Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Murder or Not? The Death of Robert Morris

Although I have tried to focus on the positive when writing this little history of the community of La Farge, there are some bad things that happened in the town as well.  I have not ignored the negative entirely.  Back in 2010, I wrote about the death of Sam Hook, a storeowner in Seelyburg who died under mysterious circumstances as his general store was being robbed and set on fire.  That two-part Local History Notebook about Sam Hook’s unusual and tragic ending in 1917 detailed how his death was investigated thoroughly.  In the end though regarding the death of Sam Hook, nobody was ever prosecuted for a crime, although Seelyburg residents always contended that he was murdered.
            Eleven years after Sam Hook’s death, another mysterious death took place on Main Street of La Farge.  It involved the death of Robert Morris, who died on February 24, 1928.  The circumstances of Morris’ death and the legal maneuverings that followed make for another interesting story from La Farge’s past.  To begin, let’s look at the story of the death of Robert Morris as told in the March 1, 1928 issue of the La Farge Enterprise newspaper.  The headline on page 1 of the Enterprise read, “Robert Morris Found Lying Unconscious On Sidewalk Friday”. A sub-headline under that lead read, “Both Hands Frozen and Face Covered With Blood”.  The article in La Farge’s weekly newspaper at the time continued:
            Excitement ran high in the village on last Friday morning when the intelligence was passed about that Robert Morris had been found on the street just before daybreak, almost frozen to death.  The unconscious man was first discovered by John Mullett, who chanced to pass by the stairway leading to the second floor of the Travers building, heard a strange sound, at first thinking it might have been a dog that had crawled up the stairway seeking shelter from the extremely cold night air.
            Let me interject here that the Travers building is the former post office in La Farge, the brick building that last housed a real estate office and sat between the current post office and the Zzip Stop. It was torn down a few years ago after it started to fall down.  For more information on the building, check out my Local History Notebook columns when I wrote about it in 2013.  In 1928, the building had a covered outside stairway that led up to the second story apartments.  Now; let’s return to the Enterprise article:
Upon drawing closer, however, Mr. Mullett discovered the sound issued from the numb human, who was lying on the snow-covered walk with his head resting on the lowest step of the stairway.  Mr. Mullet immediately hastened to the Central Hotel next door, and divesting the knowledge of his discovery to those within the hotel, who were already about, lost no time in notifying Marshall Showen, and as quickly as the village official arrived on the scene of the tragedy, he, with two other men, loaded the unfortunate onto a handsled and placed him on the cot in the village lock-up.
            The Central Hotel was located where the present post office of La Farge sits.  Beside the hotel there was another large store building that would have been next to the Travers building.  Both of those buildings burned down during the great hotel fire of 1942.  When Robert Morris was sledded to the jail by Village Marshall Showen and others, they probably only had to go a block or so. Taking the severely injured man to jail seems like a strange choice, especially when you had warm rooms at the hotel right next door.  But there are lots of strange occurrences involving this case, so let’s return to the newspaper story:
Not once since the man was first discovered until life became extinct did he regain consciousness.  Immediately after the man was placed on the cot, Dr. Haggerty was called, but his services were of no avail, as the man’s life ebbed before he arrived.  Parties who remained with the man after he was placed on the bed say that he opened his mouth once or twice, but that was the last and the only sign of life.
            At the inquest and hearing held in the afternoon, conducted by the district attorney and county sheriff, the details of the case were brought out. Depending on the strength of our memory, this is the way we got the run of the dope:
            “Run of the dope”?  That sounds like something from a present day song infused with hip-hop slang. Dr. Eber Haggerty, who was called to the jail to pronounce Morris dead on that cold February morning in 1928, lived a block away from the jail.  His house that contained an office for his medical practice sat across the street from the newly constructed Masonic Temple that would be formerly dedicated later that year.  Meanwhile, back to the story:
            It appears that quite late last Thursday evening Robert Morris mounted the stairway of the Travers building, a portion of the second story of which is occupied by Frank Traister and his family.  Morris, knocking on the door, made inquiry of Frank Traister, who answered the knock, if he could get something to drink.  Upon receiving an answer from Traister in the negative, Morris turned from the door and Traister closed it and went back to his chair.  Perhaps a moment afterward a commotion was heard within the hallway, and upon investigation, it was found that Mr. Morris had fallen down the stairway. With the aid of a second party, Frank Traister carried the man to the doorway of the Central Hotel, where inquiry was made regarding the engaging of a room, but was told that the house had no rooms available.  Morris was then taken back and deposited at the bottom of the stairway, where it was presumed he would soon be able to collect his senses and repair to a place of warmth and shelter for the night.  The accident, as near as we were able to determine, happened about 11:30 in the evening, and if the man remained outside from that time until he was found in the morning around 5 o’clock, small wonder that his fingers and hands were frozen white, when one remembers that a temperature of between 12 and 15 degrees below zero prevailed throughout the night.
