Mar 01

History Talk: Mysteries of Grant County

Come join us at 6:00 pm March 26 at the Cuba City City Hall for this fascinating presentation that is sure to be informative and entertaining. This event is FREE and open to the public.

James Hibbard, Head Librarian at UW-Platteville’s Karrmann Library, will be speaking on the Mysteries of Grant County. After the presentation there will be time for question.

The Grant County Historical Society and the Cuba City Library are pleased to present this History Talk.

Feb 19

Lillie Greene Richmond Sings

The Wisconsin Folk Music Project was a collaboration between the University of Wisconsin and the Library of Congress to record music from the state’s diverse population. In the summers of 1940 and 1941 Helene Startman-Thomas and Robert “Bob” Draves traveled throughout Wisconsin recording folk music. Stratman-Thomas was a faculty member of the University of Wisconsin School of Music. Draves was a graduate student and her recording technician. In the summer of 1946, Startman-Thomas was assisted by student-technician Aubrey Snyder. In their travels they recorded over 700 performances by singers and musicians representing more than 30 ethnic and regional groups. On August 24, 1946, Lillie Greene Richmond performed in Lancaster, Wisconsin for the Folk Music Project. She was the only African American included in the project.

Photograph of Lillie Greene Richmond taken August 23, 1946 by Helene Startman-Thomas. WHi Image ID: 25305

Lillie Greene was born into slavery in Missouri on July 4, 1862. She was not enslaved for long. Her grandparents, John and Lillie Smith Greene, led their extended family out of slave holding Missouri when Lillie was only a year old. With the help of the Underground Railroad, the family traveled first to St. Louis and then took a train to Dubuque, Iowa. From Dubuque, the Greene family traveled overland to Pleasant Ridge. The Pleasant Ridge community was established between Beetown and Lancaster in 1848 when free blacks started farms there.

Romulus Rufus Richmond. Grant County Historical Society image.

In 1880, Lillie married Romulus Rufus Richmond. They moved to Chariton, Iowa in 1887 and raised ten children together. Lillie Greene Richmond returned to Wisconsin in the 1940s.

To hear the songs Lillie sang for Helene Stratman-Thomas and Aubrey Snyder click here.

If you want to learn more about the Wisconsin Folk Music Project visit:
Mills Music Library Wisconsin Folk Music Project

Folksongs of Another America: Field Recordings from the Upper Midwest, 1937-1946





Jan 28

Wisconsin’s Winter Storms

By Dennis Wilson

High winds, snow, ice, extreme cold: Today we have the means to moderate these curses of wintertime, but things were different in the “good old days.” Farm families spread across the vast American landscape knew the meaning of the word “snowbound,” and the struggles that term implied. We get blizzard warnings from The National Weather Service created by using supercomputers and satellites. The television weatherman gives us the definition of a blizzard: “sustained winds of at least 35 mph lasting for a prolonged period of time— typically three hours or more. A ground blizzard is a weather condition where snow is not falling but loose snow on the ground is lifted and blown by strong winds.” We settle in, turn up the gas furnace, flip on the television, and wait the weather out in comfort. Even those who must travel turn on the heater and the stereo, and drive in front wheel or four wheel drive vehicles on a modern highway usually cleared by large, powerful snowplows. It wasn’t that way in the past. People experienced the full force of nature.

By 1870 Wisconsin’s population had grown to 1,054,670. Three quarters of its citizens lived on farms or in cities with a population of under 2,500. In the 1870’s and 1880’s winters were often extremely harsh. The “Little Ice Age” which had persisted from about the year 1300 was coming to an end. The winters in the years before the 20th century were characteristically colder and longer.

Those who were subjected to blizzards and arctic cold waves had to be prepared. They could not depend on supplies from outside. Supplies came by animal drawn wagons and sleighs, or by rail. Harry Barnett recalled that during the hard winter of 1881 no trains could reach Lancaster due to the snow pack from January 23rd through April 11th, and then they got only as far as Liberty.

In her book “The Long Winter” Laura Ingalls Wilder described the struggle to survive in South Dakota in the winter of 1880-81. Her book describes a life threatening expedition mounted to get out and return with supplies after the Railroad suspended its operations in the Dakotas. There were no government emergency services, no helicopters to drop food or fuel, no emergency shelters, no GPS, no telephones, no reliable weather forecasts, and no powerful road plows. We would hardly call what they had roads. Even mighty steam locomotives were trapped in the snow that filled the railroad cuts. There were few packaged foods, so starvation threatened those who were isolated and hadn’t stocked up or harvested and stored enough food. People in tar paper covered wood frame homes froze to death as the wind ripped away the covering, or starving animals tried to eat it, defeating all their attempts to keep warm. The log cabin or sod house was much better shelter in a blizzard, as long as its roof was sturdy, for very often the blizzard demolished roofs and swept them into the white emptiness, leaving those below to die.

