Early Settlement

The Story of the Land

Oak Savannah

The history of Argyle begins with the early settlement history of the area now known as southwest Wisconsin. This area escaped the effects of the Wisconsin glacier, some 10,000 years ago, and has come to be known as "the Driftless Area". It is a beautiful and unique area, whose attributes and resources are described on a map drawn by RW Chandler in 1829 which was intended to lure early settlers, specifically miners, from the east.

This tract of country from the high lands is gently rolling, but as you approach the larger water-course it becomes more and more hilly, terminating in high calcareous bluffs along their margins. About one third is first rate farming land. Not more than a tenth is covered with timber, which grows in detached groves, the balance prairie. Springs of the purest water are to be found in abundance. The interior is healthy, no local causes of fever exist, except immediately on the Mississippi. The climate is pleasant and desirable, except during the spring months. Snow seldom exceeds 12 inches in depth during winter. All the fruits, vegetables and grains which grow in the same lattitude in our Eastern States would succeed equally here. The mounds delineated on the map are natural formations rising several hundred feet above the level of the country, some one of which may be seen from almost every part of the mines, serving as natural beacons to direct the traveller in his course.... Excerpt from Map of the United States Lead Mines on the Upper Mississippi River, drawn by RW Chandler, 1829


The Story of the Miners

Early Lead Mining in SW Wisconsin

While it is known that the French fur trader, Nicholas Perrot, actively traded lead mined by the Indians in the late 1600's, it was not until the Indians ceded all lands south of the Wisconsin River in the early 1800's that it was safe for miners of Scotch, Irish, Welsh, and Cornish descent to settle here in the 1820's. The first miners in the area discovered lead in deposits close to the surface, which when extracted left "badger holes" that provided shelter to the earliest settlers. Settlement quickly expanded as there was strong demand for lead which at the time was used in the manufacture of paint, pipes, ammunition and pewter. By 1829, more than 4,000 miners worked in southwest Wisconsin, producing 13 million pounds of lead per year. Among those was William S. Hamilton, son of U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who established Hamilton's Diggings a short distance from Argyle in what is know known as Wiota. At first, lead was transported to Galena and shipped down the Mississippi River. After the construction of the Erie Canal, teams of 8 oxen were used to haul lead to Milwaukee, where it could be shipped via the Great Lakes and canal to eastern markets. The muddy, rutted road to Milwaukee followed an old Indian trail and became known as the Lead Road. The Lead Road forded the Pecatonica River at the future location of Argyle.


The Settlement on the River

Early Riverfront Development

The Argyle settlement began as a river fording located on the Lead Road. It was named in 1844 by Allan Wright, blacksmith and first postmaster, in honor of the Duke of Argyll of his native Scotland.

Earliest dwellings in Argyle were located along the road to lead mines in Fort Hamilton (Wiota) and the platting of land in 1850 was done with the assumption that growth would take place there. However, the construction of a saw mill (1850), a flour mill (1852), a hotel (1853) and various stores on the east bank of the Pecatonica led to growth of the village there and Argyle's west side was not developed until the construction of the Freeport-Dodgeville and Northern railroad in 1887.

The earliest commercial buildings were constructed of local limestone, as lumber was scarce. Very few traces of Argyle's "Stone Age" (early 1850s) exist today.


Development

A Settlement Becomes a Village

Early Argyle Main Street

With the discovery of California gold in 1849 and diminishing returns from Wisconsin lead mines, most of the miners who initially settled this area headed west. About the same time, crop failures led to hard times in Europe (starving '40's) which created incentive for farmers to emigrate to America. Many of these immigrants sought out new homesteads in surroundings similar to their native land. Such was the case with Norwegians who emigrated to southwest Wisconsin in and around a settlement on the Pecatonica River known as Argyle.

In those days, a bend in the river at the site of the settlement lent to fording it, but a limestone bluff on the east side of the river initially discouraged any development there. In 1852, a part of the bluff was whittled away to make way for a flour mill, and due to frequent flooding on the west side and construction of the first bridge in 1855, development "up the hill" on the east side of the river was increasingly favored.

Just 30 years later, the village now with a population of approximately 500 was bustling with a newspaper, four general stores, two hotels, a cabinet shop, a livestock buying business, a livery, blacksmiths, gunsmiths, and coopersmiths. In these days and those following, Argyle was both a hub for local farming and dairying, as well as a crossroads for travelers and business alike.


The Coming of the Railroad

Locomotive circa 1890

Serious discussion of a rail line linking the Pecatonica River valley with Freeport and Chicago began in 1884 and culminated with the charter of the Freeport, Dodgeville and Northern Company in 1887. The proposed 57 mile route would require 29 crossings of the winding Pecatonica River and would pass through the villages of Woodford, Argyle, Blanchardville, and Hollandale, supporting their continued development. Despite the obstacles, work proceeded rapidly and passenger service was established in February, 1888. The addition of the rail link further stimulated Argyle business with the creation of a stock buying and shipping business, lumber yard, warehouse for storage of coal, lime, cement and feed, plus new creameries producing butter and cheese. Local retail merchants benefitted from the connection to big city suppliers, while hotels, restaurants and liveries benefitted from arriving travelers. This was an interesting period in Argyle history, which has been captured in the form of an interactive map of the village in 1895.


Learn more about Argyle's early settlers and Argyle's Bob La Follette