Life in 1917: Newspapers offer insight into quaint, sometimes perilous life

Photo collage of images of a rural family in a wood cabin in Wisconsin and Camp Randall 100 photos
Photo collage of images of a rural family in a wood cabin in Wisconsin and Camp Randall 100 photos

A series exploring life in Madison and beyond during Camp Randall Stadium’s first year


“At the last meeting of the league the sum of $700 was subscribed and a committee … was appointed to look up a suitable bride for Principal Bilkey, who is a single man. The committee has found the fair one and she will be present at the meeting, to which every resident of the ward is invited.”

— Article excerpt on a local school board finding a bride for its bachelor principal from the Racine Journal News, January 1917


BY MARK MEDERSON | UWBadgers.com Contributor

As noted previously, the goal of these recollections from 1917, the year Camp Randall Stadium opened, is to give fans a better feel for daily life in that year. One way to do that is to take a look at what the newspapers were reporting. Looking at the front pages of newspapers across Wisconsin in the first few days of 1917, we find that life was indeed quite different from today.

If you could afford the three-cent price you could get a copy of the Janesville Gazette. A front-page story in that newspaper on Jan. 3 reported that 275 ice cutters were on strike in Kenosha. The story said that 3,000 men were employed in ice camps in the county and the strikers were seeking higher wages. The story also noted that all of the saloons in the Twin Lake ice camps were closed.

Photo of Ice harvesting photo from Fauerbach Brewery
Ice harvesters on Lake Monona (Fauerbach Brewery)

Ice “harvesting” was an important trade at the time. The Fauerbach Brewery harvested blocks of ice, up to 14 inches thick, from Lake Monona in Madison and stored it in the brewery’s icehouse. Blocks of ice were also delivered to residences for home iceboxes.

The Racine Journal News reported that the city was considering regulating the weight of a “loaf” of bread if that bread is to be sold. The regulation would require that a loaf of bread weigh no less than one pound. From the page one story:

Makers, bakers and manufacturers of bread in the city, and others who offer bread for sale, shall keep a scale and weights suitable for the weighing of bread.

A violation of the ordinance could result in a fine of up to $20 (around $384 today) for each offense and a stint in the county jail for three months.

Also seen on the front page of the Racine paper the next day was a story noting that the city of Milwaukee was interested in requiring automobile drivers to get a license in order to enjoy the privilege of piloting a car. Applicants would have to pass a driving test in order to get their license. The story noted that this might be a good idea in Racine as well because: “… such an ordinance would do away with much reckless driving, which is almost daily resulting in serious accidents and sometimes death to pedestrians.”

Something that certainly would not be seen on the front page of a newspaper today was this story from the Twelfth Ward (Racine). Boosters for the Fratt school (today known as Fratt Elementary) had taken it upon themselves to find a suitable wife for the school’s principal, one Mr. Bilkey (no first name given). From the story:

At the last meeting of the league the sum of $700 was subscribed and a committee … was appointed to look up a suitable bride for Principal Bilkey, who is a single man. The committee has found the fair one and she will be present at the meeting, to which every resident of the ward is invited.

The story noted that Bilkey was “not displaying the least excitement” and demanded “her pedigree from birth to date.” The piece ended with the line: “If this is satisfactory and other arrangements accord with the views of Principal Bilkey, a pleasant incident may follow.”

As seen above – “a pleasant incident may follow” – the style of writing and word usage in newspaper stories was quite different than is found in the press today. Another example of this comes from a story in the Grand Rapids Daily Dealer. The headline for the story in all caps reads: “GAYNOR HOME VISITED BY FIRE.” It seems a little unusual to say that the house was visited by fire, like it was a relative from out of town who had just arrived home. Particularly since, according to the story, the “old Gaynor home” was badly damaged by the blaze.

The front page of the Marshfield Times in Wood County featured birth announcements. Page one on Jan. 3, 1917 says that Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Schmelter of 412 West C Street welcomed a baby girl into their lives. It was also reported from Beloit that Mary Whelan became the first female deputy sheriff in Wisconsin.

Three children peek out of the door of a log cabin in rural Lincoln County, Wisconsin. Photo probably taken by Lincoln County public nurse Theta Mead during one of her visits to a rural area. Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society.
Three children peek out of the door of a log cabin in rural Lincoln County, Wisconsin. Photo probably taken by Lincoln County public nurse Theta Mead during one of her visits to a rural area. Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society.

 

That was the good news. The bad news could also be found in the pages of local newspapers — quite bad, in fact. Many people were dying in a lot of different ways.  The Racine Journal reported that an 11-year-old boy died when sand caved in on him on the lakeshore beach just north of Goold Street.

On Jan. 2, the Sheboygan Press reported on its front page that Mrs. Augusta Johanna Louisa Mueller died of chronic Bright’s disease (known today as kidney disease). That same day the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern reported that Nelson Eyers, 32, was killed while cleaning a stone crushing apparatus at the Lutz rock quarry. Also reported in Wausau was the death of a 17-year-old boy who was burned after an oil lamp tipped over in his room. Leo Johnson tried to extinguish his burning clothes by leaping into the snow from his second-story window.

Under the headline, “Some Unique Incidents,” on that same front page is the report of a unique incident, indeed. The entire story from Lawrence, Massachusetts reads: “Rather than kill his pet puppy, Charles LeRoy Jennings Ward took the poison he had been ordered to give the dog.” No further explanation was provided.

Nearly every front-page story in the first week of 1917 listed a report of a death or dismemberment by train. In one column on page one of the Grand Rapids Daily Dealer it was noted that the weekly Skat (card game) tournament was cancelled at the Elks Club. The column to the left reported that two train workers were injured and one killed at the Soo train yard in Stevens Point. The column to the right reported that Fred Nerlson, an express messenger on the Omaha line, slipped on the ice and fell under a moving train in Eau Claire. Nerlson lost both legs below the knee but survived.

Scanning the front pages of newspapers from around the state we can see that life in Wisconsin was certainly quite different a century ago. From births to deaths and the quaintness of cutting lake ice and seeking a wife for Principal Bilkey — this was life in the state the year that Camp Randall Stadium opened.