Read before a meeting of the Green Bay Historical Society on December 2, 1901.
"In 1835 the town of Astor was platted, the proprietors being John Jacob Astor, Ramsey Crooks and Robert Stewart. A fine hotel, the Astor House, was built by John Jacob Astor, on the corner of Adams and Mason Streets..."
In this simple and somewhat off-hand way is chronicled one of the great events of the first half of the last century,--an event of importance not only to the little village whose entrance into life is also mentioned, but to the entire Northwest. ...
At the time the shrewd old fur dealer, John Jacob Astor, desiring to increase the value of the land he owned in the new village of Astor, and to draw here some of the settlers who were coming in numbers to this part of the country, wisely determined to build a fine hotel, in which the transient guest should be made so comfortable he might be changed into a permanent resident. That very charming book, Historic Green Bay, says of the newly-platted villages of Milwaukee and Navarino, that the latter was considered by far the most desirable at which to locate. "During the summers of 1835 and 1836 excitement rose to fever heat, every steamer and schooner bringing settlers; speculators also crowded in, who purchased land at government prices, which they sold to later comers for treble the amount." Chicago at that time had but some fifty inhabitants all told; and the little village of Astor, which was to be honored with this edifice, so far superior in size and in other respects to anything to be found in all the broad expanse of the Northwest, contained not more than some half dozen houses, built mostly of logs, small in size and destitute of paint. ... A long, low, log building occupied the spot where the water works plant now stands. A little lower down the river Judge Arndt kept a small inn, its latch string invitingly out, and just beside it a store where the varied wants of the rural population were supplied. In the beginning of 1835 these few buildings comprised nearly the whole of Astor, but with the completion of the new building, the tide of prosperity turned from the north and houses and shops and churches sprang up on all sides. Beautiful homes, still standing, were built about that time; the first regularly incorporated bank west of Detroit was opened here at this time. The relations existing between the two villages were by no means friendly for the next three years, it was wisely determined to forget past dissensions and unite the two villages under the name of the borough of Green Bay. This was done in January 1838, Morgan L. Martin being chosen first president of the borough.
About the time the Astor House was erected the Astor warehouse and dock were built near it--a convenient landing place for boats coming up the lakes or down the river. Much interest must have centered just here during the busy months of preparation and construction, and small as was the population in the two villages one can imagine quite a wild excitement when the work was actually completed, and in all the imposing majesty of its three stories and crowning cupola, the Astor House glistening fresh white paint, stood in the morning sunshine, a beautiful object to the partial eyes of the beholders. Perhaps a stranger would hardly have considered it an architectural gem; it was very large, very square, quite guiltless of any adornment or frivolous devices whatever. Its many windows were provided with bright green blinds to temper sun and wind to the lambs gathered within its walls. ...
The days of '35 were not the days of palace cars and rapid transit; those who came here, called either by business or pleasure, if they came after the close of navigation, came by primitive conveyance, over primitive roads. A journey in the early spring, or late fall, must have been equally wearying to the body, and destructive to the nerves. Snow and ice in the winter made travelling somewhat pleasanter. The man, who after a long ride found himself at the close of the day in a comfortable inn, with a good fire and an attractive host, must have felt that he had reached 'a veritable haven of refuge.' Given a fine house, elegantly furnished and luxuriously kept, he must have been unreasonable indeed if he did not invoke a blessing on the head of the man who had so lavishly provided for his comfort, and heartily subscribe to Dr. Johnson's well known sentiment that "there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is provided, as by a good tavern or inn."
When the last touch had been given to the house, furniture, splendid beyond anything seen before in the west, was sent to fill it. Old settlers wax eloquent in describing the soft carpets, the mahogany tables and chairs and sofas, the abundant shining silver, knives and forks and spoons, two tea sets, not plated but real sterling silver, the finest damask. A few pieces of furniture, a handsome table, a sofa and a very beautiful cut glass globe still exist to bear testimony to the truth of these statements.
As a last and crowning addition to the edifice, its owner sent from New York a man to fill the responsible and difficult position of landlord. My correspondent describes this gentleman as a man of exceptionally fine presence, with cultivated genial manners,--one who could, and did, by his urbanity and kind consideration for his guests, give to the house over which he presided, a popularity with the public, a popularity it was destined to retain from the day it was opened till it was burned to the ground some twenty years after. The spacious, comfortable rooms became a favorite meeting place for the citizens. Here the gentlemen of the twin villages were wont to assemble in the evening for the interchange of ideas, the discussion of the news of the day, and here the village story teller enlivened the evening with copious recollections of his past life, and predictions, cheerful or otherwise, according to his mood, of the future. ...
