Caught In Time Northwoods Wisconsin Memories and Gifts
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Fond Memories ...
"Papa also adored Minocqua.
He had offers to go to the
Mayo Clinic and the University
of Wisconsin, but he always
turned them down, saying,
'I prefer to stay in Minocqua,
for here I can be my
It was a warm day in the early fall of 1884, and two young men could be seen trudging along a dusty road in the Township of Portland, driving pigs to market in the Town of Waterloo in the southern part of Wisconsin.
It was hot, tiresome work; for the pigs tended to stray, and most of the young men's time was spent in trying to keep them headed in the proper direction as they scuttled over the terrain. The boys wanted to get them to market before they lost too much weight, for their father expected to receive top dollar, and they would be in trouble if that amount of cash wasn't forthcoming.
Suddenly one brother turned to the other and said, "if I have to drive these damn pigs again, I'm leaving home." Several months later another drive was scheduled. The young man kept his vow, left home, and rode the rails throughout the United States for the next two years.
The young man was Thomas G. Torpy, who was to become the Lakeland area's beloved doctor some 20 years later. Thomas Torpy was the youngest child of Michael and Ann Torpy. He was born on June 10, 1868, in Portland Township in Dodge County, Wis. Both his mother and father were natives of Ireland.
His father, Mike, had come from Ireland in 1845, traveling in steerage class across the Atlantic. He spoke only Gaelic, for he had been raised in the wilds of Ireland. His boat landed in Boston, and Mike walked across America, working as he went, to get to the little Irish community in Portland Township where he planned to homestead a farm.
It was there he met Ann Graham. Ann had traveled to America with her mother and father and was working as an indentured servant for a Waterloo family. Love blossomed between the two, even though Ann was 30 years younger than Mike. They were married and moved to Mike's homestead farm.
Ann died at the age of 54, following an accident; and Michael lived to be the age of 104.
But, back to young Thomas. When he returned to Waterloo following his odyssey across America, his parents felt that he was perhaps too old to enter the Waterloo school, and sent him to Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam, Wis. This was to be the influence that guided his future; for while attending Wayland he lived with a young doctor who was in the preceptors program in the community. Young Tom would go with him on his calls and the two would discuss the various aspects of the cases. His interest in medicine grew.
After graduating for Wayland, young Tom followed in the footsteps of his mentor and enrolled at Rush Medical College. Dr. Thomas G. Torpy graduated in 1895.
He returned to Waterloo and hung out his shingle over a store that belonged to a man who one day would become his father-in-law. This man's daughter's name was Emma H. Bradner, and Dr. Torpy courted her for over six years before they finally married in April of 1903.
Now Dr. Torpy had always been bothered by asthma and in 1898, together with Judge Ames (grandfather of Minocqua lawyer John Ames) and a priest, came into the Lakeland area to fish. It was here that he found the first relief from his asthma; but more than that he, as with so many others, fell in love with the country. He decided he wanted to live in Minocqua, and it was to this community he brought his bride after their marriage. They moved into a home across from the old schoolhouse, and Dr. Torpy opened his office in one room of their home.
Young Dr. Torpy soon found that there wasn't really a lot of work for a new doctor, for the locals just didn't trust a strangers.
Minocqua, at the turn of the century, was not the beautiful town it is today. It was more like a town out of the old west, and the main street was lined with saloons and brothels. One of the early saloons was called the "Bloody Bucket," and apparently appropriately named, for when the lumberjacks hit town and spent their entire pay on libations and women, many a bloody battle raged.
Dr. Torpy continued to try to build his practice, and even moved his family to Arbor Vitae for two years where he worked as a physician and surgeon for the Yawkey-Bissell Mill. It was during this period that he and Dr. A. B. Rosenberry became associates and established a friendship that was to remain throughout their lifetime. They worked together to serve the health needs of the entire Lakeland area, and there are many legends of their remarkable feats.
When the mills in Arbor Vitae closed, Dr. Torpy returned to Minocqua with his family, and they again took up residence in their original home. Dr. Torpy and his wife had now been blessed with three daughters -- Alma, Isabel and Katherine -- and they were the "apples of their father's eye."
We visited with Isabel, who now lives in the southern part of the state, and reminisced about her life in Minocqua and talked of the memories of her father.
"I have many memories of my papa," Isabel said, "for I was probably the closest of any of the children to him. We shared a mutual interest in medicine, politics and books. I even helped out in his office. It was really quite dismal, for there were so many diseases and we had none of the miracle drugs we have today. There was a terrible flu epidemic right after WWI, which was really a form of pneumonia. My papa saved a lot who were stricken, but some of them died...and every time a patient died, he died a little too.
"I suppose one could say that papa was something of a 'dude,' for he always dressed very well and looked very dashing. He served the whole Lakeland area, first by horse and cutter, and then by automobile. I believe he had the first auto in town.
"He had a regular Currier and Ives type sleigh, and I can see him yet as he flew through the countryside bundled in his big raccoon coat. Papa loved horse racing, and all the horses that pulled his sleigh had been retired from the race track. They would whip him along until the sleigh could go not further. Then he would get out and walk. He didn't worry about the snow or the 40 degree below zero weather. If someone needed help, he got there. In my entire life I never heard him complain about any of these hardships.
