“The Ferry House”
by John D. Jones

Jan. 31, 1913

[Speech read before the Old Settler’s Association]

The writer first saw daylight in Lebanon , New Hampshire , in 1849.  All of his family, both sides of the house, were native born citizens of the Granite State, as far back as the family tree (a small shrub) can be traced.

Ferry House Tavern

Horace Greeley’s advice to “go west” was heeded by many, and in the fall of 1855, my father, H.M. Jones and my uncle, William Butterfield, came west on an investigating trip with reference to removal there.  If the prospects were inviting.  They came by rail to Madison, Wisconsin, where at that time, an acquaintance, Chadwick, was proprietor of the American House, purchased a team of horses and light wagon and extended their trip to Minneapolis, (or at that time St. Anthony’s Falls) Minnesota. 

On their way they passed across the Wisconsin River, stopping at the Ferry House, Merrimack , at that time owned by W.P. Flanders, another former acquaintance in New Hampshire .  Here they found a town, named after Merrimack County , New Hampshire , and having quite a few settlers, recently removed there from the same section they had come from, and to some extent they had been acquaintances.

The woods and hills seemed also, to have been brought there from the old home.  They had passed over the more or less level prairie, treeless and without water, as many before them did, as unfit for notice, any more than the deserts in the west are now.

Merrimack had wood and water (still has the water) and these two necessities combined with its beautiful scenery and position on the banks of what then was a fairly navigatable stream led them to think highly of its future.

At Sparta my uncle pointed out to me (once when we were up there, on some legal difficulty) a tract of land, part of it in the city’s limits, that at the time of their trip, was a farm where they stopped over night, and came within fifty dollars of buying, in the morning, but neither party would yield to the other.  At Minneapolis , they met Pillsbury, who was known to them coming from a town next to the one my father was born in, and for all his efforts could not see the great possibilities of at that point. 

Merrimack , was the dazzling prospect, that blinded their eyes to the future of Minneapolis .  They came back, my father sold a good paying business, in one of the prettiest, cleanest towns in New Hampshire, and in the spring of 1856, “westward the Atar of the Empire” took its way, arriving in Madison, after a few week’s stay at the American House, my father bought out, with a man who had come west with him, the Parson’s Livery, rented a house on University Hill, (then without many buildings and in a state of nature) and entered upon a profitable business.

His trips, frequently with customers, took him up to Baraboo, and Merrimack was more and more impressed on him as the place with a future.  To complete the attraction, Flanders proposed to him the purchase of the tavern which at this time was doing a good business, as could easily be seen.  Not seeing or realizing the effect on this business, the extension of the Chicago , Minneapolis and St. Paul Railroad westward from Portage , Wis. , would have, my father bought the place, selling his good business in Madison to do this.  So one fine afternoon, in the fall of 1856, we arrived on the left bank of the Wisconsin River , and gave the accustomed “Hallo” for the ferryman to come over for us.  That my politics might be known, I carried a little flag, with the names of my candidates printed on it, “ Fremont and Dayton ,” but this didn’t elect them; like the candidates of my choice generally, they were badly beaten.

I wish I could put into words how beautiful everything looked to me, as we awaited for the arrival of the ferryman; the grand old river flowing along so steadily and strongly; the brightness of the sun’s rays as they fell slantingly across the boat; the high hills on the Merrimack shore, with the road from the ferry passing up their side, to reach the highest point of elevation, upon which stood the old tavern, with its sign swinging on a post quite a little distance in front; and then as a background, the long chain of bluffs, in a purple shadow and all around the place, large towering black and white oak trees.

It was like being placed in a new world, and I think one of the happiest moments of my life.  I have often wondered what I might have been if I could have remained in the more favorable locations, left to come to this one, so poorly situated, in almost every respect, for business of any kind—a place that often reminded me of the eddies in the river, one easily to drift into, but one when it seemed impossible to get out of.  Many a person besides my father has been tried there and found wanting, as to their efforts to succeed themselves or make the place a better one in any respect.  And the main reason for this is the entire lack of natural facilities, like water power or accessibility from the surrounding country.  The very things that made it attractive to my folks, such as the bluffs, river, are the very obstacles lying between it and territory that might furnish it business.  But this has nothing to do with what I was asked to tell about, that was the old tavern.

