Pioneer Times in Baraboo: Coronor George B. Gibbons Recalls Early Day Incidents

The News, June 4, 1909

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Twenty dollar gold pieces were more of a rarity sixty years ago than they are today.  Mr. George B. Gibbons while in reminiscent mood recalls some incidents of pioneer days that aptly illustrate the changes that have taken place since Baraboo was a frontier village.

Baraboo was mostly woods in those days.  It was about 1850 when James Maxwell was the proprietor of a little store located on the corner where the First National bank now stands; Timothy and Noble Kirk occupied a one story building on the present site of the Bank of Baraboo.  Here the two firms dealt out tea and coffee and other commodities to the little circle to whom Baraboo was home, and between whiles when trade was dull, swapped experiences with their competitors. 

Mr. Chapman occupied the corner now dignified by the building known as the Corner Drug store.  At this time the principal portion of Baraboo was under the hill but the center of population was gradually changing.  Upon the lot now occupied by Kasiska’s tailoring establishment, Mr. Gibbons, then quite a young man, opened a wagon and repair shop adjoining the blacksmith shop of his brother-in-law, Mr. Truax.  Money was scarce in those days and farmers, more often than otherwise, offered produce in exchange for wagons or repair work.  Many times it happened that Mr. Gibbons would receive oats in payment and frequently his storehouse held a hundred dollars worth of this grain which was valued at fifteen cents per bushel.

On the morning of his wedding day Mr. Gibbons and his brother-in-law received an order from a farmer in Dellona for a large breaking plow, Mr. Truax furnished the iron portions while Mr. Gibbons supplied the wood work.  This wood work consisted of a beam twelve feet long and about eight by twelve inches thick and was made from white oak hewn out.  The plow needed six or eight yoke of oxen to draw it and would cut roots as big as a man’s arm.  Mr. Gibbons remembers that they began the manufacture of the plow in the morning before sunrise and that it was completed and safely in the farmer’s wagon at sunset.  Mr. Truax received $36 for his part of the work while Mr. Gibbons was content with the sum of four dollars.  The latter was paid in four franc pieces which were common in Wisconsin at the time.  As these made only the sum of $3.80 a silver quarter was added for good measure.

The matter of ready cash had troubled the mind of Mr. Gibbons somewhat during the day but the payment of the farmer adjusted matters most satisfactorily and the young man was under no pecuniary embarrassment on the occasion of his wedding.  The marriage of Mr. Gibbons and his bride, Miss Mary Pointon, was celebrated in the old Penfield residence on the corner of Third avenue and Center streets.

At this time Mr. Warner kept a grocery which was located where C.E. Ryan’s jewelry store stands.  Wishing some change one morning, he decided

to ask Mr. Truax to accommodate him.  When he entered the blacksmith’s shop he found a curious crowd of his friends there viewing the twenty dollar gold piece which had been part of the payment received for the giant plow.  One had to do something in those days to get a twenty dollar gold piece and in honor of the blacksmith’s achievement, the crowd declared that he should treat.  With many a jest they all repaired to the establishment of French Pete across the way and properly celebrated the occasion. 

Some years later a twenty dollar gold piece again figured as a source of difficulty.  The members of the sixth regiment had just received their pay in Madison and Mr. Gibbons, being desirous of changing a twenty that had fallen to him went to a bank for the purpose.  He was informed that it would be impossible to accommodate him, as the bank’s supply of small change was entirely exhausted.  A similar answer was returned to his request at other establishments and the puzzled, young man stood on a corner wondering what means he could use to possess himself of the desired change.  At this moment a seedy-looking individual, who was passing, observed him.  “What be you looking for, boy?” he inquired with ready curiosity.  Upon being informed by Mr. Gibbons of his dilemma the fellow proceeded to draw from his unpromising looking pockets the desired amount in small change and sent the young man on his way rejoicing. 

The stage, which made regular trips between Baraboo and Sauk, charged one dollar fare each way in those days.  This did not, however, include transportation over the bluffs; that portion of the journey the luckless traveler was expected to perform on foot, the fascinating view obtained, being considered sufficient compensation for the imposed exertion.

Mr. Gibbons claims the famous county of Kent, England, as his birthplace.  He came to America when a child, with his parents, the family living for a time in New York and later, about 1845 coming to Wisconsin.  He was about 15 years of age when the journey from the home in Log City, now known as East Eaton, New York, was begun.  He recalls the trip by teams to the Erie canal and the long wearisome days on the canal boat.  Between Rochester and Lockport his mother complained of this slow mode of travel.  His father to cheer her remarked that they would transfer to the lake boat shortly when they would make better time.  But it happened that they were detained on the canal boat some ten days in consequence of a break in the lock, making the journey still longer.  They crossed lake Erie to Cleveland in the Joseph Ward, a sailing vessel.  From Cleveland they went up the Detroit river to Detroit and into lake Huron.  Here in a severe storm a large amount of furniture and some twenty five sheep were lost.  

A steamboat towed the sailing vessel into a harbor at Beaver Island.  When they reached Milwaukee one of the first persons with whom they became acquainted was Solomon Juneau.  He was engaged in selling root beer, conveying it from house to house in a hand cart similar to the ones used at the present time by paper hangers and painters.  The principal street in Milwaukee at that time was Water street.

About 1846 Mr. Gibbons was in Chicago.  It seemed to him at that time to be a city of about 15,000 inhabitants.  The streets were very marshy and none of them were paved.  In a restaurant where Mr. Gibbons and a friend took breakfast they saw women dipping up water, pail full by pail full, from a basement and pouring it into tubs which were emptied into the lake.  There were no street cars then but one morning while Mr. Gibbons and his friend were strolling about they saw two women leisurely driving into the city in a wobbly wheeled cart drawn by oxen.  One could scarcely get through the streets with a horse and wagon on account of the mud.  The stores had no awnings and most of the merchandise seemed to be displayed outside.  After the large stores of Utica and New York City they looked small and insignificant.