This is the story of the home my 2nd great grandparents built and raised their family in.
Originally published on Saturday, April 20, 1940 in the Manitowoc News-Herald, Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Spelling and punctuation unchanged from the original.
Old Harris Home at Cato, a Mecca For Youth of Years Ago, Bows to Wrecker
Big Square Building Has Stood on Village Corner for 86 Years
By: Charley Kelley
The years have a way of weakening the human system, rendering it less sturdy and unfit for further duty.
And why not a home?
For eighty-six years now, a big square building has stood majestically on a corner in the west and of the Village of Cato . Life surrounding it has come and gone. The youth of another day, who know and loved its large and friendly rooms, and who danced the old square dance in its second floor dance hall, are now turning into the “home stretch”, or have already completed life’s arduous journey.
And soon the stately old Harris home at Cato will be no more.
Having outlived its usefulness and stability, it is being taken down, to be replaced by a new and modern home for its present owner.
A Generation Gone By
You old timers, who, in days that are now but a memory, plodded through old Nettle Hill (as Cato was formerly called) with your fathers and a team of obstinate oxen, or you, who once upon a time tramped barefooted from your farm homes to the village with a few quarts of raspberries to sell, must come to realize, however sad, by that another generation is passing with the big house on the corner.
To a younger generation that has sped though the little village on U. S. Highway 10, behind the wheel of a stream-lined gas buggy, and that, for the most part, has given little thought to what the erection of such a home must have meant to those sturdy pioneers of the 1850’s, we’d like to tell the story of this particular house, its people, and its history. It was on May 1, 1850 that Jonas C. Burns, because of his services in the armed forces of the United States , received a patent from the government to the 160 acres which comprise the Southeast Quarter of Section 4 of the Township of Cato , then a wilderness, covered largely by forests.
Burns’ tenure of the premises was short-lived, however, and he sold the 160 acres to a John Clemens for $1,000 in September of the same year.
Harris Obtains Property
Only a short time later, June 17, 1852 , the property was sold at sheriff’s sale by Sheriff William F. Shnyder to Luther Monson, who, on April 16, 1854 , deeded the farm over to Nelson A. Harris.
Mr. Harris, who was born on July 16, 1822 in Greenfield , Saratoga County , New York , had brought his family to Manitowoc from Valparaiso, Indiana in 1852, traveling in a covered wagon drawn by four horses.
Upon arrival in the Manitowoc of 1852, Nelson Harris purchased several lots, built a store and home and worked as a carpenter in the shipyards. Envisioning the lumber and saw-mill business as a profitable venture, Harris moved his family to Cato in 1853, returning himself to Ohio for the purchase of saw mill equipment.
With her husband away on the long journey back East, Mrs. Harris and her children, John Earl, Orville, Emma and Clara, carried on in true pioneer fashion, living in a small house on the farm. Many and varied were the experiences of these early settlers.
Indians Were Friendly
One day in particular, Mrs. Harris had taken the four young children with her into the woods for work at the sugar camp where the annual maple syrup job was to be tackled. After sending the hired-boy, Johnnie McGuire, away with the horse for firewood, the mother, along with her children, went about the task of gathering the maple sap. All of a sudden a band of about 100 Indians burst into the camp. Frightened, Mrs. Harris rounded up her children, put them into the cabin and directed their big dog to lie at the door.
The Indians, however, wanted only maple sap to drink, and Mrs. Harris spent the next hour as a most genial hostess in serving them. After 100 thirsty Redskins had had their fill they departed peacefully from the camp, leaving little sap for maple syrup that day.
Once established in the lumber and saw-mill business, Nelson Harris began laying away choice pieces of lumber and timbers for the house which he meant to be the finest in this early, unsettled Manitowoc County .
Mecca for Visitors
Early in the spring of 1854 construction of the house got under way. Mr. Harris planned, supervised and helped with the actual building himself. The joints were fastened together with wooden pegs and the uprights were inserted into holes carved into the heavier timbers at the top and bottom. All of these pieces of lumber which constitute the framework of the house are strong and sturdy even today. A picket fence, popular ornament of that day, surrounded the yard, and added to the beauty of the new dwelling. Mrs. Harris’ flower garden in the yard was admired by everyone.