The route to Minnesota and points in western Wisconsin, from Madison, through which or from which emigration moved in 1856 and previously, can be told today, if one will follow what was at first called the Bankers and Merchants Telegraph Co., being as these followed exactly the old state roads to Minneapolis and St. Paul—long lines of emigrants from the middle states passed along this route, by team from the beginning to the end of the journey.  These wagons were covered with canvas, and used to live in all the way.  They occasionally stopped at taverns on the route, but most of the time carried and cooked their own food, and camped where ever night overtook them.

Then, there were others coming to the end of rail transportation who would continue their journey by stage coach, as there were lines along this route, making regular trips between two points that could be covered in a day, such as from Madison to Baraboo, from there on to another point beyond; or, again like my father and uncle, a party would buy an outfit, trusting to being able to sell it at the conclusion of their travels.  In addition to all this travel, was the passing back and forwards of freighters, hauling for the merchants, or other goods that were shipped by rail to Madison .  And then there was the travel up and down by parties having legal business to transact in Madison or for other purposes.  All this travel was added to by more or less passing up and down the river of rafts men, who rode down and walked back in getting logs or lumber to market.  (In the days I am speaking of, it was only logs or timber hewn with the axe, that was rafted down the rivers.)   All of these people generally stopped whenever night overtook them, and made it necessary to have taverns at all places where they would be needed.

 It must be remembered that in those days, roads were not memorial roads, unless in the sense of being so bad, as now to be forgotten.  They were simply the traces of where some one else had been before, and at times they would be difficult ones to exceed the speed limit on, also you must remember that the distance between houses was much greater than now and traveling even by daylight, was much more risky—so very little of it was indulged in.

As long as this travel lasted business for these taverns was good,  But upon the extension of railroads it was cut off entirely and the taverns gradually were closed.

I remember the first year a stage-coach, drawn by four horses, used to pass daily up and down the route; that is, one coach would alternate, with a second one, giving us a daily mail either way.

They hardly even stopped at Merrimack longer than to change the mail, and perhaps patronize the bar, which in those days was considered necessary, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The frightened would stop, going, or coming; quite often going, to as to get a good start the next day; coming, because they arrived late, and did not want to cross the bluffs in the night; also often travelers in their own outfits would stop for the same reason.

In one way or another, the house would be full to capacity, almost every night and I have often seen so many more than there were beds for, that tickets would be drawn to see who should sleep on the floor.

Did you ever stop to compare the comforts of the present day, with the harshness of them in those good old days?

The rooms were small and without ventilation, except from a door or small window.  The beds, corded by a rope running back wards and forwards from pines in the rails and head pieces, so as to make little squares about nine inches across, a straw tick on this netting of ropes, often filled with musty straw, bed clothing none too thick, completed the bed you slept on.  It was not a possibility to keep such a bed free from bugs who pre-empted every spot about the bed they could hide in, and scalding hot water seemed the only eviction notice they would respect.

Water was so scarce for the lack of cisterns that no one thought of taking a bath, except the face and hands, all winter long, which makes me think of an actual occurrence in my life.  While on South Water Street we had a fine old German teamster, and one day the cashier was telling about a bath he had taken, when the old German, with anxiety depicted on his face, said, “Vat, you vet your feet in the Vinter?”

The young man replied, “Yes, I always take a bath at least once a month, you let it go longer than that and you begin to smell.”

Well, in the good old days, they certainly did “smell.”  But some one else the next night must occupy the bed they slept in, as there were no washing machines or laundries in evidence.  All the accommodation for washing up before meals was a small wash basin in a little wooden sink, and the waste water ran into a pail under the sink, which the handy man around the place must watch and empty, as well as keep the water pail continuing the meager supply, filled.  A single roller towel, so often joked about as the one “twenty men have used before you and never complained of its being dirty”, being by the sink and soft soap and sand took raw place of the fancy soaps of the present.  A comb with most of its teeth extracted, and a hair brush with no more bristles than necessary, dirty from long use, completed the toilet outfit.  In consequence very little time was used, in making one’s toilet.

