WATERTOWN'S HERITAGE

It's amazing what one will find by browsing through a book store filled with used books.

Such was the case when a friend who shares a love of history with us found an interesting book which has a number of references to Watertown and its German heritage.

The book, now 75 years old, is titled "Old World Wisconsin," written by Fred L. Holmes and published in 1944.

The entire book is quite interesting as it traces the ancestry heritage of various communities in the Badger State. Holmes offered extensive commentary on Watertown, its heritage of stuffed geese, the politics of the Germans of long ago, the treasured German language and so much more.

The book is a hefty 350-plus pages and there obviously isn't room for even a small part of it, but we'll try to convey to our readers a few areas of special mention about Watertown which we hope our readers will enjoy, especially those who can recall those long ago times.

One chapter goes into detail about Watertown's famed stuff goose industry.

A chapter in the book begins, "Out in Dodge and Jefferson counties, Wisconsin, once the Mecca of German people who sought its rich, wild lands as a refuge of freedom and a home of plenty, an Old World vocation has grown to a great national industry.

"Large red barns, long fields of corn shocks, Holstein cattle in green pastures and spacious frame houses present a scene of modern farm prosperity. But within its home circles may be found a different activity -- almost mediaeval in its quaint methods.

"If one visits a farm in the late fall at an hour when the sun is sinking resplendently in the West and the flocks and cattle are being herded for the night, an unfamiliar call will break upon the ear: 'Woode!' 'Woode!' 'Woodie!'"

"This is the call from a housewife, also known as the goose girl, who is assembling her scattered flocks.

"Nowhere else in the United States is one likely to find the ancient custom of caring for the geese each morning and evening as is still practiced in this enterprising community of German-Americans. The goose girl is gone, but the flocks remain. Watertown Wisconsin is the center of the industry.

"Whenever one visits large cities, south or east of Chicago, during the poultry season and enters exclusive clubs, the eye is likely to meet the sign 'Watertown Stuffed Geese.' Cards in the railroad diners announce 'Watertown Goose.'"

The book goes on to explain the two methods of feeding the geese. One is stall feeding and the other "stuffing."

Watertown geese always had the reputation of developing the largest livers of any geese brought to market. Often the geese were 30 pounds in size with a liver weighing four pounds. Watertown farmers would treasure a goose of that size as much as others would a purebred cow which becomes one of the world's best milkers.

Geese with oversized livers were developed through a stuffing process of forced feeding. It was called "noodling." A rolled pasty mixture is forced down the geese's throat every four hours, making the livers grow and the geese fatten.

There was no delicacy more tasty than "pate de foie gras" made from Watertown goose livers. At the peak of the Watertown stuffed goose industry shipments of 50,000 pounds of stuffed geese were shipped to the East Coast and demand always outstripped the supply.

Dr. William F. Whyte, who practiced medicine in Watertown for many years, was quoted in the book as saying, "Stuffing geese is an ancient custom. In the tombs of the sacred bulls in Egypt, which are 4,000 years old, I saw carved on the walls a pictorial representation of the same process which has made our Watertown farmers famous."

The book also said a slower process was used for "stall fed" geese. These geese are placed in pens and given grain and water and allowed to eat as much as they desire. Back in the 1940s about 300,000 pounds of geese raised in Watertown were sold annually. These were desirable birds for the first class hotels.

Holmes continued in his book, "To know the method for ripening the geese for market is a German secret handed down within families and is carefully guarded.

"But the raising of geese is one of many customs that give color and individuality to the Germany counties of Wisconsin."

That industry was at its peak in the 1930s and 1940s but then started a downward spiral caused by many factors. The extensive work in connection with feeding them every four hours for weeks at a time alone was a major drawback. Then federal regulations continually became more strict, especially with shipping across state lines. There were other factors as well and the industry gradually disappeared.

The last family that we know of who noodled geese was Mr. and Mrs. Fred Rumler who practiced the art from their home on North Church Street until the early 1970s.

Today that industry is part of Watertown's rich history and only a memory to the old-timers. The most familiar connection to that industry today is the Watertown High School mascot which is appropriately a Gosling!

We'll get back to the "Old World Wisconsin" book again with a few more connections to Watertown.

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