WILLIAMS BAY — I have always been curious about the history of the area I call home.
I wonder how places got their names and why some roads have the names they do, such as Voree on the Walworth/Racine county line near Burlington, or Hodunk Road near Elkhorn.
I’ve imagined the sadness that must have shown in the eyes of Chief Big Foot as he looked out over his lake for the last time. As he visited the final resting places of his wives in Williams Bay and his son, overlooking the lake. As he bid farewell to Mrs. Van Slyke. As he and his band of Potawatomi began their long trek to the prairies of Iowa and Kansas in 1836.
What did the early settlers think when they first saw the prairies and oak savannas where they would carve out a new life?
So, when I was given the opportunity to use my education and experience to help design and develop the Williams Bay Historical Society’s new newsletter and website in 2013, I jumped at the chance to explore the history of the area. In conversation, we kicked around the idea of a coffee table book.
In January of 2016, Deborah Dumelle Kristmann and I began to seriously investigate the real idea of a book. We found the high cost of publishing a coffee table was prohibitive, but discovered other publishing options, which resulted in the decision to co-author “A Pictorial History of Williams Bay, Wisconsin On Beautiful Geneva Lake” for the historical society that was published in July 2017.
Our research brought us in contact with many interesting people who shared their family pictures and stories of Williams Bay. We received information from the historian of the Ashfield, Massachusetts, Historical Society, who provided us with little-known facts about Israel Williams, founder of Williams Bay, and his family. The archivists at both the county and state historical societies helped to locate valuable information, as did our local libraries. And finally, newspapers from the late 1800s and early 1900s were a priceless resource.
It was during this research that I was given a copy of “Reminisces by U.S. Hollister” whose family members were early settlers of Darien Township. Not to be left out, Williams Bay and East Delavan have a Hollister connection as well. Frank Van Epps, editor of Bay Leaves, interviewed Albert Hollister, whose father arrived in the Wisconsin Territory in 1837. My interest was piqued, and I began to dig deeper. My first find was a digitized version of an old book titled, “The Hollister Family in America,” published in 1886, which traced the descendants of Lieutenant John Hollister.
Edward Brigham Hollister and Cyrenus Newcomb Hollister, two early pioneers, could trace their lineage back to Lieutenant John Hollister. Lieutenant Hollister was born in England in 1612 and married Johanna Treat in England. They immigrated to America about 1642. Lieutenant Hollister was a prominent man in Wethersfield in the Connecticut Colony, holding numerous official positions representing Wethersfield until his death in approximately 1665. They had nine children who were all born in Wethersfield.
John Hollister Jr. born about 1644, married Sarah Goodrich on Nov. 20, 1667, in Glastonbury, Hartford County, Connecticut Colony. John Jr. and Sarah had 10 children. John Jr. was a principal player in Glastonbury until his death in 1711.
Further research took me to Ancestry, Family Search, Find a Grave and the discovery of a letter written by Maria Hollister (wife of Cyrenus) to her parents in New York State only days after their arrival on the Rock Prairie in Darien Township. The letter preserved by generations of the family was published in a local newspaper. I knew then I had to share the story of theses early Walworth County pioneers.
In the spring of 1839, Cyrenus Hollister, along with his young wife Maria and eight-month-old son Uriah, left their home in Ulster County, New York State, to homestead in the Wisconsin Territory. The family traveled by cart to Ithaca and by canal to Buffalo. In Buffalo, they boarded a steamer to Milwaukee. On arrival in Milwaukee, Maria and Uriah stayed in a boarding house while Cyrenus continued on to the Rock Prairie in Walworth County to make a land claim in Section 4 and 5 of Darien Township.
After purchasing his claim at the land office in Milwaukee, Cyrenus purchased a wagon and oxen for $155 from Mr. Keltner, owner of the boarding house. The road was rough from Milwaukee to the Fox River, and it took four days to get to their new home.
While Cyrenus and his brother William, who had arrived in Darien Township a year earlier, built a house on the homestead, the family lived in a little abandoned cabin nearby. Uriah would write many years, “The cabin had no fireplace or chimney, and of course no stove. Mother did all the cooking outdoors with only a frying pan, tea kettle, and a baking kettle.”
Uriah would also recall of the family’s new home: “The house was built of oak which was cut and hewed by hand for the frame, rafters, sills and studs. Wood shingles were cut, split and shaved using a heavy wedge-shaped blade. Oak logs were hauled to Maxon’s sawmill for siding. Maxon’s grist and sawmill was located along Turtle Creek in what was once known as Maxonville, then Plugtown, and finally Fairfield.
“The house, which was about 18 x 24 feet, had no partitions on the main level or in the loft where the children slept. In time the main level was plastered, and about 1845 an addition was put on the house. While exploring the homestead, my father found a swarm of bees in a low-hanging branch of an oak tree. Using a board and saw, he built a rough hive that he set alongside the tree; this hive was the first of many that would serve other swarms that supplied us with honey for over 40 years.”
In a letter to her parents, Maria wrote about her new home: “I expected to see fine country, but it is much more beautiful than I had any idea of. Our land is 30 acres of prairie, and the rest is oak. We got winter wheat for 10 shillings and spring wheat for one dollar, corn for four shillings, and potatoes for one shilling. Pork is 10 to 13 cents a pound. Where the grist and sawmill is, they will have a store this summer and they intend to have all kinds of machinery as the country needs.”
Maria continued noting the shortcomings of their new home: “There are no schools near where we are nor regular (church) meetings. They have preachings once every three or four weeks four miles from us. I think these disadvantages will soon be done away as the population increases. I think in a few years, there will be transportation by railroad.”
Cyrenus farmed his land, which was located at Hollister Corner, now the junction of highways 11, 14, and 89, until about 1866 when he and Maria moved to a house in Delavan. Cyrenus died in January 1890. Maria died 12 years later on May 8, 1902. Their final resting place is in Spring Grove Cemetery in Delavan.
In 1842, two friends from New York State who had heard the call of the west took a boat from Buffalo to Southport (now Kenosha). They were Edward Hollister and John Whiteman, both only kids of 17. They walked from Southport to Geneva making land claims in Delavan Township. Edward’s claim was in Section 24 of the township.
Seven years later, Edward married Harriet Ann Eaton in Geneva, Kane County, Illinois. Their first child, a son named Jehial Eaton, was born in 1850; their only daughter, Cordelia, was born in 1851; and son Albert was born in 1854. Edward farmed his land in Delavan Township until his death in 1891. Edward and Harriet are buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.
It is likely letters back to New York describing the fertile land and opportunities induced other members of the Hollister families to pioneer land in the Wisconsin Territory. Only a few years after Cyrenus made his land claim, his brother, Lemuel, purchased a farm in Section 4 of Darien Township. Maria’s parents, Alexander and Nellie Smith Latimer, and brothers Ebenezer, Peter, and James settled in Darien Township and Delavan. Edward’s parents, Seth L. and Catherine Brigham Hollister, and four of his siblings, Jane Catherine, George Henry, James Heath, and Milton, left their home in Genesee County, New York, purchasing land near Edward in Delavan Township.
Members of these early Hollister and Latimer families would be prominent citizens of Delavan, Darien Township, Williams Bay, and beyond.
Michelle Bie Love is a member of the Williams Bay Historical Society and co-author of “A Pictorial History of Williams Bay, Wisconsin On Beautiful Geneva Lake.”