Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI
April 3, 1996, Page 32
Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.
Index of "Oldies" Articles
Good Old Days
By Dee Zimmerman
B.F. French, Clark County Pioneer, Headed Notable Clan
Two pioneers influential in Clark County and Neillsville’s development were James O’Neill, the founder, and B.F. French, the latter known as “Doc” French.
B. F. French was first treasurer of Clark County and first master of the Masonic Lodge in Neillsville. He made a large place for himself in the early years. He had studied medicine and was highly regarded by many families for his healing skill, but he disclaimed medicine as a profession and devoted himself mainly to the law. He was a vicarious and intelligent figure, with a strong personality.
As the American Sketch Book stated, “Neillsville is the home of some of the noted men of Wisconsin. The Hon. B. F. French, who is truly an original character and he might make a subject for study to even a practical phrenologist. In common with all members of the French family, he possesses a great love for dogs and hunting. On entering his office, we were surprised at the unusual number of dogs scattered about the room. In each corner sat a dog, erect and stately evidently waiting his master’ bidding to start out. A very large one sat on his haunches at the desk, and needed only a pair of glasses over his ears and a pen behind his ear, to give the observer the impression that he was head clerk. A sixth was sleeping behind the stove, and a seventh kept guard at the door. The last was a large Newfoundland, and we were scarcely surprised, upon his being told to close the door, to see him do so, as told. On remarking, a little sarcastically, that he ought to have a few more dogs, the gentleman informed us that he intended to have two or three more as soon as he could get them; though just what places they are to occupy we are at a loss to guess.
For some reason or, other, Mr. French is dubbed ‘Doc’, though he tries to reject that title of honor. We understand at an early day, he followed at one and the same time, all the trades and professions known in the then uncivilized wilderness of western Wisconsin, and was one of the best physicians in this part of the country. Be this as it may, the title of ‘Doc’ sticks to him in spite of his assertions that he does not want it. ‘Doc’ informed us that one of his peculiarities is ‘hatred of women’. He loves dogs and to hunt deer but he hates women. He always likes to assist them, however, because they are such weak, insignificant creatures; and we must say that his hatred amounts to more, in this line, than does most men’s friendship.”
“Benjamin F. French was born in Chautauqua County, N.Y., August 10, 1832. His father, Captain John French, was a soldier of the War of 1812. Young French moved with his parents to Warren County, Penn., where he remained, until the year 1844, moving again to Jefferson County, Iowa. At age 17, he came to Crawford County, Wis., and settled in what is now known as Clark County, (then part Crawford County); near the bank of Black River upon section four, in township 23, north of range 2 (now known as Levis township). Here he built a log shanty, and for about five years, kept bachelor’s hall, in primeval manner, until June 8, 1854, when he was married to Miss Elizabeth R. Brown, a very estimable lady, who immediately thereafter, assumed the household duties at the ‘log shanty.’ They later moved to their handsome residence on the corner of 4th and Hewett in Neillsville.
In 1848, Mr. French studied medicine with Dr. Mellon, but never engaged in the practice thereof. He occasionally waits upon his friends and relatives when they are sick, but never for fee or reward, he disclaiming, always, any pretensions to being a medical man, although his friends, in years gone by, by virtue of his two years study medicine, dubbed him with the sobriquet of ‘Doc’. The title he bears to this day, and which he claims to have acquired from being named after the illustrious philosopher, Doctor Franklin.”
“During the years 1854-55, French studied law with his brother, Joseph then a prominent lawyer at La Crosse who died in the fall of 1855. He was admitted to the bar, by Judge George Gale, who then was presiding judge of Sixth Judicial Circuit of the state of Wis. As a lawyer, French has been very successful, having been engaged in many very important cases, arising in the western part of the state, and being uniformly successful in the greater portion of the cases in which he has been engaged. As an advocate, or as it is sometimes termed a “jury lawyer” French has few equals in the western part of Wis.”
