The Wooden Legs Brewing Company name is a tongue in cheek tip-of-the-hat to Judge Wilmot Wood Brookings. Judge Brookings was a significant figure in early South Dakota history and the county and city were named after him although he only visited the city twice. His commitment to service and his determination to fulfill the goals he set for himself even after the loss of both legs is something anyone can admire and something we strive to emulate.

Wilmot Wood Brookings

By Chuck Cecil

The City of Brookings is named after Wilmot Wood Brookings, a native of Woolrich, Maine. Wilmot Brookings wasn’t exactly a household name in Brookings, having stepped a wooden foot into the place once in his life—some say twice, but even that doesn’t qualify him as one of the town’s favorite sons. In fact, the cantankerous editor of a local newspaper of the day, the Post, with its different political philosophy, called Brookings “an old sorehead.”

Brookings actually had two wooden feet, the result of a mishap in January 1858 while riding from Sioux Falls to Yankton for the legislative session there. His horse slipped as they crossed Split Rock Creek during a blizzard, and Brookings was thoroughly dunked in the freezing water. By the time he got back to Sioux Fall, his legs were frozen solid stiff as tent poles, and had to be amputated. He was fitted with wooden prostheses complete with knee hinges and learned to get around, although it is said he squeaked when he walked.

Brookings was a railroad man. The first locomotive to chug into South Dakota down Yankton way was named the Judge Brookings. But locomotive puffery and blown steam were familiar to Brookings in other ways, too. He was a shrewd back-room politician who could be mean spirited to his political opposites, and who thought nothing of threatening economic ruin on his political opponents. He was an opportunistic businessman who sought political favors to feather his own nest.

The “judge” preceding his name, by the way, wasn’t a recognition of his judicial expertise, although he was trained as a lawyer, but a title he received after serving on the Dakota Territorial Supreme Court, having been appointed to the post by President U. S. Grant in 1869.

The one known and well-documented visit of Brookings to Brookings was in 1882 when he came to town to expound upon his own qualifications as he sought votes to make him the Dakota Territorial Delegate to Congress.

The Sentinal reported after his campaign stop in town that while his speech was to be on the “interests of Dakota,” it turned into a harangue on the “interests of the judge himself.”

Reported The Sentinal: He delivered his speech with as much vigor as if he was addressing thousands instead of dozens. The speech was eloquent, the audience attentive and the meeting adjourned with no harm done.” The competing Brookings Press wasn’t as kind in its report. Brookings’ speech, wrote Editor George Hopp, “was a very poor harangue…and an egotisical, bombastical (sic) eulogy pronounced upon himself. It was the worst tooting of one’s own horn ever heard in our town.”

Brookings voters apparently weren’t impressed with Wilmot Brookings. He got 178 votes out of Brookings, while his opponent got 1,125.

Brookings’ other visit to Brookings wasn’t as well documented, and may not have even happened, but that’s lost in history.

Brookings became a banker and delved in real estate in Sioux Falls. He also published the Sioux Falls Argus Leader from1883 to 1885, and started a canning factory and a linen mill there.

He was born in Maine Oct. 23, 1830. And graduated from Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, in 1857. With others he established the Western Town Lot Company and the new venture set its sights on the developing Dakota Territory. After an illustrious career, while on a visit back east in 1907, he died while riding on a streetcar in Boston. His will contained a clause that he was to be cremated and his remains buried, not in Brookings his namesake, but in Yankton, where his political clout, and an occasional knee squeak often reverberated.

Wooden Legs Brewing Company would like to thank local author and resident historian Chuck Cecil for his contributions and this article. You can find more from Mr. Cecil by contacting him here at cfcecil@swiftel.net or by finding his recent published books at The Index, downtown Brookings.