Old Settlers Club 1916

Early Milwaukee
Papers from the Archives of the Old Settlers' Club of Milwaukee County
Published by the Club

Girlhood Memories

Read by Mrs. Martha D. Ellsworth, Nov. 7, 1898.
Source: Early Milwaukee, Papers from the Archives of the Old Settlers' Club of Milwaukee County, Published by the Club, 1916.

Connecticut, dear native state, thy name
Pronounced in western ears calls up such shams
As wooden nutmegs fresh, or basswood hams,
Or hick'ry oats, or some such Yankee game.
Who thus connect I cut, and fearless claim
"Tis only thus because she waiting stands
With Yankee genius guiding deftest hands
Prepared to furnish what the world demands,
From pins and buttons, pegs, and tacks and matches,
Or hats and rifles, pistols, clocks and watches,
To peddlers, poets, pedagogues and preachers.
To match the world, we need but name the Beechers.
It is only from the standpoint of a child that I may address you tonight, dear friends, for it was not my good fortune to remain a sojourner in the city which today is noted for the beauty of its location, its genial home atmosphere, and the health and enterprise of its people. These added its large-hearted hospitality form attractions within its gates that can nowhere be outrivaled; nay, not even in Paris, where, it is said, cordiality abounds more unquestionably than in any other corner of the round globe. Had this condition been contrariwise, I should never have presumed to appear in the ranks of the "Old Settlers' Club" of Milwaukee County, for which privilege I now publicly extend thanks to each and every member thereof.

Although my initial wail disturbed not the waves of Milwaukee air, I am sure that my four-year-old cry of homesickness upon my first night in the new Eldorado must have, literally, made the rafters ring, for the shelter in which we pioneers were lodged, boasted neither lath nor plaster. Although so small a morsel of humanity as was I upon my advent into the far country, I distinctly remember many incidents in connection therewith. Most delightful of all was the trip hither in a comfortable steamer, whose crude motor power heaved and sighed in tones so sonorous that there was need of neither whistle nor bell to warn landings of her approach. Doubtless, there be steamers of finer construction and finish than the one of my infant trip, but doubtless I have never seen them. In my recollections, never has there been a boat so grand, deck so enjoyable, nursery so cozy, colored mammy so tender, chandeliers so dazzling, hoe-cake so delicious, sailors so kind --What would I not now give to appreciate the good things of this earth as did I my first trip o'er the blue waves of Erie, Huron and Michigan.

Yet the impress of such recent delights could not keep homesickness from the heart of a weary little girl who had nightly been comfortably tucked into a cozy bed surrounded by familiar objects. Now here she was her first night in Milwaukee, lodged upon the hard floor of an unfinished hostelry whose space was covered by the recumbent forms of fellow-pioneers. Several times during the night was Polly as she, little girl, shall herein be known, disturbed by awkward feet picking their way over the sleepers to some remote unoccupied floor space beyond. Often since that eventful night have I heard mention of the "soft" side of a plank; but I am sure that none of the planks in this especial tavern were of such order. Fortunately, some of the mothers of the numerous broods secured accommodations upon cots or straw-ticks, but the men folk and children were strewn about the floor with coats rolled up for pillows.

However crude the accommodations, it was not long before a nasal orchestra made the air musical with annotated snores, varied by drowsy or exceedingly wide-awake cries of children, lowing of cattle, barking of dogs, or what, to the little ones, was a blood-curdler : the entrancing notes of a screech-owl, that had chosen this especial ridge-pole for his nightly serenade. Never before had Polly heard this sweet songster, and most energetically did she manifest her disapproval of such entertainment. But nature's sweet restorer which nightly knits up the raveled sleeve of care came to her aid through the merry blinking of the stars, that in their passage across the heavens sent loving rays through the chinks in the roof, and seemed to breathe goodnight benedictions upon the weary, homesick little traveler. Yet, whether we have joy or pain, fortune or misfortune, this stern old earth rolls on bringing daylight to those who would sit in darkness, and darkness to those who worship the sun.

