Murphy’s Area Research Center (ARC)
William Koch was born in 1882 in La Crosse to a family that lived on the North Side. He left school at the age of fourteen to begin working and help support his family. Throughout his life, Koch worked many jobs in La Crosse, including at the lumber mills, the railroad, and the Pearl Button Factory. He was married in 1910 and had two children. This interview was done in 1971-1972, when Koch was about 90 years old, however, Koch speaks very clearly about his whole life and is never shy to give his opinion!
This interview touches on many many subjects, however, this finding aid focuses on two major topics discussed by Koch:
The whole transcript is typed and a total of 348-pages long! But never fear, this finding aid lists just the pages needed for the two topics above.
Pages 2-14: In this opening section of the interview, Koch describes his German immigrant grandparents and other family background. He tells what his childhood was like growing up on the North Side of La Crosse in the late 1800s, including information on his education, all of the jobs he and his family members had—including his young sisters—and interactions he had with some nearby Ho-Chunk children. Koch started working when he was 14-years-old, and his early jobs included the Milwaukee Coal Chutes, the railroad, La Crosse Rubber Mills, Pearl Button Factory, Coleman Lumber Co., and even picking potatoes in South Dakota. Koch also remembered hunting with his Dad and seeing passenger pigeons (now extinct)!
On pages 75-82 Koch talks about lumber production at the sawmills. Never one to shy away from expressing his opinion, Koch also shares is view on harvesting logs in Wisconsin, the building of a road through the La Crosse marsh, and the effect logging had on Native Americans in Wisconsin.
Pages 84-94 cover ”river pirates.” These are people who stole logs right off the river from the lumber companies. In addition, Koch also brings up log jams, logging accidents, and his memories of the rowdy lumbermen in La Crosse. In this section Koch also discusses La Crosse’s Redlight district and other memories of downtown in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
On pages 95-100 Koch describes the rivalry between the North and South sides of La Crosse. He discusses other La Crosse memories as well, including farm animals and community pastureland right in town! He gives his opinion about the Ho-Chunk in the area, and why many lived on “Indian Hill.” Koch eagerly shares his opinion on the sale of liquor to local Native Americans, and the role whites played in bringing liquor and disease to Native Americans. It is important to note that during this part of the interview, he makes anti-Native American racist remarks. In your notes make sure to put all his questionable language in quotation marks. That way people won’t think his language is your language.
Page 122-142: In this section, Koch talks a lot about helping fight fires with the firemen as a kid—not unusual at the time. He had fond childhood memories of horses being used in town, which he describes, but he also recalled common diseases and dangers faced by La Crosse youth. (Just a hint, some of the diseases and dangers were connected to the river.)
On pages 15-41 William Koch begins to talk about his job at the Pearl Button Factory. (Most of this 348-page interview is about the Pearl Button Factory!) He describes exactly how the button factory worked: first how cutting buttons worked, then what the clam shell industry was like, then clamming along Wisconsin rivers and the Mississippi River. He also uses great detail describing how pay worked at the factory for the various jobs. He remembers workers rioting because of their pay.
Pages 42-74 covers why Koch eventually left the Pearl Button Factory. He shares information about the people he worked with, including many female factory workers. He also describes the social life of the factory, like the breaks the workers were allowed to take, and other changes that made the workday more enjoyable. In this section Koch also describes further how the factory ran, including the machinery they used. Eventually the topic turns to how the invention of plastic helped lead to the factory’s closure.
Pages A-Z: These pages are different. They are lettered, not numbered, and are inserted right between pages 74 and 75 of the transcript. (Weird) This section is a kind of “grab bag” of a whole bunch of topics, some new, and others touched on previously. Here is a highlights list: Koch talks about how river pollution made it hard to find clams for the factory. He further describes some of the people he worked with, including his fellow female factory workers. In particular, he discuses their work roles and wages at the factory. He vividly remembers innovations made at the La Crosse factory and how these helped the button industry nation-wide. Finally Koch also mentions attitudes towards Germans during WWI.
On pages 176-190 Koch remembered how the Pearl Button Factory ground up extra shells and sold them to be used as chicken feed. He again described the machine he designed, his career at the factory, and manufacturing at the factory
Pages 209-214 give more information about the making of buttons.
Pages 237b-242 address Koch’s memory about unions, strikes, and labor organizers at the Pearl Button Factory.
Pages 302-304 return to the subject of the Ho-Chunk. This time Koch mentions their role digging shells for the Pearl Button Factory.
Reviewed by: Jennifer DeRocher
La Crosse Public Library Archives
Information about the La Crosse Home For Children is in the Family & Children’s Center Records. It spans from 1888-1983, and includes several neat and old documents, such as a hand written “log of inmates” that dates from 1888-1915, and a hundreds of photographs that show daily life in the earlier days of the Home. This is a very large collection, but this finding aid focuses just on the materials found in boxes 8, 9, and 10. These boxes have the most primary source materials on how the home functioned and the children who lived there. The sources paint a great picture of the home’s organization and the day-to-day life of the children who lived in it.
The La Crosse Home for Children was just that, a home for children. (It was on 11th Street.) Meaning it was run as a regular home for a limited number of children. It is important to understand that these children were not up for adoption and the Home was not a treatment center for naughty or sick kids. It was simply a place where children could go when their parents were unable to care for them properly. A good number of the children eventually went back to their parents when they were able to care for them again. The children that were lucky enough to live at the Home went to school and church, and had chores just like any child. There was a matron of the house. (This is just a fancy title for the woman that lived in the house and made sure everyone was fed, clothed, and cared for. She managed the household, much like a mom.) The purpose of the Home was not just to give these children the things they needed to live, but to give them a happy childhood and to make sure they became good citizens.
Many of the articles in this finding aid talk about Miss Josephine Fletcher the home’s matron from 1929 to 1953. Fletcher was remembered by many of the children as their only mother-figure in life. She was renowned in the community and respected by many. She was a strong female role model and community member.
Folder 1 contains background information on the La Crosse Home for Children. These are mostly reports, programs, donation requests, and papers written about the La Crosse Home for Friendless Women and Children (the Home’s first name) and the La Crosse Home for Children. They are a good way to get a better understanding of the Home and its history.
Folder 2 contains many newspaper clippings from 1888-1977. There are many articles with photographs, but they are in no specific order. The articles cover information on events and people associated with the Home. For example, there’s a 1932 article, “La Crosse Children’s Home Provides Comfort For Many Unfortunates” that does a great job explaining how the Home functioned and all the work that went into maintaining it. There are a lot of articles about Miss Fletcher and her impact on the kids at the Home and in the community.
Folder 3 contains a handwritten ledger book of guests’ comings and goings. The back few pages list the matrons or housekeeper hired from 1888-1904. The book was amended in 1969 and lists the children admitted and discharged though 1977.
Folders 3-6 hold hundreds of photographs. There are pictures of the Home and the staff and the children that lived there. There are photos of the children’s’ everyday life sucha as playing outdoors in the summer and winter, playing inside together, doing chores, and celebrating holidays. The photos really paint a picture of what it was like for these children: what their relationship with one another was like and what their relationship with Miss Fletcher and other staff members was like too. These four folders illustrate all of the information gathered in the other folders.
Folder 3 This is a small folder of correspondence with board members in the 1950s. The highlight however, is a few letters and notes between a girl that lived in the home and a board member. This includes her 1954 graduation announcement, a thank you letter for a graduation present, an update letter a few years later, and a birth announcement for her daughter. (Miss Fletcher had to have been so proud!)
Reviewed by: Danyelle Springer and Jennifer DeRocher