A Man of the Land
by Jeff Nania
A man of the land, ninety-six year old John Geoghegan’s roots run deep in the hills and valleys of Sauk County Wisconsin. As a kid, he began running a trap line in the city of Baraboo every day before school, and sometimes if he was running late, he would actually “run” the line to get to school on time. In his teens he began exploring the wild country along the lower Wisconsin River, discovering backwaters and sloughs. He became a life-long student of the land, learning the signs that told him where he might be lucky enough to trap a muskrat, mink, or fox.
Trapping the river bottoms was tough going and hard work, but John didn’t mind. He would take his catch home each day, skin the animals, and stretch the hides. When he got enough, he would wrap up the hides and mail them to Sears Roebuck. After looking over his furs, they would make him an offer. If he didn’t like the price, they would send his furs back. John always felt the offer was fair.
While checking his traps he encountered few people, but when he did courtesy was the rule of the day. One of the people he occasionally ran into was Aldo Leopold whose shack was in the area of his trap line. John would say hello they would talk a while. He recalled that Leopold was a “friendly enough guy.”
John loved the outdoors. He recalls one day in particular. It was a sunny day in early November, the air crisp and cool. Checking his traps, he was excited when he found one held a big beautiful mink. At the same moment he looked up and a flock of geese was flying over the river. He remembers thinking, “This is what heaven must be like.”
His interest in outdoor pursuits fueled an interest in firearms. When he was a freshman in high school, he talked to the guys that ran the Baraboo Rod and Gun Club. They were not much interested in letting a youngster join but finally relented. He became a full-fledged member for fifty cents. When the older guys realized that he really wanted to learn from them, they took him under their collective wing and soon John was learning not just about shooting all kinds of different firearms, but reloading ammunition to feed them.
He became a life-long reloader, scrounging brass, using surplus powder and even casting his own bullets from scrap lead. Again, John the student learned much from these mentors. He became a good shot with both pistol and rifle, a skill that would serve him well a few years later. In November of 1939 he was hunting near Mather in Juneau County carrying his Model 94 Winchester lever action when he shot his first deer, a beautiful buck. He was seventeen. He continues to use the same rifle to this day.
Shortly thereafter things changed, and the United States found itself embroiled in World War II. John joined the Army and his Winchester 94 was replaced by a Winchester M1 Garand serial number 1266109. He had never strayed far from his home, but in 1943 he turned twenty-one in Louisiana. In December that same year he and his fellow soldiers took the train to Gainesville, Texas. After that, he found himself a world away from Sauk County. The 103rd “Cactus” Infantry Division entered the fight. In October 1944, they landed in Marseille, France to be part of one of the most difficult, but successful, Allied campaigns of the war. The battle was fierce; the goal was to drive the Germans out of southern France and push them back into Germany, and free thousands held in concentration camps. They were victorious but paid a heavy price. “There was a lot of shooting. We lost a lot of good men. I lost a lot of good friends.” John said. In 1946 the war was over for him. He was wounded and landed in the hospital.
People sometimes say that even a dark cloud can have a silver lining. It would be a stretch for most to believe that getting wounded would end up being one of the best things that ever happened to John, but in fact it turned out that way.
He was shipped back to the states for physical therapy and treatment in Battle Creek Michigan. John longed to finish his rehab and return home. At twenty-four years old he had seen more than most ever do. Soon, however, he found his treatment and therapy much more pleasurable. The reason? A pretty nurse named Jane. Somehow John swept her off her feet and in 1947 they were married and stayed that way for the next 65 ½ years. “We used to say the reason we stayed together so long was that no one else would have either one of us,” John recalled.
When he was discharged, she returned home to Baraboo with him where they began a wonderful life together. John and Jane were folks with a solid reputation in the community, hard workers and reliable. Back in that day it meant a lot. So, when the bank foreclosed on a piece of land south of Baraboo, they asked Geoghegan’s if they would like to buy it. He and Jane fretted over the cost but went ahead anyway. The bank told them how much they needed to offer and that is exactly what they did.
The forty acres was theirs. Neither a stranger to hard work, they began work on their homestead. John harvested trees from the land and surrounding area and sawed them into lumber with a fifty-two-inch circle saw powered by an old diesel engine. They used the lumber to build the house. John and Jane raised six kids, three boys and three girls on that farm. They had chickens, cows, horses and other assorted animals.
“When you’re raising kids in the country every day is a biology lesson. They all knew that food didn’t necessarily come from the grocery store. The boys and girls were treated the same. They all learned to work. We had time for some fun too. We had an old cutter, and in the winter, we’d hook up the horses and go off visiting the neighbors. This land doesn’t owe us a damn thing it was a wonderful place to raise a family.”
Jane passed on in 2012. John Geoghegan will turn ninety-seven in June of this year. They are members of the greatest generation whose stories and lessons are not to be forgotten. For them a handshake meant more than any written contract, hard work and integrity were of greater value than the balance in your bank account. Most importantly, family provided the foundation of life. As students and stewards of the land, they not only lived on it, but also cared for and nurtured it, leaving it better for those who follow. John is looking forward to next deer season.