The McIlree Family

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Joseph Adam McIlree

Family History

At the Vets - Nathan Leslie McIlree and Anne Mcilree Benhke

The following information was passed on to me by Mrs Joyce McIlree Behnke (a descendent of Joseph Adam McIlree) who wrote to me a some years ago, and I was then lucky enough to meet in England shortly afterwards. The photo on the top left is of her niece and my son taken in Richmond, Yorkshire at that time.

Joyce McIlree Behnke Family

Sometime in the early 1860’s, David and Elizabeth Macilree left their native Scotland and migrate to Northern Ireland, following David’s brother who was a Presbyterian missionary in So0uthern Ireland. Two children were born here, first a girl, Nancy, and then on February 16, 1865, a boy named Joseph Adam. By the time Joseph Adam was three years old, in 1868, his parents dissatisfied with life in Ireland, decided to join other relatives who journeyed to America. Their destination was the southern part of the state of Wisconsin, but for some unknown reason the family lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for about a year, before traveling to Whitewater, Wisconsin. It was during the trip form Ireland to Whitewater that the ‘a’ in their family name was dropped.

David settled his family on Railroad Street in Whitewater, a street populated mostly by Irish Catholic, and where the whiskey bought for 25 cents a gallon flowed freely. He supported his family by making boots and shoes. Six more children, Sarah, George, Jack, Mina, Elizabeth, and Dave, were born in Whitewater. The parents became American citizens and encouraged their children to take advantage of the educational opportunities. All of the children had a high school education, with three of the girls graduating from the Whitewater Normal School.

In the late 1880’s, Joseph Adam became an apprentice pattern maker at the Whitewater Wagon Works. Business was flourishing as this company had a contract for 900 mountain wagons to be shipped to the mining county of Colorado. The first 300 were shipped out, but before the second 300 were finished, the first 300 were all returned because they wouldn’t track (the hind wheels wouldn’t follow the front wheels). This ended Joseph’s first job and he turned to the railroad he knew so well form his boyhood for work. He was hired by the Chicago and St. Paul Railroad and was taught how to operate a telegraph and to be a station agent. When he was ready for a job, he left this railroad, as there were no openings, and located at Woodruff, Wisconsin working for the North-western Railroad Company.

Woodruff was a lumbering town of 250 people, catering to the lumberjacks with its 14 saloons, 1 bowling alley, and a “sporting house” located a half mile out of town, run by a lady known as “Gold Tooth Fanny”. In 1889, Joseph Adam made a trip to southern Wisconsin and brought back hi bride, Mary Rommel, to Woodruff. Expecting their first child in 1892, Mary traveled by railroad expecting to go to Rome, Wisconsin to get her mother to return with her. Plans were changed as Mary, in desperation, had to leave the train at Manitowoc, and it was here at St. Mary’s Hospital that their first son, Joseph Rommel, was born. Three sisters, Katherine, Marion, and Edith were born in Woodruff.
Besides his work with the railroad, Joseph Adam supplemented his income by being Justice of the Peace of Woodruff. It was his privilege to marry the first Indian couple from the Lac du Flambeau Reservation the “American” way, which included giving them American names and baptizing them. His pay was in fish. Ice was obtained from the refrigerator cars and being station agent, he could ship the fish as “deadhead”, free of charge to Green Bay. Another moneymaking scheme was to sell marked tickets to the intoxicated Indians, who wanted to return to their homes. This too, was paid off in fish, and the profits were shared with the conductor.

In 1900 Joseph Adam heard of a 40-acre piece of land surrounded by land owned by a logging company that was still open to homesteading. The traveled to Wausau, and bought the land for $1.25 an acre. In order to homestead the land, he took an eighteen-month leave of absence from his $55 a month job with the railroad. On the land covered with virgin white pine, Joseph built a one-room log cabin with an attic and moved his family out to it. He signed a contract, selling the timber to a logging company for $1600, with a three-year lease to take the timber off the land. Other profits were obtained by selling stove wood procured from the surrounding land owned by the lumbering company, and selling it for $1.75 a stove cord in the towns of Woodruff, Arva Vida, and Minocqua. After the timber was removed, Joseph Adam refused to pay the taxes, which he claimed were too high, and the land reverted back to the federal government. A son Edward was born in 1902, while living on the homestead.

The family moved to Washburn, Wisconsin, and the father again worked as a telegraph operator. Here, their last child, Ruth was born. In about 1910 the family moved to Olivia, Minnesota, because the father’s health did not allow him to continue his railroad work. He invested $1920 on 160 acres of land, that he farmed until he was 72 years old. He died at the age of 79 in 1944.

David McIlree descendents

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