Here to return to
NEW TIMES AND OLD IN WISCONSIN
IN going from Minnesota to Wisconsin I spent half a day on the banks of the Mississippi. It was an unusually warm morning; but there was a breeze to temper the heat, and the views along the stream were very beautiful that gentle summery day. The bluffs on either side looked like mountain ranges, and their sturdy bulwarks fading away delicately blue, north and south, until they vanished in the distance, were most cheering to the eye after all the interminable flatlands which I had been seeing on the prairie country. The river itself was a much more lovable stream here than on its lower course, where it is broader and muddier and so given to tearing the banks and wreaking destruction.
When I continued my journey I went well back from the great river up the valley of the Chippewa to a town which was a country trading centre of some importance. It had a long business street lined with low brick and wooden stores, among which saloons were noticeably abundant. “Yes,” said one man, “we got fourteen saloons for our seventeen hundred inhabitants, and they’re never locked. There’s some laws as to the hours they’re allowed to be open; but when a man in this town starts a saloon he throws the key in the river.”
I arrived in mid-afternoon and the street was full of vehicles from the farms. The walks and stores were alive with people looking, visiting, and trading. Perhaps the place where most congregated was at a store in which an auction was being held. When I passed it the auctioneer was in a swelter of ardent exertion trying to get eighty-five cents instead of eighty for a piece of dress goods he was waving about with the assertion that it was worth two dollars.
The main street was parallel with the river, and the buildings on the west side turned their backs on the stream. Their rear foundations were washed by the current, and the situation in that direction was quite Venetian. The river was very low and everywhere streaked with sandbars, and these sandbars were strewn with logs. Along the shores were more logs, and there were logs lodged against the bridge piers and all other chance obstructions — thousands of them. Each Sunday there was a flood. Far up the river was a dam where the water was accumulated on purpose to “slush out the logs.” When the gates are opened the river is raised about eighteen inches. Then the logs on the sandbars and shores go drifting on, and a multitude of others follow from the forests of the upper waters. The river is their highway, and they come in unceasing succession for many weeks of the spring and summer. Every season in the last forty years the stream has borne this same freightage of woodland spoils; but the land is now pretty thoroughly denuded, and as one of my chance acquaintances said, “This year practically winds ‘em up. When I was a boy the logs floated so thick you could walk across the river on ‘em steppin’ from one to another. A few years ago there was lots o’ rafts of sawed lumber went down — sometimes twenty a day. There’d be men on the rafts and every raft would have a tent on it for the men to sleep in. They’d tie up nights.”
Now, only logs go down; but they are stopped by a boom and rafted when they get to where the Chippewa joins the Mississippi, and then are floated or towed down the great river to sawmills — even as far south as St. Louis.
The artificial flooding of the Chippewa is not at all to the liking of some of the residents on the banks. In the first place it made trouble with the Indians. “They had big fields of wild rice on the lowlands,” said my informant, “and these was jus’ bein’ spoiled by the water and logs comin’ on ‘em. So they got ready to break the dam. They was goin’ to fight, if necessary, and they took along their bows and arrows, and a few rusty old guns they had. They found three or four hundred white men ready for ‘em, and there’d ‘a’ been a battle sure; but the lumber company made a treaty with the Indians and agreed to give ‘em every year free gratis as much rice as they could have raised.
“This season the company is havin’ trouble with a man who owns a farm where the dam is. He claims they got no business to flood his land, and he says they must pay him ten cents a thousand for all the logs they run through the dam. He says he’s goin’ to keep the gates in the dam locked until they agree. They offered five hundred dollars to buy him off, and when he refused it they sent a hundred men to clean him out; but be made the men a speech and the whole lot quit. Most everybody up there is in sympathy with him, because the lumber company has been pretty arbitrary and acted as if no one got any rights but them. The man has his Winchester ready, and he’s put up a stone building with port-holes in it, and he and his wife are in there. Last thing I heard he’d wounded the sheriff who was goin’ to arrest him, and it was expected the governor would send troops to shoot him out.”
