Col. S.V.R. Ableman
Paper read before the Sauk County Historical Society,
by Mrs. Eva Lloyd Alexander, Monday Evening, Nov. 29, 1909.
Having been an inmate of Col. Ableman’s home for a season while teaching in the village and afterwards a frequent guest in his family, I am, perhaps, as well qualified as anyone to give you some account of him and the part he took in the early history of this county. I am indebted to his daughter, Mrs. Edward Watson, for some details, which I had forgotten or did not know.
In every country, of course, it is the people who make its history, and in the making of that history, comparatively few hold a prominent place, those who by force of character become leaders, or those whom force of circumstances have put in that position. It is the man with force of character who holds a permanent place in history. The rest of us have our effect, but collectively as “the people,” and according to the way in which the people support their leaders and the wisdom, righteousness or unrighteousness of those leaders’ aims, so shall the history of that country be glorious or inglorious.
In the early history of Sauk county, there were a number of prominent men and among them were three who lived in or near what is now Ableman and were friends and associates for many years, Col. Ableman, General Starks and Major Williams. Col. Ableman owned a large tract of land there and started the village which he called Excelsior, the New York state motto. General Starks lived to the westward upon a farm on Narrows Creek, and Major Williams on a farm to the east. Col. Ableman was born, grew to manhood, and married, and two children were born to him in New York state. In 1847 he moved to Milwaukee, in 1851 to Baraboo, and in the spring of the next year to his home nine miles west of Baraboo, where he started his village of Excelsior. Col. Ableman was a man of Herculean build, weighing from 312 pounds to 325. No spindle legged furniture would do for him in a Chippendale drawing room. Total wreck would have followed any attempt of his to be seated. During the administration of Franklin Pierce, Col. Ableman was appointed U.S. marshal for Wisconsin and when in Washington to receive his appointment, was introduced to President Pierce, who, after surveying him for a moment said, “Well, Colonel, you are Ableman by name, a nobleman by nature, altogether you are a colossal man. Let us shake.”
My first recollections of Col. Ableman are when as quite a young girl I went to his home in Excelsior with my father, who was called to see the first Mrs. Ableman, a terrible sufferer for many years from rheumatism. For 12 years or more she was totally unable to move except one little finger a trifle. She bore her affliction with heroic fortitude and was devotedly attended to with the most loving care by both husband and daughter until death ended her suffering.
I never forgot that home in the woods nor the impression it made upon me, and when in later years I went to Excelsior to teach school, I was received into the colonel’s family and treated like a daughter by both the colonel and his second wife, that impression was deepened and it has always seemed to me an ideal home.
Everybody who came to the colonel’s was made to feel the human kindness which filled their hearts and overflowed towards all their guests, who were many, so many that Ed. Gilmore, the colonel’s stepson, once suggested that they had better hang out a sign and call it, “The Hotel De Mary Ann.” (Mary Ann was Mrs. Ableman’s name.)
The colonel’s doors were always open to everybody, even Joe Eagle, a big Indian, who used to camp in that vicinity sometimes in those days. The colonel loved a joke and if he could get one on me when I was there, he would chuckle over it with great glee.
I remember one day Joe Eagle made his appearance just at dinner time and the colonel offered me to him for his squaw, but Joe turned up his nose very disdainfully and said, “White squaw no good, do nothing but make bread.”
The colonel had a little yellow dog called Sam, who became very devoted to me and though he was sometimes ugly, and always barked at people who came there, he would never even bark at me, but would jump around me with every mark of delight. One evening when we were all in the big sitting room the colonel thought he would see how deep Sam’s devotion was, so he clapped his hands and tried his best to set him on to me. Sam, who stood between us, would look at the colonel and then at me in evident perplexity until finally he seemed to think he must do something, so like a flash he went for the colonel with a bark and a snarl, which took the latter so by surprise that he jumped straight off of the floor and the joke was on him that time.
