SEYMOUR AND THE RAILROAD (PART 2)
Seymour and the Railroad: A Brief Glimpse into the Past
By Lifetime Member Ralph J. Melchert
A longtime railroad buff, Ralph's first article Memories of Trains in the Seymour Area was printed in the 2015 Fall/Winter Seymour History Bulletin. The article is available on the Seymour Community Historical Society Website (seymourhistory.org) under "News".
A person born in a Midwestern town or city within the last forty-five or fifty years may have a difficult time imagining how dependent on the railroad most of these towns and cities were during the previous one hundred years or so. In fact, many of these towns and cities owe their existence to the railroad. Seymour (Outagamie County, Wisconsin, population 3,436) is one of these cities.
Prior to the building of the Green Bay and Lake Pepin Railroad in 1871 from Green Bay to Winona, Minnesota, and the beginning of regular service on January 23, 1872, what is now the City of Seymour consisted of just a few homes. The nearest community with a post office was Lime Rock, located about one and one-half miles southwest from the center of present-day Seymour, near the present-day intersection of French Road and State Highway 54. Located on a ridge, Lime Rock was bypassed by the railroad in order to take advantage of a more level route to the west. With the railroad now going through Seymour, as well as the post office being re-located to Seymour, Seymour grew, while Lime Rock gradually disappeared.
The Town of Seymour, formed in 1867, was named after Horatio Seymour, former governor of New York and unsuccessful presidential candidate against Ulysses S. Grant in the 1868 election. Horatio Seymour was the largest landowner in the area, so it was logical to name the town after him. In 1879, seven years after rail service began, Seymour’s population grew to 900 and was incorporated as a city. The population of Seymour continued to grow due to the timber industry, but as the timber declined the population did as well, dropping to about 700, and around the year 1900 Seymour had the distinction of being the smallest incorporated city in the United States.
Timber was the big industry when the railroad began service in 1872. In 1871 Seymour had a stave factory and a shingle mill. By 1875 there were six mills in addition to two grist mills in Seymour. Two big products were staves for barrels and hubs and spokes for wheels. In addition, in 1875 C.M. Upham and Brothers of Angelica hauled nearly three million feet of pine lumber and eight million shingles to Seymour for shipment by rail. Also, supplies for these industries were brought in by rail, as well as the necessities needed by the general population, since the railroad was the basic source of transportation, especially for large items and large amounts.
As the timber was harvested and the land cleared, farming increased. Because wheat was being grown, in 1879 Cargill built a grain elevator in Seymour, as well as in other towns and cities on the Green Bay and Lake Pepin Railroad. In 1893 Robert Kuehne moved to Seymour and established a large livestock, grain, and produce business. In 1902 a vegetable canning company, known for most of its life as the Seymour Canning Company, was established. These, as well as many other businesses, resulted in a large freight business for the railroad.
Virtually every business in Seymour was a customer of the Green Bay and Western Railroad (a successor of the Green Bay and Lake Pepin RR). According to its 1943 Official Directory of Industries, the GB & W listed 44 businesses in Seymour as customers of the railroad. This may be surprising to someone living in the 21st century, as today we think of railroad shipments as large and bulky freight items, such as coal, grain, lumber, large containers, etc., and while that is true, in the days before trucks were as prevalent as they are today, many smaller items such as groceries, hardware, tools, eggs, cheese, and dry goods were among the smaller products handled by rail. The railroad handled items such as UPS and FedEx handle today, only the railroad normally did not deliver door to door. The items were delivered to the railroad depot, where it could be picked up by the customer, or a local company, such as Jos. F. Huettl Transfer Line, would pick up and deliver the items to the local customer by truck, or in earlier days by a freight wagon pulled by horses.
Robert Kuehne & Co.
Several Seymour customers stand out as shipping a large quantity of freight over the years. For example, according to the Appleton Post, January 23, 1896, Robert Kuehne & Co. shipped as many as 16 carloads of livestock per day. (See photo). Seymour became one of the best livestock markets in the Midwest. In addition to livestock, Mr. Kuehne dealt in grain and produce. In 1914, he shipped 123,000 sacks of cabbage by rail. For many years Robert Kuehne averaged 400 carloads of freight per year. Reorganized in 1936 as R. Kuehne & Sons, in 1943 the company shipped 46,200 head of livestock from Seymour. In 1958 100 carloads of mesh-sacked sweet corn were shipped in addition to 600 carloads of mesh-sacked cabbage.
Seymour Canning Co.
In 1925 the Seymour Canning Company was purchased by Henry J. Selmer and G. T. Farley. The plant was modernized, and production increased from fifty thousand cases to around two hundred fifty thousand cases yearly. The railroad played a big part in the company’s business as all the seeds and cans came in by rail. It is estimated that between fifty and one hundred carloads of vegetables were shipped yearly. Gradually trucks took over for the railroad, and during the 1980s shipment by rail ceased. In 1999 the canning company was sold to Lakeside Foods. In 2014 production was transferred to other plants, and the Seymour plant was closed permanently. With the closing a big part of Seymour’s history ended. The canning company was a big part of Seymour, as it provided summer jobs for many local people as well as income for farmers who grew the vegetables. Almost everyone in the area had a connection with the canning company at one time or another as a customer, employee, or grower.
