Sunday, May 22, 2011

Civil War Research

With the remembrance of the firing on Fort Sumter back in April of this year, marking of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, much attention will be paid to Civil War historical research in the next few years. That event which occurred in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina in April of 1861 was the beginning of the great conflict. As the 150th anniversaries of the various battles and campaigns are remembered between now and the conclusion of the “War Between the States” Sesquicentennial in 2015, there will be much attention paid to the history of the war. I wanted to take some time in my research on the history of La Farge to look back at the events of the Civil War from a local perspective.

Being a member of the Wisconsin Historical Society and a board member of the Friends of the WHS, I receive regular information from those organizations about events and exhibits pertaining to Wisconsin history. In April the WHS unveiled its new Civil War page on its website. The new page can be reached at and has been established to provide a link to primary sources for information on the involvement of the Badger State in the Civil War. One of the features of the page is a handy reference to the roles of the various cities and towns in Wisconsin during the war. The site provides a scroll down list of place names in Wisconsin. It is quite a comprehensive list of place names, including some which no longer exist. However, there is no “La Farge” on the list, or the names of Star (Seelyburg) or Rockton either. Even though those fledgling communities along the Kickapoo sent men off to the war in the 1860’s, the towns did not make the WHS list.

Viola, Ontario, and West Lima did make the list. The information provided on the WHS site is very limited for each of those area towns. The site lists a regiment or two of a Civil War era unit for each of the villages and a reference to the county’s history of the Civil War. The references and listing of the histories for Vernon and Richland Counties is particularly valuable. By accessing those sites, one can start to piece together where some of the La Farge area men served during the war.

I found it interesting that West Lima was listed on the WHS site, but not Rockton. Since both communities were comparable in size and relative significance when the war broke out in 1861, one would think that Rockton would also be included. Then I remembered a reference to an account of a 4th of July Celebration held in Rockton during the time of the Civil War. The article told of speakers coming to Rockton to rally the locals gathered there that Independence Day (I’m not sure on the year, but I think it was either 1861 or 1862) and encourage the men to join the army. The next day, several men from the Rockton and Star area started out for West Lima, where they joined others who were heading out for war. From there, the group of recruits walked on to Richland Center, where a military company was being formed.

When using the “Places” feature of the WHS Civil War page, choosing county seats like Richland Center, Viroqua or Sparta will provide more information for you. These are the places where many of the military units were formed before heading off for places like Camp Randall in Madison or Camp Salomon in La Crosse to train. If you know of a particular person that you’re looking for, you many find him in these county seat accounts. Many of the county seats also had newspapers at the time; articles from these newspapers may be cited in the research sites and may help with information gathering.

There is also a search feature titled “People”, which can help if you know the name of a particular soldier that you’re looking for. I used this option on a couple of Kickapoo area names and found company and regiment information on Van Bennett, brothers Chauncey and Richard Lawton and Eli McVey. Bennett and McVey both were promoted to officer status in their unit (Company I, 12th Wisconsin Regiment), so more information was available on them. The Richland County history includes a written account by Bennett of his Civil War memories. (Later, McVey was instrumental in the establishment of the Grand Army of The Republic (GAR) post in Seelyburg. That GAR post bore his name.) Again the Vernon and Richland County histories, which are available in their entirety on the site, were valuable primary research tools in my search.

Another good source for Civil War research is a recently published book by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press titled, Exploring Civil War Wisconsin – A Survival Guide For Researchers. Brett Parker is the author of the book and in his introduction, he says, “This book offers both beginning and experienced researchers the keys to finding and telling the stories of Wisconsin’s Civil War soldiers, their families, and their communities.” In the information printed on the back cover of the book, it says, “This lively step-by-step guide helps Civil War enthusiasts, genealogists, and students navigate the sometimes daunting realm of primary resources. Exploring Civil War Wisconsin makes it easy for new and experienced researchers alike to find and use the vast array of historical materials about the Civil War found in archives, military and census records, published firsthand accounts, newspapers, and on the Internet.” This book has been made available to teachers in Wisconsin schools whose classes study the Civil War, and I want to thank Amy Lund, history teacher at LHS, for lending me her copy. It is a very good resource for Civil War research.

Speaking of “published firsthand accounts”, local historian Kevin Alderson is working on a gem of just such a primary source. Kevin has been busy transcribing a treasure trove of letters about the Civil War experiences written by a man who settled in Cashton. The letters provide such a detailed documentation of the experiences of the Wisconsin soldier during the war that Kevin’s book about the letters may have national significance. Kevin has signed on with UW Press to get the book he is writing about the collection of letters published. Look for the book to be coming out a year from now, but Kevin will probably be speaking in the area about the project before the publishing release. This is another exciting local history project taking place here in the Kickapoo Valley.

