In the spring of 1843 there were ten log cabins scattered around the area that is now the city of Beaver Dam. The January census of that year listed a total of 79 pioneers. The first settlers chose the area because of what pioneers had always looked for – fertile soil, an abundance of fish and game and access to fresh water. The area that is now downtown Front Street was a tangle of underbrush with wild plum, grapevines and ironwood following the bottomlands of the Beaver Dam River. Larger trees were on higher ground. Some neighbors in surrounding settlements referred derisively to the settlement as Grubville; clearing the land involved the backbreaking work of grubbing out stumps. The area to the west was a swampy marsh.
Within 25 years Beaver Dam was a thriving, progressive city with an active downtown and a large number of mills and factories situated up and down the river. This growth was certainly due to the hard work of the pioneers and the business acumen of the early entrepreneurs, and perhaps most of all, their ability to harness waterpower by building dams and use that power to develop mills and factories.
The first attempt at a dam was by early pioneer David Drake. He built a log structure on the top of a beaver dam and the frame of a sawmill. Moses Ordway offered Drake money for his partly finished project and Drake accepted and settled to the east, building a sawmill and later a gristmill. Drakes Pond is known today as Crystal Creek. Ordway set his 17-year-old son David to complete the task that Drake started. David, with pick and shovel and wheelbarrow, covered the dam with earth and gravel. Others pitched in and by June of 1843 the dam held, and it was declared a success; Beaver Dam Lake was created in place of the swamp. A sawmill was built and it soon was running night and day turning out lumber to fill the pressing demand for building real houses to supplement the log cabins. In 1844 a flourmill was built. An English miller, George Thompson, was hired to run it, and David was put to work to learn the milling trade. In 1846 Dr. Hoyt built a larger flourmill. The need was great. For the early wheat growers, the nearest gristmill was in Oconomowoc, and a trip to that mill required a long, tedious and dangerous journey.
In 1846 Abram Ackerman built a second dam downriver and developed another site on the west side of the river near the corner of Spring Street and Mill Street. This is approximately where the Kraft plant is today. A sawmill was soon completed on this site. Several more sawmills and gristmills were built south of Beaver Dam.
In 1849 there was a huge setback. After some heavy rains, the first dam broke. The construction of logs, earth and gravel was simply too frail a structure to withstand the now immense body of water it held back. There was a large break and a strong, muddy current rushed downstream. Soon great masses of earth fell in and were swept away. In less than an hour, the dam was gone. Two recently constructed bridges had connected the town at Center Street and Beaver Street. First one and then the other were struck by heavy masses of wreckage and destroyed. One side of town was now separated from the other. People were caught on the opposite side, away from home or business. A funeral party headed to the old cemetery on the north of town was stopped on the south side of the river. A baby was born on one side of the river while the father was caught on the other side.
This was a great blow to the community. Every citizen realized the consequences and every citizen began work to repair the damage. A man drove up with a wagonload of boulders of all sizes and rolled them into one end of the dam. Soon the entire group began gathering stones and boulders to throw into the dam. All other work was suspended. On Sunday, only women and children showed up for services, but Reverend Montgomery, a large man, sent them to help at the site. He was later seen picking up a huge boulder that three men were having difficulty rolling and hurling it into the water. A small child was seen with a pail of gravel, throwing it into the raging torrent.
An old settler witnessed 40 fat hogs belonging to the mill company taken by the flood. At the first bend, they were thrown ashore onto the north bank. This safe landing did not last long, and they were again plunged back into the stream and were drowned. For many days stones and boulders were gathered, and eventually a new dam, stronger than the first, was in place. That year, gold was discovered in California, and it is unclear whether Dr. Hoyt and his wife left before or after the flood to join the Gold Rush. He returned in 1851 and was soon building and improving his flourmill. He also built an oil mill, but that venture was abandoned after two years because of the difficulty of getting enough flax.
Meanwhile at the second site, Mr. Ackerman had found a partner (Lewis) for his flourmill, and they built The Empire Flour Mill. A high-grade product was made and sold under the brand names Empire Best and Gold Dust. The mill produced 100 barrels of flour each 24 hours. Before the railroad came in 1856, these barrels were transported to Milwaukee by teams of oxen. The wagons returned with goods for the downtown merchants. The flour was shipped in barrels and later in jute bags. The mill also ground grist for local grain growers. The mill took 1/8th of the grain in payment, and the rest was given back to the farmers. Mr Lewis remained active in this and other mills with a variety of partners for about 40 more years.
In 1853 Lewis and Ackerman went into partnership with George Stewart and began a woolen mill. Over a hundred employees produced over one thousand yards of fabric daily. A pipe from Mackie’s spring was directed into the factory to wash the wool with clean, fresh water. This mill was known by several names over the years but was locally referred to as The Upper Woolen Mill. Later George Congdon, who started in the woolen mill as a laborer, joined with George Chandler, who had learned the woolen trade from Stewart, and began the successful venture called Chandler, Congdon and Company. Locals referred to it as the Lower Woolen Mill.
Many mills came and went. Some burned to the ground and were rebuilt. Others were removed from the sites when they were no longer profitable. Many changed owners and operated under different names. There is, however, no doubt that the power of water and the ability of men to harness that power shaped the city of Beaver Dam.
The Dodge County Historical Society has on display a replica of The Empire Flour Mills, a broken millstone from Grant’s Mill, as well as many pictures and other artifacts from this time. Located on the corner of Front and Center Streets in downtown Beaver Dam, regular museum hours are 1-4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
The museum is also open on the last Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for informal discussions on specific topics of local lore. Come join the discussion and view the exhibits.