Area > The History of Black Earth

A brief history of Black Earth by Tony Schreiner, Black Earth Historical Society

Early Settlers

Black Earth Train Depot
Prior to European immigration to this area, evidence of Indian settlements dot theBlack Earth Valley. One prominent symbol was a “Man Mound.” This particular mound had a torso oriented east-west and was approximately 100 feet long. The legs were estimated to be about 600 feet and each arm extended in a north-south fashion at an probable length of over 300 feet. The head was twenty-five feet in diameter and, along with the torso, was over five feet high. A house currently resides where the
chest of the effigy mound was located.

The first recorded settlement of European immigrants in the Black Earth valley dates back to 1843. These early settlers were mainly comprised of members of The British Temperance Emigration Society. Approximately twenty immigrants from this Society settled in Black Earth between 1843 and 1850. The first “wave” of English emigrants was followed by Irish and Norwegian settlers, who moved into surrounding locations within the Black Earth valley.

In August of 1850 the village was platted. At that time it consisted of six blocks. Additions were successively made in May 1854, December 1855, and March of 1856, and by 1857 Black Earth had become the first incorporated village in Dane County outside of Madison. George High served as the first president of the village board.

Notable Businesses

Early on, agriculture and agricultural-related businesses became a prominent fixture of this community. In 1850 John B. Sweat built a grist and flour mill located at the current site of The Shoe Box on the corner of USH 14 and STH 78. During the 1860’s and 1870’s, at its peak, the mill had three runs, and was producing two grades of wheat flour and grist, or cattle feed. By 1858, one year after the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad linked the states largest city to the Mississippi River,
Thomas Barber opened a hardware and implement store. It was located at the current site of The Black Earth State Bank.

On April 9, 1894, the Patrons’ Mercantile Company opened its first store at the current location at the corner of Mills and Ray Street. In 1897 it moved to a store at the corner of Spring and Mills Sts. This co-operative, which changed its name to The Patrons’ Mercantile Co-operative in 1960 (name changed to Premier Co-operative in 2001), is the oldest ongoing consumer co-op in the United States, if not the
world. The co-operative was originally established to stabilize the Black Earth economy and to insulate the local markets from wildly unpredictable outside influences. From the beginning the co-operative prospered, with the exception of 1933 when a fire destroyed the store and nearly all of its contents. A new store was built on the same site in less than ten months, and the organization continues to thrive
to this day.

Two other notable businesses to prosper briefly in the village were:

  • Barsness Manufacturing Co. (1920’s and 1930’s) – Designed, manufactured, and sold
    barn stancheons. Headquarters, corporate and manufacturing, located on Center St.
    just north of the Black Earth Elementary School.
  • Lakeside Manufacturing Co. (1920’s) – Manufacturer and sellers of the Lakeside and
    Family Electric Dishwasher. Corporate headquarters were located in Madison; manufacturing
    plant was located in Black Earth (present location of the Black Earth Municipal


Recreation, historically, has, and still does, play a special role in the village. Home Talent baseball has had a home in this community since the inception of the organization, back in the early 1930’s. Trout fishing along the world-famous Black Earth and Vermont Creeks has been an annual tradition since the 1890’s. During the 1870’s, the Wisconsin Valley Agricultural Society, an organization similar to the Grange, established a local fair. The host site alternated with the neighboring community of Mazomanie. By the turn of the twentieth century another local festival, Field Days, had already been established. With the exception of a brief period during World War II and the late 1950’s, this ongoing celebration has been an annual event.

The Black Earth Historical Society

More recently, August 1992 to be exact, The Black Earth Historical Society was organized. Affiliated with the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, it has two charges: to preserve and to educate the history and inhabitants of the Black Earth valley, respectively.
Since its inception, and with the help of local government, businesses, and citizens,
this Society has restored and refurbished the Black Earth Depot into a local museum.

It is open during the summer months on Sundays 1-4PM and by special appointment.