The food furnished was coarse, rough fare but plenty of it.  The variety was not large.  If you “didn’t like the greens you could help yourself to the mustard.”  Game could be had in abundance and I have often seen prairie chicken served so plentifully that it was about all the meat on the bill of fare (which was not in much).  Buckwheat cakes could be had in any quantity; tea or coffee was always in limitless amount, but dessert was not very frequent, except at the noon meal when pie was generally had, made from any old thing handy, even from green tomatoes.  There was not fruit but dried fruit, such as apple strung on a string and kept for a fly roost until winter and then packed down in a barrel and sold.  This was before the days of evaporated or canned fruit.

Everything on the table had to be cooked in the house.  In these small towns there were no bakeries, and the store only had one kind of crackers even, and a barrel of them would last a season.  All the bread, pies and cookies the women had to make and so you remember there was no baking powder or yeast in those days, unless the yeast was made by the woman?  Sour milk and saleratus covered all the “early rising.”

The stoves in those days were what were termed elevated and had no reservoirs to hold water.  All the work had to be done on this small surface of heated iron.  The fuel used was generally green wood.  All the washings had to be done by hand and the water necessary, drawn from the river in barrels.

Liquor was sold at all the taverns, and in some cases they became the loafing place of the town.  But the liquor sold and used almost by everyone, did not seem to be as bad in its effects, as later on after adulterations became common.  Whiskey or rum was the kind most generally called for, and the first thing on arriving was to patronize the bar.  Before meals an “appetizer” was necessary, and after meals, a “little stimulant” to digestion, at bed time a “night cap”, and the first thing in the morning an “eye opener.”

      Treating each other was not the rule as much as it after wards became.  Beyond a little loosening of the tongue, no very bad effect was seen from these indulgences.  The liquor sold was mostly the product of nearby distilleries and in most cases without adulteration.  It would suit the Irishman who said he wanted none of the liquor that went down smooth as oil, but wanted that that went down like a rasp.  This was on the rasp order, and many softened the blow with molasses stirred in with a toddy stick.

I remember how one odd character used to pour in a little rum in his glass, then add molasses and taste it and say he had too much molasses, then add more rum, and taste and say he had too much rum, and add more molasses, and taste and say he had too much molasses, and add rum; and by this time it would be right and his glass would be full to the top.

I saw Hugh Kelley’s smiling face while in this old tavern, for the first time.  His father was on his way to Baraboo, and stopped over night.  In the morning he brought Hugh down to show the cinch he always would have on the barbers.  The price of a hair cut would never affect Hugh.

In one corner of the bar room was a table bunk, that it is was a table to put clothes on, in the day time and by lifting up its top it revealed a bed underneath, which was intended for the night man to use, but which I used.  At the end of the room was a large fireplace, nearly filling that end of the room, leaving little alcoves at each side; in these and in front would gather the guests for the evening, relating their experiences or sometimes swapping money, for in those days all kinds of money of unknown value was in circulation, and nearly all subject to discount, more or less, from day to day.  Men would swap bills on one bank for bills on another, as they would horses.  Quite often one or two of those stories, unfit for print, would be told and someway those are the ones that stick in my memory.

I remember one night my uncle, Henry Ela, had been out on a deer hunt, and had frozen his feet.  The pain became so great he could not endure it, and he wanted one of his toes amputated, saying he could not live until morning unless it was done.  There was no doctor nearer than Lodi , and it was a very cold night, but he begged my father to cut the toe off.  My father brought in a wooden block, he placed Ela’s foot on the block, then took a little chisel he had, placed it on the toe, hit one blow, and the toe was off.  My uncle fainted.  They fixed it up best they could and took him to Lodi early in the morning where old Doctor E.H. Irwin cut the toe off the second time, also two more each side of it.

Another thing I remember vividly about this old tavern was after we had left it through inability to pay for it, and it was in the hands of another party, Captain Malloy and several other Baraboo men came down and held the first meeting held in the town to recruit for the Civil War.

They wanted volunteers for Co. A, 6th Regt., Wisconsin Volunteers, after a few rousing speeches and I think one was by D.K. Noyes, the books were opened for enlistment, and the first man that jumped to the old bar to sign his name was an older boy friend of mine, Lawson D. Fenton, who was killed in the last of the fighting in Virginia.  Another was an older brother of mine living with us at the time.  John Y. Hodgedon who died from consumption brought on by exposure in the earlier part of the war, when McClellon was in command of the army of the Potomac .

What little I have told no doubt about these early days is a fair sample of what happened in other towns along the routes to the Golden West.

 John D. Jones