Friday, September 5, 2008
Tradgedy on the Homestead: Lake Koshkonong (the-lake-we-live-on), Wisconsin, March 1893
This is how I imagine my great grandparents, Ira and Cornelia Ames lived in Lake Koshkonong. The story is fictionalized based upon the history of this family's survival on the prairie. It was taken from newspaper articles, Civil War papers, and the family Bible.
Ten-year old Nancy, hovering over her mother, Cornelia, sobbed uncontrollably. Her hazel eyes were almost swollen shut as she cried out, “Ma Ma… Ma….” With a flask in his left hand, her father, Ira pushed open the door of the homestead and stomped in, his unshaven beard growth of a week beaded with little drops of melting frost. He dropped his gloves to the floor as he rushed over to Nelia’s (Cornelia) side, leaving tracks of white slush on the floor of the one-room shack they called home. Most of the year, he eked out a living fishing on Lake Koshkonong, but in winter he hunted for game. The sobbing children looked fearfully at their father, saying in unison, “Paw, do something.” Nelia Ames lay stiff and cold, breathing noisily, with barely a rise and fall in her small chest. She had been lying on the bed in the corner of the room, listless and sick with fever and cough for the last two weeks.
All of the garden vegetables were gone. The last of the wild turkeys had been eaten one month earlier. Only a lonely crust of bread remained on the table with a few scattered crumbs on the floor. Little Caroline, born six weeks before, on January 21st, had died two days earlier from prematurity, lack of nourishment, and proper care. In those days, when a child died, there were no boards to make a coffin. Relatives dug a pit and laid logs across the top. With a crosscut saw, one man in the pit and one on top, they ripped planks out of the logs for the coffin. Because of the family life, abject poverty, baby Caroline was laid to rest in a shallow grave under the snow in Otter Creek Cemetery.
“Come children, we have to get some help here. Hiram and George, you two get some coal and wood and get a fire goin’.” Irritated, Ira shouted, “Nancy, quit blubbering and gather up the little ones or I’m going to send you for the doctor. I’ve got to get some help for your ma. Be back in a few hours or so,” he said as he slammed the door shut, trudging out into the cold.
Ira Ames homesteaded a piece of land near Lake Koshkonong in south-central Wisconsin. Bringing the family to live on Lake Koshkonong had been a good idea in the beginning. Fishing for a living would provide support for the family. Green ash, white oak, and silver maple groves dotted the horizon. Hog pastures, wild turkeys, and lanes rutted out by cattle tramping through the area were common in this part of Wisconsin. Bald eagles and osprey nesting in the trees, ruby throated hummingbirds and white sparrows were numerous. Squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, coyotes, and white tailed deer abounded. In the spring, wild strawberries and fresh flowers dotted the landscape: lilac, mauve, yellow and white crocus with their white central stripe along the leaves, fragrant grayish-blue morningstars with pinkish-white eyes, and deep purple violets covered the landscape. The marshlands abounded with wild rice which grew seven feet high above the water, and so thick all over that it was difficult to push a canoe through it. Mallards The marshlands were sprinkled with wild ducks of all colors, mostly mallards.
For the family of Ira Daniel Ames, the first part of 1893, was the worst year of their lives. Life was unbearable.
1893 was not a good year. The winters on Lake Koshkonong were always severe; the year of 1893 was an especially bad winter. The country was in a depression. The depression of the 1890s was on a par with the Great Depression of the 1930s in its impact on employment. In some places it began before 1890. An agricultural crisis hit Southern cotton-growing regions and the Great Plains in the late 1880s. Twenty-five percent of the nation's railroads were bankrupt; in some cities, unemployment exceeded 20 or even 25 percent. People of different incomes experienced the depression in markedly different ways. In the bitter winter months, some poor families starved and others became wanderers. Vagrants, out of work, crisscrossed the countryside, walking or hiding on freight trains. Many appeared at back doors pleading for work or food. People accused those who were out of work of laziness. Some of the unemployed blamed themselves. The newspapers were full of reports of despair and suicides due to these circumstances.
