Visiting Spirits

October 11, 2011

Michael Goc

Sandra Swisher-Pheiffer as "Yankee Mama" Jane Bonnell and Harriet Dehlinger as the "lonely" Sophronia Temple.

The ghost walk season is upon us and historical groups around Wisconsin are inviting the curious to visit local cemeteries and meet the spirits of the people who lie beneath the tombstones there. It’s a good idea, because history is story, and our graveyards are full of slumbering stories waiting to be roused.

Many cemetery tours focus on the famous and the infamous. Statesmen, captains of industry, theatrical performers and notorious criminals attract much of the attention. The Adams County Historical Society takes a more democratic approach. This is as it should be, for midst all the infinite varieties of human experience, the one we all share is death. So when we visit our country cemeteries, as we did on the sterling morning of October 1, we stop at the graves of just plain and ordinary folks.

There was Sophronia Temple, a Massachusetts native who moved with her husband Timothy to the sandy prairie about ten miles north of Wisconsin Dells in the 1850s. In a letter she wrote to friends back home, she expressed the loneliness of life on the frontier “We have but little to take our attention from our own fireside. No sewing circle, no prayer meeting, no social gatherings of any kind, but few neighbors…This is a fine country to get a living in but I never have been content. I should be if only I had society.”

Lonely Sophronia might have perked up had she visited her neighbor in life and death, Jane Bonnell. A New Jersey gal who also came west in the 1850s, Bonnell had a house full with nine sons and one daughter.  When the “rebellion” started in 1861,  Bonnell’s sons enlisted. It was not long before she had seven sons in the Union Army. We don’t know if that is a record for either side, but it is impressive. She saw six of her boys come home alive. The seventh, Aaron, who was shot dead at Atlanta, is buried at her side.

Bonnell’s other neighbor, Dana Billings, had a more pleasant war. He volunteered in the fall of 1864, collected a bounty of $315 and spent the final months of the war with an artillery unit defending Washington D.C. from an assault that never came. As he wrote home to his wife Annette, “the army is the best place to make a man lazy that I ever saw.”  Not all who served were heroes.

Take Daniel Ackerman. He was sixty-nine years old when he came west with his son Theron, also in the 1850s. They used a warrant good for forty acres of government land that Daniel earned for serving in the New York state militia in the War of 1812. Forty years later, the government’s promise to a veteran, even one who saw no combat, was still good.

Fritz the miller of White Creek as channelled by Don Hollman.

Fritz Witt, the jovial miller of White Creek, came to Adams County from Mecklenburg in northern Germany with his wife Katrina, a Holsteiner.  He could handle a steam-powered mill, but he preferred to work with water, and he ran mills at Mirror Lake, Delton, Arkdale and Easton before coming to White Creek. The thin soil in these parts had all but given out by the 1890s and farmers planted the crop of last resort, buckwheat. Witt then fine-tuned the stones on his mill to grind and sell “the finest buckwheat flour in Wisconsin.”  Lemons to lemonade for the farmers and himself. Flour was one thing, family was another.

Neither Fritz, nor Katrina, nor their son Chris could make life better for Chris’s wife Lucy. Orphaned as a child, Lucy married Chris in 1900. They had their first child, Harold, in November 1901, but he died the following January. Lucy never got over it, although she felt better after her second baby, Blanch, was born in the spring of 1903.

Rachel Kulack, the spirit of Lucy Witt.

Then her depression returned. In the summer she took Blanch to visit Fritz and Katrina who lived on the bank of the White Creek mill pond. Unable to sleep one night, she got out of bed, left the house and headed for the pond. Hearing the door of the house open and close, Katrina woke up. She found Blanch sleeping peacefully but Lucy’s bed was empty. She roused Fritz and the neighbors and they searched around and in the pond. No one knows if Lucy stepped into or slipped and fell into the water. But the pond was small, the current slow, and no one heard her cry out for help. Her body was found on the rocks at the foot of the dam. History is story and each stone in a cemetery marks a story waiting to be told.