« SebelumnyaLanjutkan »
ANNALS OF A COUNTRY TRADESMAN
OSCAR H. BAUER
I was born before the Industrial Revolution closed. This was not known to me at the time Professor W. A. Scott of the University of Wisconsin, in a rapid flow of incisive language that I thought could apply only remotely to one of my small-town origin, lectured on the subject to a class of which I was a member twenty-five years ago. As a matter of fact, it was money which my father had earned under the old régime that made it possible for me to listen to Professor Scott's lectures.
My father was a shoemaker, following the calling of St. Crispin from the time that he was eleven years old, in 1861. He was apprenticed at that early age to a man whose shop was located in the town of Leroy, Dodge County, and received altogether fifty dollars for the first three years. After that he did piece work. He moved about a little, spending some time at Sun Prairie. When a narrow-gauge railroad was built from Iron Ridge to Fond du Lac, a short line that carried the ambitious name of Fond du Lac, Amboy, and Peoria Railroad, father, who was about to marry and was looking for a place to locate, decided to build a shop and home at Brownsville, a town-site which had just been opened on the new road twelve miles south of Fond du Lac.
In a short time Brownsville had a store, a blacksmith shop, a wagon-maker's shop, my father's place of business, and a saloon. The blacksmith shop remains to this day dangerously near to our former home. I often heard father say that one of the chief business mistakes of his life was that he did not purchase the lot on the east side, on which the blacksmith shop stands, as he had purchased the one on the west, which we used for a garden. The lower fire insurance premiums which he would have paid because of the lessened risk, alone would have made the purchase of the lot profitable.
The wagon-maker soon gave up making wagons; he could not compete successfully with Fish Brothers of Racine and the South
Bend manufacturers. For a time he contented himself with the repairing that he was called upon to do, but later he sold out to the blacksmith, who easily learned to do wood-work in addition to his own craft. The saloon in time had two competitors and did fairly well until the coming of prohibition. How it has prospered since, I inferred when I was at Mayville a short time ago. I called upon some cousins, who sell Buicks. While I stood round, a fine, new car was put in readiness for delivery.
"Whose car is that?" I asked.
"That's going up to X, at Brownsville." "What business is he in?"
"He runs the soft-drink parlor, R's old place."
After the coming of factory boots and shoes, father repaired them, both he and his former customers grumbling a little now and then about their quality; and then, as the demands of his increasing family grew, he enlarged our home and shop, and commenced general merchandising in competition with the other storekeeper. He soon had a good trade in boots and shoes, and mother managed the dry-goods and groceries. She also did the bookkeeping.
When I visited my parents a short time ago, I asked father whether I might have one of the wooden lasts that he had used in his shoemaking. When he told me that he had burned all of them as they were always in the way down in the basement, I was sorry that I had asked for one, as I feared that I might have made him regret his action. However, father is no sentimentalist about his shoemaking. Possibly he is right. To pound lasts for sixty years and to be beaten out of the game as he was by the makers of factory boots and shoes is not a thought to be dwelt upon by him with the delight of an antiquarian. Yet I know that father often thinks of the days when he pegged away and of the nights when he worked under the shaded hanging-lamp, always scrupulously clean, conveniently placed in front of him. Undoubtedly he has some memories of that time not shared by his children, because things that impress their elders are sometimes not noticed by the young.
In common we have a recollection of some of the neighbors
who came in to give an order for a pair of boots or shoes, or for the sake of talk and the warmth of the stove.
There was Pat Geelan, who chewed pails of fine-cut tobacco and related outlandish stories of things that happened while he was in the lumber camps of northern Wisconsin. We found out later that most of his stories were to be found in the Saturday Blade, a weekly which contained more harmless, simple, mirthprovoking lies than any paper published nowadays. The two Sampson brothers, who were, intellectually, giants among the country folk, came in for serious talk. One of them later became an auditor in the United States Treasury Department during Cleveland's presidency, and gained some notoriety when on one occasion he threw a Southerner down a stairway at Washington.
These meetings in my father's shop were generally peaceable. Once, however, H, an irascible old soul, and N got into a dispute. H― seized father's heel block, a heavy, cylindrical piece of hardwood about two feet long, and was about to strike his opponent a heavy blow with it when father jumped up and seized it just in time.
