"History of Lincoln, Oneida, and Vilas Counties Wisconsin"

Compiled by George O.Jones, Norman S. McVean and Others. Printed in 1924 by H.C.Cooper. Jr. & Co., Minneapoli-Winona MN. ill. 787 pages. The first two hundred pages are history of the three counties, the remainder of the book is biographies.


Vilas, William Freeman after whom Vilas County was named, was born at Chelsea, Vt., July 9, 1840, son of Levi Baker and Esther (GREEN) VILAS. When he was 11 years old his parents came west, arriving in Madison, Wis., on June 5, 1851. His early education had been well cared for and he was unusually young when he entered the University of Wisconsin. He was a brilliant student and his college career was a fair example of what his life in a larger sphere was to be, for he was a leader, a student who exerted a strong influence, and a man whose words even at this age were well worth listening to. As a member of the Hesperian Society he received a valuable training in oratory, and first learned how an audience would respond to his words. Graduated from the university in 1858, not quite 18 years of age, he then took up the study of law at the Albany Law School, N. Y., from which institution he was graduated in 1860 with the degree of bachelor of laws. Returning to his home city, he formed his first partnership on his twentieth birthday and took up the practice of his profession in Madison. During the next year he received the degree of master of arts from the University of Wisconsin, and in 1885 he was given the honorary degree of doctor of laws from his alma mater. He had scarcely opened his office and prepared for work at his beloved profession, when he began to feel that his country needed his services and that it was a sacrifice he ought to make. He therefore enlisted and was made captain of Company A., 33rd Regt. of Wis. Vol. Inf., and in August, 1862 he found himself with the Army of the Tennessee, under the command of General GRANT. In February, 1863 he was promoted to the rank of major, and further distinguished himself to that event that in the following month he was made lieutenant-colonel. The officer next higher in command being absent during the battles around Vicksburg, and during the siege and capitulation of the city, it fell to Col. VILAS to lead his regiment, in which duty he showed both courage and capacity. After the fall of Vicksburg, when the western part of the Confederacy was clearly conquered, Colonel VILAS felt that he should be at home attending to very pressing business affairs, and so, resigning his command, he returned to Madison, and in August, 1863, he was once more deep in his professional work. He was soon recognized as a lawyer of far more than ordinary ability and the University of Wisconsin honored him by offering him a chair of professor of law. He accepted this in 1868, but at the same time, by dint of working with almost superhuman energy, he was able to continue with his private practice, which was increasing all the time. He help this professorship from 1868 to 1885, and during that period many other honors and duties were placed upon his shoulders. From 1875 to 1878 he was engaged in company with others in a revision of the statutes of the state. In 1874 he was made a trustee of the Wisconsin Soldiers' Orphans' Home, and gave a great deal of attention to this work, for he felt very near to all who were his comrades in the great struggle, and he held this position until 1893. He was made a regent of the University in 1881, in recognition of the deep interest which he took in educational matters and because the university felt the need of a strong man such as he in its governing body. He held this office until 1885, when duties of a pressing nature demanded his absence from Madison. In 1884 came Mr. VILAS' active participation in politics in such a way that he was brought before the notice of the nation, although he had long been prominent in the political interests of his party in the state. This was when he was elected permanent chairman of the Democratic national convention, which was held in Chicago. When Grover CLEVELAN was nominated for the presidency on that memorable occasion, he was chosen as chairman of the committee which was appointed to notify the candidate for his nomination. On this occasion he made a notable address, which, though brief, attracted attention by its simple forcefulness. The campaign that followed will be long remembered, and during this time Colonel VILAS was elected a member of the legislature, the first office to which he had been elected by the will of the people. When the Cleveland cabinet was organized, the new president showed his appreciation of the services which Colonel VILAS had rendered to the party, and of the intrinsic strength of the man, by appointing him postmaster general. He served in this office from 1885 to 1888, when he was appointed secretary of the interior, to succeed Secretary