The early settlers of Wisconsin faced these same challenges. It is interesting to look at old photographs of people in wintertime. In many of those you will note that they seem very inadequately dressed for cold weather. Men wear light jackets and hats that do not cover the ears. A significant number wear no boots. There were heavy coats available such as these 19th Century examples:

In those days heavy blankets, scarves and shawls supplemented sometimes meager outerwear. Against the force of a bad winter storm all were inadequate for extended exposure. Wisconsin is known as a cold place in the winter. The state record low is 55 degrees below zero

Fahrenheit set in Couderay, Wisconsin in 1996. In 1983 Couderay hit 53 below. In the winter of 1929 dozens of Native Americans died of exposure and pneumonia at the same place. In Grant County the coldest stretch of weather occurred between February 7th and the 12th of 1899. In Lancaster, the average daily high temperature was -5.7 degrees. The average low was -24.7 degrees.

The stories of Wisconsin are full of accounts of vicious blizzards and cold spells. Here are a few examples:

From February 8-10, 1936 a blizzard, following on the heels of a snowstorm the previous week struck the entire State of Wisconsin. Heavy snow, temperatures in the double digits below zero and strong winds caused severe drifting. Roads in Grant and Iowa counties were impassable with drifts of 10 – 12 feet. On Saturday, February 8th, 61 year old Ben Benson of Boscobel, who worked at the railroad depot, disappeared as the Storm was building. On Monday the 10th his frozen body was found in a snow drift half a block from his home. In Chicago on the Monday after the blizzard, while temperatures in the upper Midwest ran in the 20’s below zero, it was reported that milk supplies were down 40 percent. No deliveries had reached Chicago from Wisconsin since the previous Friday, the day before the storm began. Farmers were storing their milk anywhere they could. In Walworth County, 21 year old Farmhand Eddie Delano was helping to push a truck from a snowbank. First his nostrils froze shut. Then unbelievably, his lips froze together and he began to suffocate. He was taken into a heated truck cab but it was apparent that the warmth would not take effect in time to save him. A man ripped his lips apart. “The flesh was torn badly” The Milwaukee Journal reported in its article which bore the headline “Rough First Aid.”

While the blizzard was raging in Wisconsin a “Black Blizzard”, a massive dust storm was choking Colorado and five other states. Along Wisconsin’s main highways farmers were taking in drivers stranded in the snow drifts. Local taverns and Inns were packed to overflowing. Some rural farm homes sheltered up to 25 travelers, trying to make the food and beds suffice. Things were serious in towns and villages also. Livingston, Wisconsin faced what the Milwaukee Journal called a “coal and water famine.” With no train service for over a week, supplies of coal, the most widely used fuel of the day were going fast, and dealers limited sales. Most of the water pumps in town were frozen, and the fire department reservoir had less than a foot of water to meet the possibility of fire in the raging winds. Crews were working all over the state to clear snowbound rails and free stranded trains. In Jackson, Wisconsin 89 passengers were stuck in 18 foot snow drifts with no heat or food for two days

Some of the worst storms are those that strike early or late in the winter season. Blizzards that scour the state also thrash the great lakes. The Great Lakes are the most dangerous navigable waters on earth, and Lake Michigan is the worst in terms of sinkings and lives lost. The numbers for the Lakes are chilling. Between 1878 and 1897 6,000 ships were wrecked or sunk. In the following century disasters continued in the turbulent lakes. In November of 1913 the Great Lakes were struck by an early blizzard, sometimes called on the lakes a “extratropical blizzard” or “November Witch.” Waves of over 35 feet driven by 90 mph winds battered the hapless vessels on the water. 250 lives were lost as 19 ships sunk and 19 more were stranded. It has gone down in history as the “White Hurricane.” Great Lakes ships have continued to go down in November storms. Gordon Lightfoot memorialized the sinking and loss of the entire crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975 on Lake Superior.

Extreme temperature drops often characterize the most severe storms. The Armistice Day Blizzard, which struck the Midwest on November 11, 1940 was such a storm. Armistice Day, now called Veterans Day saw very mild conditions. Early afternoon temperatures were in the 60’s. Many hunters took a day off work and went to the waters of the Mississippi to take advantage of the perfect Duck Hunting conditions. Many did not take cold weather outfits. Conditions deteriorated rapidly. The temperature dropped as much as 50 degrees in minutes, 50 mile per hour winds assailed the unprepared. That evening and into the next day sleet and then up to 27 inches of snow fell, drifts formed. Boats on the river were swamped and men drowned. Others were stranded on islands. Many who got to shore were unable to get their vehicles out. Some took shelter under overturned boats. The result was that many froze to death. The official death toll from the storm was 145, which included 66 sailors on the Great Lakes. 13 died in Wisconsin.

