2022 satellite image of Mount Tom

One way temperance-minded early settlers of Princeton could enjoy a peaceful Sunday afternoon on a warm summer day was to load the family into a carriage for a pleasant four-mile ride to Mount Tom for a picnic lunch.

The hill, about 920 feet high, is best described as a knob jutting out unexpectedly from the marsh and sandy prairie around it. As early as 1860, however, it was known as a resource for good quality limestone.

“Mt. Tom, situated about two miles north of the village (St. Marie), is famous for its good lime, which is used extensively in the surrounding country,” according to the “Portrait and Biographical Album of Green Lake, Marquette and Waushara Counties,” published in 1890 by ACME Publishing Company, Chicago.

The early settlers arriving in what was then Marquette County in the 1840s came primarily from New York and New England. They named Mount Tom after a well-known larger mountain in Massachusetts that is now a ski hill and part of the New England Trail.

Garden of the gods

Here is how Berlin-based attorney and area historian V. Publius Lawson described Mount Tom in the Princeton Republic in June 1901: “From its summit one can see long stretches of the Fox River, and far away into the deep rolling valleys between the high green hills. For miles around, the landscape is picturesque and grand. In the clear air of the spring day we saw the pretty white farm houses, the newly dragged farm, the tender rye just coming out in square clean fields, patches of open oak groves and the wide prairie by the river. There were droves of sheep in wide pastures and herds of dairy cattle in others. Three miles away were the white houses and tall steeples of Princeton. By the river bank, cold and deserted, was the old church of the phantom village of St. Marie, with the rugged white cross over the river marking the site of the Marquette spring. In the opposite direction, a few miles away, lies the dusty, quiet, capital town of Dartford and deep blue waters of Green Lake.

“Mount Tom has six acres upon its top, all of which is covered with a thick growth of scrub black oak and hickory, which thrive upon the scanty soil left by the glacier and the disintegration of the rock, some of the roots reaching far into the clefts in the rock. Its three sides are very abrupt for sixty feet with quite-steep slopes of sand and rock, on the other side. Below this the land, of sand, gravel and clay, slopes away in all directions, but not too steep for these hill farmers, who plow up the slopes to the base of the rock mass, or palisades. This rock has the peculiarity of weathering in grotesque and picturesque shapes. Exposed outer rock and those found in the drift upon the field are perforated with jagged holes, honeycombed in all imaginable shapes. Their unusual and peculiar forms have made them popular features of yard, garden and fountain decorations at Green Lake about the summer homes and hotels. Over the top and sides of Mount Tom this grotesque breccia gives to places the appearance of a fairy city, with its steeples, temples, monuments and houses, or as some have said – the garden of the gods.”

Not Mascoutin village

Lawson is one of a long line of state historians who have refuted the notion that Mount Tom was the site of the Mascoutin village where Father Allouez raised a cross in 1670 to signify a new mission and where Joliet and Marquette recruited two Indian guides to take them to the portage that would lead them from the Fox to the Wisconsin and then the Mississippi River in 1673.

“Some have said this hill was the village site of the palisaded fort of the Mascoutin Indians, when visited by Nicolet in 1633, Allouez 1670, and Father Marquette in 1673,” noted Lawson, who also investigated an American Indian village site on Princeton’s water tower hill. “But no mounds are to be seen, and no palisade could be made upon this hill unless the stakes were held up by rock or earth. Such an embankment made to hold up the stakes would still be traceable. Father Dablon says the village was situated on a little rise of ground or a little hill, but if this prominent landmark was the place, someone would have more truly described it.”

Lawson had no doubts: “Mount Tom is worthless and impossible for the site of an Indian town and never has been used as a domicile of human beings; but not many years ago it was infested with rattlesnakes, which swarmed over its rock escarpments from their homes in the clefs of beetling bluffs, and as they lay basking in the sunshine, were dangerous things to disturb by anyone less gifted than the titular saint of old Erin.”

Some area historians have speculated that a village of Kickapoo Indians, described as mountain people, lived near or on Mount Tom in a village where Allouez raised a second cross in 1670. Historians have documented an Indian burial ground near the junction of the Fox and White rivers north of St. Marie.

Boy Scouts and archaeologists have searched for artifacts on Mount Tom over the years but found nothing conclusive other than a stone cairn, date and purpose undetermined.

The rattlesnake shake

We learn more about the Mount Tom rattlesnakes in a long missive published in the Princeton Republic in 1899 and reprinted in 1928. It was signed by R.S.K. and sent from Elk Creek, Nebraska.

