By Dennis Wilson
Every community across rural America has a “character,” the man or woman whose eccentricities are a matter of note to visitors, but not to accepting neighbors. In time the eccentric often becomes a matter of community pride. People often imagine that the city is the place to live a life on your own terms, but I have found that small town America has a lot of friendly room for people who are a little "different" Little Sammy Draper of Lancaster, reputed at one time to be the world’s smallest man, was universally loved and admired, and not just because he was only 3 feet 10 inches tall. He had a unique personality. He was a “character. Though he died nearly 75 years ago, he is recalled fondly, and many prize their photos of him, and stories of his life. Every small town has tales of its inventor, fabulist, recluse or collector of oddities.
Arthur, a very small town in Grant County once was home to the “most untraveled man in Wisconsin”, Charles “Potter” Dobson. He had an absolute aversion to leaving his small rural town.
People nowadays are prone to believe that the residents of “Old Grant” a hundred years ago were relatively stuck in the country and didn't get around much, but nothing could be further from the truth. In an article titled “Restless Grant County: Americans on the Move” in the autumn 1962 Wisconsin Magazine of History, author Peter J. Coleman pointed out that this county was part of a nation on the move. People settled, stayed a decade or so, and moved on – usually to the west. My own ancestors lived in Grant County and then, after years of farming here moved to Nebraska in the late 1870’s. In fact, with Railroad service in almost every town of any size, our forebears of a hundred years ago could hop on the local train and go almost anywhere. Some time ago I was surprised to learn that my great grandfather, a Wisconsin farmer his entire adult life, nevertheless took a vacation and went to California. While there, he attended the 1939 Rose Bowl. Why should I have been surprised? After all he crossed the Atlantic from his birthplace in Northern Ireland and came to Wisconsin when a small child. Travel was nothing new to him.
“Potter” Dobson was a truly dedicated stick-in-the-mud, and it took effort. It is said that he never traveled over 20 miles from home in his whole life, and no record of so lengthy a voyage as that survives. So far as I have been able to ascertain, his legend began in 1939, when a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal, perhaps lost, stumbled upon Arthur, a town of maybe 50 souls. He soon heard of Dobson and went to see him. Here are some excerpts from the story he wrote:
“Looking for the most contented man? Well, folks. Meet Charles (Potter) Dobson, father of seven, owner of a house and six acres of good farm land— all clear— and a first rate team of horses.
“In all the 41 years of his married life he never has been away from home so much as a single night— In fact, he has never been away at all from this place where he was born except on perhaps a dozen occasions. Now, at 68, he submits that he is "doing all right and wouldn't change places with any man on earth."
“He has a nice sense of humor, too, Is accustomed to be considered as something more than a local celebrity and takes It modestly. Questioned about his penchant for sticking close to the home base he found some trouble In explaining It. He scratched his head and finally ventured that there didn't seem to be anything for him to go away for so he "Just didn't go"
"But." he defended himself good naturedly, "It's not true, like they say, that I've never been on a train." There was the merest suggestion of a smile about his mouth, as he shoved his battered old felt hat back at a more rakish angle. "I've been on the train a heap of times. Between Rewey and Livingston. Twice, anyhow. Maybe more" (The distance between Rewey and Livingston via the North Western road Is 4.8 miles.)
"But it is true," he continued In the manner of one determined to keep the record straight at all cost. "I've never been to Montfort." Montfort, 10 miles away, is a thriving metropolis with a population of 554, as compared to Arthur's half hundred
"I was all ready one time, though, to go away on a train trip," he confided, a far away look in his eyes. "Had it all planned to go with the Missus to a big celebration at Dodgeville over In the next county. Down at the depot, just before we were ready to pull out, I found out the train schedule didn't allow for us to make it back home that same night, so I Just gave it up." "Potter" pulled himself a straw and chewed it reflectively. "That was in 1908," he said. "I've never tried It since."
Dobson didn't like cars either. Some of the locals had tricked him into a car once and took off for Platteville. He escaped a short distance out of town and walked back home relieved at avoiding the close call with disaster. His most prized possession was his team of horses. “My team,” he said, “can take me anywhere I've a mind to go.” He was a Cubs fan, though, and listened to them regularly on his radio. Though his given name was Charles he was known by his nickname “Potter” which he came by when a more traveled friend told him his copper toed boots curled up at the toes just like the boots worn by a printer in Platteville named Potter. The nickname was necessary because he had a cousin in town who was also named Charles Dobson. They called him “Chubb.”
Mrs. Mamie Dobson, popularly known as “Mame” liked to travel. The couple had children living in Jefferson, Wisconsin, Richmond California and Detroit Michigan. Mr. Dobson referred to her as a “gadabout.” When he was interviewed in 1944 by Edgar Riley of the Wisconsin State Journal Mrs. Dobson was away on an extended stay with her daughter Gretta in Detroit who ran a home for children.
Living with an intransigent creature of habit must have been hard for Mrs. Dobson. Mr. Dobson's tastes were simple. He loved baked potatoes and ate at least one every day. He would not try exotic cuisine like mashed or scalloped potatoes, so, resigned to the fact, Mrs Dobson made him his potatoes of choice every day of their married life with the exception of her gadabout absences. As of August 1944 it was calculated that he had consumed baked potatoes for 13,790 straight days.
He always slept in the same bed and insisted it be kept in the same corner of the same room in their cabin. Mrs. Dobson, possessed of the normal feminine decorating spirit, re-arranged the room at times over the years only to find that “Potter” had dragged the bed back to his corner, for he could not sleep anywhere else – even in the same bedroom. Mame was not a milquetoast though. Mr. Dobson was a deliberate man and often procrastinated about getting to his chores, one of which was to chop and bring in the wood for the cooking stove. One morning, while preparing to make breakfast, she found there was no wood chopped. With angry resolve she dragged his bed frame out of the house and chopped it up thereby insuring both his breakfast and his baked potato. He never again was remiss in meeting those marital obligations, but he did bemoan that, but for her hasty act, he would have slept in the same bed each night for 46 years!
On Wednesday, November 7, 1950, Mr. Dobson had the novel experience of reading his own obituary. The newspapers, hearing of the death of Charles Dobson of Arthur had gone to print believing it to be Charles “Potter” Dobson. They were wrong. It was his cousin “Chubb.”
Did he have a special mental disorder? The reporters didn't think so. He was talkative, congenial, full of humor, and to all appearances healthy. Perhaps what he had was a special ability, an ability we all long for; The ability to find happiness and shed anxiety by living in the simplest way with the fewest material impediments.