ebook  History of Watertown, Wisconsin


Boys will be Boys


Written and contributed by Ben Feld


This has been the most miserable August I have ever experienced. 


Every time I say that, Pa tries to tell me about how bad things were when he was my age.  He says they didn’t even have cheese cloth like we have, to put over the windows at night to keep the mosquitoes out.  Everything was colder or hotter, or longer, or more miserable back then, I guess. 


At least they were allowed to swim in the Rock River.  We aren’t allowed to do that now because there is some kind of “ordinance” forbidding it.  Pa says that is because the health officer has found at least thirteen sewers flowing directly into the river.  The health officer says that is one of the causes for the sickness so many people are getting every summer. 


I wish the City Council would do something about the idea they came up with quite a few years ago when I was just a small boy.  One Councilman suggested they build a swimming pool near the center of town where it would be convenient and safe to swim any time the weather is warm enough.  Pa says all the councilmen thought that was a good idea and they agreed it would be a good idea to build it just south of Milwaukee Street, between the river and First Street.  They have been telling us they will build it “soon” but they have been saying that for quite a number of years but it never gets done. 


Ma says she is sure it will not be built anymore before the twentieth century (whatever that is) begins in just nine more years.


In the meantime, we boys will just continue to do as we have been doing; we will swim in the river when no one is looking.  And I suppose we will continue to get caught by Marshal (George) Henze like we were last week.  He says he isn’t trying to keep us from swimming; he only wants us to obey the “ordinance” the city council passed, which requires us to wear some kind of swimming clothing when we go in the water.  But have you ever tried to swim in heavy denim pants?  They soak up so much water a guy can hardly walk.  I wish Ma would buy me a pair of special swimming pants but she says she is not about to pay out 75 cents for something you can’t wear to church.


Last week we tried to fool old Marshal Henze.  We each tied a rope around our waist and jumped into the water.  We weren’t skinny dipping.  We were wearing something, weren’t we?  Old Henze didn’t think so.  He took 15 of us to the police station and lectured us good.  One of the gang, Ralph Blumenfeld, says he isn’t going to let that stop him.  He explained to us that skinny dipping is against the law in the city during daylight hours.  It is perfectly OK in daylight outside the city limits.  Most boys eventually saw that this anti-skinny-dipping law had to be obeyed and they did obey; but one Fourth of July, when the weather was extremely hot, the thermometer registering 98 degrees in the shade, and the streets were so dusty pedestrians nearly suffocated, four young men were arrested by Marshal Zautner for bathing in the mill race on the west side.   


Last Sunday evening some of us had a good time at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  While they were holding services, we lit some fire crackers and threw them near an open window.  It must have surprised them, because Ma and Pa said some people were angry about it and called us “evil disposed ruffians”.  In the Watertown Republican, the editor said “Those who engage in such acts of maliciousness are entitled to no more respect or consideration than the worm that crawls the earth.”  I guess he was really mad.


But the best time we ever had was one night on South Church Street, during the time water mains were being buried under that street.  While the rest of us hid behind the great mounds of dirt, one of our gang — he was the one with the loudest voice and the best imagination, went down to one end of a section of pipe which had not yet been covered up.  He put his mouth to one end of the pipe and proceeded to call for help.  We almost split our sides when we saw a man walking down the sidewalk pause and look around.  We could see he had heard our buddy call for help but couldn’t believe it came from the ground.  But he was soon convinced that was where someone was buried and was calling for help, so he began digging frantically.  What made it funnier was there was no shovel around there so he began digging with his bare hands.  And then, would you believe it, another person came along and we could see the two looking around for help, or some shovels or something; but pretty soon they stopped and we could tell they realized there was someone on the other end of the pipe. 


We knew then the jig was up and we took off running as fast as we could -- most of us between the houses to South Washington Street, some toward St. Bernard’s Church and one east on Main Street.  One or both of the men who did the digging must have been friends of both the editors of the Watertown newspapers, because although our great joke was reported in the papers, no names were mentioned.


But the best prank, or stunt, or joke, or whatever you want to call it, was the one we pulled on that snooty, stuck-up girl from school.  It took a lot of work and I still can’t understand how we were able to do it without getting caught.  Maybe someone did see us but was happy to see someone pull something on Miss Know-It-All. 


