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Journal emphasizes economic depression difficulties

posted: August 20. 2018 11:24a CST
by / Jerry Davis | Correspondent

Radford (Jim) and Lester (Spark) Bassett, then 23 and 21 years old, left home from Fort Atkinson hoping to paddle their canoe down the Rock and Mississippi rivers through New Orleans, into the Gulf of Mexico, eventually touching South America.

Their first entry (by Spark) in their daily log, dated Oct. 23, 1932, was a great autumn day with “hundreds of ducks coming close to shore as it grows dark.”

It wasn’t until after Jim died in 1973, that his son Bill Bassett discovered the original log, “Eight Months on the River.” Entries continued from that October through Feb. 1, 1933, and then again from June 2 until July 8, 1933, when the Bassett boys landed in New Orleans. They returned to the Madison area, maybe by hitchhiking, but no one knows. They had been trying to sell their gear the last little way.

Bill Bassett splits his time between Florida and Hayward, where he continues to enjoy most of the outdoors activities introduced to him by his father, Radford.

“I stumbled onto the ‘diary’ after his death while going through some of his possessions,” Bill said. “Then it sat there for years longer. It was never a focal point of our discussions during all those years of trout fishing or sitting by a campfire in Canada, even though he was the one who got me into the outdoors.”

Instead of a travel log of the rivers’ plants, animals and people, it was a chronicle of trying to survive, eat and cope. It became an adventure in life at a time when just living was hard. It seemed like an outdoors adventure with little time for “fun.”

Throughout the log writings, Jim and Spark make mention of trying to catch a meal of fish, any fish, from the Mississippi River, when it was catch something or don’t eat much meat.

On Nov. 7, 1932, Jim described one of their better meals as, “Fried two young squirrels, baked bread, boiled potatoes, boiled and fried fresh parsnips we dug day before.”

Things got crueler the farther south the Bassett boys paddled. They often looked forward to checking post offices along the way for mail and packages from home, hoping for cash, cookies, and kind words, which sometimes arrived.

Bill’s second cousin, Brock Heckel and his wife, Melonie Winters, took it upon themselves to read, transcribe, punctuate and bind the log into a book, gifting family members a copy or two. They also visited sites along the rivers traveled and took photos of notable locations. The boys never spoke of taking any photographs while trading off entering daily notes into the dated log.

“The book is in Jim and Spark’s original words, only adding some punctuation and correcting a few spellings of locations,” Bill said. “Brock and Melonie did add the photographs and newspaper clippings, too.”

Readers’ questions abound: Why the layover in Luxora, Ark., from Feb. 2 to June 2, 1933? What did they do during that time? Why stop and return from New Orleans? Were they simply tired, broke and hungry?

Further, why was the fishing (catching?) so poor or tobacco in short supply, yet so important? How did they get home? What was the scenery like on this journey? Was this really a case of survival once winter, high spring water, and lack of money, work and countrywide economic depression set in?

Like some journals of adventures, it is what isn’t written that tells as much as what is written.

This adventure was anything but outdoors fiction considering the plethora of mosquitoes, lack of tobacco, often unkind country folks, and too many winds and waves.

Maybe the Bassett boys’ journal is a reminder that outdoors logs are often written for the writer, not a reader 86 years later.

Jerry Davis can be reached at

Photo by Jerry Davis - Jim Bassett led the way as the Bassett boys left Fort Atkinson for South America by canoe. The 1932 journey of the Bassett boys down the Mississippi River was bound by a family member.
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