Amherst, 1855 to 1865
By C. E. Webster


Friends, Associates, Comrades:

To turn the mind back fifty or more years, to bring before the eyes a picture of Amherst as it was half a century ago, is a task beyond the ability of my feeble pen. If the story is told it must be done by one who was there. I will briefly touch upon a few salient points as memory brings them up.

Early in May of this year the writer was told by John Finch, of Stevens Point, a resident of Portage County since the early forties, that he brought the first load of lumber that was taken into the town of Amherst some time in the winter of 1849 and '50 and unloaded where the Peter Grover house now stands. At that time no furrow had been plowed, no building erected, the beautiful hills and valleys of Amherst were trackless, but awaiting the hand of civilized man to make it a land of fruitful fields and happy homes. The Grover house was erected, the first in the township, and the traveler found therein hospitable entertainment. Home seekers were many and Amherst's fertile acres were soon transferred from the Government to the hardy pioneers. About 1850 the sale began and at the close of 1855, all, or nearly all the land was taken.

The writer first saw Amherst November 2, 1851. Coming In on the Waupaca road, he found settlers along the road, after coming into the township as follows: David Allen, Edward Wright, S. Brimhall, Seth Thompson, William V. Fleming, A. T. Ryerson, the Wilson brothers, James, William and Robert, Peter Grover, thence along up the river, Adin Nelson and further up, Jerome Nelson. Around the shores of Lake Emily, Amsa Ball, G. Harvey, Coburn and Charles Couch had staked out their claims and erected their cabins. In the southwest the Een and Hillstrom families were settled, and along the creek and river, Uri Wilmott and his four sons, David, Samuel, George and John, and P. D. Bangle had broken a few acres each and erected houses. The houses were nearly all built of logs and there was not a plastered house in the township. In the northeastern part of the township a few Norwegian families were erecting substantial buildings of hewed timber. This was Amherst as the writer saw it fifty-one years ago. In the summer and fall of 1855, Jerome Nelson erected a small sawmill where Nelsonville now stands, which greatly aided the settlers in their home building. In 1855 the Darling, Buck and Webster families were added to the population and in 1856, the Gasmann family came in and John Bickle with his young. wife, at the head of a small colony of industrious Germans, settling in the western part of the township.

The soil was fertile, pasturage on the unfenced range free, food plenty, but money scarce and but little in circulation. The people were industrious and frugal, and life, though subjected to many restrictions measured from the standpoint of today, was lived with a zest and a spirit of good-fellowship unknown today. Class distinction was unknown.

Early Malls

Waupaca was our post office in those days and for several years all the mail for the people up the Tomorrow River was brought up from Waupaca by any one chancing to visit that town, and might be found anywhere along the river from David Allen's to Peter Grover's. Letters were few in those days, the New York Weekly Tribune and perhaps a local paper finding way into nearly every household. Just before the war, a postoffice was established and William Loing appointed postmaster. Loing then lived on the Cate farm. The mail was brought from Waupaca weekly, farmers taking turns as carriers. The Star routes, as far as Amherst was concerned, were unknown in that day.

