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Guide to the Freethinkers Society of Bostwick Valley Records, 1862-1949 MSS 103

Guide to the Freethinkers Society of Bostwick Valley Records, 1862-1949

MSS 103

Summary Information

The Freier Maenner-Verein in Bostwick Valley / Freidenker-Verien [Freethinkers Society of Bostwick Valley], La Crosse Co., Wisconsin (Barre Mills, Wis.) existed from 1869 to 1917. This group was a Freethinker or free thought congregation whose members were generally born in Hanover, Germany. Records include a membership log book, 1862-1905; a financial journal 1889-1917; a copy of translated and transcribed minutes, 1869-1917; and copies of newspaper articles related to the group or its members; and finally personal correspondence to Mr. and Mrs. Louis Sander and their daughter Hulda, 1881-1949. Some materials are written in the German language.
Collection Title
Freethinkers Society of Bostwick Valley Records
Date of Materials
Freethinkers Society of Bostwick Valley (Barre Mills, Wis.).
Call Number
MSS 103
0.4 cubic feet
Physical Description
1 archives box
Language of Materials
La Crosse Public Library Archives

Preferred Citation

[Identification of item], Freethinkers Society of Bostwick Valley Records, MSS 103, La Crosse Public Library Archives, La Crosse, WI

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Historical Note

The German Free Thinkers movement was a religious and intellectual movement called "Frein Gemeinden" or "free congregations." This movement had its roots in the 1840 revolt of the state supported Protestant church of Germany. A similar revolt in the Roman Catholic congregations also occurred near the time of the 1848 uprisings in Europe. Many of these dissenters immigrated to the United States and were referred to as "48’ers." The main focus of the Free Thinkers was that there was no set creed and was based on ideals based in the natural world with a more scientific view toward creation. Eventually many followers joined the Universalist movement.

A local group was formed in La Crosse in 1868 but did not have a large following and disbanded in 1870. While the La Crosse society lost steam, another group was just forming in the Barre Mills area which called itself “Free Religious Reading and Investigating Society” and was incorporated June 26, 1870 [La Crosse County Register of Deeds, Church Incorporation, vol. 1, p. 44]. The three trustees listed were Peter Grünswald, Fried Nuttlemann (Nuttelman) and Fried Miller, while the presiding chair was held by H. Sanders and secretary D. Sandmann. The members met in a brick building that eventually became the Town of Barre Hall.

The cemetery land was deeded to the Free Religious Reading and Investigating Society of the Town of Barre on June 3, 1880, for $10 by Hermann and Mary Sanders [La Crosse County Register of Deeds volume 52 p. 608-9]: "...Reserving, however, for a burial ground of the grantors and their family a piece in the southeast corner of the tract 28 ft. x 16½ ft. and now known as Lot No. 1 of the cemetery plat laid out by the grantees upon the above and adjoining premises....this grant is made upon condition that at the burial of any person upon said burying grounds, no ceremony of any religious sect nor any oration of any religious sectarian character shall be permitted, and no ceremony or oration shall ever be permitted thereon at any time except those of a free thinking, common sense or purely scientific character, free from any dogmas or theories or beliefs of any other religious sect. In the case the above provisions are not kept, the property shall revert to the grantors hereof or their legal representatives, without restoration of any consideration."

According to a James O. Holmlund article that appeared in the La Crosse Tribune in 1964, the Bostwick Valley Free Thinkers disbanded in 1916 for lack of financial support. The meeting hall became the property of the Town of Barre, and in 1999 was nominated and approved by the La Crosse County Historic Sites Preservation Committee for historic designation. The building has since been razed.

In front of the area that is the Free Thinkers Cemetery is another cemetery called "Old St. John’s" Lutheran Church cemetery that was selling lots as early as January 1863. The Free Thinkers, as noted above, formed in 1869, although this land was not designated for Free Thinkers use until 1880 as witnessed by the date of the deed.

An oral tradition suggests that the nearby creek flooded, and the caskets, tombstones and remains of the “Freidankers” was washed out in about 1899. Most caskets were retrieved and reburied in the cemetery, presumably as unknown persons as no identification was on the caskets. Bob Selbrede surmises that the old stones that could not be matched with a casket were then ultimately used as footings for later stones in Old St. John’s Cemetery.

However, many of the Free Thinkers are buried in Hamilton Cemetery & Mausoleum and were clearly disinterred to be re-interred in the mausoleum. The old headstone would no longer be needed in the mausoleum. The mausoleum was constructed in 1916 and contains burials of Freethinkers who died in the 1880s.

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Scope and Contents

The financial log covers day-to-day expenses and income from 1889-1917 when the group dissolved. This is written in the German language.

The membership log, 1862-1905, contains three distinct sections, all in chronological order: a membership section of adults when they joined the congregation and some vital statistics (1870-1905 pages 1-17); a list of families with birth dates of children (1869-1905 pages 84-121); and then what seems to be a list of those interred in the congregation’s burial site (1862-1905; pages 142-151). This book is written in the German language and contains a lot of genealogically rich information.

Minutes (1869-1917), although not the original, were copied by Bob Selbrede of West Salem. This translated and transcribed version of the Freethinker minutes was preserved in the Hamilton Mausoleum records.

Newspaper clippings include an article written by James O. Holmlund (1964), as well as copied obituaries of many Freethinker members.

The personal correspondence (1881-1949) was written to Mr. and Mrs. Louis Sander and their daughter Hulda and is not necessarily directly related to the Freethinkers. However, one of the letters from a niece in 1914 mentions a proposal of the Hamilton Mausoleum. Also a letter written in German from someone in Watertown, Wis., is likely related to the Freethinker movement. Most of the correspondence is written in the English language, except three letters.

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Administrative Information

Publication Information

La Crosse Public Library Archives 2006 May

800 Main St.
La Crosse, Wisconsin, 54601
(608) 789-7136

Access to Materials

Materials in this collection are available for patron use.

Acquisitions Information

(Accession nos. 2006.039, 2006.044) Purchased at flea market March 18, 2006, from a dealer Jan Correll by Bill Doering and donated to the La Crosse Public Library, April and May 2006; thought to have originally been from the Louis Sander family; translated transcription of the minutes was provided by Bob Selbrede as found in the Hamilton Mausoleum minutes

Processing Information

Processed by Anita Taylor Doering, 2006 May

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Controlled Access Headings

Corporate Name(s)

  • Freethinkers Society of Bostwick Valley (Barre Mills, Wis.).
  • Freidenker-Verien.


  • Church records and registers--Wisconsin--Barre Mills
  • Freethinkers--Wisconsin--Barre Mills
  • German Americans--Religion

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Collection Inventory

Box Folder

Financial journal, 1899-1917 

1 1

Membership log 

Box Folder Page

Members, 1870-1905 

1 2 1-17

Families, 1869-1905 

1 2 84-121

Cemetery listings and burials, 1862-1905 

1 2 142-151
Box Folder

Minutes, 1869-1917 

1 3

Newspaper clippings 

1 4

Personal correspondence 

Box Folder

Calling cards, undated 

1 5

General, 1881-1949 

1 6

Henry and Rachel Sanders' children, 1914-1949 

1 7

Greeting cards, undated 

1 8