            First of all, it is important to know that in 1928, the United States had Prohibition in effect, so there were no bars or taverns in La Farge.  It does seem interesting that Robert Morris goes to the Traister apartment at nearly midnight on a Thursday evening to get something to drink.  Another interesting part of the story was that Frank Traister and somebody else (and don’t you wonder who that person was at that time of the night) carried a badly injured Morris over to the hotel to get him a room. That seems like a decent thing to do. But then Traister and his buddy drop off Morris back at the bottom of the stairs to sleep it off.  There is not much compassion in that determination.
            Perhaps, Traister could have let Morris stay the night in his apartment where the injured man could recover from his fall. At the time Frank Traister and his wife Cora had four children who lived in that second story apartment in the Travers building.  The children were John, aged 14, then there was Floyd, 12; Harold, 9 and little May or Mae (found it spelled both ways) Traister aged 7.  With all of those kids, perhaps there wasn’t any room in the apartment for the injured man?  But wouldn’t you think that Morris could have been laid on the kitchen floor to get him out of that bitter -15 degree cold night?  Frank Traister does not seem to have much compassion for Morris in this situation.  We perhaps will learn more about why that may have been, when other information starts to come out about Frank Traister.  (Don’t forget about little May Traister, the 7-year old daughter – she may be a key in this case.)  The newspaper article continued:
            Arrangements were made Saturday afternoon to conduct the funeral on Sunday, but all such plans were cancelled when those closely related to the deceased were advised by county officials that a post-mortem examination would be held over the body on the following Monday.  It appears that a more thorough and careful search of the premises upon which the tragedy occurred, by village and county officials, brought to light certain complexities connected with the matter which they wished to investigate and to effect a possible solution thereof. 
            Following the post-mortem examination of the body, on Monday afternoon, by local and deputy state medical examiners, the funeral was held Tuesday, at 2 o’clock, at the Free Methodist Church in the village.
            Mr. Morris was a man of close to 40 years of age, and only until quite recently, was in another section of the country, but returned to La Farge last fall and had been making his home with his brother, John.  We have endeavored to report the particulars of this case to the best of our ability.  As is always the case when an accident of this nature occurs, one will hear a great many and different stories, but we have tried to adhere only to those statements brought out at the inquest.
            Thus ended the newspaper article about the death of Robert Morris.  As mentioned in the concluding paragraph, there were many stories swirling around La Farge regarding Morris’ untimely death.  Some of those stories had more merit than others and soon, more stories about that frigid February night on La Farge’s Main Street would surface.  Next time in the history blog, we will continue to look at the unseemly death of Robert Morris.    

Thursday, April 18, 2019

La Farge Goes "Paperless"

A while back, they stopped selling the Wisconsin State Journal at the Zzip Stop in La Farge.  The long hard winter had resulted in sporadic deliveries to the La Farge gas station that had become an outlier on the route. When the big Kickapoo River flood had closed the Viola gas station back in August so no daily copies of the State Journal were being sold there, La Farge had become a stop too far on the route.  For those of us who are accustomed to having a daily newspaper to read, the stoppage was shocking.  Trips to Readstown, Viroqua and Hillsboro to get a newspaper are being made begrudgingly. What’s a guy to do? 
            The loss of a daily newspaper in La Farge also got me to thinking about when the last time the village was without a daily newspaper. I think it probably goes back a long way.  I’m guessing to the time before the railroad was completed to La Farge and daily trains could start bringing in the newspapers along with the mail, passengers and freight.  That takes us back to 1898!  Yikes! We have had daily newspapers in this little Kickapoo River town for over 120 years?  Probably, yes is the answer to that question.
            Remember that in those early years, the village of La Farge was the last stop on the Kickapoo rail line.  There were three hotels (Belcher House, Hotel Ward, and Central Hotel) operating in town to accommodate all of the people disembarking from the trains.  Dray lines in La Farge would have wagons at the railroad station to bring the visitors and salesmen up to the hotels in town.  From the very beginning the trains also delivered the daily newspapers. There is a classic photograph from that era showing some men dressed in suits sitting in the front lobby of the Hotel Ward.  Each man holds a copy of a daily newspaper in his hands.