One very hot day that summer, the colonel went about a mile from the house to look after a man whom he had chopping some wood for him. After some time, we heard him shouting as if he wanted something very urgently, so Edward Gilmore, thinking he might be in trouble ran as fast as he could all the way to him, only to find him perfectly safe but shouting for his man, who should have been cutting wood but was not.
The rocks and bluffs and the Narrows delighted Col. Ableman and he would sit by the hour in his great arm chair on the porch of the old house, which faced the narrows, and smoke and look; the walls of the narrows reminded him of the Pallisades of the Hudson.
The old house was built somewhat in the style of Mt. Vernon with a number of great trees in front and the colonel sitting on his porch, his wide brimmed, low crowned hat on his head, smoking his pipe and with both hands resting upon his cane upright in front of him, the picture of comfort and good nature, always made me think of a southern planter taking his ease and looking over his plantation, for the colonel owned most of the land in sight then. The time of which I am speaking was, I think, about a year before the railroad came through here. Col. Ableman had built a good hotel which he named the Charter House because the railroad charter was drawn up in it. This hotel was kept by his daughter and her husband, Edward Watson. He also built a grist and saw mill which for a number of years did a large business. I well remember the large mill yard where teams came and went most of the time. The Colonel had built a few buildings I think and a few people had bought lots of him and built on them. J.G. Stein had a building opposite the Charter House which he used for a dwelling and store; two of his little girls went to school to me. A man by the name of Armstrong had a shoe shop and dwelling there, and Sam Carpenter who afterwards went to North Freedom, had a tin shop and lived in a house at the opening of the narrows close to a large boiling spring which furnished deliciously cold water to all near enough to get it. This spring was for many years one of the beauties of Ableman and may be there yet, it was not very long ago.
My school house was on the bank of Narrows Creek just in the western edge of the village and of the most primitive kind; a little building of logs with floor level with the ground a shelf built along the sides of the room for a desk with a bench in front made of a plank with legs stuck in it for a seat. Most of my scholars came from adjoining farms and I had quite a good sized school. Three of General Stark’s grandchildren went to school to me and one of them in the geography class one day, in answer to the question “what is the greatest republic in the world,” said, “The Baraboo Republic.” There was a flock of sheep belonging, I suppose, to Col. Ableman which browsed all over the village, in the mill yard and about my school house sometimes making such a racket that I would have to send one of the children out to drive them away before we could go on with our lessons. A donkey which also belonged to the establishment and which I think they called “Locomotive,” used to come once in a while and serenade us. The neighbor’s hens were always hanging about and venturing through the open door after crumbs. Sometimes a hen coming in and a child going out or vici versa would have a collision in the door way which would cause quite a flurry for a minute. I could go on indefinitely with reminiscences of this school but I am afraid that I have strayed from my subject somewhat and will only say further I taught the last school in the old school house, as there was a new one built before the next term began. Col. Ableman was very anxious to have the railroad built through the Baraboo valley and his village and it was very largely due to his efforts and influence that it came through where it did. When the road was built through Excelsior the station was named Ableman in compliment to the Col. The P.O. was for a time called Rock Springs but not for long, village, P.O. and station are now Ableman and will be as long as there is a village there which will be always judging by the way it has grown in the last few years. I think that it was one of the first, if not the first meeting called to discuss the railroad proposition when only three men responded to the call; Col. Ableman, General Starks and Major Williams. General Starks reported it as a large, enthusiastic, and respectable meeting.
The next time Col. Ableman met the general he called him to account for his apparent lack of veracity. “Why,” replied the General, “It was, you were large, I’m sure the major was enthusiastic and I hope that I am respectable. Those three are gone now; Major Williams left us only last year, the General died before the Col. Col. Ableman died July 16, 1880. Mrs. Ableman lived a number of years after his death and died in California. Sometime during the eighties the Charter House was burned also the old Ableman house which was occupied at the time by the colonel stepson Edward Gilmore. So the old friends pass away and leave us only results and memories. I never go to Ableman and look at the vacant place where the old home stood without memories of the happy days I spent there, and the goodness of those two people gathering thickly about me, and I pass on saddened that their place is empty here, glad that I had the privilege of knowing them.