Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Potosi Canal

THE POTOSI CANAL
From the day in 1829 that Thomas Hymer started building his cabin near what is now Potosi it was certain that the town would be unusual.  Crammed into a narrow hollow that ran down to the flats of the Mississippi it presented both handicaps such as flooding and great opportunities in the lead contained in loose mineral (float) lying about.  As miners rushed in followed by merchant establishments, saloons and boarding houses it became more apparent that access to the mighty river below was essential.  The lead must be transported, and the Mississippi was the most convenient pathway.  As the town grew it was necessary to bring supplies in by means of Mississippi riverboats.  Ferry boats were also needed to cross the Mississippi in those days before bridges.  The earliest reported ferry service near Potosi was that of J.P. Cox and Justis Parsons.  Parsons Landing was ten miles above Dubuque in Iowa.  Cox held a landing in Osceola, about a mile from Potosi.  In 1844 James F. Chapman, was granted the right to operate a ferry from Potosi across the Mississippi probably to Specht’s Ferry.
   In the earliest days it was possible to navigate the Grant river slough.  Ferry boats and shallow draft steam boats could unload at Osceola or a landing built at the village of Lafayette below Potosi.  As the years passed silt built up making it difficult to bring the boats up.  This was probably due to lumber cutting and farming that caused greater runoff from the surrounding land into the Grant river.  In the age of the steamboat the forest land along the river was stripped of its lumber to fire the boilers of the steam engines that propelled the vessels upriver.  By the end of the 1840’s there were over 1,200 steamboats using the Mississippi and side and rear paddle wheelers were becoming ever larger.
   Potosi was growing by leaps and bounds.  The Merchants and miners of the town needed to keep the water deep enough for mineral to be shipped out and goods for the growing town to be shipped in.  The Territorial Legislature, wanting ports to compete with Dubuque and Galena were sympathetic.  In June of 1844 Congress passed legislation providing for the sale of a section of land to fund improvements of the Grant River to allow better access to the Mississippi.  In January of 1845 the Legislature named James F. Chapman (the same man who had been given the right to operate a ferry in 1844) to lead a commission to organize the sale of lots.  Joel Allen Barber was named Receiver to take funds from the sales and disburse payments for costs incurred.
The engineer of the Port of Dubuque, Joshua Bryant, was called upon to study the problem and make a report. In that report, submitted November 15, 1845 he wrote:
The harbor at present, situated as it is on one of the collateral branches, or channels, of the Mississippi, appears to be approachable only by the tortuous sinuosities of Grant River Slough, or, by the shorter and little less objectionable meanderings of Swift Slough. The channel of the former is obstructed at numerous points by shoals or bars formed by de posits of silt. The removal of this would require a great amount of dredging to make it navigable at low water, and the annual operations of a dredge boat would, in all probability, be indispensable to keep it at a proper depth. In a channel so long and crooked, it is difficult to form a correct idea of what the result might be in case it should be so improved. The removal of the bars as they now stand might cause the accumulation of deposits in other places; and the work of one season might be counteracted and rendered useless by the result of the succeeding one.”
 The best plan according to his report was to build a canal of sufficient depth and width across the low flats and wetlands directly to the Grant river bend at Lafayette.  His opinion was that “The canal from the Mississippi will he approachable at any stage of water, for boats ascending or descending the river. The current of the river impinges against the bank with its full force, and the water being deep, little apprehension may be entertained of the formation of any bars contiguous to the entrance of the canal.” He recommended that a canal 100 feet wide be excavated and the Harbor deepened.  He estimated the cost to be $20,041.45.
   The lots were sold throughout the year 1845, and with the engineers report the Commissioners submitted the report of Barber.  The section given by Congress had yielded $4,130.64. After expenses of $1350.40, only $2780.24 remained for the project.
   Despite the severe shortfall the work went on, first grubbing the trees, shrubs and other obstacles in the line the canal would follow and then commencing the excavation.  In those days there were no steam powered dredgers and shovels available on the frontier, so the grubbing was done by men with shovels, grubbing hoes, and bars.  The rocks and wood were then thrown mule pulled wagons for removal.  The Story told by old  timers later in the century was that the contractor went to     
An Early mule drawn scraper                            in   Missouri to buy mules.  These were not normal mules, but rather large mules from draft horse mares.  There are Percheron, Belgian and Clydesdale mares that are very large, but those breeds were not brought to the United States until the later 19th Century.  The large mules obtained were used in the excavation of the canal.  The greatest part of the earth removal was done by “scrapers”, large shovel like implements pulled behind four mules.  Men behind the scraper would lift handles to cause the device to dig in, removing shallow layers.  The earth filled scrapers were hauled up an embankment at           An early mule drawn scraper                                     the end of a one or two hundred yard pull.
   In addition to the income from the sale of lots, the Legislature granted the town the right borrow $5,000.00 per year to finance the work on the canal. They were further authorized to levy a tax of not more than $3,000.00 per year for the purpose of repaying the loans.  This should have enabled the ongoing work to continue to its conclusion.  The people of Potosi in a town meeting voted to construct a canal of 50 feet width and sufficiently deep to give a six feet clearance which would suffice for most of the Shoal draft (aha shallow draft) riverboats of those days.                                      
The work was still in progress in 1849 when several calamities struck Potosi and the area.   
                                 Painting of Mississippi Riverboats of the Late 1840's  

