Example of an area shanty in the 1800s.

An example of an area shanty in the 1800s.


During the early days of pioneer settlements, few people could be found within a reasonable traveling distance of each other. Not all of the early settlers were fortunate enough to have mates and some had to resort to “strategy” to accomplish that end.

One particularly unfortunate lass counted herself among this group of lonely hearts. Her story is recounted by Bella French in her 1875 Reedsburg edition of the “American Sketchbook.”

She was a single lady, and as the story begins, we learn that, “This old maid was not blessed with abundant beauty, for which reason the men did not wait upon her as often as was desired; hence, being determined to be in society, she sometimes had to resort to strategy in order to secure a companion,” wrote French.

A dance was being held in Reedsburg, and almost everyone from the community would be there. However, our unfortunate maid had no invitation, but she did have a secret plan.

A young man by the name of Sprague was one of her boarders, but his intentions were to accompany another young lady to the evening’s festivities.

“Upon the night in question, he went to the stable to harness a horse, and when he brought the animal to the place where the sleigh was, he found the seat occupied by this same old maid.

“He was too much of a gentleman to order her out, and did not want to take her with him. There seemed to be no help for the latter course, and he was obliged to submit.” It was not a happy evening for him, as he became very angry and it was reported that he “did not dance with her a single time during the whole night.”

But her chance would come when another unfortunate pioneer lost his wife and the mother of his children.

Inadequate prenatal care and infection frequently resulted in the death of pioneer mothers shortly after childbirth, and that is apparently what happened to one family living on the prairie near Reedsburg. Bella French writes of one such tragedy.

A farmer had recently lost his wife, and the mother of his many children.

Marriages often were a matter of convenience in those days, since settlers were few and the pickings were slim, so the surviving spouse was desperate. “The old chap was the possessor of about a dozen children, the younger being a babe two or three months old,” wrote French. “There was trouble at the shanty. Somebody must take care of the children; and who beside a wife would do such a task? Then where was a wife even to be found? Emergencies, however, demanded immediate action.”

His search began in the surrounding countryside. He was looking for a good woman who would enjoy with him the comforts of his shanty, and the possession of the dozen youngsters.

He stopped at each house with the question, “Is there any wimming here as wants to git married?”

The response from within was not always what he expected, “for in one or two places he was answered by the sudden appearance of a broomstick.”

Soon he had exhausted all the homesteads on the prairie and headed for the recently settled village of Reedsburg. There someone remembered the “old maid” who desperately wanted a family to love, and suggested he seek her out. As Bella French, the narrator of our story continues, “He did not have to journey farther. A match was immediately made, the marriage taking place scarcely a week later.” It was noted that his proposal went something like this, “Dear, if you love me as much as I do you, come and sit on my lap.” She did, and that was that.

The farmer brought his blushing bride home with him and “they found the house filled with women, and on the bed, was a row of babies, from which the bride was laughingly told to choose her own.” A further observation was put forward that “the old maid is said to have made a first-rate wife and mother; her devotion to the children was great, and when people spoke of it, her reply was, ‘I can’t help but love the little darlings, for I love their dear father so much.’”

Bella French concludes with, “Widowers should take note and not pass the old maids by when in search of wives.”

Bill Schuette has served on the board of directors at the Sauk County Historical Society since 1993. He lives in rural Loganville.