by Bill Kinney, 6th generation Fitchburg resident
Lorin Miller, a government surveyor in 1833, described the wilderness that would become the City of Fitchburg as follows: “This is a good township of land, mostly gently rolling with a good soil; is not well watered; otherwise holds out many inducements to the farmer. It has some springs and streams on the east side. On this township we saw many deer and prairie wolves.”(1). He also found that the place was mostly wooded, in some areas thick and in some areas thin, with a few large prairies.
Before this township became known as Fitchburg, it was known by two previous names: Rome and Greenfield. In 1846, a three township area was created called Town of Rome, which included present-day Fitchburg, Dunn and Oregon. The Village of Oregon, near the center of the three townships, was known in the pioneer days as Rome Corners. In 1847, one of the three townships was broken away from Rome and was called Greenfield. The name “Greenfield” was changed in 1853 to Fitchburg, because of postal confusion with Greenfield in Milwaukee County. Ebenezer Brigham of Blue Mounds (Dane County’s first permanent settler) is believed to have suggested the name “Fitchburg” after Fitchburg, Massachusetts – a town in the same county as Mr. Brigham’s former home in Shrewsburg.
The first permanent settlers in Fitchburg were the Vromans, who arrived in 1839 and started a farm on what is now Seminole Highway. John Stoner had the first farm in Fitchburg in 1837, but worked it during the week and returned home to Madison to his family on weekends, and was, therefore, not considered a permanent resident. Sometimes Indians would camp near creeks and ponds during the warm seasons, and continued to do so through the 1840s.
Fitchburg had four early significant roads: the mail road from Madison to Janesville now called Fish Hatchery Road; the lead trade road from Mineral Point to Milwaukee that does not correspond to any current roads; a stagecoach road from Madison to Monroe that was named the New Mexico Road and now is Seminole Highway; and the New Janesville Road which is now County MM. Fitchburg also had a few Indian trails. Later in the 1800s, railroads were constructed, which proved to be more efficient and dependable for passenger transportation, and for farmers to move their goods.
Fitchburg was a farming community, and wheat farming was popular in the pioneer days until the chinch bug came in the 1860s and destroyed the wheat. Farmers turned first to stock farming with cattle and sheep. By the 1880s, farmers were changing to dairying with crops such as corn and eventually alfalfa.
Plans for education of children began as early as 1847, and in the years thereafter official country schools were built. Post offices sprang up in the township. European-American settlers interacted with the Indians in the early pioneer days. European immigration in the late 1840s and 1850s due to the potato famine in Ireland accounted for about one-third of Fitchburg’s population growth, and the formation of three large Irish immigrant settlements: Fox Settlement, Irish Lane Settlement, and Stoner Prairie Settlement. The other two-thirds of the population was mostly Americans from New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. Also, a few German families followed after the large Irish influx. Churches, taverns, stores and businesses soon appeared at small hamlets in the countryside. Fitchburg Village was formed at a railroad stop in southwestern Fitchburg in the late 1800s.
Fitchburg has changed over the 20th century to a mixture of agriculture in the south and suburban communities, retail stores and industrial parks in the north. The one room school houses that were key centers of community activity in rural Fitchburg gave way to consolidated school districts that saw Fitchburg’s children bused to Madison, Oregon and Verona schools. The Town of Fitchburg became the City of Fitchburg to preserve its autonomy against Madison expansion. With its new status as a suburban community a system of parks, bicycle and pedestrian trails now crisscross the city to accommodate the suburban lifestyle.
So much more could be written here about the “beginnings” of this present day thriving “City of Fitchburg” with its population of 25,260 residents, but two popular well-written books by residents of the community are available at the Fitchburg Historical Society and at the Fitchburg City Hall, that cover life in early Fitchburg very well. Fitchburg – A History by Connie Darling and Jean O’Brien will guide you from the prairie schooner days right up to the Bicentennial year of 1976, and Irish Settlers of Fitchburg, Wisconsin 1840 – 1860 by Thomas P. Kinney will take you from the Irish arrival in Fitchburg and the formation of the three major Irish settlement areas, to life in modern times.
- Lorin Miller, History of Dane County (Chicago: Western Historical Society, 1880) p. 373.