The first was a cholera epidemic.  The hollow and the river land had never been a paradise of health.  Rev Matthew Dinsdale, minister of the Methodist Church at Potosi wrote to his family in 1845 “There has been much sickness in this part this summer, and several deaths.  I have had a funeral to attend almost every day I have been here.” The year 1849 is remembered as one of three epidemics of Cholera that hit the middle of America.  It was worst along the rivers which were the highways of commerce and settlement. “If it be the Divine will that I should live a little longer God can shield me… All places in the vicinity of rivers are subject more or less to ague (probably malaria) and bilious fever (typhus)” Cholera is a disease that attacks the walls of the intestine.  The bacillus Vibrio Cholerae destroys the lining of the intestine causing uncontrollable diarrhea that leads quickly, sometimes in hours, to dehydration and death. Bad sanitation in disposing of fecal wastes and poorly lined, shallow wells allowed those wastes teeming with bacteria to pollute drinking water wells, spreading the dreaded death dealer.  Of course no one knew the cause, and the treatment was not only ineffective but harmful.  Bleeding, withholding fluids, and noxious nostrums sped the work of the killer.  People fled Potosi, thereby spreading the disease.
    The second event was the discovery of gold in California.  Through 1852 many miners left for the New Eldorado, depopulating Potosi and many other Grant county Towns.  With depletion of the population many of the merchants packed up and left.  Although Potosi was authorized to borrow and expend $5,000.00 annually and tax its citizens $3,000.00 additionally per year it was not possible with the greatly reduced tax base.  Some           histories say the canal was never completed, but I believe it was done on a very modest scale not sufficient to serve the riverboat traffic it had known.  Lafayette Landing did receive steamboats for years including the Teal owned by the Specht family, which later became the Potosi.  In the late 1920’s one writer made the following comment about the canal in his article on the Grant River: “The old diggings can easily be traced across the bottoms and fields although it is more than 80 years since the big ditch was dug.”

So the canal, begun by industrious men wishing prosperity, wilted and died.  It is no longer to be seen, for as the map shows, the construction of the Zebulon Pike Lock and Dam #11 at Dubuque in the 1930’s lead to the flooding of what was farmland and meandering channels.  According to one source the pool behind lock and dam #11 raised the water as much as 15 feet at Potosi (9 Feet seems more correct).  The map shows the shoreline as it was before the Lock and Dam pool.  The red line drawn shows the present shoreline.   None of that flatland of meandering river branches and sloughs will ever be seen again.

 Approximate location of Lafayette Landing 

   
                                                        At the present Boat Landing

                                               Panoramic view from the present day Boat Landing


Sunday, March 20, 2016

THE MURDER OF A GOOD DAUGHTER







    It was in this country, in 1926, that a soap opera of homicide played itself out in the ridges and valleys near Rising Sun in Crawford County, on the north side of the Wisconsin River that forms Grant’s northern boundary.  The hill country near Seneca was populated largely by poor but honest farmers, many of Norwegian ancestry.  Hence its nickname “Little Norway.”
     
