Laona: I arrived in Laona, Forest County, just before Christmas in 1900. The Connor Lumber and Land Company had bought a single band saw mill at Black River and moved it to Laona and had it in operation. My father, Len Sargent, had erected a big frame, three-story, hotel with a big saloon in the basement.
There was a couple of big out-houses out back, kerosene lamps were used for lighting, and stoves for heating. However, in a year or so later the Connor Company installed a direct current dynamo, and electric lights were installed in the company store and our hotel. Plumbing and steam heating was also added.
Laona was a wild and wooly town at that time. The town seemed to be full of lumberjacks and a good share of them drunk most of the time. Dad’s saloon was busy with a couple of bartenders most of the time. Everybody seemed to be having a good time, but there were some rough customers among them. However, there were many fine respectful people living there also.
When Dad started in business, he did not drink, but after he got started in politics, he started to imbibe and at times quite heavy. He never drank when there was business that needed his attention, but after business was over and he would get to mixing, he would drink more than was good for him, For long stretches he would not drink at all, but when he did drink he went all out, and was not himself at all. Being a giant in stature, he usually won any fight that he got mixed up in.
Dad wound up his bout with John Barley Corn and fighting with his fist at the
same time. There was a young husky saloon keeper in Laona who dad took
a great liking to. He was Joe Checota. They had a few sprees together and
at such events, would naturally brag about their ability in pugilism. They both
decided that it would be a good idea to see who was the best man, so then
and there they walked over to the Rat River bridge, that was half way between
South and North Laona. A ring was formed on the bridge by a goodly bunch
of sports. They say it was a good fight, but Joe being a younger man, finally
knocked Dad down. Dad got up, shook hands with Joe, went home and retired
from the ring and spreeing too. I never saw or heard of him again getting drunk.
There was a new Kentucky settlement not far from town. Most of them were
fine people, but there were some bad actors among them. It was the first time
that I saw men going around carrying revolvers strapped to their side, and every
little while they would threaten to use them, and occasionally they would fire
I went down in the saloon one night to see what was going on. There was a big crowd there, some were playing cards, some were shaking dice, some were singing, and there was a lot of loud talk. An Irishman was dancing alone with a number of chairs. It was sort of a square dance and the chairs were his partner. My Dad was tending bar with two other bartenders. Then I noticed a Norwegian lumberjack sitting on a high stool back of the cigar case and had a rifle lying across his knees. I learned that a friend of his, another Norwegian, had a set-to with a Kentuck and a couple of other Kentucks were expected to be in our saloon that night to shoot up this particular Norwegian. The talk had helped to draw the large crowd and all were excited. Sure enough the two Kentucks showed up and, no doubt, they came there with the intention of making trouble. However, when they saw the Norse sitting back of the cigar case with that rifle handy, they acted like perfect gentleman. There was no trouble that night. I found out afterwards that Dad had furnished the rifle, the stool, and had engineered the whole arrangement, in order to make sure nothing serious would happen.
My brother Joe, and my brother-in-law, Bill Van Der Least, got into an argument once with a Kentuck who whipped out his gun and shot Joe through his leg and Billy through his throat. Bill lived for several years after he was shot, but always wheezed when he talked and finally died from complications that started in his throat.
Such was Laona in its early days.
The Snake Room: Lumberjacks consisted of many different types of men. Many of them were respectful and well-bred. This type would take a bath or at least wash down once a week, and would keep their clothes and sleeping bunks clean and clear of lice, etc. Others were just the opposite, they would not change underwear all winter, not take care of their clothes or bunks.
The later type, were those that usually got drunk every chance they got and when they did they were simply repulsive. No hotel or saloon keeper wanted to give them a bed to sleep in, because the next day he would find the bed lousy and the mattress ruined by urine. In the winter, you could not put them out-of-doors, or they would freeze to death, (there was no jail in Laona at that time and no peace officer on duty) so they were usually allowed to sleep off their jags on the floor of the bar room.
In that case, someone would have to stay on watch all night, because if the drunk came to he would immediately help himself to the booze on the back bar. A man might get drunk in some other saloon and just before closing come staggering into your place, and if you put him out and if he had an accident of some kind, you would be blamed for not taking care of him.
One night in Laona, a crew of men from a near by camp came onto town and whooped it up until quite late. Among them was a big raw-boned blacksmith. He was know as a nice fellow, but one of those that could not take care of himself while drunk, and he did get gloriously drunk.
When the crew started back for camp, my Dad (Len Sargent) was quite concerned about this man, and offered to keep him overnight. The blacksmith insisted, however, that he was going back with the other boys. Dad spoke to some of the boys and got their promise to see that the Smith got home O.K. and finally the entire crew left singing and hollering, as happy as can be.
The next day the blacksmith was found sitting in a snow bank froze to death. My dad felt terrible about this incident. There were some competitors and others that really blamed Dad for the mans death. It was because of this problem of taking care of drunks overnight that Dad had a unique room arranged for them. He had a room attached to the saloon with an outside door that was open all of the time. The room was on ground level so that one would not get hurt, staggering out on steps. The door to the bar room was kept locked at night. There was an electric light in the room as well as a steam radiator to keep it warm and comfortable. There were several mattresses and blankets laid on the floor.
This arrangement allowed a drunk to sleep off his jag without freezing to death and he could go outside and come back when he desired to.
I know that Dad felt that he was doing a decent and humane act in building this room, but it was soon branded “The Snake Room” and an otherwise well spoken of hotel and saloon was talked of as notorious by certain people.
I often wonder what they would have done under similar circumstances.
The Blacksmith Shop: Up to about 1910 there was no custom blacksmith shop in Laona or many miles around. My Dad, Len Sargent, was always progressive and willing to do anything to improve his home town, so he built a blacksmith shop, so that the settlers around Laona would have a place to get their horses shod and machinery, wagons, sleighs, etc., repaired. He hired Henry Ottinger, a good old time blacksmith, and also put in some small farm machinery such as plows and mowers.
I liked the idea of that little shop and started to sell machinery. I even sold and installed some house furnaces and hot water heating systems. I got an order from a man at Crandon for a potato digger, the first one ever sold in Forest County.
Adieu Laona: I had left my home to go to work a day in the fall of 1911. As I approached our hotel, I heard people screaming, and smoke coming out of the windows. I hurried up to se if there was anything that I could do, but I ever got into the building. It was a roaring inferno in no time. Luckily nobody was hurt. There were some close calls, but most of the tenants were dressed or partly dressed. Many of them lost all of their belongings.
A school-marm on the second floor, calmly tossed her violin out of the window to someone below. Then slid out of her window using her bed sheets for a rope.
When the fire broke out my mother was still in bed in her room on the ground floor. She said that an explosion took place, directly under her, which tossed her out of bed. She escaped in her night clothes, but lost practically all of her personal belongings. The hotel and contents was a total loss. After a few days we were able to get a small safe out of the basement. The safe had been in Dad and Mothers room on the first floor near the outside wall, so we knew where to locate it immediately. It fell into the basement with the door face down on the board floor below. As soon as it cooled off, I was able to open the safe by working the combination and found the contents intact. The insurance policies and other papers were brown and rather crisp but legible.
About a week later, Dad and I took the insurance policies to Milwaukee to present Dad’s claim against the insurance companies. We filed our inventory and claims with the Western Adjustment Association and left for home.
Needless to say, Dad got every cent of his insurance money. He stayed around Laona long enough to sell his farms and sell his lots to the Connor Company for a fancy price and moved to Wausau, where he bought another hotel and saloon and prospered.
~ End of Story ~