ALL THOSE YEARS AGO – A Visit To Amherst’s Past

by Eleonore Hebal

This month I decided to focus on the early history of the village of Amherst and Portage County. Using a multitude of books, online archives, and old newspapers, here is a glimpse of Amherst’s beginnings in the nineteenth century. At times, the language and grammar may seem odd, but I have left it the way it was originally printed, to retain the flavor of the era.

A passage about the origins of Amherst, from “Our County, Our Story” by Malcolm Rosholt (1959)

While the township boundaries were surveyed earlier in the summer of 1851, the survey or subdivision of section lines was begun Nov. 29 and completed Dec. 9, 1851.

The original town of Amherst covered two townships in Range 10, namely, Town 22 (Lanark) and Town 23, modern Amherst less six sections in Range 9. The first town meetings and elections were held at “the house of Ed. Wright in said town until further ordered.” Neither the town or County Board proceedings give the date of the first election, nor are members of the town board listed in available records, although from other bits of evidence it is known that Wright became the first town chairman. And from the sequence if events in the County Board proceedings it appears that the incorporation took place in 1852.

The origin of the name for Amherst township is uncertain, but local legend holds that Gilbert Park, then a young lawyer in Plover, suggested to Adam Urline (who first settled in Plover and then in Lanark) that the new township should be named for Amherst, Nova Scotia, reputedly the native place of Urline before he moved to the county in the late 1840s. If true, this is the only township in the county which can trace its baptismal record to a former enemy of the American Revolution, namely, General Sir Jeffrey Amherst, British army commander who later became governor of Canada.

On the village of Amherst, from Standard History of Portage County, Volume One (1919)

Amherst village, in the extreme eastern part of Portage County on the Soo Line and the Waupaca River is the largest and most promising center of population and trade in Portage County outside of Stevens Point. Further, it is well within the belt of good roads which is broadening throughout the county, being on the Yellowstone Trail nearly midway between Waupaca and Stevens Point and on the Federal highway which connects the latter city with Grand Rapids. Amherst has a good newspaper and a solid bank, It is the center of a wonderful potato country and a productive creamery district. The Jackson Milling Company also owned and operated a large flour mill there for years, but since the Nelsonville plant was taken over, it is mainly devoted to the grinding of feed, making Amherst more than ever a convenient and profitable center for dairymen and those interested in the creamery business.

Fortunately the development of the village and tributary district has been well described in the pamphlet issued several years ago by the Red and White School Association, to the subject matter of which such pioneers contributed as C.E.. Webster, A.J. Smith and Andrew P. Een. From that publication it is learned that: “In the year 1853, Judge Gilbert L. Park, of Stevens Point, in speaking with Adam Uline, chairman of the Town Board of Lanark, suggested that our town be named Amherst, in honor of General Amherst of Revolutionary fame. Since Mr. Uline was a native of Amherst, Nova Scotia, he readily fell in with the idea, and the town was formally named Amherst by the above mentioned gentleman. These are the facts, so far as the records give them to us. John F. Hillstrom, who came here in 1851, is our oldest resident, while John and A.P. Een follow closely behind, arriving in August, 1852.” (p. 220-221)

A legend about the Tomorrow River, from “Our County, Our Story” by Malcolm Rosholt

One of the first occasions, if not the first in which the Indian term Waubuck, from which came Waupaca, is used in the English translation as “tomorrow” appears in a news dispatch of the Wisconsin Pinery which is datelined, “Tomorrow River, Grover’s Farm, January 22, 1853.” This suggests that the English translation was already well established, although the Indian Waubuck or Waupaca River was used alternatively for the next several decades in both Amherst and Sharon townships. Today the English term “Tomorrow River” usually applies to that section of the river in Portage County while lower stream in Waupaca County it is called the Waupaca River.

More interesting is the legend which tells of Indians canoeing up the Waupaca River for the mouth of the Wolf, stopping for the night on the banks of the river below the modern village of Amherst confident that “tomorrow” they would reach the “father of waters,” meaning the Mississippi, actually the Wisconsin, but part of the Mississippi River system. If true, it was only natural that this staging area should be associated with the idea of the future and from this may have come “Tomorrow River,” one of the most meaningful place names in Wisconsin, symbol of unfilled dreams and expectancy of things to come.