... As nearly as I can learn the house passed next into the hands of Mr. Thomas Green, much better and more affectionately known in his day as Uncle Tommy. My correspondent writes of him with the warmest regard, of his kindly, generous nature, and the estimation in which he was held by his fellow townsmen. She says: "His remembrance will remain in the minds of those who knew him, while any are left on earth. If the record of those times had been written as a journal it would have added interest to your paper, for it would have told the story of a pleasant home for the wayfarer, without pomp or style, where every thing was done for the comfort of the guest." It was in Mr. Green's time that the Astor House was honored with a royal guest. The son of Louis Philippe, the Prince de Joinville, with his suite, a gay party, spent a few hours here, dining sumptuously, and conferring lasting distinction upon the house thereby. It has been my good fortune to hear this visit described by my mother, who was in the house at the time and saw the gracious Prince and heard his noble voice. As she neither spoke or understood French, and the Prince's command of the English language was somewhat limited, her enjoyment of the occasion was necessarily restricted, but princes are unusual sights in this part of the country even today, and a meeting with one supplies a recollection to be cherished. ...
... Mr. Green was succeeded in the management of the house by a Mr. Blood, Mr. Parsons and Mr. Axtell. These three gentlemen must have had very peaceful lives, they were so uneventful. ...
About this time the house was closed to the public, being occupied, at least a part of the time, by a private family. Some time in 1854 it was leased by Mr. Stone, the last, but by no means the least popular or successful of its landlords. The following advertisement which appeared in the Advocate may be interesting:
The Astor House
"Pleasantly situated on Adams St. in the city of Green Bay, is now open for the entertainment and accommodation of Boarders, Travelers, Strangers and all others in pursuit either of business or pleasure. This large and commodious hotel has been thoroughly overhauled, repaired and elegantly fitted up and furnished for the accommodation of the Public, and no pains will be spared by the present proprietor to give the amplest satisfaction to all who favor him with their patronage. The table will be supplied with all delicacies and luxuries of the season which can be found in this market. It is beaufully located on the banks of Fox River, opposite to the Astor dock where the river steamers stop regularly to and from Kaukauna. Passenger will be conveyed to and from the steam boat landing free of charge."Ira Stone.
"Green Bay, June 22, 1854."
(May I remark, parenthetically, that the landing from which passengers were to be "conveyed" was just over the way?)
Now this advertisement was not suffused with a rosy glow and dotted with fair promises, with a settled and cold blooded intention of alluring and deluding the too-confiding traveller, but rather a plain statement of facts, and from all I can learn, I feel justified in asserting that, brilliant as were the promises, the gentleman who made them lived up to them faithfully.
The old house lost none of its popularity while Mr. Stone presided over it, and it was very prosperous and successful financially. Shortly before its destruction it was decided to enlarge the hotel, giving fourteen new rooms in addition to the number it already contained. It became quite a popular abiding place for families who preferred boarding to the cares and worries of housekeeping. Lieutenant Smith, later Admiral Smith, who after doing gallant service during the civil war, spent his last years in Green Bay, boarded here for some time with his wife, the gayest and most social of women, who made life in the little city one perpetual festival while she sojourned in our midst. Col. Robinson brought his bride here, a very welcome addition not only to the Astor House, but to Green Bay society as well. Perhaps the old house was too prosperous for its own good; certainly it made for itself an enemy. Several unsuccessful attempts to burn it were followed by one better or worse planned, for this time the flames had made great headway before being discovered, and the house was burnt to the ground one night in August, 1857.
So rapidly did the old house burn that the inmates barely escaped with their lives, leaving their possessions behind them. Mrs. Smith, genius of gayety and fun, came down the stairs while they were in flames, and a few moments after her descent they fell in ruins.
As after telling of the public life and services of a great man and his claims to the grateful remembrance of his fellow men, the biographer before closing gives us a more intimate and familiar account of his hero, his private life, his virtues and his faults, his home and his surroundings, and thus places his subject clearly before us.
May I speak of the interior life of the Astor House, briefly describing its character, and urging its claims to a niche in memory's gallery?
