Vernon County's Ethnic Heritage
(Information provided by Vernon County Historical Society)

English immigrants to Wisconsin often were indistinguishable from the "Yankees,"  the native-born Americans who flooded into the state from the New England and Middle Atlantic states. In 1850, when Wisconsin's population stood at 305,000, the English made up about 9% (27,000) and the Yankees 34% (103,000).
The English had many advantages over other European immigrants. Of course, they knew the language. They better understood the political process and how to use it to their advantage. A greater number of the English were professionals,  thus they could fill the more prestigious occupations. The English also were less inclined to settle in ethnic enclaves and assimilated rapidly.
Like the Yankees, the English were apt to know the mechanics of making a homestead claim and of the land auctions better than other Europeans. This allowed them to claim the better farmland and to select suitable townsites and waterpowers (where mills could be built). Consequently, those who arrived later often found that they must conduct their necessary business in communities dominated by the Yankees and the English.

Hundreds of Norwegians settled in Coon Valley and on Coon Prairie. The area from Prairie du Chien to Eau Claire is still the most densely populated Norwegian district in America, and Coon Prairie is the district's center.
In 1846, Evan Olsen Gullord, from Norway's Bin parish, staked the first claim on Coon Prairie. Evan's letters home, which highlighted the similarity of the hills and valleys to Norway's rugged landscape, enticed hundreds more to the area. Besides Bin parish, Gudbrandsdal supplied a great number of settlers.
Helge Gulbrandson and his wife were the first settlers in Coon Valley (1849). They carved out a farm along the creek named for the wooded hills' numerous raccoons. For more than a year, they were the only white settlers living among the Indians in the valley.
Bergen and Christiana townships are named after well known cities and districts in Norway. The settlers quickly participated in the political opportunities they found here, after the Town of Coon was organized in April 1859.
In 1851 Ingebret Ness came to Coon Prairie to seek land. He could not find what he wanted, he went 25 miles southwest until he came to that area which is named West Prairie. He settled down and in time there gathered around him many others from Sogn, Lyster, and Aardal.
Most Norwegians farmed. Until 1890 wheat was their primary crop. As wheat declined, they moved into dairying, and often grew tobacco as well. A few of the original farmsteads are still owned by descendants of the men and women who pioneered in Coon Valley, on Coon Prairie and West Prairie.

Germans emigrated to the United States in three waves -- 1845-55, 1865-73, and 1880-93. Wisconsin, of course, received a large number. In 1900, Germans constituted 34% of the state's population. The greatest concentration of Germans in Vernon County occurred in Bergen and Hamburg townships. But Germans never constituted more than 8% of the county's population.
Like other European immigrants, the Germans came to America to escape adverse economic and social conditions. Those who came in the second wave often desired to escape military service, for this was when the German nation finally unified. Some sought political freedom saying, "There is no king in America."
The Germans were excellent farmers. They were appalled at the wasteful practices of their Yankee neighbors. The Germans set good examples by rotating their crops and using manure to maintain fertility. Their first farms were no more than large gardens which yielded corn, beans, and potatoes. Later, when more land had been cleared, they added wheat. In the 1880's, German farmers moved into dairying and set up cheese factories.
The Germans often settled in tight-knit groups, according to their place of origin in the "old country." If their number was large enough, these communities formed musical and athletic societies, set up clubs, and supported a German-language newspaper. Neverthless, the settlers' offspring soon began to assimilate into American society.

The Irish settled in two separate communities in Vernon County. One settlement developed along the southern border of Sterling and Franklin townships. The other arose in Forest township on Irish Ridge.
A big wave of Irish came to the United States in the mid-i 840's. They were driven to emigrate by the potato famine, by the lack of employment, by the absence of religious and political freedom, and by the high rents charged by English landlords. They were attracted to Vernon County because some already had relatives here and because land was available to homestead.
An early Irish settler was William Mahan, who arrived about 1845 from Ireland. He homesteaded a mile north of Rising Sun, among rolling hills reminiscent of Ireland. He moved a good deal, homesteading perhaps as many as nine different properties until he settled down.
Records of the William Shannon family from the 1850s state that they grew Indian corn, wheat, oats, peas, beans and, of course, Irish potatoes. They used oxen to pull their simple farm implements.
The focal point of the Sterling and Franklin Township settlement was St. James Catholic Church at Rising Sun. A priest began celebrating mass in homes in 1849. A log church was built in 1855.
These Vernon County Irish communities did not long retain their identity. Other European immigrants, especially the Norwegians and Germans, soon outnumbered them. Intermarriage and integration has taken place as it has in the other ethnic groups.

