Two of Princeton’s early settlers – brothers Marion and Oliver Russell – came here from Pennsylvania, where a community was named in honor of their father.

Today we are tracing the steps of another set of brothers – Marion and Oliver Russell – who walked the streets of “Old Princeton” in the 19th century.

I started to pull on this thread after coming across Ione (Hopkins) Russell in the recent post about Albert C. Hopkins, “The Princeton Messiah.” I was intrigued when I learned Ione and her husband, Oliver, had settled in Canton, South Dakota.

I was familiar with the Russell name and its prominence in Princeton largely because of a sudden, violent storm on July 4, 1873, that claimed several lives as it swept across Green Lake leaving dozens of people in the water. The victims included Mrs. Marion (Elizabeth “Lizzie”) Russell and the Russells’ only child, 7-year-old Mary.

I also knew from my book research that both Marion and Oliver were officers in the Union Army during the Civil War and were very involved in the local music scene, and that Oliver for a short time edited the Princeton Republic.

But there was much more to learn.

Pennsylvania roots

The Russell boys were born in the Conewango Creek valley in northern Pennsylvania. The area for many years produced white “cork” pine used for masts for ocean-going ships and lumber for growing communities in Pennsylvania, New York and beyond.

The forest, abundant lumber and the site’s location at the head of rapids and the foot of deep slack water reaching into the state of New York attracted Native Americans and then early settlers and entrepreneurs, according to a community history at

The community, originally called Pine Grove when it was founded, was renamed for Robert Russell, who came to the area from Ireland with his father, John Russell, about 1800. The younger Russell acquired much of the land and water power, including two sawmills, and laid out the village in 1843. The brick house he built about 1830, where Marion and Oliver spent their early years, remained standing into the 21st century.

The community was called Russellsburg, or Russelsburg, from about 1835 until Russell was officially adopted in 1884.

Marion Cook Russell was born in Russellsburg in 1837. Oliver Newton Russell was born in 1842.

Robert Russell passed in August 1847 at the age of 65.

After the boys’ father died, the family moved to New York before relocating to Princeton about 1850. The boys likely attended classes in the frame schoolhouse at about 116 West Wisconsin Street.

Marion Russell’s obituary in 1899 noted he “completed an academic course of education” in Wisconsin and later learned the trade of tinsmith.

He enlisted in Company C, 21st Michigan Infantry in 1862 as second lieutenant but resigned at the end of nine months. At the beginning of 1865 he re-enlisted in the 36th Wisconsin and served until he mustered out at the end of the war.

Oliver Russell

Oliver enlisted in the 32nd Wisconsin Infantry in 1862 but was discharged in 1863 for disability caused by severe illness. He married Ione Hopkins of Princeton but re-enlisted in the 36th Wisconsin Infantry in 1864 and was commissioned first lieutenant. He was promoted to captain, was severely wounded at Cold Harbor and returned to Princeton after the war.

We know Oliver taught school for a time in Princeton in the 1860s, though I have not documented specifically when. A report in the Princeton Republic in 1921 says he was the first principal of the stone school on Main Street, which opened in December 1867, but I don’t believe that is correct.

Princeton Republic, May 2, 1867 – “Miss Cornelia Hake opened the primary department of the village school on Monday. The higher department of the village school will be opened on Monday morning by the teacher N.W. Lowe.”

Princeton Republic, Dec. 5, 1867 – “The village school is now full blast. Mr. Merriam of Berlin having charge of the higher department, and Miss Celia Hake of this village superintending the primary department. Both are experienced and able teachers.”

Russell served one term as clerk of the Green Lake County Board, running as a Republican. He filled in for Thomas McConnell as editor of the Republic in summer 1869 as McConnell began looking west for new ventures.

He also was very involved in the local horse-racing scene.

Princeton Republic, September 5, 1867 – “A new racecourse is being constructed by C.H. Loomis, Capt. O.N. Russell and others on the land of the former just east of the south part of the village. The ground is level and makes a splendid bottom – as good if not better than any other in the county. A half-mile track will be completed in about two weeks.”

The Loomis track was just east of what is now Memory Hill Cemetery.

Princeton Republic, June 11, 1868 – “Princeton Driving Association. This is the name of a new organization which was made on Friday evening last. O.N. Russell was chosen president, Chas. Briggs vice president, T. McConnell secretary, C.W. Loomis treasurer.”

Russell left Princeton for Milwaukee about 1872. In 1873, his entries at the Fox Lake Fair earned premiums as best 4-year-old single horse ($10) and best double team ($4) in the Class B Roadsters category. “Mollie Bacon” placed for Russell in races at the Cold Spring track near Milwaukee and the Watertown Driving Park in 1875.

After working as a horse trader in Milwaukee for a few years, Russell returned to Princeton to help with the Princeton Republic in 1878 and served as postmaster of the state Senate in 1878-1879. (I could not find information about the duties of the Senate postmaster.)

Princeton Republic, Jan. 18, 1878 – “Chas. P. Rawson will be responsible for publicity and O.N. Russell the quality of the matter appearing in the Republic for the year to come.”

The former teacher, editor and horse dealer became a lawyer in 1880 and relocated to Canton, South Dakota.

Princeton Republic, Feb. 12, 1880 – “We hear that Capt. O.N. Russell has been admitted to the bar by his honor, D.J. Pulling, judge of the judicial district, and will now go to Nashua for a time and then look up some good location and settle permanently in the west and grow up with the country.”

The Canton Advocate, Thursday, Sept. 23, 1880 – “Mrs. Russell, son and daughter, the wife and children of O. N. Russell, arrived the last of last week, and Mr. Russell is now the happiest lawyer in Canton. Mr. and Mrs. Russell are now fairly settled in their new home over the post office.”

