Lisbon Plank Road – October 22, 1899

This story from 1899 tells of the very early days of the Lisbon Toll Road and the people that lived in the area. It goes into details that are long gone but gives a detailed description of places along the road. The Sanborn Map portion shown below is from 1894 and shows the area around Lisbon Avenue and North 27th Street(Washington Av.) The beer garden at the southwest corner of the two streets was where tollgate #1 used to be and the start of the plank road. For more reading on the plank road, check the Sussex-Lannon Area Historical Society page.


Milwaukee Sentinel, October 22, 1899



The Lisbon Plank road between Tollgate No. 2 and “Bell’s Tavern” was an attractive stretch of highway last Sunday morning, when the weather was Indian summer-like and the sky distant blue. Tollgate No. 2, so-called in 1851, has become Tollgate No. 1 now. Tollgate No. 1, when the Plankroad opened for business about forty-nine years ago, was at the southwest corner of Twenty-seventh and Lisbon avenue. Austin Wheeler, the first keeper of that tollgate, died in Winona last year, and the old gate house he lived in, which stood at the time of his death, a half block north of its original site, has vanished this year. The gatehouse at North avenue is now No. 1. George Kries was the first gatekeeper there. None of the original gatekeepers are left. Even the picturesque little German gentleman who closed a seventeen-year career of toll-taking at the North street gate, has retired this year.

Lisbon road follows the line of an old Indian trail that led to the inland cornfields. It crosses the Menomonee river on the line between sections 6 and 7, town of Wauwatosa, but up to that point it runs along a ridge, affording a far-away view that is rarely obscured. The purple blue of autumn was conspicuous at the horizons at the right and left last Sunday. The journey to “Bell’s Tavern” and back required all the time from 9 a. m. to 4 p. m., the best hours of the day’s sunshine. It was a leisurely pace, through a section that showed the progress of sixty years of effort. Most of the men who made the clearings have retired from active life, and new men have come into possession of the fertile fields and broad barns.

Holds His Farm From the Government.

The “Bell Tavern” property is an exception to this rule. Francis Bell, who bought a farm from the government in 1842, still occupies it, and will be 83 years old next month. He kept a tavern for twenty-two years on the site now occupied by his residence. “I used to give away,” said he, “more liquor than the two saloons up the road sell. My house was well patronized. I furnished good meals and there was plenty of everything. I have seen thirty ox-teams tied to the fence all night while the owners were at my hotel. A barrel of whiskey would not last over two or three days. I went to California in 1852 for two years, and shut up the hotel, and when I came back I opened it again. I always had plenty of customers. I hire a man to run my farm now, and don’t do anything myself. He has just finished digging six acres of potatoes, and has dug 1,600 bushels. That is a pretty good yield. There are seven acres still to be dug.

Helped Build the First Dam.

Mr. Bell was born in County Tyrone, Ireland, Nov. 18, 1816, and is an Episcopalian. He came to America in 1839, and to Milwaukee in 1841. He immediately secured employment on the Milwaukee & Rock River canal, helping to construct the dam. In the spring of 1842, he located his farm on the Lisbon road in the town of Brookfield, and erected, the same year, a log cabin 18×28 feet in size. He moved his family there the following winter. His farm consists of 102 acres lying on both sides of the road, about a half mile west of Butler postoffice. Mr. Bell was the father of eighteen children, sixteen of whom are living in various parts of the country. Henry C. Bell of the police force, is the only resident of Milwaukee. James C. Bell is a mine owner in Arizona, and George Bell is an artist at Boston.

Born, on the High Seas.

“My oldest son, James,” said Mr. Bell “was born aboard the ship Sea in mid-ocean. The captain asked my wife if she would not name her little son in honor of the ship, and when she promised to do so he gave her $5 to pay the christening expenses.”

This interview took place on the porch of the town of Brookfield residence. The walk there from West park recalled many old residents, whose homesteads have survived them. The first was the Walter Burdick homestead, on the left of the plank read, just west of the cluster of saloons at the gate of the park. The old house, a story-and-a-half frame, faces northwest, and its corners are towards the four points of compass. A honey locust hedge is conspicuous on the west of the house, which was built in 1843. Walter Burdick’s farm was part of West park.

Forge of a Pioneer Blacksmith.

At the North avenue, in days before the tollgate, Robert M. Jacks, a pioneer blacksmith, established his forge in 1841 on the point of land now occupied by Neumiller’s park. He was a typical village blacksmith “with large and sinewy hands” and “brawny arms.” This land, as well as the property of the House of the Good Shepherd, was part of the quarter section bought by the late Elijah G. Fowler from the government in 1836, which lay for a half mile along North avenue and Lisbon road, just west of the Charles James quarter section. The Fowler homestead, built in 1854, is still to be seen on the right after passing the tollgate, but the original log cabin, occupied for many years, was northwest a quarter of a mile. The homestead is a brick edifice with red trimmings and a veranda on the east. The group of trees in the front yard, most of them planted by Mr. Fowler, include two white ash at the fence, a white pine, two balsam firs, and two huge silver poplars.

