Posts in the History Category

Remembering James Gates Percival

· Posted by Joshua in Arts, History

Engraving of James Gates Percival

Engraving of James Gates Percival as a young man.

Buried deep in southwest Wisconsin, beneath a granite monument at the hamlet of Hazel Green, lies the body of a great nineteenth century student. His works in language, literature, and science have shaped our culture to the present day, yet these contributions are nearly as forgotten now as the name of their maker: James Gates Percival. As a poet, Percival was put to music by Edward Elgar. As a linguist, he was a leading contributor to the original Webster’s Dictionary. As a geologist, he compiled the first surveys of two U.S. states: Connecticut and Wisconsin. These accomplishments are now lost among the tomes of dusty archives, for in Percival’s own words:

What’s earth, what’s life, to space, eternity?
‘Tis but a flash, a glance—from birth to death;
And he, who ruled the world, would only be
Lord of a point—a creature of a breath;

And what is it to gain a hero’s name,
or build one’s greatness on the rabble’s roar?
‘Tis but to light a feeble, flickering flame,
That shines a moment, and is seen no more.

James Gates Percival was born in Berlin, Connecticut, on September 15, 1795. He entered Yale College at age 16, already captive to the pursuit of poetry. Percival’s early life, however, was seldom easy. His father had died before James reached his teen years, and at Yale, Percival was so derided by his peers for his poetic ambitions that he left the college in 1812 and employed himself as a farmer for a year before gathering the resolve to finish school.

Returning to Yale, Percival engrossed himself in his studies and avoided society. One classmate noted that “I never knew one who could acquire correct knowledge quicker than Percival,” and another observed, “I think he had few acquaintances in college, though I never knew that he had any enemies. The fact that his intercourse was so circumscribed was doubtless to be attributed to constitutional reserve, and not to the consciousness of his own superiority. Everybody looked upon him as a good-natured, sensitive, thoughtful, odd, gifted fellow.”

After graduating in 1815, Percival continued to expand his knowledge. He embarked as a private tutor; then sought and obtained a degree in medicine at Yale. The young doctor, however, found himself unable to cope with the emotion of his work. Percival felt a strong sense of empathy for his patients and an extremely self-conscious sense of responsibility to them. He could overwhelm himself with grief when he lacked a cure for someone in pain.

Percival also thirsted, quietly, for companionship. Those who knew him remarked on his sensitive and amicable nature, but they could rarely penetrate his reserved demeanor. Friendships for Percival were often fruitless, and his one cautious letter of love was met with steadfast rejection. As grief stacked on grief, Percival penned a long, rambling, maudlin poem entitled “The Suicide.” The work is frenzied and inconsistent, at times unreadable, at times presaging the later vivid imagination of Edgar Allen Poe. A few stanzas follow:

How easy, O! how trifling, with the steel
To pierce a heart that loves no scene below,
To wound a breast too callous e’er to feel
A pang less cruel than a demon’s woe.

Does not the smiling surface of the wave
Kindly invite to take my endless sleep?
How sweet to rest within a watery grave;
How soft those slumbers—that repose how deep.

The death-winged ball—can pierce my phrenzied brain,
The knife—can loose the shackles of my soul,
An opiate—that can ease my every pain,
Smiles, how inviting!—in the poisoned bowl.

And thou, sweet drug!—can’st shed the balmy dew
Of sleep eternal, o’er my wearied eyes,
And give repose, as calm to mortal view
As when the infant wrapt in slumber lies.

Still thou art slow though sure—ah! can I wait
A single moment, ere I sink in death;
Perhaps I may lament it when too late,
And struggle to regain my fleeting breath.

Give me the knife, the dagger, or the ball—
O! I can take them with a smile serene;
Then like a flash of lighting I may fall
And rush at once into the world unseen.

Percival made a number of chaotic attempts to take his life in 1820. He bashed his head with stones; he overdosed on opium; he invested in a brace of pistols. In time Percival recovered from these incidents, but he never overcame their scars. He briefly resumed practicing medicine far from home in South Carolina after 1820, but the doctor remarked in one conversation, “I had got my name up for writing verses, and found myself ruined. When a person is really ill he will not send for a poet to cure him.”

More a poet than a doctor, Percival withdrew from society, and he spent most of his life in seclusion. He never married. The pathos that marked his early years forever overshadowed his later achievements.

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Oil in Them Thare Hills?

· Posted by Joshua in History

Early Autumn colors on the undulating hills of Southwest Wisconsin.
Is there black gold hidden in the hills of Southwest Wisconsin?

