When There is Work to be Done ‘tis Folly to Play
Written and contributed by Ben Feld
There was a time when almost no one in Watertown was seriously concerned with air pollution. During the winter, and to some degree during the rest of the year, smoke emanated unnoticed from at least one chimney of each house giving evidence that some kind of fuel was being burned in the dwelling, invariably wood or coal.
Smoke houses smoldered in many backyards, giving off a somewhat pleasant smell of burning apple or hickory smoke mingled with the aroma of bacon, hams, sausages and, a bit more rarely, that of fish, caught in the Rock River.
Here and there wispy clouds of white smoke drifted from the chimneys of fireplaces where fires burned to enhance the gemutluchkeit of a family gathered hear the hearth to watch the flames distilling the colors of a hundred autumns from the maple and beech logs. Smoke, in moderate amounts, was often deemed a pleasurable spin-off of burning fuels.
Not so pleasurable were the black clouds of coal smoke which emanated from the smoke stacks of the trains which all too frequently passed through Watertown spewing smoke and cinders over the lines of newly hung clothing in hundreds of backyards.
But smoke was one of the inconveniences the people had to live with; if one wanted to be warm, one burned fuel; if one burned fuel, smoke would be produced. The dream of a smoke-free city in the winter time was about as fanciful as the dream of going to the moon.
And so it followed that, since the citizens of Watertown wanted to be warm during the cold winters, fuel must be burned to produce heat, and if fuel was to be burned, either wood or coal had to be made available.
In Watertown, in 1886, three firms were vying for the privilege of supply coal. Beese and Knoll were handled coal from their yard opposite the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul Railroad Depot, William Gorder did business near the Northwestern Railroad Depot, and John McGolrich dispensed coal from his yard on Washington Street. Each one claimed to be supplying coal which provided more heat per ton than any other coal -- an unprovable claim.
Even had it been provable, the quality of the coal varied greatly from carload to carload and the supplier who sold high quality coal one month may inadvertently be selling a poorer grade a few weeks later.
Ultimately, the only thing a coal supplier could guarantee was the service he offered -- prompt delivery of the coal, reliability in arriving at the appointed time, leaving the delivery area neat and clean, and the friendliness of the personnel. All of which placed a good bit of responsibility on the driver of the delivery wagon.
Early one mid-winter morning in 1886, a load of coal was sent out from one of the coal yards. As was frequently done with the reporting of incidents which might embarrass an individual or business establishment, names were omitted from the only account of this discombobulation carried by a Watertown newspaper. We have no way of determining if the load of coal came from the yards of Beese & Knoll, near the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad depot, from William Gorder’s yard at the Chicago, Northwestern Railroad depot, or John McGolrich’s [McGolrick] yard on Washington Street; nor do we know the name of the central figure in this brouhaha. He is identified only as “the young man”, or “the teamster”. One would imagine he was grateful to have been so vaguely singled out.
This, the first delivery of the day, one load to the city hall, was just a short distance from the coal yard and the unloading facility was one of the most convenient in the city so the expectation that the teamster would be able to make two or three more deliveries that day was reasonable. Some deliveries were not as easy as this one. There were places at which the entire load had to be shoveled into buckets, (usually leather buckets), hoisted on the shoulder of the deliveryman and physically carried to the coal bin. But at the city hall it was much more convenient. Here the coal bin, being just inside the “coal window”, and that window being in a wall next to a convenient alley, all the teamster had to do was secure one end of a coal chute to the delivery vehicle, shovel the coal into the chute, and hear it rumble down into the coal bin.
And this the teamster did, unloading the coal in just a few minutes, strenuous though the job was. And since he was a little ahead of the usual schedule, when he finished the job he stopped to chat, to “shoot the b---”, to “chew the fat”, to “bat the breeze” with anyone available. And available at this time was the deputy marshal carrying a pair of handcuffs, which intrigued the teamster; intrigued him to the extent that he soon found he had succeeded in handcuffing one hand to the other.
No problem. Just ask the deputy marshal to get out his key, the key which would unlock at the handcuffs, and set free the innocent prisoner. But the deputy marshal, it was quickly learned, had no key!
No problem! Get the key from the city marshal. But wouldn’t you know it---the city marshal was out of town for the day! No key was available anywhere.
Big problem! What to do? After trying every solution offered by the bystanders, (who were thoroughly enjoying the teamster’s predicament) they resorted to the only viable solution -- file the cussed manacles off! A practical but time-consuming solution, it was discovered, but what else were they to do?
And so they proceeded to file -- and file -- and file. They filed for two hours. And two long hours were made no shorter for the teamster by the knowledge that the dispatcher back at the office was expecting him to appear any minute to take on another delivery. Two long hours made no shorter by the clever remarks of the spectators who gathered to see the fun. This was the most entertaining thing downtown Watertown had seen for weeks! Everyone was joining in, offering their “helpful” suggestions and making wise, astute observations. Would that the clever remarks of the crowd had been recorded for posterity!
Finally, just in time for his lunch of a glass of beer and a sausage at the Buena Vista House, the handcuffs were removed, completely ruined, at a cost of $2.00 which the teamster paid with great relief. The lesson he had learned, he admitted, was worth many times the cost of a new pair of handcuffs. Some city hall observers, privy to the amusing incident, speculated on what kind of story he would concoct to explain to his boss why he was so late in returning from what supposed to have been a very short delivery. But, according to the reporting newspaper, there was no need for a concocted story. Word had early gotten back to the office and the true cause of his tardiness was already known.
The teamster’s charitable friends predicted that henceforth he would steer clear of all such articles which were in no way related to his job.
Good advice for anyone.
History of Watertown, Wisconsin