THE HISTORY OF CLARK COUNTY
Chapter XXIV, 14 October 1909 -- Thorp Courier, Clark County, Wisconsin
RECREATION OF THE EARLY SETTLERS
THEATERS -CONCERTS -- DANCES
CLARK COUNTY OLD SETTLERS SOCIETY
"Come and trip it as you go, On the light fantastic toe."
John Milton (A. D. 1645)
In a work called a History of Northern Wisconsin published in 1881 by the Western Historical Company, the proprietor of which was one A. T. Andreas, an account is given of a dance had at the house of James O’ Neill, our pioneer settler, on Christmas Eve 1846; and some minute description is given of the after including a list of those present. The book is question at least so far as Clark county is concerned, is full of errors, some trivial and some glaring. For instance Melrose in Jackson county is located "up" the Black River from Neillsville. The author states that Clark county is forty miles, wide, and contains 22 townships. The book makes the late James W. Sturdevant settled in Clark county many years before he did, put his son in the 4th Wisconsin Regiment, a body he never served with, married men to women to who they never were wedded, but to whom other men were, states that the late S. C. Boardman, was born in 1849, and married in 1862, which would be when he was thirteen years old, and on another page states he was elected register of deeds, and county clerk of Clark county in 1854, which would be at the ripe age of five years, and in general recklessly instates events and dates so often that its accuracy cannot be relied upon.
However the statement that there was a dance at O’Neill’s house on Christmas Eve 1846, is one that can be relied upon, and that the Douglas family from Melrose and the neighbors round were there as guests, and that they all had a jolly time is fully established by other sources.
The old settlers invariably had a good time at their gatherings and dances. In later years from 1867 and onwards the "school section" of the O’Neill House was used often for dances. Sam Green was one of the early fiddlers -- there were no orchestras or violinists in Clark county in those days. Arch Day was another of the old fiddlers, and he could make a man dance whether he knew how to dance or not. Arch done the calling, but not in the usually way -- or rather he did not "call" the changes at all he "sang" them, and your feet would just "have" to keep time to his music and song.
At the time he lived south of Neillsville in the town of Levis, it was quite a common occurrence for a dozen or more young folks to drive down to his house carrying with them some oysters and crackers, and draw their cutters up to the house, and ask him to play for them. No matter whether word was sent in advance or not, Arch was always ready and willing, the old fiddle was brought out, and the dance was on. It the meantime Mrs. Day would set the table, cook the oysters, and everyone enjoyed themselves.
The hall at Staffordville along about 1870 was frequently used for dances. It was nothing unusual for one hundred couples to attend. There were no "two steps" in those days, most of the dances were square dances, interspersed with the Virginia Reel, Munny Musk, Double Scotch Reel and Firemans Dance.
Afterwards the old Firemans hall at Neillsville was generally used as a dancing hall, with about the same class of dances as those mentioned.
Some forty years ago, there existed quite a bond of sociability, between the Jackson county people at Black River Falls, and the people of Neillsville - and that included everyone that owned or could hire or borrow a horse and cutter or sleight, would start in a body in the early afternoon, bound for a visit to our friends, at Black River Falls.
Twenty-five to a hundred or more would make the trip. They were received by the Falls people and taken for supper to the best hotel, and in the evening a dance would be had in a hall over Porter’s drug store on Main Street.
This custom was kept up for several years, and these meetings were especially enjoyable. Many that came did not care to dance, but would as they expressed it "just visit." there was no speech making, and there was a complete absence of restraint, in sharp contrast with some more modern functions.
On October 13, 1887, the settlers on the line of the Wisconsin Central Railway in the towns of Colby and Unity and thereabouts had a notable gatherings. They picknicked in the woods, speeches were had and all kinds of enjoyment were indulged in.
The late Charles F. Grow read a poem, local to the people and the surroundings, that amused the crowd. It was afterward published in the Colby Phonograph, as a part of the record of the reunion, the poem being signed Smith Wilkins. Smith Wilkins was the nom de plume, that Mr. Grow generally signed to his communications or writings. The name was a genuine one and not a creature of the imagination.
There lived in the early time in the town of Hull in Marathon County a man of that name, who moved away after a short residence there. The name Smith Wilkins, appealed to Mr. Grow’s sense of humor as so deliciously a funny one, that he afterward adopted it as his nom de plume.