The little girl of whom I write may be reckoned in the latter class, for certes, no Aztec of ancient times could have welcomed the approach of Phoebus' chariot more devotedly than did Polly upon her first awakening in the new country. Scarcely had the eastern sky flushed with roseate hue, ere the whole body of sleepers were upon their feet ready to plunge into the healthful air bath of a bright June morning. Pater familias with Polly in hand reveled in the delightful sensation of new sky, new earth, new faces and exceedingly new houses; not so Polly. Her world was slightly out of gear, and she was not yet mature enough to realize that it was due to the absence of home comforts and the sweet companionship of a dear old grandpa left in the home country. Happily, the troubles of childhood vanish like the morning dew. After the crude, substantial breakfast, Polly was herself again; ready for any adventure that life in the wilderness might offer. Mater familias with heart sorely tried over comforts no longer in possession, was glad to accept the hospitality of a friend, until time when she might possess shelter of her own. Nightfall, therefore, found her and her little ones domiciled with a Kilbourntown family, the members of which afterwards became prominent residents of Berlin, Wisconsin.

And now came the distressful period of stowing away a family of eight persons into space destined for but one or two at the most. Fortunately, this condition was to exist only through a period of house building, and, in the 40's, neither architect nor plumber hindered progress. Provided with material somewhat in the rough, I confess amateur carpenters could in short time construct a very comfortable house for the decades 30 and 40.

During the 50's began the I'm-going-to-have-a-better-house-than-you period the period which aroused a spirit of envy, hatred and malice in the bosoms of less fortunate dwellers by the lake, that in a measure destroyed that purely enjoyable feeling of comradeship which exists among a people who together have blazed the path to civilization.

Polly's new home lay upon an upper floor of a store building on East Water street, near the Cottage Inn; and with neighbors, remembered, three: of which one family is in prosperous circumstances near Oshkosh, another, root and branch, has entirely disappeared from the earth. The third has also gone the way of all flesh. The only child of this delightful couple (whose bones repose in Forest Home) awaits in an ocean's bed the final reveille. During the Civil War, with many another brave boy in blue, he gave up his life for his country's cause. At the final roll-call, God grant them all medals of honor.

Polly's new home lay upon the river's shore. Here would she linger an interested spectator of the ease and grace with which the red man guided his bark canoe; now among the rushes, and anon shooting into midstream with the admirable nonchalance of a water fowl. Occasionally, too, was she allowed to watch the war dance of these strange people, who bewitched her through their grotesque costumes and contortions. Then, as now, the white man and fire-water were the Indian's chief enemies. Often would Polly lie o' nights heart pounding in fear at sound of the wild man's orgies. In no particular does he so completely imitate his white brother as in his extravagant use of liquor. Alike, its effect makes a brute of savage as of civilized man.

Months slipped on, and the fair village by the river grew to fine proportions. But in an unguarded moment an enemy swooped down upon the unsuspecting victim and with one fell stroke laid it low in ashes. Never will Polly forget that spell of fright and horror cast about her as she sat out upon the cold sidewalk, within the protecting arms of a servant, and watched the monster fire through its work of destruction. Memory's eye can still see the long line of indefatigable workers passing from hand to hand the buckets of water that other toilers filled at the river's brink. Memory's ear can still hear the roar and crackle of the leaping tongues of flame, the shouts of command, the terror-stricken cries of women and children.

After this terrible lesson to her citizens, Milwaukee was not caught napping again. Cream-white brick were drawn from her ample lap and built into beautiful structures, that, being seen by the stranger, wafted abroad the merits thereof. A fire brigade, though crudely equipped, was marshaled into being, and all precautions taken to make the dread monster "fire" a good servant, where erstwhile it had been a bad master.

From now on the growth of the town was greatly augmented through the advertising this calamity had given it. Frills and furbelows appeared in such profusion that the burg might well have exclaimed: "Am I I, or am I not I?"

Shortly after the fire episode Polly's parents built a home in the residence portion of the town, in the block with Clark Shepardson's palatial home. Herein flowers bloomed the year round, and a little child whose soul longed for the bright and beautiful things of earth was oft made happy through the kind thoughtfulness of the dear lady of the manor.

A few years ago grown-up Polly called upon this then venerable lady, who was living in solitary comfort in her South Side home; and there she found reproduced, in almost every detail, the familiar sitting-room of the East Side home. The rag carpet was of the same hue and weave as that of old, the tall black walnut bookcase was the very same that stood in the angle at the right of the bay-window, and here it stood at exactly the same pose as erst. Here was the bay too, but, perhaps, of more generous proportion than the old, and here were the same, the very same old plants with the singing birds swinging above, at least, so grown-up Polly thought.

