Wendell Lad Rides Rails to Fame & Fortune

I have happened upon another interesting historical character – one who passed through South Deerfield on his way to railroad immortality. His name was Jonas Brown Wilder II (1813-1906).

I discovered Wilder during Greenfield-newspaper research on my Arms family. Searching for information on Dennis Arms, credited as the founder of South Deerfield’s 19th-century pocketbook-manufacturing industry, I saw the byline “J. Wilder” appear atop an 1894 Gazette and Courier guest column titled “Ten Years in the South.”

The dateline read “Bristol, Tenn., and Va.” So, which was it? Was he from Virginia or Tennessee? Come to find out, the state line runs right down Main Street of these “Twin Cities,” with Bristol, Virginia on the east side and Bristol, Tennessee on the west. Though Wilder lived in Virginia, it’s not unlikely that his expansive landholdings crossed into Tennessee.

It was not easy to find J. Wilder’s first name. The search took me on fruitless genealogical journeys through Conway and Sunderland Wilders before finally discovering my man was from Millers River country.

Jonas Brown Wilder II was the youngest of his namesake father and Rebecca Leach’s four children, all sons born in Wendell. His father was a farmer who dabbled in shoemaking and coopering, the son of Nathaniel Wilder, who was born in 1751 in Princeton, grew up in Belchertown and settled as a young adult shoemaker in Ware, according to Wendell, Massachusetts: Settlers and Citizenry, 1752-1900 by Pamela A. Richardson. Before the Revolution, Nathaniel moved to Wendell, where he is buried.

The Jonas Wilder farm was located snuggled up to Shutesbury in the southwest corner of town, according to Jonas II, about a mile north of “Locks Pond” and “Locks Village.” Those two places show up on modern maps as Lake Wyola and Lockes Village. (Regarding the proper spelling of the surname Lock, well, flip a coin. There seems to be no consistency when reading through genealogical records, which use Lock and Locke for the same people, the latter presumably gaining traction in Wendell and Shutesbury in modern days.)

The elusive Jonas Wilder identification came by way of a Gazette and Courier column published some 10 years after the first one I first discovered. Wilder, quite proud of his accomplishments, seems to have been a prolific newspaper contributor. His 1904 column titled “A Typical Yankee Career: Former Wendell Boy Tells his Life History” was penned two years before his death. The long narrative ended with a boldfaced shirttail identifying the author as Jonas Wilder.

At the time of the column, Wilder was living out his final years with a son in Woodstock, Vermont. He hadn’t in fact submitted the piece to the newspaper. He sent it to the Wendell postmaster desperately seeking any information about potential survivors from his old Wendell/Shutesbury neighborhood. Impressed by the letter’s local-history content, the postmaster must have shared it with the Gazette and Courier editor, who in turn published it as a guest column.

So, nearly 120 years later, I had my man – a fascinating local subject worth sharing with readers.

Our Jonas Wilder story begins in South Deerfield, his first stop as a wage earner. The Deerfield village was known as Bloody Brook upon his arrival as a 13-year-old, trees budding and blooming in the spring of 1827. He wouldn’t turn 14 until leaves were wearing their fall colors on October 2.

Bloody Brook was then known for its shoemakers and leather craftsmen, most notable among them Dennis Arms (1790-1854), who enjoyed a shoemaking partnership with older brother Erastus (1785-1930), my third great-grandfather. Because Erastus died young at 45, he is forgotten in history, but not in land records. From what I’ve seen, without exception Erastus is the first named on several joint deeds with Dennis, whose name would have appeared first if they were listed alphabetically.

Wilder chose the well-known and respected Arms shoe shop as the place to refine shoemaking skills he had picked up from his father. He names Dennis Arms as the shop owner, and never mentions the last name of another man working at the shop, which employed 15 journeymen cordwainers.

The shop didn’t offer apprenticeships, per se, but did take in Wilder as a 25-cents-per-day boarder and assigned him an instructor. His job – an early example of assembly-line shoemaking when most country shoemakers were likely still crafting entire shoes one at a time – was attaching leather soles to “ladies prunella shoes” made of strong silk or worsted fabric.

Interesting anecdotal information supplied by Wilder in his 1894 newspaper narrative speaks to what he believed to be alcoholic abuse by his fellow Bloody Brook workers. He could see that, minus drink, the workers would have been far more productive. Chalk it up an early life lesson that helped shape a successful, teetotaling businessman and likely temperance supporter. Politically, Wilder was an outspoken abolitionist and fervent Lincolnian Republican who was not bashful to express his views.

Wilder’s depiction of the Arms shoe shop employees as heavy drinkers begs the question of whether old Erastus Arms had a drinking problem, which might have contributed not only to his early death, but also to the financial difficulties revealed in his and brother-partner Dennis’s public record.

Jonas Wilder didn’t stick around South Deerfield long. His goal was to pay off his father’s debt of some $900 on the family’s 172-acre Wendell farm that extended into Shutesbury. After three years, at age 16, he decided that the shoemaking assembly line was harmful to his health and well-being. He remedied the problem by taking a job as a teenage peddler, starting on foot with a tin suitcase in each hand before working up to a team of horses and wagon that supplied merchants and his own four-man crew of foot-peddlers.

The traveling-salesman work generated enough income to pay off his father’s debt by his 21st birthday, at which time he took a job clerking at Ivory Howe’s store at Whitmore’s Mills in North Sunderland, almost halfway home to his family’s Wendell farm from South Deerfield.

Wilder had known Howe as a Wendell storekeeper, and ended up managing the store briefly while Howe was away. As a gratuity, Howe then set him up at a friend’s Athol store before Wilder moved on to clerkships at stores in Jaffrey, then New Ipswich, New Hampshire, where he again went into peddling before selling out in 1843. That’s when he embarked on a distinguished, 40-year railroad career, moving from dusty roads to the steel rails of a burgeoning transportation industry that promised riches.

Wilder built an impressive list of accomplishments while serving in many roles on many different rail lines. Perhaps most notable was his invention of the refrigerator car, designed for the “butter trains” transporting the best butter money could buy from northern New York State farms across Lake Champlain and on to the Boston market.

Unfortunately, Wilder never “cashed in” with a patent on his invention, or others noted by author Pamela Richardson for train buckboards and self-inking stamps. Apparently, he couldn’t be bothered to apply for patents – he had work to do. Instead, Western meat-packers such as the Swift Meat Co. became the impetus for the lucrative refrigerator-car patent secured in later years by W.A. Chandler of Union Star Lines.

The modest one-and-a-half-story farmhouse in the south of Wendell where Jonas and his father were born was still standing, minus the barn, when he wrote to the postmaster in 1904. According to Richardson, contacted by phone at her winter Florida residence, only the cellar hole survives today. When I told her I had discovered her book after completing the first draft of this piece, and feared that Jonas Wider might be old news in Wendell, she assured me that was not the case. She had only mentioned him in passing.

So, there you have bits and pieces of the story of Jonas Brown Wilder II, a Franklin County man worth memorializing. Newspapers at the time of his July 7, 1906 death, a couple months before his 93rd birthday, treated him with dignity and respect. His obituary graced the front page of the Gazette and Courier in Greenfield, the Daily Saratogian in Saratoga Springs, New York, the Bennington Banner in Vermont, and likely many other papers of the day. Although he didn’t make the front page of New York City papers, they spared no ink in lengthy obits for a great railroad man from the rolling hills of Wendell and Shutesbury.

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