Burlington since 1850 - William Meadows' Reminiscences
At "Old Timers' Night" held by the Burlington Business Mens Association on
February 13, 1912, four of Burlington's early settlers read papers on their
experiences and on Burlington's early days. The following paper was read by
William Meadows, who was the first of the four speakers.
I first set foot in Burlington in the spring of 1850--being then 16 years old. My father had come here the previous fall, and had written home directing me to start as soon as the lakes were open. I started from Utica, N. Y., in April 1850 and traveled by rail to Buffalo--the terminus at that time. From Buffalo I came by boat to Detroit, Michigan, and from Detroit to New Buffalo, Michigan, by rail, which was as far as that road extended. At New Buffalo I took a lighter tug-boat to Chicago, and from there came up the lake past Waukegan, Southport (now Kenosha), and Racine to Milwaukee. From Milwaukee I traveled by stage through Hale's Corners, Muskego Center, and Mukwonago to East Troy in Walworth county. There were no railroads in operation in Wisconsin at that time to my knowledge.
On arriving at East Troy I found awaiting me a letter from home, stating that father had arrived there the day I left, and, finding I had gone west, a family consultation was immediately held, the result of which was that I was directed to go to Burlington, Wisconsin, see a James Catton who had a farm for sale, and secure and purchase the same, which I did--having in my pocket $650 in currency when I left home.
I bought a yoke of cattle for $60 and a cast iron plow (the only kind then in use) for $8.00. I also hired a man--Mr. Montgomery by name--a married man living over the store now occupied by J. G. Mathews [at what is now 120 E. Chestnut Street], for $12 a month and board himself, as I knew absolutely nothing of driving cattle, handling a plow, or in fact any other department of farm work, having between the intervals of going to school always worked in a cotton factory belonging to my father, who followed that occupation during his entire lifetime, up to the time of his arrival in Wisconsin. He came from Bolton, Lancashire, England, to America in 1842, and, as I said before, first came to Wisconsin in the fall of 1849.
Our nearest neighbor between our place and Burlington was David Bushnell on the Burlington and Kenosha road [now Highway 142]. Our farm was on the site now occupied by the ice houses on Norton's lake, and covered an area of 120 acres--25 of which were in the lake. The present owner of the land is Mr. Schmidtkamp. [The farm, known as the former Koenen property, is where the new high school, the wellness center, and other facilities have been built.]
Father's object in choosing that locality was to be near a woolen mill which Mr. Catton contemplated building. He had built the dam the previous year, and the mill was erected in 1850 but was never to the best of my knowledge used for its original purpose, being converted into a grist mill.
The railroad from Racine, known as the Racine & Mississippi Railroad [which later became part of the Chicago, Milwaukee, & St. Paul Railroad], was built 4 years later, and about this time we sold out to the railroad for $32 per acre--exactly twice the amount we had paid for the farm--receiving in addition $650 damages from the company. We then moved to a farm 3 miles west of Burlington, on the Burlington and Lyons road [now Highway 36], and from there to Burlington, which has been my home city for a period totaling 62 years this coming April. Burlington was then merely a village of from 500 to 600 inhabitants.
The economic and industrial conditions of that day are hardly realizable by those acquainted only with present-day conditions. Money brought from 12% to 50% interest on loans extending over not more than 60 days and, as in most pioneer states, there were very few farms not covered by heavy mortgages. It was stated that the number of farms unencumbered by debt between Burlington and Kenosha could be enumerated on the fingers of one hand. Settlers, after taking up land, soon found their small capital swallowed up just as has been the experience of many since in Kansas and Dakota and other western states.
The following incident will give some idea of the difficulties under which some of the amateur farmers who constituted the majority of the settlers struggled.
We had run short of groceries and money being an almost unheard of commodity, we cast about for something to sell. Finally it was decided that I should go to town and try to sell some wood, which at that time was about the same thing as trying to sell gravel stones. However, I did find a merchant who consented to take half-a-cord in trade, and returned home with the good news.
Then my father, my two brothers and I set out to cut that half-cord of wood with one axe which we used in turn, and accomplished the feat after a hard day's work, and loaded it on the cart. After breaking the axle twice, we finally got to town where I had been commissioned by my mother to get some tea and some "baccy" for father in exchange for the wood. The wood was valued at 75 cents a cord and after unloading it, I enquired the price of tea. Tea, I was informed, was $1.50 a pound, so I brought home a quarter of a pound of tea as the proceeds of a hard day's work by four men.