The house was finally ready for occupancy late in the fall of 1854, and proud family moved into the new home before the long, cold winter set in. The new house was a mecca for visitors and many were the callers that were thrilled by a tour of its large and spacious rooms during that first winter.
Soon after the family was settled Mr. Harris further added to the warmth of the surroundings with the purchase of a grand piano. Brought to Manitowoc by boat, the piano was hauled out to Cato on a wagon drawn by four oxen. It was, of course, the first piano in the village. Placed in the upstairs hall, the instrument was in constant use by music students who usually were on hand for their valuable sessions as early as 7 o’clock in the morning. Soon an orchestra was formed right in the Harris family. Mr. Harris played the flute, John, the clarinet, Orville, the violin, while the girls, Emma and Clara, held forth on the piano.
Used For Deserters
When the civil war broke out Mr. Harris already had the stone foundation laid upon which to erect a building to house a “musical college”. The war, however, stopped it.
During the war between the states the upstairs hall was used to quarter deserters from the Northern army at various times. Once there were at least 25 Northern deserters and their guards kept there. Mrs. Harris and the girls did the cooking for them.
Many and varied are the “entertainments” that have taken place in that hall. Lectures, meeting, magic lantern shows, home talent plays, medicine shows and dances all had their turn. A stage was erected at one end leaving room for 60 couples to dance on the floor. Dances were held periodically throughout the year, with the season’s social highlights coming on New Year’s Eve, July Fourth, and Thanksgiving. Then an added attraction to the “ball” was a midnight supper served in the downstairs dining room. Folks from Manitowoc enjoyed coming out to the dances at Harris’ Hall. In the summer-time they’d drive out to Cato in carriages, and in the winter, in sleighs.
The post office at Cato was located in the Harris house with Mrs. Harris as postmaster.
The fifth child, a daughter, Eva, was born to the Harrises on October 20, 1869 . The older girls were both married in the house and lived in homes of their own near by.
In the spring of 1876, an immigrant train, leaving the community for Kansas and Nebraska saw the departure from Cato of several families including the Davises, Davidsons, Barnards, Lemers, Wickers, Westcotts and Vanderlips.
Moving to Florida
In November, 1881, Nelson Harris left the old home in Cato, and with his family, moved to Waldo , Florida , where he built another home in 1885. Mr. Harris died the following year, but his wife lived until 1905. The youngest daughter, Eva, still resides in the Harris home in Florida .
The eldest Harris son, John Earl, ran the farm at Cato and occupied the house until it passed out of the family and was sold to King Weeman, who, with his family came to Cato from Branch in 1884. The Weeman family consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Weeman and six children, Charles, King Jr., Edward, Hailie, Elizabeth, and Mayme.
With the livery service more and more in demand throughout the rural areas, the Weemans, usually with ten or a dozen horses on the farm, went in for the business on a major scale, using the large house as a hotel for traveling men, who, in those days made their rounds among rural stores via horse power.
Cato during the Weeman regime (1884-1901) was a lively and prosperous town. Anton Stoehr ran a saloon and hotel up on the hill, while Frank Gehbe’s saloon was located south of the big Killen house. There were two stores, Killen’s and Seth Kendel’s. Pete Wilhelm ran a wagon shop next to Smelter’s blacksmith shop, and Patrick Scanlan was in the butcher business in a small building then located across the road west of the present Cato Hall.
The Killens were in the lumber and cheese box manufacturing business. The box factory always kept quite a number of men employed.
Jin and Anthony Clark ran a cheese factory, and a creamery was started by L. M. Kellogg. Knute Strande, a cobbler, conducted his shoe business there, while the village physician was Dr. O’Connell, whose office was for a time located on the site of the present bank building.
Center of Activity
The house, now known as Weeman’s Hotel, retained its popularity in the community, continuing as the center of social and entertainment life. The dances in Weeman’s Hall were popular affairs, always well attended, with young folks from all over the countryside on hand to “swing out” with square dances, waltzes, two-steps or “McGinteys”, which were the rage in those days. The local rhythm-makers, Gene Harris, Charley Piper, Jack Fitzgerald, Joe Petersilka and Jim O’Hearn were usually on hand for furnish music. Van Camp’s band of Manitowoc also appeared at various times in the Weeman Hall. The “big time” of the year was the Christmas ball, after which an oyster supper was served in the dining room.
