May 20, 2009

Historic gavel's owner had an unsavory past

Don't read too much into this, but there's a fascinating backstory connected to the 160-year-old gavel given to John Dickert last night, immediately after he was sworn in as Racine's mayor. What we were told, and reported, is that it originally belonged to "historic Milwaukee Mayor Byron Kilbourn."

But who was Byron Kilbourn, and why is he "historic"?

A reader tipped us off: "Wow. I hope the gavel gift is not symbolic. Kilbourn was one of the most crooked politicians that ever served in Wisconsin. He was disgraced when it was revealed that he gave almost $1 million in bribes to secure land for railroads."

And he gave us a link to a video of Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, presenting a few details. Speaking at the Sixth Annual Fighting Bob Fest on Sept. 8, 2007, McCabe outlined the bribes Kilbourn paid to get free land for railroads, the $300,000 in graft -- another website says it was $631,000 -- he gave to crooked legislators (remember, this was 160 years ago, when a dollar really was a dollar!), and the governor who was thrown out of office as a result.

But wait, there's more... Let's not forget Kilbourn’s involvement in the “Bridge War of 1845," when the rivalry between the east side (Juneautown) of what is now Milwaukee and the west side (Kilbourntown) led Kilbourn, who later became Milwaukee's third mayor, to drop a bridge in the river to keep the two towns separate, and his own on top. You can read all about that glorious chapter in our history here.

The reader who tipped us off to all this notes, "Okay, I know that this probably means nothing, but I thought I would share it anyway…..It just peeves me that people like Kilbourn continue to get glorified. I fear that in 100 years will we have Chuck Chvala parkway."

And now you know the rest of the story...

More information on Kilbourn is HERE and HERE.


  1. Racine has a huge gavel pit up at
    3 mile and Douglas.

  2. Not so fast Pete, that's not the ENTIRE PAUL HARVEY wrap up. Here, from the book "Byron Kilbourn and the Development of Milwaukee" by Goodwin Berquist and Paul C. Bowers, published by the Milwaukee County Historical Society, 2001. In the mid 1850's Wisconsin was at fever pitch for railroad building. William Ogden (famous name) of Chicago had persuaded US Congress to issue huge land grants in Wisconsin for railroad building in the south and north. Ogden then went to Wisconsin Legislature thinking he would be "rewarded" with title to those lands for his company to build all the railroads. But Ogden's plan completely bypassed Milwaukee so the State lawmakers decided it a better idea to give Ogden the south and split the north into 2 parts, the northeast and northwest. A new company was formed to produce the railroad for the northeast part of the state. This company was populated by turncoats who, upon receiving the title by grant, resigned their positions and gave them over to - you guessed it - Ogden's hand picked representatives. This was okayed by the Legislature because, as circumstancial shows, they received some pretty sizeable payoff for allowing this to happen. This was a comon practice at the time and the population was willing to turn their heads because, hey they got the railroads, that's all that matters to them at the time. Byron Kilbourn and his group, who had built the earlier railroads from Milwaukee to the Mississippi then decided it was fair game to act accordingly in order to secure the land for railroad development "for the good of the people". They started with Gov. Bashford and went through most of the Assembly and Senate. They offered LaCrosse Company (the railroad company that was formed for the project) securities to the legislators totaling around $860,000. No actual money changed hands. At the time securities laws were much different and while this was certainly immoral it was never proven to be illegal. Ogden (Chicago and Northwestern Railroad) of course got wind of the "bribes" and raised a stink with incoming Governor Randall who promptly appointed some of Ogden's cronies to head an investigation into the matter. AFter 3 months of hollering and refusing to testify and then testifying with immunity and all kinds of witnesses and hot wind, in May of 1858 all companies were censured but all the rascals involved were let in place. No prosecutions, no penalties. Ogden and Kilbourn were at each other over this the whole time, Ogden was profiteering at the expense of Milwaukeeans, and Kilbourn saw himself as being duty bound to stop Ogden. The investigation turned into a witch hunt and nothing else with both Democrats and Republicans aiming at each other. So neither side wanted to stop the inquiry because they each felt they could gain political power with the demise of the other. It is important to note that not only did investors from other states throw in with Ogden and Kilbourn's companies, so did many municipalities, includiing the City of Milwaukee on Kilbourns side. Ogden exchanged money, Kilbourn exchanged "money" or "paper" or "whatever". The dealings were so arrogent that Ogden actually asked Kilbourn to pay him back over $60,000 Ogden had payed in Washington to some US lawmaker for securing the original US land grant. Byron Kilbourn started his Wisconsin life by doing so many wonderful things for the state. Wisconsin is what it is today largely because of his skillful business and political manuevering. Even though Byron Kilbourn had an unsavory end to his political and business career he chose to compromise himself in order to accomplish a goal that he claimed was for the good of his state and his home City. I think that is mostly true, although it is never an excuse. Let's hope that John Dickert (the impetus of this story) can learn from those mistakes and steer clear of such foolishness. He seems to be of good moral character. His mom likes him. His wife adores him. His children love him. That should be enough.