A bunch of us were hanging around the livery stable on North First Street when we spotted Snooty and her mother driving into the yard in a nice top-buggy to do their weekly shopping.  It seemed each of us got the idea at the same time.  Here was an opportunity to pay her back for all the times she had made us feel like dirt.  Maybe now we could show her what it is like to have someone laugh at you when you are the butt of a joke.


As we watched the two ladies (well, one lady and one unbearable brat) unhitch their horse, we compared ideas among ourselves, laughed, snickered and slapped each other on the back to emphasize the ingenuity each was contributing to the plot.  We waited until her and her mother had the horse stabled, and they were well on their way toward Main Street to do their shopping.  We were quite confident their shopping spree would take long enough to allow us to carry out our plan.


As rapidly and as quietly as we could, we took the wheels off the buggy.  Now you must realize that for special reasons, the front wheels of a buggy are always larger than the back wheels; that is what made this idea so great.  And you must also realize that a top-buggy is a fairly light piece of machinery and can be easily lifted by the likes of us.


So we took all four wheels off and then proceeded to replace them with the back wheels in front and the front wheels in back.  The result was a strange looking vehicle which had a front end much higher than the back end.  It was drivable but it could not turn corners.  And it was very difficult to get into.


We waited about two hours for those two females to complete their shopping but it was well worth the wait.  From our hiding place in one of the stalls in the livery stable we saw them put their purchases in the buggy and heard the mother remark that this buggy had seen its day and would soon need to be replaced.  They hitched the horse to the buggy and then -- would you believe it?  -- they climbed into the buggy and drove a sort distance -- a very short distance -- until they realized what made the ride so unusual. 


We couldn’t hear what they said, but we saw them walk to the blacksmith shop next door, say a few words to the smithy there, and watch him put the small wheels in front and the large wheels in back.


We noticed he was smiling broadly as he refused the money they offered him and we heard him laughing loudly as he talked with the stable boy.  Ever since that day, my buddies and I have wondered how we were able to switch those wheels without being seen by some adult.


But it didn’t change Miss Snooty one bit.  We often thought we should tell her that we had done it, but somehow we never worked up the courage.   


What do people mean when they say “Discretion is the better part of valor”?





Boys, when they are thoroughly bored, can’t find anything to do and want to take part in some sort of adventure to while away the time, frequently turn to some activity which, although perfectly reasonable and innocent to them, is often destructive or downright naughty.  And they get away with such things.  They are excused because “boys will be boys”.


Not so with girls.  When we have exhausted the inevitable “I said – he said” conversation, and after having confided all we dare to confide  to our current best friend, we have a more difficult time finding something more dignified, more feminine, or, as we say, “decidedly toney”.


And that is what happened to four of us one frosty Sunday afternoon in December, 1876. 


My best friend and I, out of boredom, made a bet with the other two girls that we could, even though it was late afternoon, walk to Oconomowoc and back that day.  We knew it was quite an undertaking, about 24 miles round trip, but we saw no reason why we couldn’t do it in five hours.  What fools we were to think we could complete such a walk in 5 hours!  In retrospect, we were even bigger fools for not realizing our shoes were thin-soled, not made for walking, and our clothing was not intended for walking in such cool weather over such rough surface.  So with the innocence and enthusiasm possessed by the young and/or uninformed, we set off for Oconomowoc.


We shall be forever grateful to our two friends with whom we had made the bet for, after too many hours had passed they became worried and sought the assistance of an acquaintance that had access to a horse and light carriage.  In the dead of night they set off looking for the two of us and found us on our way home with a good distance yet to walk.


Did we acknowledge we had lost the bet and accept a ride home? -- We aren’t saying!.  What time did we finally arrive at home?  It was after dark!  How did our parents feel about our escapade? -- That is family business!  Did any of the male Watertown braggarts attempt to duplicate the feat?  Not a one.  Did the two of us ever try it again?  NOT ON YOUR LIFE!


We would like to take this opportunity to commend the staff of The Watertown Democrat for their gallantry.  Although they knew each person involved in the escapade, they refrained from publishing our names.


We were fortunate.  Newspapers weren’t always so considerate.  For many years they took great delight in publishing evidence that the female mind was inferior to the male mind and was not at all up to the task of reasoning and thinking clearly.  Let the ladies make one small mistake and the editors, aware of their obligation to report all the news to the discriminating readers (the males), would gleefully give a full account of the latest female peccadillo.  But every gallant man knew the reputations of the weaker sex needed protection; therefore their identities were often kept a mystery as long as possible.  But sometimes the editors just could not contain themselves.