“At the early age of twenty-two, French was elected Clark County treasurer, being first Treasurer elected in the county. In the fall of 1860, he was elected District Attorney of the county and continued to serve in that capacity until Jan. 1869. He held several other offices in the town and county, serving a number of times as one of the County Board of Supervisors, and being one or more times, the chairman of that body.”
“In 1867, the first Masonic Lodge in Clark County was instituted at Neillsville of which lodge French was first Master. He was elected three terms thereafter in succession, and held the office until 1871.”
“Although ‘Doc’ French has resided in Clark County for over twenty-five years, he did not become a resident of Neillsville until the year of 1862, when he moved from his farm, six miles south of the village, on the corner of 4th and East Streets (now Hewett). French has been a prominent man in the history of Clark County and Neillsville. Energetic and influential, he has been instrumental in furthering all the public improvements that have been made in the county for a score of years. As a man and citizen he is respected, and held in the highest esteem in the community. He is emphatically a self-made man. Having but few advantages, and a little education in his younger days, he has, by energy, perseverance and mutual talent, amassed a competency, and placed himself in an honorable and enviable position among his fellows in the society in which he moves.”
“Doc” French belonged to a family which had a large part in Clark County’s early history. He was one of four brothers settling along the Black River south of Neillsville. The brothers were James, Joseph and Robert B. All four held adjoining land. B. F. French’s land was divided and sold, later, some eventually became property of Carl Opelt, some to Herman Embke and some to Robert French. The James French place became known as the Opelt farm or Fred Palmer’s land. The Joseph French place was to be known as the Kettlehut farm. The Robert B. French place came into the possession of his son, Robert B., to be labeled as the French-Beeckler place.
The oldest child of “Doc” French was Nettie, who married Clarion Youmans, a Neillsville lawyer and farmer. They lived in the fine mansion on the farm on the Ridge, along Hwy. 10, about two miles east of Neillsville. The second child was Elva Kemp. The third was Dr. Viola French DeLane, who practiced medicine in Neillsville for years and then moved to California. The fourth was Dimple Irene Oakly. The fifth was Edwin, who was in charge of maintenance at the Golden State Hospital in Los Angeles. The sixth was Dr. John R. French who became an eminent doctor in Los Angeles and was organizer/part owner of the Golden State Hospital. A daughter of Nettie, Elizabeth, married Clarence Sturdevant, son of Neillsville, who was a general officer in the U. S. Army during World War II and had charge of construction of the Alcan Highway.
Reading through local history, there are some people one would wish to have known and one of those is “Doc” French. He was definitely a man of character, very cunning and capable of helping make decisions on whatever dilemmas his associates and friends may have had in developing the new frontier.
B. F. French
A picturesque character of the pioneering days in Clark County was “Doc” French. He wore an afghan in winter, loved dogs and said he disliked women – the women didn’t believe him. He was brilliant intellectually and was versatile, being known both as a lawyer and as a rough – and – ready medical practitioner.
Mural in Post Office tells story of Winning County Seat
This mural appears on the north wall of the lobby in the Neillsville Post Office, picturing the election of Nov. 1854, when a vote was taken on the location of the county seat. The old story is that partisans of O’Neill Mills (now Neillsville) gave whiskey to the artisans of Weston Rapids (two miles north of Neillsville) and so affected them that they could not walk the boom over O’Neill Creek to reach the polls at O’Neill Mills. The result was 90 for O’Neill Mills and 73 for Weston Rapids. The election reversed the legislative act of July 6, 1853 which located the county seat at Weston Rapids. Samuel Weston, lumberman, had done some skillful lobbying to locate at his upriver settlement. O’Neill, “Doc” French and some friends lobbied later and better. O’Neill rode a horse to Madison taking care of lobbying there while French and friends formulated plans to set up a whiskey keg on the north short of O’Neill Creek on Election Day.
It is easier to know man in general than to understand one man in particular. – La Rouchefoucauld
Man is a plant which bears thoughts, just as a rose-tree bears roses and an apple-tree bears apples.
Antoine Fabre D’Olivet
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