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The town and village of Tomah was named in honor of Chief Thomas Carron, or Tomah as the French pronounced his name, of the Menominee Indians. The first man to acquire title to any portion of the future city was Jesse Boorman, who came on foot from Walworth County in 1855. The first permanent settler in the village was Robert E. Gillett, who came from Cleveland, Ohio in 1855. He made a claim, taking in all of the original plat of the village and four forties adjoining in Sec 9. In May 1855, he built a log cabin, containing four rooms, the first building of any kind in Tomah.
The old Railroad Station in Tomah
The state government offered great inducements to parties in search of land with thirty years being allowed to pay with only seven percent interest. In 1856 Gillette built a steam sawmill in the northern part of the village. It was the only steam mill in the Monroe County. On June 1st, 1857 Mr. Gillett had the village platted and surveyed. Charles W. Kellogg, an elder in the Methodist Church built the first frame house in the village, on the "Knoll" in the western part of the village. On the first Sunday in July 1857 Elder Kellogg delivered the first sermon in the village in a new barn built by Gillett, who said he wished to have it dedicated.
Claims were made daily, and in an amusing way. A man, having assured himself that he wanted a certain piece of land, would have a friend go with him, help him cut a few sticks, and build a pen. The men would sleep there for a night or two. Then they would go to the land office to make the entry. The witness (friend) would be asked: "Are you postive that this man has made improvements on the land that he desires to purchase?" The witness replied, "Yes." "How do you know it?" The witness replied, "I helped him build his house." "Did you sleep in said house while working for him?" The witness once again replied, "Yes, sir." That was sufficient and the party generally got the land.
The "Old Schoolhouse" in Gillett Park, Tomah
In 1856 the first school was held in a barn. In 1857 a log house was built across from Gilletts house to house the school. Also in 1857 the first grocery and drugstores were established, as well as a blacksmith shop.
In 1858 the first town officers were elected in the house of John Sexton, who charged the town $3.00 for its use. On the heels of this came the first manufacturing institutions, and schools and churches sprang up, as well as the arrival of the Milwaukee and St. Paul railroads. In 1859 the first Post Office was established.
In 1871 Tomah was the focal point of five railroads, certain of its future. But prosperity was not to be taken for granted. Tomah, it seemed, had grown too fast and had been too certain, and a struggle for control of the Omaha Railroad resulted in a compromise that ended the dream of a railroad center in Tomah. However in 1880 the Goodyear Company moved its main office to Tomah and constructed a planing mill, which began a whole new era.
By 1881 Tomah had a population of 2,106 and 1,245 were residents of the village. There were numerous general stores, a bank, two newspapers, two hotels, five physicians and four lawyers. The principal railroad shipments of the day were farm products, lumber and cranberries.
Tomah held its first election as a city in 1883 when Thomas McCaul became mayor.
The decline of the railroads had shown the people a vital truth. The future would not take care of itself. It was up to the people to act. And act they did. Although the county seat struggle was lost to Sparta in 1885, Tomah succeeded in attracting what soon became the city's leading industry, the Milwaukee Road Bridge Yards. Then came a major creamery, banks, a telephone company and the Tomah Cash Mercantile Company. Tomah's famous National Guard unit, Company K, was organized.
Tomah's Public Library
During the period before and after the Spanish-American War, there were advances in the cultural development and a wave of 'new inventions' including the motion picture. In 1902 the first automobile rolled through and by 1919 the city had one for hire. The early rutted trail roads of that era would be in startling contrast with Tomah's transportation system today with three Interstate 90-94 Intersections situated within a few mile of the city limits, a great benefit to industry, hunters and tourists.
Significant to this era was the location of the Milwaukee Road Railroads Shops that were destined to take over in industry after the Goodyear Company move to Mississippi. The loss of Goodyear was a major setback and accounted for the first population decline in the city's history. With the decline of lumbering, life changed again in the valley and the community developed into one of the best dairying areas in the state. Setbacks, including wars, the Great Depression, storms, floods and business disasters only drew people together to meet the challenges. The Tomah Veterans Hospital was established during the last years of World War II and was a focal point of charitable activities during the post war depression days as well as a major employer today.
A view from Amish country south of Tomah to the valley that holds Tomah
Tomah has several industries today, recreation parks, Lake Tomah, hospital, Fair Grounds, radio station and many, many other major improvements. Life keeps changing in Tomah.
Robert Gillett had a dream for a city of rare spirit that would endure. Visions of a railroad center faded, but the city became even greater than the dreams. There is still that peculiar kind of charm in the Valley of the Lemonweir that is now Tomah.
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