — headed to Dunn County in April of 1858 in search of rich farmland.
Baldwin and Mathew ended up in the area that would eventually become the village of Colfax and purchased land.
In November of 1864, Baldwin, his wife and two children packed up and moved to the land he had purchased in Dunn County.
Russell also writes that a month prior to Baldwin moving his wife and children to this area, two other men from Waukesha brought more than 100 sheep to the Colfax area — although a prairie fire destroyed the entire flock of sheep in May of 1865.
Other early settlers in the area included the Silas Pooler family (1850s); the Ole Larson family (1861); and the O.J. Running family (1862).
Various sources agree that the first settler in what is indisputably part of the Village of Colfax now was John D. Simons, who settled on land at the junction of the Red Cedar River and Eighteen Mile Creek in 1865.
Sources also agree that J.D. Simons built a log cabin on the site in 1867, and then two years later, built a grist mill on the creek.
The grist mill attracted enough customers so that Mrs. Simons opened a dry goods store in one room of her house, where she sold calico, needles, thread and other sewing items.
Simons also planted rutabagas and produced a bumper crop, according to John Russell’s article.
Rutabagas grew quite well in the area, and for a time, before the village was named Colfax, it was called Begga Town (or Baga Town, or Beggy Town depending on the source).
There is some disagreement as to whether J.D.’s last name is Simon or Simons.
In the “Official Register of the United States” dated September 30, 1875, J.D. Simon was listed as the Colfax postmaster and received a salary of $66.11 for the year.
Most other sources, including J.D.’s obituary in the May 9, 1918, edition of the Colfax Messenger, list the name as Simons.
According to the “History of Colfax” written by Alvilde Running in 1925, who was a student in seventh grade in Colfax at that time, when the early settlers arrived, Chippewa or Ojibwa Native Americans also occupied the area.
“Mr. A. A. Anderson, one of the early settlers of Colfax, has told this story. He and the rest of his family had just come to Colfax, and they had built a small cabin. One day, his mother and father were out in the field and only his small brother and himself were home in the cabin. At this time, he was only about eight years of age. A couple of Indians came up the path. His brother and himself were very frightened, so they hid in a wood box. The Indians came to the door, and seeing no one in the cabin, they entered. They hunted around for quite a while, seeking some food.
“Meanwhile, Mrs. Anderson’s mother had come up to the cabin. Seeing the Indians in the cabin, she didn’t like to go in, so she busied herself outside. (After a while), the Indians, having found no food, went out the door and departed,” Alvilde Running wrote.
Lumber was another industry that contributed to the growth of Colfax, and many logs were floated down the Red Cedar River.
According to Alvilde Running’s history, the last log drive through Colfax was in 1899.
Sources agree that Colfax was officially surveyed in 1874 by a man named Thomas Parker, and according to yet another article by John Russell, Colfax was surveyed as a village at the request of Andrew Tainter.
Tainter was one of the founders of the Knapp-Stout & Company and the owner of 320 acres on the north side of Colfax.
The first plat map of the village was produced in 1877.
In the “History of Colfax,” Alvilde Running writes about many “firsts.”
“The first store building (in Colfax) was owned by Mr. McKahn from Menomonie. He hired Mr. W.R. Culbertson of Menomonie to run it for him. The store was located about where the Municipal Building is now. Mr. Culbertson’s daughter was the first child born in Colfax. Her name was Lulu Maude Culbertson. She became an artist. The first post office was run by Mr. W.R. Culbertson. He had the post office and his home combined. It was located between the Colfax Store Company and the People’s Meat Market. The first barber shop was owned by Tom Leach … The first doctor in Colfax was Dr. Eli Monteith … the first blacksmith was Halvor Ericson … the first newspaper was owned by Mr. Kjelstorf. It was called the ‘Colfax Record.’ The office was in the same printing house occupied by the Colfax Messenger at the time of its first publications (at the corner of Pine Street and East River Street). The first bank in Colfax was the ‘Bank of Colfax.’ It was started in 1899, (and) George T. Vorland was the first cashier,” according to Alvilde Running’s “History of Colfax.”
