Tuesday, December 15, 2020

A Christmas bacchanal at Spence Wadlington's store

I crossed the county line into Appanoose yesterday in search of pre-Christmas inspiration and found a story that while not especially uplifting is at least amusing. Although repeated many times in many places as the years have passed, the original telling in print was in the 1878 history of Appanoose County, published during the same year the host for this pioneer bacchanal, Spencer F. Wadlington, died at his fine brick home in Independence Township, close to the point where Lucas, Wayne, Appanoose and Monroe counties join. 

Born Feb. 6, 1807, in Caldwell County, Kentucky, Spencer took a bride named Eliza D. Cooksey on Sept. 18, 1840, county records show, but the union did not endure. Approaching 40, he arrived single in the south of Iowa during 1846 with a small stock of goods and began storekeeping just outside the Appanoose County seat, called Chaldea initially, soon Centerville. By the time this story transpired, he had moved his cabin and his stock of goods to a point near the town square --- now recognized as Iowa's largest.

Wadlington went on to become a successful merchant, civic leader, farmer and dealer in livestock. He's generally referred to as an "eccentric" bachelor, but there really is no sign of eccentricity, other than the fact he remained single after his initial marital adventure and that in those times was considered eccentric. Whatever the case, here's the story:


In 1846, Spencer F. Wadlington erected a cabin a little northeast of where Centerville now stands, and proceeded to "keep store" in the wilderness. It is stated that the first year's sales of our pioneer merchant were a dozen pairs of coarse shoes, half a dozen calico dress patterns, as many bolts of brown muslin and a few coarse casinets. These, with a sack of coffee and a few other groceries, constituted his stock in trade. In order to reduce his expenses to the measure of his profits, he did his own cooking. Most of the settlers at this early day were without families. Mr. Wadlington slept on a bed made of deer and bear skins, with a bundle of coon skins for a pillow. He subsequently became an extensive farmer and stock dealer. He was the first Mayor of Centerville, and had also been Probate Judge, Justice of the Peace and Deputy Clerk.

On the afternoon of Christmas, 1847, a party of the "boys" living in the northeast part of the county, some of them belonging in the vicinity of Unionville, agreed that it would hardly be right to let the day pass without a suitable observance. They accordingly wended their way to the county seat, and to Wadlington's store --- who had transferred his place of business to Chaldea --- arriving at the store about dark.

They began their celebration with an internal application of "su'thin,' " and to neutralize any subsequent bad effect took another horn. These potations were repeated at suitable intervals till midnight. The young pioneers indulged in various amusements during their hours of celebration. They would frequently issue from the store door, whoop loud enough to scare the wolf cubs in their dens between the forks of the Chariton, and then return to warm their throats.

The first half of the night was quite warm, as a damp snow was falling, and, the store having no floor yet, their heavy boots tramped the interior of the cabin into considerable of a mud-hole. About midnight, the spirits had done their perfect work, and each fellow selected a buffalo-robe or deer-skin and lay down to rest on the natural floor, damp as it was, although it is more than likely that Wadlington tucked them in as they became insensible.

The weather turned very frosty toward morning. Shortly after daylight, Mr. Stratton, who was the nearest neighbor, visited the store to learn the cause of the noises heard by him, and found each reveler snugly frozen to his earthen bed, and the edges of the skins frozen tight, also. It was an amusing spectacle, and a modern teetotaler could hardly have avoided a show of laughter at their situation. They were thawed out after and hour or two and returned to their homes none the worse for their night's frolic.


As noted earlier, the host here eventually turned to farming and dealing in livestock and located on a farm some distance northwest of Centerville in Independence Township. He built a fine brick home there, now in ruins, of limestone quarried nearby and bricks burned on the site.

An infected leg injury complicated by pneumonia claimed his life on Nov. 4, 1878, and he was buried as he wished in the side yard of his home, the spot marked now by a red cedar tree and his iron-fenced tombstone.

It's not that difficult to find him, if you're interested in a visit (although it does help to know the territory). Just drive south out of Russell on County Road S56 for several miles until you make another turn south at Confidence and then watch for Sunnyslope Church of Christ on your left. Turn left (east) there and just follow the gravel road as it meanders east. You'll know you've gone too far if you drive into Lake Rathbun, where the road now ends a short distance southeast of Spencer's grave.

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