Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Sad Demise of Sam Hook


NOVEMBER 7, 1857

MAY 5, 1917


(Epitaph from gravestone in Chapel Hill Cemetery)

Sam Hook, the last merchant in Seelyburg drew his last breath in the early morning hours of May 5, 1917. His death and the suspected foul play that accompanied it haunt the old river hamlet to this day. Was Sam Hook murdered as robbers looted his store? Who was responsible for such a heinous crime?

The flames shooting out of Sam Hook’s store building in Seelyburg were first discovered around four o’clock on that Saturday morning. An alarm was immediately raised and many neighbors and friends rushed to the conflagration. However, the old store building was a mass of flames and beyond any hope to save from destruction. With Sam nowhere to be found in the little hamlet on La Farge’s north side, everyone feared he had perished in the fire. When the flames had subsided an investigation found the store owner’s body in the southwest corner of the building. He had either crawled or been placed under the floorboards and was near the cistern that he used for cooling items for sale in his store.

Foul play was immediately suspected in Sam Hook’s death as the first people to arrive at the scene of the fire had found the front door wide open. Scattered in the front of the store were pieces of money and bunches of shoestrings. It was well known in the area that Sam kept large amounts of money in the store, often tied into bundles with shoestrings. It was unusually cool on that morning and frost covered the ground. Several rods south of the store building, a person’s shoe tracks were visible in the frosty dew leading off Seelyburg’s Main Street towards the west. A bloodhound was brought up from Viola to track the trail, which led north towards the mill, across the dam to the north side of the Kickapoo River and then east back to the Advent (Star) Cemetery. The trail was lost at the cemetery by the first hound, but later in the day another dog was brought in from Richland Center. That dog followed the trail of the first, but then continued on from the cemetery south across the bridge and to a house nearly across from Sam Hook’s store. A man named Clint Rockwell and others occupied this house; when the bloodhound’s baying ended at that location, many citizens of Seelyburg feared the worst. According to the account of the incident in the La Farge Enterprise (5/10/1917), “This place has for some time been known as a rendezvous for people of none too good of a reputation and suspicion at once fell on Rockwell and frequenters of his home.”

Apparently, Hook had previous trouble with Rockwell and others who hung out at his abode. On the night of the fire, the well-liked storeowner had a dispute with Rockwell, which nearly led to fisticuffs and further indicated foul play was involved with the fire and Sam Hook’s death.

The Vernon County District Attorney and Sheriff came to Seelyburg later in the day on that Saturday of the fire. However, after interviewing many of the neighbors and friends of Sam Hook as well as the occupants of the Rockwell house, the county law enforcement officials could not find enough evidence to warrant any arrests being made. At the local level, the investigation did not cease and new evidence and information was gathered. Using that, the La Farge authorities arrested several occupants of the Rockwell house and took them to Viroqua on the following Monday for a hearing. After that session in the county courthouse, two men and a juvenile girl (all names were listed in the Enterprise article) were retained in the county jail in Viroqua. Sadly for the folks left in Seelyburg, after a few days, all of the suspects were released from the county jail and no charges were ever filed in the case.

After the initial outrage over the lack of any prosecution of those suspected in Sam Hook’s death, fear crept into the village. Doors that had never been locked before were now locked at all times. Nightlong vigils with shotgun in hand were kept at some residences in Seelyburg to protect against a fate such had befallen Sam Hook. Shortly after the release from the county jail, many of those implicated in Sam Hook’s death left the Seelyburg area, but others remained.

But the friends and neighbors of Sam Hook knew that a wrong had not been righted. For years after the death of the last storeowner in Seelyburg, they would attest to the fact that Sam had been murdered. One neighbor said, “He was murdered, plain and simple.” Another resident when questioned about the event decades later, said, “ Of course he was murdered, everyone around here knew that.” But if there was such a foul crime committed, no legal justice was ever carried out as a remedy. Yet, perhaps even today that justice for a terrible wrong is still being sought.

The funeral for Sam Hook was held the day after his death, Sunday, May 6 at the Methodist Episcopal Church in La Farge. Sam’s mother, two brothers, two sisters, friends and family laid him to rest on that day in the Chapel Hill Cemetery, south of where Sam had grown up and lived all of his life. The epitaph, which was quoted at the beginning of the Notebook, can still be seen on his headstone in the last row in the back of the cemetery. We Know Not The Cause Of His Death, indicates the remorse over his sudden loss and the agony of never knowing quite what happened, which was felt by the family over Sam’s death.

Even in the silence of the grave, justice perhaps is still being sought. Each spring when Village of La Farge employees return to the Chapel Hill Cemetery for maintenance, invariably they find Sam’s headstone askew from the winter’s frost. Most of the other grave markers at Chapel Hill survive the winter fairly well, but Sam’s always seems to have been moved, as if drawing attention back to that eerie epitaph, We Know Not The Cause Of His Death. It still seems to cry out for some kind of justice.

