Hamlet and Withee Farm
Contact: Allan Wessel
----Sources: Newspaper unknown.
From Elmer Speich Collection.
The old Withee Farm located in the town of Warner and former site of the ancient Hemlock hamlet, has been sold. The former owner, George Speich has sold it to Anthony Suda. Its sale coincides with the departure from it through the Windom family and is the final step in erasing the last contact between Clark County and the old Withee family. The Windoms worked the farm in the last years of Theodore Withee’s ownership and bade him farewell as he left the scene of his earlier happy and generous living.
To the Sudas, the purchase means the acquisition of some 560 acres of land and an unusual set of farm buildings. In addition they have acquired one of the most historic and interesting sites in all of Clark County. Upon it, stood for many years the dam, which marked the upper limits of the log drives of the old lumber days. Upon it once ended the first telephone line, which ran into Clark County. Upon it once stood a busy saw mill and a thriving flourmill, and a hamlet supported by them. The hamlet consisted of a boarding house, a store and eight houses, including that of the Withee family. This hamlet bore the name of Hemlock, a name which was adapted from a stand of hemlock trees in the area, and which has continued in the name of a cheese factory located a mile or two to the east.
Hemlock came into being through the creation and activities of the Black River Improvement Company. This concern, holding a monopoly of log-driving upon Black River, built two dams from Onalaska up the river, the lower one at Dell’s Dam, the uppermost at Hemlock. This Hemlock Dam backed up a large pond in which were accumulated great numbers of logs, preparatory to the drives. When the logs were ready and water conditions were right, the dam was opened and the waters rushed down, carrying the logs on their crest.
Black River has always been a rocky stream, with great varieties in its fall. It was the despair of the early lumbermen, who tried to float down its rafts of cut lumber. Their rafts were often wrecked upon the rocks and then the lumber was lost. The economic answer to lumbering in Clark County was the Black River Improvement Company, with its dams and its service to the great sawmills of Onalaska and La Crosse.
The Black River Improvement Company was really the creation of the lumber barons, organized by them to serve their mills at the river’s mouth. For many years, Joseph Nesbitt managed the company. In the early years, Mr. Nesbitt journeyed up and down the river and to assist his management, the first telephone was run up from La Crosse to the terminus in Hemlock. This line was used, in part to time the release of the log drives.
Active in the early use of the river was Niran H. Withee, who was born in Maine in 1827, coming to La Crosse in 1852, soon embarking in the lumbering business. His lumber interests then extended into Clark County and he eventually came into the county in 1870, where he identified himself with the county affairs, to become county treasurer in 1875. He held the county treasurer position until 1882, when he was succeeded by his brother Hiriam.
N.H. Withee had more interest than just the friendly interest of the Black River Improvement Company. He found it logical to own the land around the company’s dam at Hemlock and to establish there the sawmill and the gristmill, which provided the real occasion for the hamlet of Hemlock.
The Black River Improvement Company began in the very early days of lumbering in Clark County, being organized in 1864. In the 1880s, its activities were tapering off and in the 1890s logging dropped off considerably. And so it happened that the Withee operation came to be the big enterprise at Hemlock, with the Improvement Company fading out into less and less of a memory.
This elder Withee was a pioneer of resource, energy and vision. He died in La Crosse in 1887 at the age of 60. Since he was then not a resident of Clark County, the records here do not tell about his estate. But oldtimers know him as a man of wealth and it was commonly accepted that he left each of his three boys $75,000 to $100,000, in addition to the real estate, which went to each. This the son Theodore become the owner of the property at Hemlock, the son William the owner of the large Withee farm near Longwood and the son Hiran Haskell owner of the farm upon which the Clark County hospital now stands. To these three sons, he bequeathed his property and to the village of Withee, his honorable name.
The three Withee boys had gown up in a life of relative ease and luxury. They had lived through years of national prosperity and the business was going good at the time of their father’s death. But soon came the 1890s with stress, strain and terrible losses. The going was hard for the young men, considering their background.
Theodore had added to the house at Hemlock and had made it his home. There, he had taken his wife, who had come from a family of wealth and who was accustomed to gracious living. They had servants to do the labors in caring for an 18-room house. They knew how to use money for pleasant living and were generous and friendly with it. Theodore bought one of the first Ford cars of Clark County and the folks knew from its noise when Theodore Withee was on the area roads.
To the tears of the Depression was added the wear of the years. The old mills began to go to pieces. Fred Limprecht, who stills resides in Hemlock, remembers the worries of his mother about his father, as the father worked in the sawmill. The old mill used to shake with the heavy logs rolled through the saw and those who labored there wondered if it might not, at some critical juncture, shake itself apart and collapse.
But the end of mills came at the hand of nature. The great flood of 1914 tore out the dam and left hardly a trace of the sawmill, or the grist mill. Fred Limprecht was then a boy and remembered how his father was absent at the time and of his father’s deep regret when he returned. For the father felt that, had he been present, he could have dynamited out the dike on the west bank and possibly saved the dam itself.
The end of the mills meant the end of industry at Hemlock. Theodore Withee was then involved. He had not the resources with which to tackle the restoration of the mills. Perhaps, indeed, the time had passed for their usefulness.
The wind also struck, tearing down the cow barn and the Warner town hall, across the lane from the east side of the Withee lawn. To replace the cow barn, Theodore took two old buildings from below and adjusted them to the old foundation, one at one end and one at the other end. Space between the two structures was filled with new construction. It was a makeshift. Later, when George Speich became owner, he tore it down and built a new barn.
The site of the Warner town hall had by that time become awkward. It had been located in the old lush days, when Hemlock promised to become a real village. It had been a lively place, with preaching, dancing and Sunday school, in addition to the infrequent town meetings. But the dream of a great Hemlock had by then faded away and the old site was alongside the Limprecht barn. The town cheerfully accepted, from Theodore Withee, the present site in place of the old, that site being on the west side of the river, at the southwest corner of the old Withee farm.
The years had thus witnessed the attrition of such resources as had remained to Theodore Withee and he had not managed to create new ones. Money had been secured by a mortgage and in 1924 the farm was taken over by holders of the mortgage. The end had come of the easy days on the old place. His wife had died there. Theodore Withee had to move on. The Windoms were about to move into the big house. They recall, with a touch of pathos, the scene of his departure. Into his old car, he loaded his dog and gun; then as he stood about to enter the driver’s seat, he called out to the Windom boys, "Don’t take any wooden nickels." Then Theodore Withee, a kindly and generous scion of an honored family, turned his back upon the old place and the old affluence, never to see either again.
The last years of Theodore Withee were spent first briefly in Alaska and then in northeastern Montana. At the little hamlet of Carson, he ran a pool hall and soft drink place. He married again. An early heart attack ended his life, not many years ago.
Theodore Withee had two daughters, both whom now reside in Montana.
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