Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI

April 29, 1998, Page 32

Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.

Index of "Oldies" Articles 

Good Old Days


Compiled by Dee Zimmerman


Clark County News


Black River’s First Ferry Station


A Neillsville couple, Mr. and Mrs. James O’Neill took part in the ceremonies that marked the launching of the first ferry boat on the Black River at a point called Gaylord’s Ferry, below Melrose, in the early 1850s.


Jacob Spaulding, a prominent lumberman of Black River Falls, directed his river-men and woodsmen to construct some tables and benches near the landing to be used for the noon meal.


With their experience on the frontier, they made short work of it.  They drive stakes into the ground, making skeleton frames for each table.  The framework was covered with freshly sawed white pine lumber, provided for the purpose.  Willing hands spread the provisions on the newly built tables and in an incredibly short time all were seated for the noon lunch.  The tables had been arranged in the shade of the maple and birch trees that bordered the river bank.


The aroma of the newly-sawed lumber accompanied by the cooling breezes coming up from the water made ideal conditions for the festive outing.  Winnebago’s living in the area had been invited to share in the meal and the day’s events.  They chose to be seated, nearby, in their usual manner, sitting on the ground, with legs crossed, except for the Princess.  Princess Whitebird was seated on a block of wood.  She was a central and interesting figure.  The food was served the same time to everyone.


An hour was taken for mealtime, while everyone relaxed, visiting as they enjoyed eating the food, before the afternoon events started.  The gathering of the frontier people, naturally, was made up of personnel largely in their prime of life.  It was natural, too, that the events would be mostly of a physical nature.


The afternoon festivity was started by Thomas Douglas, with bagpipe under his arm; he came forth with musical notes which set feet “a-dancing.”  Douglas’ brothers, Robert and Hugh together with their sisters, Mrs. Isaac Mason, of Black River Falls and Mrs. James O’Neill of Neillsville began a dance, the Highland Fling.  The dance was done on a sward in front of the audience. (A sward is a patch of ground covered with short green grass. D.Z.)


The crowd watching the performance relaxed and enjoyed the repetition of the dance which has its origin in the Scottish hills of their native country.  To some the dance was little known to those living in the new land or new world.


The second event on the program was a foot race between two frontiersmen and two braves.  The race was run, beginning at the Douglas ferry landing.  The 200 yard race resulted in a draw between one of each pair.


The third item on the agenda was a pony race by the Indians who were in full paint and feathered head dresses, running the same course as the foot race had run. The contestants all finished in a huddle after an exciting contest.


The most spectacular event of the day was the canoe races, with six contestants. The canoes were lined up in an unusual way with Princess Whitebird at one extreme and Running Deer at the other.  (Extreme would have been the outermost point, one on each side. D.Z.)


The canoes had the sterns resting lightly on the shore, with the bows straight out in the current, being held in place by many stalwart braves standing waist deep in the water for that purpose.


With the signal to go, the canoes were pushed straight out into the stream.  Princess Whitebird, being quicker than the others, dipped her paddles first and swung into the lead.  On the bow of her canoe was painted a swan, which greatly harmonized with the graceful being that propelled it. Resting on her knees Princess deftly plied her paddle, being an object for admiration. 


It was a real contest, each canoe holding its course as straight and true as though it was being pulled by a line from the bow.  The spreading wakes from several canoes, as they met with their own miniature waves, made a beautiful carpet upon the water.


The turning point was a snag some distance up the stream.  So close were they together, when reaching the turning point that the one in the lead was hard to determine from the starting point.


They made the turn like so many spokes in a wagon wheel, and the real race was on.  With the current to aid them, they gained momentum with each stroke, coming under the cable at a terrific pace.  Princess Whitebird was half a length in advance of the others, amidst resounding cheers of those watching from the shoreline. 


