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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Thanksgiving Thoughts of a Railroad Worker


In the mid-1850s, railroads spread rapidly across the Wisconsin. A line built from Milwaukee to Waukesha in 1851 was extended to Madison in 1854 and reached the Mississippi three years later. But then disaster struck -- a banking crisis called the Panic of 1857, killed investment, and the brakes were slammed on railroad construction.

Poverty beside the Tracks

The workers who graded the earth, bedded the ties, and laid the rails were mostly recent Irish immigrants who followed their jobs along the line, living in crude shanty towns beside the tracks. A community of these Irish railroad workers found themselves stranded in Madison in the fall of 1857 when their employer laid them off. As winter began to set in, an enterprising fellow organized a Thanksgiving turkey shoot near Greenbush, an immigrant neighborhood just south of the University of Wisconsin.

The Good Samaritan

"I was riding with my little daughter by the scene," recalled an anonymous Madison writer, "when an old man, holding a rifle, asked me to stop. 'Shoot for me, Mr. A., shoot for me, please! I know you can. My poor old hands tremble so, I can't; and I've given my last quarter for a chance.'"

"'I cannot leave the horse, much less the baby," I hesitatingly answered.

"'I'm holding," said a man, taking the horse by the bridle. "'And I," said a tall young giant, gathering my child into his arms.

"So I shot and hit the bull's eye. The proprietor of the match handed a fine turkey to me, and I passed it to the happy old owner.

"'Shoot for me, please, shoot for me!' rose from all sides, 'I am a poor man; shoot for me!'

"I saw my reputation as a good shot disappearing. But even more I saw the probability of a late dinner and depressed domestic conditions. But the proprietor came to my aid. 'I didn't know one like a professional would enter, or I would never have made the chances only a quarter. I am a poor man myself, and I gave 50 cents apiece for the birds, getting them for that from my own cousin.'

"'He's right, boys,' I said. Then their disappointed faces struck me with a sense of their poverty, and I added, 'But I wish you would let me stand for a lunch. Go over to the tavern yonder and have something on me. All the coffee and tea and sandwiches you want, but only one glass, or I don't stand for it with the wives.' And I passed a bill to a willing hand.

The Railroad Worker's Story

"The crowd crossed the road, only the young man holding the baby staying. I started to take her. But the rogue laughed and clung to her care-taker.

"'Trust an Irishman to win a child,' I said. 'Thank you. Will you not join the boys?'

"'It's a kind offer, but I'll go home to Kathleen, please, and stay with her the day. We buried our only one -- like her of yours in age -- last spring. God love them both!'

"'Yes, God love them!,' I echoed.

"'And I am thankful mine can not suffer anymore. Truly thankful.'

"'And I.'

When he arrived home, the narrator was greeted by his wife. "'Just in time,' my wife said, for dinner is a little late. The turkey is a large one. But what kept you?'

"'Oh, I heard a short sermon on thankfulness,' I answered, 'And I guess I tried to raise some people's spirits.'"

[Source: Wisconsin State Journal, Dec. 2, 1928].


:: Posted in Children on November 17, 2011
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