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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Selective Memory

In the mid-19th century, it was common for the first lumber mill owners to stock "a gill of rum" as part of their workers' rations. Supplying liquor was necessary to entice lumber crews to leave the towns downriver, where they could easily get a drink anytime, for remote sawmills built at falls or rapids far upstream.

John Knapp and William Wilson were staunch temperance men, but when they purchased the Upper Mill on the Red Cedar River in 1846, they realized that supplying their crew with whiskey was a necessary evil. Knapp was responsible for conducting supply runs into town, and Wilson was tasked with handing out the demon alcohol. The supplies were disbursed only after a keelboat was pulled by hand across the rapids below the mill, an activity requiring all men to stop their other work and help tow the boat.

After several uneasy months, the two teetotalers were discussing their relative guilt. Knapp pointed out that Wilson was responsible for the lists of supplies and tried to exculpate himself by saying that he only bought "just what your list calls for." If Wilson didn't list the whiskey, then Knapp couldn't buy it.

On the next supply run, after the keelboat was hauled ashore the crew looked for their drink but couldn't find any whiskey. Wilson asked Knapp what he made of the missing liquor. Knapp replied that there had been no whiskey on the list, so he hadn't bought any. Wilson then feigned astonishment at his forgetfulness.

The men grumbled, but went back to their work and managed to cope without their usual ration. Seeing the success of the plan, Knapp and Wilson agreed that the whiskey should always be "forgotten" when the list was made, and to their great satisfaction the scheme continued to work.

If you enjoy Wisconsin's logging and lumbering history, be sure to look at the newly digitized collection of images by Chippewa Falls photographer Alfred Bish.

:: Posted in Curiosities on May 18, 2011
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