 The Lutheran Church was a powerful force in the Norse families of the region.  Despite the force of religion in everyday life, there were many who made a buck hosting dances where moonshine, not so secretly trafficked in the midst of prohibition, warmed the blood and propelled dusty feet to fox trot the night away.  Seneca was a popular gathering place for such events.

     Clara Olson first began keeping company with Erdman Olson after meeting him at a Lutheran Church Social. They kept company in the following months.  They were not related. She was 22 and he was 18.  She lived with her parents on a small farm. She was her father’s favorite.  Erdman was attending Gale College in Galesville, Wisconsin, a Norwegian Lutheran Church institution.  He had been attending that school since the age of sixteen.  His father was a well to do (for those hills) tobacco farmer near the tiny village of Rising Sun.  He was wealthy enough to have provided stylish clothes and a car for Erdman.  During the early summer of 1926 Erdman used that car to take Clara to dances and go for long drives in the hills and valleys of the Kickapoo.  Clara was in love.

 
     Not surprisingly, Clara found herself pregnant, and that was a matter, even in the roaring twenties, of great shame in hill country.  Erdman had always avoided meeting her family and usually picked her up at the end of the long lane leading to her house.  Now he was avoiding her.  It is not known what words passed between Erdman and Clara regarding her pregnancy, but on August 17, 1926 she wrote a letter to Erdman’s father, Albert Olson:

“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Albert Olson – 
I know you folks will be surprised to hear from me and what I have to say.  Understand I am a good friend to your son Erdman and am sorry to say that we are in a pinch and have to get married – if God is willing and if you folks are willing to help us.  I wrote Erdman a letter some time ago to come down and marry me because I do not want to get him in trouble and I don’t want my parents to know and I hope you folks will help us before my folks find out what has come.
“Please be good to Erdman.  I know he never meant to leave me.  It is only four and one-half months’ left now until I will be expecting.  So I hope Erdman and I can get married this month and make our lives worthwhile.  I am closing with love and God’s blessings and I hope to hear from you and see Erdman soon.” 
     When the letter was received Mr. and Mrs. Olson confronted Erdman.  Recounting the event in later testimony Albert said that Erdman “seemed surprised.”  He ordered the boy to go and bring Clara to their home.  Clara refused the invitation.  Perhaps she knew that the intent of Erdman’s family was to procure an abortion, in those days termed an “illegal operation.”  From that point her life was coasting toward its end.
Lane leading to Christ Olson Home
     On September 9th Clara received a letter that Erdman had send two days earlier.  He asked her to destroy the letters he had written and not to disclose to anyone the contents of the present letter after she had destroyed it.  He asked her to pack only the clothes that would be needed for the trip and to bring money.  “We’ll go and get the ceremony over with and come back in a week or so and let them know” he wrote.  “Do as I have asked you and everything will be OK.  If you don’t, your chance may be shot, and I might make a scarce hubby.  So if you want to avoid disgrace, do as I say and keep mum.  As ever, as usual” These were hardly the words of a person in love, but Clara's hopes soared. On the night of September 9th , Erdman wrote, she was to put a lantern in her upstairs window which faced the road.  He would drive by at midnight and wait for her if he saw the light.  She was then to run to him and jump in the car for the wedding trip to “Hendrum, Minnesota which is the same as Winona.” That afternoon she looked forward to the coming midnight, when she would have a husband and father for the child coming.  She looked in her geography book, but couldn’t find Hendrum, which was actually north of Fargo, North Dakota, 400 miles away on the Minnesota side of the Red River.  She baked cookies while reviewing Erdman's letters, smiling occasionally as she read the words before crushing them, lifting the hob eye, and tossing them into the fire.

 Wine and new wine take away the heart." Hosea 4:11
 
Marie Anderson
     On the night of September 9th, Erdman went to a dance in Seneca.  He danced the Fox Trot with the girls and drank beverages which he laced with “Synthetic Gin.”  This was in the middle of Prohibition. The hills were full of moonshiners.  Erdman was known as a supplier.  His last dance was with Marie Anderson, a friend of Clara's younger sister Alice.  She testified later that “he couldn't keep step,” probably because he was drunk from ingesting the liquid courage that he would need to carry out a foul deed.  At about 11:30 pm Erdman stumbled out of the hall accompanied by a man unknown to the others and never to be identified. He sped away into the night mists.

