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Friday, 10 March 2017 09:58

Irish immigrants put heart into their new homeland

Written by  Margaret Plevak
Workers pause for a photograph outside a Janesville factory, probably in the 1890s. Many Irish immigrants arrived in Walworth and Rock counties in the mid-1800s when the Great Famine devastated Ireland. Workers pause for a photograph outside a Janesville factory, probably in the 1890s. Many Irish immigrants arrived in Walworth and Rock counties in the mid-1800s when the Great Famine devastated Ireland. Photo courtesy Rock County Historical Society

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- More than 3,500 miles separate Ireland and Wisconsin, but Irish history is a lot closer than you might think.

As part of America’s great melting pot, 19th-century Irish immigrants flocked to our state, including Walworth and Rock counties, where they helped settle the land as farmers and workers, added their names and skills to local communities and built schools, churches and businesses -- some of which are still thriving today.



“People back in Ireland knew about Wisconsin, the land of milk and honey, as early as the 1830s,” said Chris Brookes, co-president of the Walworth County Genealogical Society, in an email. “Pioneer priests were serving in the territory in 1838. Articles in the Boston Pilot Catholic newspaper advertised similar climate, cheap available farmland, employment opportunities and religion as attractions in this territory. Transportation was available through the Erie Canal into the Great Lakes.

“There were a couple of waves of Irish immigration to this area. The early immigrants in the late 1830s were primarily farmers. Others came in the 1850s to lay the railroad beds for the Wisconsin Central Railroad. When the company went bankrupt during the financial panic of 1857, the workers were discharged and left stranded in Geneva so they bought land and settled here. They farmed, raised cattle and found winter employment in the ice industry. The lakeshore estates being built after the 1871 Chicago Fire also offered domestic jobs.”   

Many immigrants settled, Brookes said, in a community between Como and Geneva that became known as Irish Woods. The heavily wooded area covered about four square miles along Wisconsin Highway 50, from the high point of Dummer’s Hill to Hughes Corners, where The Ridge Hotel now stands.

In her book, “Well, What Do You Know, Joe: The Legacy of the Irish Around Lake Geneva,” Marra Andreas noted roads with names like Kelly and McDonald still bear the names of Irish families who farmed there.

A spike in Irish immigration occurred between 1845 and 1852, when a blight on potatoes -- a staple for many in Ireland -- resulted in the Great Famine. An estimated 1 million Irish died of starvation and another million fled the country.

The famine and massive influx of Irish immigrants happened at the same time cities like Janesville began growing, creating the perfect confluence, said Dave Haldiman, filmmaker and author of “High Our Hopes and Stout Our Hearts: The Irish in Janesville.”   

“Janesville was a major railroad hub, with three interstate railroad companies crossing at that point. The railroads here were basically built by Irish immigrants,” Haldiman said. “In the 1840s, railroads worked their way westward and Wisconsin was literally the end of the line. For Irish workers, the landscape here reminded them of Ireland and many stayed and became farmers.

“A lot of Irish women had good reputations for domestic work and were in high demand as the middle class was growing in Janesville during the 1850s and 1860s. Many others were in professions like seamstresses and milliners, or worked at textile factories along the Rock River.”

Despite discrimination -- particularly out East, where signs like “Irish need not apply” were common outside of businesses -- Irish immigrants were determined to make a living in their new home, often taking manual labor jobs looked down upon by a growing middle class of Americans.

But they also were enterprising people who embraced America, starting small businesses from shops to pubs that drew everyone from working men to politicians to debate issues over a pint, Haldiman said.

“The Irish wanted to be Americans. They really took advantage of opportunities to enrich themselves, to advance socially and economically,” he said.

That included education, which Irish families felt strongly about. Shortly after the first Irish families arrived in Walworth County, Woods School was established. In 1857, the site was part of the Lake Geneva School District, but Irish settlers petitioned to control their own school and were granted a separate school district, Brookes said.

In 1858, Lige Marble, a Mormon, donated land on the condition it be used for school purposes in perpetuity. In 1886, the small frame schoolhouse was sold to a local farmer who moved it to his property for use as a cow barn, in trade for a quarter acre of farmland, where a new brick Woods School was built. While the school itself has expanded over the years, one wing still houses the old brick building where kindergartners now play on the original wood floors.