That was the case some years after our Oconomowoc trek when the editor of The Gazette, Mr. Moore, saw fit, in one interesting  incident,  to keep the names of the participants a secret, but did go so far as to reveal they were employees at the post office, knowing full well that anyone who frequented that office knew the names and lineage of each worker on the meager postal staff.


The scenario of the case was this:  Four young ladies of Watertown, (I was not one of them) looking for something to spice up their lives after a warm September day, decided to take a short train ride, a ride which would require no ticket, no fare, no advance preparation.  Accordingly, they boarded the 8:30 pm train going south at the Chicago & Northwestern railway depot less than a block from West Main Street, and ride it to the Junction where the east-west tracks crossed the north-south tracks, and where a stop was usually made to take on water for the locomotives.  Here they planned they would alight and stroll to their homes in the cool, evening air.


But they quickly became engrossed in their chatter, as girls often do, and failed to notice that this train did not make the expected water-stop at the Junction, but continued on its run south with the girls aboard.  They didn’t become aware of their predicament until the train was gathering speed well south of the Junction.


What were they to do?  Were they in deep trouble?  Were they guilty of a crime the consequences of which were growing larger and larger as the miles flew by?


The worst that could happen, they optimistically concluded, was that they would be put off the train at the first opportunity, leaving them to fend for themselves.  That would take care of the difficulty they may be in with railroad, but there remained the even greater problem; the problem of angry parents.  The solution, they all agreed, was to find a way to arrive home before they were even missed.  But how was the necessary return trip to be accomplished in such a short time?


Answer --- ride a returning train!  But the next train north, they learned, wasn’t due for a good number of hours during which their absence from their abodes would almost certainly be noticed.


But with true American grit, editor Moore said, they decided to charter a different means of locomotion -- a hand car -- one used by the “section crew”, the men employed to patrol and keep in good running order a certain section of track.  Granted, such cars were not propelled by a steam locomotive, or even a gasoline engine (which was in its earliest infancy at that time), but was powered by sheer muscle power which, through some mechanical connections transferred the motion of the raising and lowering the ends of the cross-arms to the wheels of the vehicle.  True, hard physical labor was required, but they were a group of four young ladies, all in good physical condition, and should be able to make the trip back to Watertown in a short time


The girls, Moore reported, arrived home at reasonable hour after expending more labor than they were accustomed to, but without raising the suspicions of their parents.  They were, announced the editor, now considered experts on propelling a handcar.


But he was wrong.  They were not experts in propelling a handcar.  In the next issue of his paper, he admitted he had only assumed the facts of the return trip.  While he did not revise his report about arriving home at a reasonable hour, he felt obliged to correct the “handcar” bit.  The car they had to use was not the expected handcar, but a “four-wheeled flat (push) car that they manipulated by each taking turns at pushing while the other three rode”.  He made a point of not revealing their identities, but let it be known that the curious could get more information from the staff at the post office.


One can’t help but wonder how well the girls sorted the mail the morning after their excursion to Johnson Creek, but girls being girls we can be sure they did it well.





When the young people pull some kind of prank, almost always it is just pure foolishness -- skinny dipping in the river, switching wheels on a buggy, hitching a ride on a train.  But when we men think up a prank ten to one there is a logical purpose for it.  Oh sure, we have had some bits of tom-foolery, like election bets when the loser had to put the winner in a wheelbarrow and wheel him down the street with half the town cheering them on.  Come to think of it, many of our “pranks” were part of a routine we developed to impress on some citizen the waywardness of their actions -- a way of putting the fear of the law into them without involving the law.  Often Editor Norris [Wm. Norris, editor of Republican] or Editor Moore would be the instigator by making comments in their papers -- “A man like that should be horsewhipped”, or, “Those two are living in sin deserve to be tarred and feathered.”  Some people referred to our actions as “taking the law into their own hands” But it was really doing our part to keep certain people on the straight and narrow and allowing the law officers to take care of more serious things.