The merchant referred to was the grandfather of the present Meinhardt family, and his place of business occupied a piece of ground about 12 feet front by 24 feet deep, on the site of the present Bank of Burlington [northeast corner of Chestnut and Pine Streets]. The grocery store was about 8 x 12 feet and the living rooms were in the rear.
We were not the only ones who had hardships to face in those days. As I sit in my office and watch the stream of automobiles and buggies that pass and repass, my mind turns to the very different styles of vehicles in use 60 years ago. Then the most stylish turnout was a truck-wagon with wheels of solid wood, having holes bored through the center for the axles--the floor of the wagon consisting of rough slabs of wood. It was also not unusual to see grist being conveyed to the mill on a stoneboat--in most cases simply a crotch of a tree with slabs of wood laid across and held down by pegs driven through holes. To this was harnessed a yoke or perhaps two yoke of oxen, which were driven by the grandfathers of the present generation clad in a blue shirt, a pair of pantaloons reaching halfway to the ankle, and a straw hat minus the rim, and armed with a 10 or 12 foot whipstock having a lash of equal length attached. The man who first aspired to the ownership of a modern wagon was quite a figure in the community, and was always willing to oblige his neighbors by letting out the wagon for trips to Racine or Kenosha at 25 cents per day or 50 cents for the round trip.
All members of the household helped alike in the farm work. Corn planting was far from the simple job it is at present. We had to travel each row twice in cultivating, with a yoke of oxen and a small plow that turned over an 8 inch furrow, one person driving and another holding the plow, and we hoed it twice afterwards.
The securing of our simple pleasures also involved a certain amount of work and effort. On the morning of the 4th of July, it was quite a common sight to see all the boys of the neighborhood making a bee line for town, loaded with eggs or butter to use in trade for the necessary combustibles. Eggs were valued in trade at 5 cents a dozen, butter at 7 cents a pound, and firecrackers at 12 cents a package. I can remember on one such occasion a boy whom we know now as Mr. Cunningham, one of the directors and a stockholder in the Bank of Burlington, also a heavy taxpayer, had as his stock in trade two dozen eggs, which brought him 10 cents. Considering the price of firecrackers, you can readily see that Mr. Cunningham's credit failed to carry him as far as a full package. The principal ceremony of the day consisted in firing off a solitary cannon, and the firecrackers were touched off one at a time, and made to last as long as possible. Such a thing as exploding a whole bunch of crackers at once was an undreamt of extravagance, and when the day closed, all retired after what was regarded as a good day's fun with as keen a sense of enjoyment and satisfaction as the boy of the present day experiences after spending $20 or $25. In fact I believe our satisfaction was greater because of the fact that all our pleasure had been secured by hard individual effort.
The unlimited schooling now at the disposal of every boy and girl was still in the future at that time. During the working season, as I said before, every member of the family old enough worked in the fields from sunrise until sunset. School was open only during the winter months, and the teachers were generally young men appointed by the town superintendent at a salary of from $7 to $8 a month, and boarded round amongst the different families in rotation. Each teacher had to be his own janitor after traveling through the snow to school in the morning. Going to school in those days was quite a rest from the long summer's work. There are living in this town, at this day, men and women who have worked behind my threshing machine at 50 cents a day, and it has often occurred to me to wonder if the young men and boys have any conception of the struggles and hardships undergone by their parents and grandparents, to place at their disposal the many privileges and advantages they find on every hand today.
Women and girls were often to be seen walking a distance of 4 or 5 miles to town, carrying the farm produce of butter and eggs to use in trade. When the burden got too heavy, a short rest would be taken at one of the houses by the roadside, and the journey resumed until town was reached. Cash was paid for grain at the lake ports; oats brought 10, 15, or 20 cents per bushel, barley 30 or 35 cents, and wheat from 40 to 50 cents a bushel. Consequently this product was always carried to Racine or Kenosha, to pay off the more pressing debts, by the grandfathers of the young men and boys who, now-a-days, find any means of conveyance short of an automobile too slow for them.
Speaking of walking recalls to my mind one Sunday in the summer of 1852, when I was working for Aaron Leach, of Brighton, for $13 a month. (Mr. McCanna is not aware of the fact that I have worked an entire summer on Edgewood Farm, now owned by him, for N. R. Norton, father of George Norton, at $7 a month, and was perfectly satisfied with the wages.) On the occasion referred to, some Burlington friends of mine walked out to Brighton to pay me a visit. They were Robert Wheeler and Miss Mary Ann Norris, afterwards Mrs. Robert Wheeler, Benjamin Fox and Miss Mary Ann Wheeler, afterwards Mrs. Benjamin Fox, and Andrew Patterson and Miss Anna Wilson, later Mrs. Andrew Patterson.
