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Odd Wisconsin Archive

A Boy's-eye View of Madison in 1837

George Stoner arrived in Madison in the summer of 1837, a week shy of his seventh birthday. "The site upon which the city now stands," he recalled, "was then covered with a forest of giant oaks, among which were nestled two or three log cabins." Woods ringed the lakeshores, deer grazed on the capitol square, wolves surrounded the houses at night, and acres of ducks covered the lakes.

The Ho-Chunk far outnumbered the handful of pioneer white settlers, and Stoner's closest playmates were Indian boys. They taught him the Ho-Chunk language, and how to make and use a bow and arrow, "but our favorite amusement was that of coasting down a steep hillside, standing erect on a narrow strip of board six inches wide, and six or eight feet long, tapered at the front end to which a rope was attached. By pulling on the rope a runner was formed, and down we rushed with lightning-like velocity without losing our balance of falling overboard."

Among his friends were the mixed-race children of fur-trader Oliver Armell and his Ho-Chunk wife. "They lived in a rude hut or tent, now on the corner of Gorham and Henry Streets [behind Holy Redeemer Church, near today's Four Star Video], surrounded by young papooses, dogs, cats, and Indian ponies. They had no floor to their dwelling except the bare earth and cooked over an old fashioned fireplace. While cooking pancakes one morning, the lady of the house, Mrs. Armell, in her attempt to turn one over, let it fall spat upon the ground, which she coolly gathered up and placed on the plate with the rest, as though nothing unusual had occurred."

Stoner saw large garden beds cultivated by the Ho-Chunk on the slopes where E. Johnson St. now crosses N. Webster; on the hill where School Rd. crosses rte. 113 above Lake Mendota; and throughout much of Monona. He describes Madison's first school, a tiny log cabin where, "there being but one window, light and fresh air was admitted through the cracks between the logs, some of which were large enough for small boy to crawl through without inconvenience!" (something we assume he found out through experimentation).

Stoner grew up in Madison, was one of the first students to enroll in the University of Wisconsin, and, after a few years in Colorado, settled in as a prominent Madison figure. He lived until 1912, having seen Madison's unbroken wilderness transformed into a Progressive city with electricity, automobiles, and airplanes. You can see more of his reminisicences at our Madison Sesquicentennial page devoted to articles and documents.

For the next few weeks we'll feature episodes from early Madison history, not all of them odd, to help celebrate our state capital's 150th anniversary.

:: Posted in Madison on April 2, 2006

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