The Italians who founded Genoa had been living and working in the lumbering and mining camps near Galena and had gotten fed up with the poor conditions. In 1853 they sent Guiseppi (Joseph) Monte, a Swiss-Italian, upstream to find a suitable site. He chose the Genoa area because its bluffs and wild pigeons reminded him of his ancestors' Alpine country.
The oldest known settler was David Hastings, who erected the first house in 1853. For a short time the town was called Hastings Landing.
A village, originally named Bad Axe, was platted in 1854. In April 1860, the first village officials were elected. In 1866 the community's name was changed to Genoa, in honor of the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. The village was often called "Little Italy" in recognition of its many Italian residents.
There being no suitable farmland, Genoa's residents pursued many occupations. The town's stores, bars and hotels served steamboat passengers. Sometimes the steamboats brought some pretty rough characters to the community. Some quarried nearby limestone. Other Genoa residents harvested clams to supply the local button factories with their raw material. In 1884, the Chicago, Burlington, and Northern Railroad reached Genoa. For several years, some men found work building and, later, maintaining the tracks.
Genoa's population has remained fairly stable for over one hundred years. The 1980 census tallied 288 persons who called "Little Italy" their home.

Vernon County hosted one of the largest rural black settlements in Wisconsin in its Cheyenne and Revels Valleys, lust east of Wildcat Mountain. This area became the Melting Pot of Vernon County as the black and white residents (Norwegians, Irish, Czechs) of these valleys were thoroughly integrated. They built schools and churches as a community.
The 1870 census lists 62 black settlers in 11 families as living in that area. The 1920 listed 100 blacks. After that, however, the black population began to decline as young people moved away to escape the very limited employment opportunities.
Walden Stewart and Wesley Barton from Illinois and Mycajah Revels from Indiana were the first black settlers. Revels' name was attached to the valley where he settled: Barton founded Barton Corners and became its first postmaster in 1859. In 1856, six black families arrived from North Carolina. These free people came to Wisconsin seeking greater security from being dragged into slavery and to enloy the state's greater educational opportunities.
Farming was their major occupation, but lumberjacking was also common in this heavily forested area. The trees provided logs for their homes and barns. They manufactured barrels, shingles, and lath. At the mill, the black farmers turned their sorghum, wheat and corn crops into symp and molasses, flour and meal. One old-timer, interviewed in 1975, remembered that, "We always had lots of food but were short of money". She recalled big barrels of pork, sauerkraut, molasses, and corn.

All of Wisconsin's major Czech settlements were made in the 1850's. The Czechs settled primarily along the eastern lakeshore, from Racine to Manitowoc, and in the bluff and coulee country of La Crosse, Vernon, Grant, and Crawford counties. Their communities were founded specifically for farming, as most had been peasant farmers in Bohemia and Moravia before emigrating to America.
The Czechs were attracted to Wisconsin by low taxes, inexpensive land, similarities to their homeland in soil and topography, political and religious freedom, and liberal residence requirements (males could become voters after six months if they swore an intent to become a citizen). They were, at the same time, being pushed out of their provinces in the Austrian Empire by the absence of these opportunities and freedoms.
In Vernon County, the Czechs settled almost exclusively in Champion Valley, which stretches south from Dilly to Yuba in Richland County. The number of Czechs in Vernon County was never large, 1870=281, 1880=446, 1890=415. Nonetheless, these Czechs, like their countrymen elsewhere in the state, readily maintained their cultural traditions. These traditions may today be seen and sampled during Hillsboro's annual "Cesky Den" celebration, which features Czech foods, crafts, music and dancing in June each year.