Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI
March 29, 2000, Page 22
Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.
Index of "Oldies" Articles
The Good Old Days
Compiled by Dee Zimmerman
Clark County News
The old N. H. Withee farm in the Town of Warner, site of the ancient Hemlock Dam, has been sold by George Speich, of Greenwood, to Anthony Suda. Its sale coincides with the departure of the Windom family, the final step in erasing the last contact between Clark County and the old Withee family. The Windom’s worked the farm land in the last years of Theodore Withee’s ownership and bade him farewell as he left the scene of his earlier and happier times with generous living.
To the Suda’s, the purchase means the acquisition of some 560 acres of land and an unusual set of farm buildings. In addition, they have acquired one of the most historic and interesting sites in Clark County. Upon its land for many years stood the dam which marked the upper limits of the log drives made in the old lumbering days. Upon it once ended the first telephone line which ran into Clark County. Also, upon it, once stood a busy saw mill, a thriving flour mill and a hamlet supported by the businesses. The hamlet consisted of a boarding house, a store and eight houses, including that of the Withee family. This hamlet bore the name of “Hemlock”, a name which was adopted from a stand of hemlock trees in the area. The name continued when it was given to a cheese factory located a mile of (or) two east of the hamlet.
Hemlock came into being originally through the creation and activities of the Black River Improvement Company. The concern, holding a monopoly of log driving upon the Black River, built two dams from Onalaska up the river, the lower one at Dell’s Dam, the uppermost of Hemlock. The Hemlock Dam backed up a large pond, in which were accumulated great numbers of logs, preparatory to the drives. When the logs were ready and water conditions were right, the dam was opened, letting the water rush down, carrying the logs on their crest.
Black River has always been a rocky stream with great variations in its fall. It was the despair of the early lumbermen, who tried to float down their rafts of cut lumber. Those rafts were wrecked upon the rocks and the lumber was often lost. The economic answer to lumbering in Clark County was the Black River Improvement Company, with its dams and its service to the great saw mills of Onalaska and La Crosse. The Black River Improvement Company was really the creature of the lumber barons, organized by them to serve their mills at the river’s mouth. It was managed by Joseph Nesbitt. In the early years, Nesbitt journeyed up and down the Black River. To assist his management, the first telephone was run up from La Crosse to the terminus at Hemlock. The line ws used in part to time the release of the logs held in the pond.
Active in the early use of the Black River was Niran H. Withee, who was born in Maine, in 1827. He came to La Crosse in 1852 and soon embarked into the lumbering business. His lumber interests were extended into Clark County, bringing him into the county in 1870. He soon identified himself with the affairs of Clark County and became County Treasurer in 1875, holding that position until 1882, when he was succeeded as treasurer by his brother, Hiram.
N. H. Withee doubtless had at least some interest in the Black River Improvement Company and apparently additional ideas of his own interests. He found it logical to own the land around the company’s dam at Hemlock so as to establish a saw mill and grist mill which provided the occasion for the old Hemlock hamlet to develop.
The Black River Improvement Company began in the very early days of lumbering in Clark County, being organized in 1864. In the 1880s, its activities were tapering off and in the 1890s the lack of logs cut off business for the Hemlock Dam. It was then that the Withee operation came to be the big enterprise at Hemlock, with the Improvement Company fading into less and less of a memory.
The elder Withee was a pioneer of resource, energy and vision. He died in La Crosse in 1887, at the age of 60. Since he was then not a resident of Clark County, the records here do not tell about his estate, but old-timers knew him as a man of wealth and it was commonly accepted that he left each of his three boys $75,000 to $100,000, in addition to the real estate which went to each. Thus the son Theodore became the owner of the property at Hemlock, a second son; William received ownership of the large Withee farm near Longwood while the third son, Niran Haskell was heir to the farm upon which the Clark County Hospital now stands. To these three sons, he bequeathed his property and to the village of Withee his honorable name.
The three Withee boys had come up in a life of relative ease and luxury. They had lived through years of national prosperity, and the business going was good at the time of their father’s death. But soon came the ‘90s with their stress, strain and terrible losses. The going was hard for young men of their background.
Theodore had added to the house at Hemlock and had made it his home. There he had taken his wife, who had come of a family of wealth and was accustomed to gracious living. They had servants to ease the labors of an 18-room house. They knew how to use money for pleasant living as well as being generous and friendly with their money. Theodore bought one of the first Ford cars in Clark County and the neighbors knew from its noise when Theodore Withee was traveling on the way.
To the woes of the depression was added the wear of the years on the saw mill and grist mill as both were deteriorated. Fred Lemprecht, who lives at Hemlock, remembers the worries of his mother about the father’s welfare, as the father worked in the saw mill. The old mill used to shake when the heavy logs rolled through the saw and those who labored there wondered if it might not, at some critical juncture, shake itself apart and collapse.
