The following article was selected by the editors from Volume 28 #2
of the Wisconsin Magazine of History (December 1944) pp. 184-187.
Copyright © 2000 by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
The author of this piece, Francis Hackett (1883-1962) was born and educated in Ireland. In 1901 he emigrated to the U.S., where he began his long career as journalist, author, and critic. He was a novelist and biographer of Henry VIII as well as co-editor of The New Republic (1914-1922), special correspondent for the New York World (1920-1923), and book critic for the New York Times (1944-1945). He spent less than a year in Wisconsin, at age twenty-six, but his recollections are both vivid and touching. This piece was originally published in Vol. 28 of the Wisconsin Magazine of History (December, 1944), pp. 184-187.
A Winter in Wisconsin By Francis Hackett
Wisconsin attracted me. During seven years of life in Chicago I often found my way there. I spent a vacation at grassy Oconomowoc. In the early open-car days we motored to Fond du Lac, achieving four punctures on the blazing hot day. There were house parties on Lake Geneva. Once, about nightfall, I walked from Lake Geneva to a wayside hotel, and reached Hubbard Woods the next evening, which was over forty miles in the twenty-four hours.
But, like many a young man who works hard on a newspaper, I craved more than excursions into the country. I wanted to live in the country, and to write. So one day I put an advertisement in a Madison paper, proposing $10 a week for board and lodging on a farm. Rural life is what I had in mind-if you can call reflex action a mind. Expecting a big batch of answers, I went to Madison to make a choice. There was one solitary answer. It was on faintly ruled paper, from a farmer called Cuthbert Latham. It was addressed from Syene.
It did not take me long, on that warm October day thirty-three years ago, to walk to Syene, about six miles south of Madison. Part of the time I went cross-lots, and when I arrived at the Lathams' farm, I was hot with exertion, and my homespun trousers thick with burrs. It was the simple gesture with which Mr. Latham leaned and picked some burrs from my clothes that decided me to make the break and move to Wisconsin.
That was a happy decision. The boy of the family was away. It was, in a sense, to have someone replace him that the Lathams answered the advertisement. They were just as tentative about me as I was about them.
The winter of 1911 was a snorter. It was twenty-five degrees below zero for three weeks. So cold was it in the upstairs bedroom that the water in the pitcher froze nearly solid. The morning fire in the stove was just a rosebud in a vase of creamy ashes. Outside, perched in a cottonwood tree, there would be a prepsychologic hen, frozen stiff. It was actually so cold that a calf in the stall lost all four hooves.
Cuthbert Latham was an English gentleman. Once before he had read an advertisement: that time it was in the Times of London. "Estates in Wisconsin: hunting, shooting, fishing," so he and his English bride came to Wisconsin to live like gentry on a seventyacre farm--"And Mr. Hackett," he said to me wrily, they call this Drunkard's Lane."
"Oh, Cuthbert," said Mrs. Latham, "how could you?" That was the day he announced that he had killed the calf.
"You would do it yourself," he answered mournfully. "The poor beast's hoofs were gone."
Their farmhouse had gentility inside. I remember when Janet Fairbank of Chicago swept out in a motor one afternoon to look me up, the farmhouse seemed actually to shrink. But it housed a family of such gentle and charming natures that none could rival them. Cuthbert was from Oldham as I recollect. He was thin, slow-spoken, upright- and uprooted. His wife was a brisk, matronly, black-eyed little woman with red cheeks and a short upturned upper lip, and coal black hair. She was like a black cherry, and she was a mine of amazingly Victorian sentiments, and a gushing flow of exclamations. Cuthbert had the obstinacy of an overworked farmer who would not be beaten by the game. Up at five every morning, he was woe-begone with fatigue by nightfall. But on Saturday nights, we'd gather around the piano-the father, the mother, the three young daughters, and we'd go through a sheaf of songs. The eldest, Gladys, taught school, but was engaged to marry. The youngest, Gwen, was to go to the university. She was attending high school with the third of the sisters, whose name was Nellie.
