Clark County Press, Neillsville, WI

September 10, 2003, Page 18

Transcribed by Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon.

Index of "Oldies" Articles 



Compiled by Dee Zimmerman



Clark County News

 September 1953


(In recognition of Clark County’s 150 Anniversary, this is a reprinting of the following article from the Press’ Centennial edition D. Z.)  Among the colorful pioneers who contributed to the early history of Clark County was N. C. Foster, whose name was given to the county’s Town of Foster.


Nathaniel Cadwell Foster was born in Owego, Tioga County, New York, on January 6, 1834.  In 1854, he moved to Fort Howard, now Green Bay, where he worked for a short time in a saw mill.  He then purchased an interest in the mill and engaged in the lumbering business on his own account, remaining there for about 25 years.  In 1876, he moved to Fairchild and purchased large tracts of timber land in Eau Claire and Clark counties.  The timber from this land furnished the supply for his large mills at Fairchild, which were erected in 1877 at an outlay of $100,000.  The plant had a capacity of 1,125,000 feet of timber daily, besides 14,000,000 shingles and 6,000,000 laths per season.  The mills employed a force of 260 men.


Concerning Foster’s Clark County lands, the Marshfield Times of January 15, 1897, carried the following reprint from the Neillsville Republican: “Charley Cornelius, the new Clark County Register of Deeds, has just received two warranty deeds to record, one of $90,000 and another deed of $125,000, making the sum total of $215,000 for timber lands in this county.  The deeds are from the Mississippi River Logging Company to the N. C. Foster Lumber Company of Fairchild. The land is all situated in Clark County.


N. C. Foster’s railway business began in 1878 when he built a tramway road.  The tramway used “cars with concave wheels, which were pulled by horses over wooden rails made from timber along the right-of-way.”  It was his means of transporting logs to the Fairchild mills.  The transition to steam power and iron rails occurred in 1882.


In July 1891, his various interests were incorporated under the name of the N. C. Foster Lumber Co., with N. C. Foster as president and his two sons, E. J. Foster and G. A. Foster, as vice president and secretary-treasurer.  They continued this business until 1906.  The company also carried on a general merchandise business, which was later sold to the Farmers’ Mutual Trading Company, incorporated in 1903 with N. C. Foster as president.  He was also president of the Farmers’ Cooperative Supply Company at Greenwood, which began operations in 1898 and he also built the large Farmers’ Store there.  Thousands of acres of land were later sold to hundreds of farmers in western Clark County.


Perhaps of most importance to the settlers back in those days, when large areas of the county were wild and undeveloped and roads could hardly be dignified by that name was the building of the Chicago, Fairchild and Eau Claire River Railroad, later the Fairchild & Northeastern Railway Co.  The CF&ECR Railroad was chartered as a private logging concern but eventually became a common carrier.  Foster was one of the few, if not the only man in the United States, who ever built a railroad out of his own personal funds, involving over a million dollars, without mortgaging it for a single dollar.  Perhaps that is why, after the name was changed in 1898 to F&NE Railway Co., someone got the bright idea of nicknaming it the “Foster & Nobody Else!”  In 1881, he built 45 miles of railroad from Fairchild to Mondovi, which he used for hauling logs and which was the first road devoted to that purpose built in Wisconsin.  It was chartered in 1886 and afterwards sold and is now known as the Mondovi branch of the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railroad.  His original log railroad consisting of 38 miles from Fairchild to Owen, where it connected with the Soo line, put in operation in 1905, having been built by Mr. Foster for the N. C. Foster Lumber Co.  In 1913, he built the Fairchild & Northwestern from Fairchild to Cleghorn, a distance of 28 miles.


Foster’s youngest son, Willard, was made supervisor of the railroad in 1897.  Many who read this will affectionately recall
“Big Bill” Foster, who could always be depended upon to hitch up the old engine to a freight car and haul a crowd of ball game rooters to the Sunday baseball games at Greenwood and Owen.