I remember one incident we had back in the early 1850’s.  A man in the Second Ward, the area near where the brewery was later built, had spent many weeks cutting wood.  “Cutting wood” meant sawing or chopping down hundreds of trees (sometimes it seemed like thousands), chopping off the branches, sawing the logs into lengths suitable for the kitchen stove where the cooking was done, or maybe a little longer for the heater or furnace which provided heat for the house.  Then those chunks of wood had to be split, sometimes with an ordinary ax, sometimes with a splitting maul, and sometimes, if they were especially large chunks, using a wedge.  But that wasn’t the end.  To finish the job, all that split wood must be piled in long, high piles and from there it was carried, a little each day, into the house and deposited in the wood-box or piled in the basement.  And then, our neighbor, “Old John”, used to say -- and then, after all that work, what does the wife do?  -- She burns it !!  Implying it was all for naught.


But it had to be done.  That was part of life.  It was a big job, one which the industrious men liked to wade into and finish. The pile of wood was expected to be large enough to last until the next winter (the popular time to make wood)  So is it any wonder that the resident of the Second Ward was a bit perturbed when he saw evidence that some less-than-honest person was helping himself to the wood pile the resident had accumulated?  He was so perturbed, in fact, that he prevailed upon newspaper editors to print an announcement warning the anonymous thief that in his pile of fuel were several sticks of wood which contain a mixture of saltpeter, charcoal and sulphur.  He warned that burning one of those stick would result in “an excitement”.


That did the trick.  No more wood piles were pilfered for a long time and the warning was eventually forgotten as a new generation of home-makers came into being.  But just a few weeks less than twenty years after the Second Ward resident had published that warning, the same newspapers reported that a “Mr. Nameless,” in an unidentified ward of the city, had been in the habit of “borrowing” fire wood from a neighbor.  One night he happened to pick out the wrong stick of wood from his neighbor’s pile, a neighbor who had not seen fit to forewarn the public he was planning retaliation for the wood-stealing going one.  It was not learned exactly what he had added to the wood, but, according to the Watertown Democrat, “the wood burned well as did the powder which had been put in it.  An explosion took place, his stove flew to pieces, and now he was counting he cost of buying wood and adding a new stove to his kitchen”.  Although the culprit was not identified in the newspaper, it is doubtful he was able to keep his identification a secret.  That happened before the telephone came to Watertown but even in those days news of an exploding kitchen stove traveled quite rapidly.


But that didn’t stop the wood stealing completely.  I remember seventeen years later, during the winter of 1893, it was reported that there was still quite a bit of petty crime going on in the city and the Watertown Gazette predicted that one of these days some unscrupulous persons would have to pay considerably more than their winter’s supply of fuel would cost them if obtained honestly.


You may call that taking the law into our own hands, but what we really were doing was teaching certain individuals that actions have consequences, an axiom that should be thoroughly taught to every generation.  We weren’t able to eradicate all crime; not by any means.  Certain crimes eventually disappeared due to the change of our way of living, and some crimes were just renamed thereby making them seem to disappear.  In 1887, Mr. Moore, the editor of the Watertown Gazette called down fire and brimstone on the low-life who stole his dog.  Dog stealing, Mr. Moore declared, was a reprehensible crime.  Although it may be just as prevalent as in 1887, we hear very little about it, probably in part, because now it has been given the more refined identification of “dog-napping”.


I said, at the beginning, that the pranks of men usually have some logical reason for existing.  Let me modify that a bit: there are men and there are small boys who resemble men only in having lived many years.  Sometimes there may be a purpose underlying a prank, but even so, that does not negate the fact that it is not a prank, but a crime -- like the act of one (probably more) who entered the smoke-house of Mr. C. R. Lewis of Pipersville and made off with ten hams.  He probably was hungry.  A few nights later one or more entered the smokehouse of Frank Seefeldt and made of with a barrel of pork. 


It wasn’t only pork being stolen.  One night the hen house of S. Z. Piper of Pipersville was entered and 150 chickens were reported missing the next morning.  About that same time, thieves entered the smoke-house of Erdmann Grube, in the town of Watertown, and took some hams, some goose-breasts and, strangely, large quantity of shingles.  What were shingles doing in the smoke-house?


Hen house raiding became such a nuisance that it prompted one citizen to have the following published in the Watertown Republican:


Mr. Editor:  Will you allow me a few lines of space in your valuable columns to say a word to the river hoodlums?  I do not mind their stealing my boat to take a little ride, but when they make use of it to rob a hen-roost, and tie the   boat up under it, it is a dead give-away on me, and I do not like it.