"Papa was loved by everyone, and he particularly loved the children, and was very good to them. Whey they would get to see him. Why some would even cut themselves on purpose so that they would get to see him. He especially loved little girls. I remember when my younger sister was born and someone asked him if he was disappointed in not having a boy. That was when he admitted that he loved little girls the best and wouldn't have known what to do with a boy.
"Papa also adored Minocqua. He had offers to go to the Mayo Clinic and the University of Wisconsin, but he always turned them down, saying, 'I prefer to stay in Minocqua, for here I can be my own man.' He never took a vacation in the 51 years he practiced in Minocqua. The only time he was gone for any period was when he had his appendix removed.
Although Dr. Thomas Torpy loved Minocqua, it was a feeling that wasn't shared as enthusiastically by his wife. Emma was a bright, well-educated young woman and an avid reader. She was determined to raise her daughters in a refined fashion. Isabel never was allowed to swim , for her mother always told her, "plenty of time for swimming when you learn how to swim." The catch being, how does one learn to swim if not allowed to swim?
"One of my favorite pastimes was to visit old Ben Stoben in his blacksmith shop," Isabel recalled. "He had made a little stool for me, and I would site and watch him work. He would also make rings for me. I would come into the house and mama would say, 'have you been in that blacksmith shop again?' I would always answer, 'oh no;' but my dirty footprints coming into the house were a dead give-away.
"I spent a great deal of my time reading. In fact, I read everything I could get my hands on...and when I would run out of something to read, I would read the dictionary. I read it from cover to cover."
Isabel was also protected from the facts of life, even though a doctor's daughter. "I though that babies were brought by the stork or in my father's black bag until I was a freshman in college.
"I remember sometimes papa would come home and say, 'well, the stork beat me.' This was very upsetting to me, for I didn't want anyone to beat out papa. Our dog, named Sligo after a province in Ireland, would accompany papa on his calls. When he would hear the baby's first cry he would howl. We would be waiting for the howl, and then would immediately rush over to see the baby. I remember Judge Gerald Boileau of Wausau was papa's first delivery. I don't think papa every lost a baby in all the time he practiced.
"I do want to correct one legend about my father and mother," Isabel said. "To my knowledge they were not called Papa and Mama Zers. My father's nickname which I gave him was just plain Zers. I gave this to him from Nebuchadnezzar...and to this day I'm not sure why. (Nebuchadnezzar was a king of Babylonia and a conqueror of Jerusalem.) The only other person in the community who ever called him Zers was Eleanor Birkholz. His name for me was Nazer.
"We were never allowed to call him dad. He said the first words spoken by a child were mama and papa and to the day he died he was either Zers or papa to the three of us. Also, no one ever called him Tom. Even my mother did not call him Tom. He was called Dr. by everyone, and his Rush classmates all called him Dr., as he did them. He said it was an old Rush custom."
Dr. Torpy not only served his community as their doctor, but he served as town chairman for several years. During his term, he tried to clean up the town and closed many of the saloons and sporting houses. Many of the residents were angry with this action, and it was reflected in the treatment of his family.
"I really wanted to leave Minocqua, for I had been so sheltered and really didn't have many friends," Isabel recalled. "I remember I was finally allowed to go to two proms at the high school, but my mother went with me. As I grew older, I would lay in bed at night and listen to the wailing of the train whistle and say to myself, I will leave this town."
Isabel got her chance after she graduated from high school. She entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison and graduated as a psychiatric social worker. However, those were the depression years and jobs just weren't available. She went to Milwaukee with friends, and one told her of a possible job opening in the classified department of the Milwaukee Journal. She went over to apply, and when her friend questioned her on how the interview went, Isabel said, "there is no job, but I bet you the man I talked to will call me for a date." Sure enough, Robert Drew, who was the classified manager at that time, called for the date and he and Isabel were married two months later.
Bob Drew remained with the Journal his entire lifetime and advanced to the top management echelon. He and Isabel bought land north of the city and spent several years planting hundreds of trees before they built their home. Bob died in 1977, as did Isabel's oldest sister, Alma. Her younger sister, Katherine, lives in Glendale, Ariz.
Isabel remains on her estate, and although she only returned to Minocqua on the occasion of her father's death in 1949, memorabilia of his career in this community remain with her.
In the recreation room in the stable stands his old roll top desk and chair. There is a complete blacksmith shop at one end of the stable, and it is here that Dr. Torpy's shingle hangs, for "that is where he would have wanted it."
In the meadow behind the stable area four horses...great horses in their prime, but now enjoying their retirement. In the tradition of their father, horses and carriages became a hobby for Isabel and Bob.
Isabel has now traveled extensively throughout the world, returning many times to Ireland, the land of her father's ancestors. However, with all this travel, were the trains still running; the wail of the whistle would still prove alluring.
Dr. Torpy is remembered by those of the Lakeland area, who were privledged to know him, with love and devotion. It was a love and devotion that was also returned. Although not a man given to ceremony and speeches, Isable remembers how pleased he was when residents of the entire area turned out to dedicate Torpy Park in his honor...certainly a fitting tribute to a man who gave his entire being to his career; but never felt less than fully rewarded.