However, even today that cry for justice from Sam’s grave would be somewhat muffled. Sam certainly didn’t hear the intruder enter his store that night and he probably couldn’t yell out for help when he was accosted and robbed. Over his lifetime, the circumstances of Sam’s life had rarely hindered his progress, but they might have played against him on that fateful night in May so many years ago. For you see, Sam Hook, the last merchant in Seelyburg, was a deaf mute.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Life of Sam Hook

Sam Hook was born in Morgan County, Ohio on November 7, 1857, the son of Henry and Angeline Hook. He was one of five children, having two brothers and two sisters. When he was eight years old, the Hook family moved to Wisconsin and located in the community of Seelyburg in the northern Kickapoo Valley. His father, like most of the other men in the small hamlet, worked for Dempster Seely, who operated a lumber mill and other business enterprises. Henry Hook built a house on “The Lane” which ran east from Seelyburg’s main street on land purchased from Chauncey Lawton. Sam grew up in Seelyburg, neighbors with the Ainsworth, Parker, Wood, Gift, Lawton and Nixon families. Dr. Amos Carpenter’s house and office were nearby as well as Levi Millison’s store. Further down the street were several other stores, two blacksmith shops and the buildings of Seely’s mill. Beyond the bridge crossing the Kickapoo were the Star Cemetery, the Advent Church, the schoolhouse, Dr. Smith’s house and office and John Anderson’s house and bee yard on the hill. Downstream from the bridge was the dam, feeding current into the millruns to power the lumber mill.

Sam attended the Seelyburg School and learned at the knee of Alice Seely Nixon, the daughter of the lumber mill owner. Sam was good with numbers and clever with his hands at certain tasks. Alice Nixon was a gifted musician and singer, providing her students with a love for music. Sam was limited in his appreciation of his teacher’s musical offerings and probably one of the few in the village who didn’t enjoy Alice’s musical renditions played on the organ in her home at the foot of Chapel Hill.

When Sam reached a certain age he started to work for Seely. He didn’t become one of the dozens of “Seely Men” who worked on various crews felling trees in the woods, milling the trees into lumber, rafting the lumber down the river or building wooden bridges over the Kickapoo. But being good with numbers and friendly, Sam could always find work in the village. When work at the mill slowed down when the lumber began to run out, Sam worked at various jobs in Seelyburg and at the small community of DeJean’s Corners to the south. He would work at several of the stores located in the two communities, working at Levi Millison’s stores in both places.

His brother, Gus, owned a farm and Sam could help with the chores there. In the spring there was always rattlesnakes to hunt and kill, but Sam had to steer clear from that endeavor. Another brother, William, owned a dray line, a feed mill and other businesses in La Farge where Sam could always find work. He was industrious, good with numbers and keeping books, not afraid of hard work and frugal with his money. Over time Sam became a man of some means and purchased a store in Seelyburg.

At a time when many merchants were leaving the river town of Seelyburg and moving to La Farge, Sam opened his store less than a block from the house where he grew up. By 1898, Sam’s Seelyburg store was booming. He had developed a skill for making brooms out of corn straw and each fall would make hundreds of corn brooms for sale to his neighbors. His reputation as a broom maker spread and folks from miles around would bring their broomcorn to Sam so he could make them a year’s supply of hardy brooms. His skill at the craft increased with the work and it was said that Sam could make a new broom in six minutes from start to finish.

When the big Kickapoo flood hit Seelyburg in 1899, the water ran three feet deep through Sam’s store. Undeterred by the misfortune, Sam put his brooms to good use, cleaned up his store, which also served as his home, and continued on. Some of the residents and merchants left Seelyburg after the big flood, but Sam and his store remained.

Sam wasn’t all work and no play; the friendly merchant liked to have fun, too. He caused a stir in Seelyburg in 1900 when he applied for a license to put a pool table in his store. The correspondent from Star wrote in the March 9, 1900 La Farge Enterprise, “Our little burg is in a state of excitement over the appearance of a pool table being put in Sam Hook’s store, things being carried on there that is no credit to our burg or the people living in it. We hope that there will soon be something done to remove the curse from our place. We understand that he has even let minors play as they choose and we think it is time to have it stopped.” Pool right here in River City! It is obvious that certain people did not stop to shop at Sam’s store. But for those who did, Sam might play a game of pool with you or a hand or two of cribbage.

In April of 1902, Sam put in a new artesian well for his store. The new well ran fresh cool water into a cement cistern beneath the floor of the building. There in the new cistern, Sam could cool milk, cheese, meat and other products that he could sell in his store. Sometimes the cistern would keep bottles of fermented and distilled liquids cold; items which Sam could not sell in his store, but might be offered to friends after closing. It was not all that unusual to see the lanterns burning late into the night in Sam’s store and hear the laughter of card players emanating from his back rooms.

The government discontinued the Star Post Office on June 30, 1902. The post office had been kept in Robert Parker’s store, a few doors south of Sam’s store, for over twenty years. Before the end of that year, Parker had closed his Seelyburg store and moved to Viola, where he opened up a store in Mound Park.

Sam Green had moved north to Seelyburg in 1900 to run a store in the Seely building. Green, the man with the original La Farge Post Office at his house south of The Corners, had moved to La Farge when the railroad came in 1898. He built a store across from Millard’s Store, where the new La Farge Post Office was kept, and put in a line of goods. He rented out part of his building for a barbershop, but sold his south State Street building in 1900 to Alva Drew, the new lawyer in town. He moved his line of wares to Seelyburg, where he rented the old Seely store building for his new business. In January of 1903, Sam Green passed on; with his death, his store business in Seelyburg was closed.

Sam Hook was the last merchant in Seelyburg.

(To Be Continued)