                                                            Featherly yours,

                                                                        CHAS. A. JUDD


And so we see that pranks are not the exclusive property of the males, or the females, the young or the old, or even of positions in society, as evidence: the ministerial students at Northwestern University who one night gave a professor’s mule an extreme make-over and the professor learned, to his surprise, that he now owned a zebra-striped mule temporarily housed on an upper floor of one of the campus buildings.


As a wise man once said:  A little nonsense now and then, is relished by the best of men.





To hear my husband tell about it, one would think a major catastrophe had visited that home at South Washington Street in mid-January, 1892.  Actually it was just a simple cooking accident which could happen to anyone.  True, the eyelashes and eye brows of one lady were severely singed but it was no big deal; certainly not important enough to rate the account carried in the Watertown Gazette the day after it happened, nor the follow-up account, a week later. 


Let me tell you what really happened:  Several days before this big brouhaha, a group of ladies had attended a cooking school in another part of town.  There they had been instructed in a new method of cooking which involved using hot lard.  I had learned this cooking method some time previously and had used it successfully a number of times.  I mention that only to explain why I was considered an expert in the art of cooking with especially hot lard.


On this fateful day they had assembled at this South Washington Street home to practice making “puffs”, which, at the cooking school, they had found especially tasty.  I wasn’t there that day but according to what the ladies have told me, everything had seemed to be going just fine until they put the pastry in the hot lard.  Apparently, they had put too much of some ingredient into the mix, or maybe the lard was too hot, and it exploded, throwing hot lard in all directions and causing it to take fire on the stove.


The fire was quickly extinguished and after it had been determined that the lady with the singed eyebrows had suffered no further injury, the ladies fell to planning their next course of action.  Should they just give up, put this kitchen in order and return to their respective homes, or should they continue the day as it had been planned?  Being sensitive to public opinion, and especially sensitive to the opinions of their spouses, they decided on the latter.  Resolving to make a success of that puff, or die in the attempt, they decided to enlist the help of one whom they considered an expert at making puff but, unfortunately, had not attended this gathering.  I was that “expert” they decided to consult.  But they made the mistake of appointing the most excitable woman in the group to do the consulting.  Thank goodness telephones were becoming quite common in Watertown by then.  I shudder to think how her heart would have survived if she had had to run, actually, physically run, half way across town to talk with me.


But the telephone saved her; she did consult me via “the wire” although she did a less than good job of explaining the purpose of her call.  In her agitated state she got things all mixed up and I could only conclude that something horrible had happened.  What could I do but relate the message, as best I could, to my husband, who just happens to be a doctor.  It is possible I got one or two facts wrong but I related the situation to him as best I could.  And he, being professionally obligated as well as being a compassionate man, lost no time in dashing to the scene of the hot lard explosion where he heard the true facts of the incident and, after determining no serious injuries had been sustained, he left shaking his head and, he told me, wondering if there was any merit to the women’s suffrage movement.


The ladies, however, were not daunted by their experience and quickly made two admirable decisions:


1.         In the future, at their cooking socials they would bar “puffs”.


2.         They would not reveal to anyone what had happened on this particular day.


As far as I know, they kept the first decision.  I cannot recall ever hearing of “puffs” being prepared in hot lard after that day.  Doughnuts or “fry cakes” as they are sometimes called, are not quite the same as puffs.


But the second decision was next to impossible to keep.  After all, they had already involved a man -- the doctor -- my husband -- and knowing men, it is foolhardy to even try to keep a story like that a secret.  Someone, and I wouldn’t say this in my husband’s presence, leaked the secret, and, not surprisingly, in the next issue of the Watertown Gazette, January 19, 1892, the entire incident was published but some of the facts, some of the ladies involved insisted, were not accurately reported.  When he was apprised of his omissions, Mr. Moore, the editor, obligingly published the corrections.  The first correction informed the readers that it was not just one lady, but several who had been injured, and those injuries the doctor had classified as “disfiguring”.   


Since not any of the group will admit to supplying the second corrections, we can only surmise it was a figment of the editor’s imagination.  The published “correction” contained the phrase “the husband of one particular lady who afterwards tested the merits of those puffs, required the services of a dentist forthwith”.  Do you suppose it was my husband who came up with that typical masculine comment?