  3. You know, this reminds me of the "Otis Campbell" history investigation from the Andy Griffith show!!!! :)

  4. Founding Father Byron Kilbourn returns to Milwaukee
    Byron Kilbourn, a surveyor from Connecticut, came to Milwaukee in 1836. He bought 160 acres of land west of the Milwaukee River. Solomon Juneau bought the same amount of land east of the Milwaukee River to Lake Michigan. Both men built up their settlements independently. In 1837, two separate villages were incorporated, Juneautown and Kilbourntown. Both villages vied for residents and dominance, each certain it would outlast the other. As time passed, it became clear that the two would be better off as one, and in 1846 the two villages incorporated as the City of Milwaukee, along with Walker’s point, which was founded by George Walker.

    In 1848 and again in 1854, Byron Kilbourn was elected Mayor of Milwaukee. In 1858, his railroad company was exposed as using $631,000 in bribes to approve the railroad’s federal land grants. Nonetheless, Kilbourn was a respected and powerful citizen in Milwaukee. In 1868, he moved to Jacksonville, Florida because of failing health. He died there on December 16, 1870.

    Byron Kilbourn was the only one of the three founding fathers of Milwaukee not buried here. Solomon Juneau is at Calvary Cemetery and George Walker at Forest Home. There is a Kilbourn family plot at Forest Home, where Kilbourn’s wife and two of his children are buried.

    Frank Matusinec, a member of Historic Milwaukee for over 18 years, decided Kilbourn belonged in Milwaukee. Working with Historic Milwaukee’s Executive Director, Sandy Ackerman, Frank began planning Kilbourn’s return.

    A relative was located and permission was granted to move Kilbourn to the family plot. Next, Frank got in touch with Tom Wiseman of Brett Funeral Home. Tom contacted a funeral parlor in Jacksonville to assist in the effort locally. In November, Kilbourn’s 1200-pound cast iron casket, accompanied by a very strong odor, was excavated. Planning started for a fitting ceremony here in Milwaukee. Once apprised of their possible cargo, airlines and trucking companies declined to transport the casket back. So Frank flew down to Jacksonville, rented a truck and drove back to Milwaukee with the casket and the grave’s obelisk.

    The ceremony on December 16, 1998 was a joint effort. City Hall was the site, with the Police and Fire Department Honor Guards. The Police Departments Historic Mounted Police also participated. Kilbourn was a Mason and the Mason’s Commandry stood casket duty. Speakers included Mayor John Norquist, former Governor Lee Sherman Dreyfus, County Executive Tom Ament and Terry Perry from Congressman Tom Barrett’s office. Canon Gordon Okunsanya of the Episcopal Diocese and Richard Black, Grand Master of the Masons in Wisconsin also spoke. At the cemetery, Canon Gordon offered an Episcopal committal service and the Masons did a shortened version of their committal service. The City flag that was draped over the casket was presented to the Kilbourn family.

    One hundred thirty years after he left the city he helped found, Byron Kilbourn returned home to rest.

  5. So he was a crook, but milwaukee loved him....figures hey!

  6. Yes. He may have been a crook, but he was OUR crook!

  7. and he was an important part of the founding of Racine. You missed the significance.

  8. And look at what marvelous care we have taken of it. Not to mention, we continue the legacy of greed and shortsighted government. So much to be proud of for sure!