Monday, September 19, 2011

Monday Madness: Takes a Wee Bit of Madness: James Peter McPherson Hews a Home From The Land

Photograph Courtesy of the Maggie McPherson Burmeister Family.  Photograph Set-up and Notation by Bill Mansur
Note:  This may have been the original McPherson log house, as the Adamsons did not arrive in Springdale until 1858. 
Even if it is not the  originall log house,  it would have looked much the same as in this photograph.  
Also the Adamson land was carved out of the original McPherson 80 acres holding. /JGH

Hewing a Home From The Land

Cold rain pelted James P. McPherson as shepherded his young family onto the river steamer in NYC, headed up the Hudson River to Albany , and then onto the horse pulled boats of the Erie Canal. A cold spring wind dashed their faces and stung through their clothes as they plied the Great Lakes from Buffalo to Milwaukee. And then there was warm glorious May sunshine as the wagon carried them closer to their new home in Wisconsin.

The date was May 21st of 1850, when they arrived at the John Stewart place which was located on Military Ridge between Verona and the McPherson's soon to be home of Springdale. The road would be known as Scotch Lane, as the residents – Adamson, Clow, Muir, Nimmo, Davidson, Stewart, Henderson, Beat. McGaughey, Whyte, Lyle, McDonald, and soon McPherson – immigrated from Scotland, and many from the villages and towns near Edinburgh and Dundee.

James P. and his wife Mary were greeted by John Stewart, who let them move into his log cabin which stood by his new frame store. John Beat showed up the next day to plough a garden spot for the new comers – Scots they be. Potatoes were planted. Onions sowed. The men of Scotch Lane took McPherson over the ridge to Springdale to look for land – two 40-acre plots near the Thomas Miles place. A bonny location. The surveyor was brought out and the deal was done. At long last James P. McPherson had his own land. The stench and fiber filled air of Dundee was long past, and soon the teeming, immigrant crowed streets and tenements of NYC 's Five Points would recede into the past – only memories. Now he had land.

Mary, his bonny black haired wife, had her hands full with the three stair-stepped boys, seven-year old Billy, James, and Jabez at three, to say nothing of baby Ann; in addition she cooked, cleaned and helped James in the garden. They had spent their savings getting to this land of theirs – cost more than $36 in travel from NYC to this land – and that dinna count the miscellany of “cart for hire, back dues and Food & lodging by the night.” Their pockets were empty, so they scrambled to live. James' work in the flax mills prompted his learning of the tailoring trade in NYC and he quickly put those skills to use. The Stewarts, Gows, Beats, McDonalds, McKays, and Davidson's called at the log cabin to have pants, coats, vests, and hats to be made by McPherson. He also helped his new friends and neighbors in the fields, hoeing, planting, haying, harvesting and thrashing. Mary helped out where she could; she quickly became known as a healer and was called in birthings and when children were ill; she also knitted finely. According to the stories passed down to the children, they had very little money that first year in Springdale, and were paid for their work by a piece of meat, a slab of newly churned butter, and most importantly the neighbors helped with cutting, hauling and setting logs for their new home.

McPherson's diary showed that the work on his house did not go smoothly. Even though within the first month, he had picked out and surveyed his land, and even had taken Mary and the children out to view the land on which they would make their home, he only had a few days in July to cut logs for his house. Then it was haying and hoeing for neighbors, followed by more haying and harvesting, and thrashing --- all up and down Scotch Lane through July, August, September, October, and even into November. Summers in Dane County, Wisconsin sizzle, but winter winds and cold come quickly in October and November. Although, James P. spent a day or so cutting thatch for his roof in late September and early Ocotber, it was not until mid November that he began the serious work of cutting logs. He noted in the Novr 15th to 19th entry that “John Beat with his own & Mr. Lamonts oxen hauled my logs.” For the next five days, James Peter worked at setting the logs for his house, and by November 25th , “Anderson hewed my wall plates. John Eadie fitted joist.”

During the first six months on Scotch Lane, McPherson had gone to every “raising” of a house or barn on the neighborhood. So, as was their way, November 26th, “Messers Anderson, Miles, Menzie, John & James Eadie, Mitchell, Dd Beat, G Davidsons, J McDonald, Jr., Dan Lester, Wm Thomson & Mr. Lamont and his team” showed up at the “raising” of the McPherson log cabin.

For the next three weeks, in late November and early December, he was “working at my house when weather would permit up to Tuesday 17th when I moved into it.” Then he started settling in as he wrote, “Fixing My house and making Mr. A. Meyers coat up Tuesday 31s. The first two weeks of 1851, James P. worked at his tailoring trade, making coats, pants and vests for Meyers, Thomson, Stewart, Davidson, and the Beats.

And then came the January cold spell. January 16th brought “excessive cold,” snow and wind that stripped the thatch from part of the roof, so that he “slept none at night.” The next day the temperature dropped even more. Mr. Miles came to the rescue and moved the family to the his home until the roof of McPherson's log cabin could be fixed. Even though the weather was still very cold, Mr. Lamont, J. Beat, Menzie, and A. Davidson came to help James P. repair his roof. And by the next day the “cold decreased”, so James, Mary and the four children moved back into their log cabin with the now repaired roof.

T'is almost a necessity to have a wee bit of madness, the wondrous sort of madness that took James and his bonny Mary from the flax mills of Dundee to America; then from the gang and rodent infested Five Points of NYC to Wisconsin where land could be his for the taking – and hard work. A madness that assured the scrappy Scot that he could hew a home and farm from the wilderness and provide for his family all the while. T'is indeed a wondrous bit of madness.

~ ~ ~

© Joan Hill, Roots'n'Leaves Publications


  1. Lovely story, beautifully written Joan. I guess they had to make the growing and harvesting of crops the major priority or they'd have been short of food. However it must have been extremely cold hewing logs and building a house in the winter months. Indeed more than a wee bit of wondrous madness. They were truly determined our ancestors!

  2. Whew, I think that people were once tougher than they are now. I get tired just reading all of the things they did.

    And the photo tells a thousand words. Until I saw it, I hadn't really though about how small and primitive some of the housing was.