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Published April 10, 2009, 01:14 AM

Wood Working: Much is revealed reading between the lines of history

Last week I wrote about Jim Farmer loaning me his father’s copy of “A History of Northern Wisconsin,” published in 1881.

By: Dave Wood, columnist, River Falls Journal

Last week I wrote about Jim Farmer loaning me his father’s copy of “A History of Northern Wisconsin,” published in 1881.

It was interesting because it contained data on my hometown, including prosperous citizens who paid to have their names mentioned, who are no longer remembered in Whitehall or anywhere else, for that matter.

Folks on the street were disappointed.

“You’re writing for the River Falls Journal, not the Whitehall Trumpet, you old hack? What did the book have to say about our town?”

Patience gentle readers, patience.

River Falls gets high marks from the researchers of Farmer’s book:

“The village of River Falls, located on the banks of the beautiful Kinnickinnic River, has a population of about fifteen hundred inhabitants….The river goes dashing through the central part of the village with a current so swift that the frosts of winter are unable to check its course or congeal its surface…Various religious societies have their pleasant places of worship. The different secret societies have their organizations and comfortable lodge rooms. The public school building located on the west side of the village, is a large, imposing structure of brick with all the late improvements, and will accommodate nearly three hundred pupils. The Fourth State Normal School, in the southeastern portion of the village, is built of brick, and cost twenty-five thousand dollars, a large portion of which was donated by the adjoining towns.”

I’m happy to report that River Falls comes off somewhat better than Whitehall in the Vanity Department. In the chapter on Whitehall, the researcher goes to great lengths to describe the virtues of the town, and probably steps over the line with this one:

“Another feature of excellence in connection with the location of Whitehall was the freedom of its inhabitants from malaria….”

Obviously that cost the town some money, which River Falls was unwilling to fork over.

In Whitehall, you may recall, leading citizens paid money to have their biographies included.

Not so in River Falls, which was twice as large, at 1,500 souls, than Whitehall. No River Falls citizen paid his or her way into the book. If they’re mentioned it’s because they held public office or worked for a charitable organization or church.

O. S. Powell is a good example. He owned half the town, including the house I live in, which was built a year before the book came out.

Powell was a go-getter and, as of the book’s printing, he had started the Amber Cane Syrup Manufactury, a factory with a capacity of 500 gallons of syrup per day.

Like any frontier town, River Falls was interested in morality. That’s why “The Temple of Honor” was organized in 1878 and attracted 35 members.

According to the book, “Much good has been accomplished by this lodge, in reclaiming the fallen and throwing around the pathway of the young from the evil influences of bad company.”

Some of the kids who hang around the White Pathway could probably use a few good whacks from upstanding citizens of “The Temple of Honor.”

Farmer’s book is a treasure trove of detail and occasionally a reflection of Robert Burns’ assertion that the best laid plans of mice and men, oft go astray. Here’s an example:

At the conclusion, the historian writes that “there are other small villages in the county, such as Diamond Bluff, Trenton and Bay City on the Mississippi; Clifton on the St. Croix; with Spring Valley, Rock Elm Center, Plumb (Plum) City, El Paso, Esdaile and Martell distributed over the inland districts, each one being built on the bank of a perennial stream, and will in time, as the county develops, become large and prosperous villages.”

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 426-9554.

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