A Short History of the Town of Colfax

Prehistoric Times

Close your eyes for a minute.

If you can, try to picture in your mind the various natural and human landscapes of our thirty-six square miles of Dunn County, Wisconsin, we call “the Township of Colfax.” Of the very earliest scenes–one that geologists can verify with their rock hammers and fossil discoveries–is a shallow, inland ocean of some half-billion years ago. Underneath that warm sea, sand sediments accumulated over millions of years, forming the basic bedrock outcropping of our township. Within our three major rock quarries, fossil hunters can find traces of marine animals, including small trilobites, brachiopods, and cone-shaped hyoliths; when these and similar fossil species are identified, our bedrock (designated by geologists “the Eau Claire, Wonewoc, and Lone Rock formations”) dates to approximately 515 million years ago or “the Late Cambrian Geologic Period.”
Now, close your eyes again and jump ahead millions of years–this time to the Pleistocene epoch of approximately 2 million to 11,000 years ago. What do you “see?” Not a warm shallow sea, but a frozen mountain of ice, a glacier perhaps a mile thick covering not only our region, but most of Wisconsin and nearby states as well. Evidence of periodic glacial incursions (and retreats) include the gravel and sand deposits, plus a few large erratics (or large boulders) picked up in Canada, moved and deposited here perhaps hundreds of thousands of years ago. One Wisconsin geologist commented on this unique period in the state’s history:
As the giant ice sheets from Canada pressed slowly into Wisconsin and beyond, each in turn overrode the highest hills in its path, knocked down forests, erased rivers, and scraped and ground up the surface it passed over. After occupying the land for thousands of years the ice would melt back, pouring out floods of meltwater, dumping its rock waste over the terrain, and leaving the barren land to restore itself, which it always did.
(Wisconsin’s Foundations, by Gwen Schultz, p. 23)

Thus when the final glacial lobe melted some 11,000 years ago, the subsequent flooding helped etch out our Red Cedar River and other tributaries of our watershed, while at the same time, depositing much of our sandy top and sub soils. Whether we recognize it or not, the Red Cedar watershed and these glacial meltwater depositions make up our unique “place” or “home,” as it were.

Around the time of the final glacial retreat, we would also be able to “see” the influx of Paleo-Indians, beginning with the very earliest group archeologists simply call the “Clovis peoples.” Living in and around the southern edge of the melting glaciers, Clovis bands have been identified by their associations with prehistoric big-game: wooly mammoths, great mastodons, giant bison, giant sloths, saber-toothed cats, etc. A number of the unique Clovis stone spear points (with their specialized “fluted” or grooved bases) have been found by amateur archeologists both in our township and in other parts of the county. Other Indian groups also occupied our area, including the Archaic Indians (6500-550 B.C.) and later yet, the Woodland bands (550B.C – 1000nA.D.) identified as the first Indians to make and use clay pots. Their lovely ceramics were made by a process of coiling ropes of clay tempered with crushed stone. These tribes were also known for their sacred burial mounds; indeed, some of the mounds sites can still be seen in Dunn county at Wakanda Park and also along the Red Cedar Trail near the village of Dunnville.

Historic Times

Now close your eyes again. Can you “see” geologist and Indian agent Henry Schoolcraft canoeing down the Red Cedar River in the year 1831? According to his diaries and official reports, Schoolcraft encountered numerous Ojibwe Indian bands until he reached the Cedar Falls area, while further south he met representatives of the Santee Dakota (or Sioux). It is believed that both of these modern tribes were related to the prehistoric Late Woodland groups described above.

Our next scene takes us to the summer of 1852 with the coming of the official survey sponsored by the Wisconsin Commissioners of Public Lands. From the Surveyor’s official Field Notes (1832-1865), we note that the Town of Colfax had a variety of distinct plant communities including oak savannas (white, bur, and black oak), true short-grass prairies (their remnants can still be found in the township), cattail marshes and, (on some of the sandy soils), white pine (west of the river), and jack pine barrens.
Some sixteen years later (1868), immediately after the election of President Grant, the township was officially named after the new President’s running mate, Schuyler Colfax. (Note that in 1874 the Village of Colfax itself was first surveyed by lumberman Andrew Tainter; it later became incorporated in 1904.)

