By Clay Riness —
In 1851, New Englander Thomas Leonard moved his family to what is now West Salem, Wisconsin, and built a log cabin.
It was the beginning of a settlement. Meanwhile, just 1 mile northeast, Monroe Palmer envisioned a new settlement in Hamilton Township and was responsible for building a working mill. A small community, Neshonoc, grew around it as settlers began putting down roots. As both grew, the two villages are said to have been rivals, but the railroad changed that. When word came that the railroad needed a right of way, Palmer and the residents of Neshonoc asked for $40,000, which the railroad laughed at. Leonard, on the other hand, offered a right of way for free, along with 10 extra acres of land if they would build their station in his settlement. They jumped on the offer, and as a result, West Salem thrived and Neshonoc died. In fact, many of its homes and buildings were moved to West Salem, including the Palmer Brothers Octagon homes, which are now on the National Register of Historic Places.
According to West Salem’s official website, the first suggested name for Leonard’s village was Rupert, but the new name Salem was selected. (It meant “peace,” and some felt it was a good omen.) Later, after another Salem was discovered in Kenosha County, causing confusion with the early post office, West was added to the village’s name.
Like nearly every village, town and city, West Salem suffered its casualties from the Civil War. However, after the war, Nathan Smith, a black man who had escaped the South into Union lines, settled on the west side of a big hill between West Salem and La Crosse. He was a very religious man, and a very large man, who was given the job of bodyguard to Major General C. C. Washburn of La Crosse during the war. Washburn brought Smith and his wife, Sally, to the area and even helped them buy land at the foot of what is still called “Nathan Hill.” The Major General also went on to become governor of Wisconsin.
Smith, on the other hand, settled into his land where he and Sally adopted many children and had one of their own. He was well-known and liked locally. And, apparently, he had a temper. After his friend Frank Burton was murdered in La Crosse, Smith led a group of vigilantes that stormed the jail, dragged the killer out and hung him. It’s even speculated that four-time mayor of La Crosse, Frank “White Beaver” Powell, was part of that frontier-justice lynching.
Another notable part of West Salem’s history is Hamlin Garland, who was born near West Salem in 1860. He was raised on a number of farms but moved to Boston in 1884 to become a writer. An avid reader, he took full advantage of the Boston Public Library. His collection of farm-inspired short stories entitled “Main-Travelled Roads” was his first major success, and he went on to become a prolific and celebrated writer and poet. Garland returned to West Salem in 1893 and purchased the property that is now the Garland Homestead, also on the National Registry of Historic Places.
In 1917 he published an autobiography entitled “A Son of the Middle Border,” which was met with great success and prompted a sequel, “A Daughter of the Middle Border,” for which he received the 1922 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography. He was also a member of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Hamlin Garland died in Hollywood, California, at the age of 79 in 1940. His ashes were buried in Neshonoc Cemetery in West Salem. West Salem’s website states: “An annual event, Garland Days, held each September, celebrates the life of this community’s favorite son.”
Places to Visit:
Palmer-Gullickson Octagon Home/Museum
360 Leonard St. N, West Salem
Phone: (608) 786-1675
Palmer-Lewis Octagon Home/Tourist Center
W3362 State Road 16, West Salem
Phone: (608) 786-2411
Hamlin Garland Homestead/Museum
357 Garland St. W, West Salem
Phone: (608) 786-1675