Sun Prairie Historic Locations

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Sun Prairie Beginnings

I hope you have all heard this story of the Bird family, but just in case you haven’t, I’ll tell you how they came to name our town, Sun Prairie…

Having been named one of the three Commissioners to oversee the building of the Territorial Capital of Wisconsin, Augustus Bird arranged for his five brothers (Charles, Ira, William, Zenas and Prosper) to work on his building crews in Madison. They were all carpenters and stonecutters in their home state of New York and had just finished up the contracts they had been working on the Erie Canal.   

In January 1837, they hooked up oxen to a couple Prairie Schooners, loaded their tools and supplies along with their sister and recently widowed mother, and began their journey across the country. It took five months for the Bird family to travel almost 900 miles from New York to Milwaukee. They spent some time there, getting the women settled and assembling a crew of workers, before leaving with a total of forty-four men for Madison. The wagons were filled with the tools and equipment needed to build the Capitol, and while Augustus, being a commissioner, rode a horse, the rest of the Bird Expedition was on foot.  

In their travel from New York, they had never experienced the wilderness that confronted them now. Mile after mile they literally created their own path through the untamed forest and marsh-covered land. Cutting down trees and building up roads over the marshes was extremely hard work and on top of it all, was a constant rain, every day.

After nine long days, of being drenched to the bone, footsore, and weary, the Bird Expedition stumbled out onto a prairie. Their path was finally clear of trees and for the first time the sun, in all its glory, emerged from behind the clouds and the rain ended.  They celebrated, made camp and carved the words “Sun Prairie” into a nearby oak tree to commemorate this wonderful day. 

By the next afternoon, they had made it to Madison and began their work building the capital. That first road cleared by the Bird Expedition from Milwaukee to Madison continued to be used. In the early development of this area, everything was built with lumber and although wood was growing everywhere, the only lumber mill was in Milwaukee so supplies had to be transported via horse and wagon. That Bird Expedition road became known as the Aztalan Highway. Today it’s called Highway 19 and as it goes through Sun Prairie, it’s called Main Street.

Two years after they had arrived in Madison, Charles Bird left the city his older brother was building and came back to Sun Prairie with his wife and newborn son to build his own town, in that ideal place he remembered so fondly. It was 1839, and Charles Bird had 120 acres of farm land and he built his house right on the edge of that road he helped create.

This is where the museum now stands. His first home was most likely a small hunting cabin and then rebuilt into a yellow frame house and finally, in the 1850s, he built this house from local brick. This house was at a crossroads, where the Aztalan Highway (going from Madison to Milwaukee) split into another road going northeast from Madison to Columbus (and on to Fond du Lac). Today, this crossroads is where Columbus Street intersects with Main Street in downtown Sun Prairie.

Since the Bird house had big shade trees in their front yard, it became a lovely place for travelers to tie-up their horses and relax in the shade. The Bird family ran a general store out of their home and soon the area became known as “Birds Corners”. It became a nucleus for the new community, dependent on both local farmers and travelers as sources of income.