The Small Communities of Portage County
We recently gave a presentation titled "Portage County Unincorporated" which detailed the story of some of the smaller communities in our county. If you haven't seen it yet, check it out!
After this presentation aired, questions started coming in about other smaller communities that we didn't cover, so we started digging for more info!
The following is an excerpt from Gene Kemmeter, writing for the Stevens Point Journal, May 19, 1992. We've added historical photos to help bring these places to life.
Benson Corners Made a Name for Itself
Traveling to Peru is easy for Stevens Point residents, it’s only a half hour drive. The community, located at the intersections of Highways T and Z in the town of New Hope, is one of several in the northeast quadrant of Portage County. The settlement, still designated on county maps, was the site of a post office from 1882 to 1907, later than many other communities in the county. A creamery at the location later became a cheese factory.
West on Z from Peru, at the intersection with Highway A, is Garfield, still represented by a store. A post office was also located in the community from 1884 to 1907. Those two communities are the only ones in the town of New Hope still represented on county maps, although there have been others. The community of New Hope was located along the route of Highway 161 in the southeast part of the town, and a post office was located there from 1861 to 1904.
Before the post office was discontinued, however, the community was more popularly known as Benson Corners, a name immortalized in a 1930s novel, which became a movie.
One community in Portage County continues to live on in literature and on screen, although its existence is more in history than present times.
Benson Corners, about three miles east of Nelsonville on Highway 161, inspired the 1930's novel “Our Vines Have Tender Grapes” by George Victor Martin. Episodes from Martin’s novel then served as the basis for the 1945 movie with the same title, which turned into a box office hit and received the Parents Magazine medal as the most wholesome family film of 1945.
Yet the community was formally known as New Hope, the designation for the post office located there from 1864 to 1904. Those were the days when residents of an area went to a central location to pick up their mail before R.F.D. (rural free delivery) began providing delivery to residences.
While New Hope was the community’s formal name for postal services, it was more popularly known as Benson Corners, apparently in reference to Peer Benson, who operated a store there in the 1870's.
Martin, who lived in Chicago, based his book on the childhood reminiscences of his wife, the former Selma Jacobson, who was reared a mile away. While he changed the name of the Wisconsin community to Benson Junction, be retained the names of his wife and her father, Martinus Jacobson, a Norwegian who farmed about 12 acres with mules and milked four cows.
When MGM Studios filmed the story, Dalton Trumbo was enlisted to write the screenplay, Edward G. Robinson was selected to play Martinus and child star Margaret O’Brien was picked to play Selma.
The movie met critical and popular acclaim. The New York Times praised Robinson as giving “one of the finest performances of his long and varied screen career” and O’Brien and fellow child star Butch Jenkins for their “remarkably natural” acting.
While the movie was praised for its wholesomeness when released, the House Committee on Un-American Activities cited the film for elements smacking of Leftism.
The film would be the last one for Trumbo before he was blackballed as one of the “Hollywood Ten.”
Today the community at the intersection with Highway T is a collection of six residences, a Lutheran church, some outbuildings and some abandoned buildings.
North New Hope and South New Hope are sometimes referred to as two other communities but are really churches and their adjoining cemeteries. Both are located on Highway T, North New Hope at the intersection with Highway MM and South New Hope at the intersection with Trout Creek Road.
The New Hope congregation became divided in 1887 over a theological debate of the period, with some leaving to build a new church a little more than a mile south. The two congregations patched up the theological differences in 1917 but the two churches continued to function until a few years ago.
A community located about a mile south of Peru in the town of New Hope, called Alban, was designated as a post office in 1873, but it was moved into the town of Alban in 1880 to a home on Highway A, about a half-mile south of Highway 66. That post office, the only one besides Rosholt in the town, was discontinued in 1905. The community, however, remains designated on county maps.
Besides Ellis and Polonia, the town of Sharon has two communities, although only one was a post office location.
Boyington was named after a sawmll in Section 24 near the town of Alban line in the vicinity of Highway 66 and Woodland Road. The post office was in use from 1881 until 1895 and was located in a house where the Nathanial Boyington family resided.
The smallest community with a place name in Sharon is North Star at the intersection of Highways J and CC. The community is actually a store-tavern at the site.
