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Nelson Dewey State Park History

Nelson Dewey State Park is dedicated to the memory of the state's first governor, Nelson Dewey. The park's 756 acres were once part of Governor Dewey's elaborate 2,000-acre agricultural estate.

Born in Connecticut, Nelson Dewey came to Cassville in 1836, when it was still part of the Michigan Territory. He worked as a clerk for Daniels, Denniston and Company, land speculators promoting Cassville as the site for the capital of the newly-formed Wisconsin Territory. The company eventually failed, but Dewey prospered. Trained as a lawyer, Dewey became involved in the burgeoning land business of the new territory and took an interest in politics. In 1837 he was elected Register of Deeds for Grant County. This was followed by several appointments by Territorial Governor Henry Dodge and election to the Territorial Assembly and the Council.

The Nelson Dewey home.When the State of Wisconsin was formed in 1848, Dewey, at age 35, was elected as the first governor. The next year he married Catherine Dunn, daughter of Wisconsin's first chief justice. They had three children, Charlie, who died at age 7, Katie and Nelson Junior.

After his second term as governor, the Dewey family moved back to Grant County, living at times in Lancaster, Cassville and Platteville. Dewey continued his various legal and land dealings and filled a number of civic positions.

In the 1850s Dewey tried to revive Cassville. He replatted the town, promoted the sale of lots and the creation of businesses and refurbished the Denniston House Hotel. He also acquired property to the north of the village for the future "Stonefield" farm. He began agricultural activities there in the middle 1850s.

In the late 1860s work began on an elaborate brick house and numerous stone outbuildings, all designed in the Gothic Revival Style. The well planned estate was complete with miles of stone walls and well manicured grounds surrounding the house. The family moved to Stonefield in 1868. Dewey's main farming activities were fruit orchards, a vineyard and the raising of horses. He also owned large numbers of milk cows, cattle and pigs, while Mrs. Dewey took an interest in the care of geese, ducks and chickens.

Although Dewey seemed poised to retire to the life of a country gentleman, disaster struck in 1873. In January the Stonefield house was destroyed by fire, leaving only a gutted shell. Later that year the nationwide financial panic adversely affected Dewey's land and railroad investments. His holdings, including Stonefield, were heavily mortgaged and underinsured. Dewey was not able to recover financially and lost the farm to foreclosure in 1878.

Nelson and Catherine's marriage also deteriorated. They lived apart from the early 1870s and Nelson filed for divorce in 1886, although the case never went to court. Living in Cassville for the remaining years of his life, in 1889 he suffered a stroke while arguing a court case. He died at the Denniston House in July 1889. Dewey is buried in the Episcopal Church Cemetery in Lancaster.

In 1887 Walter Cass Newberry of Chicago bought most of the farm lands, outbuildings and the ruins of Dewey's mansion. He set to work refurbishing the dilapidated farm, adding to the large stone stable and repairing the remaining buildings. In the early l890s he began work on a new house, which incorporated the foundation and first floor walls of the original dwelling. Some of the original doors and windows, removed during the fire, were incorporated into the rebuilt structure. Newberry operated the farm as an absentee landlord, but took a keen interest in it. The Newberry family vacationed in the rebuilt house during the summer of 1896.

Newberry shocked local residents the following year by abruptly selling the property. The home passed through a series of wealthy out-of-state owners. Some continued large-scale farming operations, although the property fell into gradual disrepair over the next 40 years.

In l936 the Wisconsin Conservation Commission, with help from Grant County, the Village of Cassville and the Township of Cassville, bought the house, outbuildings and 720 acres for $15,000. A Works Progress Administration project was authorized to clean up the grounds, restore the buildings, build roads and build a shelter in the park. These men worked out "Camp Nelson Dewey," in the original Nelson Dewey State Park, now Wyalusing State Park.

Stonefield Village as seen from Nelson Dewey State Park.In the late l940s, with the assistance of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, the house was partially furnished and opened for tours. In 1952 the society entered into an agreement to operate the State Agricultural Museum at the park. The society is now responsible for the operation of Stonefield State Historic Site [exit DNR], which includes the State Agricultural Museum and a 1900 village exhibit and the interpretation of the Dewey Homesite and Farmstead.

Several original buildings from the Dewey era can be seen on the property. They include the two outbuildings behind the main house (the smoke house and ice house); the present park office and the stone stable at the entrance to Stonefield. The stone walls of Dewey’s cow barn have been incorporated into the State Agricultural Museum exhibit building.

Last revised: Wednesday May 17 2017