But this is not the same brisk lady who presided over the long ago; no, this hostess has a slow step, wrinkles upon her face, and whitened hair. These stubborn facts bring the visitor back to the knowledge that time is fleeting and that she herself has changed from an adoring child to a matronly matter-of-fact woman. If we only might keep the freshness and enthusiasm of youth throughout our life's journey, what a dear old world this would be!

Of all dreaded visitors in the life of a household, the one whose impressions are most enduring to young and old alike is the reaper Death. Stealthily, silently did he enter Polly's home and in two short days his scythe had done its deadly work. A dear brother of mature age had been laid low, and the atmosphere of loss pervaded all things. Within doors were sad faces, subdued voices, measured footfalls. A seamstress busy with sable garments, and, more depressing still, that long, long figure beneath the white sheet. Oh, what did it all mean? And why, before the funeral guests arrived, were all the pictures and mirrors turned to the wall? Even Heaven's bright-hued messengers were relegated to an obscure corner where their brightness might not offend his majesty Death. And then the doleful music, the black garments of wee Polly, and at the grave the cruel torture of listening to the thud of the sexton's toil, as he dropped shovelful after shovelful of Mother Earth upon that terribly resonant box which hid away the once bright form of dear Brother Winny ! No wonder, poor Polly long afterward trembled with fear at the mere mention of Death.

The dear brother was laid away in what was then a far-distant graveyard, on Spring Street hill, afterwards one of the first bodies to be removed to that ideal cemetery, Forest Home. Upon a recumbent slab near the entrance gates to this God's acre may be read the name "Winfield Scott," a name which the illustrious general himself bestowed upon the infant boy.

During these early days much sickness abounded in the settlement, and over-careful mothers almost invariably drew their children into the path of the gruesome juggernaut funerals hoping that some salutary lesson to their soul's salvation might be learned there from. Thus, it happened that Polly was often subjected to this form of discipline. Chief among these occurrences was attendance at the obsequies of a dear playmate Martha Miter. In contradistinction, wedding festivities were a forbidden pleasure to young fry; at least Polly thought so, for she never had the pleasure of attending one, although the rumor of their occurrence sometimes reached her.

That the child is father to the man is clearly proven in the hankering after forbidden sports. Polly and her brother had oft been told that the creature with the cloven hoof and forked tail lay in wait for offenders along the line of card-playing. Yet, in spite of this bug-a-boo warning, a group of children with Polly on the outskirts, for she was the youngest, collected in an upper chamber and dared the Evil One. Guessing a card's value from the exposed back was the game in hand, and everything was progressing satisfactorily to the little sinners until an unusual sound disturbed the circle. A brave (?) brother who held the pack and led the crowd, outdid any general of my knowledge in beating a retreat. His note of warning, towit, that the Devil was under the bed, sent the demoralized squad helter-skelter through the hall and down the stairway, while Polly's short legs in vain tried to join the stampede. With hair standing on end and eyes ready to leap from their sockets, she stretched every nerve in the attempt to outstrip the terrible creature behind her, whose sulphurous breath she actually smelled and whose cloven hoof made the air resound. And, oh, didn't she get a shaking when the brave brother was obliged to return to her rescue.  Such things I've known, I, who speak to ye! In particulars of this last incident, I can confidently state that since Polly's time brothers have not materially improved.

Polly has remembrance, too, of this brother calling "Indians, Indians," upon the occasion of her having run away from school with him and others to visit the tamarack swamp which lay upon the west side of the Milwaukee river. The sweetness of the gum vanished at homecoming with the disgrace of being housed with the dog under the table until time to go, supperless, to bed. The complete ruin of a brand new green cloak (through mud spatters), and the necessity of wearing the same through the livelong winter, was a continual reminder to Polly of her naughty escapade. At recollection of such trials, she would not request time to reverse.