This ain’t no lie: a long time back, before it was “America’s Dairyland,” Wisconsin was oil country — sort of. In 1865 and 1866, sixty-six “petroleum mining” companies were chartered in Wisconsin. This oil boom had its roots in the 1850s. That decade, a number of chemists perfected the process of distilling kerosene from crude oil, creating a combustible product far cheaper and more convenient than candles to light up shops and homes. In 1859, the first oil well in the United States was drilled in Pennsylvania. The fledgling industry was soon interrupted by the advent of American Civil War, but as the war drew down in 1864, a boom took place across Pennsylvania and the adjacent states as speculators looked to make a fortune in crude. Within a year, oil frenzy would spread all across the North.

Wisconsin, with its Appalachian-like hills in the southwest and its marshes and bogs across the middle, seemed to many untrained speculators like the ideal place to strike black gold. Appleton, a young city of 2,655 people near the marshy junction of the Fox River and Lake Winnebago, saw the creation of seven petroleum companies in 1865. The Appleton Crescent for April 5 that year noted that “Strangers keep flocking to town. There is a constant stream of visitors to the Northwestern Company’s well. House room is becoming so scarce that the newcomers will soon be obliged to bring their tents with them, or sleep standing.” Locals looked forward excitedly to the day when their region would become as busy and prosperous as the oil fields of Pennsylvania.

A hill covered in old wooden oil wells.
For a time, Wisconsin’s hills looked set to become like this 1860s Pennsylvania oil field.

The western side of the state joined in the speculation by 1866. Sparta, a Monroe County village with 1,897 inhabitants, held the offices of upwards of ten petroleum companies with operations in the nearby Kickapoo River Valley. “Oil City, Wisconsin” (Google Map) sprung up around the site of a promising claim near Sparta. Two counties to the south, the larger city of Prairie du Chien (population 3,556 in 1865) witnessed the creation of four petroleum corporations in 1866, including the ambitiously named “American Petroleum and Mining Company.” Influential Prairie du Chien residents including steamboat legend Joseph Reynolds, railroad superintendent John Lawler, and ex-fur trader B.W. Brisbois all jumped on the oil bandwagon with sizable investments. Still other oil companies were founded in nearby small towns like Bell Center. But was there any oil?

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High Speed Rail: A Wisconsin Tradition

· Posted by Joshua in History

The Twin Cities Zephyr stopped at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin
The Twin Cities Zephyr at the depot in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, c. 1940s. From the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society. WHi-24523. Photo by Art Hellberg.

With federal funding ready for a new high speed railway across Wisconsin, the next decade may see trains whizz between Madison and Milwaukee at top speeds of 110 mph. The rail plans are a matter of some debate today, but high speed trains were once taken for granted in Wisconsin. The new railroad, in fact, won’t even be that fast compared to the current leaders. State-of-the-art electric trains in China and France maintain average speeds from station to station as high as 175 to 190 mph, and can reach peak speeds over 200 mph. Wisconsin was not always so far behind.

From the 1930s to the 1950s — the golden age of the “streamliner” — railroad tracks in Wisconsin carried some of the world’s fastest regularly scheduled trains. Two companies, the Milwaukee Road (officially the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad) and the Burlington Route (officially the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad), competed to race passengers between Chicago and the Twin Cities of Minnesota.

The Milwaukee Road was the first to reach record speeds. Its “Twin Cities Hiawatha” started north from Chicago through Milwaukee to Wisconsin Dells, La Crosse, Winona, and at last Minneapolis-St. Paul. Introduced in 1935, the Hiawatha was a lightweight train powered by some of the fastest steam engines ever built. The Milwaukee Road class A locomotive could reach top speeds over 110 mph, and its 1939 successor, the class F7, could go as fast as 125 mph. This allowed the Milwaukee Road to maintain a regular station-to-station schedule of 58 minutes from Portage to Sparta, Wisconsin, a 78.3 mile stretch. That required a sustained average speed of 81 mph, meaning that the Hiawatha ran the fastest station-to-station rail trip anywhere on earth at the time. No steam engine ever surpassed the Hiawatha’s station-to-station records.1

The Burlington Route could exceed the Milwaukee Road’s record only with more advanced technology: combination diesel-electric locomotives cased in stainless steel. Burlington’s “Twin Cities Zephyr” sped west from Chicago across Illinois and turned north to follow the Mississippi River after East Dubuque, passing through Prairie du Chien, La Crosse, and Pepin before arriving at Minneapolis-St. Paul. Like the Hiawatha, the Zephyr entered service in 1935. In the 1940s and 1950s, refinements in the route allowed it to overtake the Hiawatha’s regular station-to-station record along the smooth, level tracks in the Mississippi River Valley. The Zephyr required an average speed of 84.4 mph to keep its schedule between Prairie du Chien and La Crosse, Wisconsin. The stretch from East Dubuque to Prairie du Chien was nearly as fast, averaging 84.0 mph. The Zephyr’s station-to-station average speeds through Western Wisconsin were the fastest in the world until 1957.2

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Explosive Nonviolence: Two Bombings in 1970

· Posted by Joshua in History

The explosion at Sterling Hall blew out windows, scorched the building facade, and littered the ground with debris.

