(This blog entry is dedicated to the memory of Patsy Venner. This story is about a girl, Alice Smith, who lived in Seelyburg over a century ago. Patsy (Lawton) might have been the last of the Seelyburg gals and she loved stories of that place. She was brought home to her final resting place on August 1. She is buried in the Star Cemetery, looking down on old Seelyburg, a town originally platted by Chauncey Lawton in the 1860’s, a place where Patsy grew up and where her family continues to live to this day.)
Alice Smith was working at a hotel in Fond du Lac. The year was 1902, the same year that she had finished her schooling through the eighth grade. Being one of nine children in her family, she was expected to help with the family’s expenses. So she boarded the train in Campbellsport, where her family lived, and rode it to the city of Fond du Lac to seek employment.
The hotel was located near the Northwestern Railroad roundhouse and many of the railroad yard workers stayed at the hotel. Alice helped serve meals, cooked in the kitchen and washed dishes for the meals served at the hotel. Her workdays began at 4:30 a.m. and weren’t over until the supper dishes were all cleaned, usually after eight in the evening. Alice worked seven days a week and was paid $3.50 for her labors plus room and board at the hotel. She was 14 years old.
Because she was such a hard worker, Alice was offered another $1.50 per week in wages to help with the laundry. The five-dollar weekly wages seemed like a fortune to her, but also meant longer days of work to get the meals and laundry done. Sometimes, her brother Claude, who worked in the railroad yards part time, would help her to finish up the long workdays.
In the winter months, when Alice’s father had no work as a stone mason and bricklayer, she would send half of her weekly wages home to him to help out there. One day she received a letter from her father. It read like this, “Alice, I want you to come home, and if you don’t, I’ll be coming after you.” In her own words, Alice went on to say, “I didn’t know why he wanted me to come home but I knew I better go. When I got home, I learned my sister, Marie, who was living in La Farge, was going to have a baby. She wanted me to help her. I went.” The year was 1903.
So, Alice Smith made her way across the state (probably by train) to the little Kickapoo River town of La Farge, where she helped her sister when she had a baby. We don’t really know much about that time when Alice helped out in her sister’s house, but we can assume that it went well. La Farge was a bustling little town during that time with lots of comings & goings. Alice walked the busy Main Street and soon caught the eye of an admirer.
Or was it the other way around? Perhaps Alice can tell it best, “ While I was in La Farge, I met the man who was to be my husband. He was a handsome chap who caught my eye, and since I had to work, I thought I might as well be working for myself. I found out this theory didn’t work out. After little persuasion, we got aboard the little narrow gauge railroad passenger train that made its way across the hills and valleys to Wauzeka, across the Mississippi by ferry and on to McGregor, Iowa, where we were married. I was now Mrs. Orson Dyer. The year, 1905.” Alice was 17 years old.
Alice’s husband worked for Charles Seely, who owned the Seely Lumber Mill at that time. Despite losing a hand in a hunting accident several years before, Orson still helped out the Seely’s with farming and jobs at the mill. The newlyweds settled into a house in Seelyburg, probably renting one of the homes owned by the Seely family.
Soon after they were married, Alice’s husband put in a successful bid on a mail route between La Farge and Ontario. Since the train brought the mail as far north as La Farge, Orson’s mail duties included taking the mail north to Ontario and delivering mail to people along the way. The route was thirty miles long and the pay was $50 per month. Orson kept three horses to pull his mail rig, “the closed-in box-like body mounted on a wooden-wheeled chassis”. Alice described the mail route, “In those days, many of the patrons did a lot of buying from mail order houses. Sears Roebuck & Company sold a nearly full line of groceries and a lot of people bought canned goods, as well as big boxes of canned fruits. Many times Orson left the post office with a rig full of cases and mail.”
Eventually, Alice and Orson bought their little house in Seelyburg and started to raise a family. Soon baby Thelma joined the family followed by another girl, Flora. In July of 1907, their home was inundated with the floodwaters of the Kickapoo River. That flood was the greatest that the people of the Valley had ever seen and the damage was so great in Seelyburg that the old lumber town never really recovered. Alice tells about that flood this way, “One year a tremendous flood came roaring down the Kickapoo River, destroying everything in its path. Water raised in our little home to the firebox in the kitchen range, doing so much damage we had to abandon the home.”
The 1907 flood was made even worse at Seelyburg because of a new dam on the river that had been constructed a few years before. That larger dam structure, located further downriver from Seely’s original dam, had been built to provide more head for the waterpower used to run the electric plant. Thus, the larger dam and a containment levee built on the southern bank of the river backed the floodwaters up even more causing record levels in the homes of Seelyburg. The damage was so remarkable that the dray and livery services in La Farge ran excursions up to Seelyburg for several days, carrying wagonloads of people to see the catastrophe wrought on the old river town.
Alice and her family moved to La Farge after the great flood, as did many other former residents of Seelyburg. Orson ran the mail route for four years, and then had to rebid the route with the postal service. “When Orson put in his bid for the next four years, another fellow underbid him by a single penny. Orson was out of a job.”
Hard times followed for Alice and her family, which by 1910 had grown again with the births of twins, Mildred and Flora. (Alice had been a twin herself, but did not grow up with her twin sister, Olive. Shortly after the births of Alice and her twin in 1888, Olive went to live with an older sister in Black River Falls.) Orson eventually had to sell the house in La Farge and they moved the family into an old log cabin on land owned by his stepfather, located outside of the village. Orson tried to get lumbering work again, “but the vast, timbered forests had disappeared. The heyday of Vernon County logging camps was at end.” Times were difficult for Alice and her family.
“When things looked most bleak, it seemed the Lord stepped in to help change our lives and provide the necessities, for a time at least. Two of Orson’s cousins had returned for a Vernon County visit from the Livingston mines located in southwestern Wisconsin. Men were needed there and the pay was good. When it came time for them to return to their mining jobs, Orson went with them to begin a new life for himself and the rest of us.”
Alice and her family soon followed to Grant County. Alice’s time in Seelyburg and the Kickapoo Valley was over.
I want to thank Amos Mast for helping with providing information for this story. A while back, Amos lent me his copy of the magazine, “Good Old Days” (January, 1981 issue), which contained an article written by Daniel M. Evans titled “Little Links Make Long Chains”. Evans was the son-in-law of Alice Dyer, who was ninety years old when he interviewed for the article about her life. The quotes by Alice Dyer used in this story of her time in Seelyburg are from that article by Evans.