Tainter - a legendary figure

Andrew Tainter
About 38 years old

     I first heard about Andrew Tainter 20 years ago when an old derelict lumberjack came to live with my great-uncle in his little log cabin.
     The old man had no place else to go, and he and my great-uncle had been friends in the old days, the days when they both spent winters logging for the Knapp, Stout & Co. Company up near Big Lake Chetek. (They pronounced Knapp with an audible "K" and an "a" as in "pa.") The two old men smoked and talked about Andrew Tainter.
     They hadn't heard much about Paul Bunyan, but they had heard much about Captain Tainter.
     "They say his shoulders were a yard wide and a yard deep," one would say, "as broad as an ox choker."
     "I never sow him in the flesh though," the other would say.
     "I saw him once at a county fair," said the first. "He was just a shriveled up old man by then. But when he was young, they say he could twist the head off a horse if he chose to do it."

So the old men talked

     And so the old men talked. They had known many lumbermen, but few had survived with as powerful a legendary life as had Andrew Tainter.
     What made Tainter unique? There were other big, strong lumberjacks, of course, but there were few of the "Bull of the Woods" class who had as successfully made the transition to "lumber baron." Andrew Tainter's career as a lumberman changed with the industry, and it was his ability to adapt to his new roles as he gained money and power which helped to make him the archetypal lumberman of the legends.
      When the young Andrew Tainter came to the Menomonie area, he stood only 5'11", but weighted about 250 pounds, and much of that was in his shoulders, chest and arms. He loved adventure; he was willing to risk everything - his body, his time, the little money he had. He laved the challenges presented by the woods, the bold rivers, the harsh winters, the sparse provisions. He was an innovator, an inventor, an intensely practical man.

Always was a battler

     While Tainter was still alive, George Forrester wrote of him that "He is not given to pious ostentation." Indeed not. he was famous for his skill with profanity. As a young man he was a battler, fighting sometimes for principle and sometimes for fun. Even as an older man of 44, a full partner in the Knapp, Stout and Co. Company, he seemed unable to resist a satisfying fight.
     When a rebellion broke out in one of the camps, Andrew Tainter traveled all night through bitter cold from Menomonie to Rice Lake in order to be there in time to make sure the men went back to work in the morning. Instead of sending a younger man, he went himself.
     His more decorous partner, John Holly Knapp, became quite exasperated by what he regarded as Tainter's undignified brawling. In a letter to another partner, William Wilson, he wrote: "Captain Tainter ought to be more careful of his life, as he seems to have no regard for it nor for the loss the company would suffer were it to lose services while he recovered from the wounds of scrapping with a couple of common workers."

Reflects story of America

     In many ways, the story of Andrew Tainter's life is also the story of America, especially of those states near the western Great Lakes. He came to the Wisconsin pineland wilderness a powerfully strong young man. He helped to remove the forest, and to replace it with farms and towns. He began with the muscles in his body, and he invented machines to take their place. he entered the forest when the power of a fist was the first law; when he died, the area was a model of civil and legal order.
     When he arrived, he was poor; when he died, he was very wealthy. When he came to northern Wisconsin, the land belonged to and was the home of the Ojibwa people; shortly before his death, he and his partners owned much of it.
     The community in which Tainter lived most of his adult life was called "The Queen of the Pinery." During the half-century between the time when the first planks were sawed out of white pine logged off the banks of the Red Cedar, and the time when white pine was removed entirely from the lumber dealers' lists of available wood, Menomonie was the capital of a kingdom, a very rich kingdom, which extended northward 150 miles to the headwaters of the Red Cedar River. Along the banks grew magnificent stands of white pine, out of which the homes, towns and cities of central North America were being built.
     One corporation, the Knapp, Stout & Co. Company, controlled the lumber industry all up and down the valley. Throughout the 1870s and 80s the Knapp, Stout firm was considered the largest lumber company in the world, with title to more than a million acres of land.

Arrived in are in 1845

     Andrew Tainter was a full partner in the firm almost from its beginning. In 1845 when young Tainter arrived in the Menomonie area, the community had not yet been given a name. It had only one building within what is now the city limits. In 1892, seven years before his death, Andrew Tainter owned or had controlling shares in 20 businesses and about 40 buildings in Menomonie alone.
     He and the other partners in the Knapp, Stout & Co. Company literally owned major portions of every community on the Red Cedar River north of Menomonie to its headwaters. In towns such as Barron, Chetek, Cumberland, Spooner, Rive Lake, the Knapp, Stout & Co. Company (or individual members or the corporation) owned the mills, banks, newspapers - businesses of every kind. Many thousands of white pine logs floated down the Red Cedar River into the collecting ponds of Knapp, Stout & Co. Company mills. In turn, a good deal of money and power went back up river to develop satellite towns above Menomonie. In 1901, all the pine was cut, and the company moved south.

