Fading into history?
One can envision the conversation going this way: A wayward traveler to Walworth County arrives at a tavern and asks, “Can you tell me how to get to Westville?”
And one of the locals answers, “Well, it's just southwest of Fayetteville, and both are a little northwest of Pecks Station.”
The uninitiated would need to know their area history extremely well, as in the 19th century starting from the late 1830s.
All three were located in northwestern Lafayette Township, the first two near the current intersection of County Highway A and Hodges Road, and are among the dozens of ghost towns and places long forgotten or lost through the crucible of time.
Westville likely got its name because Wests were well known among early settlers, evidenced by the many headstones in the small cemetery.
Many of these communities sprang up along rivers and streams, and if lucky, they were along stagecoach or railroad lines -- many of them vanished when those same tracks were moved or abandoned. Other potential communities were platted but never materialized.
General stores, taverns, post offices and cemeteries dotted the landscape as Easterners arrived at such places called Bardwell, Voree, Caxton, Robinson, Utters Corners, Mayhew, Hilburn and Jacobsville.
However, they and their names on the map have disappeared, remaining alive only in aging newspaper clippings and in the hearts and minds of those who maintain those documents.
Dan Richardson and Nancy Lehman are among the tireless volunteers and area history buffs who continue to chronicle and dig for tidbits about these early settlers and the places where they tried to plant roots.
Richardson volunteers many hours with his wife, Pat Blackmer, at the Walworth County Historical Society's Doris Reinke Resource Center in Elkhorn.
“They needed elements necessary for development of a town, and certainly geography and economic means such as a general store, which often also served as a post office, and a grist mill or sawmill, to flourish,” Richardson said. “It helped if they were on a military road or stagecoach line because then people would stop for repairs or to get a meal.”
An example was Troy Center, which was on a railway spur called “The Bobby Line,” which in turn allowed farm boys and workers to ship ice from Lulu Lake to breweries and other businesses, including those in Chicago.
Fires proved to be the downfall of many buildings and prospective towns, but Richardson recounted the unfortunate circumstances that nearly forced the current community of Spring Prairie, at the intersection of highways 11 and 120, into historical oblivion.
“Originally called Franklin, its claim to fame was that there were a lot of Baptists along that road from Burlington to Elkhorn,” he said. “The story goes that there were a lot of very rich people and a lot of very poor people, and that created a division in the church, which eventually dissolved and the building was taken down.”
Richardson also shared another nugget: White Pigeon School in Bloomfield Township was built in 1866 and the second structure closed in 1955. According to Richardson, the first building is a chicken coop on the Ed Price farm.
Meanwhile, Lehman is president of the Historical Society of Walworth & Big Foot Prairie, a group formed about 10 years ago.
She is well versed in the area where Six Corners and Brick Church roads and U.S. Highway 14 merge, what was called Bell's Corners after William Bell, who settled in this locale in 1837.
He was the first justice of the peace and postmaster at the trading center, and family members are buried at Brick Church Cemetery just west of that location in Walworth Township.
Another prominent family was the Douglass clan, which took up stakes just south of Bell's Corners. Carl plotted the land, while brother Christopher opened a tavern, and it became known as Douglass Corners.
One must keep in mind that nailing down information about these early settlers and the chunks of land they settled on are as elusive as the stories they told or have been told about them over the many decades.
But Lehman, whose ancestors go back to Richard the Lionheart and the Mayflower, said it's important for younger generations to learn about history, especially their own.
“I've lived with history all of my life, but it's not being taught like it used to be,” she said. “But I love working with children and we -- the historical society -- have started to bring in groups from the grade school and high school, and next year we will set up different subject materials. It's all about making history interesting and come alive for people.”
Here are some of the lost and/or forgotten places in the Walworth County area:
• Mayhew/Mayhews, was on County A near what is known as Troy. It was founded in the 1870s and named for Jesse Mayhew, who gave the land for the post office and depot. The rail line was abandoned in the early 1930s.
• Hilburn was located in central East Troy Township just north of Wisconsin Highway 20. The only reminder of its existence is the Hilburn Pond on Honey Creek.
• Bardwell, also called Bardwell Junction, was located between Darien and Allens Grove and sported a busy depot while part of the Milwaukee Road's J-Line. It also was on what was called “The Varsity Line,” named because of all the Wisconsin Badgers fans who traveled via train from Chicago to Janesville and Madison to attend games.
• Voree was arguably the most well known of these ghost towns, lying at the intersection of Wisconsin 11 and Mormon Road on the Walworth/Racine line.
James Jesse Strang and his followers, who had been disciples of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois, founded and set up their new kingdom along the White River in 1844. The settlement's population reportedly reached nearly 2,000.
Among what remains are a marker, one headstone and a Mormon/Strangite church at a location that once included a general store and blacksmith shop on more than 100 acres.
• Utters Corners was at the current intersection of County Line Road and ELJ Townline Road where Whitewater, Richmond, Lima and Johnstown townships meet at the Walworth/Rock line.
A local innkeeper gave residents and travelers a place to “utter” together. Buildings in the late 1830s and 1840s also included a store, bar, blacksmith shop and school in a place where the Utters --Curtis, Joseph and Simeon -- lived.
The cemetery sits just west of that intersection, where Utter is a prominent name. So, while not much else is left to remind anyone about these lost places, many cemeteries remain.
They include South Shore, located on Salt Box Road south of County Highway B in Sharon Township; the Walworth County Farm burial sites, reached via an access road on the east side of Aurora Lakeland Medical Center on County Highway NN near Elkhorn; and Old Bloomfield/Episcopal Cemetery, hidden in the woods at the northeast corner of where County B and White Pigeon Road connect in Bloomfield Township.