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Odd Wisconsin Archive

It Was So Cold That...


This weekend's arctic blast and snowstorm sent us searching the historical record for similar outbreaks of frigid weather. We found this account by Ebenezer Childs (1797-1864), describing a trip from Madison to Green Bay in the winter of 1836-37:

"There were then but three other families in Madison. The doctor from Fort Winnebago [at modern Portage, who had been tending a Madison patient] designed to return the next day and wished me to wait for him. I concluded to do so and crossed Fourth Lake to its head near Pheasant Branch [Middleton] and spent the night with Col. W. B. Slaughter, who then lived on the west bank of the lake. The next morning the doctor came over. We started for the fort, between Slaughter's and which there was not a single house. I had my conveyance and the doctor had his with a driver.

Middleton to Portage at 32 Below

"When about half way I asked the driver how the doctor stood the cold — for it was a stinging cold day. The doctor, who was completely covered up with buffalo robes, made no reply and the driver, of course, could not answer for him. I drove past them and on reaching a grove of timber I stopped and made a fire. When the other conveyance came up, I went to see the doctor, took the robes off, and found him completely chilled through and could not speak. We took him out of the sleigh, carried him to the fire, and rubbed him a long time before he could speak. I had a little brandy with me; he drank some of that and after a while he was able to walk when we again started for the fort. When we arrived at the fort, as we did without further mishap, we found that the thermometer stood thirty-two degrees below zero. I did not suffer at all with the cold as I ran the most of the way." After leaving the doctor at Fort Winnebago, Childs continued his journey northward alone.

Rescues Stockbridge Indians

"The next day I left alone for Green Bay. There was not then a house between Fort Winnebago and Fond du Lac. The snow was deep across the prairies. I overtook two Stockbridge Indians nearly exhausted from fatigue and cold. I carried them in my jumper to the first timber, when we stopped and made a large fire, and left them. The snow was so deep that my horse could not draw them. They staid there until the next day and got home safe. If it had not been for me they would undoubtedly have perished on the prairie. I arrived at Green Bay safe and sound; there was then but one house between Fond du Lac and Green Bay."

Plagued by a Fatal Flaw

Childs was a colorful character remembered by many Wisconsin pioneers. "He was determined to look on the bright side of things," recalled Albert Ellis, "and to enjoy life; and while deserving the frowns of society... he nevertheless would allow no man to dispise him or treat him with neglect... There was a mischievous pastime which he never could forego — that was to have his joke no matter what the consequence might be to himself... Ebenezer Childs certainly had some good traits. No man could be more true to his friends or more generous to the needy. He would disrobe himself of his last coat and give it to a freezing Indian, in the generous impulses of his heart. There is not a doubt but he gave away outright in objects of charity, to the destitute and suffering, more of his goods, money and property than he consumed on himself. Had he possessed a liberal education and escaped the fascination of the bowl, he might have been a bright ornament to our common nature; as he was, let us admire the better traits of his character and throw the mantle of charity over his weaknesses — foibles similar to which many a greater intellect has succumbed and gone out in darkness forever."

[Source: Childs, Ebenezer. "Recollections of Wisconsin since 1820." Wisconsin Historical Collections 4: 153-196.
:: Posted in Bizarre Events on January 19, 2012

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