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alto_windmill_1915_tdb_sm.jpg (19599 bytes)
The Alto windmill prior to the turn
of the century. It served as
Zoellner's grist mill. (courtesy
Twilah DeBoer, Brandon
Historical Society) Click on
image for a larger picture and description.

DUTCH SETTLERS IN ALTO TOWNSHIP
Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin


TWILAH DEBOER


In 1845 Alto was a sparsely inhabited spot on the Wisconsin frontier. The first settler in the town of Alto was Francis D. Bowman, who came from Rochester, New York, in the fall of 1841. He settled in section 36, which is just a couple miles northwest of Waupun, WI. For more than two years he did not have a neighbor. The early settlers found that Alto had fertile soils and was dotted with woods and streams. This provided for growing crops, wood for shelter and fuel, and clean water for drinking. The Rock River ran from north to south with several branches to the East and West through the township.

Jan Albert Meenk was the first Dutch settler in the Alto and Waupun area. He was known as Albert or Albertus, having taken his middle name like many of the Dutch settlers at that time did. He left Winterswijk, in the province of Gelderland, Netherlands, in 1844, having served in the Dutch army. It is probable that he landed in New York. He spent the winter of 1844-1845 in Westfield, Chautauqua County, New York. In the spring of 1845 he traveled to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he met a man from the Alto area who convinced him to come to Alto and look over the area. Upon visiting the area he decided to settle there. He purchased 80 acres in section 25, just north of section 36. The Rock River ran through his land. This land remained in the Meenk family for over 100 years until my cousin had to sell because of allergies. When I was a small girl visiting my uncle we often walked down to the river where we could still see the remains of the fireplace and doorstep of his first cabin. There were also deep ruts in the pasture that were said to have been made by wagons traveling over his land. The family eventually owned over 300 acres in the surrounding area.

In the late summer of 1845 his parents, Gerrit Willem Meenk and Geertruid Catherine Veenhuis Meenk, along with two daughters, Engelina (Ellen) and Janna. Engelina married Zephaniah Miller shortly after coming to Alto. Janna died at Waterville, Wisconsin, on their way from Milwaukee to Alto. Three sons also accompanied them, Jan Derk, Hendrick, and Hendrickus D. A fourth son, Harman Jan, came in October of 1845. All the children remained in the area except Hendrick. He was still listed as living with his parents on the 1850 census. He left to seek his fortune in Texas, and no one seems to know what happened to him. The oldest son of Gerrit and Geertruid, Berend, left Gronigen in the Netherlands in 1854 along with his wife Jansjen Tofferini and two children and joined his parents, brothers, and sisters in the Alto area. (Jan Albert Meenk was my great-grandfather.)

In 1846 several other families joined the Meenks in Alto. Jan Willem and Wilhelmina Oonk Loomans (Lomans) and family settled in Milwaukee before coming to Alto. Their children were Alida Berdina, Abram, Johanna Gertrude, Jan albert, Janna Gezina, Johanna Wilhelmina, and Jan Hendrick. (Jan Albert Loomans was my great-grandfather.) Roeloef Slijster, who had studied for the ministry in the Netherlands, also settled in Alto Township. It is quite possible that when the first church services started he led the people in their Sunday services until their first pastor came. Other families that came in 1846 were TerBeest, Rensink, Vanderbosch, Rikkers, Newenhuis, Hoftiezer, Boland, and Jan and Hendrick Straks.

In 1847 even more families arrived in Alto, presumably encouraged to come by relatives and friends. Among them were Christiaan and Hendricka Woonick Boom and children, Wilhelm Jean, Johanna, Antoni, Arend Jan, Harry (Henry), and Wilhelmina Ermina. (Antoni Boom was my great-grandfather.) Other families were Hendrick and Hendricka Wechel Bruins and Gerrit Willem and Elizabeth Lammers Veenuis. A Veenuis daughter, Henrietta, married Jan Albert Meenk, thus becoming my great-grandmother. The same year, the John and Theodora TerHorst family also arrived (their son Johannes was my great-grandfather). Other families who came in 1847 were the Veerenhouts, DeGroots, VanEcks, and Walhuizens (Wellhousen, Wellhouse).