One of my rambles took me several miles up the valley. The roads were a serious handicap to the pleasures of the walk, for they were ankle deep with dust and sand. The teams I met moved at a snail’s pace, the wheels ploughing heavily into the sand. Sometimes the occupants of the vehicles took pity on the horses and got out and plodded along beside them. Back from the river the land rose in steep bluffs to a higher level, and the roads were harder. The uplands were for the most part a great unfenced plain with wooded ridges off in the distance. There were occasional groups of farm buildings, and now and then workers and teams toiling in the fields. Much spring work was still to be done, and in some of the last year’s cornfields the shattered stalks were standing as yet undisturbed. The wind was blowing, and it rustled through the dry, faded cornstalks with a shivering and lonely sort of a dirge.
Here and there along the horizon smoke was rising from woodland fires, and its pungent odor pervaded the air. Considerable damage was being done, though the local forests were not very large or valuable. As a rule the fires are allowed to burn themselves out; but occasionally the farmers go in force and try to subdue the devouring flames.
The farmhouses of the region were usually of brick or stone, snug and substantial, with numerous outbuildings. There were few trees and little shrubbery about them, and in general the landscape was singularly barren and forbidding. I could not help fancying that I was far in the north, where the chill of winter is so prolonged that the growths of forest and field get no chance to attain full development. Yet the trim dwellings and big barns seemed to proclaim plentiful harvests and a large degree of prosperity. Dairying is the chief business. Great quantities of milk are produced for the creameries, and everywhere were broad pastures and grazing herds of cows.
The sky had been gradually clouding all day, and, as the afternoon advanced, the light faded into a gray gloom. I turned back toward the town and was fortunate in getting there ahead of the storm. We had two or three showers slapdashing around in the night, and it began raining again in the morning. The landscape was dim and blurred with the driving storm, and I could scarcely see the bluffs and trees on the opposite side of the stream.
My landlord advised me to call on a certain old gentleman who lived on the outskirts of the town and who made a specialty of collecting geological and Indian relics. “I’ll lend you an umbrell,” said he, in conclusion, “and that’ll stop the rain. Then you’ll leave it somewhere and forget it if you’re anything like me. So I won’t lend you my best one.”
I found the person recommended at work under a shed — a white-haired countryman in a red shirt and an ancient slouch hat. Beneath the trees in his garden he had a little building packed full of his gatherings, and these he took great satisfaction in showing to me. There was no end of stones, beautiful and curious — meteorites, petrifactions, corals, crystals, and I know not what. Among the rest were many Indian implements varying from tiny bird arrows to heavy mauls and axes. Collecting had been a life-long enthusiasm, and his gatherings were locally quite famous.
“The teachers in the town schools been comin’ here lately and bringin’ the children to see the stones,” said he. “They think the scholars can learn considerable that way which they couldn’t learn out of books. But some of our people are afraid the children’ll learn a little too much. We got one preacher in particular that claims they’ll all get to be infidels because I tell ‘em some o’ the facts o’ geology that don’t fit with his theological ideas. He tackled me one day on the street to complain of what I’d been sayin’ to the children about the age of the earth. ‘God made this world in six days,’ said he, ‘and there ain’t but six thousand years passed since.’
“‘Why,’ I said, ‘I got stones in my museum a half-inch thick that was found in the ocean bed, and that couldn’t ‘a’ been made there in less’n fifty thousand years.’
“‘Oh, no,’ he says, `you’re mistaken. Don’t you believe the Bible?’
“‘Well,’ I says, ‘the Bible is a pretty fair middlin’ sort of history of the Jewish people; but it ain’t no scientific work.’
“Talking with him was a waste of breath. That feller wouldn’t know beans if he had his head in the bag. He’s very religious, of course; but that’s human nature — the more ignorance, the more religion.
“I can remember when people all thought as he does; and it’d surprise you how bigoted some o’ the preachers was. For instance, there was a preacher we had in my boyhood days who made a great whoop and hurrah about keepin’ the Sabbath, and he wouldn’t never preach of a Sunday without givin’ us a good stiff warnin’ about goin’ to church. He claimed the Bible would back him up in all he said. But it wouldn’t, and after church, one day, I asked him a few questions and got him cornered. Then he spoke to my father and said, ‘If that was my boy I’d tie him to a tree and whip him till the blood run off his heels.’