Another customer of the railroad over the years was the Seymour Woodenware, which produced wooden cheese boxes. These boxes were used by cheese plants throughout the country, and many boxes were shipped as far away as Vermont by rail. As trucks replaced rail transportation, and as wooden cheese boxes were replaced by other forms of packaging, shipment by rail ceased.
Lumberyards such as Miller-Piehl received carloads of lumber and other building materials. Since coal was in high demand for both residential and industrial use, carloads of coal came in by rail. Tank cars of gasoline and other petroleum products were also significant in Seymour’s railroad business. In years past automobiles were brought in by rail, but in later years trucks pulling auto carriers became the norm. Farm tractors and implements continued to be brought in by rail until more recently. One can see that until recent decades the railroad was an essential part of community life, and the railroad was the lifeblood of the economy.
The Green Bay and Western was not especially known for its passenger service. There was a good-natured jibe in the past that “G B and W” stood for “Grab Baggage and Walk”. This jibe probably had its origin in the fact the words humorously fit the letters “G”, “B”, and “W”, rather than an intended criticism of the railroad’s passenger service.
Passenger service was important to daily life in Seymour. Each day “the Scott”, a train originating in Wisconsin Rapids would head east to Green Bay stopping in Seymour at 10 am. This schedule enabled the people of Seymour to go to Green Bay for shopping or other business and return later that same day. On weekends many picnickers with their picnic baskets would get off the train at Pamperin Park, assisted by the courteous train crew. On the return trip the crew would assist the picnickers back on the train headed back to Seymour. Once a year a special excursion train made the trip to Lake Emily near Amherst in Portage County for an enjoyable day at this pretty little lake. In the early years of the Outagamie County Fair in Seymour an excursion train from Green Bay would arrive at 10 am. The passengers would be met at the depot by a band, and then the entire group would make the trek to the fairgrounds.
Passenger traffic for the railroad was at 50,000 yearly in the 1870s and peaked at 315,000 in 1915. Due to increased competition from the automobile, passenger traffic on the GB & W declined to only 1000 yearly in 1947. In these final years passenger service reverted to mixed passenger-freight trains, and the service ended permanently on April 4, 1949.
Johnny “Blood” McNally
Although Johnny “Blood” McNally is a legendary member of the NFL Hall of Fame, often his off-field antics rivaled his on-field performances. He played six of his fourteen season with the Green Bay Packers (1929-33 and 1935-36). He loved trains, and many of his antics were associated with trains. Rather than pay the passenger fare from his home in New Richmond, WI, in the western part of the state, to Green Bay for the start of training camp, he would hop a freight and ride in the manner of a hobo to camp. He would “ride the blinds”, which is an expression for the dangerous practice of riding between the cars to avoid detection by the police or train crews. One misstep would result in falling under the wheels of the train. The exact route McNally took is not documented, but the most logical route according to the railroad map of the period, would be to take the Chicago and Northwestern from New Richmond to Merrillian, WI, where he could hop on the Green Bay and Western and ride directly through Seymour to his destination in Green Bay. If one is permitted to speculate, some Seymour residents may have seen what they thought was a hobo “riding the blinds” through Seymour, when it may have been in reality, Johnny Blood. At any rate, riding the rails in this manner earned Johnny “Blood” McNally the nickname, “the Vagabond Halfback”.
Grandma and the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show
My grandmother, Anna (Minlschmidt) Melchert, was born on January 27, 1883, and passed away on January 19, 1989, several days before what would have been her 106th birthday. Some years before she passed away, I recall her telling me about her excitement as a young girl growing up in the Black Creek area, looking forward to the appearance of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Annie Oakley, and the Wild West Show Mr. Cody was bringing to Green Bay. She told me that during the night before the family was to attend, she and her sister would wake up their parents every little while, asking, “Is it time to go yet?”
Grandma did not tell me the date of Buffalo Bill’s performance, but according to a letter Mr. Cody wrote from Green Bay to a business associate in Wyoming, dated September 3, 1896, the performance occurred on that date, when my future grandmother would have been thirteen years old. In his letter Mr. Cody stated that the attendance for that show was the largest they had on the tour. The show was billed as “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World”, an impressive billing to be sure.
Of course, young Anna and the rest of the Minlschmidt Family would have traveled from Black Creek through Seymour to Green Bay on the newly formed Green Bay and Western Railroad. (The GB & W was formed in May of 1896 from the bankrupt Green Bay, Winona, and St. Paul Railroad.) This newly formed railroad (and its successors) would continue to serve Seymour and the other communities on the route for over one hundred years.
