Before Dairy was King, Wheat ruled the land of Wisconsin. And before wheat, there was a rush of people in search of some lead. If you are aware of the University of Wisconsin – Madison, you know that it is home to the Badgers. However, our nickname of being “The Badger State” does not start at the University of Wisconsin -Madison. We are going to start in the small town of Blue Mounds, Wisconsin.
In 1828, Ebenezer Brigham made his way to Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. His journey from his home in Massachusetts took home about 10 years. He was on his way to make his fortune at the start of the lead rush.
Ebenezer’s fortune was $4,000, the proceeds of the sale of a mercantile business which he had formerly conducted at Galena, IL. His first prospecting met with no reward until after several months of hard work, his funds were all exhausted. Without accomplishing anything, he would have been forced to give up. Luckily for Ebenezer, a friend come to his rescue and supplied him with funds to continue his work.
Ebenezer bought a couple of plots of land and built a log cabin on the eastern Blue Mound. This made him the first permanent European settler in Dane County. Although there was no Dane County or even a Wisconsin, it was the Michigan Territory at that time.
In 1849, he was described as “a man of rare modesty, unsullied reputation, possessing a strong and retentive memory, and who is really a living history of the ‘life and times’ of the very first settlers.”
He built a building near his mines, which became the first public house in the town known as “Brigham’s Place”. It was never short of laborers or customers. “Brigham’s Place” became popular with travelers on the Old Military Road. His home was used as a trading post, stagecoach stop, and post office. Before Brigham, the only food supply was from Galena, Illinois.
One of the mines on his land went to the depth of over 75 feet. Upward of 4,000,000 pounds of lead was taken from this mine with just a windlass, rope, and tub. “The ore from the mines, I believe is the richest in the world, being more than 90 percent pure lead.” wrote Dr. R.W. Jones, a West Blue Mounds practitioner.
He hauled the lead to Green Bay, Chicago, and Galena to be sold. “The discovery of lead in the upper Mississippi valley, in the region of which Galena is now the heart, created an excitement among the settlers of the Mississippi valley and produced a rush for the new mining district quite parallel to the California excitement of 1849,” wrote J.R. Brigham, Ebenezer’s nephew, in 1877.
You may be asking what any of this has to do with the state of Wisconsin and its nickname. Well, the lead mining history is the reason behind Wisconsin’s first nickname, “The Badger State”. The lead miners in southwest Wisconsin during the 1820s and 1830s didn’t make time to construct homes. Instead, they burrowed holes into hillsides and nicknamed each other “badgers”. Today, there are badgers on the Wisconsin State Flag, in the Wisconsin State Capitol, and on the Wisconsin State Seal. Wisconsin has embraced the Badger nickname with pride. And here at Cave of the Mounds, we still talk about Ebenezer Brigham who owned this land for decades before the cave was discovered and by none other than his grand-nephew.