Wilmington township is the third from the Mississippi River on the southern border of the county, which is also
the State line. In form and size it coincides with a township of government survey.
In its topography it is not unlike the neighboring townships, being quite broken and uneven, but with a productive
soil, bearing in its primitive condition a light growth of small oak, popular, and hazel brush. In the southeast
corner Portland extends into the town and embraces several sections. This prairie is rolling and somewhat broken,
interspersed with groves which have increased in size since the suppression of the prairie fires.
The township originally labored under the native disadvantage of this section of country, a want of water for domestic
and stock purposes, and the settlers had to resort to the "hauley system," as they facetiously called
it, to procure a supply, and as the dependence was on natural springs, this made considerable labor, as the springs
were sometimes situated at a considerable distance.
The character of the soil on the more elevated portions is of a clayey nature, while in the depressions the soil
is richer in vegetable mould, with a gravel or clayey subsoil. Portland Prairie has a rich dark loam with a substratum
of clay. The township is devoid of any barren spots, being productive with ordinary treatment.
In June, 1851, Mrs. James Robinson, a widow, with her sons, William, Henry, John, and George, the eldest being
hardly of age, came from Columbia county, Wisconsin, and located near the State line, erecting a log house July
4. One of the brothers, Henry, took a claim of eighty acres in section 36 and put up a shanty in 1852.
A tribe of Winnebagoes was at that time on the Iowa River, and they not unfrequently came among the white settlers
to barter their peltries. Henry Robinson cultivated his land but resided with his mother on the Iowa side of the
line, not removing to his own claim until 1861. The first cabin in time gave place to a comfortable residence.
In the year 1852 George Carver, a sturdy pioneer, settled on the Iowa side of the line. In the same year a small
settlement was made on section 32, near the later mill and store north of the Bergen post office. There were four
in the party, all natives of Ireland. John Edger was one of them, and he broke up twenty five acres the following
summer, but soon sold out and removed to the southeast part of the town, finally going to Iowa.
His father-in-law, Michael Callahan, also one of the party, sold his claim, which he held with Mr. Edger, to Ole
Bye. Charles Kelly selected land north of the others, but he, with a blacksmith named Michael Tanner, not finding
work, soon left.
Probably the first Norwegian to enter the township was Gjermund Johnson, who in the summer of 1853 took a claim
on section 16. After putting up a shanty and making some improvements, he removed to sections 7 and 18, where he
established a good farm. Ole Bye, who, as already related, bought the Edger claim, in 1856 moved to the east line
of section 33, where he remained for the rest of his life. Among the other pioneer settlers in the Norwegian part
of the township were Halver Peterson, Knudt Severson, Knud Olson, and Ole O. Hefte.
Portland Prairie received a considerable accession of settlers during the season of 1854, all or most of whom were
Americans, and proved permanent residents. Among them were C. F. Albee, Dr. Alexander Batchellor, John McNally,
Jeremiah Shumway, James and Duty Paine, and J. G. Cook. These Americans came from Rhode Island and Massachusetts,
arriving by the river at Lansing, without having any specific knowledge of where they were going, except "to
Minnesota." The land office was located at Brownsville, and some of the party having examined the location,
they concluded not to look any further. The party bought out John Edger, and it is said that for a time the cabin
had sixteen inmates.
These settlers were soon followed by a number of others, who arrived in increasing numbers. The first frame house
on the prairie was built, it is said, by Asa Sherman, who was afterwards, as it was supposed, drowned in the Mississippi
The arrivals in 1855 included George Shumway, R. E. Shumway, John Albee, Horace Arnold, Arnold Stone, James Emerson
and Amos Lapham, and by the spring of 1856 there had been built about eight dwellings, most of them being small
and rude log cabins. Among the prominent pioneers who came later were: Cornelius Metcalf, Jr., in 1857; his father
and family; William Cass and Leonard Albee, with their respective families, in 1858; H. W. Pease, from Maine, the
same year; D. P. Temple in 1859; L. L. Lapham in 1860; E. C. Arnold in 1861; H. P. Kelly in 1862; C. F. Wright
in 1863, and Amos Arnold and Joel S. Yeaton in 1864. During these years and afterwards a number of others arrived,
some of whom, however, proved only transient residents.
The first birth in the settlement occurred in the fall of 1852, in the cabin of Mr. Edger, and was that of James
Kelly, son of Charles and Margaret Kelly, who were at the time living in a wagon near the cabin. This child grew
to manhood and subsequently became a business man of New Albin, Ia.
The first death was that of the wife of Ole Bye. She was taken sick soon after they had bought their place here,
and died in August, 1853, being buried in Winneshiek county, Iowa.
In 1855 occurred the first marriage, that of Ole A. Quarley and Sarah Everson, which was celebrated by the Rev.
Mrs. Carson, of Decorah, at the house of Gjermund Johnson, on section 7. This couple reared a family of children.