“My father had been a-listening to our talk, and he said, ‘You ain’t been fair. You didn’t answer him, and this is the last time I’ll come to hear your preachin’.’
“He never went to that church again, and I been doin’ my own thinkin’ ever since.”
The town was still young, and there were persons living in it who had been residents from the start. Such persons liked to recall the early hardships, and I enjoyed listening to the story of their experiences.
“My folks was the first people here,” said one man. “We were a month on the road comin’. Sometimes we’d make fifteen miles a day, and then again not more’n three or four. Most of our stuff was in a big canvas-topped wagon drawn by a yoke of cattle. We had, besides, a lighter covered wagon drawn by one horse. Us kids rode in that. We carried our food, and when we run short we could buy more; for the country was settled some until we got most here. The roads was pretty bad and the last part of the journey there was nothin’ but Indian trails. The woods was full of fallen trees, and often we’d have to chop ‘em away in order to get along. When we come to a stream we usually had to ford it, though sometimes there’d be a ferry.
“People movin’ like that was in the habit of goin’ in companies of from two to half a dozen families. We had several other families goin’ with us, and whenever some wagons got ahead of the rest, the people that was in front would every now and then write on a slip of paper and put it on a stick side of the road tellin’ when they passed. We always tried to camp where we could get water easy. If we found a good stream in the middle of the afternoon we’d stop there, for fear we wouldn’t do as well later. We’d build a fire on the ground and get the kittle boiling, and perhaps we’d ketch a mess of fish. Some nice evenings we’d sleep on the ground or in a tent; but generally we bunked in the wagons.
“When we got here we put up a log house. The walls was of logs, and we split logs for the floor and for the roof and window-casings and doors. Our chimney was made of mud and sticks. We didn’t use any nails or iron worth mentioning in the whole job. Wooden pins did for nails, and leather straps for door hinges.
The latches for the doors was wooden, and a string was hitched on to the latch and run out through a hole above. When you wanted to come in, you yanked the string and that lifted the latch, and you only needed to pull in the string and the door was locked.
At the Back Door
“Well, there we was, a few families of us, and the nearest settlement was Reed’s Landing, down where the Chippewa joins the Mississippi. We had horses and oxen, but no roads, and we had to get our supplies from Reed’s Landing on foot. The distance was only twenty miles; but it would take father two days to come back with a sack of flour on his shoulder. The flour made a big load and he’d go pokin’ along pretty slow. At night he’d stop and build a fire and roll up in his blankets and go to sleep. That winter we had the most snow I’ve ever seen. It lay four feet on a level and the drifts was ten feet deep. When we run out of grub and father had to go to Reed’s Landing, he’d put on snowshoes and drag a sled after him with his gun strapped to it.
“We did without most everything that wa’n’t absolutely necessary those first years. Pork was twenty-five cents a pound and other things in proportion. We had just one hen, and the eggs she laid was worth a dollar and a half a dozen. So we didn’t eat ‘em, but exchanged ‘em for coffee. We generally had bread, though it wa’n’t half the time we had wheat flour. Corn-bread was the standard. Venison was plenty.
A fellow could go back here on the bluff any time and kill five or six deer in a day. I’ve seen deer run through the streets among the log houses and wooden stores. It was no excitement at all to see one swim across the river. Sometimes we’d run out and take a boat and foller after the deer and kill it with a paddle. The winter of the big snow a man could go on his snowshoes and knock the deer down with an axe.
“We used to lay by a good deal of dry venison. We’d first salt it down for a few days, and then hang it by the kitchen fire to dry. The dried meat was called jerked venison. I can remember settin’ on the doorstep eatin’ it when I got hungry between meals. Us kids was eatin’ all the time. Everything tasted good then. When you get older your appetite goes back on you; but you most likely think there’s a difference in the cookin’. You say to your wife, ‘Gosh, darn it! my mother use to cook food that was good.’ But it wa’n’t the cookin’! — it was your appetite that was good. These little rascals knocking around on our streets are ready to eat anything and enjoy it, and so it will be always.
