From History of Reedsburg and the Upper Baraboo Valley, by Merton Edwin Krug, page 17-20, Publ. February 1929 by the author. Printed by Democrat Printing Company, Madison, Wis.
James Babb. Foremost in the vanguard of early pioneers comes this gentleman. If Barry can claim the distinction of having been the earliest settler, then Mr. Babb will rest content with the honor of having been the First Permanent Settler, arriving in May 1845, and the first man who tilled the soil in the town of Reedsburg.
In undertaking to tell the story of Mr. Babb's coming we are aware of a little question of date. But the fact that he did come and that he was first is more important than the exact date. In 1875 Mrs. Bella French wrote for the American Sketch Book Company a history of the town. No doubt she spent much time and energy looking up the history and conversing with the early settlers still living at that time, so in every instance where questions arise we will refer to her book for authority.
James Babb was born near Winchester, Frederick County, Va., September 26, 1789. In 1810 the family moved to Ohio. A year or two later James W., a young man of some twenty-two years, returned to Virginia where he married Rebecca Scarff. He then returned to Ohio where he resided until 1845. That spring he had become so embarrassed financially that he determined to sell out and seek a home in the unsettled regions of the upper Mississippi valley.
"Accordingly," says the "Sauk County History of 1880," in April, 1845, he started for Wisconsin Territory. The journey was made with a horse team across the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and after a short stop at the Kilpatrick house (they were his relatives), the party pushed on to this place. Mr. Babb was accompanied by his son John.
N. V. Chandler, editor of the Free Press at the time of Mr. Babb's death, published Mr. Babb's life story, 1875:
The story: Having arrived at Baraboo, then a mere hamlet, the party was augmented by several persons, among others by a Mr. Clark, who knew the way. They probably came through the Narrows Creek Gap, as the first view they obtained of the prairie was from the bluff back of the Dixon place, on the 12th of May (1845) - just as nearly thirty years as may be from the day of his death (May 14, 1875). Mr. Babb was then upward of fifty-five years of age, in the very prime of his manhood, of strong physical frame, robust health, and iron will, and the difficulties and hardships of such an undertaking as he contemplated, and which would be sufficient to appall one of lesser courage and powers of endurance, had no terrors for him.
Sticking his claim stake, he proceeded at once to improve, employing parties upon Sauk Prairie to come up and break seventy acres of land upon a portion of which he raised, that same season, buckwheat, potatoes, etc.. He built a double log house after the southern style, two stories in height, consisting of two buildings, sixteen feet square, separated below by an open space twelve feet wide, but the upper story extending the whole length - forty-four feet. The building faced the south. Upon the north side the alley between the buildings was extended twelve feet and closed at the north end, making a room twelve by twenty-eight, one story high. The whole was covered with shingles, obtained from the pine grove, which used to stand a few miles this side of Wonewoe, and where there were already hardy lumbermen engaged in converting the timber into lumber and shingles. To raise this house, the logs have been prepared by Mr. Babb and son and perhaps some other persons, it was thought to utilize the labor of the friendly Indians; but after getting the building up some distance, Mr. Babb became afraid that the reckless way they handled the heavy timbers would result in serious injury to them, procured help from Baraboo and Sauk, respectively sixteen and twenty-eight miles; and thus the building was raised. This was the first dwelling reared in Reedsburg township. That same summer (1845) he went to Baraboo, purchased lumber, built a flat boat, loaded it with provisions and other useful articles and poled it up the river to this place. The boat was afterwards used as a ferryboat for teams at this point when the water was too high to be forded.
Some time in December the Babbs returned to Ohio where they remained during the winter. Early in the spring of 1846, accompanied by his son John and John's wife and Strother, another son, and Washington GRAY, he started again for Wisconsin, bringing some household goods, and a set of blacksmith tools, which Strother knew how to use. They arrived here in time to get in a crop that year. After harvest Mr. Babb journeyed again to Ohio, this time to get his family. He was somewhat hurried in his preparations for moving by the intelligence that the land sale in this district would take place on the 1st of December. On October 30 he started with his family, consisting of his wife, his son Philip, his daughter Betsy and her husband, Stern Baker, bring the remainder of his worldly goods, cattle, etc. The month of November was drawing to a close when the party reached Whitewater. Mr. Babb there left them, proceeding on to Mineral Point to enter his land, which he did, entering nine hundred and sixty acres, all in one body. Don Carlos Barry had gone thither about that time to enter his land and the two men accompanied each other home. Meanwhile, after a few days delay caused by cold, wet weather, the immigrant party journeyed north, arriving at Portage, at that time known only as Fort Winnebago, on the 28th of November, where they found considerable anchoring ice and a high wind prevailing. They were obliged to camp there for eight days before the ferryman could be prevailed upon to pole them across. While encamped they were joined by Mr. Babb and Mr. Barry. The reached the Babb house on the prairie on the 8th day of December 1846.
Wrote Mrs. French: The BabbsS immediately formed a friendly intercourse with the Indians and divided the family sustenance with them as though they had been members of it. If there was but one pound of flour or bacon in the cabin, the Indians got half of it, did they come hungry. The affection of the natives for this family was truly remarkable. They never stole from Mr. Babb or his children as they did from other early settlers; but this need not be a subject of wonder when we remember that they had anything which they wanted for the asking. Nor was his generosity restricted to the red men. He gave liberally to white men. Neither was his bounty stingily bestowed. He would let out his land to a poor tenant, help him build a house, and give him seed for planting; at harvest he would help him cut the grain, and in the end he would refuse to take his own share because the poor fellow was having a hard time and needed it all. He died on May 14, 1875, at the advanced age of eighty-seven years. He was buried, according to his wishes, without religious ceremony, on his own premises, by the side of his wife who preceded him to her reward seventeen years, or in 1858.
The privations endured by these early settlers must have been great continues Mrs. French. They often lived for weeks on cakes made of grated corn, for a time even went as far as Whitewater to get wheat ground, and finally did their own grinding on a handmill, before any gristmills were erected in this part of the country. Groceries they never had - they did not want them and no use for them, so they said. Mrs. Stern Baker claimed that the water drained carefully from the sediment is equal to the best of soda. There were times, too when they had no bread; potatoes and salt, and sometimes with the salt lacking, being their entire food. Game and fruits, however, grew in abundance. But the season of fruit was short, then very few of the settlers were experts with a rifle, and consequently they were not always supplied with meat. As far as the Babbs were concerned, the Indians came to their assistance by dividing the spoils of the chase, thus returning kindness for kindness. Other settlers were not so favored by the Indians.
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