On Old-World immigration & railroads, from Standard History of Portage County, Volume One

Although the late 1850s saw the Indian titles in Northern Wisconsin all quieted, and the remains of the original tribes banished to a few small reservations, there was no marked stimulus to settlement until the 1860s. The forces which then began to influence Old-World immigration, so marked a feature in the settlement of Portage County, are thus described by a thoughtful writer of Wisconsin history: “There were many reasons for the rapid rise of immigration to Wisconsin and to newer Northwest beyond the Mississippi, after the close of the Civil War.Chief among these was the passage by Congress of the Homestead Act of 1862, which enabled an actual settler to obtain 160 acres of Government land for a cash outlay of only $18, or about 11 cents an acre. (p. 18)

The Green Bay & Western Railroad was in full operation from Winoana, Minnesota, to Green By, Wisconsin, in December 1873, and most if its route through Portage County is south of the Soo Line, which it crosses at Amherst Junction. Further west it passes through the old county seat of Plover, where it meets the Soo Line from the south, which is on its way to Stevens Point, three miles to the north.

These two lines, the Soo and the Green Bay & Western, are peculiarly “home institutions” and identified with the continuous development of Portage County. They continued the close relations which had existed since the commencement of history between Northern Wisconsin and the Fox and Wisconsin valleys. (p. 124)

On Amherst’s first European settlers, from “Our County, Our Story” by Malcolm Rosholt

Peter Grover and his wife Celia, may have been the first to settle in what later came to be the village of Amherst. They had first located at Stevens Point and in November 1851 preempted land on the Tomorrow River at the north end of what is today Main Street. Legend says they built a frame shanty, not a log cabin. A cellar of a residence, probably built later, can still be viewed under a grove of trees where the highway turns west. Grover selected this spot on the bank of the river probably because the teamsters, on the long haul from Weyawega to Stevens Point, had already made a practice of fording the river at this point, not farther downstream as they were to do later. If nothing else he may have liked the view across the river bottom and he had water close at hand for himself and his draft animals. This was an important consideration when pumps were considered one of the items a man could do without.

On Sunday, Sept. 13, 1858, some 2,000 people gathered under the grove of trees near Grover’s house to attend a meeting, apparently a religious revival. This was a phenomenon of the 19th Century, particularly in the new settlements of the Middle West and along the Ohio River when people came from miles around, pitched their tents and spent several days listening to evangelists and preachers, often indulging in rite of rolling, jumping, and dancing. Although the figure of 2,000 people may be an exaggeration for the number attending the one-day affair in Amherst, even half that number would represent a remarkable crowd.

The founders of the township in the early 1850s were mostly of Yankee-English stock who had originally settled in or had business interests in the townships of Stevens Point, Eau Pleine, Hull, and Plover and moved to the eastern part of the country to take advantage of cheap government land after it was surveyed in 1851. But the Scandinavians arrived before them and by 1860 were the dominant ethnic group in the township. They settled chiefly in the east and north of the township and also dominated the east half of the early village of Amherst where a Lutheran church came to be built on “Norwegian Hill” in 1877. (p. 244-245)

Amherst in 1881, from Standard History of Portage County, Volume One

In 1881 Amherst was thus described: “This village is on the Wisconsin Central Railroad fifteen miles below Stevens Point. The Green Bay & Minnesota Railroad forms a junction with the Wisconsin Central about a mile northwest of the village, at which point is Amherst Junction post office. It has 500 inhabitants and is in the midst of good farming lands. E. Webster is the postmaster. There are several churches - Methodist Episcopal, German and Norwegian Lutheran. The school has two departments. Mr. Bancroft runs a planing mill and the Iversons have a flouring mill. There are two blacksmith shops, one harness shop and one wagon shop, with a number of stores for general merchandise and other village accessories. The layer is A.J. Smith. The doctors are A.M. Guernsey and W.O. Kenyon. There are an Odd Fellows Lodge and a Temple of Honor. It is an enterprising place, with good hotels and comfortable business places and dwellings.”

Amherst Newspaper and Bank Established, from Standard History of Portage County, Volume One

In 1893 the Amherst Advocate was established and has continued to prosper ever since. Its first number was issued on the 22nd of February, of that year, by Spencer Haven and Harriet B. Moberg, under the firm name Haven & Moberg. Mr. Haven subsequently became attorney general of the state. He did not remain long in newspaper work, but Miss Moberg (now Mrs. C. S. Bumpus) conducted the Advocate for about a year. J. Leonard Moberg, her brother, present editor and proprietor, obtained sole control of it in 1902.