A generous, unfailing hospitality was its predominant characteristic; all who sought its shelter whether they came singly or in numbers were kindly welcomed. No churlish landlord ever presided over the Astor House, no niggard hand ever spread its board. Whenever it was advisable or necessary, or only pleasant for the people to gather together, there was place for them here. Was it the pleasure of the community to honor a fellow-citizen for his public services, a banquet or a ball was given at the Astor House. Twice was the Hon. Morgan L. Martin thus assured of the appreciative regard of the people of Green Bay,--once when as our delegate in Congress he secured the passage of the Fox River Improvement Bill, and once when as president of the territorial assembly he was largely instrumental in framing our constitution and securing our admission to statehood. Parties of all descriptions were given at the Astor House. The Masonic balls and banquets were given here for some years. A baby party, at which fond mammas exhibited the finest babies in the world, was given here so long ago that the babies are white haired men and women now. A May party, to have been held in a neighboring grove, was greeted by such weather as is frequently seen in this latitude on the first of May. With a dauntless energy worthy of the Queen of the Amazons the queen of the day led her flowery train to the Astor House, and the revel was held in its capacious ballroom. There were fancy dress balls and masquerades without end. In the winter little impromptu dances were given frequently. Mr. Baird, collecting the dancers young and middle aged, placed them in a large sleigh, landing them at the Astor House for a delightfully informal evening. The officers, while the fort was occupied, brought wives and daughters here to help make merry. During times of peace the officer is proverbially the most social and companionable of men, but sterner duties called them from gay dancing and banqueting. At the breaking out of the Mexican War they marched away. More than one of these brave men who through months of familiar intercourse had endeared themselves to the citizens of Green Bay, marched under flying banner, to the sound of fife and drum, to death. There was no return to home and waiting friends.
The Advocates of '48 and '49 to which I am indebted for many items concerning the old hotel, are full of news from the seat of war--rumors of battles, of great losses, of the death of gallant officers formerly stationed here. Some times these rumors were contradicted, some times confirmed. There was a shadow over all the community for a time. But with the declaration of peace, the clouds lifted again, and there was the sound of music and dancing again in the Astor ballroom. Everybody in Green Bay danced, danced so naturally and as a matter of course that perhaps it was with a little surprise that offers of instruction in the art of dancing were received from a professional gentleman, quite a model of deportment, from all accounts. The following announcement appeared in an old paper issued in 1856:
"Fashionable Dancing Academy.
"Mr. De Bennio respectfully begs leave to inform the ladies and gentlemen of Green Bay that he shall commence giving tuition in that polite art on Friday April 18th inst. at the Bank hall until the Astor ball room is finished, which is now undergoing important improvements. Those wishing to avail themselves of his instructions will please be in attendance at 2 o'clock P.M. N.B. The regular days of tuition henceforth will be Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at two o'clock. Gents class same evening at 8 o'clock.
"Green Bay, April 15th, 1856."
Mr. De Bennio was a man of varied accomplishments and versatile talents. While one column of the Advocate displayed his notice to the public, the Poet's Corner was enriched, weekly, with poetical effusions bearing his name. His success here does not seem to have been startling, nor was he greeted with that storm of popular applause to which he had possibly been accustomed. A few weeks after his first announcement to the public, another appeared, rather dejected, but at the same time severe, in which he more than hints that "unless he has ocular demonstration of not being in advance of the spirit of improvement in their ancient city, he shall not teach after the expiration of the present term." The desired "demonstration" presumably was not accorded to him, for a few short weeks more and his name disappeared from the advertising column and the Poet's Corner knows him no more. ...
... Another event deserves passing notice. About the time that Mrs. Jarley, "the delight of the nobility and gentry" and favorite of the Royal Family, first exhibited to an enraptured London audience her wonderful collection of life-like wax figures, she exhibited to a smaller, but very select audience, a still more valuable and carefully selected assortment. Real wax figures being difficult of transportation, a number of ladies and gentlemen of Green Bay consented to represent the soft, destructible substance. I should like to give a complete list of the names of those participating in this affair, but have been able to rescue but few of them from oblivion. My father as showman read a description of the characters, while each living image, in picturesque attitude, stood in statuesque stillness, looking as wax-like as possible. ...
Of all the entertainments given in the Astor House, of all the balls and banquets and dances which called the good people together, a meeting held some time in 1848 pleases me best. The call was issued by the Hon. Henry S. Baird, whose name needs no qualifying or explanatory words. His memory is still fresh and bright in the hearts of the Green Bay people. It was the year of the great famine in Ireland, the terrible year when by the failure of the crops the afflicted people suffered untold misery and wretchedness and death. A "girdle" had not then been "put about the earth" and Ireland seemed very far away till she called out in her distress, and then she stood at the door. And so the people of Green Bay met here in the very place where they held their merry meetings, to devise ways and means to aid their suffering brethren far away. ... The kindly hearts and quick sympathies of the people made the Green Bay of that time what it was. ...