During these early times the environs of Milwaukee were paradisiacal to youthful wanderers. In summer their nimble feet scoured hill and valley to gather in the harvests from woods and fields or wandered to the lake bluffs where the wonderful lighthouse was located. Near this structure was platted the most beautiful posey garden in all the world, with its rows of sweet William, blue-bells, marigolds and poppies. Here, too, were the delightful grassy parterres of the bold bluffs, adown which the children would roll until they reached the flight of steps that led to the pebbly beach, whereon lay wealth of stone and shell to everlasting damage of shoes and pockets. Yet, nothing ever so bewitched these young explorers as did the sight of fishermen's huts and paraphernalia which clung as securely to the step declivities as do barnacles to the side of a ship. It mattered not how odorous the atmosphere of this locality, how shiny the foot-path or how incongruous the surroundings, here the small adventurers would linger until darkness or a messenger summoned them home.

Such ideal spots for picnicking as lay all about Milwaukee ! And yet Polly remembers but one, and that was distinguished as a Sunday-school celebration. A staidly proper thing, to which, by couples, the children were marshaled in a long procession that stretched its demure length over an uneven path to a grove on Spring Street hill. Here, it was ranged upon roughly constructed seats to listen to the customary Sunday-school exhorter, who, unwittingly, led little ones to believe that good children die young; therefore, no child within earshot cared to be good. Picnics were not then so much a necessity to the savage side of humanity as are they now. Then, a person might enjoy flies, mosquitoes and other insects within his own domain; and as to drinking from over a stone wall, home cups were nearly all of that order. There were always a few choice pieces of tableware hidden away as sacred to the use of the minister or other infrequent visitor.

This one event of the picnic marked an era in Polly's life as she marched among her mates, proudly conscious of being a "jiner." The lettered bluesilk badge that fluttered from her shoulder told all the world that she was a member of Plymouth S. S. of Milwaukee in Wisconsin Territory.

For the sake of dear old long ago, I hope that the infant church which was located on Spring street near the bridge was never converted into a livery stable. Query. Do the good folk of Milwaukee relegate their erstwhile sanctums to such base use because Christ was born in a manger?

One questionable pastime of Polly and her mates was to visit a hill on the East Side, at the foot of which stood an unoccupied house; or, rather, occupied only by the ghost of a man who had been murdered therein. What condition can more fully contribute to the entertainment of a harum-scarum, venturesome child than that which contains a spice of horror? As long as the dreaded house stood at the foot of the hill, so long it remained a target for sticks, stones and jeers of an unruly crowd of youngsters, who, standing afar off, made the air resound with naughty jibes and jests. That the ghost finally became desperate over these demonstrations was evidenced through the appearance against an upper winder pane of a giant, mutilated bloody hand. If these children had each possessed the one thousand legs of the renowned worm, they could not have vanished from that vicinity more speedily than did they vanish upon this exhibition, with each his own two legs.

This house was afterwards renovated. It was moved to another part of the lot on which it stood, but all of no avail; that ambitious ghost still clung to his habitat. You may move, you may alter the house if you will; but the taint of the ghost will cling to it still.

If Milwaukee were a children's paradise in Summer, it certainly deserved an equal, if not a higher, reputation through its Winter attractions. Girls were not so completely in evidence through this season's sports, but boys boys held high carnival on frozen marsh and river, while the girls hung about the edges wishing with all their might that nature had made them boys. Thank fortune, that conditions in the world of sport have greatly changed since Polly's playdays. But there were times, places and conditions when it was good to be "nothing but a girl," to-wit, a brilliantly moonlit Winter's eve, a softly-padded, diamond besprinkled coasting hill, a youthful admirer, the proud possessor of the "bulliest sled upon the hill." And then if during the racing which inevitably followed, there came, when part way down the incline, a general mix-up of broken sleds and bruised girls and boys, what mattered it? Father's money would repair the sleds, and mother's plasters would repair the youngsters, while the latter would have the satisfaction of telling how it all happened and who was to blame, although no two of them could possibly agree upon these details. In the nowadays, Polly can scarce repress a tearful sigh at recollection of the vanished pleasures of Milwaukee Street hill.

Polly's first experience of school was at the tender age of four years. In the early days, no doubt children were expected to be models of propriety, training or no training. Unfortunately, Polly was not built that way, and in a very unlucky moment she sniggered aloud four years old, too, and her first day at school ! This mattered not. The brave pantalooned creature called a teacher snatched the small offender from off the front form and administered a strapping that stings to the present day. But she had her revenge; for years afterward she had the extreme satisfaction (whilst on a lake excursion) of meeting her old persecutor to whom she introduced herself as the quondam little girl whom he lashed upon her first day at school. Polly thinks that he did not enjoy the encounter quite as much as did she.