I continue to write on my latest history venture, a book about the La Farge Dam Project, titled, That Dam History! – The Story of the La Farge Dam & Lake Project. I hope to have the book ready for the public by this December. If anyone has photographs that pertain to that time in La Farge’s history, I would love to see them. Bernice Schroeder has loaned to me a couple boxes of information on the dam project, which have been invaluable in my research.

William Claybrook Update

And now we know for sure that Bill Claybrook did not die of drowning.

For those of you who have followed the Local History Notebook columns in the Episcope over the years, you may remember the one that I wrote on “The Human Cork”, back in November of 2009. It was the story of William Claybrook, a man who was born and raised in La Farge, graduated from the local high school and went on to achieve some fame as “The Human Cork” or “Non-Sinkable William” because of his floating ability.

I had first come across Bill’s claim to fame in my research for the history of La Farge project when he appeared on the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” radio program in the late 1930’s. Later, Claybrook was featured in articles in Look and Life magazines during that era as well. While working as a machinist at a war plant in Charleston, West Virginia, he had died in 1944 at 51 years of age. In that article that I wrote on William Claybrook, I had hoped that he his death was not by drowning.

I eventually put that article about Claybrook on this history blog, where John Tripp found it. Tripp happens to be a great-nephew of Claybrook, since William married his great-aunt Mabel. John never knew much about Claybrook from his side of the family, so he started digging for information about his great-uncle. He also contacted me via e-mail and sent me copies of the magazine articles in which William Claybrook had been featured. I sent John my research on the Claybrook family including an article about “The Human Cork” written by Dale Muller as a Johnson Gunfrunk created John Bear Spreader Notes article, published back in the 1970’s. John realized that he had to visit Claybrook’s birthplace, so last Saturday he came to La Farge. I gave John and his partner, Steve, a personalized Claybrook family tour of the village.

We started out at the school, looking at the 1901 schoolhouse, where Billy had gone to school. Then it was over to Chapel Hill Cemetery to view the Carpenter family graves. William’s sister Mabel had married Charles Carpenter, who was a brother of my Grandmother Luella Steinmetz. Mabel had died in Milwaukee giving birth to a baby boy, who also succumbed, in 1937. The mother and baby (Charles Jr.) graves are marked with small headstones, which John photographed. Then it was on to the Seelyburg Bridge, where John and Steve could see the place where William Claybrook put on a floating demonstration on a 4th of July seventy-odd years ago. Dale Muller had written about that little adventure on the Kickapoo River in his piece.

From there we went to the east end of La Farge to view the remains of the Claybrook home. The old foundation and some piles of bricks and wood are all that’s left of the little bungalow, as it was called when built over 100 years ago. John took a brick to keep as a souvenir of his visit to the Claybrook’s old home place. Lonnie Muller joined us there for a bit and we swapped information on the Claybrook family. By this time, John divulged that he had found a copy of William’s death certificate and the cause of death on it was listed as coronary thrombosis. Lonnie then related how Bill’s dad, Dan Claybrook, had also died of a heart attack in 1925, while working at the blacksmith shop in La Farge. Dan’s wife, Hattie, would continue to live in the little house for forty more years. Known to everyone in the village as “Aunt Hat” in her later years, Hattie Claybrook passed on in 1965.

John, Steve and I finished our little Claybrook family tour at the Bear Creek Cemetery, where we viewed the graves of William and Mabel at one site, then walked across to see the headstone of Hattie and Dan. John related how Mabel had moved back to Minnesota after her husband’s death and lived with her sister (John’s grandmother} and her husband for awhile. William and Mabel had probably first met in Mankato, where William had worked as a machinist in the early 1920’s. Later he operated theaters in Duluth and Minneapolis. John’s research was amazing as he had photographs of the old theaters where Claybrook had worked and may have developed his floating act. After her husband’s death, Mabel worked in millinery sections in department stores in Duluth and Austin, Minnesota. John remembered her as a lady who loved wearing hats and cheering for the Minnesota Twins baseball team. When Mabel passed away in 1985 at the age of 92, her body was returned to La Farge to lie beside her husband. Although she had probably seldom been in the Kickapoo Valley town more than a few days, she returned to La Farge to remain next to her true love for eternity.

Thank you, John, for helping us tell more of this wonderful story about William and Mabel Claybrook.