Lake Mills Aztalan Historical Society
Backstory and Context
The Crawfish River, flowing serenely through rolling prairies and passing gently sloping hills on its way to join the Rock River, has always presented an inviting aspect to the prospective settler. Centuries before the coming of the white man, Indians of a different culture than that of the woodland tribes build a stockaded village on the Crawfish's west bank which flourished there for perhaps two hundred years. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, white men settled practically within sight of the ancient Indian ruins. Both the Indian village and the pioneer settlement came to be known as Aztalan.
Nathaniel F. Hyer and William Brayton were probably the first to inspect the area with any care. They came through late in 1835, while on a federal survey. Night overtook Hyer, Brayton and their two companions at the foot of a large hill about a mile east of the future site of Aztalan. They made camp there and, because it was Christmas eve, named the hill "Christmas Hill", a name which it still bears.
Baron Alexander von Humboldt, a well-known early nineteenth century student of Indian antiquities, reported an Aztec legend which said that the Aztec people had come to Mexico from Aztalan, a land by flowing waters far to the north. Seeing the ruins of the stockaded village on the bank of the Crawfish, known then as the West Branch of Rock River, Hyer gave the name "Aztalan" to the site. The name carried over to the pioneer settlement.
An expedition for the purpose of establishing a settlement set out from Milwaukee for what was soon to be known as Aztalan on October 26, 1836. The party included Thomas Brayton, Walter Hyer, Nathaniel F. Hyer, Timothy Johnson and Reuben Keene. Timothy Johnson and Thomas Brayton left the rest of the party on October 30th, and continued directly to Aztalan, reaching there on the thirty-first. They explored the surrounding territory for a day or two, while waiting for their friends. As the rest of the party did not arrive, Brayton and Johnson returned to Milwaukee.
Thomas Brayton and Timothy Johnson made plans to return to Aztalan. This time they were accompanied by William Brayton, a brother of Thomas, Stephen Fletcher, Rev. Jared F. Ostrander and others. They made the trip from Milwaukee to Aztalan in seven days.
The little colony flourished. Thomas Brayton's brothers, Jeremiah and Alfred A., arrived shortly after the first party.
Thomas Brayton built a log house which was sixteen by twenty feet in size. It was used as a public house to accommodate the many travelers and land seekers who passed that way. Mr. Brayton's family arrived at Aztalan on July 1, 1837, to become the third family (husband, wife and children) to settle in Jefferson County. Other families followed the Thomas Brayton's to Aztalan. Alfred Brayton's family joined him shortly after the arrival of his brother's wife and children. Aztaline Brayton, Alfred's daughter, was born March 18, 1838, probably the first white girl born in the area.
By 1838, Dr. L.C. Bicknell had established his medical practice in Aztalan. He was joined later by N.O. Youngman, M.D. and H.B. Willard, M.D.
On march 16, 1837, Elihu Lester Atwood staked a claim near what later became known as Hooper's mill, in old Aztalan Township. He was the first of a family which later played an important role in the development of the Aztalan-Lake Mills Area. The census of 1840 lists him, as well as John, Kelly and Isaac Atwood as heads of families in Aztalan Township. Elihu was elected a delegate to the first Constitutional Convention preparing for statehood, which met at Madison from August 6, 1846 to December 16, 1846. When the constitution which this group drafted was rejected by the people of the territory, a second Constitutional Convention was called and met at Madison from December 15, 1947 to February 1, 1948. Elihu Atwood again represented the people of Aztalan. He operated the ashery and saleratus factory which was located on the west bank of the Crawfish River, just south of the Milwaukee-Mineral Point Road.
Aztalan was located at the junction of the Milwaukee to Mineral Point Territorial Road (now Jefferson County Highway B) and the stage coach road from Janesville to Fond du Lac and points north (now Aztalan Mound Road) and the little village was soon teeming with freight wagons, stage coaches and the prairie schooners of settlers and prospectors.
Everyone felt that Aztalan was destined for greatness. As early as 1837, when the second session of the first Legislature met at Burlington, Iowa (then a part of the Territory of Wisconsin) a Mr. Sweet presented the petition of the residents of Jefferson County, praying that said county be organized into one township which should be called Aztalan. Aztalan Township was incorporated in February, 1839, and included all of present day Waterloo, Lake Mills and Aztalan Townships and part of Milford Township. In 1839, the territorial legislative session meeting at Belmont to choose a state capital, chose Madison over Aztalan.
In October of 1839, Thomas Brayton and Henry J. Sedgewick made the first purchase of land from the United States government. Each man purchased a quarter section of land at a price of $1.25 per acre. In 1841, Thomas Brayton, Edward Abbe and Jared F. Ostrander platted the village of Aztalan from a survey made by John Darrow Waterbury. The plat contained thirty acres of land on the west side of the Crawfish River. Aztalan became the first incorporated village in Jefferson County in 1842.
