Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI
October 4, 2000, Page 36
Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.
Index of "Oldies" Articles
Good Old Days
Compiled by Dee Zimmerman,
Clark County News
At 2 o’clock Saturday afternoon, a fire broke out in the large barn of the Central Hotel, formerly the Rossman House. It gained considerable headway before the alarm was given and it was burning beyond control with the hotel, bowling alley, saloon and outbuildings around it being doomed. A strong westerly wind was blowing. The highly combustible material of the buildings was choice fee for the flames, which driven and urged by the wind, spread eastwardly rapidly along the bowling alley and saloon to the corner. The upward draft created by the heat carried pieces of burning wood to a great distance. The roofs of the O’Neill House, F. E. Darling’s residence and the Reitz building, occupied by Ludington’s harness shop, were on fire several times, started by the flying cinders, but were extinguished by the throng of volunteer corps of citizens. Mike Dolan managed to get his billiard table, stock and fixtures out of the saloon.
The biggest fight against flying cinders was made at Dangers’ store, on the corner south of and opposite the burning hotel. The Dangers building is a two-story wooden structure, with a verandah on both sides and front, with outside stairs on the north side. Even when the heat was so great, the firemen stayed on duty at Dangers’ store. Four rods from the mass of flames which reached upward a hundred feet into the air and stretched out across the street whenever the wind veered, the firemen stayed at their posts to keep a constant sheet of water pouring over the store roof and wall. Eventually the hotel, wall by wall, fell and the flames grew less.
Just at the time when the firemen and others began to breathe easier, the fire-bell sounded another alarm. A rush was made by a group to a point in the path of the wind, east of the Court House. Cinders from the hotel fire had ignited the roof of the house occupied by Mary Topple, about half a mile in distance from the hotel and all that could be saved was the contents. The fire spread to the next house, that of Julius Tragsdorf, which in turn burned to the ground with most of the contents being saved. The Tragsdorf house was worth $800, insured with the Concordia Co. of Milwaukee. The Topple house was valued at $1,000 and insured for $500 with the Home of New York Co.
At the time of the first fire alarm, J. E. Breed, of Maple Works, who was in the city, ran to the stable behind the Central Hotel for the purpose of saving his team of horses. He ran into the stable and emerged a few seconds later with his clothing on fire. Men rushed to his assistance, rolling him in dust to extinguish the flames. Breed died a few hours later.
Good work was done in keeping the Central Hotel fire within its bounds, accomplished with the help of Ira McIntyre’s sprinkling cart. The cart was filled with water from the O’Neill Creek, hauled up to the fire where the firemen applied pails of water where needed. The firemen’s chemical engine occupied a conspicuous position in the middle of the street, quite useless, looking like an over-fed straddle-bug paralyzed with fear. The incident of Saturday will probably act as a stimulant in the direction of a city water works and a better engine along with a better organization of the fire company.
(The Central Hotel was located on the southwest corner of Seventh Street and Hewett Street, now the location of the Merchant’s Hotel. The Tragsdorf and Topple houses were on Court Street, one at 208. D.Z.)
The recent grading done on the new premises opposite J. L. Gates residence greatly improves the looks of that area. The soil taken away is being used to raise the grade of the row of tenements in the hollow. (The grading mentioned, would have been on the east side of Hewett Street in the first block north of Division Street. The hollow referred to was farther north on Hewett Street, in the 300 block. D.Z.)
Men like R. F. Kountz, better known as “Dick”, lived through the formative age when America was growing and being shaped into a great industrial empire. When Kountz was born on Oct. 23, 1848, the life of the average American was primitive beyond belief. There were few trains, no telephones, no electric lights, no furnaces, nor movies, no radios, no automobiles or airplanes which are now regarded as necessities. The spirit of the pioneer prevailed by its own might and boundless faith in itself and its future.
It was in 1867 that Dick Kountz, his brother, W. H., and their parents came west from Pittsburgh to cast their fortunes with the new west about which little was known. I fact, their knowledge of this district was so limited that they bought two “nearby” farms from a Pittsburgh real estate man and found that one farm was seven miles south of Fort Dodge, Iowa, and the other was east of Neillsville, near Nasonville. The farms proved to be hundreds of miles apart. The family came down the Ohio River by steamboat, then up the Mississippi River to Fort Dodge where they inspected the Iowa farm, returning to Parkersburg for the winter. The next spring, they boarded a stern wheeler at Dubuque and headed up the Mississippi with Stevens Point as their objective that being the only town in Central Wisconsin anybody in Iowa knew about that might be near their other farm. A fellow passenger on the boat informed Kountz that La Crosse was the best point at which to land. From there, they took a train to Tomah, finally arriving in Black River Falls in April of 1868 and aboard a construction train.
At Black River Falls, Kountz obtained a job as a clerk in Dr. Warner’s drug store, living there for the next six years, also working for a time as an express clerk. In January 1870, he concluded that he would look at his Clark County-area farm. After a long and laborious trip, he reached the home of Sol Nason, whose land adjoined his. He had purchased a yoke of oxen, a wagon and a few tools for commencing his career as a farmer. The weather was cold and Kountz almost froze to death that night. The situation looked gloomy the next day and before another night had settled in, Kountz made up his mind that he had no desire to farm and abandoned his newly acquired equipment. He returned to Black River Falls and resumed his job in the drug store.