Of the educational institutions that Polly attended regularly the first was in the basement of the church that once stood upon ground now occupied by Chapman's store. This was presided over by a lady in corkscrew curls and white kid gloves. To Polly's great amazement and probable admiration, she wore the latter during school hours, and withal, wielded the rod of correction quite as dexterously as did the male teacher afore mentioned.

Another school "for girls only" was located in a private house on Michigan street. Here, Polly learned little of books, but much of kindly care and the use of the needle. At the present day, she can show you a most wonderful sampler whose birds and flowers have no counterparts upon the face of the earth, and, I should hope, none in the heavens above. However, the spirit of love and affection in which this teacher presided over her flock, will linger in the memories of her pupils so long as reason has its sway therein.

Polly's next adventure on the high road to learning was with the dear sisters of St. John's school. Here, church, creed and catechism were held paramount to the three R's, and though none of the attendants progressed rapidly in book learning, they caught inspiration along the line of kindness and charity. Here, Polly distinguished herself through receiving a prize for scholarship at the hands of the good priest who watched over the flock. The book received was loaned to Julia Rooney and went up in the smoke of her ruined home.

Polly was next sent to a stern professor who practiced dumbbell exercises with the forms of small boys, his scalplock performance, by which he lifted some poor little offender off his seat to send him flying over unoffending heads of front rows was really worthy of attention by any athlete however accomplished.

Polly, sniffing danger in the air, pleaded pathetically for yet another change in her educational career. This time her steps were directed into the classical shades of French, Latin, Greek and other brain-puzzling pursuits, as set forth by Professor Larigo. With these, however, she had naught to do, Bullion's grammer and Emma Willard's history being sufficiently formidable stumbling blocks in her pathway to knowledge.

Prizes for good scholarship were quite the fad of those days, and again did Polly receive substantial reward for her parrotlike recitations. This roused the ire of the Franco-Latin contestants to such degree as to necessitate a bodyguard for the safe conveyance of the prize into the home haven. Fortunately, for Polly's scholastic reputation acquired in the Cream City, she was, soon after this victory, removed to a distant outpost in the Pioneer field.

It was during the last year or two of her residence in Milwaukee that she became stage-struck. Her first introduction to the delights of the theatre was at the appearance of Julia Dean in the grand "histrionic" temple that, stood upon Broadway between Michigan and Wisconsin streets. Polly has long since lost the name of the play, but the impress of the beautiful actress's charm still lingers with her. But the spectacle paramount in her youthful memory is one that in the 40's so delighted Milwaukee youngsters, to-wit, "Beauty and the Beast." Through a playmate whose father presided over the wonderful abode of Terpsichore afore mentioned, Polly was allowed to awaken the echoes of zinc thunder, and to bring forth from the tin cylinder the sound of pattering rain.

Although through this freedom of the playhouse she became familiarized with many a stuffed stage monster, there was one real live one whose vicinity she shunned that of a wolf chained to a stake in the theatre yard. It happened upon one beautiful moon-lit night that Polly's mother went to prayer-meeting, leaving her little girl in charge of a big brother, who, perhaps, had an engagement with somebody's else sister; for soon after mother's departure he left the premises to Polly and solitude. Polly, resenting this slight to her powers of entertainment, sought the street in search of company, which, to her discomfiture, she soon found in a ditch by the wayside. Master Wolf had escaped his chains and was out to enjoy a moonlight escapade. Had he possessed the tact and suavity of Red Riding Hood's wolf, all might have gone well with him; but he was altogether too ardent in his demonstrations, which brought from our lone little wanderer a series of screams that hastened forth to the rescue all the hangers-on at the theatre office. One kindly gentleman gathered the child into his protecting care, bore her home and remained with her until mother came with comforting words. It cannot with truthfulness be stated that big brother enjoyed his come-coming upon that night.

In the nowadays, wee-bit Polly and grown-up Polly oft commune together of the long ago wherein skies are ever blue, nature is ever bright and friends are ever true. Thus, may it continue until at the Golden Stair may these twain merge into one that one being a carefree child trustfully treading the unknown path that the great Pioneer blazed for all his children nearly 1900 years agone. May none of us ignore His leadership! Yea, may we all meet together in that new Eldorado The Hereafter.