Picture too the completion (in 1884) of the Wisconsin Central Railway (Soo Line) that today slices through the township from Section 1 on the town’s west side to Section 24 on the east side. Six years after the completion of the railroad, the government’s 1890 census recorded a township population of 672. (It’s interesting that one-hundred ten years later–i.e., 2000–there were only 237 additional people in Colfax Township for a total of 909.)

No history of Colfax Township would be complete without mentioning our rural one room schools. Although the school system today is consolidated in the Colfax School system, many residents still living remember with fondness their time spent in one of the five one-room schools, including Knapp Settlement, Sinking Creek, Modern School, Bear Valley, and Running Valley School. For some, an education that began here,
would eventually provide a “ticket” to move on and discover new and perhaps more lucrative occupations elsewhere. A large number of residents however stuck around and, at least in the early years, continued to earn a living by farming. So let us take a minute to picture our local rural landscape from a farmer’s perspective.

During the final thirty or so years of the nineteenth-century, we would have witnessed relatively prosperous farms dotting the township’s flat-lands, hills and valleys. One of the earliest documented agricultural endeavors was John D. Simons famous rutabaga “patch” of 1869. In that year Simons grew something like 1400 bushels of “beggas” temporarily making the Village of Colfax not “Colfax,” but (as locals will tell you), “Begga (or ‘Bege’) Town” instead. Later, Simons’ grist-mill would take in locally grown grains including wheat, corn and buckwheat. Potatoes were also an important commodity at and near the turn of the century (“exports” at that time, according to The Colfax Messenger, were approximately 1000 train carloads annually). Tobacco also made its appearance around this same time (first grown here in 1898), as farmers began to sell their crop to, among other places, Menomonie’s growing cigar industry. Although tobacco demanded intensive labor, it was nevertheless a profitable crop well into the 20th century. Hay (sold to Knapp Stout & Co. for their horse teams) and pigs were also profitable during the pre-1900 period. Beginning in 1922, some area farmers made extra cash by selling cucumbers to the Colfax Pickle Station located on the village’s west side, just south of the railroad tracks.

Other local residents made their living working in the town’s stone quarries, an industry that began with the discovery (in 1900) of high quality sandstone west of the Village of Colfax. Some of this cut stone was sold to other states. Much of it, however, was used locally–not only to build private homes, but also the Norwegian Lutheran Church (1902), the Colfax School (1910), the Colfax Municipal Building (1915), as well as other commercial buildings and barns. But because of changing market and labor conditions, by 1940 the era of sandstone quarries and the local stone-mill were essentially over.

Meanwhile, farmers were moving more and more into dairy for their primary income. The prosperous farm-years of our region, however, came to an abrupt and economically painful halt in the fall of 1920 when commodity prices collapsed. Much of the decade of the 1920’s–at least from a farm-price perspective–was equally punishing while having the effect of driving more and more local farmers off the land; all this occurring even before the general collapse of the Great Depression. Price deflation combined with severe drought conditions made things all the worse–especially in the early 1930’s. Beginning in 1932, those precious rains that all farmers rely on simply failed. Picture for a moment the following: dry year after dry year–until 1936’s devastating dust storms that “turned the sky reddish brown” (as one local farmer described it) as top-soil blew
away. Toward the end of the 30’s, however, the drought finally (yes, finally!) let up and the subsequent war years helped firm up commodity prices.

More recently, in the decades following World War II, the following description would be an accurate portrayal of rural Colfax :

If one were to paint a landscape of the Town…in mid-summer, the rolling hills would have been covered with the spectacular view of changing colors from varying shades of green to gold created by alternating strips of corn, oats, and alfalfa. The summer air would be fragrant with the smell of fresh cut hay. Holsteins would have been grazing on lush green pastures interspersed with wooded hillsides and farmsteads that appeared on picture postcards designed to showcase rural America.
Today, however, many of these small, self-reliant farms are again “going by the wayside” in favor of mega-dairy, corn or soybean producers. Subdivisions and individual residential homes are also beginning to dot the countryside where once silos and barns held sway.

Nonetheless, Colfax Town residents have strongly indicated their desire to maintain and preserve–as much as possible–the existing “rural character and culture,” including the beauty, the environmental quality, and the scenic integrity of their Township. Indeed, it is the purpose of this document to outline in more detail the general goals, objectives, and implementation strategies to preserve the high quality of rural life enjoyed today, not only for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren as well.