Old Philo always appeared content with his life and the world around him. Although his 80-plus years must have dealt him the normal share of aches, pains, and misfortune, he never seemed to feel any need or obligation to burden others with his problems. And, as I listened to him talk, I appreciated the fact that I did not have to sort fact from fiction. He never boasted of all of the wonderful things he had accomplished in his life, or listed all of the even more wonderful things he could have done if only he had received a few good breaks along the way.
This older neighbor and I often sat and in the shade of a large maple tree. As we talked, he taught me a lot of the history of our area. Was I familiar with the Wyalusing State Park? He remembered when it was known as “Glen Park,” because all of that high woodland above the confluence of the Wisconsin River and the mighty Mississippi was once owned by Sheriff Glen. He told of a time when that property was the home of hundreds and hundreds of goats that had been shipped in by rail from Texas. The tough, wiry little animals slept in large open sheds at night, and then at sunup would move out, single file, to feed. Their primary purpose was to eat and thus destroy the tangled mass of wild brush and weeds that flourished among the thick stand of tall trees that covered those hills.
Philo talked of people who had lived in the area before my time. Once he mentioned a lady who had resided in the North Andover area, and wondered whether I had ever known her. I told him I had only heard of her but knew the location of a farm she once owned. And that some of the older neighbors referred to the place by one name, while others used another, depending on whether they were best acquainted with her first or with her second husband.
The old man smiled. “When she was a young girl she lived in our neighborhood. One evening my sister and I were going to drive to Cassville to attend a dance, and she asked to ride along. When I pulled my horse and buggy up to her parents’ house she came out carrying a neatly-wrapped package, but when we asked, she wouldn’t tell us what it contained. Later in the evening she informed us that she would not be leaving with us. She and the young man of her choice eloped that night. My sister and I decided that her small package must have held a homemade wedding dress.”
When asked what his boyhood life was like he answered, “Well, my friends and I were all farm boys, so there was almost always work to do. But we still found time to play. In the summer we played baseball and swam in the Grant River. In the winter there was sleigh riding and skating. Most farm boys built at least one homemade sled. There was no TV or radio. Unlike today’s young fellows, we didn’t dream of the day when we would be getting a driver’s license and a car. But each of us looked forward to the time when he would have his own shiny black buggy and at least one fancy high-stepping horse.
“My best friend’s family owned the next farm down the road. Tommy and I were together whenever we could find the time. Sometimes in the summer we would do up our Sunday morning chores early and walk up to the Pleasant Ridge community. We would attend church with the folks there, and could always count on one of the families to invite us to their home for the noon meal. Then after dinner, we would play baseball.”
My old neighbor’s memory was amazing. After all of those years he could still remember the names of all the Grimes lads, and the Greenes, and the Shepards, and which ones could really hit or field a ball or throw a sharp-breaking curve.
He went on to tell me the history of Pleasant Ridge. “Back in 1848 a white Southern plantation owner purchased some farm land west of Lancaster, the county seat here in Grant County, Wisconsin. He divided the property and sold parcels to some of his slaves. Later they were joined by others who had been freed or had escaped from their owners in various parts of the South. “That’s in the ‘Slabtown’ area,“ he continued, “but I don’t think you’ll find that name on many maps. There isn’t really a town there anymore. The official name for that area is ‘Flora Fountain.’
“Right from the start, the Pleasant Ridge folks got along well with their neighbors. In fact, in many cases the local white farmers helped the newcomers get their small farming operations set up and started. Back then almost everyone was poor and worked hard, and farmers exchanged work and helped each other out whenever they could. At harvest time, at least a dozen men or more were required to keep the threshing machine busy and get the job done. A number of adjoining farms would make up a ‘threshing ring’ or ‘threshing run.’ When the job was finished on one farm, the big steam engine and grain separator would move on to the next, until everyone’s grain was threshed. When people are busy and working that hard, the color of a man’s skin is unimportant.
“There were some mighty good cooks back then,” he continued, with a smile. “Dick Lewis, one of the farmers up on Pleasant Ridge, had a small farm and his threshing job didn’t take long, but somehow things always got timed so the crew was there for a noon meal. The fellow who operated the big threshing equipment was an excellent manager, in that respect. Everyone on the crew looked forward to that meal because Dick’s wife Ollie was the best cook on the whole threshing ring.”
In one of our conversations, Philo told me that The United Brethren Methodist Church was built in 1870 and it served not only the 20 families who then made up the Pleasant Ridge community, but also quite a number of their white neighbors. Also that the Pleasant Ridge School was built about the same time, and was generally believed to be the first integrated public school in the entire United States. And that the community continued to grow until the early nineteen hundreds, when it reached a population of more than 200 ex-slaves and their descendants.
On another occasion, Philo recalled, “The children and young people got along just fine. In grade school, there were close friendships regardless of color. As the youngsters grew older, the friendships remained but there was almost no consorting romantically or anything like that. Such behavior was frowned on by all of the older folks. And two sad events, the only real racial trouble that ever occurred there, continually reminded everyone of potential problems that could arise.
“In 1883, one of the men from ‘The Ridge’ was accused of getting a white girl pregnant. He was arrested, and four members of the girl’s family set out to spring him from jail and lynch him. They wound up shooting and killing him. They were apprehended, tried, and three were found guilty of fourth-degree manslaughter, the other, of assault with intent to murder.
“Then, almost 40 years later, Jack Green warned a white Lancaster man three times to stay away from his young daughter. Ignoring Green’s words, the man continued seeing the girl and he took her for one ride too many. When they returned, the angry father was waiting with a loaded gun. He not only terminated the fellow, but shot his car several times for good measure. At his trial, an all-white jury considered the ‘extenuating circumstances,’ determined it was a ‘justifiable homicide,’ and declared Jack innocent.”
With a hint of sadness, Philo recalled, “At the time of World War I, good jobs in the big cities began to beckon, and the Pleasant Ridge folks started to drift away. At first, only a few moved out, but then more and more, until the only remaining member of the community was Charlie Green. He loved the beautiful, quiet farming country and refused to trade it for the bustling city life chosen by all of his friends and relatives. Charlie died in 1977, the last person to be interred in the Pleasant Ridge Cemetery.”
Time continues to move on, and just as the community of Pleasant Ridge faded away into the past, so did my old neighbor and good friend, Philo. I miss him and our conversations. And as I near my middle-eighties, I can only hope that my memory-generated tales prove to be half as interesting and informative as were his