Plover’s Greek Temple: Part 4 – George W. Cate, Earlier Life
By Wendell Nelson
Unlike Charles Rice, George W. Cate was one of the best-known people in Portage County. This fame was due to his long life, his being a resident of the county for almost 60 years, and his involvement in legal cases and in politics, including serving in Congress for one term.
Like Rice, Cate arrived in Portage County very early. According to various accounts of his life, (among them his obituary in The Gazette of March 8, 1905) he was born in Vermont in 1823 to “well-to-do farmers” near Montpelier. His grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War, and his father “was a non-commissioned officer in the second war with Great Britain [the War of 1812].”
After high school in Montpelier, young George studied law in the offices of two successive attorneys, and was admitted to the Vermont bar in 1844, at the age of 21.
Part four of seven
“He came to Wisconsin the next year and worked in a saw mill on the Eau Claire river.” For the next four years, he made shingles by hand, and then was a river pilot or driver, running logs “down the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers to southern markets ….”
The Gazette doesn’t say why, after being trained and qualified for the legal profession, Cate worked at the hardest and most physical jobs on the frontier. But the answer was simple: Cate arrived too early to be able to support himself as a lawyer.
Central Wisconsin was too sparsely settled – had too few people – yet to need many legal services. So he turned to the obvious occupation there on the southern edge of The Pineries (vast pine forests): a woods worker: lumberjack, river driver, or shingle-maker. All were rough, dangerous jobs, but all were plentiful, and all paid much-needed money. And, finally, all gave Cate the young Eastern lawyer a quick, basic education into the people and culture of the Northwoods, an education that he put to good use when he began to try to earn a living among poor, hardscrabble people from all over the northeastern United States and half of Western Europe.
To read the rest of the story, pick up a copy of the Portage County Gazette at one of the many newsstands in the area, including gas stations and grocery stores. Or subscribe at www.shopmmclocal.com/product/portage-county-gazette to have weekly copies delivered by mail.
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