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John Waterman of North Madison

The Story of a Jefferson County Pioneer
Published in the Madison Courier – January 21, 1874

Old man Waterman, of North Madison, bears the title prefixed to his name as an indication of his extreme age. Every neighborhood has its “old man,” and in no case is the term applied discourteously. Mr. Waterman may justly claim the title above others by reason of his great age. Ninety-six years spent in this lower world entitles him to the distinction of being the oldest man in the county. Mr. Waterman was born in Providence Co., Rhode Island, on the 9th of April, 1778, and was married to Deborah Mitchell in 1818.

Mrs. Waterman is still living to nurse and comfort her husband in his old age, being some twenty years his junior, and to all appearances a very active and clever old lady. The venerable couple are no doubt the oldest married people in this part of the country, Mr. Waterman emigrated to the West in 1819, landing in Madison the same year. Since that early date he has uninterruptedly resided in Jefferson County. For a few years he taught school upon Ryker’s Ridge, for the people of that enterprising locality seem to have built a school house before they were fairly settled in their rude cabins of logs. Mr. Waterman, after teaching some time, lived there many years. For the last fifteen years he has not been able to do anything whatsoever, being very feeble, almost blind, and well nigh destitute of the faculty of hearing. For ten years back he has patiently reclined in his arm chair, day after day, leaving the house during the dark days of the Civil War to cast his ballot in favor of the Union and its noble defender, the martyr President, Abraham Lincoln.

Mr. Waterman is one of those men, who by their age and acquaintance with events, link the present to the past, connect the generation of today with the Fathers of the Revolutionary and Colonial epochs. How strange it is to meet and converse with one who was a child before the struggling Colonies had gained their independences – to look upon the gray head and bent form, and realize the mighty changes that have transpired on this Continent since he was young. The eyes of this venerable man have witnessed the entire history of the United States. Like panoramic scenes on the great stage of human life, decade after decade of our National existence has passed before his vision.

First, the weak Provinces, distracted by mutual jealousies, and holding views on the most essential subjects as diverse as the poles, molded and wrought together into one harmonious people by the fiery furnace of the Revolutionary War. Succeeding this the Administration of Washington, the settlement of parts of the Eastern and Middle States, the war with Tripoli, the Indian and British war of 12, Decatur’s brief conflict with Algiers, the Seminole war, and the more protracted and important contest with Mexico. Finally the last fearful struggle, when the descendent of the men he had seen fighting, shoulder to shoulder as brothers, met as foes upon the ensanguined field.

During this period, the span of one lifetime, what prodigious events have occurred to elevate and enlarge our civilization The application of steam as a driving force, the invention of the cotton mill, the propulsion of boats on water and cars upon land by steam The invention of gas, the development of the art of printing and the rise of the modern newspaper, the wonderful application of electricity in telegraphy and the laying of the submarine cables. The invention of the sewing machine, and ten thousand other inventions and devices for saving human labor and lessening the toils and privatioins of life. In the literary, scientific and religious world what amazing progress has been achieved. New sciences have been born, as it were; others have been carried so far beyond old land marks as to be scarcely recognizable.

In the realms of literature and education a work has been accomplished that will challenge the admiration of all succeeding generations. The gradual evolution of our Common School system has been affected so perfectly that there scarcely remains a child throughout the broad national domain who does not find a free way open to an education. Beginning with the lowest form of elementary training the State provides a thorough and compressive course to the High School and College, Who can predict the progress of another lifetime of ninety-six years?