(The names ending in K in early St. Marie that I am most familiar with were Kellogg, Kilbourn and Ketchum. I have been unable to match the name and initials with the location in the Ancestry records online.)

Princeton Republic, Oct. 11, 1928 – “In Green Lake County, Wisconsin, about five miles northeast of Princeton, there is a high elevation known as Mount Tom. It has rocky and precipitous sides on the north and south, while on the east and west it has a more gradual slope. On the top there is a level plateau, studded with ancient oaks, and it makes it a romantic place in summer. In olden times, when Captain Noah ran a flat boat with his family and menagerie on board, he passed by this place. Mrs. Noah wanted to stop, take a romp on the mountain, and perhaps enjoy a picnic under the shade of the beautiful oaks, but the old skipper was obstinate and could not be induced to land, as he was bound for Mt. Ararat. At this the old lady became indignant, and said if she could not land at this beautiful place she would put a curse on it forever. She then secretly slipped out a pair of rattlesnakes and bade them take up their abode in this mountain. Here they lived in happiness and prosperity until 1847, when some of the first settlers discovered that the south side of the mountain was an inhabitation of rattlesnakes. One warm Sunday morning in May 1848, the writer of this and a few of the early settlers came together by chance. No sound of a church going bell was heard in the land and neither had we the benefit of clergy, and it seemed as though the day was to hang heavily over us, when someone suggested a good day for rattlesnakes. ‘Rattlesnakes,’ we all responded. We then armed ourselves, some with heavy clubs, others with a long pole with a hook inserted in one end, made of strong wire. Then we sailed forth determined to destroy every tempter of Eve that came in our way. When arriving at the big den a sight met our eyes, which riveted us to the spot for the time being. There, lay a pile of yellow mottled color. In shape and color it somewhat resembled a large squash, with copper bolts thickly studded in one end. We knew at first glance that they were rattlesnakes, although not one in our party ever saw one before; and still they were coming out of the rocks, noiselessly and lazily, until they reached the pile, then they would elevate their heads and glide quietly on top of the pile, settle their bodies down in a kind of loving embrace, putting their heads in the same position as the rest by turning it a little upward so they all appeared to be looking at the sun. After viewing this sickening scene a short time one of our number reached out his hook and gave them a ‘hitch.’ Moses oh Moses! Such music it had never been our fortune to listen to before. It made our hair stand on end and our toenails jingle. The time had now arrived for action. We had either to beat an ignominious retreat or stand up manfully to the foe. We chose the latter course and went at them with a will. Such wriggling, rattling and writhing, I think, is seldom seen in this latitude. After pounding and pelting and hooking out from among the rocks for nearly two hours time, there was not a musician to be heard nor a foe to be seen. What few had escaped retreated behind the works and the battle was over. On taking an inventory we found by actual count that we had 152 full-grown rattlesnake basking in the sun before us. We deposited our weapons for future battle and went home satisfied that we had done a good deed for mankind, although we may have slightly bent the golden rule.”

The iron mine

This 1901 map shows the Nick Pfeifer property at Mount Tom and the Mount Tom School, bottom left, on County Road CC.

For a time near the turn of the 19th-20th century, it appeared Mount Tom might produce more than limestone and rattlesnakes.

The Princeton Republic reported in April 1887 that engineers were investigating an iron ore deposit there.

“The services of two experts from the Superior region were secured, and a few days since a close investigation was made and specimens secured were pronounced promising by the experts,” the newspaper said. “It is understood the gentlemen above referred to are quietly arranging to have the ore tested and the find developed to see whether there is iron in paying quantities and of marketable quality. Princeton has no granite quarry – but hold your breath, please – until – well – wait awhile.”

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Princeton Times-Republic, January 27, 1949 – “John Roberts recalls the days way back there about the turn of the century when Nick Pfeifer and this three sons undertook to develop an iron mine at Mount Tom. He says that they dug quite a hole and as he recalls it when prospective investors became skeptical they took them down into the shaft and showed them real-honest-to-goodness iron, bolts nicely threaded with nuts on the end and other evidence that the mine was producing iron. J.E. Leimer, a former bank officer here, as Mr. Roberts remembers it, was one of the financial wizards who induced a number of local people to invest in the mine. Despite the fact that the optimism of the promoters prompted the building of barracks on what is now the Albert Prachel farm, the buying of land for a right of way for a spur track from the railroad and other improvements, investors became scarce and the Pfeifer brothers decided to abandon the project. They eventually paid off the investors and left the country.”

Thank you for caring and reading about local history.

The Mount Tom School is shown at bottom left on this 1914 map.

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