Two Signs

The Signs

Within the Mukwonago Historical Society’s collection are two very old wood and iron signs that by their construction and style would seem to date to the mid-nineteenth century. It is believed that these signs were used to direct weary travelers to establishments in the
Mukwonago area to rejuvenate and spend the night. This was a time when stagecoaches ferried people from Milwaukee to points west on plank roads, to Prairieville (now Waukesha), Janesville, East Troy, Mequanigo (Mukwonago), South Port (Kenosha), Whitewater and other destinations. Stagecoaches were the primary source of transportation, save for horseback and by foot for the heartiest souls, until the advent of the railroads starting in the 1850's. One sign directs travelers to the “J.M. Stockman Inn” and the other to “J.Smith’s Inn.”

These signs were donated to the Museum in the early 1970’s by John Goetsch Sr. a longtime constable for the village. In hopes of learning more about their history, the author contacted his son, John Goetsch of the village of Mukwonago. Mr. Goetsch is in his 90’s and was able to share some local and family history, but unfortunately, he could shed no light on how his father had obtained the signs.

What we do know by examination is that they are likely made by the same sign painter because the old paints are identical, black hand-drawn serif lettering on a grey (or possibly once white) background. The larger oval Stockman sign (approx.. 20” X 26”) has a hand forged iron strap fastened vertically on one side to brace the sign. The brace ends in a spike to perch the sign on a pole or in the ground. This sign has the remnants of a wood rim circumventing it to form a rim. The sign is painted on both sides and upon close examination, the painter has added decorative embellishments. The top arch of the sign is adorned with seven stars that are unusual in that they each have seven points. Below the lettering, the sign maker has drawn simple trees on left and right, each sitting on what appears to be the
river bank. The significance of the date “1840” owes to the arrival of the innkeeper to the area.

The smaller round J. Smith sign (approx. 24" in diameter), is less elaborate but exhibits the same construction except for the rim which is a hand forged iron and the maker has added a hammered iron arrow on one side to point the way to the inn. Similarly, the “1843” date will
become significant when reviewing the history of the Smith Inn later in this article. It is also double-sided.

Both signs are weathered and certainly saw use, possibly for a decade or two. A mystery is how the two signs from two distant establishments came together. While they appear to originate from a common maker, they were presumably separated in use, only to be reunited at some point. Were they posted close to each other at a road crossing offering the traveler alternative places of rest? When the inns no longer needed them, did the sentimental sign painter or his descendant retrieve and store them? We may never know.

The People

John M. Stockman came to Mukwonago in 1837 from Vermont by way of New York. He is chronicled in the 1880 “History of Waukesha County”:


Note that John and his family left Mukwonago for California during the 1850’s and ran an inn there. However, it is probable that his family put up travelers in their home in Mukwonago prior to leaving Wisconsin, after their return, or both. The “1840” date on the sign likely
references the construction date of the permanent residence where the innkeeping was conducted. The location of the J.M. Stockman farm is shown on this early plat map. His land occupied what is now the eastern side of Phantom Lake and the general area of today’s “Elegant Farmer.” The author’s home occupies what was once John Stockman land. More research is needed to locate where the Stockman Inn was but it may be one of the structures shown on the southern center of the map.

Courtesy of the Mukwonago Historical Society
Courtesy of the Mukwonago Historical Society

What is also interesting is that John Stockman was the brother of Charles B. Stockman who was proprietor of the better known Stockman Inn which still stands on the northeast corner of Mainstreet (Highway ES) and the Mukwonago River. It was once known in later years as the Lincoln Tap but is now a private residence. Charles is listed in the same Waukesha County History:

CHARLES B. STOCKMAN, farmer; P. O. Mukwonago; born April 18, 1804, in Vergennes,
Vt.; losing his father at 10, he lived with an uncle in Madrid, N. Y., for six years,
"worked out" four years, then began as an employee on a St. Lawrence boat, was
master of the sloop Swan for ten years, and in 1835 went to Ohio, reached Chicago in
the spring of 1836, sailed on the Van Buren until July, landing and spending the
"Fourth" in the bustling village of Milwaukee, a company of U. S. cavalry added to the
really brilliant festivities of the occasion; Mr. S. and a Mr. Rayness owned a grocery and
also a ferry, during the summer, at Milwaukee; his present farm was claimed by him in
August, and he settled here and built a log house that fall. In 1840, he married Miss
Lucinda Jones, a native of Madrid, St. Lawrence Co., N. Y., by whom he has three
children living-Mary E., William H., and Adell B.; an infant son, James, was drowned by
falling into the mill-pond near them. Mr. S. supplanted the log house of 1836 with a
very large and tasteful frame residence in 1850, which makes a most pleasant restingplace
for one who has led so busy and eventful a life. Mr. Stockman is a Jacksonian
Democrat, and was the first Assessor of Mukwonago, improvising his own blanks; he
served nine years as Assessor and was also Supervisor and Justice of the Peace.