     Christ Olson was not asleep.  He saw the lights at the end of the lane. Clara was leaving.  “I’m getting a breath of air" she said.  A few moments later he heard the car speed away.
     The next morning the family realized that Clara had not come home.  They found a note that Clara had written which read:

“Dear Folks:  I know you all will be surprised to find me gone.  I am leaving this evening.  I will have to go tonight.  I did not know I was going until this afternoon, but could not make up my mind to go till now, when I am leaving. Please do not worry about me as I will not be gone very long. If anyone asks about me tell them that I have gone to La Crosse. Again I must tell you not to worry about me as I am taken good care of and will be back soon.  I cannot explain to you tonight why I am leaving, but will when I come back.  Now, please do not take it too seriously, as it will mean nothing, only a little surprise.  I will be back soon from my trip.  Now please remember, don’t worry about me.  I will be back soon.”

     Did her repeated assurances and entreaties to her parents not to worry betray her own doubts?

     Christ sent Clara's older brother Bernard to the farm of Albert Olson to inquire after his daughter.  Bernard noticed the tire prints where a car had turned.  He noted the distinctive pattern and observed that three of the tires matched but one didn’t.  He noted the prints in the ditch at several places.  When he arrived Mrs. Olson invited him in.  He asked to see Erdman and was told he was asleep.  Soon after, Erdman came into the room.  Bernard asked where Clara was. At first Erdman denied having seen her.  When Bernard confronted him with the fact that his tires matched the tracks observed, Erdman changed his story.  He said he had driven Clara to Viroqua and left her there with fifty dollars to travel to Minneapolis.  He didn't say why.  Clara's family didn't believe a word of it, and they began to make inquiries.  

Albert Olson, father of Erdman Olson
     After weeks had gone by, Christ visited the home of her daughter’s companion, confused and angry.  He was told that Erdman had returned to college and then he received a contemptuous brush off.  “Forget it for a while” said Erdman’s mother.  “She’ll be back about Christmas time with a child and no husband.”  These words hit Christ like a lightning bolt.  He had not known of her pregnancy.  The shame he may have felt was subsumed in dread and anger. He decided to take action.

     On September 26th Christ and Bernard went to Galesville, found Erdman, and confronted him.  His pals at school knew about Clara.  He referred to her as “my hick sweetie” or “the green country girl.”  Christ demanded to know her whereabouts. Erdman repeated the story he had told Bernard on September 10th.  Christ offered him land and cattle to establish a small farm for them and the child.  Erdman had no interest in that.  Finally, Christ gave him an ultimatum; bring his daughter back within three days or he would send the Sheriff after him.  Erdman had told Christ that he would need time to go where she was and bring her back, but the next day he advised the school that he was leaving and dropped off the map, but not before saying to a friend “Offering me cows to marry his daughter. Them hicks must think I want to be one too!” 

     The night Erdman disappeared Christ had a dream. He told his neighbors “I saw her buried on her face,” he said and went on to explain that it seemed she was in a ditch or shallow grave.  He hired two detectives, John Sullivan, retired Milwaukee chief of detectives and a Madison private detective named Casween also a retired police detective, to search for Clara.  They interviewed witnesses piecing together the movements of Erdman Olson.  Two letters were sent by Erdman. One to his parents and one to Christ.  To Christ he wrote: “I know Clara can't be back by the time you say.  What a fool I would be to wait for the Sheriff.  I don't want you to cause trouble for my people who know nothing of this. Your daughter will come back to you when I come back.  I am leaving school so don't try to find me.”

     His letter to his parents did not show the defiance and bravado that he had shown Christ: 

     “I am leaving tonight for some place where no one knows.  I have decided to skip until things come back to normal. I shall not even tell you folks where I am going, though God knows how I feel.  I have thought of finishing everything, but life is sweet and hard to part with, but I say this, that I would rather take death than captivity… Some time I may write you, but I can't say that you will ever see me again.  I would not blame you if you don't.  I will never stay long in one place, for that would be dangerous.
      “Mother, I suppose your health will suffer tremendously from this and it might wreck father, but don't let it do that.  Forget me.  These people cannot prove anything definite, although they will try.  Do not let them try to pull anything over on you folks.  Please try to bear this with bravery and forget me as I am not worthy of your memory.  Shut me out of your thoughts entirely, as though I never lived.  Good bye and God bless you.”