The town of Hull was the site of two small communities, Hull and Jordan. Hull was the community in the area of the former Pulaski School, which now serves as the Nature Center at Jordan County Park. A grocery store in the area served as a post office from 1864 until 1903. Jordan was an area platted in 1856 for a development south of Jordan dam on the east side of the Plover River where a sawmill was located. The plat of four blocks with 48 lots saw limited development.
The town of Dewey, with much of its land dominated by the Dewey Marsh, also has two communities, Torun and Crocker’s Landing. Torun is the most recognizable of the two as a community today, with the spire of St. Mary Catholic Church pointing out the location.
Crocker’s Landing was the site of a landing for a river boat, located on the east side of the Wisconsin River, west of Park Road in the area of the southeast corner of Lake DuBay. A post office was established there in 1882 when the community, consisting of two buildings, one of them a blacksmith shop run by Sylvister Crocker, was located in the town of Eau Pleine.
The territory east of the river was switched to the town of Dewey in 1888 and the post office remained in use until 1907.
Although the buildings of the community have disappeared, a mobile home court on the east side of Highway 51 has adopted the name of the old community.
Old towns survive change
Incorporate or face doom seems to be the credo of communities in Portage County, although some unincorporated areas continue to retain their identity.
Springville Pond in Plover still bears the name of the small community that formed there in the 1850's, between the fledgling villages of Plover and Stevens Point.
The community developed around the mouth of the Little Plover River after a flour and gristmill was constructed there. By 1857, the community included a sawmill, a store, a tavern-house, a blacksmith shop and about 12 dwellings. But the community never expanded or became a political entity, eventually becoming part of the village of Plover.
Stockton is another community that is losing its identity, faced with the prospect of urban sprawl moving east from Stevens Point. Actually, the Stockton facing the urban sprawl is the second community with that name in the county.
The original Stockton was near Morrill Cemetery in southwest corner of the town of Stockton, with a post office established there in 1858. That area became known as Old Stockton in 1874 when Stockton replaced the name of Grant for a community on Old Highway 18 along the Wisconsin Central Railroad tracks at Stockton Road.
That community had started out as Grant when a post office was designated for the site in 1864. But the post office closed a short time later. With the coming of the railroad in 1871, the community became known as New Stockton and then claimed the name of Stockton when the post office reopened in 1874. The community remained a stopping place for trains until the depot closed in 1957 and is seeing a resurgence in population with construction of homes in the area.
Liberty Corners was the name bestowed on the community at the intersection of Highways J and JJ in the town of Buena Vista. The community was small but at one time it included a Methodist Church, another church, a school and two blacksmith shops in addition to a store.
Fancher and Smokey Spur represent a community that shares those names on Highway K at the Stockton-Amherst town line. The community was created when the Green Bay & Western Railroad built a 'Y' on the tracks to serve potato warehouses in the area. To accommodate the traffic, although the spur was a flag stop instead of a depot, a tavern with a blacksmith shop was constructed.
When a post office was established there in 1891 with Orson Fancher as the first postmaster, the community bore his surname. Thus, Fancher became known as the site of St. Mary of Mount Carmel Church. Later, Smokey Spur, the name for the tavern, also became associated with the community.
Small Communities left their marks
No area in Portage County has experienced more of a demise in small communities than the southeast corner in the area south of Highway 54 and west of Highway 51.
The area of rolling hills and fertile farmland boasted the small communities of Keene, Blaine, Heffron, Buena Vista, Surry, Lone Pine, Sherman, Towne, Madely, Lanark and Hetzel.
Keene, Blaine and Heffron still have a place on county maps although their populations have fallen from the peaks they enjoyed in the late 1800s until shortly after the turn of the century.
Keene was once a thriving community. After Albert B. Mathewson built a sawmill and a foundry along the Buena Vista Creek, the community began developing in the 1870's. During that period another sawmill, a grist mill, a shoemaker shop, jewelry and photograph gallery were located there.
The Mathewson House, a hotel in the community, became a stopping point for the stage from Portage on its journeys north. And a Methodist Church was constructed in 1875. By the turn of the century, the population was declining and in 1904 the U.S. post office in the community was closed.
Blaine became the site of a rural post office in 1876 and was probably named after James G. Blaine, a leading Republican who was defeated in the 1884 Presidential election. The community included a country store, a Methodist Church, a creamery, a blacksmith shop and a grange hall. The post office was discontinued in 1903, but the grange hall remains, serving as the Belmont Town Hall.