It was undulating dairy country but with wooded lots that gave it poetry. I enjoyed being alone and avoided trampled corn stalks and hungry cattle. I went for long walks, or chopped wood, or did something strenuous to counteract the superb meals provided by Mrs. Latham. She was a hostess who could not do enough for her boarder. And the boarder, bloated like an alderman, would sit down at his work table and vainly try to concoct a novel. I still have the first three chapters of it, somewhere in Denmark. It had the bloom of literary innocence. Farm work, work in the tobacco shed, work with the pigs or the eighteen cattle-no, I did not attempt it. I doubt if it would have been permitted.
We used to have the devil's own arguments about politics, Mr. Latham and I. Though tobacco had fallen from six cents to about two, he was still a conservative. I was all for La Follette. I went in to have a look at the red-brick university, with its candid atmosphere under Mr. Charles Van Hise, and I seem to recall some words of wisdom by Professor E. A. Ross. I had a grand free talk with Charles McCarthy in an airy library room. I knew a little about the Irish cooperatives, and I can still feel the breeze and realism of his personality and the high liveliness in his voice. Horace Plunkett, ten years later, proposed (in vain) that the Rockefeller fund give me the chance to write his life. But at that time I was a loafer. I absorbed the dignity of the capitol, the good proportions of the placid square about it, and the serenity and sparkle of Madison that always gave a lift to my spirits. And I stopped at a new hotel that was expressionless as an egg.
One night Mr. Latham and I went by sleigh into Madison to hear an address by a presidential aspirant named Woodrow Wilson. Even Mr. Latham had to admit that it was powerful and persuasive. We were much moved by it. I was reading a little tome at that time called Creative Evolution, by Henri Bergson, and I kind of thought that in some ways Woodrow Wilson was in need of my intellectual help, but apart from this I was for him. And until our horse bolted at Syene station on our way home, spilling us into the soft snowdrifts, we enjoyed the clean air we had brought from Woodrow Wilson, as much as the crisp beauty of the night.
I used occasionally to walk into Madison. I remember a straight road built across a swamp with flags in it. And Mrs. Fairbank gave me a glimpse of fine homes on Lake Mendota. Somehow, I felt more at home in that farmhouse pitched on a high bank by the lane. I had every comfort. I had brought with me a marvelous folding tub from Abercrombie & Fitch. Mrs. Latham would melt down snow and heat it. I'd carry it up in buckets. Then I'd have a long bath in warm snow water, nothing more velvety. And then, with many dippings of the bucket, I'd empty it out the window. I left that tub, with a complete Century Dictionary, when I departed from the farm. My bump of private property was not yet fully developed.
It was sad to leave in spring, but I had word that my father was dying, and I wanted to be with him in Ireland. When I was back in America, I visited Milwaukee in 1915, to see Victor Berger and to interview Leo Stern. I returned to Madison to look up my old friends and, to my astonishment, I found the Lathams no longer on the farm. They had moved into Madison, and when at last I got to their house, only Mrs. Latham was at home. It was, perhaps, the most shocking visit I ever paid. These people had been bludgeoned by fate with unbelievable cruelty. The great tobacco shed had been blown down by a hurricane. The farm had had to be sold. Nellie had died of cancer at the age of twenty. Gladys had had an accident with an iron heated by oil and burned to death. All this, and more, was narrated to me by Mrs. Latham, her eyes big with sorrow and with reproach. What had they done? It was a question Job might have asked. And so I left the Lathams.
Yet that winter under their roof, in the light bright room above, in the shadowed rooms below, at the long table with the Englishwoman cooking such ham, such eggs, such slabs of buttered toast, with rich cream for the coffee, and grapefruit and all the zest, while the straw-haired Gwen or the fawn-eyed Gladys listened, and Mr. Latham waited to light his pipe, so enamored of his daughters, so baffled by his estate-it lingers in memory like a crystal day. We had many a laugh, and many a dispute. Just one family in Wisconsin, and a boarder at $10 a week.