     On November 25,1926, Thanksgiving Day, Christ with detectives Sullivan and Casween met with Sheriff Harry W. Sherwood and Justice C.H. Speck and laid out the evidence.  Justice Speck issued an arrest warrant for Erdman Olson based on “information and belief” and Christ Olson's complaint.  The news exploded over the news wires.  Bernard Olson asked the American Legion to help organize a search for Clara's body, and Christ Olson offered a $200.00 reward, which was soon raised to $3,000.00 by a community fund drive.

     When the news broke, Arthur Price Roberts of Milwaukee, a well-known Welsh born medium and “psychic detective” who had assisted the police on past investigations made a prediction.  He said that Erdman Olson would never be found alive.
     With the Sheriffs consent over 600 men formed a posse and began searching the region for the body.  On December 2nd searchers Charles Bowden and Al Marvin found a patch of overturned soil on Battle Ridge, about 100 yards off of Highway 27 and near a lane.  The spot was only a quarter of a mile from Erdman's home.  As they removed the clods they saw the heels of a pair of shoes.  It was Clara, buried face down in a very shallow grave.  The body was taken to the coroner’s office in Prairie Du Chien.
Alice(left) and Bernard (right) comfort Christ at the inquest.

     Dr. Charles H. Hunting, the State Pathologist was called in to conduct the autopsy.  As they removed the sticky clay dirt from her body, Hunting found two letters stuffed in her bosom.  They were a damp, gory mass.  They carefully separated and cleaned the paper revealing the letter Erdman had sent her on September 7th instructing her to meet him in the night after destroying all correspondence.  She hadn't destroyed this letter, instead taking it along, perhaps to retain as a keepsake for the happy years she expected would follow.  These letters zipped up the case against the killer.  He had killed her with a massive blow behind her ear which fractured her skull.  Erdman's parents still denied his guilt.  They said he had returned home at 1:15am on the fatal night, and had a sandwich.  He could not have taken her at midnight, drove ten miles, killed her, and dug and closed even that shallow grave in an hour and 15 minutes.

     For his accusers the answer was simple and horrible.  He had dug the grave on the seventh of September, the day he wrote and sent the letter instructing Clara how to meet him for her short, fatal voyage.  The letter that lay by her heart when it stopped beating.

At the Utica Norwegian Lutheran Church
The Crowd of Mourners
     On December 7,1926 Clara was laid to rest in the graveyard or the Norwegian Lutheran Church, now known as the Utica Lutheran Church.  A crowd of about six hundred came, but only 300 could be accommodated inside.  Rev. Martin Dummernaess asked the mourners to pray for the one who took not one but two lives; that of Clara and of the little girl she carried.  “Ask forgiveness for him, and ask God to bring repentance on his heart,” he said.  Outside, the family stood by her gray Coffin as she was interred.  The snow was soaked with rain and formed a dirty slush, which the previous night’s misty fog had topped with a hard frozen crust.
Clara's Casket leaving her home


      












     In the following years tens of thousands of wanted posters were sent all over the country.   At the urging of Albert Olson, Governor Zimmerman sent Assistant Attorney General J. E. Messerschmidt to review the case and report back.  After several weeks he reported to the Governor that there was no doubt of Erdman Olson's guilt.  He stated that there was sufficient evidence to try him for first degree murder “when and if he is found.” The search went on for years with the $3,000.00 reward unclaimed. Reports came in from all over claiming Erdman had been spotted.  A suicide victim in Chicago was thought to be Erdman – it wasn't.  In 1932 a man was detained in Los Angeles thought to be Erdman.  In 1933 a man in Portage was detained.  In 1939 the Sheriff of Crawford County issued thousands more wanted posters. In 1940 the county, having never had a good lead, absorbed the reward fund into its general fund for 1941.  In 1949 the last suspect, Theodore Wagner of Fargo, North Dakota was detained on suspicion of being Erdman Olson and sent to Crawford County for identification.  Wrong again.