Heffron had a short life as a community recognized by the postal service. The post office was established in 1901 and discontinued in 1903. The identifying mark of the community, much like others in the county, is a church, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.
Buena Vista was another community with an apparent short life, although it was later resurrected some distance away. The initial Buena Vista was located approximately 700 feet east of the location of Keene. After a tornado in August 1863 destroyed the village, killing three people and injuring eight others, the site was abandoned.
The Buena Vista post office designation then moved to Liberty Corners at the intersection of Highways J and JJ in the town of Buena Vista.
Surry was one of a number of communities located along Highway 54, generally on the south side. The community, east of Highway EE in the town of Buena Vista, was recognized by the post office in 1863, a recognition lost in 1891.
About two miles east of Surry, again on the south side of 54, the community of Lanark was located, identified now by St. Patrick Church. A post office was located there from 1883 to 1899.
Two miles east of Lanark, Madely was another of the communities on the south side of 54. A post office was established there in 1855 and discontinued in 1900.
Between Lanark and Madely at the junction of Highways 54 and A is located Little Chicago, another community, or probably more appropriately a place name. The name was reportedly given to the tavern at the site during the Prohibition era, allegedly because moonshine liquor was sold at or near the corner.
The final community along the section of 54 between Plover and the Waupaca County line is Badger, on the north side of the road, two to three miles east of Madely. Designated as a post office in 1870 to 1901, the tavern-house in Badger, which later served as a store, was the site of the first town of Lanark meeting.
The largest communities in the town of Belmont are Blaine and Heffron, identified on county maps yet but identifiable only by a store or a church.
Several other communities were identified by a post office for a time, although the designation can be misleading. Those were the days when residents of an area went to a central location to pick up their mail before delivery began to residences.
Sherman, undoubtedly named after William Tecumseh Sherman of Civil War fame, was located near Fountain Lake and served as a post office from 1876 until close to the turn of the century. The community was apparently nothing more than a few houses.
Towne was another community designated with a post office and was located about one-fourth of a mile west of the intersection of Highways 22 and AA, near the Methodist Church often referred to as Dopp Church because of the Dopp families residing in the area. The post office functioned from 1884 until 1903.
Besides the village of Almond, the town of Almond was home to two small communities, Lone Pine and Hetzel.
Lone Pine was located near the intersection of County Trunks W and BB, and was reportedly given that name because of a big pine tree standing alone in an open field west of the Lone Pine Cemetery. A post office was established in Lone Pine in 1856, the same year as one of the earliest burials in the cemetery, and was closed in 1904, a year after one of the worst cyclones in county history.
That cyclone, in October 1903, leveled the store housing the post office, the Lone Pine school, and numerous barns and residences.
Hetzel was a settlement about three miles north of Almond and one mile east, in the area of County Trunk EE and Fourth Avenue. Although the community existed longer than many others in the county, the post office’s recognition was short-lived, with the community serving as a post office from 1896 to 1902.
The community consisted of a store, school, creamery, feed mill, farmer's scale and two warehouses. The Hetzel family had settled in the area in 1853 and the school was built during the Civil War. For the 1891-92 school year, the population in the area had grown, with enrollment reaching 79 students, so another school was built in 1894.
Buena Vista survives with small population
The barren expanse of the Buena Vista Marsh, covering portions of five towns, has proven inhospitable to communities throughout the history of Portage County. The area proved inhospitable to a crew that started surveying in August of 1851, delaying work until winter because the men ran into poison ivy in the swamps that dominated the area.
When the swamp was drained and a drainage district formed through the efforts of Bradley Polytechnic Institute, the institute decided to develop the area residentially.
W. (Wallie) B. Coddington platted a community to be known as the village of Pine Island in 1911. The plat offered a community of 196 lots along a southern route of the Soo Line Railroad (P-Line), which intersected the Chicago & Northwestern Railway tracks at Bancroft.
The plat identifies Main, First, Second and Third streets running parallel to the tracks, intersected by Buena Vista Road, Coddington Avenue, Hammond Avenue and Bradley Avenue. The community, at the present-day intersection of Taft Avenue and Coddington Road in the town of Buena Vista, attracted sparse development.
And the name Pine Island, apparently because it was one area of high ground in the marsh with some pine trees taller than the tamarack, never stuck. A post office was established at the location in 1912 and was called Coddington after the developer. That is the name the community retains, although its sparse population has prompted the county to drop it from its maps.