Sterling Hall at UW-Madison was bombed by peace activists on August 24, 1970. Photo from the UW Digital Collections

In August, 1970, two unrelated explosions tore through quiet nights on different sides of the globe. Neither took place in a war zone. Each was carried out by people supposedly dedicated to non-violence, but each group felt that nothing less than an explosion could achieve its goals. One explosion did what its detonators hoped. One did not. Both are largely forgotten.

The first explosion took place in Iceland. Government officials had embarked on a development project for the northern Þingeyjarsýsla region that involved building a dam across the Laxá River. Local residents were dismayed. They stood to lose their land, livelihood, and countryside beneath the dam’s reservoir. The environment was also at stake. The Laxá was one of Iceland’s best fishing streams, and its name literally means “Salmon River.” A dam would have blocked the salmon migration and irrevocably changed the river’s ecology. Quickly, farmers and fishermen united in a legal battle to block the dam. Their efforts were fruitless. Construction continued, and it seemed that only one option remained.

Late on the night of August 7, 1970, over two-hundred local residents gathered at the river. They dug holes in the dam’s foundations, filled them with dynamite, and, ensuring that no people or animals were in sight, blew the dam to pieces. The following day, everyone in the community called the police to claim responsibility for the incident. Hearings were held, sixty-five people were convicted, but their fines were overturned by Iceland’s Supreme Court. One conspirator was ultimately elected to parliament. The dam was never rebuilt.

The second explosion occurred in the United States. Students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison had been protesting the United States’ war in Vietnam for several years. Protests had started nonviolently, but police had responded brutally at some demonstrations, beating students. By the end of the decade, the FBI had even infiltrated student organizations. Many protests centered on the Army Mathematics Research Center (AMRC), which occupied three floors of Sterling Hall on the UW-Madison campus. Students suspected AMRC of conducting research to further the Vietnam War, and many wanted it closed. The University of Wisconsin, however, had no intention of banishing the federally funded research and the respected mathematicians it brought to Madison. To a few war protesters, it seemed that only one option remained.

Before dawn on August 24, 1970, four anti-war activists detonated a homemade one ton bomb in a van parked outside Sterling Hall. They set off the explosion at 3:42 AM, hoping that the building would be empty, but it was not. A post-doctorate physics researcher with no connection to AMRC was killed, four others were injured, and over $2.1 million worth of property damage was done, mostly to the UW physics department on Sterling Hall’s lower floors. Upstairs, the Army Mathematics Research Center escaped with little damage. The four perpetrators fled, three were eventually caught and sentenced to short prison terms, the fourth was never apprehended. The Vietnam War continued for five more years.

So it happened that two nonviolent activist groups turned to explosive tactics in August 1970. The Laxá River campaign succeeded in its agenda. The Sterling Hall bombing did not. It is tragic that even in two established democracies like Iceland and the United States, underprivileged groups sometimes see no means but violence to make themselves heard. It is even worse in recent democracies—just look at this month’s headlines about explosions in Baghdad. Spreading democracy to Iraq at the point of a gun is no way to get people in there to settle their differences peacefully. Indeed, using violence to advance any nonviolent agenda always leads to terrible risks. As the Sterling Hall bombing made clear, even violence that purpotrators consider well-intended is prone to unintended consequences. Moreover, the unpredictability of violence can render it useless at achieving intended results. The Sterling Hall bombers should have known they couldn’t end a war by blowing something up. Wars end with treaties, not explosions.

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A Ban on Banks: Wisconsin’s Radical 1846 Constitution

· Posted by Joshua in History

Political leaders have been debating for months over how to deal with the banking-induced financial crisis currently seizing the world, but controversy over banking is nothing new. Wisconsin’s history demonstrates this vividly. In 1846, as Wisconsin was preparing for statehood, a political convention met in Madison to author the state constitution. The draft this convention created never took effect—citizens overwhelmingly rejected it in an 1847 referendum, and statehood was delayed until a second constitution was approved the next year. The first proposal, voters thought, was simply too radical. Two of its radical provisions dealt with debt and banking.

