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A decent man

Betrayal in Wisconsin

June 1st, 2016

BY GREG ROBERTS

Recollections Of A Long Life: 1829-1915
by Isaac Stephenson
Privately printed 1915.

I like reading books that no one has heard of. The 1950 memoirs of Valentin R. Garfias, Garf From Mexico, was limited to 2,000 copies, one of which was discarded by Cal State University, Hayward, ending up at a Salvation Army store. An excellent read — and if you do read it, you are one of only dozens, like Spix macaws.

stephensonisaacIsaac Stephenson’s autobiography is easier to obtain — there were three copies available on eBay the last time I checked — but there is a good chance I’m the only person on earth reading it right now. That makes me Martha, the 1914 passenger pigeon.

Is it an important work? Very important. Just because something is obscure says nothing. Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat languished for more than a century before it was rediscovered. And what about Moby Dick? So there.

Isaac Stephenson’s remarkable life conveys this message to us: people living in the mid-1800s were amazingly resourceful, resilient, and self-reliant, and we need to be more like them. We are malnourished slugs, slaves to larger machines, and mentally torpid as well, the light bulb in our brain flickering like a feeble firefly.

Stephenson came down from New Brunswick to the Maine wilderness to log giant pines for building ship masts. He worked hard, impressed others, made money, and headed for Wisconsin to seek an even bigger fortune. From 1854-58 he was superintendent of logging operations that employed over a hundred men and their families, about a thousand people in all. He writes, “…the boss was as absolute as the captain of a vessel on the high seas. He settled all disputes, maintained order, took care of the sick, and regulated affairs generally.” During those four years Stephenson lost only two men to sickness.

It is amazing that these gnarly loggers could perform hard physical labor seven days a week in horrible weather without ill effects. And Stephenson himself cruised the wild timber alone, sleeping out in the weather without a tent, just a blanket, waking up in an inch of rain water in near-freezing temperatures. How did they do it? Apparently they had the same survival mindset as the sailors going around the horn, pulling on the lines, soaked to the skin in a blizzard.

And these people thrived without what we think is proper nutrition. Stephenson writes, “For five and one-half months during one winter we did not see a vegetable and were given fresh meat only once. Camp fare consisted of the inevitable pork and beans, bread, and tea which we sweetened with Porto Rico molasses in lieu of sugar.” He adds, “Tea seemed so much of a luxury that I promised myself that, if I ever had a home of my own and was able to afford myself that enjoyment, I would have tea three times a day.”

(Tales of pain and hardship are great fun for us who are comfortably sitting on our fat asses. That’s why we buy sensational tabloids featuring car accidents and deformed infants. If you go to Mexico you will see graphic examples of El Alarma and Insolito on most newsstands.)

After Stephenson became so wealthy that he was drinking tea from Thomas Lipton’s personal stash, he turned to politics. A man of enormous integrity, he was concerned about the shifty ways of certain railroad tycoons, so he decided to help the peacenik progressive Robert La Follette, whom Teddy Roosevelt called a “skunk who should be hanged.”

La Follette and crew took a half-million dollars from Stephenson, accomplished nothing, then turned against Stephenson when he decided to run for the U.S. Senate. He ran for office because he saw the political turf being taken by attorneys and other non-productive types. He states, “The extraordinary increase in the number of professional men, many of whom are social parasites, has gone on at such a pace in this country, which is becoming overcrowded with them, that it constitutes a sociological fact which must sooner or later be pondered carefully if the nation is to continue in the path of progress.”

He won the Senate, spending a fifth of what he had given to La Follette, but was still accused of “buying the seat.” His enemies called for an investigation of his campaign. The inquiry found nothing wrong, but the whole process hurt Stephenson deeply. At one point the old man overheard another senator call the campaign “a revelry of corruption.” It was too much for the octogenarian who had tamed the wilderness and piloted ships on Lake Michigan. Stephenson broke down and cried in the Senate.

When the old man died at eighty-eight in 1918, the lefties at The New York Times still could not leave him alone. The obituary: “Wisconsin Lumberman Was the Oldest and Richest Member of Senate In His Day.” Below that, all in capital letters, it reads “HIS ELECTION INVESTIGATED.”

Poor old Stephenson. He got in bed with the Madison syndicalists, who took his money, then betrayed him. And by a strange succession of events, I am part of that betrayal, which explains how I ended up with this obscure book in the first place. Stephenson mentions being assisted in his 1908 campaign by the Milwaukee banker J.A. Puelicher. This man’s sister, Gertrude, had this book at her lake home in northern Wisconsin, where I grew up and did some chores on her property.

Like Stephenson, Gertrude gave heavily to charities, with many outright gifts to scholars, writers, musicians, and naturalists, including me. And we all pulled the Bob La Follette wool over her eyes. One guy, a so-called writer, took thirty thou and promptly lost it in the stock market. Another, a so-called pianist, took thousands but dropped his studies to become a drunken bum.

I, a so-called writer and student, took the college money, then dropped out, until finally Miss P. shamed me into finishing the degree, even if it was just a B.A. in English, the lamest of degrees except for sociology. I finally squeezed the thing out, then became a bum, then a bus boy.

And so the sad drama plays on: the number of parasites Stephenson warned us about has metastasized into a Progressive nightmare. Millions of ignorant and unproductive larvae languish in agencies, public offices, schools, collectives, bureaucracies, and projects. The truly unproductive loll through their days in front of electronic screens while their handlers generate case work, the pages of which would extend to Uranus and back. And corruption that is a thousand times blacker than that of the old cigar-chewing railroaders now infests all of Washington D.C. •

From the July 2010 issue.

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Black Lamb Review of Books, Book Reviews, Books and Authors, Roberts | Link to this Entry

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