Burlington in the 1880s - A Great Place to Study Nature

Rollin Denniston's Boyhood Memories . . .   

Rollin H. Denniston (pictured at right) was about 8 years old when he moved from Campbellsport, Wisconsin, to Burlington in 1882 with his parents, George C. and Emma Parkhill Denniston, and his sister, Lulu. His father, a Civil War veteran, first owned a drug store on Pine street (where the Classy Lady Resale store was later located) and later had a combination drug and news store on Chestnut street (where AbsoluSalon was later located). In 1902 the elder Denniston sold his interest in the drug business to his partner, Sim Reinardy, and opened a book and stationery store nearby on the Chestnut street bend.

After graduating from Burlington High School in 1891, Rollin Denniston attended the University of Wisconsin where he attained a Bachelor of Science degree and went on to get his Ph.D. Joining the University's botany department in 1900, Professor Denniston served with that department until his retirement in 1944. His wife, J. Helen Dobson Denniston, also taught at the University, in the athletic department.

Recently rediscovered in the Burlington Historical Society's files Is an undated paper written by Professor Denniston, which he entitled "Burlington as Viewed by a Boy Fifty Years Ago." The paper, which evidences Professor Denniston's early interest in nature, reads as follows.



Our family moved to Burlington about 1882. Father had bought the drug store from the Wood brothers, Clarence and Charlie. Next door was Theodore Riel's general store, on the other side was the furniture store of John Haas, and across the street was Sheldon's grocery.

That was before the advent of the automobile, and the streets in town were graveled. A little way out of town they were often very muddy. Hitching posts were everywhere and most families had a horseblock. Nearly every yard was surrounded by a fence either of pickets or boards. These fences were necessary as the cows were brought home from pasture through the streets every evening.

The sidewalks, when there were sidewalks, were made of boards. The bicycles had a high wheel in front that the rider straddled and a small wheel behind. Fred and Robert Perkins, Harry Berger, and I think Gus and Willie Rasch had this type.

The women wore long dresses with voluminous skirts. I remember very clearly the sight of tall Ellen Appleyard coming to town raising a cloud of dust at every step. Some of the young ladies who aped the latest fashions wore a wire birdcage-like contraption in the back of their dresses. I remember especially Jen. Benedict with this bustle bobbing up and down at least ten inches at every step.

In the eighties every one had his own well and cistern and a Chic Sale in the back yard. I remember the drilling of the artesian wells -- how the different colored cores of earth showed from different depths. I also remember when the streets were dug up to lay the iron sewer pipes.

The first autos appeared in Burlington sometime during this period. They were open and noisy and ran with a chain drive. Anton Zwiebel had one. The horn was a squawker that sounded by pressing a bulb.

My first bicycle was a Columbia that weighed over fifty pounds. It was practically indestructible. I bought it from John McDonald and when I went to Madison, I sold it to Billy Leach. In those days cycling was much in vogue. We organized the Derby Cycling Club (in 1892) and made Sunday excursions to nearby towns.

Jack Schroeder and I had the first wheels with wood rims. No one thought they would wear but they did. Al Wald, Al Brehm, Joe Dolister, and Ben Holmes were also members of the Club. Ben Holmes was a cycle enthusiast. He combined business with pleasure and made trips to nearby towns with samples of his cigars. I remember accompanying him on such a trip to Waterford, Rochester, and Honey Creek.

The first games of baseball I remember were held in Steinhoff's grove on Sundays. The diamond was fairly level but the outfield was very rough and there was a wire fence in left field. Frank Rein did the pitching and Charlie Weyrough caught bare handed and without a mask. The count then was seven balls and four strikes.

The star outfielder was Nick Werner. He would run at full speed and dive under the wire fence to field a ball on the other side. Another fielder was deaf and dumb. We called him "Yeppi." Later another baseball field was built in Perkins' pasture with a grandstand.

The Perkins farm extended from the house (on State street across from Lincoln School) all the way to the St. Paul Railroad. (See illustration at left.) On Saturdays we would go hunting with slingshots in the locust grove which ran along Kane street. In haying season we hunted for bumble bee honey. Ben Ritter (Rueter) was Perkins' farmer. He located the nests for us. We would stamp on the bees in the nest and suck the honey out of the little sacks. Of course, the bees that were afield came back and often stung us.

Burlington was an ideal place for bird study. There were woods, marshes, bare hills, and ponds. When I left Burlington, I had a fine collection of nearly a hundred species of birds' eggs. I knew all the birds by sight and sound. To some, not being able to find out their correct names, I gave names of my own. One I called the "snake bird" because it always hung a cast snake skin out of its nest. This bird I learned later was the Crested Flycatcher. My "ground bird" I found out should have been called the oven bird.

The only library we had was on a few shelves in the high school and there was nothing on birds or trees or flowers or clams. There may be some young boy in Burlington today that looks at the pink or purple or yellow shelled clams that live in the Fox river and wonders how he can find out their names. He could find out in an article by F. C. Baker on the "Fresh water Mollusca of Wisconsin" in the 1928 report of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. I hope the Burlington Library is well supplied with books on nature.

There was a small gravel ridge that ran across Perkins' pasture to the river. Many of the stones contained fossils. I know now that they were Crinoids or fossil sea lilies. There were also some fossil mollusks in the gravel pit east of the St. Paul Railroad. In this pit there was a red rock which when heated exploded like a bomb. We used to make a fire and put one of these rocks in it, then retire to a safe distance and wait for the explosion.

I will never forget the run of Suckers and Redhorse that appeared in the spring. They could not get past the mill dam. One farmer drove his wagon into the tail race and shoveled them into it. The meat was pink like trout but was full of bones. One enterprising chap took a wagon load into the back country and sold them for Fox River trout. At this time the bridges were lined with fisherman with spears. I remember El. Newbury and Charlie Louthian were experts. They had to drag their strings of fish as they were too heavy to carry.

Frank Hall and I made many fishing trips together. One of the best fishing holes for black bass was below the dam at Vienna.

We went Bull-heading nights in the mill pond beyond the brick yard. We would build a bonfire and fish with worms. Oscar Kurzrok, Albert Nelson, Al Wald, and John Haas were always there. Every once-in-a-while we would catch an eel which caused great excitement. Once I skinned an eel and cut it up in three inch sections. When Mother put it in the frying pan, two pieces promptly jumped out on the floor; of course, it was not alive, just a muscular reflex.

As boys we used to try all kinds of wild food; we caught frogs on red rags on fishhooks; their legs, when fried in bacon fat, were very good. We also caught cray-fish and ate the white meat from their tails and claws after boiling them in water. We ate May Apples and Haw-thorn fruits, black berries, and wild strawberries. When we tired of wild fruits, we would visit Charlie McCumber's apple orchard.

There was only one species of tree at Burlington that was rare; that was the chestnut oak. There were a few specimens on the peninsula at Brown's Lake and on the farm of Alma Aldrich.

The rarest wild flowers were found at Big Bend. I remember the Showy Orchid, white and yellow Lady Slippers, and Pitcher Plant. Our Botany class hired a bus and went there on a collecting trip. An accident happened on that trip. Anna Hawks sat next to Clarence Gleason and when he put his arm around her, she jabbed her hat-pin into his arm. The pin broke off and he had to have it removed by a doctor. That day, Clarence sat beside the wrong girl.

The changes that have taken place in Burlington in the last sixty years are legion: paved streets, cement sidewalks, sewers and water works, new schools and factories. There is one feature that hasn't changed; that is the opportunities of a boy to study Nature.