Oconto County WIGenWeb Project
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Memoirs:

 contributed by:  Nancy Smith
MY DAD
(Walter W. Smith)




Wedding photograph of Ruth Heald Smith and Walter W Smith
parents of the Author, Betty Smith Erickson


 INTRODUCTION

 As Written by his youngest daughter at the age of 19 in 1938 as a college English assignment. Her Introduction is as follows: In order to make the story of my father’s life more interesting, I have taken the liberty of telling it in the first person, just as though I were the one about whom the story is written. However, the fact is that I am telling this to you in much the same manner as it was told to me by the person about whom it is written. Betty Smith


 I was born June 9, 1876, the second oldest of a family of five, on a little backwoods farm in the town of Nasawaupee, Door County, about eight miles south of Sturgeon Bay. My father, John Smith, was the son of Irish parents who were born, raised and married in Ireland, and who came to American shortly after their marriage. My mother, Maria Hilton Smith, was the descendant of English pioneer settlers. The house in which I was born was a little log cabin built by a lumbering company to use as a logging camp while logging off the virgin timber from land that was afterwards used as the Smith farm.

My earliest recollection is of the little patch of clearing in the midst of a virgin forest reached only by means of a winding “tote” road made by a lumbering company over which they hauled supplies to their camp. This road was impassable during the season of the spring and fall rains and was blocked up entirely from the first heavy snowfall in the early winter until after the spring thaws had melted the heavy falls of snow that had covered it. In my earliest childhood I can remember seeing deer and other wild animals traveling all over the farm and surrounding territory and for several years the deer were so numerous that they destroyed a great many of the crops of the little farm. Many times during the night the howl of the wildcats could be plainly heard as they prowled about the farm building in search of fowl for food.

From earliest boyhood I was a great lover of outdoor life and spent many days roaming through the woods and hunting rabbits and partridge, and seeking out the earliest wild flowers in the springtime.

The nearest schoolhouse was one situated in a neighboring district, and was always overcrowded during the winter months. During the early fall days and late spring ones most of the bigger boys were at work on their father’s farms, but during the winter there wasn’t so much to be done at home so they attended school. I attended school here, and with the help of the devoted mother who taught the rudiments of the meager education as best she could, I had, at the age of twelve years, reached the class of the second reader which at present would correspond to the forth grade. Up to that time, when not in school, I, with my older brother, had helped with the farm work which consisted very largely of helping to clear up new land and making the suitable timber in railroad ties and posts, the nearest market, for which was in the village of Algoma, a distance of fifteen miles over roads that were, during the greater part of the year, almost impassable. The only means of transportation was a lumber wagon built with plank wheels and maple axles and drawn by a yoke of oxen. During the hot summer days it was impossible for the oxen to travel any to advantage and most of the trips to the trading post were made during the cool of the night. Many are the time we left the farm at sundown and traveled until nine or ten the next morning to cover the distance of fifteen miles, riding on the load of ties and post.

At the age of twelve it was necessary for me, in order to help out with the finances on the home farm, to seek employment in a cheese box factory in Algoma. For several years I worked there during the summer season at which time there was a demand for cheese boxes, and returned to the farm during the winter. During the first season I worked ten hours a day for thirty-five cents per day, and paid a dollar and a half per week in farm products for board. The next season I received two dollars per week and board on the condition that I sleep in the factory nights and act as night watchman. Up to the time I was eighteen years old, the highest wages I had received was eight-five cents a day for ten hours of work. In the course of time and because of ill health and pressing indebtedness, it became necessary for Father to sell the old farm and he moved to Algoma, after which of course I lived with the family.

I always liked to attend church and Sunday School and in so doing became acquainted with a number of fine boys who were attending high school and they urged me to quit my job in the factory and go to school, but this I had no desire to do. Finally after considerable persuasion on the part of the boys I consented to go up and talk to the principal of the school.

At the beginning of the second semester after the holidays I had an unforgettable interview with the school principal. When he learned that I had not attended school since I was in the fourth grade he said it would be necessary for me to start in the eighth grade. This I was unwilling to do. In fact I really wanted him to refuse to let me attend high school because then, I thought, my friends would be satisfied and stop urging me to attend school. He finally gave me a sort of oral examination and because of the fact that I had been almost a constant reader of good books during my leisure time, and due also to the assistance of Mother’s teaching had rendered me I was able to answer the questions in a fairly satisfactory manner, and he said, “well, if you want to work you can try the studies in the high school and the other teachers and I will do everything we can to help you, but if you can’t make it you will have to start back in the eighth grade.” I replied, “If I can’t make it in high school I’ll go back to work in the factory.” This, as a matter of fact, was what I really wanted to do. Thanks, however, to the splendid assistance given me by the teachers of the high school, and the earnest work on my part after I had once begun to realize the value of a high school education, I finished the high school course in the balance of that year and the following years and graduated as valedictorian of the class, having the highest average standing of any pupil who had graduated from Algoma High School up to that time. I say this not boastingly but rather as a tribute to the teachers in the school who so earnestly worked with me and kindled within me the desire for an education. After graduation it had been my intention to resume my work in the factory, but due to the solicitation of the teachers and principal of the school I decided to seek further education in Oshkosh Normal School. My attendance there for one year was made possible largely through the financial assistance given me by the principal of the school from which I had graduated. Although, understand, I never considered if a hardship; in fact, I considered it one of the greatest blessings of my life that I started in work in my early boyhood and have been working ever since. Near the close of the first year at Oshkosh Norman an epidemic of pinkeye invaded the school and out of over seven hundred students something like over five hundred were inflicted in varying degrees of severity, I contracted the disease about two weeks before the end of the final examinations and the doctors informed me that it would be several years before I would again be able to use my eyes for studying or intensive reading. This calamity changed the outlook of my whole life and made it necessary for me to seek employment at some occupation where I would not have to use my eyes to such an extent as I would studying.