At one time early in the 20th century, Woods School was active year-round.

“Since the school sat empty for three months every summer, a lakeshore lady named Agnes Allerton (Mrs. Samuel) decided to offer classes in sewing, cooking and housekeeping so the Irish children might learn skills needed for future employment,” Brookes said. “She employed a teacher of domestic sciences but occasionally she taught the classes herself. Most of the domestic help on the north shore of Geneva Lake were Irish or Scandinavian.”

Religion, too, was vital to Irish settlers.

In Walworth County, Irish immigrants built St. Francis de Sales Church in Lake Geneva.

 The first Catholic congregation in the area was organized by a German pioneer priest, the Rev. Martin Kundig, in the 1840s, but the present church site was selected and a rectory built by 1844 for use by the Rev. Thomas Morrissey, Brookes said.

“Mass was held on the second floor of the rectory until 1852, when the first church -- then St. Martin’s -- was built. Construction of the current church began in 1889 and was completed in 1892 at a cost of about $18,000. Charles Brady, who followed in the construction trades of his Irish father, William Brady, built the structure of the church that dates to 1892,” she said. “Most of the materials and labor were donated by parishioners. This first frame church continued to be used as a parish hall and for storage until 1927 when it was destroyed during a wind storm.”

The pipe organ used for St. Francis de Sales’ dedication Mass on Aug. 7, 1892, was donated by Patrick J. Healy, who had a summer home on Geneva Lake near Williams Bay, Brookes said.

Healy, one of the Chicago Irish who arrived in the area after the great fire, was born in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1840, the youngest of 13 children. He ended up founding Lyon & Healy, a music house in Chicago, in 1864, Brookes said.   

 If the Sunday trip from the Irish settlements in the town of Geneva to St. Francis de Sales Church seems long, especially in the days before cars, thank the women of the community, Brookes said.

“The story goes that the Irish built their church on the opposite side of town so the ladies could dress up, parade through town in their buggies to show their faith and then not get home too soon after the services, so they could take the rest of the day off,” she said.

“The Irish tend to be a very devout people and I think that was important,” Haldiman said. “The Irish community was kept strong by their devotion to the church, which I think added to Janesville’s culture. The rich Irish culture -- their art, their music and literature -- really added a whole new flavor to Janesville.”

Haldiman said it might have been easier 100 years ago to point to specific contributions the Irish made to Rock County, but the descendants of Irish immigrants -- with names like Cullen, Fitzpatrick and Ryan -- are fixtures in politics, business and public service extending well beyond Janesville.

That’s as true in Walworth County.

Andreas includes among area Irish settlers Francis Higgins, a Lake Geneva newspaper editor; Springfield hotel operator John Prendergast; and Frank Walsh, who worked for Lake Geneva’s Maple Ridge Creamery and the Zenda Milk Company.

“Beginning with Thomas McKaig from the County Tyrone, who platted the village of Geneva in 1836, the Irish represent over 180 years of our local history,” Brookes said.

Brookes recalled her late aunt, Charlotte Peterson, a lifelong resident of the area who served on the Walworth County Board and the Lake Geneva Joint 1 School Board, and wrote a history of Geneva that is published on the town’s website.

“She said, ‘You can’t talk about the Irish without talking about the bars,’” Brookes said. “She wrote, ‘On today’s Highway 50 there were two bars, Pat Granahan’s on the south side and Pat Barr’s on the north side and never the twin did meet, as customers only went to one or the other and never to both of them.

“‘Pat Barr’s tavern was an early landmark. It featured Miller High Life beer and nickel and dime slot machines. The building was torn down when Highway 50 was widened and their location is now under the westbound lanes of 50.’”

During the 1930s, the Granahan family purchased land diagonally from Barr’s and built a small restaurant that served hamburgers, soft drinks and ice cream -- adding liquor after Prohibition was repealed, Brookes said.

Today that place is called Foley’s, and the restaurant in the back of the bar is called The Irish Woods. What a perfect spot to toast the local Irish this Friday.

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