LAMAR, who had become a justice of the Supreme Court. In both of these posts of high honor Colonel VILAS proved his strength. The chief reason for the Democratic victory in 1884 has been the belief that CLEVELAND would carry out some much needed reforms in the administrative service and that civil service reforms in particular would be advanced; therefore, the work of a cabinet was extremely heavy, more so than would ordinarily occur with a change of administration. Colonel VILAS was one of the powers of the administration, a man to be relied upon in every progressive ideas, could not but be of supreme value to the administration of the affairs of the nation. At the close of the CLEVELAND administration he again took up his law practice in Madison. so confident were the people in his ability, and so firmly did they trust him to stand for the that he was not long permitted to remain at home, but in 1891 was sent to Washington as United States senator. He served in the Senate for eight years, or until 1897. During these years he was growing more deeply into the hearts of the people and his services were now demanded in his home state. Before his term of office in the Senate was complete he was appointed a member of the State Historical Library Building Commission, and to the work of this commission he devoated much time and thought, serving until 1906, when the splendid structure which now houses the State Historical Society of Wisconsin was completed. The university then once more demanded his time and the benefit of the greater knowledge he had gained during his years of experience in administrating the country's affairs, and appointed him regent. He served his alma mater thus until 1905, his regency beginning in 1898. In 1898 he was also elected vice president of the State Historical Society, and in 1906 was made a member of the Wisconsin Capitol Building Commission, and in both of these positions he gave loyal service until his death. It was especially in the latter work that the energies of his last years were devoted, and the beautiful capitol building stands as a monument of his labors as to those of no other man. He also served as a member of the Wisconsin Vicksburg Park Monument Commission, and while served in that office he wrote "A View of the Vicksburg Campaign," which was published by the Wisconsin History Commission in October, 1908, and is one of the clearest and most interesting reports of that famous campaign that has ever been put into print. Though having little time for recreation, Colonel VILAS made three short trips to Europe and brought back more knowledge and information than many a man who has spent years there. His real recreation, however, he found in using his powers as an orator. In his addresses, a volume of which was compiled by his wife, what strikes the reader in the depth of thought displayed and clearly set forth, rather than the mere glitter of a multitude of words. As an ardent member of the Democratic party, he spoke often in behalf of its candidates, but it was rather in other fields that his oratorical honors were won. He was called upon to deliver addresses before such associations as the Society of the Army of the Tennessee, and before various organizations of the University of Wisconsin, and before many other groups of brilliant and influential men. On such occasions he achieved marked success, and when at the banquet given by the Society of Army of the Tennessee, at the Palmer House, Chicago, in honor of General Grant upon his return from his trip around the world, he delivered the response to the toast, "Our First Commander," his effort aroused tumultuous enthusiasm. The entire banquet party rose to its feet and the hall resounded with cheer upon cheer till Colonel VILAS was compelled to again rise, while hearty cheers were given. Colonel VILAS was married in 1866 to Miss Anna M. FOX, a daughter of Dr. William H. FOX, of Fitchburg, Wis. They made their first home near Madison, in a beautiful grove of oaks a few miles south of the city, where in the quiet and peace of an ideal home life the young lawyer gathered strength for the days when he was to be thrust out in the full glare of public life, with the battle of a great nation on his hands. In 1879 he moved into the city and in the beautiful home at the corner of Gilman Street and Wisconsin Avenue, facing the waters the Lake Mendota, he passed the remainder of his life. His death came August 27, 1908. In November, 1912, Mrs. VILAS, with her daughter, Mrs. Lucien M. HANKS, erected, by the request of the National Park Commissioners, a large bronze statue of Colonel VILAS on the breastworks of the battlefield of Vicksburg, Tenn.

Transcribed by Susan Swanson, from pages 392-394, History of Lincoln, Oneida and Vilas Counties Wisconsin; Compiled by George O. Jones, Norman S. McVean and Others 1924, H. C. Cooper, Jr. & Co

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