Purchased at a dear price

     Such a story would appear to be a success story, and in many ways it is. But clearly the success was purchased at a dear price. Andrew Tainter acted according to expectations of his times, but since his death, the people of the world have re-evaluated his achievements, and today many would call him a robber baron or a nature raper. Andrew Tainter's life provides us with yet another example of what Reinhold Niebuhr calls the "Irony of American History."
     The ironies in Andrew Tainter's life are most easily detected in his personal life. When he first worked in the pinery, he married an Ojibwa woman, and they had five children. While Andrew Tainter became more wealthy and powerful, his wife's people were forced farther and farther into poverty and hopeless impotence. He left his Indian wife, and taking their children with him, he moved to town; his Indian wife moved to a reservation.

Gained social prominence

     About the same time he became captain of a river boat - a position which gave him a title, a much more social prominence than he had before. He hired an educated young widow to care for his Indian children, and shortly after, they married. She was a woman who appreciated high culture, and he quickly learned. Two of his Indian children died the same year he remarried. With his second wife, Andrew Tainter had five children; he lived to see three of them die, and another of the children from his first marriage as well.
     He was a man who loved adventure, yet he and his colleagues worked continually to remove or to control any force which might have threatened them - the rivers were dammed, competition was bought out. He was a master of elements, yet he lived in fear of the unknown. He loved the pine forests, yet he lived to see his company cut them down. During the years before his death, he brooded about what he could leave behind besides pine stumps and a grave marker.

First of 14 children

     Andrew Tainter was born in Salina, New York, July 6, 1823. He was the first of 14 children born to Ruth Burnham and Ezekial W. Tainter - three boys and 11 girls.
     For the first nine years of his life, he lived in Salina. During these years, his father was gone a good deal of the time, logging, building forts for the government, or trying to strike it rich on some scheme or other. In 1828, Andrew, his mother, and his three sisters (one an infant) traveled to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, to join Ezekial Tainter.
     Ezekial Tainter and his family provided several support services for Fort Crawford - they cut hay for the horses, provided wood for building and fire, provided garden produce and dairy products, and maintained and informal "tavern." As the only son old enough to help, Andrew Tainter performed a large variety of tasks to keep all these enterprises going.

Little formal schooling

     Andrew Tainter attended school for one year in Salina, New York, and for parts of two years in Prairie du Chien. After that, he had no formal schooling.
     Until he was 21, Andrew worked with his father in the family businesses, and as a laborer for Edward Pelton who had a livery service. he left home with his grandfather, Stephen Tainter, and came to the pinery above Chippewa Falls where he cut hay during the summer and fall of 1845. He returned to Prairie du Chien for the winter, but went north again the following spring and worked for Ben Brunston in the woods and in his mill.
     In the fall of 1846, he went to the area which came to be called Menomonie, and worked in partnership with Blois Hurd making lath in a little mill in Irvine Creek. According to some accounts, he lived in a cabin near the mill with his grandfather Stephen Tainter, who died in the summer of 1847.

Worked for Knapp and Wilson

     Both in partnership, and as individuals, Tainter and Blois Hurd began to do occasional work with the Knapp and Wilson firm. For part of the winter of 1847-48, Tainter logged in the woods about 20 miles above Menomonie. The following summer he built a small mill of his own to cut his logs into square timbers.
     Knapp and Wilson bought some of Tainter's timber in preparation for a dam they planned on the Red Cedar at the location of their mill. Wilson contracted with Tainter to cut logs above Prairie Farm and deliver them for a dam and other buildings they planned at that location.

Fought driving odds

     Tainter dissolved his partnership with Hurd and opened a winter logging camp somewhere near Lake Poskin. He cut abut three times as many logs as he needed for his agreement with Wilson, and against considerable odds, succeeded in driving them to Menomonie.
     The following winter he repeated the performance. During that winter he also took for his wife an Ojibwa girl, Mary Poskin Goose, grandniece of the local chieftain.
     Tainter built a square-timber house in Menomonie, and moved there with his wife in the spring of 1850. In later mummer of the same year Knapp and Wilson, unable to pay their debts to him, were forced to bring him into partnership. He lived in Menomonie with his Indian wife about one year, and then he built a house for his family at Poskin Lake near his winter camp and near Mary's people.