Ira Ames had fought in the War Between the States in Company D, 8th United States Infantry, Regular Army for several years. He came home a broken and disturbed man. His regiment had lost a total of 280 men: 6 officers and 53 enlisted men killed and mortally wounded, 2 officers, and 219 enlisted men died from disease.
After returning home from the war, Ira met and fell in love with a beautiful young woman, Cornelia Palon, feeling that with love he could overcome his depression. They married in Albion, Wisconsin on June 25, 1868. Work was hard to come by after the war. The first years were particularly difficult. Ira worked as a farmer in 1870 in Albion. By 1880, he was listed in the census as a day laborer living in Milton, Wisconsin. In 1890, the Ameses were living eight miles north at Gebo Point, on Lake Koshkonong. During this time the demons came back to haunt Ira and he began to take up the bottle. The family suffered greatly from their father’s drinking habits. Things had not always been like this. Ira had dreams, dreams of settling down, buying a farm, raising a family…. That was in the beginning.
As the children came, their situation became more difficult. The first born was Charles Henry in October 1870, Beth Frances in January 1872, Frankie in October 1872, Chauncey in 1873, George Elliott in 1878, Hiram Edison in September of 1880, Rosie Belle in 1881, Nancy Theo in 1883, William Scott in 1884, and Marion Frances in 1889. Marvin Franklin was born November 22, 1890 and the last child, Caroline, was born in the year 1893, making twelve children in all. The two oldest were no longer at home. Frankie, Chauncey, and Rosey Belle had passed.
The family could not survive without food and heat during this severe winter of 1893. Without proper care, the 12 by 18 foot, one-room house, became a shack of wide, rotting, gray boards running up and down with cracks in the walls allowing the brisk, cold air in and the heat to seep through the openings. Their meager furnishings consisted of a table sitting in the corner covered with a red cloth, two beds, the family Bible open to Psalms on the lone dresser, and a shiny black, polished cook stove in the center of the room. The family lived in a lonely place about 80 rods (half an acre or half a football field) away from the nearest neighbor. Ira began to drink more and more and worked less frequently, and cared less and less about the family. He attempted to work as a fisherman, but was not doing well during this winter.
In March of 1893 life became so difficult for this family that the mother, Cornelia, died of pneumonia, starvation, and frost bite. The doctor came and pronounced her dead. He found six children, starving and freezing in the “shack”. He called the authorities. If they hadn’t intervened these children would have been dead with their mother. They found the children scantily clothed, one little girl having on only a calico dress with no underclothing, and a little boy having on only knee breeches all torn to strings. The neighbors came and took them into their homes. The two oldest boys, ages 12 and 14, were sent out to make it on their own and the four youngest were sent to the orphanage in Sparta, Wisconsin.
Two years later, in March 1895, Ira died in despair and depression of a broken heart. Life had taken its toll. Nelia was dead, the children were gone, and fishing was poor. The demons had returned and he had begun to take up the bottle again. His spirit was broken, battered and bruised. All he had were memories.
1. Wisconsin Historical Society
2. Caswell, Janesville Gazette. Reporting on the homeless.
3. Jacob Covey. “Legal Tender”. From Coxey’s Magazine, “Cause and Cure”, December 1897.
4. Wisconsin, Civil War Regiment Histories. Wisconsin Historical Society.
5. Janesville Gazette, March 7, 1893, page 1. Article titled “Mother Froze to Death Babes Barely Saved.
6. Cornelia Ames Family Bible now in possession of Nancy Fermazin Peralta, Buena Park, California.
7. Janesville Gazette, March 9, 1893, p. 4, column 3. Article “Ira Ames is a Dead Man Indeed, Traded his wife’s garden as boot for swapping horses.”