It is no secret that potatoes also were a major crop in the early history of Colfax.
According to another article written by John Russell, by 1922, Dunn County was one of the largest potato-growing areas in the northwestern part of Wisconsin and produced more than 800,000 bushels of potatoes.
All of the sources agree that Colfax was named after the 17th vice-president of the United States, Schuyler Colfax, who served with President Ulysses S. Grant from 1869 to 1873. Colfax served as a United States Representative from Indiana from 1855 to 1869 and was Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1863 to 1869. Colfax and Grant were 46 and 45 years of age at the time they were elected and were the youngest presidential team until Bill Clinton and Al Gore were inaugurated in 1993.
There are also places named Colfax in California, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Dakota and Washington.
Helen Reed, who was the wife of Ken Reed, the publisher of the Colfax Messenger in the 1950s and 1960s, once wrote a column about how Colfax had received its name. She, too, said Colfax had been named after Schuyler Colfax, but she also had another story related to naming the village.
“Oscar Barum had a different version as to how our village was named. It sounds plausible, too. You be the judge.
“As a boy, he remembers an elderly man from Elk Mound telling a story that a storekeeper in Colfax and one of the few residents were walking home one cold winter night, discussing a probable name for the locality even though there were very few buildings on the tract owned by John D. Simon(s). All of a sudden, a fox scooted out ahead of them across the flat. One exclaimed to the other, “Let’s name it Cold Fox!” Naturally, the name was shortened to Colfax.”
The railroad did not come through Colfax until 1884.
Colfax was incorporated as a village in 1904.
Here is the obituary of J.D. Simons as it was printed on the front page of the Colfax Messenger on Thursday, May 9, 1918.
John D. Simons Called by Death (Founder of our Village Succumbs to Injuries Received in Auto Accident — Died Sunday)
Word was received last Sunday evening by Alvin Running announcing the death of John D. Simons who passed away that morning at Bellingham, Washington, the result of injuries received in an automobile accident. No details of how the accident occurred were received. Mr. Running left Monday morning for the West, reaching there last evening, barring accident or misconnection of trains.
The news of the death of Mr. Simons came as a shock to the citizens of Colfax and the vicinity for he was known and highly respected by all. He was the pioneer of Colfax pioneers, leaving here nine years ago for the western state of Washington, where he was quite extensively interested in lands and business enterprises.
The deceased was born in New York State July 26, 1834, where he lived on a farm until 1852. He came west to Michigan, where he remained for a period of 10 months. He then returned to New York State, remaining until 1854, when he came to Wisconsin, shifting about in the southern part of the state until 1861, when he moved to Colfax, residing here until nine years ago. Mr. Simons at one time owned the land on which our village now stands, it being his farm. He was one of the most influential characters in the early history of this locality, and many a poor man could point to him as the man who “helped him out” in time of dire distress. He served as Postmaster in Colfax from 1872 to 1894 and held many offices connected with local affairs. He was engaged in several different lines of business here, first as a farmer, then a miller and merchant. He operated a general store for many years in a building on the corner where the Peoples State Bank now stands.
Since leaving Colfax nine years ago, Mr. Simons had missed but one annual visit back to the old home town. He was here last summer and spent several weeks with relatives and many old friends. He had made plans for another journey here this summer in spite of the fact that he would have reached the ripe old age of 84 years had he lived till next July.
It is with pleasure the editor of the Messenger will remember his first visit with Mr. Simons last summer. He told many interesting tales of the pioneer days in Colfax and Dunn County, displaying a wonderful memory for dates and happenings, and he had a most interesting way in relating them.
The deceased is survived by a daughter, Mrs. Henry Todd of Madge, Wisconsin, an adopted daughter, Mrs. Thompson, Bellingham, Washington. There are brothers and sisters whose names and addresses could not be ascertained. There are 7 grandchildren, 3 residing in Colfax, as follows: Alvin Running, Mrs. W.A. Smith, and Miss Mamie Running.
The probabilities are that the remains will be brought back to Colfax for interment, although that should not be known positively until Mr. Running reaches the West.
(To be continued … Part 2: When the railroad came to town.)