Some of the highlights, in the building of the railroad were recalled by Willard Foster in an article written by him for The Railway and Locomotive Historical Society and printed in their Bulletin No. 52, from which we quote:


“While the CR&ECR Railroad was advancing northeasterly through the timber region, an interesting thing happened in the building of this line.  We were extending our line into Greenwood and had a 110-ft. span steel bridge erected over the Black River at Greenwood.  Our track was built over it and farther up the right-of-way, nearly into Greenwood.  The grading was all done and we were to lay the track up to the depot, which had been built at the time, on a Monday morning.  We would connect with the old Wisconsin Central, later the Soo line, in building this short piece of track.


“The WC Railway sent a crew, engine, and roadmaster with his track men.  They were building a track over our right-of-way to get in ahead of us.  But a good friend, from Greenwood, telephoned Father and he called me.  He told me to get out the ‘Willie’, one of the engines, pick up all the men I could get in town, stop at the logging camps and get all of the men available there and then get to Greenwood as fast as I could to find out what was going on.  Also, we were to prevent anything being done that would jeopardize our property in any way.”


“When I got there, they had built about 100 ft. of track across our grade and we proceeded to tear it up; that is (to) remove three 30-foot rails and throw them back on their right-of-way with their engine on the wrong side.  It being a Sunday and with everyone in Greenwood on our side, there was no warrant made out against us.  In the meantime, Father had come out in the ‘Gracie.’”


“The WC Railway road master wanted to know how they were going to get water for their engine, so Father told them that he would lay the track back for them if they would promise to keep right on going.  They promised and Father let them out.  That was the last we saw of the WC Railway crew.  The WC road master said he was willing to quit.  As it was dark and suppertime, the men were all glad to get away from the scene.”


“The government placed a valuation of $800,000 on the F&NE Railroad, as of 1916 prices.  By 1917, the Fosters had built about 30 miles of their proposed Fairchild-Caryville line, when war with Germany was declared, so the stretch between Cleghorn and Caryville was never built. The F&NE was the shortest railroad in the United States to be taken over by the Railroad Administration during World War I.  On account of my father’s failing health, at this time, I was put in full charge of the whole operation of the railroad, being made general superintendent, although the CStPM&O actually operated the road during the reign of the U.S.R.A.”


“The government gave the road back to us on March 1, 1919.  As I had decided that it would be impossible for us to continue operating the railroad because of its deplorable condition, it was then taken over by some businessmen of Chicago.  They gave it back in the fall of that same year.  I absolutely refused to operate the F&NE after the government returned the railroads to their owners, because of the dilapidated condition of equipment and finances.  I knew we could not operate and pay standard wages.  When we decided not to operate after the war was over, some businessmen along the Fairchild-Cleghorn line wished to have this last piece of line to operate for their own convenience in hauling lumber, lime, coal, and such brought in, as well as being able to haul hay, grain, cattle and such out.  So I made an arrangement to lease them a locomotive and cars, but I explained to them that I could not lease the coach, for by transporting passengers, they might do something, which would make the railroad a common carrier.  That, I did not want.  It was decided they would bill everything hauled over the railroad to them selves, at Fairchild, and then they would re-bill it to its final destination.  Everything went along fine for about three months and then they were ready to acknowledge that they knew very little about operating a railroad.”


“But N. C. Foster said that he wouldn’t scrap, although he had been made a very substantial offer for that purpose, or abandon the line.  He preferred to operate at a loss, as roads were poor and he thought the farmers needed the railroad.”


“In January, 1925, after N. C. Foster had died, we were offered and accepted, $80,000 by some Chicago men who thought they could made (make) a go of it.  They operated the road for about three years and in 1928 scrapped everything except two new locomotives, which went to some logging road in the South.  The abandonment by the Chicago party was the final doom of the Fairchild & Northeastern Railway.”


N. C. Foster named the village of Willard after his youngest son and Tioga, for the county of his birth in New York.  After his death, in 1923, the Town of Foster, created from a portion of the Town of Mentor, was named for him.