Old S. S. Merrill Residence.

The house next west was built, as near as can be remembered, by a man named Teed, in 1846. It is a rambling style of architecture, to which a wide veranda with four Doric pillars give a colonial aspect. S. S. Merrill resided there some years.

Standing on a slight elevation just west, is the Lyman Wheeler homestead, built fifty years ago. Lyman Wheeler was a pioneer of 1836, and his farm was a 160-acre tract next west of Mr. Fowler’s. East, north and west of the old homestead are clumps of trees, with foliage still green, bearing round black berries that are succulent in appearance, but bitter to the taste. One might fairly wonder why they were planted there, and the dense foliage at this time of the year attracts attention from the road.

The site of the log cabin, which stood on the farm when Mr. Wheeler bought it, and in which he lived for several years is still marked by a half-filled cellar south of the road, surrounded by locust trees.

Spring That Bubbled for Indians.

Here, on the north side of the road, is a fine sugar maple, leafless now, but with its seed samaras still persistent. Behind it, on a gentle slope, is an old spring filled with small limestone boulders from the quaternary drift. The spring was one of the sources of a little brook that winds northwest. Perhaps the wandering course of the brook indicates the direction of the last glacier. Many Indians, no doubt, built their campfires near the spring at the time when the only road was an Indian trail.

George F. Knapp Homestead.

A red brick house on the south side of the road, just west of the Fond du Lac road corner, was built by George F. Knapp, a pioneer of 1836, who came from St. Lawrence county, New York state.

The old “Ben Throop” place, known to old settlers, lies between the Fond du Lac and Lisbon roads, the house fronting on the former and the barn on the latter. The residence is a roomy red house with a north veranda, which apparently was enlarged by its successive owners as exigency required. The yard is full of evergreens, planted by Peter Van Vechten in the ’40’s. Subsequently it was owned and occupied by Caspar M. Sanger and by “Count” Spangenberg’s widow, and it is now the property of James G. Flanders.

Going westward, along the Lisbon road, a series of fine landscapes lie to the right and left, with all varieties of autumnal shading. Brown stubble runs into vivid green of winter grain, relieving the copper hue of oak foliage and bare grey boughs of elms and maples. Yellow butterflies flitted aimlessly across the country, apparently pondering on the approach of winter, and giving a taste of life to the scene.

Site of the First Frame House.

The barn Capt. Stephen Hubbell built in the early ’50’s is still standing south of the road, but the house has passed away. So also has the first frame house on the Lisbon road, which was built in 1845 by a man named Barrett. The site on the north side of the road, is owned by Assemblyman Frederick Hartung, whose father, Henry Hartung, settled there fifty years ago.

Typical Oak and Maple Group.

Across the road from the Hartung residence may be noticed a typical group of forest trees. It includes specimens of white oak, red oak, burr oak, sugar maple, white elm, black ash, and basswood. The trees apparently represent the forest that spread over the country, out of which the pioneers cut their farms.

Just before coming to Smithville, where stands at three corners the “Five Mile” house, the wayfarer notices large quantities of bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) draping the fences. The homestead of Deacon Erastus Smith, seen further along on the south side of the road, was built in 1850.

George E. Knapp’s Well.

A little road house, standing at the junction of the Lisbon road with the north and south section line road, gave an opportunity to rest, and observe the well across the way, which George E. Knapp dug in 1841 for his log cabin hotel that stood there. The well is a good one still, 100 feet deep. His hotel was 15×30 feet in dimensions. A barrel of whisky stood in the bar room, and it sold for a shilling a gallon. He had some tame deer, with bells on their necks, which he kept in a pasture, and the wolves got at them and ate them one night. Only the bells and bones were found next day.

On the section line road, just north, is the farm that Robert Farries bought in 1847. He died of cholera a year later. His son, John Farries, a veteran of the Twenty-fourth Wisconsin, owns the farm. Adjoining it on the north, is forty acres where Thomas Tobin, an early-day politician lived, and not far away was the homestead of another early settler, Thomas McCarthy, who died a year ago at the age of 90. Opposite the Farries place, on the section line road, was the David Bastin farm. He came early in the ’40’s, went to California in the gold excitement, and from there to Australia, never returning to Milwaukee.

An Old-Time Race Track.

Across the fields southwest is the flat on the bank of the Menomonee where Martin Curtis built a race track when he owned a 320-acre farm there. A short distance west is the Lieut. Dexter residence, and the grove where, in war time, a picnic was held to raise money to get hospital supplies for the soldiers at the front. The grove is on section 8. At the picnic articles were raffled, and some were sold at auction.

