The Cool Man Who Left Amazing Footprints In The Sand

by Jim Dittmann
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By Bob Frankenstein

Something special was happening during the 1920s to the 1950s.  A fellow named Charlie Starkweather might be seen around town carrying a funny looking square box with a hand crank on it.  He called it a moving picture camera and proudly said it could capture people dancing, children playing, or even horses at work.  His hobby would capture the events of everyday life including construction of the Hotel Rogers in 1928 and the new wastewater plant during the depression.  He also memorialized Beaver Dam’s famous Maddy Horn skating in races on Beaver Dam Lake in 1933 and construction of the new water tower in 1937.  His movies document the shortages of World War II and even catch German prisoner of war soldiers housed at the Dodge County fairgrounds in Beaver Dam playing soccer in 1944.  (These are the only known pictures of Camp Beaver Dam.)

Friends in the fire and police department let him know about crucial fires or depression-era demonstrations or riots, and he would faithfully capture and title these moments of local history.  He captured winter fun activities, dreaded snow removal and summer highway construction.  His moving pictures caught a time-line of local mechanical history beginning with hand tools, waterpower, horsepower, steam power, and then the gas engine.  In addition, he preserved a vision for future generations of cutting and harvesting ice from Beaver Dam Lake.  (Ice was used in cedar iceboxes before refrigerators to keep food cool.)

His movies were silent black and white, but when you viewed them they spoke to you. In his movies Mayor Mary Spellman shares a smile with you, you may attend a 4-H picnic, or you might picnic and climb the rocks with his family at an iron mine near Iron Ridge.  He caught the warmth of home life, family birthdays and puppies bounding around the porch.  You might attend the 1936 World’s Fair with him or have the pleasure to meet Charles Lindberg in Madison in 1937.

He also preserved Starkweather Lumber Company history, which was located on the corner of Spring and Mackie Streets.  The lumberyard was first established by Sam and Newell Hodgeman in 1858 and purchased by Courtney Starkweather Sr. in 1872.  The material and fuel yards were located at 130-132-134 East Mackie, smack dab on top of the land where Thomas Mackie, the first settler in Beaver Dam, built his cabin.  He caught the self-conscious smiles of employees at work or play and documented the horse and wagon deliveries of lumber and coal timeline to modern trucks.  Company buildings also adapted with the times from local sources to railroad delivery.

Charlie would capture his company’s building projects too.  The end of World War II brought a homebuilding boon.  The Depression (no money) and the War (no material) deprived this community of the means to build housing.  Now people would have both the money and the material to build a home and raise a family.

His company pioneered whole new housing developments and built well-constructed homes, 12 or 15 homes at a time, mostly on the north side of the city.  York and Pleasant Streets, Winn Terrace, Sloan Circle, MacArthur Drive, and North Spring streets were among those he chronicled with his camera.  The Starkweather Company also built the subdivisions of Courtney Acres and Sunset Heights.  The company built and financed a home, barn, or store building for you and even created an early easy pay plan.  During the Depression, the company would deliver your order of coal or lumber by horse and wagon (they had nine teams) and give you a free Christmas tree so you had extra money to make your child’s Christmas nicer.

His movies have been preserved thanks to a donation to the Dodge County Historical Society.  The original home movies were loaned to the museum by Charlie Starkweather’s granddaughter Corinne Mencer. June Haver MacMurray kindly financed the conversion project to VHS tapes that were then skillfully edited by Roger Noll.  Sometime later they were copied and digitalized and put on DVDs by volunteer Bob Frankenstein. This time the magic of sound was added giving them a whole new dimension.  Visitors to the museum can now enjoy them on big screen TV.

This writer had the pleasure to know Charlie Starkweather from the early 1940s as a boy. Charlie was tall, quick to smile, and had the ability to make children feel ten feet tall.  He came to Leipsic 4-H meetings at the old Leipsic School maybe twice a year.  (We preferred meeting for 4-H meetings at this school because it had an in-house rather than an out-house.  Instead of a hole in the ground outside there was a collection tank in the basement inside.  Jackson School was nearby but had an out-house.)

He would hand out 4-H fair awards to us children and install newly elected officers after which he would narrate his cherished movies for us.  We were fascinated by the movies and captivated by his humor.

I remember one of his family’s saddest days came the spring of 1942. His son Courtney Jr. and Dr. Schoen were practicing bombing at the sod airport just north of De Clark Street. They would dive down and drop small flour filled sacks into a white circle on the ground.  Unfortunately, the plane lost lift and smashed into the ground shattering Dr. Schoen’s hip and severely injuring Courtney.  Courtney would die of his injuries within a few days. (The broken propeller from the crash is now in the museum.)  Charlie lost two wives to illness in addition to losing his son, so he carried a heavy burden behind his ready smile.

Charlie was also a great fan of Beaver Dam and did not miss a chance to promote business or recreation.  Charlie surely left his mark on Beaver Dam!  There are and were several excellent homebuilders in Beaver Dam, but none left a bigger footprint.

If you or your family would like a tour of the Dodge County Historical Museum, we are open Wednesday through Saturday from 1 to 4 PM or you may call us at 920-887-1266.  We feature the Veteran’s Museum, a Native American exhibit, a dinosaur exhibit, Old Beaver Dam exhibit, Old Dodge County exhibit, Old Jackson School exhibit, Famous Personalities exhibit, Beaver Dam’s first automobile and special rotating exhibits during the year.  

We also have a great Research Room with thousands of documents and pictures that bring old Beaver Dam to life.  If you are looking for adventure, come on in! 

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