George McMulkin and the Delaware Irish
This blog post is to introduce you to George McMulkin, the main driver of Irish immigration to Portage County in the 1850s and 1860s. We bet you've never heard of George McMulkin, nor knew there was a sizeable Irish population in the southern part of Portage County in the mid to late 1800s. Certainly, in a county whose ethnic heritage is dominated by Polish and German heritage, smaller immigrant groups to this county tend to get lost to history.
In the late 1850s as Stevens Point was becoming a metropolis built on logging and lumber, James Russell, followed by John Russell, James Martin, and George McMulkin put down roots in Almond and Buena Vista. While these men were all from Ireland, their first stop was not in Portage County, rather in Wilmington, Delaware.
What attracted them to Wilmington was jobs at the Du Pont Powder Mill. Founded in 1802 by Eleuthère Irénéé du Pont, the Brandywine River Mills became the largest maker of explosive black powder in the United States. As the United States became entangled in more and more military conflicts as the century wore on, the need for gunpowder increased as well, growing Du Pont into an industry giant with expanding opportunities for workers. More on the fascinating history of Du Pont can be read HERE.
When James and John Russell came to Portage County in 1855-56, George McMulkin came along to get a sense of what this new life would be like. Encouraged by what he found, McMulkin returned to Delaware to gather his family and head west. There, McMulkin told of expansive availability of inexpensive land. Family by family, the Delaware Irish were making Portage County their home.
He also mentioned "big peaches" that were growing in southern Portage County. Obviously, peaches never became a cash crop in the area, but potatoes certainly did. The first potato warehouse in the area was built by Irishmen Martin Heffrom and Charles Brady. Soon, carloads of Irish-grown potatoes were shipped out of Almond and Bancroft. This continued well into the 1930s when drought and disease practically eliminated the crop.
Most of the families that moved to the area were Catholic. They banded together to form the congregation of St. Martin's Parish of Buena Vista. At first, with no church structure, mass was held in the homes of the settlers. As the community grew, it became clear that a church was needed to serve the residents spiritual needs. George McMulkin led the charge to organize the parish, writing to Bishop Henni of Milwaukee for the necessity of such an institution in their area. McMulkin also wrote for an received funds from his previous employer, Du Pont in Wilmington to construct the first church in 1866. Unfortunately, the first church was destroyed by a tornado in 1875. However, the community raised funds to rebuild the structure.
George McMulkin, meanwhile, had become a leader of the Delaware Irish community. Stevens Point Journal columnist Tap Snilloc later wrote that McMulkin was "a man of sterling worth, of strong opinions, both in politics and religion, true to his friends and a fine Irish gentleman." McMulkin was appointed postmaster of Lone Pine. He was a school clerk. He also was the delegate from Almond at state Democratic Party conventions. By the end of his life in 1907, McMulkin was known as "The Sage of Lone Pine."
What became of the Delaware Irish? Gradually the community merged with other ethnicities and interacted with other communities. Even so, there was an effort to commemorate this history through annual picnics of the Delaware Irish promoted in local newspapers. While, these gatherings too died out in the 1930s, the pioneering mark left on the southern part of the county by the Delaware Irish carries on today in the communities they built.