The International Bank of Amherst was founded in the summer of 1892 by Emmons Burr and his father, Benjamin Burr, of Stevens Point, and A.M. Nelson, of Amherst. Mr. Nelson was most active locally and raised most of the stock for the enterprise. The original organization comprised of the following: Benjamin Burr, president; A.M. Nelson, vice president; J.O. Foxen, cashier. Mr. Burr continued in the presidency until March 1894, when he died and was succeeded by his son, Emmons, who remained at the head of the bank until May of the following year. A.M. Nelson, who had been vice president, then became president and served until January, 1906. Since the latter date, George W. Fleming and been president of the International Bank. Mr. Fleming had succeeded Mr. Nelson as vice president in May, 1895, and continued as such until he advanced into the presidency. J.O. Foxen served as cashier from the organization of the bank until January 1896, when Loius A. Pomeroy, the present incumbent, assumed that office. In the summer of 1918, the financial condition of the bank was indicated by the following items: Capital, $30,000; surplus and undivided profits, $5,000; average deposits, $350,000.

Amherst and Its Schools, 1885 to 1906, by Andrew P. Een (courtesy of the Online Archives of the Portage County Historical Society)

At the beginning of the year 1885, the village of Amherst had a graded school of three departments. The higher and intermediate departments were conducted in the white school house which stood on the present high school grounds, while the primary department was the school house built the previous fall on Laconia street. The school continued as three departments and were taught in the buildings mentioned until 1891. At the annual school meeting held in July of the year named, it was decided to build a new schoolhouse and $5000 voted towards the same. Several adjourned meetings were held during the summer, at one of which plans drawn by I. M. Moss for the new school house were adopted, and at another such meeting Geo. H. Worden, Chas. Simons and Alfred Anderson were appointed as building committee to assist the district board, and the district board was instructed to receive bids for erecting the building up to the first of December. The contract was let to I. M. Moss and our five-room brick high school building was erected by him the following spring, at a cost of about $6,000. At the annual school meeting held in July 1891 the question of organizing as a high school was to be considered. Although not a resident of the district at that time, I was, however, present by invitation as County Superintendent of Schools, and addressed the meeting in favor of the high school proposition. Others also made remarks and the question was carried by a vote of 51 for, to only 6, against the high school.

Sixty-eight students have graduated from the high school since its organization. Their names are as follows:

Class of 1892, three year course - Edna Smith, Grace Van-Skiver, Mary Bakke, Nellie Nelson, Hattie Moberg.

Class of 1893 - Edith Rollefson, Louise Nelson, Edna Grover, Myra Fryar, Lloyd Smith, George Nelson, Mae Weller.

Class of 1894 - Ella Bakke, Willie Berg, Gertie Lewis, Maude Lombard.

Class of 1895 - Thomas Berto, Lucy Moberg, George Guernsey, Gustave Nelson.

Class of 1896 - Zelle Fryar, Caroline Boss, Myrtle Timian, Joseph Berg, Edna Morehouse, Bernice Jaquith, Lucy Bishop, Esther Peterson, George Salscheider.

Class of 1897 - Emma Nelson, Stella Starks.

Class of 1898 - Maude Hathaway, Thomas Sands, Nella Rollefson, Clifford Smith, Antone Anderson, Carl Hall, Garth Cate.

Class of 1899 - Frank Hjertberg, Inga Severtson.

Class of 1900 - Effie Anderson, Ella Anderson, Beulah Hall, Alice Hart, William Holly, Josie Moyle, Hula Jacquith.

Class of 1901 - Emelie Ellandson, Mattie Jeffers, George Smith, James Berto, Clara Olson.

Class of 1902 - Nora Starks, Amy Peterson, Carrie Starks, John Lewis.

Class of 1903 - Four year Course, Raymond Peterson, Carrie Starks. (Miss Starks had graduated from the three year course the year before.)

Class of 1904 - Perry Boynton, Louise Diver, Robert Fowler, Verne Harvey, Flossie Jacquith, Maurice Wilson.

Class of 1905 - Margaret Jaquith, Inez Johnson, John Wenthworth, Anna Een.

Class of 1906 - Selma Ellingson.

During the last twenty-one years Amherst has experienced no boom, neither has it had any decline, and while its progress has not been rapid nor great, yet it has been steady and substantial as has already been evidenced by the development of its schools. During this period two fires have occurred that might be worthy of mention. In the spring of 1887, the principal hotel, which had been built by the Eens twenty years before, but which was now owned by John A. Salseheider and which stood on the site of the present hotel was burned and also another large building just north of it which was owned by Mrs. Gawthrop and conducted by her as a hotel. The next year Mr. Salseheider rebuilt the hotel, erecting the present brick structure. In April 1900 the White School House, which, after the new high school had been erected, had been moved down on Mill Street and was owned by the Temple of Honor, this society occupying the upper story while the lower story was used as an opera house, caught fire during the progress of a theatrical performance and was burned down together with several adjacent buildings.

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