            For over thirty years, there were always two trains arriving in the village every day.  Thus, the morning and evening editions of newspapers from Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago could be in La Farge “hot off the presses”.  Maxine Shird told me that when her folks were running Mac’s Hotel in La Farge (this would be from the 1920s until the early 1940s) that the daily newspaper was always available there.  Many of the train workers stayed at the hotel and bringing the newspapers was a daily delivery for them.
            When the railroad line ended in 1939, there was much uproar about how Kickapoo River towns would receive needed goods that had been delivered by the railroad.  Daily truck delivery routes were established to get goods to the Valley and newspapers were part of that.  The railroad continued to run a daily truck delivery route to the village until the late 1960s and daily newspaper deliveries were included.
            Eventually, the newspaper publishers began to run daily rural routes to places like La Farge.  The morning newspapers like the State Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel were delivered by delivery boys to people’s doorsteps in the village while later in the day, the Milwaukee Journal, Capital Times, and LaCrosse Tribune would arrive at people’s homes “fresh off the presses”.  
            I’m not sure if there were any age requirements for boys (Did girls also deliver the newspapers?  I can’t remember any from my youth, but perhaps later the fairer sex did become involved in the venture.) delivering newspapers in La Farge, but the job did entail collecting money for the papers besides delivering them.  I remember substituting for Freddie Shird one summer for a couple of weeks while he was on vacation.  He delivered the State Journal, I believe and I even was able to use his bicycle with the saddlebag newspaper baskets draped over the rear tire on the route.  During that time there were two boys delivering the State Journal since there were so many people in La Farge who had home delivery.  The afternoon deliveries of the LaCrosse Tribune may have needed a split route during that time as well.
            Delivering the Sunday newspapers was a whole different animal because of the increased size.  The newspaper bundles would be left on the back porch of the post office in town early each Sunday morning.  They would usually come in several bundles with additional inserts and such, and then the delivery boy had to put the newspapers together.  The papers would be so big and heavy that you couldn’t carry them all, so you had to do part of the route and then go back for the rest of the newspapers.
            Besides the home deliveries of the newspapers, several businesses in La Farge usually had the daily papers for sale.  Harry Lounsbury always had the newspaper for sale at his drug store and at least one of the grocery stores would also have them. The gas stations usually had the Sunday newspapers, as some of those other businesses in town would be closed. When we moved back to La Farge in 1972, we lived a block off Main Street in the Burt Apartments.  I would usually walk up to the drug store to get a newspaper and could catch up on the latest with Lillian Waddell, who worked there. At school, several daily newspapers would be in the library or teachers lounge, so we could read them there.
            For a short time, Carolyn and I were part of the newspaper delivery system as we took over Ernie Meseberg’s rural Sunday route of the State Journal from November of 1979 until September of the following year.  The route included a drive down to Tunnelville and then up on Fairview and Salem Ridges.  We caught more places driving down Wemmer Hollow, Otter Creek and Green Hollow. Heading north, we caught the places on Plum Run, Buckeye Ridge and on to Weister Creek.  We would often stop and talk to Rex Bufton at his place before moving on to circle the Dell area.  Then it was on to Ontario where we dropped off a stack of papers at the restaurant there. We would sometimes have breakfast there before heading down to Rockton and Warner Creek.  Next, the route took us to Jug Creek and on up to Morningstar and Maple Ridges. Before finishing back in Bear Creek and heading home.  It usually took a couple of hours if the roads were good.
            We had a heavy social schedule back then and a couple times we went right from a late night party to our early morning paper route. We particularly remember a night of celebration for my class reunion (that was #15 for the great LHS Class of 1965) resulted in no sleep before going on the paper route.  Eventually, Ernie took the route back over and we could sleep in on those Sunday mornings.
            I’m not sure when home deliveries of newspapers stopped in La Farge.  I do remember that adults were doing the routes at the end, which may have been ten years ago perhaps.  Today some people have the daily newspaper come through the mail, but that means it’s always a day or two late.  The LaCrosse Tribune stopped deliveries to La Farge in 2018, but the State Journal continued until February of this year.  I always made a daily stop at the Zzip Stop to get my copy each day – my reading usually focused on the sports page and the puzzles.  But alas, that option is now gone.  We have moved on to another time – paperless.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

"Near La Farge" Photos from the Past

A while back, I received a request from the Vernon County Historical Society to help identify an old hand colored photo postcard.  The photo was of a bridge spanning the Kickapoo River with the only title being “Near La-Farge, Wis. By, Potter”.  The photograph was probably taken around 1908 and the photographer was Walter Potter as his name is hand written on it.  At the probable time of the taking of the photograph for the postcard there were three photographers operating in the village of La Farge.