Turning their canoes, they came back in form raised their paddles, and the Princess was declared the winner.  Whether the spirit of chivalry or gallantry entered into the contest is not known.  If it did, it was pardonable, as the race ended exactly as every spectator wanted it to end.


The closing number was a free-for-all swimming contest, both frontiersmen and Indians.  Each contestant left the same point a few seconds apart.  The goal was to see which swimmer breasting the current could land highest on the opposite shore.  Running Deer was an easy winner, landing above the cable, while others fell below.


The return was indiscriminate; Running Deer was under water as much as on the surface.  One stunt, he performed, was walking on his hands on the stream bed while his feet protruded above the water.  Once he disappeared entirely for so long, the onlookers were sure no human being could live so long while submerged.  Turning to see the reaction of Running Deer’s friends, who showed no worry or concern, was their only ray of hope for his well-being.


After regaining his breath, with a seal-like flip, Running Deer was gone again headed for the opposite side of the river.  After disappearing for a longer time than before, it looked like tragedy would end the festivities.  Children clung to their mothers’ skirts, women began crying and strong men tugged at their whiskers.  Once again, Running Deer surfaced, to everyone’s relief.


The rest of the day was spent ferrying, everyone having free transportation, rides on the “Mary Queen of Scots” ferry.


The women present took a motherly interest in the Princess of the Winnebago’s.  They went to her, talked to her, held her hands; showing their friendship.  One of them gave her a picture of our country’s President, Millard Fillmore, with explanations as to who he was.


Another lady gave her a small mirror and she saw her reflection, being startled at first but quickly regained her composure.  The gift was placed in the palm of her hand and her slender fingers closed over it.


The announcer of day’s events then came along to hand her the birch bark program, the only recorded history of the event, explaining it to her.


The Indian events were marked by some character.  The canoe race was identified by a roughly drawn canoe and its occupant.  Her sparkling eyes were her acknowledgment, holding the token to her as a significant way in showing appreciation of the gift.


A sturdy handshake enclosed the slender hand while she was told that they were glad to have met her.


She and her people had forged a strong link of friendship between the two groups there that day.


The commemorative day had passed with much enjoyable activity at Gaylord’s Ferry along the Black River.  It’s greatest single attraction centered around the charming Princess Whitebird.  As the Winnebagos prepared to leave, the chief, holding a pony, helped his lovely daughter to mount.


The frontiersmen, standing along the shore, called out, “Good-bye” which was answered by “How” of those leaving.  A hand wave by the Winnebago Princess was recognized with other hand waves.  She and her people rode away, and , sad to relate, those who first met her that day, would not see her again.


As darkness approached, Hudson Nichols and his stringed orchestra took their places to furnish music for the dance.  The music went on, with short intervals for resting, until relentless time had brought the dawn of another day.


(The above story was taken from recorded reminiscent of A. S. Polley.  As our State recognizes its 150th Anniversary this year, the Gaylord Ferry incident took place a year or two after Wisconsin’s acceptance in Statehood.


James O’Neill was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 1848, and thus was a member of the first Legislature convened in the state in January, 1849.  At that time, what now is Jackson and Clark Counties were a part of Crawford County. (Clark County became a separate government entity in 1853)



Success is the ability to hitch your wagon to a star while keeping your feet on the ground.


Did You Know:

Sneezing was a sign of imminent death during the Plague in the 6th century.  Thus the phrases “God Bless You” and “That’s nothing to sneeze at” came to have great meaning in those days.




A leisurely ride on a wagon trail along the Black River being enjoyed by the occupants of the covered buggy, pulled by a team of horses.  The family’s dog joined the outing rather than staying home alone. (Circa 1900)  (Photo courtesy of the Schultz family collection)


The sport of fishing has been enjoyed through the ages.  This trio set up camp along the Black River with a tent staked out for shelter.  A pot of campers’ stew cooked over the campfire while a second campfire fried the fresh catch of fish.  An enamel coffee pot reveals the beverage to be shared.  A clothesline holds extra clothing.



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