Business flourished in Aztalan. Aztalan's first hotel, the Ancient City House, was opened in 1840 by H.L. Foster and Alfred A. Brayton opened the first general store in 1841. By 1842, Aztalan was the leading business and industrial center in Jefferson County. The Wisconsin Gazetteer, written by John Warren Hunt and published by Beriah Brown of Madison in 1853, described Aztalan of that day as follows:
AZTALAN: Post village in Jefferson County and town of the same name, 7 miles northwest from Jefferson and 28 miles east from Madison. It is on both sides of the Crawfish on the direct road from Madison to Milwaukee.
It contains 1 Baptist Church, 3 denominations of Christians, 2 blacksmiths, 1 wagon-maker, 1 shoe shop, 1 fanning mill shop, brick yard, 1 saleratus factory, 3 stores, 2 hotels, 1 steam saw mill, 1 nursery of 150,000 trees, and an extensive stone quarry.
In this town is situated the renowned "Ancient City" which comprises 30 acres of land. The city is surrounded by a wall and is an object of antiquarian research. Population 250.
The first post office in Jefferson County was established at Aztalan on April 1, 1837. Nathaniel F. Hyer was the first postmaster. This post office was originally known as Jefferson but became known as Aztalan July 31, 1839. The post office continued in operation until it was supplanted by rural free delivery, May 31, 1904. Judge Thomas Brayton presided over the civil court from 1843 to 1846. The first court sessions were held at the hotel and in private homes in Aztalan. It was customary in those days to hear civil cases in the vicinity nearest to the question of law.
Education was of prime importance to these early settlers. Rev. Jared F. Ostrander taught the first school in Aztalan in 1838, probably the first classes held in Jefferson County. He taught the older children during the winter months while his wife taught a class of younger children during the summer. The first schoolhouse, a frame building, was built in the southwestern part of the village, in the area known as the South Public Square. This building was replaced by a structure of Aztalan brick about 1850, which served the area until it burned in 1917. A red brick building replaced it. Classes were held here until consolidation, when the children were transferred to schools in Lake Mills.
Rev. Jared F. Ostrander, one of the original settlers of Aztalan, was an independent theologian who presided at marriages and funerals in the earliest days of the settlement. It is believed that the first religious service in Jefferson County was held at Aztalan.
In 1839, a Baptist society was established at Aztalan. This was the sixth Baptist society organized in Wisconsin Territory. Services were held in homes and at the school until the Baptist Church was built in 1852. This was the second church edifice in the territory served by the Dane association of the Baptist Church. Jeremiah Brayton, who had received a grant of land in Aztalan Township from the United States government in recognition of his service in the War of 1812, was one of the organizers of the Aztalan Baptist Society and served as deacon until his death in 1869.
After Brayton's death, the society attempted to establish a church at Lake Mills, which had by then, exceeded Aztalan in population. Services continued sporadically at Aztalan, with clergymen coming out from Lake Mills to reside. Gradually these services became more infrequent and finally stopped completely. After a brief revival shortly before World War I, the church was abandoned.
The railroad, which was the lifeblood of many communities, brought only decay and death to Aztalan. In 1859 the Northwestern Railroad passed within five miles of Aztalan. After that, travel on the roads which had brought Aztalan to prominence began to fade. In 1881, when the line from Milwaukee to Madison was built, the tracks missed Aztalan by two miles. In 1882, the final blow came when Chicago and Northwestern Railroad extended its line from Milwaukee to Madison, passing within a mile of the fading village. As Aztalan decayed, Lake Mills, with the railroad and beautiful lake, thrived and flourished. By 1900, Aztalan, once considered as a site for the state capital, was a ghost town at a quiet country crossroad.
In 1912, the year the Aztalan Baptist Church was reopened, the only business left in Aztalan was a creamery and general store owned by Frank Crandall, who had also served as the town's last postmaster before rural free delivery. The church held services for only a year or two, and the Crandall store burned in 1925. Pioneer Aztalan had run its course.
A rejuvenating force came to Aztalan in 1941 when the Lake Mills-Aztalan Historical Society was founded. The old church, a victim of decay and vandalism, had deteriorated to a point almost beyond restoration. The Society took it over, and after a monumental effort, restored the building. In 1942, the Society's Museum, a fascinating collection of Indian artifacts and pioneer relics was opened. Since then, it has been visited by thousands of people, coming from nearly every state in the Union and many foreign countries, as well as the surrounding area. The old church, last building of a once-thriving community, stands as a memorial to the hardy pioneers who lived and worked within the shadow of its spire.
On January 25, 1969, the Registered Landmark Commission, meeting at Madison, approved Pioneer Aztalan as Registered Wisconsin Landmark No. 68.