            Walter Potter operated a photography studio out of his residence on Main Street next to Donaldson’s Hardware.  Today Deb Moore operates her beauty shop from that location. Another prominent photographer in La Farge in 1908 was Charles Brown who operated a studio in his house on south State Street, just south of the present hardware store.  A third photographer, A. E. Strait operated a mobile photography studio that when it was in La Farge the wagon was usually parked in the back of a building where today Cheryl Haas’ resell store is located.  
            It is hard to imagine that three photographers could make their living in a small town the size of La Farge, but those times of more than a century back obviously called for the need for people, places and events to be remembered in a permanent way.  Fortunately, many photographs from that era still survive, helping us to know the history from that time.  Each of the three La Farge based photographers left behind a variety of photographs to help us understand the little Kickapoo Valley community from that time so long ago.
            Walter Potter probably published the photo postcard of the bridge around 1908.  I base my reasoning for this choice because I have another similar photo from that same year that shows the sandstone cliffs along the Kickapoo River north of La Farge. That photo is also identified with the “Near La Farge, Wis.” title and it is hand colored, also like the photo of the bridge.  The similarity between the two postcards is quite evident, both from the river scenery choices and the coloring techniques used on the postcards.  But there are differences in the two cards, as the printing on Potter’s bridge photo is hand written while the river bluffs postcard “Near La Farge, Wis.” is printed.
            There is also a nice Kickapoo River photograph by A.E. Strait from this era, showing the river just south of La Farge and it is titled “Kickapoo Near La Farge, By Strait.”  If we attribute the sandstone cliffs postcard perhaps to have been taken by Charles Brown, we could have each of the three local photographers vying for the almighty tourist dollar of the time.
            La Farge was somewhat of a tourist destination of that era both because of the natural beauty of the Valley in which it lays and the terrible flood that hit the community on July 22, 1907.  That flood was one of the worst ever recorded in the Valley up to that time and the local photographers were out in force to record the event.
            First, we have Walter Potter’s iconic photograph, probably taken from the roof of the Opera House (Now Phil & Deb’s Town Tap) that shows La Farge attorney Alva Drew walking down the flooded Main Street with his son and dog in tow.  There is also an A. E. Strait photograph on that same day in 1907 with a view looking at the flooded houses on Snow Street a block south of Main Street.  Another photograph of the great flood of 1899, taken by C. S. Brown shows Seelyburg on the north end of La Farge being inundated by the floodwaters.  That photograph is taken from part way up Ed Nixon’s hillside hay field and actually shows where Brown’s former photography studio was located before he moved it to higher ground.
            With all three La Farge photographers publishing photos from those floods, the little river community became well known around the Midwest.  People would ride the train north to La Farge to view the village with the flooding past and to be amazed at the beauty of the Kickapoo Valley.
            Within a few years after that great flood in 1907, the photography business in La Farge would be drastically changed.  In 1909, A.E. Strait sold his photography wagon to Sam Steinmetz, who continued to run the business for several years after that. The announcement advertisement about the sale placed in the May 13, 1909 La Farge Enterprise newspaper read, “I wish to announce that I have purchased the Photo Gallery of A. E. Strait and will remain at the old stand just north of the Rittenhouse & Davidson’s Market, prepared to do good work at reasonable prices, will do all kinds of enlarging, also expect to handle picture moulding and make frames to order at reasonable prices.  Work guaranteed or your money refunded.  Yours for Business, S.I. Steinmetz”.  Charles Brown closed his La Farge studio in 1910 and moved to California, where he would eventually become the photographer for the movie stars of Hollywood.
            Walter Potter continued to run his photography studio in La Farge for many more years.  Eventually, his son Elmer would run a radio store from the same Main Street location after his father retired from the photography business.
            Thus, from these photographers from yesteryear, the story of this little Kickapoo River town can be better told. 
            As for the identification of where that bridge in the Potter photo was located, I think it was the Lawton Bridge at Tunnelville, located two miles south of La Farge.  Joe Young called to say that he thinks that the bridge was the Schroeder Bridge, now Bridge #16 on the Kickapoo Valley Reserve.  When pressed on the matter, local newspaper publisher Lonnie Muller thinks it might be the original Bacon Bridge located north of Norris Ridge, now the KVR Covered Bridge #18.  I think we old-timers should continue to stare at the photograph for a couple more weeks to see if it will improve our squints any.