QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS INTERVIEW WITH MRS. MELISSA
1910: May 17th. The Racine Journal- Racine, WI.
Mrs. Melissa Perkins, Now in her 90th Year, Describes Scenes and Conditions, When this city Was a Wilderness - Eggs Three Cents a Dozen and Butter Seven Cents a Pound.
Mrs. Melissa Perkins of 718 Lake Ave, who will be 90 years next October, very kindly gave the following information.
"You asked me when I came here and how things looked. I came here in 1839, and it was pretty much of a wilderness then. There were but a few dwellings above sixth street then. There were both log houses and frame houses. The logs were not hewn. We built on the corner of Sixth and Wisconsin streets, and that building has but recently been moved back and may not yet be seen. A log house stood where the post office now is and one where the Presbyterian church stands, and a frame house opposite here on Main street, and one log house about on Main and Ninth street. That was all the houses south of sixth street then. "
Q.-What about the light house?-
A."The light house stood on the corner of Seventh street-on the bank of the lake-where Mrs. Deason now lives. It had a revolving light."
Q.-Where did the people build mostly then?
A."Most of the buildings were down along the bank of the river."
Q.-Did you have any hotels in those days?
A."Yes, the old Racine House stood on the corner of Monument square and Fifth street, where the express office is now. It was a frame building, and there were a good many houses on the other side of the river, some frame and some log".
Q.-Who were some of the people you found here?
A."The Raymonds were here, and Captain Knapp, and also the Janes family. They lived down where Congress Hall or Lakeside auditorium now stands."
Q.-How about the farmers, where there any farmers around here then?
A."There were farmers out around in the country, and they came in with their grain and produce, and what is now Monument square, was used as a market place for the farmers to come and sell."
Q.-How were the prices in those days?
A."Food was not as high as it is now, we could get eggs at 3 cents a dozen."
Q.-Was there much game in those days?
A."Yes, the woods were full of game, Prairie chickens were everywhere, and the sloughs were full of ducks. My husband was quite a hunter and would go out and get a wagon load of prairie chickens in half a day. Mr. Perkins would go ahead with the gun and dog and scare up the chickens and shoot them, and I would go after with wagon and team and gather them up and distribute them to those who wanted. And we got ducks from the sloughs. But there were not many deer here, but further west."
Q.-Was the railroad here then?
A."This was long before the railroad, but the steamboats were on the lake at that time."
Q.-How did you come here to Racine?
A."We came here on a steamboat from Buffalo, and it took thirteen days. It was so stormy that we could not land here, but went to Chicago. The next day we came back and landed on the beach, there was no harbor, so we had to land on the beach."
Q.-Were houses built near the lake then?
A."Some were built. They were mostly two story frame houses. There was another street called Chatham street east of Lake Avenue. The banks kept carving in so the houses were moved away, then people did not build so much along the lake bank."
Q.-Where did they get the lumber for their houses?
A."There was a saw mill up the river."
Q.-How did you get the rest of the material to complete the houses?
A."We brought window glass with us from Buffalo, and the fixtures for doors."
Q.-What means of transportation and communication was there?
A."There was a stage running from Chicago to Milwaukee, and boats on the lake. Boats were running from Buffalo to Chicago. But the stage did not run every day, and the boats were irregular."
Q.-You did not get mail every day then?
Q.-Was there much letter writing in those days?
A."Letters were not written so very often, for the postage on them was 25 cents in the United States."
Q.-Were there any school houses here then?
A."There was a little one story school house on the lot where the high school stands, or a little nearer Wisconsin street."
Q.-Were there many scholars?
A."No, there were not many scholars then."
Q.-Where did the people come from who came here?
A."These people who came here were mostly from New York state, and some came from Vermont."
Q.-Why did the people come west, and to Racine?
A."They thought the new western country would be an improvement, better then to stay on the Vermont hills."
Q.-Do you think it was an improvement to come out west?
A."Yes, I think the people bettered themselves by coming west. There was not much going on in the east at that time, the villages in the east were small at that time."
Q.-Did the people have plenty of food in those days?
A."Yes, we had plenty of food. The hogs would run in the woods and live on the nuts from the trees, and we thought it would be so nice to get fresh pork. But it was so different from the corn fed pork of the east that we did not like it at all. Butter was from 7 to 10 cents a pound."
Q.-Did you use coal then?
A."We used wood, no coal was brought in here the first years. There was mostly oak timber around here."
Q.-How were the winters then compared to now?
A."We had more snow in those days."
Q.-How did the people live then, where there any who needed help?
A."Neighbors were sociable and friendly, some were better off than others, but there were no poor people here who were dependant then."
Q.-When did you first have poor people among you?
A."When the foreigners began to come, I think we began to have dependant people with us. Some people brought wealth with them and some came poor."
Q.-What place of activity was there around here besides Racine?
A."Kenosha. It was named Southport, and a number of wealthy families came to Kenosha and they tried to get ahead of Racine, and there was quite a strife between the two cities at that time. This strife was among younger people. There was not much difference between Racine and Kenosha at that time."
Q.-Were the people satisfied to live here, or did they regret coming?
A."It did seem better to come out west than to stay east."
Q.-Did the Indians trouble you any?
A."The Indians were few, they had mostly disappeared when we came here, they did not trouble us any."
Q.-When the people came out west here did they go east to visit their friends again?
A."There was not much travel to see each other from west to east. Traveling was to difficult then, when we got to Racine, we had to stay."
Q.-How did you light your house then?
A. "We had tallow candles, and I often remember dipping them. When we got the kerosene it was quite an improvement."
Q.-The people supplied their own wants then?
A."We made gardens and raised vegetables. I never saw such good potatoes as were then raised on the sandy soil. No, there were no retired farmers then, the farmers lived on their farms."
Q.-How did life seem in those early days?
A."People enjoyed their life here in the new country then, they did not move back at all. There was a pleasant social life between the people. There was no want and no suffering among the people and the educational advantages here, were, after a few years, good."
Q.-The people did not have the facilities and conveniences that we now have?
A."We did not miss the modern conveniences because we did not have them in the east."
Q.-Did you use lake water then?
A."They dug wells and did not use lake water because they had no way of getting it out of the lake."
Q.-Did you have fruit at that time?
"Apples and peaches grew here and we were well supplied."
This ended our brief interview. To have met this venerable, kindly and cultured woma" size="2">"Apples and peaches grew here and we were well supplied."
This ended our brief interview. To have
met this venerable, kindly and cultured woman to have been made welcome by
her into her own home, and heard from her own lips some fragment of their
life-history, is an eventful and romantic age, is indeed an honor beyond
price. Mrs. Perkins is in good health, fully
able to attend to her housekeeping duties. She enjoys life as she finds
it, and better still is amply able to look after here business interests,
coming down to her bank, looking after matters as occasion calls for.
*NOTE* By Denise Perkins Ready. Melissa Perkins (this article) was Melissa (Morris) Perkins, widow of George Perkins. They came from New England to Wisconsin in 1839. This couple did not have any children.