At the Colby-Unity gathering the following is a partial list of those who were present from Clark county presumably those who had wives, escorted them to the festivities:
R. J. Horr, Henry Welsh, John Riplinger, E. L. Swarthout, D. R. Freeman, Frank Firnstahl, F. Riplinger, A. Lamont, Henry Siegrist, G. J. Walbridge, Charles F. Grow, J. D. Wicker, A. H. Booth, Geo. F. Dailey, E. T. Parkhill, Levi Woodbury, N. J. White, and W. B. McPherson.
Among the ladies, whose husbands seem to have been missing were Mrs. William Wagner, Mrs. Oliver Yerks and Mrs. Gil E. Vandercook.
The above is only a partial list: there were numerous settlers present from the Marathon county side of the line.
Theatrical performances were occasionally had, at Neillsville as early as 1868, but they were quite infrequent. The plays were generally comedies, and a good audience was always in attendance.
The stage erected at one end of the hall, or school section of the O’Neill House, was made of the rough pine boards, and the foot-lights consisted of a few smoky kerosene oil lamps, but the acting was generally good.
Billy Marble, a comedian, was a universal favorite, he appeared as Amindab Sleek in the Serious Family, and Solon Shingle, in the Peoples Lawyer, or a Barrel of "Apple Sass," and plays of that character.
Other plays such as Fanchon the Cricket, with its Maypole dance, The Corsican Brothers, and the like, were occasionally produced.
Concerts were sometimes had at the same hall. In 1868, N. D. Coon, who is now living at Eau Claire, and engaged in the music business, came to Neillsville and sold to most of the well to do people, either an organ or a melodeon, and he had singing school or classes in connection with his musical business.
One evening he gave a concert at the old O’Neill House hall; instrumental music, and singing were the main part of the program, but shortly before the close of the exercises, Mr. Coon appeared before the curtain and announced that the next number would be a song of the angels, and that it would be necessary to turn down the foot-lights and keep the audience in a somewhat darkened hall, as he desired to produce some effect with the lights on the stage.
Accordingly the room was darkened and then ensued an interminable wait, the audience became impatient, finally Robert Ross, one of our old and wealthy lumbermen, blurted out somewhere from the darkness, "Trot out your angels, Coon, trot out your angels." After a further period of waiting the angels were dully "trotted out."
A number of years after, home talent quiet often, indulged in the public production of theatricals. A Mr. Crane, and Miss Francisca Rudor, both school teachers, were especially good.
Still later came the Pinafore craze, and the local talent at Neillsville brought out the opera, at the old Firemans Hall, under the direction of some outside party (from Green Bay) who rehearsed them and directed the performance. One feature of it was that ex-sheriff Tom Philpott as he was made up, looked as much unlike a sailor as possible, but otherwise he was a villainous looking Dick Deadeye. The ladies in the cast of course were charming, both in their acting and it their costumes.
In the month of February, 1899, there was organized at Loyal, Wisconsin, what was named and known as the "Old Settlers Club." Its first officials were William Welsh of the town of Loyal as President, George W. Barker of the same town as Secretary, and Isaac C. Gotchey as treasurer.
Mr. Geo. W. Barker has during all the years, since the existence of the Club been and still is the Secretary of the organization.
A list of the members of the society furnished by Mr. Barker, in November, 1909, is appended hereto.
It may be stated that originally, when the society was first organized, those eligible to membership, were confined to old residents living in the northern central towns, but after a few years, it became upon to membership by any old settler in Clark county.
The association has an annual meeting held at Loyal.
These gatherings are of the most delightful character. The cards of invitation that they send to each of the members or invited guests, are of any unique character, and they bear upon their face a description of the meals that are to be served, at the dinner when the society meets, with a notice upon the card of invitation, that the recipient will find a lead pencil check mark, upon his invitation card indicating the provisions he is expected to bring to the general fund, such articles as venison, bear meat, and matters of that kind, and they are rather surprising, and somewhat astonishing when checked in the invitation, addressed to the Honorary members of the society, like Judge James O’Neill, Judge of the 17th Circuit, who if he furnished venison or bear meat, would have to obtain it in the markets, and certainly not in the forest "primeval" within the jurisdiction of the game wardens.
The following is a list of the members of the old settlers society of Loyal. The names of the active members are first given, and are given in the order in point of time, at which they became members. The list of honorary members follow:
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