Tragedy on the Homestead
Lake Koshkonong (the-lake-we-live-on), Wisconsin, March 1893
I’ve visualized in my mind how this tragedy occurred. I picture ten-year old Nancy, hovering over her mother, Cornelia, sobbing 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. I imagined 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 after the delivery of her baby girl. My Great Grandmother, Cornelia Ames was probably hungry, cold, and suffering from post-partum depression.[i]
It was winter in Wisconsin. All of the garden vegetables were gone. I pictured the one room cabin the following way. 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, died two days earlier probably 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 soap box in a shallow grave under the snow in Otter Creek Cemetery. [ii]
“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.
The Ira Ames family lived on a piece of land near Lake Koshkonong in south-central Wisconsin. Perhaps, bringing the family to live on Lake Koshkonong was 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.[iii]
For the family of Ira Daniel Ames, the first part of 1893 was undoubtedly the worst year of their lives. Life was unbearable.[iv]
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. [v]
Ira Ames had fought in the War Between the States in Company D, 8th United States Infantry, and Regular Army for several years. I feel 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. [vi] Ira had suffered from measles pneumonia and subsequent pain as mentioned in his National Archives file.[vii] He probably suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder before we ever diagnosed it years later. Ira was probably an alcoholic. One newspaper article referred to him as “trading his wife’s garden as boot.[viii]
After returning home from the war, Ira met and fell in love with Cornelia Palon. I envisioned him 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. According to the census, their status in life deteriorated. Ira worked as a farmer in 1870 in Albion. [ix] By 1880, he was listed in the census as a day laborer living in Milton, Wisconsin. [x] In 1890, the Ames’ were living eight miles north at Gebo Point, on Lake Koshkonong. During this time, I imagine the demons came back to haunt him and he began to take up the bottle. The family suffered greatly from their father’s drinking habits. It was a hardscrabble existence. Things were not always been like this. I imagined 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 and the last of the twelve children was Caroline who died with Cornelia in 1893. By 1890, the two oldest were no longer at home. Frankie, Chauncey, and Rosey Belle had passed.[xi]
The family could not survive without food and heat during this severe winter of 1893. Without proper care, the twelve by eighteen feet, 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. [xii] I pictured their meager furnishings consisting 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. They were isolated. There were no close neighbors. Possibly, they were so poor and working so hard to survive that they did not have time to socialize or Cornelia was so ashamed of their poor existence she did not associate with the neighbors. I visualized them living a hardscrabble life.
In March of 1893 life became so difficult for this family that the mother, Cornelia, froze to death but likely compounded by pneumonia, starvation, and frostbite. 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 twelve and fourteen, were sent out to make it on their own and the four youngest were sent to the orphanage in Sparta, Wisconsin.[xiii]
Two years later, in March 1895, Ira died.[xiv] I conjured the following picture of him: a man in despair and depression from 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. My heart aches for my great-grandparents, Ira Daniel Ames and Cornelia Palon. For most people, life gets better as time goes on but for them it seems to have gotten worse. The depression came along with the sadness and deaths. They were unable to get out of the poverty existence.
[i] ___________. “Didn’t Know Her Sister Starved Near Milton.” Janesville Gazette, 6 May 1893.
[ii] Lesy, Michael. Wisconsin Death Trip. University of New Mexico Press. 2nd ed 2000.
(First published in 1973, this book is about life in a small turn-of-the-century Wisconsin town has become a cult classic. Lesy collected and arranged photographs taken between 1890 and 1910 by a Black River Falls photographer, Charles Van Schaik).
[iii] Swart, Hannah. Koshkonong Country - A History Of Jefferson County Wisconsin. W.D. Ward. 1975.
[iv] __________. “Mother Froze to Death, Babes Barely Saved.” Janesville Gazette, 7 March, 1893.
[v] Whitten, David O. https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-depression-of-1893.
[vi] National Park Service. U.S. Civil War Soldiers, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007.
Original data: National Park Service, Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, online <http://www.itd.nps.gov/cwss/>, acquired 2007.
[vii] "United States Civil War and Later Pension Index, 1861-1917," database, Family Search (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:NHMQ-6YM : accessed 31 December 2015), Ira D. Ames, 01 Jul 1882; from "Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1900," database, Fold3.com (http://www.fold3.com : n.d.); company D, regiment 8, , NARA microfilm publication T289.
[viii] _________. “Ira Ames is a Dead Man Indeed, Traded his wife’s garden as boot for swapping horses.” Janesville Gazette, 9 March, 1893.
[ix] "United States Census, 1870," database with images, Family Search (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MN9W-D99 : accessed 31 December 2015), Ira Ames, Wisconsin, United States; citing p. 4, family 30, NARA microfilm publication M593 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 553,207.
[x] "United States Census, 1880," database with images, Family Search (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MNHX-S7L : accessed 31 December 2015), Ira Ames, Milton, Rock, Wisconsin, United States; citing enumeration district ED 193, sheet 328C, NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 1444; FHL microfilm 1,255,444.
[xi] Cornelia Ames Family Bible (1868-1968) The New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (American Bible Association) (1875) now in possession of Nancy Fermazin Peralta, Buena Park, California.
[xii] __________. “Mother Froze to Death, Babes Barely Saved.” Janesville Gazette, 7 March, 1893.
[xiii] __________. “Mother Froze to Death, Babes Barely Saved.” Janesville Gazette, 7 March, 1893.
[xiv] "United States Records of Headstones of Deceased Union Veterans, 1879-1903," database with images, Family Search (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:V6H3-CWQ : accessed 31 December 2015), Ira D Ames, 21 Sep 1895; citing Mitton Junction, Rock, Wisconsin, NARA microfilm publication M1845 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 1; FHL microfilm 2,155,576.