     Two weeks after Clara's death, Frank Blazek of Prairie Du Chien reported seeing her ghost “flitting over the snow, crying for her sweetheart.”   In February of 1927 the body of Will Holmes, age 19, of Prairie Du Chien was found with a pistol at his feet in a hollow tree in the Kickapoo River bottoms not far from the grave Clara had been buried in by her killer.  He was reported to have been despondent at his girlfriend enduing their relationship.  In the spring of 1927, a cardboard box was found near the shallow grave she occupied from September to December 1926. It was hidden in a nearly invisible crotch formed by two stumps and a sapling. It contained a “georgette gown with a ribbon sash, a silk slip. A yellow polka dot dress and two pairs of silk hose.  It was quickly labeled as Clara's “wedding trousseau” by the press.

        

      Clara lies in the Utica Church cemetery, now joined by her parents and other family members.  The fog still owns the night in those hills and valleys, but in the morning the sun rises and the fog lifts, and all is clear. The memory of this heinous crime is still fresh and is part of the folklore of the hills.  The mystery of Edman’s disappearance remains shrouded in darkness and fog.  It is unlikely that anyone now lives who can answer the question of the murderer's fate.  Did he start a new life in some faraway place?  Did he kill again?  Did he tire of running and end it all?  There are many wooded bluffs, caves, and swamps in the Kickapoo region.  They have many secrets that may never be given up.







Thursday, October 29, 2015

Passing Through Ridgeway



Passing through Ridgeway

From goulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night – Good Lord, deliver us!     -----    The Cornish and West Country Litany, 1926

     With Halloween upon us it seems a good time to talk about unexplained things that do not always go bump in the night.  I would suspect that each of us has had a chilling experience which we could not explain.  I would also bet that most of us keep these events to ourselves, lest we be taken for a fledgling lunatic.  That being said, I am going to tell you of my personal experiences at Ridgeway, the town famous for its ghost, a ghost which I call a chasing ghost, because of its tendency to pursue those it encounters.
     It was December 1, 1981.  My wife and I, proud parents of a baby girl born in October of that year, were driving home late at night from a visit to Madison.  We had gone there that evening to pick up a relative who had flown in from Nevada for a visit.  It was a black and windy night. We were near Ridgeway.  As I drove along highway 151, my headlights illuminating the flakes of light snow that blew at me and flew by into the blackness, I could hear my wife beside me gently talking to the baby that she rocked in her arms to stop her crying.  Our visitor slept in the back seat.
     From nowhere a thin man dressed in ragged pants and an open shirt that waved in the wind appeared on my right, from the edge of the highway.  His arms raised and flailing he ran right in front of me and disappeared into the darkness on my left. 
“Did you see that!” I shouted.
“What?” my wife replied, raising her head from the child and looking at me. 
“A guy just ran in front of me” I replied, “He must be crazy being out here in the freezing cold with only a shirt and undershirt on!”

     She asked me what he looked like.  Strangely enough, I could not remember his face, only the tattered shirt blown wildly by the wind and the arms above his head flapping as he dashed by.  I drove home and remarked upon it to friends who were totally agreed that whoever he was, he must have been very drunk.  Later I learned about the Ridgeway Ghost.  I wondered, as I still do who or what I encountered that night.
     It was October 25th 1992, my son Brian's fourteenth birthday.  As a gift I took him and Tony, his younger brother to Madison to see a basketball game.  The Milwaukee Bucks were playing the Phoenix Suns at the Dane County Coliseum.  After an exciting game and as much autograph begging as Brian could do we had dinner and started home quite late.  At that time, outside of Ridgeway along the highway there was an old farmhouse surrounded by trees.  In later years someone spray painted “Haunted House” on the wall facing the highway, but it was not labeled so at that time.  It was, as before, a very dark, moonless night that followed a cloudy day.  As we drove by Ridgeway the house came into view on our left, which was unusual because ordinarily it was a mere streak in the headlights as one passed by.   This night it was alive with light.  From each window a diffuse, pinkish orange light reached into the darkness.  From each of its windows came the same uniform light. The bare walls were visible within, but no source of light was visible.  Everything was illuminated by the same odd soft light. 
“Look at that” my son shouted, “What is it!”
  “I don't know” I replied, transfixed by the unworldly apparition. 
“Stop!” he shouted. 
“No way” I replied and away we sped eastward toward Lancaster and home.
    