Fortunately for me my old employer for whom I had worked since early boyhood had moved his plant to Seymour and started the manufacture of woodenware consisting of pails, tubs, kits, etc. Just as I was able to get around again and get the bandages off my eyes I received a letter from him asking me to come to Seymour and take charge of the operations of his plant. I very gladly accepted this proposition and for the next two years I worked in the plant at Seymour until it burned down. During this time I married Ruth Heald, a former classmate of mine at Algoma High School.

The burning of the factory at Seymour left over fifty men without employment, myself among them, out of work and with no visible prospects of the plant being rebuilt. During the two years of my employment at Seymour I bought three acres of land and built a house and barn, ice house, and hen house. Steady work and economy had made it possible to make the monthly payments on the property and at the time of the fire I owed only eight hundred and fifty dollars in all.

 Within the months dating from the fire property had decreased so much in value that when I was forced to move away from Seymour I was lucky to be able to sell the property for one thousand dollars and pay up the balance of my indebtedness and have a little left for moving expenses.

Where to go and what to do were the two questions uppermost in our minds when we learned that the plant would not be rebuilt.

 After due consideration I decided to go into partnership with a man by the name of Frisbie, a skilled machinist by trade and all round good mechanic. Mr Frisbie sold his home and had fifteen hundred dollars to invest and I was able to borrow one thousand dollars from a friend, so our total resources were twenty-five hundred dollars and a determination to build up a business of our own. We decided to build a small wooden-ware plant with machine shop and planing mill as a side line. We accumulated the necessary machinery through a process of buying and rebuilding second hand machines and building other which we could not buy.

After months of constant preparations we were ready to seek the most favorable locations for a business such as we proposed to build up. After visiting a number of communities we decided to locate at Gillett, Wisconsin. Prospects were good; there was a need for a machine shop and planing mill and plenty of second growth timber was available for a wooden-ware plant. The people were friendly and anxious to cooperate with us in starting the business. While the community was small and the businessmen mostly, like us, just beginners, they raised money enough to buy a factory site and give us five hundred dollars as an evidence of their good will.

Thus, on September 4, 1901 we began the erection of our plant in Gillett.

I could easily write a book on the events of the ensuing thirty-five years, of the trials and tribulations, successes and failures, which followed each other in rapid succession. I will, however, touch on only a few of the things which stand out as I now look back, and which had a direct bearing on my own life.

 We had scarcely started the erection of our plant when Mr Frisbie was called away to do a job of installing a saw mill for a man in Michigan. He expected to be gone for only a day or two but such was not the case. While he was installing the mill, he had the misfortune to break his leg right at the ankle.

 Following the accident he lay in his home for nearly a year, while I, only twentyfour years old and lacking experience in such things, had to assume the entire management of the plant alone, looking after the building operations, financing, selling the product, and buying the timber.

During this time Mr Frisbie, because of his enforced idleness, became discouraged. He needed money for living expenses and doctor bills, so he asked me to find a way to buy his interest in the plant. This, of course, loaded an extra burden on me, but I decided to sell out the machine shop and planing mill equipment and give him back the money he invested.

With this unloading of the two departments it left me free to devote all my time to the woodenware business. This I did, and during the ensuing thirty years, working under a tremendous financial handicap and against the fiercest kind of competition I built up a business that had customers in nearly every state of the Union east of the Rocky Mountains.

During all the years we were engaged in manufacturing wooden shipping containers, principally wooden candy pails, I strove to make friends of our customers by square dealing and high quality products. We built up a reputation along these lines and when the National Association of Woodenware Manufacturers was organized to promote the interest of the industry through national advertising and cooperation in other ways I became a member and took part in directing it’s activities.

As time went on, although our plant was one of the smallest in the industry, we had conducted our business in such a way that I won the respect of out competitors, and at a meeting of the National Association I was elected president and reelected for four succeeding years.

I have always looked upon this honor as one of the most gratifying events in my life. I, operating a little plant, doing a quarter of a million dollars worth of business per year, has been chosen to head an association in which were a number of plants operated by the Swifts, Armours, Menasha Wooden Ware Company, and dozens of others doing a combined business of hundreds of millions of dollars.

During the World War period our industry, like many others, reached the peak of its production, but from that point forward its decline was swift and certain. Paper containers came in to take the place of wood and withing a few years it became impossible to give away a wooden shipping container. Our plant here in Gillett was caught in the decline of the wooden containers. Almost over night a plant that had run steadily for a third of a century giving steady employment to sell the product for which it had been built and lacking capital to change it over for the manufacture of other commodities a three hundred thousand dollar investment became worthless.

With the passing of our plant, so passed many others all over the country. In Wisconsin alone, at one time, flourished over thirty woodenware plants employing thousands of men and turning out millions of dollars worth of products.

It is exceedingly hard to devote the better part of one’s life to the building up and expanding of an industry only to see it wither and die due to causes beyond one’s control.

 During the many years I was associated with the business I grew to love it. I came to honor and respect my fellow competitions in the business, who, like myself, had seen the results of a life time of labor gone, as it were, over night.

I look back and think of the many fine and lasting friendships among the customers with whom we did business for years, and as I read the newspapers and listen to the speeches over the radio when those in authority today are condemning business in general, and the employers of men in particular, all I can think of to say is “Forgive the Lord, for they know not what they do.


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