Bit the end of the mills came at the hand of nature when the great flood of 1914 came down the Black River. The flooding water tore the dam out and left hardly a trace of either saw mill or grist mill. Fred Lemprecht was then a boy and remembers how his father was absent at the time and of his father’s great regret when he returned. For the father felt that, had he been present, he could have dynamited out the dike on the west bank and could thus have saved the main dam.
The loss of the mills meant the end of industry at hemlock. Theodore Withee was then involved. He had not the resources with which to tackle the restoration of the mills. Perhaps, indeed, the time had passed for the mills’ usefulness.
The wind also struck, tearing down the cow barn and the Warner Town hall across the lane from the east side of the Withee lawn. To replace the cow barn Theodore Withee took two old buildings from below and adjusted them to the old foundation, one at the one end and one at the other end. The space between he filled in with new construction. It was a makeshift barn. Later, George Speich, when he became the owner, tore it down and erected a new barn. The site of the Warner Town Hall had by that time become in an awkward location. Its original site had been decided when Hemlock promised to become a real village. At that time it was a lively place with preaching, dancing and Sunday school classes, in addition to the infrequent town meetings. But the dream of a greater Hemlock had by then faded away and the old site was alongside the Lemprecht barn. The town cheerfully accepted from Theodore Withee the present site in place of the old. The new site being on the west side of the Black River at the southwest corner of the old Withee farm.
The years had thus witnessed the attrition of such resources as had remained to Theodore Withee and he had not managed to create new ones. Money had been secured by a mortgage and in 1924; the farm was taken over on the mortgage. The end had come of the easy days on the old place. His wife had died there. Theodore Withee had to move on. The Windom’s were about to move into the big Withee house. They recall, with a touch of pathos, the scene of Withee’s departure. Into his old car he loaded his dog and a few possessions, then as he stood at the car door, he called to the Windom boys, “Don’t take any wooden nickels.” Theodore Withee, a kindly and generous scion of an honored family, turned his back upon the old place and the old affluence, never to see either again.
The last years of Theodore Withee were spent first, briefly in Alaska and then in northeastern Montana. At the little hamlet of Carson, he ran a pool hall and soft drink place. He married again. A heart attack ended his life not many years ago, sometime in the ‘40s.
Theodore Withee’s two daughters both reside in Montana.
The Withee neighbors remembered the daughters as out-of-doors girls, devoted to their ponies. Their father kept ponies for them and they would be seen hitching the ponies to a little had sled and thus journeyed for the mail, riding on the sled. They would return from the mail box with snow all over them, up to their eyebrows, but healthy and happy.
Their love for ponies had lingered all through their lives. Out in Montana, they now breed Shetland and other ponies. A letter from Eleanor to one of the Windom girls tells of the prospect of 60 colts due this spring. A few years ago the daughter of Eleanor, the wife of James Haight, came to a Mattes sale and rodeo near Thorp. She and her husband have a ranch at a little crossroads named Van Norman and keep a rural post office there.
The daughter Theodora named for her father and called Teddy by the neighbors now spends practically all her days in a hospital at Jordan, afflicted, so it is understood here, by multiple sclerosis.
The Windom family came into relation with the Hemlock property in 1920. They then lived in a tenant house, while Theodore Withee’s lived in the big house. But in 1924, when the farm was taken over on a mortgage, they rented from the mortgage concern and moved into the big house. They lived on the big place for years. The Windows (Windom’s) consisted of seven brothers and two sisters all living as one family. They departed from the Withee farm with more practical relief than sentimental regret, for they had found it hard going. They had cultivated about 250 acres and had broken several acres of virgin land. They cared for a herd of 60 milk cows in addition to other livestock. The two daughters cared for the big house, cooked for the men and did some outside work. They had pleasant recollections of the old house which had been their home for 30 years. They had come to realize the furnace wasn’t large enough for the entire house after Withee had built on the addition. The old house, well constructed for the style of the old days, has started to sag here and there with age.
The Windom’s have moved about a mile from the Steve Checky place on Highway 73. it is an eighty, with a square frame house large enough for the Windom family of nine. There their labors will be reduced to a level consistent to the gathering years.
Buying the old Withee place in 1931, George Speich is understood to hve bought it for something like $10,000 to $12,000. He built the cow barn during his ownership of about 24 years and added to the arable acres.
(In a span of about 80 years, the Withee name remained on the farm property deed for a little over half of that time with only two other owners after the Withee ownership. The name Withee still remains in Clark County with the town named after N. H. Withee. D. Z.)
To know how to grow old is the masterwork of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living. – Henri-Frederic Amiel
If you have a talent, use it in every which way possible. Don’t hoard it. Don’t dole it out like a miser. Spend it lavishly like a millionaire intent on going broke. – Brendan Francis
The main portion of the Hemlock Dam, located on the Black River about four miles north of Greenwood, was destroyed and carried out by the flood of June 4, 1914. A saw mill and grist mill thrived with business in the late 1800s which was the basis for the thriving Hemlock hamlet’s beginning.
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