Sauk County to celebrate 175 years

February 27, 2019

Sixteen miles and 175 years removed from its founding, Sauk County government will celebrate a milestone birthday next month.

Sauk County Historical Society Executive Director Paul Wolter will speak before the March 19 County Board meeting in honor of the body’s 175th anniversary. He’ll detail the history of local government, including an account of political chicanery that began right from the start.

In 1844, Wisconsin’s Territorial Legislature passed an act organizing Sauk County, then home to fewer than 500 European settlers, with the first government elections to be held in March. The seat of government first was placed at Prairie du Sac, but two years later was moved to the Baraboo River valley in a newly platted village called Adams. Today it’s known as Baraboo, where four courthouses, five jails and a tenfold expansion of the County Board later, it continues to operate today.

“The powers that be liked it because it was a clean slate,” Wolter said.

An 1837 treaty with the Ho-Chunk tribe opened land on this side of the Wisconsin River to settlement, resulting in European pioneers crossing the river and claiming land at Prairie du Sac and Haraszthy, now known as Sauk City. By the winter of 1843-44, settlers living in Prairie du Sac were pushing for creation of county government.

The Legislature appointed three commissioners to decide whether the county seat should be placed in Prairie du Sac, Sauk City or Baraboo. The twin riverside villages each offered land for a courthouse, but the commissioners — suspected of being in cahoots with Prairie du Sac interests — chose that community.

“There was a rivalry between Sauk and Prairie, for sure,” said Supervisor Bill Wenzel, who represents Prairie du Sac on the Sauk County Board.

“There was nothing here to look at, but they didn’t look very hard,” Wolter said of Baraboo.

Sauk City fought so hard to oppose Prairie du Sac keeping the county seat that it may have paved the way for Baraboo’s selection, according to Wenzel. “You can cut off your nose to spite your face, and that’s what Sauk City did,” he said.

County government started in April 1844 with the convening of a three-member county board. (Today the body is comprised of 31 supervisors.) Only 16 days later, 80 settlers gathered to draft a resolution of grievances regarding the siting of the county seat.

In 1846, a year after a two-story wooden courthouse was built in Prairie du Sac, the Legislature allowed a referendum to be held on the matter, and voters opted to move the county seat to Baraboo, which then had only a few dams and log cabins.

A wooden courthouse was built on the north side of Baraboo’s downtown square, about where the Square Tavern sits today. A log jail, so rudimentary that an early inmate escaped by digging under the floor boards, was built nearby.

“It just took forever to get anything done,” Wolter said, noting the board met annually. “They certainly had less to worry about back then.”

Construction of a brick courthouse at the center of the square began in 1855. It featured porches with stone columns that today are part of the 10th Avenue home of Circus World archivist Peter Shrake and his wife, Kim.

“It actually was what attracted us to the house in the first place,” Shrake said.

The brick courthouse was enlarged in 1884 and by 1904 was in desperate need of being replaced. The County Board voted to replace it late that year but before it could be demolished it was destroyed by fire in December 1904.

The courthouse in use today was built in 1905-06 and augmented with an addition in 1963 that housed the jail. Many county offices moved across Broadway when the West Square Building opened in 1997. The jail and sheriff’s office moved from the square to the Law Enforcement Center on Lange Court a few years later.

That current jail’s ancestors included a six-sided stone structure built around 1857 where Baraboo’s Post Office now stands. It was replaced in 1890 when a brick jail was built nearby, at the southwest corner of Broadway and Second Avenue.

Also of note is the Sauk County Health Care Center outside Reedsburg. It was built in 1871 as the county poor farm and insane asylum, but remains in use as a residence for the elderly. The farm closed in 1986, with the land rented out. Wolter said the county was on the leading edge of counties building facilities for needy residents, and the rural campus’ longevity is rare.

Wenzel said modern Sauk County residents owe a debt to the settlers who overcame misery and heartbreak as they toiled to build communities.

“Praise the pioneers,” he said. “Without the pioneers, we wouldn’t have Sauk County.”