“One food we had regular was hominy. We’d sit up nights to shell the corn. To take the hulls off we’d boil it in lye, and after that, it was boiled in water to get rid of the lye. Then it needed to be renced three or four times and was ready for a little seasonin’ of pepper, salt, and lard. We had fried hominy about every mornin’.
“Do you know what pumpkin butter is? We made it by boiling the pumpkins in a big kittle, then squeezing the juice out in a press, and straining and boiling it down. Perhaps it would be thickened some with apples. You spread that on a piece of bread, and you’d think it was the only thing in the world.
“There was no beef or milk to be had at first; but more people was comin’ into the country all the time, and they soon brought cattle and begun growin’ potatoes, and then we was all right. We made roads, too, and the lumber companies got a-goin’, and the logs and rafts was floatin’ down the river. To get our supplies easier the people here built a keel boat forty feet long and ten wide, and they use to pole it down to Reed’s Landing and back. When the wind was right they’d put up a big sail. It took four men to handle it, and they was several days comin’ back against the current.
“Of course there was Indians around; but they was perfectly friendly at first. They would come to our house now and then and ask for something to eat. Mother’d give ‘em a slice of bread spread with lard. We didn’t have no butter — didn’t know what butter was. They were great beggars, and they’d steal anything they could lay their hands on — I’ve been to their villages and inside of their wigwams. The wigwams had a frame of sticks set up cone shaped and covered with hides, and they always was dirty and had a smoky smell. When a family got hungry they boiled up a mess of meat, and each of ‘em would set down and eat a chunk. They didn’t wear much clothes in summer; but in winter they had a full suit of buckskin, and put on leggings, moccasins, and blankets. Most of ‘em scratched over a little ground and raised a few pumpkins and some corn. They ain’t got the ambition to do any more than that, even now. The fact is, you can’t civilize an Indian. They’re just like a partridge. It’s their nature to be camping out. You can educate them as much as you please, and they’ll go wild again and get back to their old ways and haunts.
“In 1857, I think it was, when I was about eight years old, the Chippewas and Sioux fought a battle here. We saw the two parties arrive late one day, and we knew at once there was goin’ to be trouble and was well scared. All the whites got together in the biggest and stoutest log house. About dark I slipped out and went down by the river and hid where I could look on. I got near enough to one of the parties so I see their war dance. They formed a circle with a feller settin’ in the centre poundin’ a drum, and while they danced they sang in a kind of monotone and waved around their guns and bows and arrows and tomahawks. It wa’n’t long before the fighting began, and some Indians was in canoes and some on the bank, and I saw ‘em killin’ and scalpin’ each other. Pretty soon father come lookin’ for me, and he give me the worst lickin’ I ever had.
Making Lye for Soft-soap
“There was lots of elk when we first come and quite a few moose and plenty of timber wolves. Week before last a feller brought to town seven little wolves he’d caught back in the woods. It was a good haul, because there’s a bounty of six dollars apiece. I hear every little while of some farmer who has lost sheep carried off by the wolves. I’ve had ‘em kill calves of mine a year old. I come across five or six wolves chasin’ a deer through the woods once. They had it jus’ about petered, and when it come opposite me they downed it. Then I stepped up and they all run but one. I fixed him with my gun and got the deer. They hadn’t harmed it any but the throat, and I cut off what meat I could carry handy, and the rest I hitched to an iron-wood sappling that I bent over and then let it swing up into the air. That hoisted the carcass out of the wolves’ reach.
“A wolf is a funny animal. You find a nest and handle the young, and the old wolf will go off and desert ‘em. When we was new to the country we was afraid of the wolves; but we soon got used to their ways and learned there was nothing to be scared of. Even if you are alone and it’s night they won’t touch you if you’ve got a fire built. I wouldn’t mind meeting eight or ten of ‘em if I had a good club. Ordinarily they’ll run from you; but they might attack you if they was very hungry. I’ve never had any trouble with ‘em, and I been out all sorts of times and places. If you’re passin’ along a lonely road after dark you’ll hear ‘em howl to get their gang together. They know you are there, and somewhere off on the bluffs they’ll be answering one another; but after they’ve sized you up they’ll go away.