The Buffalo Bill Wild West Show normally used fifty-nine railroad cars to transport the show. The show’s records indicate that after Buffalo Bill’s performance in Green Bay on September 3rd, the show was transported for its September 4th performance in Stevens Point by the Green Bay and Western Railroad. Of course, this meant that the entire Buffalo Bill Wild West Show passed through Seymour on its way to Stevens Point.
One of the most noteworthy locomotives in the history of the railroad was the Alco 2-8-2 (Mikado) locomotive. Six of these large locomotives, commonly referred to as “Mikes” for short, were purchased between 1937 and 1939, putting the GB & W on a par with the large first class railroads in terms of locomotive power. These heavy new locomotives required heavier rails and upgraded bridges, but they enabled the GB & W to pull longer trains with more tonnage at higher speeds. They served the railroad well during World War II with the demands of heavier freight traffic. However, time marches on, and the age of steam was nearing the end.
The other most noteworthy locomotive, in this writer’s opinion, was the Alco FA 1 diesel. Five of these locomotives were purchased between 1947 and 1949, truly placing the Green Bay and Western into the modern age of railroading. Many rail enthusiasts would argue that these FA diesels were the most handsome diesels ever built, but more importantly, they were efficient. What they did was silence steam forever on the GB & W. Although recently overhauled, the six “Mikes” were retired, and by 1950 the GB & W was completely dieselized, making the railroad one of the first in the U.S. to rely completely on diesel power.
The Closing of the Depot in Seymour
The original depot was constructed in 1873, and the current depot was built in 1915, making it 101 years old at this writing. It was the center of railroad freight activity in Seymour for more than sixty years, and now houses the Seymour Model Railroad Club. Due to competition from other forms of transportation, new technology, and other factors, by the 1970s the Green Bay and Western decided to close depots, including the one in Seymour. However, since the depot agent, Carl Pintsch, was a valued employee, whose seniority date was October 3, 1929, the GB & W felt an obligation to Mr. Pintsch to keep the depot open until he retired.
Carl Pintsch’s last day was Friday, June 27, 1975. When the last train went through, Carl was confused as he received another order from the dispatcher. When he finished taking it down he was speechless. Train order #18 read: “Please accept this train order as our acknowledgement and appreciation for the many years of diligent, cooperative, and faithful service you have rendered to the Green Bay and Western Railway Co. May you enjoy many years of health and happiness in your retirement. Our best wishes to you and your family on this occasion”. Signed ( President H. Weldon McGee and all the officers of the GB & W).
After this date all railroad freight business in Seymour was handled through the Norwood yard office in Green Bay, and trucks from that office handled deliveries to Seymour businesses.
The Final Years
As freight traffic on the railroad continued to decline, the railroad was sold to the Intel Corporation in 1978. The last straw, so to speak, was the cessation of rail car ferry service across Lake Michigan to Kewaunee in 1990, and the railroad was sold in 1993 to the Wisconsin Central Railroad to form a new subsidiary railroad, the Fox Valley and Western. By 1999 rail traffic through Seymour had decreased to the point where service was discontinued. The last train through Seymour was reportedly in July of 1999. One hundred and twenty-seven years of railroad service to Seymour had ended, and in 2001 the Wisconsin Central was purchased by the Canadian National Railroad.
As with many, if not most towns and cities, Seymour was shaped and influenced by the railroad. How could it be any different with the railroad being the lifeblood of existence for well over one hundred years? Hopefully, this brief glimpse into the past will bring back memories for some, and for everyone a greater appreciation for the impact the railroad had on the development and growth of Seymour and similar communities.
1. Quintin Adamski, Seymour Woodenware. Seymour,
2. Appleton Post, January 23, 1896. Appleton, WI.
3. The Centennial Review - Historical Photo Album, Seymour, WI. 1968
4. The William F. Cody Archive. (codyarchive.org)
5. The Story of Wisconsin’s Great Canning Industry. Fred A. Stare. Published for the Wisconsin Canners’ Assoc. by the Canning Trade. Baltimore 2, MD. 1949
6. Encore, Seymour Historical Review, In Honor of the
Wisconsin Sesquicentennial. 1998
7. Jim Farley, Seymour Canning Company, Lakeside
Foods. Seymour, WI.
8. Green Bay and Western Lines: The East - West Short
9.Green Bay and Western. Stan Mailer. Hundman
Publishing, Inc. Edmonds, WA. 98020. 1989.
10. Green Bay and W. Train Order to Opr. June 27, 1975.
11.Official Directory of Industries. Green Bay and
Western Railroad. 1943.
12. Land of the Fox - Saga of Outagamie County. Gordon
A Bubholz, Managing Editor, Badger Printing Co.
Appleton, WI. 1949.
13. Mark Mathu: (email@example.com) E-mail of Oct. 24,
14. (trainorders.com). Nostalgia and History. Blog of 9-9-
15.Seymour Community Museum. Displays. 2015.
16. Mrs. Elizabeth Timmins. Head Librarian, Seymour, WI
17. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
18. Daniel J. Fiala, Greater GB Shipping Historical Society