A Tale of Two Men

The story of the town of Plankinton starts when a railway company agent purchases land from an early settler and lays out a new town, naming it for a Milwaukee merchant. Although Ira Woodin, the land owner, and John Plankinton, the namesake, each played a role in the founding of this community, local history reveals nothing about the men themselves. A little investigation uncovers one story rich in details and another meager in facts.

In 1879, when the United States government opened new lands for settlement in Dakota Territory, not everyone came to till the soil. Speculation as to where the railroad would lay their tracks brought in transient settlers, registering for acres they hoped to sell for a quick profit when more permanent settlers arrived by train. Others came early to be the first business proprietors supplying materials and services to the coming wave of homesteaders.

Among the first to stake a claim in Aurora County was Ira Woodin, registering two separate land grants in the area known today as Plankinton township — a timber claim in section 27 in June, 1879, and a homestead claim in section 22 in December of the same year. He paid twenty dollars to register both land parcels. Within a month, the railroad right-of-way was assigned to the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway (CM&StP) in the section where Woodin made his second claim. Seven months later, on August 10, Woodin preempted the acres he homesteaded in December, swore his oath, and paid two hundred dollars to take title to 160 acres. He realized quite a nice profit later that same day when he sold his new right and title for one thousand dollars to the railroad land agent, John Lawler, and his wife, Catherine. Woodin’s timber claim was cancelled one year later.

The purpose of the land grant laws was to transfer government land into the hands of bona fide settlers. The law forbade purchasing land under the preemption law for the purpose of selling or making any type of agreement in advance to turn it over to another person. The person claiming land was required to swear an oath affirming their intentions to settle the parcel. Although many who homesteaded or purchased their 160 acres after six months were honest and law-abiding people, corrupt land grabbers found ways to circumvent the law. Sometimes, people with money hired those without money to file a claim, prove up and perjure themselves on the same day they deeded their title to the new owner. With a limit of one successful preemption claim per person, many of the perjurers changed their names, moved on and repeated this pattern to fraudulently acquire and sell public lands.

Ira Woodin holds a place in the history of Plankinton as the person lucky enough to acquire the land favored by the railroad to build its depot and lay out a town. By 1881, Woodin was lost to history. A search in Ancestry.com for Ira Woodin (or Wooden) reveals only three people with that name who were the appropriate age at this time. By 1900, there are no Ira Woodins listed who would have likely been in South Dakota in 1880. With so little information available, and documented evidence of corruption, it’s easy to imagine this historical figure was not really named Ira Woodin, and the location chosen for his claim was not really based on chance, but on privileged information. The meager facts place Woodin in the area between June 1879 and October 1881. After that, his trail goes cold.

As soon as Lawler purchased the Woodin property, he platted the new town with its main street running perpendicular to the railroad tracks, a common plan in many railroad towns. Originally named Merrill, after S.S. Merrill, the general manager of the railroad company, the town’s name was soon changed to Plankinton. This change honored one of the directors of the CM&StP railroad, a close friend of the company’s president Alexander Mitchell, for whom the nearby city of Mitchell was named.

John Plankinton is well-known in Milwaukee history as one of the industrialists who helped Milwaukee grow from a small town into a thriving city in the late 1800s. Arriving in 1844, at age twenty-four with about four hundred dollars, he opened a butcher shop and earned twenty-five thousand by the end of his first year. Three years later, he was buying random lots of land west of the Milwaukee River, earning him the title, “Father of the West Side.” This west side soon became the center of a thriving commercial area that is now the vibrant heart of downtown Milwaukee. To honor him in 1929, thirty years after his death, city leaders changed the name of First Street to Plankinton Avenue.

Plankinton established a series of meat-packing businesses with partners who left their own legacies, including: Phillip Armour, another CM&StP director whose meat-packing plant still operates in Chicago, and who is the namesake of the town of Armour, in Douglas County; and Patrick Cudahy, Jr., who established the Patrick Cudahy meat-packing plant in Cudahy, Wisconsin. At one time, Plankinton’s was the fourth largest meatpacking company in the country. In 1864, reporting the highest income in the city of Milwaukee, he paid taxes on earnings of $104,100.

As part of a jest, Plankinton built the Plankinton House, a hotel he lavished with the best furnishings even though it seldom made a profit. Today, visitors to Milwaukee can view the life-size bronze statue of John Plankinton in the center rotunda of the Plankinton Building, on the original site of the Plankinton House, at the corner of Plankinton and Wisconsin Avenues. Plankinton’s investments in real estate, meatpacking, and railroads helped him build one the greatest fortunes in Milwaukee during his lifetime.

John Plankinton is remembered in history books as a public-spirited leader, promoting business and culture in the city he loved. Named for him are a city street, a commercial building, a statue, and a small town in South Dakota. History remembers Ira Woodin as the man who staked an early claim, sold his land to the railroad for a hefty profit, and then vanished. One man never stepped foot in town, the other barely left a footprint. Each played a small — but important — role in the creation of the first community organized in Aurora County.

Andreas, A. T. Andreas’ Historical Atlas of Dakota. Chicago: R.R. Donnelley, 1884.

Aurora County Historical Society, Aurora County History, Stickney, South Dakota: Argus Printers, 1983.

Dakota Territory Land Tract Book, vol. 15. United States, Bureau of Land Management. Accessed February 6, 2013, https://familysearch.org.

Dick, Everett. The Sod House Frontier. Lincoln, Nebraska: Johnsen Publishing Company, 1954.

Karolevitz, Bob. An Historic Sampler of Davison County. Virginia Beach, Virginia: Donning Co., 1993.
Milwaukee Sentinel, “Death Wins Him, Milwaukee Merchant Prince and Princely Merchant,” 30 Mar 1891.

Shutters, Greg, “Milwaukee’s Best,” MJ: The student magazine of Marquette University, 4 Dec 2008. marquettejournal.org/2008/12/04/milwaukees-best.

South Dakota, Aurora County Register of Deeds.

Updated version March 02, 2014. Original version published in The South Dakota Mail, Plankinton, SD on March 07, 2013.

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