Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Four-Mile House of Ranslow Smith

I mentioned four weeks ago in "Santa comes early - what a gift!" that I received a manuscript about the hotel/inn that my ancestor Ranslow Smith built in Rolling Prairie (Burnett township), Dodge County, Wisconsin. The hotel/inn was moved to Old World Wisconsin and restored to an 1870 time frame with period furnishings.

Terry Thornton (Walksheds in the Hill Country) and Miriam Midkiff (Every Eleven Miles) have recently posted about the spacing of country stores and steam engine waterspouts, respectively, that were set at approximate distances necessary to ensure continuous or good service.

The spacing of hotels and livery stables before the railroads opened up the west was designed to serve as rest and meal stops as well as horse changing stations.

Ranslow Smith built an inn in 1853 in the township of Burnett. The inn was called the "Four-Mile House" because it was roughly four miles from Horicon on the east and Beaver Dam on the west along the Beaver Dam Road, and it was sited facing the main north-south road from Watertown to the south and Waupun to the North. The inn was built with all of the trappings of a hotel - a taproom, a parlor, kitchen and dining facilities, suites and rooms on the second floor, and a third story ballroom.

The local lore says that the "Old Four Mile House" was a regular stopping place on the stage line between Watertown and Fond du Lac. Coaches changed horses there, while passengers disembarked for a stretch, fresh air and a mid-day meal. Stagecoach routes and facilities for them expanded during the early 1850's, and the construction of the Four-Mile House was a shrewd business move by Ranslow Smith, who had enough farm land and livestock to supply his growing hotel business.

Periodic rest stops were necessary, given the slow pace and the rigors of mid-19th century stage travel. A Jefferson County pioneer wrote:

"In those days the coaches were heavy, unwieldy things. In it were four seats, running crosswise, intended for eight persons, but more often twelve were squeezed inside. There were no springs under the coach; it was simply suspended by two leather straps, one on each side, extending from the front to the hind axle. When the occupants dropped down into a hole, its occupants pitched ahead, when the hind wheels dropped down into a hole, we all pitched back; and so we kept it up day in and day out. I do not believe there was a rod in the whole distance, but that some wheel was out of line, either in a hole, or climbing over a stone, stump or root. If you were fortunate enough to get a corner seat you could brace and hold yourself somewhat, but the middle men had nothing to brace against, and I wonder that their backs were not all unhooked..."

The poor roads resulted in average speeds of 5 to 8 miles per hour and required relay stations where fresh horses were provided to continue the journey. Unless it was a meal stop, the coaches lingered only long enough to obtain fresh horses and pick up or discharge mail sacks. Inns that served as meal stops often employed a hostler, a stable manager, to supervise the care of the horses in a livery stable. Devier Smith, Ranslow's son, may have worked in the livery stable owned by his father as a youth and young adult - to feed and groom the horses and to harness the stage teams. In later years, Devier Smith and his son David Smith had livery stables in Concordia, Kansas and McCook, Nebraska.

When the Milwaukee and LaCrosse Railroad was built from Milwaukee to Beaver Dam and points west, a station was built in Rolling Prairie, several blocks south of the Four-Mile House on the Watertown to Waupun road. This railroad started carrying passengers in 1856. Stagecoach use, at least along routes parallel to the railroad lines, was reduced. In Rolling Prairie, the industrious Ranslow Smith and neighbor Samuel Ormsbee platted their 40 acre parcels into buildable lots - an 1860 plat map shows a village of 8 streets and 12 blocks with almost 200 individual lots. However, not many homes were built there until after the Civil War.

The arrival of the railroad reduced many rural wayside inns to boarding houses or eventual abandonment. After the railroad came through Rolling Prairie, the Four-Mile House business changed. It became a center for social activity and a gathering point for civic occasions in the community. It also became a boarding house for single persons working in the area.

Mary (Bell) Smith, Ranslow's wife, died in 1865, and Ranslow sold the hotel and his other holdings in Dodge County in the next few years. He, with his son Devier Smith and his growing family, moved on to Bedford in Taylor County, Iowa. Ranslow Smith may have died there - I don't know.

I can hardly wait to visit Old World Wisconsin and step into the restored hotel built by my 3rd-great-grandfather, Ranslow Smith. I hope to see the construction, the furnishings and maybe even experience the amenities at the "Four-Mile House."

Most of the information above came from the manuscript by Allen F. Johnson titled "The Four-Mile House of Rolling Prairie, Dodge Co., Wisconsin: A Village Hotel in Transition," dated April 30, 1983. Mr. Johnson used many resources, including local history books, census records and newspaper records to construct his narrative.

It is imperative that we, as genealogists and family historians, understand the times that our ancestors lived in. We need to understand where they lived, why they chose that place, how they lived, what food they ate, their occupations, their social activities, the history of the places they lived in, and the social, economic and political events that they experienced and how events changed their lives. I feel so fortunate to have this manuscript, and I look forward to visiting "my hotel" in Old World Wisconsin in the future.

3 comments:

Terry Thornton said...

Randy, What an interesting piece. I hope you get to visit 4-Mile House soon!

Your post reminded me of my former neighbor in Mississippi, an elderly gentleman reared in the Hills. He loved to go driving with me through those old hill roads --- and he would point out where the stage coach he rode as a child would stop for a change of horses, to let everyone out for a rest, and where the stage always stopped because the spring "below the hill" had such good water. Oh, why didn't I take better notes? LOL!

Yes, I'd say you got a tremendous gift with the manuscript and the knowledge of your 3rd-g-grandpapa's building. Go see it soon and take lots of pictures please!
TERRY

Donna said...

I found this site while searching for information on Rolling Praire. I grew up in Rolling Praire during the 1960's and 1970'. I lived across the railrood tracks on the south side. My Father still lives there. I remember baby sitting for a family in the Four Mile House. They told me that the house was a stage coach stop and let me see the 3rd floor dance hall. I remember when they removed the big house from the corner lot and how it traveled down the road to Old World. I have always wanted to see the house restored.

How do you get your hands on this manuscript you talked about? I would love to have a copy of my own. I too love history and do genealogy.

Gordon said...

For many years until his death in 1958, my great grandmother's younger brother, who everyone referred to as Coxey, owned this building.

When last I visited Old World, I visited with the attendant of this building and we had quite a chat.

What they were aware of, but of course is not publicly presented, is the seedier side of the business of having an Inn close the railroad and the type of patron, and women such a place can attract. This was well known within our family who have been in Dodge County since 1856. Just as most knew of the "Cathouse" over in Minnesota Junction.

When they moved the house, they would not let anyone in to see the upper floor. The building at Old World Wisconsin is slightly different than it's original design, but not much.

What the staff at Old World were not aware of was that Abraham Lincoln stayed here once!

The structure has alot of charm, and is a reflection of all the good, and what some would say bad, that came with the settling of the west. When the Four Mile Inn was built, Wisconsin was not yet a State.

Cool story!