Of the eleven children born to him and his wife, Esther, only two now survive, Clara F. Hollenberg of Merrillan and Grace F. Thomas of Minneapolis.



N. C. Foster had a passion for railway trains, giving pet names to some of the locomotives he owned.  Two of those engines are pictured above, “Willie” on the left and “Gracie May” on the right, shown awaiting their destiny on a railway siding at the end of the Foster train era.


Some Greenwood area residents long remembered “Willie” from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  They would call upon “Big Bill” Foster, asking him to hitch “Willie” up to a freight car and haul several fans to watch an out-of-town baseball game on a Sunday afternoon.  Following the enjoyable afternoon of entertainment, the fans climbed back into the freight car and “Big Bill” controlled the throttle as “Willie” would chug along on the rails, delivering the fans safely back to Greenwood.


The honest-to-goodness “Mother-in-law seat” proved a featured attraction at the Svetlik Motor Co. on Monday, in commemoration of the 100th Year Anniversary of Clark County.  There were many people crowded into the Svetlik building to help the local celebration, as well as the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Ford Motor Co.


The Mother-in-Law seat, and that is what it actually was called, was assembled on the rear of a 1910 model Ford automobile, loaned for the celebration by Arnold Ebert, of Marshfield.  Complete with carbide lights, foot and hand horns, brass radiator, and all, the 1910 Ford showed the strong influence of the horse-and-buggy days.  Its “body” looks like a surrey with a fringe on the top.  Behind the “surrey,” was a single upholstered seat, cut off from conversation with the occupants of the front seat, which was the Mother-in-law seat.


Another old Ford on display in the showroom and also in running condition was a 1925 model belonging to Tony Svetlik, brother of the garage owner, Frank Svetlik and to John R. Bergemann, Marshfield undertaker.  This was the forerunner of the modern-day light pickup.


Three other old model, Model T Fords, all in current operation, were brought in by their owners for the celebration.  The oldest was a 1923 Model T belonging to Walter Jahr, of Marshfield.  Others included a 1924 model belonging to Henry Schlinsog and a 1925 model belonging to O. W. Lawrence, who lives south of Marshfield and drives the car on a weekly trip to and from Marshfield.  Each participant, who brought in an old car for display, was presented with five gallons of gasoline, courtesy of the Svetlik Motor Co.


Archibald and William Yorkston were “canny Scots.”  Archibald was married but William was a bachelor and lived with his bother’s (brother’s) family.


At one of the early terms of the circuit court, both brothers were drawn to serve on the jury.  In those days, there were always two juries drawn, one set of jurors to serve upon the grand jury and another list was drawn to serve as petit jurors, for the trial of causes.


When the day arrived for court to convene, Archibald and William arrayed themselves in their Sunday raiment and were about ready to start for Neillsville, when the wife exclaimed, “I have forgot to put up something for you to eat while you are away.”  The reply she received was, “Woman, we take nothing to eat with us to court.  We are jurymen and we will eat with the Judge.”


On arrival at court, it was discovered that neither were citizens of the United States and in a few minutes they were discharged from attendance. Thereupon one of the Yorkstons told the Judge he wanted his pay.  He was informed by the Court that the clerk would draw him an order for his one day’s attendance and mileage.  In a loud voice and in great wrath, Yorkston shouted: “I’ll ha’e na’ne of your orders.  I want my cash!”


County orders were then at quite a discount, worth thirty or forty cents on the dollar.  In fact, county orders, as late as the year of 1871, sold for cash from fifty to seventy-five cents on the dollar.


They were receivable for county taxes, but not for state, town or school taxes.  It was either just before, or during the administration of Clark County Treasurer N. H. Withee that county orders became as good as gold and were paid promptly when presented at the county treasurer’s office.


In the fall of 1870, a judgment for the sum of $5,411 was rendered against the county in favor of D. D. Cheney, of Sparta, for unpaid county orders.  Through the early seventies, the business of buying county orders was quite a lucrative one and numerous of the citizens, to a greater or lesser extent, dealt in them.




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