Washington County, Wisconsin - Interesting History

This page is a place for interesting stories or news articles about Washington County history.

Choosing the county seat and splitting Washington and Ozaukee counties
Paraphased from a chapter in The Spirit of West Bend, published in 1980, written by Dorothy E. Williams

    It started in 1846, when the first vote was held to choose the county seat.  No city received a majority of the votes.  Two more elections were held two years later in 1848, neither of which resulted in a majority.  Two months later, a vote was held with just two cities in the running, West Bend and Cedarburg, but this time 986 people voted "neither".

   With the southern part of the county predominantly German Lutheran and the northern part predominantly Roman Catholic, a new idea formed to split the county into a north half and a south half.  But some citizens of Port Washington roused up the Lutherans in the northern half by telling them that it was plot to give the Roman Catholics a majority in the northern half, while at the same time telling the Catholics in the south half by that the Irish would all have to learn German if the Lutherans were in control in the south.  Wisdom finally prevailed and the county would be split into east and west halves.  A vote was held in April, 1851 and the result was six to one AGAINST the proposal, so no split would be made.

    In February, 1852 the state legislature chose Grafton as the temporary county seat.  Then in April, another ballot was held for West Bend as the official county seat, and two thirds voted against it.  Charges of gross cheating were leveled, for instance, Belgium had 300 legal voters yet turned in 763 ballots.  State legislators could not get state business accomplished.  This time West Bend and Port Washington conspired to divide the county into east/west and let each of the old rivals be the county seat of their half.  Weary legislators quickly passed the bill before protestors could organize.  Only one problem remained, the Ozaukee county side did not meet the legal acreage requirement, so they declared that the eastern edge of Ozaukee county is in the middle of Lake Michigan.  Success at last in 1853 after six years!

Followed by the battle over the original courthouse records
Paraphased from a chapter in The Spirit of West Bend, published in 1980, written by Dorothy E. Williams

    The county split issue was still not quite settled.  At the time of the split, all but one of the county officers lived in Port Washington... they had no plans to move to West Bend.  West Bend obtained a court order to have the records moved to West Bend, but the only judge was located way up in Marquette.

    Two determined citizens, Paul Weil and Leander Frisby set out to find the judge.  It took a week, but they finally got the official paper.  However, Port Washington refused to surrender the documents.  So in the middle of the night, four men from West Bend went to Port Washington to "steal" the records.  As they were loading records into gunny sacks from the Register of Deeds office, a Port Washington official saw a suspicious light in the room and rang the riot bell.  They roused the West Bend men out of town without the records and worse, by next morning all trace of the records had disappeared.

    In June, a Port Washington editor, R. A. Birg, wrote to Leander Frisby, telling him where the records might be found, and about one o'clock another very dark night, men came again and successfully retrieved them.  One glitch, Volume "M" was missing... finally one day in 1878, the missing book was discovered intact in a wall where it had been hastily thrust the night of the first attempt.  Note by John Von Haden: It is not mentioned in the book, but the earliest marriage records (1845 to 1852) for both counties are still located at the Register of Deeds in Port Washington (birth and death do not go back that far).  The big fuss must have been over the land and probate records.

The DeBar Tragedy...  the lynching in the 1850's
Paraphased from a chapter in The Spirit of West Bend, published in 1980, written by Dorothy E. Williams

    There was already some bad feeling between the Germans and the Yankees.  A German farmer named John Muehr had a Yankee hired hand named George DeBar.  The two clashed over politics and were known to have argued.  One night, DeBar went to the farm to collect some back wages.  His former boss invited him in and apparently started for the cellar to get something to drink when DeBar drew a knife, attacked the farmer and his wife, who had tried to help her husband.  DeBar then slit the throat of their new hired hand and set fire to the farm to destroy the evidence.  Muehr and his wife survived, but the hired hand died.

    DeBar was caught in Milwaukee and placed in jail in West Bend.  Germans by the hundreds congregated in West Bend for the Yankee trial.  The judge feared bloodshed and called for the militia, who were primarily German and were soon socializing with the local Germans in hotels and saloons.

    DeBar pleaded not guilty, and while being transferred back to jail, a mob broke through the militia line and grabbed DeBar.  They stoned him, stepped on him, dragged him about a half mile to the river and hung him upside down from a tree.  They cut him down and began to torture him all over again, clubbing him and dragging him by a rope and hung him a second time.

    Nineteen men were then brought on trial, but the charge read that they "strangled him by the neck until dead"... the big question was whether he was still alive when they strung him up the second time.  The predominantly German jury decided that he was already dead before the final hanging and they found the men "not guilty". Were your ancestors among the nineteen on trial?  They were Mathias Weiss, Joseph Immel, William Frick, Jacob Muehr, Frederick Knouth, George Weldt, Hubert Reck, Mathias Wilger, Ferdinand Born, Joseph Heckel, Peter Immel, George Mayer, John Burckhardt, John Muehr, Henry Herrin, Henry Bingenheimer, William Zimmerman, John Thoade and Anthony Rosskopf.