The Cottons called it “Roche A Cree”,
but “Cottonville” was the Name that Stuck.
The Promising 1850s Cottonville Community Lost its Promise but Kept the Name
Emulous P.Cotton’s opportunity to take part in the economic growth of early Wisconsin came in 1855 when the first land patents for Adams County were issued and the Township of Preston was formed. Cotton had been involved in the formation of the new state when seven years earlier, as a 36 year-old miller living in Oconomowoc in Waukesha County, he was elected to the Wisconsin Constitutional Convention of 1847.
In 1856 E.P. Cotton came to Adams County with his wife Anna and son Edgar. Emulus’s brother Julius also came to Preston and the family settled on the south side of Big Roche-a-Cri Creek where the natural terrain lent itself to damming for a mill. The brothers set out in business immediately and soon were operating a mill on Big Roche-a-Cri Creek. Emulus’s son Edgar and Edgar’s brother-in-law Guy Goodrich started operating a mercantile store nearby.
Already in November of 1856 Julius Cotton had surveyor Adin Mann draw up a plan for the Village of “Roche A Cree” just south of the mill site. The village was laid out in eleven blocks east and west of a north-south Main Street, which is now 13th Lane. E.P. Cotton’s house was built in lots 1 and 2 of the original plat in the vicinity of what later became the Lawrence and Wilma Billings home on 13th Lane. The east-west Washington Street of the Roche A Cree plat is now Cottonville Avenue.
E.P. Cotton’s wife Anna died in 1857 and he married a second time two years later. Six children were born to Emulous and his second wife, Caroline. Edgar, the son by the first wife moved out west for his health in 1859
In the few years before the start of the Civil War the prospects for Roche- A-Cri/Cottonville looked very promising. The lots sold well. The Cottonville School was built and the school began earning a reputation for quality education. A Mr. Freeman Bridge opened a tavern on Washington Street, west of Main Street. E.P. Cotton’s son Edgar opened the Mercantile Store on the corner of Center and Main Streets. The father eventually took on the mercantile business and also ran the Post Office at that location. Main Street through the village and across the dam provided a route to Grand (now Wisconsin) Rapids and the pineries up north. Cottonville then became a stopping place for travelers.
The promising five-year start of the community was all but stopped dead by the start of the Civil War. Plans to expand the mill and add a gristmill to the operation had to be scrapped for lack of ability to purchase and deliver the needed equipment and loss of the manpower to operate the equipment if it could be obtained. Men were away fighting the war and women and children were left to try to manage the farms as best they could. The population of Adams County dropped from nearly 7,000 before the war to less than 6,000 by 1865. The county would not return to its pre-war peak population until the mid-1880s.
The village of Roche-A-Cri/Cottonville held on through the war however and seemed for a time after to hold on to its promise as well. A railroad survey crew came to the area and stayed in a room in the Cotton house. The crew surveyed and graded for a rail-line that was to run north and south to the west of the Cotton homestead. The plans were filed; the grading stopped and then nothing further happened. Stages still stopped in the community but soon began to travel more often over the road to the east that was to become State Highway 13.
A bright spot in the post-war rejuvenation of Roche-A-Cri/Cottonville was the founding of a “select school” by a Mr. R.K. Fay. Mr. Fay was the County Superintendent of Schools and also ran this school for advanced pupils at Cottonville. It was the only school for education beyond common school grades between Plainville in southern Adams County and Stevens Point. Mr. Fay had an excellent reputation as an educator and the school prospered. Students came to study there from many locations and boarded in the community; many staying at Mr. Fay’s house two miles south of the village. Unfortunately, Mr. Fay moved to northwestern Wisconsin a few short years after founding the school and the select school idea went with him.
Sometime after the war the mill was destroyed in a flood and it was decided that the business was not worth rebuilding. E.P. Cotton continued as postmaster of “Roche A Cris” (as it is spelled on the 1880 plat map). His wife Caroline passed away in 1884 and Emulus P. Cotton himself died in 1888.
Cottonville by 1900 had become one of the areas around the county like Pilot Knob, Coloma Corners, Adams Center, Barnum, Fordham and Davis Corners that describe areas, but no longer contain much evidence that they once were viable communities. In Cottonville’s case, George Polivka of Friendship built a power dam below the old mill site in the 1920s and the resulting “Cottonville Lake” became a place to fish, boat, water ski, build summer cottages and year round residences. Although there are now few buildings within the boundaries of the platted “Roche A Cree” village, the Cottonville Lake area’s population is likely greater now than what E.P. Cotton ever dreamed of.
Note: The above article is adapted from articles about early Cottonville that were written by E.P. Cotton’s grandson, Hubert Cotton for the Adams County Times in 1930. The articles are compiled into a booklet put together for the “Come Home to Cottonville” celebration held on Saturday, August 5, 2006.
This article previously appeared in the Adams County Historical Society’s newsletter The Quatrefoil Summer