BY DAVE WOOD
Life on the frontier The opera closes next Wednesday, and from the New Year to Lent the main attentions of the season will be given to the special festivities and observances of private “society.” Balls, receptions, dancing parties, dinners and the like will now be frequent and prudent anxiety will be shown to get the right people, to avoid “ineligbles, “and in other ways to maintain or acquire a position in the social scale. Some who have watched New York life are apt to bewail what they call a decadence in the tone of society. On the other hand, there is more diffuse culture, and a far greater variety and richess in our social circles.
New York Times, Jan. 1, 1872.
So that was what was happening out east 150 years ago. But what about western Wisconsin, where my great grandad Dave Wood was writing in his diary every day from 1869 until his death in 1927? After seeing the New York times Society column printed above, I checked out great grandad’s entries of 150 years ago to see what was happening at the Wood farm back in those wild and wooly days.
Here’s a sampling. January 1872- Cool and chilly. Went to Andrew Sherwoods, took wife and the boys for an oyster supper. I have a lame shoulder and can’t use it much Jan. 2 – Shubal Breed and wife here awhile. Took Mary [his wife] to Dewey Parsons [Mary’s brother] she stayed two or three hours.
Jan. 24 – fair and verry cold. Found Dyke and his wife here on a visit.
Jan. 25 Took Dyke, talked then took them to charley Sherwood. Took them over to charley Sherwood toward night Jan. 27 fair & pleasant. Took the family to Coral City and had there pictures taken. paid for same & mine 7.00 and Lena [hired girl] 1.00. Paid for Sentinel, Milwukee, for year. $1.50 Feb. 19 – took Mary and Ella Moore to Galesville. Found Ed Wade at home.
And so it went for Dave and his brood 150 years ago out on the frontier. I know from earlier and subsequent entries that their January number of Scribner’s Monthly had not yet arrived, but when it did, they likely read in its pages about a very different life than the one they had chosen — articles Chas. K. Tuckerman on “Modern Athens,” “English Singing Birds of Florence: “The Island of Corfu.” When it arrived finally, on a Sunday, while Mary was preparing a meal of fried salt pork, corn muffins and sorghum, Dave, having finished milking his one Milking Shorthorn, probably loitered over that very Scribner’s and very well may have dipped into an exotic story “Loitering by a French Chateau.” (At this moment Dave was still a non-believer and stayed home to read “Romances” after sending Mary to church with the kids.
Sure enough, they were a long ways away from Dave’s natal state, New York, where, in New York City Tammany Hall’s Boss William Marcy Tweed was celebrating his wedding and financier Jay Cook announced that one million shares of Northern Pacific Railroad had been sold. Edwin Booth was starring in “Julius Caesar” in his family’s theatre. And Chicago, the little town his wife Mary had driven through when she was a little girl 30 years ago before its fire, was all agog about its recent guest, Grand Duke Alexis of Russia.
No doubt there was loneliness out on the frontier, but that loneliness was ameliorated by the fact that there were many relatives from out east who made the journey with them and after their arrival and the appearance of foreign arrivals with their Christmas customs opened up new opportunities for socialization.
In two years the railroad would come to the frontier and Dave records that he “went to the station and bot bbl of shucked oysters. $5” Such progress led to town-wide fraternal suppers, and Wood family suppers that continue in our family to this day.
My father explained to me years ago that a “bbl.” meant barrel, not a real barrel but a wooden nail keg barrel. Last month I purchased a pint of shucked oysters. Fifteen dollars and change.
Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 1-715-426-9554.