A caller whom we can never forget was G. One cold morning in January he came with an unnatural look upon his face, stood with his back to the stove, and without looking up said, "They're after me." Even we children soon understood the sad condition of our nearest neighbor. His mind was gone, and that evening he was taken to the Hospital for the Insane at Oshkosh, where he soon died.
Father had one woman customer for whom he regularly made calf-skin boots. She owned a good-sized farm in Fond du Lac County two miles away and did her own work most of the year. She never married, was eccentric but very keen, and affected mannish ways and dress. She interested us children but we were not attracted by her. She could shoot well, and on one occasion she shot the hound of a hunting party which had come from Fond du Lac to hunt rabbits and did not heed the "No trespass" signs which she had put up on her farm. This woman was known as "Uncle Em." In her immediate neighborhood lived a man named Dewitt Clinton Collins, a settler from New York, as might
be inferred from his name. I recall him on account of the Civil War blue army coat with brass buttons and a long cape which he still wore in the early eighties.
Several other customers I remember distinctly. There was one man from Leroy who talked in a drawling way, and every once in a while said "and so on." We called him "Mr. And-So-On." John Joyce, a nursery agent for a part of the year and a sponge during the rest, came in frequently to talk to father. I remember him because whenever he was drunk he would sing, "O Mary, my darling, why don't you come home?" We did not take his song seriously because we knew that Joyce had no home to which Mary might go. He himself died in the poor-house. Frequently seen with him was Pete Schu, whose name served us children in an odd way. Whenever one of us was asked the question "Who?" and the answer was not forthcoming, the reply was sure to be, "Pete Schu."
Of those who came to this country from Germany about the time of my birth, Jacob Wurtz stands out in my memory because of a few characteristics, chief among which were a stirring, hearty laugh and constant good nature. He married a widow shortly after he arrived, and both lived long and prosperously. Though he read English and became well-informed, his speech always made his origin evident. When the name of our railroad station was changed from Brownsville to Thetis, some of us spoke approvingly and expressed our admiration of the Greek nymph and her son Achilles, but Jacob Wurtz affected to be displeased. I can still hear him. "Dedis! Dedis! Was ist das fur ein Nam! Brownsville will not grow by dat name." Before he died, the name of the station was again changed to Brownsville. Evidently a new official had come along, who knew not Homer.
A proverb says, "Shoemakers' sons go barefoot." That was not our case. I recall two pairs of boots, one for my brother and one for me, of fine calf-skin with red tops. They were of interest to all the children of the neighborhood and a great delight to us. Years later, when one day Professor J. F. A. Pyre, of the University of Wisconsin, spoke in an understanding and enthusiastic way of Marlowe's shoemaking, I do not think that he guessed the
pleasure his words gave one of his listeners. Professor Pyre also introduced me to Dekker, who, because of his The Shoemakers' Holiday, has naturally appealed to me very strongly. My father, like Simon Eyre, at one time had an apprentice and one or two journeymen; but unlike Simon he never became mayor of his town nor set a banquet for a president or a governor, perhaps because Brownsville only recently was incorporated as a village. Father did become a member of the school board, and had the responsibility of hiring the teacher and of mowing the grass and thistles in the school yard on summer evenings. And as for a Lacy disguised as a Hans among father's workmen? There was no disguise about them. I recall two of them who had red noses, and who were without interest when not spurred on by "schnapps," which was stronger drink than father cared for. One of them, the last, I believe, left mother in an angry mood, for I remember that on the day he went she threw the wooden bed he had used out of the window, while she commanded my brother and me to hack it to pieces and burn it in the back yard. I think she was glad to celebrate the passing of the old days with a bonfire, although she undoubtedly regretted the loss of a bed.
There was always a time during the summer months when there was insufficient work to keep father busy. For a few days during harvest he would go to the near-by farms and cradle wheat; and great was the pride he took in his ability to cut down more than the other men in the field. He was in demand at such a time. By this work in the open fields he won some lasting friends whom he could not have gained by serving them only as their shoemaker. Even after the binders came into general use, he always spent a week or ten days stacking grain, mostly barley at that later time.
The change from shoemaking to storekeeping meant an enriched life for us children, for it brought us in contact with a number of salesmen, who represented the greater world and typified its urbanity, power, intelligence, and all-round resourcefulness.
One of our favorite "agents," as we called the salesmen, was Davis, the tea and grocery man, who at all times commanded our loyalty. He liked to discuss fundamental things and thus helped