    I have told friends about that night over the years.  They look at me incredulously and then to mollify my apparent madness say something like “probably a prank of some sort.”   I thought about it less frequently over the years, save when I visited my son, occasionally asking him if he remembers that night.  He does.  It came to mind suddenly while I was browsing the internet one day and came across the following post on a site:

       “I want to relate an experience I had around Halloween, 1993. I'm from Ripon, Wisconsin. At the time of this story, I was also a student at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. To get to my school, I would travel from Ripon to Madison, get on highway 151, and go there to Platteville, which is in Grant County. On the way there, I would pass an old, abandoned farmhouse on 151. It was a very old building, completely isolated, and with no driveway. When going by, I would look through the windows. The interior of the dwelling was completely gutted, as if there had been a fire inside at one point. It looked as if a strong wind could knock the whole building over. Anyway, it was Halloween weekend. I was going back to Ripon with my roommate. By the time we left it was around 9:00 p.m. When we drove by the old house, I noticed that the building's interior was brightly lit, as if someone had been inside and turned on all the lights. That was what confused me. I saw what it looked like inside. There was no wiring of any sort in the building. I couldn't understand where the light was coming from. It wasn't lantern light; it looked like electricity, but it didn't seem possible. When we came back a couple days later, we noticed that the house looked like it had before - gutted. Strange! Several years later, I bought a book called Haunted Wisconsin. I read a chapter about the legendary "Ridgeway Ghost." In the chapter, there was a photo of the house where the ghost supposedly "lived." It was the same house! I got out a map and double-checked it with the book to make sure they were the same - and they matched. Apparently, when we drove by, the Ridgeway Ghost was "home.” by Mark G.”  From: http://www.w-files.com/files/ghridgeway.html
     The house is gone now.  I have heard no reports since of men running in front of cars on dark highways.  I have no doubt that, as my friend said, these events must have been some kind of prank.  Some kind of prank by whom – or what?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

THE HOMEBODY

The Homebody
By Dennis Wilson
     Every community across rural America has a “character,” the man or woman whose eccentricities are a matter of note to visitors, but not to accepting neighbors.  In time the eccentric often becomes a matter of community pride.  People often imagine that the city is the place to live a life on your own terms, but I have found that small town America has a lot of friendly room for people who are a little "different"  Little Sammy Draper of Lancaster, reputed at one time to be the world’s smallest man, was universally loved and admired, and not just because he was only 3 feet 10 inches tall.  He had a unique personality.  He was a “character.  Though he died nearly 75 years ago, he is recalled fondly, and many prize their photos of him, and stories of his life.  Every small town has tales of its inventor, fabulist, recluse or collector of oddities. 

