‘The Day They Gave Babies Away’
(Once sheriff of Clark County), Robert Eunson, at the age of 12, was designated the task of finding home for five younger siblings. In later years, his son, Dale, wrote the story as told to him by his father, entitled, “The Day They Gave Babies Away.” Dale Eunson also worked as fiction editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. D. Z.
Robert Strong Eunson and wife, Mamie, married in 1855, left their homeland of Scotland a year later, in 1856. After crossing the Atlantic Ocean, they traveled to Chicago, America’s heartland city.
Having spent most of their savings for passage, Eunson had little time to waste in finding work as their first child was to arrive in three months. While in Scotland, he had worked as a sailor and ship builder, so he looked for a position in his trade. He soon found employment in a little town along the Fox River in eastern Wisconsin. The village had a construction yard where small boats were built along the river bank, launched in the Fox River, floated to Lake Winnebago and onto Green Bay and Lake Michigan.
(Unlike the nearby rivers, the Fox River flows from south to north. D.Z.)
The couple moved into a four-room log house near the river, only a short distance from Eunson’s work in the boatyard. Their first child, Robert, named after his father, was born at the newly acquired home. At two-year intervals, two brothers and three sisters joined Robbie (Robert), making a family of six children. There was Jimmie, Kirk, Annabelle, Elizabeth and Jane; the girls were named after their mother’s sisters who lived in Scotland.
As soon as the father could, he went into the boat building business for himself. He began to contract for small river and lake boats, hiring men to assist him with the work.
The growing town pushed the forest back from its site. Wisconsin’s vast timberland started being invaded by the big loggers who realized the fortunes to be made on felling the virgin growth of towering pine, spruce and maples. New saw mills mushroomed along the rivers and lakes. As winter’s ice thawed in the waterways, rivers became clogged with floating logs, rushing over rapids, piling up at the dam sluice gates, herded through the final process of being sawed into siding, flooring, beams, supports, furniture, etc.
The Eunson family witnessed the Fox River logging activities from their front yard. In the summer, the river served as their avenue to the rest of the world. Mail arrived from Scotland, an occasional newspaper from Chicago; needed supplies came by boats, Eunson’s newly made boats were launched and sent off all via the river.
The family worked steadily to make ends meet in providing for their needs.
In the summer of 1868, son Kirk came down with diphtheria. A family conference was held and the decision made to send the other five children off to live in a vacant cabin in the woods. Robbie, age 12 and the eldest would care for his siblings. He walked to the edge of woods, near town, daily. There a family friend brought food and news of their sick brother.
After the fifth day, the children’s father came to tell them their brother Kirk had passed the crisis in his illness and would live. A few days later, they were able to return to their parents and home along the river.
Three days after their return home, Robert Eunson, the father, who had lost 15 pounds during the illness of his son, was stricken with the dreaded disease. Mrs. Pugmeyer, a family friend, took the children to her home. They never saw their father again; he died on the fourth night of his illness.
Neighbors and friends were kind and helpful, but that goes only so far when there is a family to provide for. Mamie Eunson “took in” sewing as a means of income. When some sewing jobs required her temporary absence, the older children cared for the younger ones.
Robbie wanted to quit school and find employment but his mother, knowing the importance of education, wanted him to continue his schooling. After the river froze over in late November, Robbie would put on his ice skates and travel up and down the river for miles to visit logging camps. The camps were in full operation seven days of the week, providing him time to pick up a few pennies by acting as a helper in the cook shanty. Sometimes, he would carry hot soup to the men at noon. He would sling a strap holding thirty tin cups over his shoulder and carry a bucket of soup to feed the lumberjacks.
Mamie Eunson faced lonely times while trying to provide for her six children. Often, she would be seen staring out the cabin window, thinking of her family back home in Scotland.
Being a woman of small stature, just five feet tall, she had previously been wiry and active. After her husband’s death, she had lost her appetite and eventually couldn’t keep food down when she did eat. In mid December, she was struck with a fever, becoming bedridden.
Though Robbie had promised his mother he wouldn’t call Dr. Delbert because of any money to pay him, he broke his promise when she became delirious. Dr. Delbert came when the young lad asked and diagnosed her illness as typhoid fever. The doctor told the children he would come to their home twice a day to check on their mother.
On the morning of Dec. 23, Mamie asked Robbie to listen carefully to some instructions she was going to give him. She took his hand in hers and told him she was going to die. She told him not to mourn for her as there wouldn’t be time. Then she told him what he was to do with the children. They were all nice good children, she said, and he could get decent homes for them. Since the responsibility must be his, he was to decide where they were to be offered. If (It) would be better, she thought, if they were placed with families that had children of their own. They wouldn’t be so lonesome for each other, that way.
Speechless, Robbie was asked to nod his head after each statement, designating he understood the instructions.
“You watch out for them,” she said. “You go and see to it as often as you can that they are taken (care) of.” He nodded his head.
She then said, “Robbie, you get a good place for yourself. Promise me.”
I’ll get along all right, Mama. Don’t you worry about me.” Those were the only words he could say to her.
Mamie Eunson passed away later that day, and the funeral was the next day. The Delbert’s and Bradley’s, family friends, discussed where the children should go and what families could take a child or two into their fold. Young Robbie announced that his mother had asked him to decide where they were to go.
