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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide

Beyond Milwaukee: Belmont was Wisconsin's first capital


It's hard to imagine today, but two small structures just west of tiny Belmont served as the first capital of Wisconsin.

The restored buildings served as the Council House and the Supreme Court Building in 1836, but have been used for several purposes.

Southwest Wisconsin actually was a central point in the original Wisconsin Territory. Fur trading along the Mississippi River and mining in the hills of Wisconsin, northwest Illinois and northeast Iowa actually drew more population in those early years than the eastern portion of the state.

Plus, the original Wisconsin Territory included parts of what now are Iowa and the Dakotas, so Belmont seemed to be as good a place as any for a capital. John Atchinson, an early developer, created the town for the purpose of establishing it as the first capital.

Competition actually was fierce for the designation. Cassville, Platteville, Mineral Point, Fond du Lac and the then fledgling Milwaukee were other possible sites. James Doty, a lobbyist and promoter, tried to work a deal to buy some land on an isthmus between the lakes near what now is Madison.

But, President Andrew Jackson designated Belmont as the capital in 1836. Shortly after Jackson's action, 13 Council members and 26 members of the House of Representatives convened for a 46-day session at Belmont.

They came from all over the territory, so actually stayed at the Supreme Court building, which doubled as a rooming house.

One member wrote, "We are still very much crowded; there are about 120 persons boarding at the same house." Another observed, "The accommodations at Belmont were most miserable, there being but a single boarding house. ... Our beds were all full, and the floor well spread with blankets and overcoats for lodging purposes."

Despite the inconveniences, the lawmakers accomplished quite a bit. They drafted 42 laws, including some that established the basic legal foundation for the territory and later the state.

Col. Henry Dodge was sworn in as the first governor of the territory. His swearing in actually was at nearby Mineral Point, but he governed for a while in Belmont.

The Supreme Court also established many procedures that have lasted over the years, even though it had to meet between cots of the lawmakers.

Lawmakers never really warmed up to Belmont, however. In 1837, they met in Burlington, Iowa, which was part of the territory at the time. In 1838, the center of government moved permanently to Madison. Doty's lobbying and real estate work had paid off.

State lawmakers returned to the Belmont Council house in 1998, to meet in commemoration of the state's sesquicentennial. They did not stay overnight in the Supreme Court building.

The two buildings have been moved since their days as the centers for government, and have gone through multiple uses. Supreme Court Justice Charles Dunn bought the court building as his home at one time. Others used both buildings as residences over the years.

They also were used to house livestock. That has prompted a local joke about whether you-know-what was deeper when the Legislature or cows met in the buildings.

In 1910, the Wisconsin Federation of Women's Clubs bought a tract of land for a small monument noting the first capital. The First Capital State Park was dedicated in 1924.

Today, the buildings are kept in good shape. Local people, with some help from the state, have done a fine restoration job.

The wood stove in the Council house is believed to be the original. You can almost see the lawmakers gathering around it as they debated.

Free tours are conducted from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Belmont is located in La Fayette County. The site of the two government buildings can be accessed off Hwy. 151, on Hwy. B, five miles west of Belmont.

Gregg Hoffmann writes the Beyond Milwaukee column -- about historic sites, out-of-the-way places, interesting characters and travel destinations -- twice per month, exclusively for OnMilwaukee.com.

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