The old time medicine shows always packed ‘em in up in the hall and one of the most popular and amazing performers in those days was a gentleman whose flowing black hair reached to his waist, one Don C. Hall. This astounding showman specialized in the art of hypnotics, and the audience was, of course, thrilled beyond words at the antics of this miracle man, whose tricks included breaking heavy stones on his wife’s body with a sledge hammer, pointing out the exact location of hidden articles and the hypnotizing of members of the audience who were willing to be “used” as subject matter. One story has it that Charley Strande, after seeing the great Don C. Hall in action went home and successfully put his brother Clarence in a trance. History fails to reveal whether or not any great difficulty was encountered by the amateur hypnotist in freeing his unfortunate brother from the mystic grip.
“Big Mick” Takes Over
King Weeman passed away about nine years after coming to Cato. His widow and family, however, remained on the place until the next owner, Michael T. Cooney, purchased the farm from Mrs. Weeman on May 6, 1901 .
Mr. Cooney, a tall, dignified looking Irishman, referred to by his many friends as “Big Mick,” was always good for a round of laughs with his witty stories. Many a long winter evening was whiled away in the big Cooney kitchen, where a crackling fire blazed in the stove, under which snoozed old “Shep”, with possibly Dick White, Gus Schumacher, Louie Witt, Charley Cary or Ted Pritchard, all salesmen who made use of the Cooney Hotel and Livery Service, listening to the stories as portrayed by their genial host, Mr. Cooney.
Charley Cary, later Clerk of Circuit Court for Manitowoc County, whose medicine wagon was a familiar sight in those days, was known affectionately by all the kids along his route as the “gum man”, because of the generous supply of chewing material they know was forthcoming with the appearance of Mr. Cary and his horse and wagon.
Mike Cooney never married, but had an able and gracious assistant in the running of the hotel in his sister, Molly.
The Cooney’s right hand man during the nineteen and one-half years in the house, was their faithful hired-man Louie Stelzer. Louie, a friend and companion of all the neighborhood youngsters, was proud of the fast and well kept livery horses which he tended and helped drive. Now a Manitowoc resident, Louie still likes to recall the old days on the livery runs.
“Some Great Days”
“Those were some great days,” says Louie. “The salesmen always carried seven or eight big trunks with them, and it was the driver’s job to pick them up at the depot and be ready to hit the road whenever the boys were ready.
“In those days the salesmen carried a full line of samples right with them which had to be unloaded and displayed at every stop. They’d show the spring and summer goods in the fall and winter, and the winter goods in the summer. Sometimes these trips would cover more than a week going up into Algoma, Sturgeon Bay and Kewaunee, with stops all along the route. The driver’s room and board, as well as feed and quarters for the horses was at the customer’s expense, which was additional to the average price of three or four dollars per day which he paid for the livery service.
“Mike was a great hand with the horses,” continues Louie. “That was great sport for him, being out on the road with a fast team.”
The erection of the Cato Hall by the Cato Social Club at the turn of the century brought an end to the dances, shows, meetings and other forms of entertainment which for years had been held in the house. The social life of the community was directed now to the new and spacious building in the center of the village.
Soon a Memory
In 1920 Mr. Cooney and his sister moved to Manitowoc, selling the farm to Thomas E. Reddin, a nephew. Mr. Reddin, now manager for the Manitowoc Citizens Loan and Investment Company, ran the farm and resided in the house for several years, but upon moving to Manitowoc in the late 1920’s, rented the farm to Edward Brunner, who remained there until it was sold to Edward Rameker, the present owner, on October 14, 1920 .
The Ramekers have resided in the house since 1930, but by next fall expect to move into a new home, built on the site where, 86 years ago, Nelson Harris erected a house that was to remain strong and sturdy down through the years while life and time moved on around it.
Soon it will be but a memory.