Engelina (Ellen) Gravenstein (Giabenstein), Roeloef Slijster's niece, came to America at an early age and was met in New York by her uncle. Her mother, brothers, and sisters were coming with her when one of the children became ill, and Angelina came alone, never to see her family again. (She was my great-grandmother.)

The Kasteins did not live in the town of Alto when they first arrived, but rather lived over the northern born\der of Alto in the town of Metomen. The Veenhuis family lived over the eastern bornder in the town of Waupun. Both families, however, considered themselves part of the Alto community. The Kasteins moved to a farm one mile south of the village of Alto in the early 1850's.

The Derk Jan and Jannekin Herding Lammers family left Dinxperlo and sailed for America in September of 1846 with their three children. They settled for some time in the east before coming to Alto sometime before 1851.

David Van Eck, who owned land one-half mile west of the present village of Alto, opened his home for Sunday services. In 1847 a log church was built on his property, and the Reverend Gerrit Baaji (Baay) was asked to come from the Netherlands to be their pastor. He accepted their call, and it is believed that he was instrumental in getting more families to come to Alto because of the enthusiastic letters he wrote back to the homeland. He wrote that his wife had been in poor health in the Netherlands and was now very healthy. His service to the community was for only a very short time, because he was called to his heavenly home in November of 1849.

In the spring of 1857 a new church was built one-half mile west of the old log church. The present Reformed Church was built on the same site, and the "planken" church was moved across the road, when it served many years as a town hall. As Alto was growing people moved to the surrounding communities of Waupun, Brandon, Randolph, and Friesland. There are now fourteen churches of the Reformed and Christian Reformed faith that can trace their roots to the first congregation in the old log church.

Several other churches sprang up in the surrounding area. In 1858 a group of early settlers built a stone church just north of the village of Alto and affiliated themselves with the Congregational denomination, but had Dutch immigrant ministers to serve it. They called themselves the Zion Church. The church still stands today with a peaceful cemetery behind it. A group of descendants from that first congregation have banded together and keep the church in good repair. On the second Sunday in August the church is opened and services are held.

Between 1878 and 1883 four more churches were built in the Alto area by Dutch settlers. A Christian Reformed Church was constructed about one-half mile south of the Reformed Church. The Calvary Presbyterian Church was built about two miles southwest of the village of Alto. Two more churches were built on the Hendrick Bruins property about four miles northwest of the village of Alto, one a Reformed and one a Christian Reformed. Both were built with money given by Bruins. Neither church ever took hold, and neither lasted long.

The Calvary church was called the Kivorsen (frog) Kerk by the people around it, because it was built by a creek. This church also had a cemetery alongside it, but it is not kept up very well, and many stones are broken or so weathered that you can not read them. The Zion church (the stone church) is very lovingly cared for with artificial flowers put on all the graves every summer.

There was another church, an Evangelical Lutheran Church, built in the extreme northwest corner of the township. That church eventually closed, with half the congregation going to Markesan and the other half to Brandon.

Many of the names that were once familiar in those earlier years are no longer, because as the west opened up many families moved to Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, and Washington.

By 1859 it was claimed that 800 people of Dutch heritage were living in the Alto area. This may be slightly exaggerated, but according to the 1880 census Alto Township had 1430 residents, of which about three-fourths were Dutch.

Alto is now a sleepy little village about seventy miles north of Milwaukee. The township contains 23,153.31 acres, which is almost entirely farm land, Alto being the only village in the township. At one time there were two country stores in the village that were the hub of community activity. As in other communities the small stores could not compete with the nearby supermarkets in Waupun and so had to close their doors. It now has a large butter and cheese processing plant that provides hundreds of jobs for people in the nearby communities.

(1998)


Last updated 3/3/99 This site represents an ongoing effort to collect information related to the history of the town of Alto. If you have information to share, please contact Bob Schuster by email at rmschust@facstaff.wisc.edu or at 6020 Kristi Circle, Monona, Wisconsin 53716 (608) 221-1421.