The last type of winter storm is a bit different than the others, but it also is born on the large temperature variations typical of Wisconsin’s winters. On March 4-5, 1976 a massive ice storm struck Grant County and most of the rest of Southern Wisconsin. Ice accumulations of up to five inches coated everything. Winds gusting up to 60 miles per hour did the rest. Thousands of trees and utility poles were snapped into pieces. Up to 100,000 people were without electricity. In some rural areas power outages lasted 10 days or more. Grant County, among many other counties in Wisconsin was declared a federal disaster area.

An engineer at the University of Wisconsin at Platteville recalled being called to work to get the university radio station on the air. “My supervisor,” he wrote “told me that there were no radio stations on the air in the whole Southwest corner of the state.” The university station had an emergency generator. He wrote:

“During the early hours we carried emergency messages for the local police and sheriff’s offices. The local commercial radio station in Platteville did not have power, so I called their news director and asked him if he wanted to get his super Rolodex and come over to the University and give us a hand. He appeared almost immediately. For the next two days the University radio station was the only one on the air. The students really got a lesson on the Broadcasting Industry and emergencies.”

Farmers had to try milking their cows by hand if they had no emergency generators. Volunteers took water to farmers who could not pump it for the livestock. A man recalled the storms effect on his family’s farm: “For a while it seemed like an adventure, until we kids realized that our well had an electric pump, and water was about to get scarce. I can still remember how my mother went off when one of us flushed a toilet by force of habit at some point on Thursday evening. That, and the sound of the wind howling around the dark, cold farmhouse.” He reported that it wasn’t much better in Madison:

Two of the city’s commercial TV stations, WISC and WKOW, were off the air. At WMTV, which was apparently still on the air (the story in the paper wasn’t clear), ice was the major problem, falling from the transmitter tower and smashing through the roof of the station’s administrative offices, which were not in the concrete-reinforced part of the station building. Employees were told to wear hard-hats outside the building. Madison’s cable system struggled with outages as well.

There are always those who revel in the hardship and primitive conditions that winter storms and other natural disasters visit upon us in Wisconsin. So what if ravenous dogs unable to find food in the blizzard were attacking cows. Men of an earlier time and a tougher nature could have handled that and so could we. Who needs roads and rails? If we were cut off from the rest of the world fuel could be supplied by chopping wood. We can produce our own food and milk, and barter with our neighbors wrote the Grant County Herald’s editor: “Give a family potatoes , cabbage and onions, with a quarter of beef or a side of pork, flour, beans and apples and they would get along and probably be all the better of the simple fare. Life would tone down and become more rational. At the end people would say they enjoyed the experience and it would be something to talk about for years to come.”

The one benefit I can find in these harrowing stories of yore is that doctors actually came to you when you were sick! There are numerous stories of hardy doctors braving the deadly blizzard to go to a suffering child. Such stories did not always turn out well for the doctors. In February of 1938 the front page of the Grant County Herald carried the sad news of the passing of Dr. T. E. Farrell, age 60, of Seneca. The good doctor, it was reported, died at his post of duty caring for a sick child 14 miles from town. He had “shoveled his way through drifts and walked a mile carrying his kit in order to reach the patient.” The exertion caused his heart to fail. With today’s advances in medicine that would not happen. The patient would suffer heart failure trying to get to the doctor.

Nov 19

GCHS Welcomes A New Director

Dr. Rachel Lewis outside the Cunningham Museum.

The Grant County Historical Society is pleased to announce that Dr. Rachel Lewis of Lancaster has been hired to be the museum director for the Cunningham Museum. She started November 1. This is the first time the Cunningham Museum has had such a position. She comes to the Historical Society with almost a decade of museum experience, working mostly for local and regional museums doing everything from processing archival material and collections items to writing interpretive plans and grants. She received her PhD in public history for Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN. “I’m looking forward to all the opportunities and challenges this position has to offer. Grant County has a wonderful resource in the Grant County Historical Society and it is a pleasure to be a part of it” said Lewis.

Feb 11

They Called Him Rube

By Dennis Wilson

december

Feb 07

James Hibbard Publishes a New Article

12698652_1305084599508781_3133642462037715539_o“University Archivist James Hibbard has recently been published in the Wisconsin Magazine of History for his research on Francis Van de Wall. “The Civil War Photography of Francis Van de Wall” is an account of the late photographer from 1860-1867. Hibbard illustrates how Van de Wall improved his photography as well as how photos were taken during the Civil War.” — Taken from https://goo.gl/C0mFph

To read the article, visit the Wisconsin State Historical Society.

http://goo.gl/VHQPXU

 

Feb 03

Madison Street, Lancaster, WI

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A very clear 1930’s image of North Madison Street in Lancaster, Wisconsin. Is the little guy walking on the right Lancaster’s favorite short person, Col. Sammy Draper?

 

Jan 14

a Wintery Day in Lancaster, WI

A winter day in downtown Lancaster in days past. On the right is the old Mansion House hotel.

Winter Day in Lancaster, WI