High Price for a Toy Sheep.

It is remembered that George L. Davis, a prominent dry goods merchant of that day, bid off a toy sheep for $25.

Some sites of houses that were important forty-five or fifty years ago are not discernible now, but along the country side are still a few who can point them out with tolerable exactness. Old poplar trees alone show where the vanished tollgate once stood. A hickory tree growing on a hill is the only landmark left to show where the old school house stood, visited by Indians occasionally. The Albert Fowler homestead on the hill west of the Beaver dam creek, built in 1841, has disappeared, even the cellar being leveled off, but the oak trees he planted in front of the house, close to the edge of the road are thrifty yet.

A House of a Poet.

Mr. Fowler had a quarter section of land and on a part of it George W. Chapman, the poet, coming West after the panic of 1857, built a residence which still stands there.

Slightly further west on the south side of the road, was the farm of Alexander Munroe, an early settler. His log house burned in March, 1850, and on the site he built a hip roof limestone house that summer, taking the stone from the quarry on the bank of the Menomonee. In one of the voluminous barns Mr. Munroe built, a Methodist quarterly conference was held one day, and the Rev. Benj. Barrett, who lived near by and died last year at the age of 90, was presiding elder.

Sanford Wheeler, brother-in-law of Mr. Munroe, took up the quarter section next west in 1837, and the house, built in 1850, is almost untouched except by the fingers of time, although the property has long been in other hands.

A Gate Half a Century Old.

The gate with diamond figures which Sanford Wheeler made and put in place in 1850 is still doing duty in the same place. On his farm the stump of an old Indian sugar bush can be seen. Mr. Wheeler was killed in 1865 by a runaway while hauling wood on his own farm, but his widow is 85 years old, and, visiting the place a year or two ago, recognized the gate.

Sawmill and Ashery Site.

The place on the river bank where the mill stood to saw plank for the Lisbon plank road in 1850 is still pointed out. Before that, it was the site of the Clark Brookins ashery. Clark Brookins settled on the quarter section in 1837, and he gave the acre or two of ground for Oak Hill cemetery, a quarter mile west of the river. The sawmill mentioned was not the first in the locality, as an Englishman named Petford built a water power mill about a mile north, in the early ’40’s.

Seen in the Cemetery.

A visit to the cemetery, in passing settled some dates. Clark Brookins and his wife are both buried there, both dying at the age of 75, two years apart. Robert Farries, the cholera victim, died July 15, 1848. Three graves in line show the last resting place of George F. Knapp, the merry innkeeper, and his two wives. The first wife died in 1848. Mr. Knapp followed her to the grave in 1873, and his second wife survived him five years. The oldest grave in this pioneer cemetery is apparently that of Abner H. Briggs, who died in 1846, at the age of 30. His tombstone has fallen flat, inscription side down.

West of the cemetery is the Brookins residence, fully a half a century old. His next neighbor on the west for the fifteen years between 1845 and 1860 was William Reynolds, who came with his handsome bride on their honey moon trip from Buffalo.

On a Honey Moon Trip.

They resided there fifteen years before returned to their native place, Attica, N. Y., where they still reside at a quite advanced age.

How Butler Postoffice Was Named.

Butler postoffice, standing just over the county line in the town of Brookfield, was in sight after leaving the cemetery, and it was practically the end of the journey. It may not be generally known that the postoffice was established in 1848, and was named after Gen. William D. Butler of Kentucky, the defeated Democratic candidate for vice president in 1848. The postoffice is in the old tavern kept in early times by John W. Gieb. who was living in Alaska up to a few years ago. His wife died in 1854, and was buried in Oak Hill cemetery.

The two bits of still life that stand out most prominently in this trip are the wooden guard around George Knapp’s well and the gate that Sanford Wheeler hung in 1850.

P. W.

Comments (4)

  1. kayjbub

    This was fascinating as in 1912 my grandfather established his photo portrait studio on 27th and Lisbon (I have photos) but I never knew about the toll road.

  2. Yance

    Probably by 1912, little trace of the toll road would have remained. They were built to take advantage of farmers bringing produce to the city and travelers who wanted to get into the city quickly. Once the auto was established and there was an increased demand for public paved roads, the toll road could not compete with a better system of free highways. The last toll road in the city was the Whitefish Bay Road which ceased operations in 1913. I will look up to see when that section of Lisbon Avenue was improved from a dirt road.

  3. michael

    I would enjoy seeing the photos of your grandfathers store and the area around it. I used to live nearby.

  4. Tamingoftheshrew

    My great great great grandfather Henry Besse was postmaster at Butler P.O. from October 1869 to March 1878. I have several relatives buried at Oak Hill. Prior to this he also ran the Five Mile House for a period of time. I really enjoyed this page!

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