Woodworking again: Tracing our roots

By Dave Wood
Posted 5/1/24

“Give us your poor, your tired, your hungry, yearning to be free,” the famous declaration at the base of the US Statue of Liberty. This quote has been emblazoned on our perception of …

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Woodworking again: Tracing our roots


“Give us your poor, your tired, your hungry, yearning to be free,” the famous declaration at the base of the US Statue of Liberty. This quote has been emblazoned on our perception of America. A steady stream of penniless immigrants without hope, seeking a better life, crowded onto Ellis Island, believing that here might be their chance.

Lately, I’ve been working on my hometown’s Sesquicentennial, one of many Whitehall citizens and groups researching the town’s beginnings, its cultural heritage in arts, industry, business and agriculture. As I do my homework, I’m reminded of 50 years ago when Whitehall celebrated its hundredth year, and Sylvia Rice, the town’s Latin teacher, provided us with a motto on a coin we struck: “100 years of progress (nobiscum invititis),” meaningwithout much help from us.”

I guess the Latin disclaimer indicated a modesty of our Scandinavian-Polish citizenry, but in reality there were a great number of immigrants who did help—because they were tired, poor, and hungry and needed to rise above these handicaps. And some because they had the means and the ambition to help the poor ones rise above their meager resources.

Not every immigrant in our town was escaping poverty, as I’ve discovered in reading my family’s copy of the History of Trempealeau County. And in their own way, the wealthier new arrivals provided help to some of the tired, poor, and hungry immigrants of our country. The Markham family, who had settled a few miles down the road from what is now Whitehall is a great example.

John Markham came into our midst with quite a pedigree. He was born on an estate called Becca Hall in Yorkshire, England; he served in the British Navy until sunstrokes required that he retire to the isle of Guernsey, where he married Marrianne Wood (no relation to yours truly, unless I’m illegitimate).

John’s grandfather was Archbishop of York, and his nephew, sir Clement Markham was president of the Royal Geographical Society of England.

After wintering in the Pyrenees, John headed for his claim in what would become Burnside Township, but before he made the trip to the wilds of Trempealeau County, he and his family spent the better part of the next winter in a hotel in Columbus, Wis. where he met another Wood family, this one from New York State, who were also headed west. My great-great grandpa, Alvah Wood was too ill to travel, so his 16-year-old son David, my great-grandpa, agreed to guide them to the Markham claim. So off the younger Markhams went, accompanied by Mr. Lynes, the Markhams’ personal tutor, and Mr. Maule, their retainer (servant). David stayed in the area to stake the Wood claim in Lincoln Township where he dug a hole in the hillside and spent the rest of the winter there, like a bear in hibernation.

And the Markham retainers built them all a serviceable lean-to out of willow branches and managed to survive the record cold winter of 1856. That shelter was replaced by an elegant octagonal four-story castle, which they called “Ronceval” after a town in Spain where they had vacationed the year before.

Eventually tutor Lynes returned to England, and the servant Maule retired to his own farm in what today is called Maule Coulee. The elder Markhams took residence in the castle overlooking their huge estate, part of which would become the town of Independence, where they would be leaders in business, the law, publishing, and, of course, agriculture.

My old friend and neighbor in Dissmore Coulee, Henry Sylla, was one of many hired men, or as the Markhams might have called, them, ahem, “retainers.”

“Oh, they were different that’s for sure,” smiled Sylla. “At noontime the ladies would get all dressed up and sit in rocking chairs on the castle’s front porch. We teamsters were supposed to drive past them in sort of a procession. The teams were s’posed to look real sharp, but once in a while one of ‘em would get nervous and let a loud one. We teamsters didn’t dare laugh!”

The Markham family stayed on for a century, getting and spending, but in the words of Wordsworth, “never laid waste their powers” in terms of presence and reputation. Soon after their arrival in 1856 they welcomed a new English arrival  in the person of fellow Yorkshireman Giles Cripps, a rich farmer who settled near Elk Creek and was married to David Wood’s sister Harriet, who turns out to be the ancestor of Mildred Cripps, who lived long enough for me to know her! Mildred was longtime director of Independence Public Library, not far from the farm of Maule, the English retainer who chose to stay in the coulee named after  him.     

So I guess Sylvia Rice needs a correction: It’s not “with little help from us” that we thrive, but with a bit of help from each other.


Woodworking again, Dave Wood, ancestors, genealogy, column