The Stockman Inn ran by Charles and his family is preserved in an early photograph.

Charles B. Stockman Inn circa 1850. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin State Historical Society.

Jesse Smith came to Vernon from Vermont in 1837. The same 1880 Waukesha County History book also describes Smith as a prominent settler as well:

The life and times of Jesse Smith are covered in several other sources including links that can be found at

The “1843” date on the Smith Inn sign undoubtedly references Smith’s initial use of his log cabin as an inn. It was built in 1842 and he was probably taking in travelers very shortly after. The cabin burned prompting Smith to rebuild in stone. His magnificent Cobblestone Inn, completed in 1847, and shown here in an early photo still stands and can be seen when travelling on what was once the old Janesville Plank Road running between Big Bend and Caldwell, south of Mukwonago.

JESSE SMITH, farmer, Sec. 33; P. O. Dodge's Corners; born in Andover, Windsor Co., Vt., July 3l, 1804; he grew to manhood there and married, Jan. 18, 1828, Miss Sylvia Barton, who was born July 22, 1805, in Andover; in the spring of 1837, Mr. Smith, with the brothers Aaron and Amos Putnam, Col. Orien Haseltine and John Thomas, came to Vernon, Mr. S. buying his present farm of Calvin Gault; this claim lay in the beautiful oak openings in the south part of the tea; Indians were encamped in sight of his log house, finished by Mr. Gault, and occupied by him on the arrival of Mr. Smith's wife and family that fall; the next year, Mr. Smith built the first frame barn in the town, and in 1842, a frame house where he used to lodge many a weary traveler over the then new road; this burned down five years later, and was replaced by a very large two-and-a-half-story stone house, well remembered by the teamsters and farmers of "plank-road days;" the generous old dining-room, fifty feet in length, was often crowded, and it was not unusual for him to lodge 100 persons over night; and for a month or more, each fall, to a twenty-five or thirty teams per night was not strange when we consider that from 300 to 400 teams per day passed here, many from the lead mines of Southwest Wisconsin; it was a common thing for men to order breakfast at 4 in the morning, and to find men waiting to occupy their stalls with tired teams; the noted spring, situated on the hill back of the house was furnished with wooden piping in 1842, and has since supplied his house and barns.with water for all purposes, and refreshed many a "wayfaring man" and team. No better representative of the good old Vermont stock can be found in the West than is found in "Uncle Jesse Smith," known as the genial old landlord, all over Southern Wisconsin. He now has a 350-acre homestead, on which are over 400-grade merinos, with other stock. Mr. Smith is s steadfast Republican; was one of the first Town Board of Vernon, Chairman of the town twelve or more years, and represented his district in the Legislature of 1854, 1866 and 1887. Mr. and Mrs. Smith have five living children - Samuel B., Carlos P., Horace W., Loneann (Mrs. J. N. Crawford) and Josephine (Mrs. M. L. Davis); they have lost three daughters; S. B. owns
a large farm in Vernon, and an interest in the Waterford flouring-mill; C. P. is also one of Vernon's substantial farmers, while H. W. succeeds as well on Caldwell's Prairie.

Smith Inn-circa1847

The Signs Today

For over four decades, these wonderful early signs were stored in the basement of the Red Brick Museum no worse for wear. Today they proudly hang in what is deemed the "library room" of the museum, rare reminders of the early times in the Mukwonago area when
settlers were traveling through the area seeking opportunity. Opportunity that was abundant, i.e., cheap farmland, rapidly growing local markets for enterprising merchants and craftsmen, banking and speculators, but the travel to get there was not for the weak or faint of heart. The roads were terrible, the weather could turn abysmal, the wilderness presented untold dangers. The early stagecoach inns offered respite from the journey, food and drink, bed, and fellowship even if it was for just a few hours.

Note to Readers: Anyone with additional information that will add to this story, please contact the Mukwonago Historical Society. These signs and the rest of the Red Brick Museum collection can be viewed the second and fourth Sunday (1-4pm) in June through September.

Henry Hecker
March 27, 2018

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