“We had wildcats here — oh, Lord, yes! And we had bears; but bears are harmless beasts. Of course, corner one up or get him in a trap and he’ll fight. Even a deer’ll fight in such circumstances. I’ve had ‘em raise up in a huckleberry patch and look at me; but they didn’t offer to do me no harm. I’m often asked if bears ever chase any one. Well, I’ve heard people say so; but I didn’t believe it. We had bear meat frequent to eat. It had a wild taste; but if the creature was young and fat, the meat was mighty good. I’d like a nice chunk for supper to-night — you bet your life I would.
“Squirrels was numerous, and they are now. I went out here last fall and shot three or four off one tree. There was lots of beaver, especially on the small streams, and there are some left still; but they’re a cute animal, and you would have trouble findin’ ‘em. We did a good deal of trappin’ in the old days. Quite a few follered that as a business. October and November was the best months, but the early spring was good, too. Most of us set traps on the cricks and went to see what we’d got every day. Some fellers would build camps on the shores of the wild lakes and stay there to hunt and fish right along durin’ the season. The fish was ten to one what they are now — yes, a hundred to one. I could go down here to the river, and in five minutes ketch the finest string of black bass you ever set eyes on. At the mouth of the little crick near our cabin I’ve ketched of an evening a hundred pounds of pike and pickerel with no trouble at all. And talk about trout — every brook was full. It makes me lonesome to think about how few there are now.
Starting for Work
“Within three years after we settled here the place had grown to quite a village, and there was a store, a hotel, and a sawmill. We was jus’ thinkin’ we had got well established when there come a flood that pretty near cleaned us out. It was in May after the snow was all gone, and the rise was caused wholly by heavy rains in the north. We slept upstairs, and the river rose so in the night that next morning when father come down he stepped off the stairway into the water. He hurried and got a flatboat he had, and we put what goods we could in it and went to the bluffs. All the cattle and pigs was drowned, and the booms broke so the river was full of floatin’ logs. The logs punched through the house walls, and some of the cabins was tipped over, and ourn was carried away. After the flood was past we straightened up what buildings was left and moved ‘em to higher ground.
“We was soon prosperin’ again. It was easy pickin’ up money then. I’ve seen the day, my friend, here in this town, when you couldn’t get a man to do a day’s work for you. Everybody had plenty of money and they wa’n’t anxious to work for any one but themselves. Well, sometimes you can’t get a man now. It’s almost impossible to get one on Sunday to do a job for you. ‘I’ll come if it rains,’ he’ll say; but otherwise he’ll be out on the water or monkeying around with the girls.
“We used to be more dependent on ourselves — did our own spinning and knitting and all that. Lots of people back in the country spin yarn yet and knit the family stockings and mittens, and they often knit to sell to our choppers and teamsters. The things they knit are good and thick and jus’ right for people who are out in the cold much.
“Mother used to fry out the grease from the bears, deer, and coons we killed and make it into candles; but sometimes we’d run short of candles and have nothing better for a light than some grease in a dish with a rag set up in the middle. We thought coon grease was specially good for boots. I’ve seen my boots so darn stiff when I got up in the mornin’ I couldn’t get ‘em on until I’d give ‘em a good rubbing with coon grease. It was our idea the boots lasted longer if we changed feet with ‘em every day, because what they’d run over one day they’d run back the next.
“Mosquitoes bothered us a good deal more than they do now. You see there was no such thing as netting to keep ‘em out. We had a regular smudge kittle fixed with a hole near the bottom to make a draught for the fire that we’d start inside. When it was smokin’ good we’d carry it through the house. I’ve known father to get up in the night when the mosquitoes was real bad, and spread some powder on a dish and touch it off. The mosquitoes couldn’t stand that kind of a smudge.