Marriage lasted nine years

     Tainter's marriage to Mary Poskin lasted about nine years and they had five children - Julia, William, Charlotte, Thomas and Eliza. Ultimately the marriage failed because of differences between the two about where the family should live, how the children should be reared and cultural and personal differences. When the final separation came, Andrew Tainter took custody of the children and took them to Menomonie. His estranged wife moved to Lac Courte Oreilles with her brother.
     During the years of his marriage to Mary Poskin, Tainter worked as general boss of all Knapp, Stout & Co. Company logging operations. For a few years he had his own camp, and after that he moved from camp to camp supervising and coordinating work of the logging camps.
     In spring he supervised all river driving operations, planning and supervising improvements in capacity of the rivers to carry logs. During the summer season, he cruised timberland; supervised building of dams and other river improvements; located and directed the building of new camps. When Knapp, Stout & Co. Company purchased the riverboat, "Chippewa Falls," Andrew Tainter took over as captain. He combined that job with the others he had performed before.

Set up home at Read's Landing

     In 1859 he hired Bertha Lucas Lesure as governess for his five children and set up his household at Read's Landing. On May 9, 1861, he married Mrs. Lesure, and about the same time built a new house in Menomonie.
     Andrew Tainter and Bertha Lucas Tainter had five children - Louis, Ruth, Mabel, Irene and Fanney. Irene died as an infant. Ruth, at age eight, and Mabel at age 19. Fanny lived an active, adventuresome life, and Louis followed his father into the business and eventually took over his father's old position.
     In the late sixties and into the seventies, many of Tainter's down-state relatives came to Menomonie to take a share in Andrew's prosperity. Many of them were employed by Knapp, Stout & Co. Company.

More involved socially

     During these years Tainter became more and more socially involved with the more genteel classes of Menomonie citizens - the Knapps, Wilsons, Lucases. he took more interest in leisure activities and in one of his life-interests - horses. He began to buy trotters and pacers and blooded stock of all types.
     He bought more than a thousand acres of farmland and began to raise registered cattle, sheep, pigs and goats as well as horses. His main farm was called Oaklawn, and eventually it became a showplace for the entire state, visited by the governors of Wisconsin and stockmen from all over the country.
     Unlike other officers of Knapp, Stout & Co., Company, Tainter seldom demonstrated any interest in personally involving himself in politics. Though he was often sought as a candidate for one office or another, he never chose to run.

Tackled tough jobs

     Through the 1870s and early 80s, Andrew Tainter tackled one tough job for the company after another - he negotiated purchase of pine lands from Cornell University; supervised improvements on all the rivers and streams which could be used for running logs; supervised building and equipping of several mills; and continued to oversee logging and river driving operations.
     He labored on these tasks because he loved the work. He was shrewd because it was fun to be shrewd; he worked hard because work was often his pleasure.
     Tainter loved the men who worked for him, and they loved him. Sometimes he treated them brutally. Sometimes he treated them with great tenderness.

Leadership qualities

     He would have been a great military leader, or today, a great football coach. He didn't have the kind of genius for economic trends and high finance with which John Holly Knapp was blessed; he didn't have the grand vision for a new country governed by a benign dictatorship with which William Wilson motivated his work. He was a practical man who loved to solve practical problems of any kind. He was a flexible man.
    As a young man he reacted firmly against the "hell and damnation" religion which his parents and grandparents preached. Though he was thus an agnostic from his guts and from his heart, the more subtle, rational supports for agnosticism were not beyond him. He was never a "dumb lumberjack" even though he had only had two years of schooling.
     As a young man he knew conversational French as well as English, and later learned Ojibwa as well. Then, after he married Bertha, he learned from her the nuances of life in another kind of society.. He had tremendous powers of adaptation.

Traveled a great deal

     After he retired from full-time involvement with Knapp, Stout & Co. Company, he traveled a good deal and spent more time with his horses. He bought an orange grove in Florida and spent most of every winter there. He began to read more, taking with him to Florida works of poetry, biographies and histories. In the "Complete Works of Shakespeare" which he returned to Menomonie after his death, his family found these lines copied out in his hand: "Sure he that made us with such large discourse, Looking before and after, gave us not That capability and godlike reason To fuss in us unused." -Hamlet, Act IV, scene IV, lines 36-39
    Andrew Tainter died at Rice Lake, Wisconsin, October 18, 1899

- Tim Hirsch, UW-EC English Dept.

Extracted from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram
Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
Used with permission.

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