A clip of the manuscript showing Article X of the 1846 Wisconsin Constitution.

Banking provisions in the rejected 1846 Wisconsin Constitution. (Digitized by the Wisconsin Historical Society)

One section of the rejected constitution, the Homestead Provision, was designed to protect family homes from being seized to cover debt. An even more radical proposal, Article 10, actually banned any bank from doing business within Wisconsin’s borders.

The Homestead Provision, based on provisions in the earlier Texas Constitution, would have exempted the family home and forty acres, to a maximum value of one thousand dollars (then a substantial sum), from being seized to repay contractual debts. The second constitution replaced this with a more vague statement exempting only “a reasonable amount of property” from seizure. Currently, Wisconsin law provides an exemption for property worth up to $40,000, but it does not apply to mortgages or debts incurred to purchase or improve the home.

The idea to forbid banking in Wisconsin was proposed by Edward G. Ryan, a Democrat elected to the constitutional convention from Racine. The convention approved his proposal by a 79-27 vote, and the article they passed read like this:

Article X: On Banks and Banking

Section I: There shall be no bank of issue within this state.

Section II: The legislature shall not have power to authorize or incorporate, by any general or special law, any bank or other institution having any banking power or privilege, or to confer upon any corporation, institution, person or persons any banking power or privilege.

Section III: It shall not be lawful for any corporation, institution, person or persons within this state, under any pretense or authority, to make or issue any paper money, note, bill, certificate, or other evidence of debt whatever intended to circulate as money.

Section IV: It shall not be lawful for any corporation within this state under any pretense or authority, to exercise the business of receiving deposits of money, making discounts, or buying or selling bills of exchange, or to do any other banking business whatever.

Section V: No branch or agency of any bank or banking institution of the United States, or of any State or Territory within or without the United States shall be established or maintained within this state.

Section VI: It shall not be lawful to circulate within this state, after the year one thousand eight hundred and forty seven, any paper money, note, bill, certificate or other evidence of debt whatever intended to circulate as money, issued without this state, of any denomination less than ten dollars, or after the year one thousand eight hundred and forty nine, of any denomination less than twenty dollars.

Section VII: The legislature shall, at its first session after the adoption of this constitution, and from time to time thereafter as may be necessary, enact adequate penalties for the punishment of all violations and evasions of the provisions of this article.1

Wisconsin’s politicians were willing to ban banking because they had lived through decades of bank-related economic turmoil. In 1816, the U.S. Congress had delegated management of federal finance to a private corporation, the Second Bank of the United States, but in 1819 and 1834, the bank’s policies were blamed for causing recessions. The congressional charter for the bank expired in 1836, but in its stead, unregulated “wildcat banks” began offering easy loans and printing money, as was legal at the time. Eager for profit, the banks expanded rapidly, making too much money available far too quickly. The resulting inflation triggered a depression that lasted from 1837 to 1843, unparalleled in severity until the Great Depression. When Wisconsin’s founding politicians met to write the constitution in 1846, these events were still fresh in mind.

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Wisconsin’s Christmas Past

· Posted by Joshua in History

Tractor Ornaments in a Christmas Tree

Christmas Tree Ornaments

A century ago, the city of Appleton, Wisconsin, celebrated Christmas on a grand scale. It was 1908, and for the first time, the city had decorated its streets with electric lights for the holiday. The occasion was not unlike our observance of Christmas today: bright, extravagant, and unrelentingly commercial. Summing up the event on December 31, the Appleton Post boasted that “The illumination of College Avenue by the Appleton merchants, together with the notoriety given to the town by the possession of the biggest Christmas tree in the world, and not only the biggest, but the prettiest, put the merchants of nearby towns to their wits’ end to keep their trade from drifting over to Appleton.”1

Christmas in Wisconsin wasn’t always such a colossal affair. Indeed, the holiday hasn’t always been celebrated here. The American Indians who first occupied the land had their own traditions, beliefs, and ceremonies. The first people who celebrated Christmas in what became Wisconsin were French and British traders who arrived after the seventeenth century. Few of these first Christian arrivals were especially devout. “We sometimes kept Sundays; but whether on the right day was doubtful,” recalled Thomas Gummersall Anderson, a British trader who traveled Wisconsin widely in the early 1800s.2 Despite their relaxed attitude towards religion, Anderson and others like him tried to retain their Christmas traditions as best as they could in an unfamiliar land. Anderson’s memoir, written just a few years before his death in 1875, records two Christmas feasts gone terribly awry on the Wisconsin frontier.

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