Immediately after their arrival, about 9 or 10 o'clock, I asked Mr. Leach for the use of his horses and wagon to attend church, some 3 miles distant, and he very readily gave his consent. Can you imagine the pride and pleasure we took in driving to church in a lumber-box wagon, without springs and with boards laid across for seats--it being equal to the best conveyance then in use in the township? To show that our addition to the congregation was highly appreciated, the minister, Rev. Thomas Lister, extended a very cordial invitation for dinner to our entire party, which we gladly accepted. After returning to Mr. Leach's and having supper in the log house (about 19 out of 20 of the houses of that day were built of logs), seated on benches around a bare board table, the callers walked back to their respective homes. How would the young people of today feel after walking fully 8 miles or more to attend church?
I have not dwelt much on the growth of Burlington, and as I have already occupied sufficient of your time, I shall just make mention of the fact that the most valuable piece of property in Burlington, at that time, was the grist mill owned by Perkins & Pitkin, which was running at its utmost capacity, day and night, 7 days in the week, and drawing customers from a radius of 10 or 15 miles. Men bringing their grist had to wait 2 days or more before returning with the flour. The property was then rumored to be worth $50,000, and it is now practically a ruin.
At the same time there was a small machine shop on the site of the present Wagner Bros. machine shop. It was owned by A. Zwiebel, the father of the present Zwiebel Bros., who is still living. He worked in partnership with Hobart Wagner.
I shall leave the history of Burlington in particular and the story of its growth to those who follow.
And now, my young friends and associates, the particular incidents I have related here are intended for your special benefit, that you may be able to form some estimate of the kind of men and women your immediate ancestors were, and learn to govern yourselves accordingly, and fit yourselves to assist in the continuous advancement of civilization in the future.
The young people of today constitute the world of tomorrow, and the man who can best and most effectually overcome the difficulties he meets with in his everyday work, is the man who as a boy has learned to tackle his smaller but none the less vital problems with an indomitable will and a spirit that admits of no defeat. The young man or boy who takes up his first job with the intention of making good at that job, rather than merely to fill up his time between paydays, is certain to finish high in the esteem of his fellow men, and to leave behind him accomplishments worthy of notice provided he sticks to his intention.
The American boy of today has unlimited possibilities for advancement, and no restrictions that he cannot overcome by himself. A noted professor in Oxford university, England, on being appealed to by his students, to settle an argument as to what constituted a good education, replied that with a thorough knowledge of the four elemental branches--reading, writing, arithmetic and spelling--a man was well equipped to start out in life and had no one but himself to blame if he failed. I therefore believe I am not making any overstatement when I say that you may count yourselves richly supplied, when, in addition to these, you have gained a working knowledge of banking, foreign exchange, and common law at any of the numerous business colleges now within easy reach of every young man.
You have more freedom of action and more opportunity to develop your latent powers than the Prince of Wales in England. That young man is destined to fill the English throne, and from the day of his birth all his training is applied with that particular end in view. All his day's work is mapped out for him in advance--so many hours for study and so many hours for recreation--and should it so happen that he is not fitted by nature or inclination for the position to which he is born, he cannot renounce his birthright and take up something more congenial. It merely means that he must apply himself so much more diligently for the work he has to perform.
With you, my young friends, it is different; you have all the professions and all the opportunities in the world to choose from. You can rise to any height or sink to any depth, and the final achievement--whether it spell success or failure--is the measure of the man. Do not imagine that poverty or want of means at the outset is by any means a serious handicap. On the contrary, if I were set to pick out of a crowd of boys those most likely to succeed in life, I should choose the barefoot boys--the poorly clad--in other words, those who have known deprivation and want, those who have always had to hustle for a living, in preference to those brought up with every want satisfied and all their powers of achievement and self-preservation atrophied from want of use.
The world is full of instances proving that the sons of the rich men who start out in life with every equipment in the line of education, and lavishly supplied with money they have never earned, very rarely arrive at distinction.
My advice to you in closing, my young friends, is to go into whatever business you undertake with those two vital points in mind--to give to that business the best that's in you and to stick to it. Stick-to-it-tiveness is half the secret of success and the other half is application. Keep these points in mind and you'll certainly come out pretty near the top of the heap.