Robbie asked the two couples to allow the children to be left along (alone) in their home. The next day, Christmas, it would be their last chance to be together.
There were no Christmas gifts or stories. Robbie put the younger children to sleep by telling them stories of Scotland, stories which his parents had told him.
After the four younger children were asleep, Robbie and Jimmie talked. The made a list, written on a paper bag, of family names in town that they thought would like children, be good to them and bring them up as they were their own.
“We won’t wait until the day after tomorrow,” Robbie said.
“But you told Dr. Delbert you would wait,” said Jimmie.
“I know that. But Mama told me I was to decide. If I wait, they won’t let me. And tomorrow being Christmas we ought to get just about anybody we want to take any of us in,” said Robbie.
He was a little bit ashamed of himself for appealing to the sentiment of the season, but he knew what he was about to do.
Howard Tyler owned the livery stable. He owned twelve horses, had four teamsters and an assortment of rigs for whatever occasion. Robbie had spent many hours at the stable as he liked horses. Tyler’s had two boys. Mrs. Tyler was a leader in church doings and a great organizer.
The Tyler’s were ready to sit down to enjoy their Christmas dinner when there was a knock at the door. Mrs. Tyler went to the door and two children greeted her, a boy of twelve and a girl of six. They recognized them as the Eunson’s.
The children were invited to eat dinner. Robbie said, “Begging your pardon, Mrs. Tyler, but Jimmie and I was wondering if you would like a sister for Howie and Bruce. Annabelle can wipe dishes, has been learning to sew and knows her A-B-Cs.”
Mrs. Tyler said, “Howard, It’s Christmas. We have to – we’ve wanted a girl.” They both agreed and began making Annabelle feel at home as Robbie left.
Jimmie hauled Elizabeth on his sled to the Potter home across the river, but no one was home. As he returned, he met Robbie on Main Street. They contemplated where to go next and saw a horse-drawn cuter trotting toward them. The boys looked at each other and nodded. They waved their arms, signaling the driver to stop.
Inside the cuter was a middle-aged couple, the Stevens. Stevens told the boys they were traveling to their house to see if they could help in any way.
“Yes, there is, that is – since you and Mrs. Stevens have no children you might like to take Elizabeth. That’s her,” Robbie said pointing.
“We’ll take her,” Mrs. Stevens said. With a bound, she was out of the cutter, lifted up Elizabeth, looking to her husband for approval.
Knowing Stevens was the school principal, Robbie explained that his sister had a Scottish burr making her speech a little difficult to understand, but assured them they would get used to it.
Stevens said, “You bet we will and you boys come and see her anytime.”
After returning home, their brother Kirk came to meet them at the door with a wild look on is face. “Old Mrs. Runyon is in there. Says she’s going to take Jane,” he whispered.
Now here was a problem. Mrs. Runyon had been a widow for 20 years wore only black, carried a cane that she used to swipe things she didn’t like. Various remarks about her actions had frightened the children.
As Robbie walked into the house, he told Mrs. Runyon, that Jane was already promised to someone. He convinced her it was no one she knew and they lived in another town, though the boys weren’t certain who would take Jane.
Robbie instructed Jimmie to take Kirk to the Cramer’s. The Cramer’s had no children and Mrs. Cramer owned a cello which she could play very well. “Tell them Kirk likes music and can fiddle pretty well,” Robbie said.
Kirk began to cry, he didn’t want to leave his brothers. Robbie was afraid of that, because he knew Kirk was the soft one. Robbie thrust Kirk’s fiddle in his arms and said, “Go, get a move on,” as Jimmie would go with him.
Robbie hurried to get Jane dressed. Before he was finished, Jimmie was back. Robbie asked, “Did they take Kirk?” Jimmie nodded, and asked, “Where are you going with Janie?”
“I’m taking her up to Berlin,” said Robbie. “But that’s 12 miles away,” said Jimmie. “I’ll take her up river on our skates with Jane on the sled. I’ll stay up there, too, and work at Round’s camp,” replied Robbie.
“Did you talk to the Raidens about your staying with them?” asked Robbie.
“No, I know they will because they don’t have any boys, just four girls,” said Jimmie.
Seeing Jimmie leave was hard for Robbie. He put his sister Jane on the sled, clamped on his ice skates and started for Berlin. It would take him three hours, but the moon was coming up bright in the clear sky so he could see the river ice ahead of him. Jane slept part of the way, lulled by the moving sled.
At last, there were feeble lights in a group of houses along the river. They passed a saw mill and skated through a group of skaters who barely noticed them. A moment later Robbie saw a house with Christmas tree candles twinkling in the front window. He stopped and gave the house a silent inspection. If there was a Christmas tree, there must be children in the home. The house was small, so the family probably didn’t have much money but must love children to sacrifice for a Christmas tree.
Robbie removed his skates, picked up his sister, carrying her in his arms. Climbing the steps to the porch, he then knocked on the door.
A lady wearing a shawl opened the door and soon three little ones were peering around her skirts. Robbie heard her say, “Well for mercy sakes.” He said, “Please, Ma’am, I wonder if you’d like to have a baby.” Then Robbie fainted. When Jane was safe in the hands of the Clareys, he said good bye and walked up to the Rounds Camp in the woods where he became a helper, later a logger in his own right.
He always kept tabs on his brothers and sisters, visiting them whenever he could, satisfied with their care.
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