Schools

Early in 1855, School District No. 5 was organized. Why the first was numbered five, I never knew. A school house, built of poplar logs was erected near where. George Fleming now resides 'and in December, the writer with perhaps twenty-five others, gathered under the tutorship of Miss Mary J. Wylie, of Eau Pleine, who brought order out of chaos and began educational work in Amherst. I recall the following pupils as having been present at this initial movement in the educational field: Stanton, Charles and Jane Bangle, William H., Eugene, Geo. B. Allen, Martha Wright, Meliscent, Willie and Chas. Fleming, Chas. E., John N., Azuba and Augustine Webster, Charles and Alexander Darling, Elizabeth and Willie Wilmot, Frank Wylie, Jane Wilson and others whose names have escaped me. The majority of whom have now finished their earthly career and sleep peacefully. School district No. 2 was organized in 1858 and a shanty built on the road west of the Cate farm, where the pupils of No. 2 met for a term or two. In 1858, Thompson and Shannon built a flouring mill near Ben Fleming's. Bancroft and Grover also built a mill now on the property of the Jackson Milling Co. The lower mill backed water on the upper mill, trouble ensued. The law was invoked and the Amherst mill war was on. Finally the Thompson-Shannon party was defeated in the courts and the mill at Fleming's is only a memory. About this time John Eudlick opened a store at the Shannon Mill, and A. Gordon at the Bancroft Mill. Two rival villages were started, the fittest survived and the center of population changing, the little Red School House came into being, occupying the site now occupied by Amherst's substantial school buildings. In that day educational advantages were few and the masses did not come in touch with what is now known as higher education. The teachers of the day were energetic and zealous and handed out "the handful of things they knew" faithfully, and disciplined the little bands of learners and brought them in line for their life work. Miss Lida Loing, now Mrs. L. P. Harvey, was the first to teach in the little Red School House and the writer had the honor to preside therein in the winter of 1860 and '61, and again in 1864 after having returned from the war. Since that time, having lived elsewhere, I will not attempt to sketch Amherst history or tell the tale of its schools, but leave it to abler hands. You have with you on this occasion, former teachers and pupils who are entitled to their say, in fact, it is your duty to make them talk and tell you the story down through the years, from the feeble beginning that I have placed before you, to the grand achievements of the present day.

The social life of Amherst during the pioneer period was informal and pleasant in many ways. All were neighbors and all were friends, family visited family, oxen often being the means of conveyance. Neighborhood, political and religious topics would be discussed, a hearty midnight meal often served, good will in all and through all. Social dances were often held and as the writer remembers, the girls in hood or sunbonnet were prettier than the girls of today with their elaborate millinery and other make-tip. Recollection brings back many social parties at the home of Jonathan Aldrich. Mr. and Mrs. Aldrich, then upwards of sixty -years young, would lead, off with a French Four with a precision and agility of movement that would put the younger people out of "class."

No, my young friends, all the merry making and fun was not left to your day. We of long ago managed to sandwich a little pleasure in with our laborious duties, and possibly got as much out of life as do the people of today.

The religious life of the day, as the writer remembers it, was crude, but many good people managed to live righteous lives despite the harsh teachings. The terrors of the law were placed before the. people. Hell and hate had a larger place than did Christ and the love that passeth understanding. In that day dogmatic theology held the field and the true spirit of Christianity, the spirit that moved the people to live right was obscured. Happily the hard doctrines of fifty years ago are not now taught, nor accepted, except by the uninformed who occupy some obscure field in the religious work.

Politically Amherst was always Republican and rolled up a handsome majority for Fremont in 1856, and gave an almost unanimous vote to Lincoln in 1860 and 1864.

During the war nearly every able bodied man in Amherst went to the. front and many laid down their lives that their country might live. Amherst was patriotic then and Is, thank God, patriotic today and will so continue until the end of time.

I will note before closing that the first person to be buried in Amherst was Thomas Fleming, who was placed at rest in the Lower Amherst cemetery in September 1855. The many cemeteries in the township today, where we can read, inscribed upon marble, the names of those whom we knew and loved, prove that the generations are passing and should remind us to do our work while here, that we as a people may not retrograde morally, politically, socially or physically.

Personal

In closing this paper I wish to speak of a few of the noble men who left their impress on the present generation in Amherst. There was big hearted, open handed William V. Fleming, who was ever ready to aid his fellowmen; Peter Grover, full of energy and dash, who helped push things along; Enoch Webster, always calm, judicial, whose judgment was often sought and who should be remembered as the peace-maker, of such we read in the record; Charlie Buck the maker of epigrams, whose caustic wit could scorch the delinquent and commend the true; Captain J. G. Gasmann, who lent dignity to all occasions and whose influence was ever for the right; David Allen, James Wilson, William Wilson and many others, who always gave each man his due.

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Early History of Amherst and its Schools, ©1912, Red and White School Association.
People and Places of Portage County
Copyright ©2006
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