     Arthur, a very small town in Grant County once was home to the “most untraveled man in Wisconsin”, Charles “Potter” Dobson.  He had an absolute aversion to leaving his small rural town. 
     People nowadays are prone to believe that the residents of “Old Grant” a hundred years ago were relatively stuck in the country and didn't get around much, but nothing could be further from the truth.  In an article titled “Restless Grant County: Americans on the Move” in the autumn 1962 Wisconsin Magazine of History, author Peter J. Coleman pointed out that this county was part of a nation on the move.  People settled, stayed a decade or so, and moved on – usually to the west.  My own ancestors lived in Grant County and then, after years of farming here moved to Nebraska in the late 1870’s.  In fact, with Railroad service in almost every town of any size, our forebears of a hundred years ago could hop on the local train and go almost anywhere.  Some time ago I was surprised to learn that my great grandfather, a Wisconsin farmer his entire adult life, nevertheless took a vacation and went to California. While there, he attended the 1939 Rose Bowl.  Why should I have been surprised?  After all he crossed the Atlantic from his birthplace in Northern Ireland and came to Wisconsin when a small child.  Travel was nothing new to him.
     “Potter” Dobson was a truly dedicated stick-in-the-mud, and it took effort.  It is said that he never traveled over 20 miles from home in his whole life, and no record of so lengthy a voyage as that survives.  So far as I have been able to ascertain, his legend began in 1939, when a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal, perhaps lost, stumbled upon Arthur, a town of maybe 50 souls.  He soon heard of Dobson and went to see him. Here are some excerpts from the story he wrote:
“Looking for the most contented man? Well, folks. Meet Charles (Potter) Dobson, father of seven, owner of a house and six acres of good farm land— all clear— and a first rate team of horses.
“In all the 41 years of his married life he never has been away from home so much as a single night— In fact, he has never been away at all from this place where he was born except on perhaps a dozen occasions. Now, at 68, he submits that he is "doing all right and wouldn't change places with any man on earth."
“He has a nice sense of humor, too, Is accustomed to be considered as something more than a local celebrity and takes It modestly. Questioned about his penchant for sticking close to the home base he found some trouble In explaining It. He scratched his head and finally ventured that there didn't seem to be anything for him to go away for so he "Just didn't go"
"But." he defended himself good naturedly, "It's not true, like they say, that I've never been on a train." There was the merest suggestion of a smile about his mouth, as he shoved his battered old felt hat back at a more rakish angle. "I've been on the train a heap of times. Between Rewey and Livingston. Twice, anyhow. Maybe more" (The distance between Rewey and Livingston via the North Western road Is 4.8 miles.)
"But it is true," he continued In the manner of one determined to keep the record straight at all cost. "I've never been to Montfort." Montfort, 10 miles away, is a thriving metropolis with a population of 554, as compared to Arthur's half hundred
"I was all ready one time, though, to go away on a train trip," he confided, a far away look in his eyes. "Had it all planned to go with the Missus to a big celebration at Dodgeville over In the next county. Down at the depot, just before we were ready to pull out, I found out the train schedule didn't allow for us to make it back home that same night, so I Just gave it up." "Potter" pulled himself a straw and chewed it reflectively. "That was in 1908," he said. "I've never tried It since."
Dobson didn't like cars either. Some of the locals had tricked him into a car once and took off for Platteville.  He escaped a short distance out of town and walked back home relieved at avoiding the close call with disaster.  His most prized possession was his team of horses.  “My team,” he said, “can take me anywhere I've a mind to go.”  He was a Cubs fan, though, and listened to them regularly on his radio.  Though his given name was Charles he was known by his nickname “Potter” which he came by when a more traveled friend told him his copper toed boots curled up at the toes just like the boots worn by a printer in Platteville named Potter.  The nickname was necessary because he had a cousin in town who was also named Charles Dobson.  They called him “Chubb.”

     Mrs. Mamie Dobson, popularly known as “Mame” liked to travel.  The couple had children living in Jefferson, Wisconsin, Richmond California and Detroit Michigan.  Mr. Dobson referred to her as a “gadabout.”  When he was interviewed in 1944 by Edgar Riley of the Wisconsin State Journal Mrs. Dobson was away on an extended stay with her daughter Gretta in Detroit who ran a home for children.
     Living with an intransigent creature of habit must have been hard for Mrs. Dobson.  Mr. Dobson's tastes were simple. He loved baked potatoes and ate at least one every day.  He would not try exotic cuisine like mashed or scalloped potatoes, so, resigned to the fact, Mrs Dobson made him his potatoes of choice every day of their married life with the exception of her gadabout absences.  As of August 1944 it was calculated that he had consumed baked potatoes for 13,790 straight days. 

     He always slept in the same bed and insisted it be kept in the same corner of the same room in their cabin.  Mrs. Dobson, possessed of the normal feminine decorating spirit, re-arranged the room at times over the years only to find that “Potter” had dragged the bed back to his corner, for he could not sleep anywhere else – even in the same bedroom.  Mame was not a milquetoast though.  Mr. Dobson was a deliberate man and often procrastinated about getting to his chores, one of which was to chop and bring in the wood for the cooking stove. One morning, while preparing to make breakfast, she found there was no wood chopped.  With angry resolve she dragged his bed frame out of the house and chopped it up thereby insuring both his breakfast and his baked potato.  He never again was remiss in meeting those marital obligations, but he did bemoan that, but for her hasty act, he would have slept in the same bed each night for 46 years!
    On Wednesday, November 7, 1950, Mr. Dobson had the novel experience of reading his own obituary.  The newspapers, hearing of the death of Charles Dobson of Arthur had gone to print believing it to be Charles “Potter” Dobson.  They were wrong. It was his cousin “Chubb.”

Did he have a special mental disorder? The reporters didn't think so.  He was talkative, congenial, full of humor, and to all appearances healthy.  Perhaps what he had was a special ability, an ability we all long for;  The ability to find happiness and shed anxiety by living in the simplest way with the fewest material impediments.