“Every spring we’d go across the river three or four miles to a camp in the woods to make maple sugar. We had a log shed there, open in front, facing our fire. We’d tap a thousand trees. I c’n remember just as well as if it was yesterday the sumach spiles we used, and the basswood pans we chopped out to catch the sap, and all about it. We fixed up a sort of oven with stones and clay, and set on it a shallow pan we made out of sheet iron, with board sides. Then we found the biggest basswood we could, and cut it down and chopped it out into a trough twenty feet long to hold the sap when we brought it in from the sugar bush. An ox-team would be busy all the time hauling. The oxen were hitched to a draw made of a heavy tree crotch, shaped with our axes into a rough sledge. On that we set a hogshead. The basswood trough was propped up on blocks, and there was a little trough connecting it with the boiling pan, so we could run in more sap as it was needed. Some of us had to be on hand all the time, for we kept the boiling going without any let-up. We’d take turns standing watches during the night.
“After we’d got a mess boiled down to syrup we’d strain it through a cloth. Then we’d put it in a kittle we had hung from a pole laid on two crotched sticks over an open fire, and boil it down to sugar. The sugar we made into cakes, and some of it we sold, and the rest we used. It was the only sugar we had. The last run of sap was rather poor, and we’d save a couple of barrels of it partly boiled down and take it home and leave it in the yard with the bungs out of the barrels. It would turn into the best kind o’ vinegar. Sometimes we’d pour a little of the hot syrup on the snow and it would form into a kind of gum — very sticky and very sweet. Once a feller who had false teeth come over to our camp and tried some of the gum. It pulled his teeth loose and he was an hour gettin’ ‘em in order again. Lord Harry! we had lots of fun over in the sugar bush. In the night the bears and wildcats would come prowlin’ around and carry things off if we wa’n’t careful.
“We could easily get all the honey we wanted. If you happened across a bee tree you jus’ cut your initials on the bark, and that was a sign it was yourn, and if anybody else happened to find it he wouldn’t meddle with it. You could come and cut the tree down and chop the honey out when you was ready. Now and then we’d hunt for bee trees by goin’ out in the fields and puttin’ molasses or somethin’ sweet on a block. Pretty soon a bee would find it and fill up, and when he started for home you’d track him. After father had cut down a bee tree he’d put the bees in a box and take ‘em home, and they’d go right on makin’ honey. I want to tell you, brother, it was just a delight to be a boy here then.
“Our first school was kept in the houses, right through the village, taking every house in turn where there was children; and at whatever house the teacher was havin’ school there she boarded. The first building put up for the school was of logs chinked with clay. We had no desks, but sat on backless wooden benches and held our books in our laps.
“As I grew older I had my best times at the dances. Winter was the dance season and we’d go somewhere two or three times a week. We’d start early and take an ox-team and fill the body of a big sled with straw and blankets and all pile on and ride to the farmhouse where we had been invited. We didn’t put on no style. All a feller needed to do was to get his overalls washed so he could slip ‘em on clean; and if a girl wore a new calico dress she was a dandy. A violin furnished music for the dancin’. Most generally everybody baked up some food to take, and along about midnight we’d have a feast of bread and butter, cake and pickles, and there was a chunk of boiled pork from which we sliced off what we wanted.
“While the town was new it was kind of a rough place. You could see a fight any time. The ‘general store’ kept a barrel of corn whiskey in the cellar or back room, and was ready to fill a pint bottle or a gallon jug for whoever wanted to pay the price of it.
“The people that come in here early was religious, and my mother learnt me to say my prayers when I went to bed. We soon had a preacher, and he was a good one, too, though he had to get his livin’ mostly by workin’ in the fields. At first we met in one or two of the larger houses for our prayer meetin’s and church services; but later used the schoolhouse. Once we had a revival and I attended it with my girl. She got quite excited, and before I knew what was happening she started for the mourners’ bench. She didn’t ask me if I’d go. She jus’ got up and went all by herself. Well, she kneeled down there, and I see right next to her a feller kneelin’ she’d been goin’ with some and who was a rival o’ mine. I said, ‘By gosh! I can’t stand that! Maybe he’ll be ketchin’ her.’ There was jus’ a little room between her and him, and I stepped up and kneeled so as to separate ‘em.
“I cut him out that time, and he didn’t marry that girl. As far as that goes, neither did I. Oh, well, you can’t be young but once.”
NOTE. — At any town of reasonable size you will find a good hotel, and when you are once lodged to your satisfaction you can proceed to get acquainted with the country around in your own way.