Russell and a partner built a successful law firm. He also remained active in Republican politics, served as a justice and mayor of Canton, led the local G.A.R. post, and served as co-founder and president of a local savings and loan.

The Canton Advocate, Sept. 21, 1882 – “A brother of our O. N. Russell from Wisconsin is here on a visit.”

The Canton Advocate, June 28, 1883 – “Mr. O.N. Russell retires as president of the Dakota Loan & Trust Company, and an election will be held to fill the vacancy. Mr. Russell has been with us now over three years, has gained a reputation as an energetic, wide-awake and go-ahead businessman, and Canton can congratulate herself that O.N. Russell will not leave but will become interested in matters pertaining to the growing interests of the city and remain a permanent resident.”

Russell also shared his love of music with Canton, helping form and then leading the Canton Cornet Band, and “his position as manager of the Second Regiment band has made his name a familiar one in musical and military circles throughout the territory, while his local prominence has always been great,” The Canton Advocate reported in his obituary.

Oliver N. Russell passed at his home in Canton in June 1888 “of valvular disease of the heart.” He was buried at Forest Hill Cemetery there.

“Like tidings of some terrible disaster, the news of Captain Russell’s death spread upon the streets early Tuesday morning,” the Canton newspaper reported. “Men spoke of it in hushed tones as if they, too, felt a chill from the Angel of Death, who was brooding over the city. … Every day the people of Canton discover positions that have been made vacant by his departure. Every day they miss his pleasantries and help. Many, many years will elapse before his memory ceases to be first in the hearts of his fellow citizens.”

Marion Russell

After the Civil War, Marion returned to Princeton, gave up the tin smith trade and became a traveling salesman before landing a job as mail clerk on the Sheboygan & Fond du Lac Railroad. He was later promoted to a run from Chicago to Minneapolis.

Throughout his time in Princeton, Marion taught music and voice lessons, formed the Zephyr String Band, organized a popular singing group, the Russell Quartette, and was often a featured performer at local celebrations.

Princeton Republic, June 20, 1867 – “A pic nic party of over one hundred of our villagers availed themselves of a cheap ride on the steamer Montello to Marquette and back last Saturday. The day being breezy and balmy after a heavy shower, the party moved away, sweet strains of music mingling with the merry peals of laughter of the happy company, running over with good spirits, not a woeful countenance any where to be seen. All were lively and happy as the glorious summer day, flaky clouds of fleecy whiteness sailing triumphantly overhead, and the rippling river, dancing in the warm sunlight, onward, downward, towards the mighty leap from Niagara’s cliff. Railroads have their uses, but for a pic nic party, give us the majestic steamer, floating through the water ‘like a thing of life,’ no jolting, jostling, smoke cinders, dust and the thousand and one little inconveniences of the railway train. The Zephyr String Band with Prof. M.C. Russell at the head was on hand in full force and rendered sundry pieces of enchanting music in a really superior style, which with the beauty of the scenery along the river, made an otherwise pleasant trip, full of rapture.”

Despite the railroad’s disadvantages for peaceful excursions, it paid Russell’s bills for many years.

Three years after losing his family in Green Lake, Russell found happiness again. He married Ida Markstead, who bore him a daughter, Jessie. His service with the Sheboygan & Fond du Lac Railroad, meanwhile, earned him a promotion that took him to Chicago in 1879.

After about 13 years in Chicago, Russell retired from the railroad for health reasons and returned to Princeton.

Princeton Republic, March 22, 1894 – “The concert given by the Russell Quartette last Thursday evening was a decided success. They were greeted by a large house that gave hearty applause to each number rendered. The program bro’t out a wide range of music and showed that the quartette are not only first-class singers, but have marked ability in interpreting character songs. Miss Gertrude Eggleston, soprano, received a strong testimonial of her popularity as a singer. … Mrs. Warren sang in a way that captured the audience to an extent that was gratifying to her many friends. Mr. J. Hall, tenor, was in excellent voice and added much to his reputation as a singer. … As for Mr. and Mrs. Russell, they were, as usual, all that could be desired. … Taken as a whole the concert was one of the best ever given in Princeton. Mr. Russell is a success as an organizer, and the singers associated with him in this quartette are artists of ability.”

The Russells lived in Berlin for a short time before moving to Waupaca (King) in 1897 after Marion was selected quartermaster for the state veterans’ home. He passed in June 1899. At the time of his death, he was the commander of the G.A.R. post at the home and held the rank of captain there.

He was buried in Princeton City Cemetery.

Princeton Republic, June 15, 1899 – “A message reporting the death of Captain M.C. Russell, quartermaster of the Wisconsin Veterans home near Waupaca, was received here Thursday evening, and was a shock of sorrow to our people, and although not entirely well, there was nothing to indicate but what he would yet enjoy many years of life. … The funeral party arrived in Princeton on the 5:30 train and were met at the depot by a large number of sorrowing friends, who testified their regard for the decreased by following the remains to the cemetery. Members of the G.AR. post marched in a body behind the hearse. … Mr. Russell was a genial, whole-souled man who made those about him happy by his pleasing disposition, a man who made friends wherever he came in contact with his fellow men. He was a singer of marked ability, a lover of music and was every ready to use his talent in that direction for the please of others.”

The Russells’ sister Frances married another Princeton pioneer, Davis H. Waite, who had a role in developing the mill channel as well as three buildings on Water Street before returning to New York after about a decade here and later becoming governor of Colorado.

As always, if you spot any errors in these history posts, please let me know.

Thank you for caring and reading about local history.

The Princeton band and G.A.R. veterans lead the Decoration Day parade west on Water Street in May 1897. Brothers Marion and Oliver Russell were among the Princeton men who served in the Civil War.

One comment

Leave a Reply