In 1874 Kountz came to Neillsville, having traded his farm to James O’Neill, Sr., for a grocery store on the site of the present Kapellen building. He ran the store for a year and sold out to Hewett and Woods. (The Kapellen building is on the southeast corner of Hewett and Sixth Streets. D. Z.)
In the spring of 1876, the people of Neillsville decided the town needed cleaning up and Kountz was prevailed upon to run for justice of the peace, to which office he was elected. In carrying out the wishes of the voters, every person appearing before him was sentenced to jail. Nobody was allowed to go free with a fine. At that time Kountz took up the study of law by himself and in 1878 was admitted to the bar.
Neillsville in those days was a primitive looking settlement. The bulk of the population was loggers, and hardy business men who followed the loggers to supply their wants. At night the town was buried in darkness and persons coming up to the stores after sunset carried lanterns to light the way along the paths.
C. C. Sniteman arrived in 1879; then he and Kountz formed a firm friendship which grew through the years. Things within the town commenced to move. Sniteman and Kountz began to figure out ways to make the town better. They saw the need of a railroad and through their influence the line to Merrillan was established with Kountz working as the general manager, walking boss, engineer and everything else business-wise. Through the keenness of the two men’s vision, they saw the future of electricity for lighting purposes long before others in the state were able to grasp its importance. They organized the electric light company, the second established in the state. They soon spread the fame of the “little town in the north woods with electric lights.”
They refused to sit still. No sooner had one thing been accomplished; then they launched into something new. The Neillsville Furniture Factory was organized with Kountz as secretary, with Sniteman, Klopf and Kapellen as other officers. Hundreds of men were given employment in the new plant. The town was growing.
When the subject of a city water system came up, Kountz was on the committee. W. W. Taplin and Charlie Breed installed the pumping station on the north bank of O’Neill Creek. No pipes were laid at first, but 1,500 feet of hose allowed water to be pumped from the station to almost any building in town in case of fire. Later Kountz backed the move to lay the pipes and build the old standpipe which cost $6,000 in contrast with the $23,000 paid for the present reservoir. Later, he and Tom Hommel established the sewerage system.
After the railroad had been built as far as the Hubbard farm west of town, Kountz got an idea that the city needed telegraph service. However, the railroad company refused on the grounds that it had the use of a telephone over a logging line which ran down through Hatfield. Kountz ended the argument by hiring Hi Hart with a team to go to Hatfield and tear down that line which was then rolled up in a ball and thrown out behind Kountz’s house. The railroad company decided to build a telegraph line. Many of the people in town then had telegraph lines strung up between their stores and homes until the electric light poles were a tangle of wires and the electric light company had to order them taken down.
Kountz found time to ride a bicycle in those days. He and his wife, who was Emma Bailey of Black River Falls previous to their marriage in 1872, often took trips together around this part of the country. One trip which Kountz made by bicycle would be quite a task even for a motorist in these days. He journeyed to La Crosse, through Minnesota to St. Paul and back to Neillsville via Hudson. Traveling by bicycle was inexpensive. He stayed at farmers’ homes at night and said he had a difficult time making them take even a quarter for the lodging. Usually he had to give the money to one of their kids, as a way of paying for his board.
When the automobile came out, Kountz was one of the first people to purchase a car. Dr. Bradbury bought the first car in the county and Kountz had the second. For the first time the other day, Kountz explained why he adopted the steam car of which he had three. He had decided to buy a gasoline car and purchased one for $1,200 in Milwaukee. The dealer agreed to send a man with him as far as Fond du Lac. The first day they got to Sheboygan Falls and Kountz decided he knew enough about cars to drive on alone and told the expert he could return to Milwaukee the next morning.
Kountz was up at 5 a.m. the following day so as to get an early start for home. He began cranking immediately and at supper time was still cranking without getting more than a half dozen explosions out of the motor. Kountz concluded he would rather have his $1,200 and called the dealer at Milwaukee who said he would take the car back if Kountz would throw in an additional $65, which he gladly did. Kountz took the train home and Mrs. Kountz was much disturbed to learn that he had not bought a car, inasmuch as she had told all her friends that her husband was driving through with a new automobile. To make good, Kountz went out and bought a steamer which a short time later caught fire in front of the Tom Chadwick farm as he and his wife were spinning along at about ten miles an hour. Mrs. Kountz jumped out at the first hint of flames and sat down on the side of the road. “Let it burn up,” was her only comment as Kountz frantically threw sand and dust on the blaze without any appreciable effect.
Kountz occupied their residence on Fifth Street with his daughter, Miss Kitty. The home was purchased in 1880 from L. B. Ring who had used it as a printing office. Mrs. Kountz died in 1919.
Kountz still attends to his legal profession and the duties of court commissioner which he has assumed since 1879 with the exception of a six-year period some years ago. He is in good health and enjoys life, getting about the city with all the alacrity of a man many years younger. The old spirit of sociability which was so highly developed in the pioneers still characterizes his life. He finds much pleasure in visiting with the few men who were here to share the glories of Neillsville when it was just beginning to take root and grow.
A circa 1900 scene of a busy day on Hewett Street in Neillsville. Utility poles of various sizes were sporadically placed along both sides of the street. Teams, wagons, and buggies were the means of transportation.
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