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Rhonda's View Rendezvous: Family beset by illness, tragedy in 1896

8:27 PM, Feb. 9, 2014  |  Comments
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It was April 1896, and for Gilbert and Flora Jackson of Centralia, on the west side of the Wisconsin River, things had not been going well.

Gilbert J. Jackson was born in Scotland on May 4, 1843, and came to the United States as a young man, settling first in New York. When the Civil War broke out, 18-year-old Gilbert was happy to serve the Union from 1861 to 1865.

After the war, he remained in New York a short time before moving to Eureka, near Oshkosh, and in the spring of 1868, he went into the steamboat business on the Wolf and Fox rivers, under the name of the Wolf Transportation Co. He continued this for five years before moving here.

Just before coming to Centralia, he married Flora E. Dickerson. Flora was born March 9, 1845, at Wheatland, Walrath County, one of five children. Together, Gilbert and Flora had one child, a daughter, Stella. They were involved in many local things, including attending the Methodist Episcopal church.

All was good in the marriage, and after going to work for the Centralia Flouring Mills here, Gilbert spent the next 20 years in that business, eventually opening his own flour mills - the Jackson Milling Co. - with mills in Stevens Point, Amherst and Wausau as well.

In the early 1890s, Gilbert suffered what was deemed a heat stroke, sending him to bed for an extended period of time, but he never fully recovered. This was the beginning of the troubles.

While his mills now were running fairly smoothly under the capable supervision of others, he nevertheless was trying to work and stay on top of things and mentally, he simply could not. Eventually, looking for a cure, he checked himself into a private mental institution in Wauwatosa for professional help.

After months, with no real change in Gilbert's condition, his wife, Flora, was beside herself with concern and the frustrations of trying to maintain a household and help run businesses without her spouse. Friends and relatives kept a nearly constant vigil, seeing to it she got "out of town" often to help clear her troubled mind. Finally though, Flora had reached her breaking point, and the chain of events that followed, covered by the Centralia Enterprise, were heartbreaking to say the least.

On April 22, Flora was extremely melancholy and despondent, and her attending cousin was so concerned she sought help from a neighbor, Mrs. Lampert.

Before the women could return to the Jackson home, Flora stepped out her back door and began following the adjacent railroad tracks, finally crossing the trestle work extending across the water. Reaching the west end of the bridge, she sat down and wrapped her shawl around herself and gazed into the raging waters below.

Soon Flora saw Mrs. Lampert walking toward her so got up and went to meet her. Mrs. Lampert tried to coax her to come back home, but Flora insisted she wanted to walk "just a little way" further. The two went together where they sat down and talked for nearly half-an-hour.

Again, the neighbor suggested they go home and stood to give Flora a hand rising, when Flora suddenly threw the shawl from the shoulders and made a fatal plunge into the waters below.

It mattered not that help arrived quickly, as the churning waters there prevented anyone from trying to assist. Although the wrong thing to do, Flora had found a way out of her depression and worry.

A reward was offered if the body was found within a week, but it was May 5 before her remains were found by Charles Menier, an employee of the Jackson Milling Co. who had been assigned to keep up a constant search. The body was found face up, well above the surface of the water, in a channel just a mile north of Nekoosa.

Gilbert was given the tragic news, which caused an even more rapid decline in his health, and he died May 7.

With 16 days, one of the most respected families in town was nearly completely obliterated.

Both were buried in Forest Hill after separate funerals - Flora's at their church and Gilbert's a couple of days later at the Grand Rapids Opera House, to accommodate the crowd of hundreds including 50 Knights Templar, Blue Lodge Masons, members of the Grand Army of the Republic and other citizens, friends and relatives.

Sadly, thus ended the tortured last days of Flora and Gilbert Jackson, both far too young to have died.

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