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Levi Baker Vilas

Levi Baker Vilas

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-39000

Levi Baker Vilas

Levi Baker Vilas (February 25, 1811 – February 6, 1879) was Madison’s fourth mayor, serving from 1861 to 1862. A member of the Vermont legislature, he moved to Madison in 1851. He erected the first stone house in the city on Fourth Lake Ridge; at that time there were less than half a dozen houses between him and the Capitol. There were no sidewalks and the Square was reached by means of footpaths through an intervening dense woods. He was a farmer and invested in real estate, became owner of the Vilas House in 1853 (at the corner of Main Street and Wisconsin Avenue), and was an organizer and first president of the Dane County Bank. He was a member of the assembly in 1855, 1868 and 1873, a Dane County draft commissioner in 1862, and a UW regent from 1853 to 1865. He became an outspoken critic of the Lincoln administration after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.

While mayor, Vilas was determined to rid the city of dogs that ran at large, destroyed trees, and made sidewalks unfit for use. He directed the police to shoot unleashed dogs on sight. The Council ordered police who did not kill their quota of dogs to be fined. When Vilas ran for reelection in 1862 his animal control policy cost him his job; only forty percent of the electorate voted for him. One recent immigrant said he had come to this country “for the enjoyment of freedom, but that during the past year his cow had been put into the pound six times and that he could not take her out of the yard to milk her without having her taken away by some police officer.” As reported in the Daily Patriot, during his last minutes in office Vilas vowed to “never, without making every manly and lawful resistance, surrender the possession of the city to be overrun by horses, cattle, swine and geese; nor its government to those whose highest idea of freedom is to pasture their hogs in their neighbor’s garden and roost their geese upon our sidewalks.”

Levi and his wife Esther (December 27, 1819 – June 12, 1892) had nine children. The most prominent was William, who served as United States senator, Postmaster General, and Secretary of the Interior. Vilas Park is named after Levi’s grandson Henry.

Mark Gajewski