Old Settlers Club 1916

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

An Up-River Mystery

Read by Jeremiah Quin, Oct. 2, 1899.

In the autumn of 1858 an occurrence just above the dam caused much annoyance to the squatter settlers of that region. The La Crosse shops were running in full blast. The long brick blacksmith shop on the crest of the river bank was full of vigorous, brawny men, many of whom built small houses, known as shanties, along the river banks. A custom, or rather a fashion, prevailed among these knights of the ringing anvil, of wearing red flannel shirts at work; and proudly as ever marched "red branch knight" of old, we strutted in these colors to and from the smoky shop.

The women along the river banks seemed to catch inspiration from our colors, and the blacksmith's wife could be easily distinguished, as with high head and proud bearing, on each wash day, with well-rounded bare arms, and ample corsetless bust, she laid the masculine emblem on the green sunny sward to dry; for in those days, clotheslines and clothes horses were unknown, or deemed effeminate luxury.

All at once a dark cloud came over the sylvan spot. A red shirt began to disappear here and there from the variegated lawn, and no one could discover how. At first it was thought a neighbor might have gathered one in by mistake, and sometimes a humorous scene would occur between the matrons of the settlement, thus: "Mrs. Dressen, when you thought that you took in Hans' red shirt last night, was it not my Mike's you had taken by mistake?"

"Ach, mine Gott, Mrs. Murphy, mine, mine; I never could make such mistick in Hans' shirt," would be the good-natured reply. These little things, however, never caused the slightest ill feeling among the women of the settlement.

Day by day the crop of red shirts grew less and less, and what deepened the mystery, was, that while there were garments of various hues, and shapes, of gauzy textures, and costlier finish, lying on the daisy-covered sward, still, only the red flannel shirt was ever taken.

Many were the theories which were advanced in regard to the matter, but still there was no clue discovered. Self-constituted vigilance committees kept sharp watch, but still the red shirts disappeared, and the mystery only deepened. An unfortunate rag picker sauntered one day through the settlement, and was instantly surrounded by the active vigilance committee. His huge bag was turned inside out, and its contents scattered about, but no red shirt was among them. The terror-stricken merchant, gathering up his goods once more, quickly departed, wondering whether he had struck one of Gulliver's savage islands.

Eed was eschewed altogether. Blue flannel was made the smith-shop uniform, and peace and happiness reigned on the river's sylvan banks once more.

The long winter passed, and when the warm sun of Spring melted the crested snows of the stream, the mystery was solved. Well up towards Humboldt a colony of muskrats made settlement that Winter. Their vast network of nests looked as usual, until the warm Spring rays all at once metamorphosed the scene, and strange to relate, in a single day the colony assumed the appearance of a miniature English military camp, and a most picturesque sight it was, too; every nest was crowned capped with a red flannel shirt.

The selection by the colony of red flannel for their building purposes is perhaps the most interesting part of my story, and as it came under my personal observation, I will relate it.

Sauntering one day along the river bank, shot gun in hand, in quest of jacksnipes, I saw a large muskrat sitting upon one of a dozen or so stones, at the entrance of the old ravine, a little above where the woolen mill now stands. My first impulse was of course to get that musk's hide, and I crawled noiselessly along so as to get within sure distance. I came out of the brush a little, so as to take sure aim, when I noticed that he was eying me very intently, without apparently any fear. There was something in his looks which Beemed to appeal to my feelings, and Poor Burns' famous lines to the mouse came into my mind instantly:

"I'm truly sorry man's dominion Has broken nature's social union, And justifies the ill opinion That makes thee startle, At me, thy poor earthborn companion And fellow mortal."

And I was much pleased that, unlike Burns' scared little mouse, my muskrat never stirred, but gave me candid glances of confidence. I became at once much interested in him, and al-though I would not kill him for the world now, I feared that some less humane hunter might come along and shoot him on sight. Deeming it my duty under the circumstances to give him a lasting fright, I fired both barrels of my old shotgun against a rock near him. He looked at me for a moment and jumping up on that very rock, began to gambol around on it. Determined if possible to strike terror into him, I reloaded and fired once more, this time into the water, which splashed upon him and over the rocks around him, but with no effect. He swam around, and frisked from rock to rock, and then looked at me in a funny sort of way, much as to say: "Fire another. I like it."

I now began to feel great interest in him, and pity for him, especially as I felt the responsibility of giving him so much confidence in a hunter. I was down to my last charge of shot, and I at once resolved to make that tell, even at the risk of wounding him. I loaded in the charge of powder and rammed it down with my last wad of paper we had no cartridges in those days I put in my last charge of shot, but had nothing left for a wad. Necessity is the mother of invention, it is said, and so it proved in my case. Being a blacksmith I of course wore the regulation red shirt, and taking my knife from my pocket, I cut a piece from it, and rammed down there with the charge. Approaching to within, well probably eight feet of the rock from which that rat sat smiling at me, I put the full charge of shot against the rock, very close to him, so as to shock him, but instead of diving terror-stricken into the river that rat actually curled up his tail, and jumped around in evident merriment. The red wadding did not burn but fell on the rock. He picked it up in his mouth, and shook it at me several times. I then grew angry and ran for a stone. He must have seen my change of countenance, for he swam away hurriedly with the piece in his mouth, with which he undoubtedly embellished his nest; evidently the whole colony finding red flannel well suited to building, had raided the banks on both sides. Nothing was easier than their mode of operation. They would sneak the garment off the bank into the river, and then carry it under the water, so that the people watching for a man thief, could not account for the manner of the disappearance. One watcher offered to make affidavit that the shirt was lying on the grass, when she looked around for a moment, and on turning again, found the garment gone, but her story was discredited and she was charged with sleeping on her watch.

This little incident was recalled to my mind by the interesting story related at the Old Settlers' picnic by your late treasurer, Brother Lee. The story so graphically and truthfully told by Mr. Lee made a deep impression on my mind, as it presents to the naturalist, the reptile in an entirely new and wonderful light, giving us a picture of gratitude and affection almost human.

Some might say that the incident which came under my own observation shows the muskrat up as a more cunning character, and that being higher in the scale of creation than Brother Lee's reptile, he had partaken more of modern civilization, by smiling in my face now, and in the next moment conspiring to rob me of even my only shirt. However all this might be, the incident itself does not approach the picture given us by Brother Lee, either in intensity of human affection, or in depth of human pathos.

The Rhodean sculptors of old have left the world an immortal group called the Laocoon, in which is depicted the severe decree of the gods against Troy, the strangling of the sons of Priam by huge serpents. If ever an American sculptor arises equal to the great task of depicting Brother Lee's experience with his serpents, the American story must far surpass the classic and famous Laocoon. Look at the group! There stands the manly form of our late treasurer, proudly encoiled within the scaly circles of a huge reptile, who is in the attitude of impressing a loving kiss upon his cheek, whilst as a bas-relief, the crouching, cowardly chicken thief is firmly bound in the coils of younger serpents.

Let us hope that some day this group will stand in the Seventh Ward park, inviting to Michigan's wondrous shore, travelers from every land, even as now flock around the gallery of the Laocoon, enduring through all time as the last and greatest climax of American art and of American story.