From: Rev. Jim Riley
Old Main Historical, Community Arts Center
Performing arts chairman
After presenting the Judge George Gale story on Founder’s Day in Galesville, telling of how Gale read Sir Walter Scott’s nine-volume biography of Napoleon Buonaparte when he was 15 years old, I decided to read the new single-volume version abridged and edited by Richard Michaelis.
I found that while Scott presents Napoleon as the highly gifted young soldier who became Emperor of France, Scott is also harshly critical of Napoleon’s abuses of power and times of bad judgment. Scott’s criticisms of the emperor show that his interests are directed toward establishing a free society. These interests appealed to George Gale, who was well aware of opportunities for development on the American frontier, as he gained the inspiration to keep reading history and science. He also taught himself to be a surveyor, and he read to become a lawyer.
When he came west, Gale was as much influenced by Scott’s criticism of Napoleon as he was motivated by the energy and intelligence Napoleon displayed at a young age. When Gale came to Wisconsin he opened a law office in Elk Horn, served in the state legislature, and became involved with publishing a newspaper. After he came to La Crosse, he helped establish the Methodist Church and became a circuit-riding judge. While riding the circuit, he came to the site on Beaver Creek where he decided to found a small city to be the home for his crowning achievement: Galesville University. We may surmise from the things he did that, in Gale’s view, just laws, freedom of faith, a free press, and a good education formed the bedrock of a free country.
I don’t know of any other story that translates so directly from what a person read into the action of building the institutions needed for a free society — starting at such a young age.
This is a story that belongs to our region, not just to Galesville. We are fortunate to still have the stone building constructed in 1862 where we can hold events that help tell the story and continue contributing to our regional culture. I would encourage anyone interested in history to read the abridged version of Sir Walter Scott’s “The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte.” Scott’s telling of the story and his criticisms will enhance your appreciation of life in a free country. When you come to events at Old Main, think of the 15 year old who read a book that inspired a vision that keeps unfolding with the cultural events held at Old Main.