Visit to the Octagon House
09 08 1950: “WAY-FARING STRANGER” AMONG 850 WHO VISITED THE OCTAGON HOUSE IN AUGUST
Among the 850 interesting personalities who visited the Octagon House during the month of August were some that had traveled widely and had much to contribute of historical interest.
Perhaps the most unusual and one who left with an air of mystery about himself was a self-designated admirer of Burl Ives who signed the register as a “Way-farer Stranger.”
Later this writer had occasion to visit with him and learned that he was a geologist from an eastern college who had “stolen” away for a summer of research. After seeing the Black Hills, Sun Valley and the Valley of the Sacramento in California he agreed that the far west might be called “the promised land” but Vermont and New England was “God’s" country.” He was returning to the East by way of the Ohio River valley.
He was questioned wonderingly as to what had brought him to Watertown and the doorstep of the Octagon House. His answer was that his family had always felt a strong interest in Watertown on the Rock river because his grandfather had spent several years in a log cabin on the banks of the river and drove horses for a man who owned a race track just a little to the north of the town proper. From dates and other historical information, it was concluded that this man might have been John Cole, early settler, merchant and erstwhile benefactor of the city.
Reasons for Signature
Reverting again to his unusual signature he disclosed that it was for two, possibly three reasons. Firstly, because no native Vermonter would admit that he had forsaken the summer recreation facilities of New England for those of the West or any other region. Even California or Florida had never allured some of them.
Secondly, he had indicated that he was a stranger because he had missed, particularly here in the. Midwest, the man and woman — the boy and girl — pack on back, who had left their means of transportation at some point in order to hike along a river valley or to climb a nearby mountain. In Vermont this was a favorite recreation for people from all walks of life.
Thirdly, because his grandfather had been his boyhood idol and after he left Wisconsin went by way of a prairie schooner to the gold fields of California. Like many others starting out in ’48, he became a ’49’er after encountering the “petrified snow” of the prairies. His grandfather found no gold, always saying that he bought too many “bushels of sand” which were worthless and then had to work his way back to Vermont.
He had, however, acquired a storehouse of yarns which he told to the delight of every young boy who came in contact with him. Then, too, his grandfather had an old guitar and he could sing many of the early ballads while “picking out the tune.” The favorite one for all the family members for a Sunday afternoon was “Way-faring Stranger.’’ As a boy, our visitor continued, he was sure that he wanted to see the world in the same manner that his grandfather had.
His school-teacher mother strongly objected saying that she would not have any “bum” in her family. Therefore, his later interests led him to study geology which afforded him opportunities to “bum” and he also, like his grandfather, studied the ballad and string musical instruments.
Visited Horicon Marsh
Before coming to Watertown he had spent some time at Horicon and Mayville expressing an interest in the vast area of Horicon marsh and the limestone ledges at Mayville, Horicon and Lebanon. The longer range of limestone ledge at Lebanon was a fine example of rock from the pre-historic bed of the ocean upon which the glacier deposited little or no soil, he indicated.
Mt. Mansfield in Vermont, which is a little less than a mile high, could be seen from his boyhood home and most of the boys and girls of the neighborhood had gone to its top. From its top one could see the Camel’s bump, another Vermont mountain, the Connecticut River valley and Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.
He was interested to know that the Trapp family who lived at Stowe, Vermont, had given a concert here. He said that they had a “sing week” every summer in which they included many of the old folk songs and ballads. He added that most of the New England fairs are folk festivals in which the city and village folk participate in song and dance.
The ballad singer there is usually dressed in high-top silk hat and dress coat in contrast to that of the western cowboy and hill-billy ballad singer.
While here he said that the Octagon House had allured him from a jaunt that he had made along Rock river to the two-mile bridge [Oconomowoc Ave assumed]. Its architecture and commanding height made him believe that it might be a museum. He had made it a point to visit any historic home that he came upon because they represented, he thought, the life of the community during the earlier periods.
Most of the towns in Vermont have collections of old records and in some instances are museums themselves. He described Weston as a small town, industrial museum. Recently, the Vermont Guild of Old-Time Crafts and Industries restored a 150-year-old dam there and placed in operation an old wood-working mill, a grist mill and a blacksmith shop.
When leaving he left a copy of “Way-faring Stranger” which is as follows:
I’m just a poor Way-faring Stranger, a-traveling through the world of woe:
But there’s no sickness, toil nor danger in that bright world which I go.
I’m going there to see my father,
I’m going there no more to roam,
I’m just a-going over Jordan,
I’m just a-going over home.
Author: Marcella Killian, Watertown Historical Society
CROSS REFERENCE NOTE AND LINK:
“Wayfaring Stranger” ---In the 1940s, renowned actor and singer Burl Ives made “Wayfaring Stranger” one of his signature songs. By the hippie era late-1960s it was Joan Baez who introduced the song. Next, Emmylou Harris turned it into a minor hit in 1980 and then Johnny Cash reclaimed it in 2000.
History of Watertown, Wisconsin