Portland Prairie was the first part of the town settled. The locality known by this name, however, lies only partly
in Wilmington Township, a part of it being in Winnebago Township, and a part extending across the state line into
Iowa. The county records show that the ownership of the prairie farms, for a dozen years or so from the first settlement,
frequently changed hands. The Germans and Scandinavians were appearing to take up the remaining vacant lands, or
purchase of the Americans who desired to sell their improvements. Like most frontier places, the first residences
were not commodious, but comfortable log cabins, requiring little except a few days' hard labor to erect. Many
families had to bear their inconveniences many years before the luxury of a frame house could be enjoyed. The farming
at first was of a rude character, with appliances such as were in vogue before the era of machinery, and while
there was an abiding faith in the ability of the soil to produce root crops, corn and oats, there was many a dubious
shake of the head when wheat was mentioned. But like many another question, practical experience soon solved the
problem in the affirmative, although most of the flour at first used to come from outside the county. Wheat, oats
and corn soon began to be established crops. The trouble of getting it ground, at first very serious, was in a
few years rendered satisfactory by Messrs. Harney & Edward Bell, who built a log mill and set it to running
The first reaper was a McCormick, which, although an improvement upon the sickle and the cradle, must be regarded
as the progenitor of the present self binder, developed by the law of selection and the survival of the fittest.
It was introduced by Samuel Evans about the year 1857, and a threshing machine arrived about the same time. At
first there was absolutely no market for anything outside the settlement, so the people devoted their time to making
themselves comfortable, and to do this, made the usual recreations of hunting and fishing a part of their business.
The amount of money in circulation, especially during the panic of 1857, would take but few figures to represent.
When Charles Albee arrived here he brought with him a single, old fashioned rifle, and this was brought into frequent
requisition to kill deer at long range, which were found along the river bluffs. The prairie chickens also had
a peculiar fascination for the New Englanders, while the enormous catfish of the Mississippi were a never ending
source of astonishment, in comparison with their diminutive namesake in eastern waters. Almost the first marketing
of wheat realized the munificent amount of 38 cents a bushel, in Lansing, which was also the nearest postoffice
for some time.
In 1856 a mail route was established between Brownsville and Dorchester, and Dr. Batchellor was appointed postmaster,
Con Metcalf being deputy.
The residents in the northern part of the township, as a rule, came by way of Brownsville, while those in the south
generally came through Lansing or McGregor. There were then two settlements of Norwegians, those who were in the
vicinity of Ole Bye, in the southern part, and those who rallied around Gjermund Johnson, in the northern portion
of the township.
Another important settlement at an early day, as well as at present, is known as the American settlement, the personel
of which has already been given. The predominating element is still American on what is called the prairie. There
are a few of Irish extraction, but the rest of the town was settled by people from Norway.
Four years after the general settlement of the community the first schoolhouse was built. Before this time it was
hardly required, as most of the settlers were young men whose children were not yet of school age. The mail facilities
were so slow and imperfect that few newspapers were taken. Letters or papers mailed in the East were ten to fifteen
days on the road, and news on reaching the settlement would be so old as to lose its quality of news, and the settlers
had recourse each winter to the debating club, which met in the house of Dr. Batchellor, and afterwards in the
schoolhouse, where the relative gratitude due to Columbus or Washington was most vehemently argued; with questions
as the beauties of nature and art,, and whether capital punishment should be abolished. Thus the tedium of the
long winter evenings was bridged over.
The war of 1861 of course created the usual excitement, and enlistments were the order of the hour.
The Sioux massacre of 1862 caused the most alarming panic throughout the whole Northwest, extending to Lake Michigan.
The roads were filled with panic stricken settlers fleeing from the imaginary tomahawk and scalping knife.
The people of Wilmington, like the rest, became thoroughly frightened, and while some remained on their farms,
most of them started with their families, and what few valuables they could carry, for Lansing. When near the southeastern
part of the town, in the vicinity of C. F. Albee's farm, the American residents succeeded in halting the fugitives,
and to assure them that there was no danger, C. F. Albee and A. Sherman started on horseback for Spring Grove to
learn whether the Indians were really there, as all corners reported, murdering the people and burning all before
them. Everything having been reported as quiet as the conventional Potomac, the people slowly went back to their
recently forsaken homes, but many of them had turned their cattle into the grain, the losses were quite heavy.
The first town meeting was held on May 11, 1858, in what was known as the Norwegian schoolhouse, the present district
No. 58, located near the center of section 28. M. Glanville was chosen moderator, and John G. Cook and Silas Perry,
clerks of election. The following officers were chosen: Supervisors, A. Batchellor, chairman, Jeremiah Shumway,
and Herman Peterson; clerk, John McNally; assessor, Asley Swanson; collector, G. Pope; overseer of the poor, C.
F. Albee; justices of the peace, J. G. Cook and Silas C. Perry; constables, J. M. Paine and Peter O. Quarley.
At this meeting the town was divided into nine ward districts, with the following overseers: Mike McGinnis, G.
Andreson, H. Peterson, G. Gilbertson, Knud Severson and T. Oleson. A resolution that hogs should be permitted to
run at large was unanimously adopted. The meeting then adjourned. And thus the town of Wilmington was started on
its career as a political entity.