Incidents at Brookton

On the first of April 1863, well in my tenth year, we moved to the more congenial Miller House. James Miller, with his family, members of our church, lived in a very large and comfortable three-story home. It was a few hundred yards distant from Caroline Depot, a station on the Owego and Ithaca Railroad, then as now a branch of the Lackawanna, built mainly to carry coal to the head of Cayuga Lake. The Miller House afforded all the rooms that our little family needed, besides sheltering the Miller family, and here I spent a happy year. Chauncey and Harley Miller, the two young men sons, treated us boys kindly and never bullied or plagued us; their influence upon us was not in any wise detrimental, and Mr. and Mrs. Miller also were always kind. Even the good old dog took to us.

The railroad station was in plain sight and we could see and hear the five or six trains a day for a mile or two each way, and were often permitted to run over to the depot when the trains came in. The railroad was a source of daily entertainment.

A very steep and high hill rose half a mile away, a part of an extensive and picturesque range, nowhere so high or rugged as here. Occasionally we climbed it, a first taste of mountain climbing. From the summit was a wide and magnificent view, embracing several surrounding counties and a large part of Cayuga Lake. This was my first glorious landscape view and it first awakened in me the love of natural scenery, a passion which has more than once taken us for extended visits to the Swiss Alps.

There was another wonder nearer by, which gave us many hours of delight. It was a vast, abandoned railroad “cut” and an imposing embankment beyond. The excavation and the embankment would fill even an experienced adult today with astonishment and awe. Much of it was on the Miller farm and we spent many a happy hour in the cut and on the fill, constructing miniature railroads. The construction and operation of railroads have always since had for me a peculiar charm. I have been president of two and director of several more, always with something of the childish pleasure of years gone by.

The Miller garret was an interesting place. Mrs. Miller’s father, then quite recently deceased, had spent years of his later life in working out a “perpetual motion,” and his various contrivances were stored in the attic. One of these was a wheel with spokes jointed in the middle. Weights were to be hung on the ends of the spokes, and the theory was that on one side the spokes would hang down at this joint, while the spokes on the other side would flop out full length, and of course carry far greater leverage. This the inventor thought would cause the wheel to revolve towards the long spokes. Alas! They would not flop quite early enough, and the two sides always just balanced. Like Colonel Sellers, the old gentleman was always just on the brink of the precious discovery, but finally died without quite reaching it. He had other schemes but none so plausible as this. This attic, with some other “patent rights” observations of my youth, and the experience of my Grandfather Bowers, related in Our American Ancestry, completely fortified me in later years against the small stream of patents that constantly trickled into Mr. Rockefeller’s office for exploitation. I turned them all down on sight but two, and these, after a little examination, I declined for cause. Though workable, neither had commercial value, as has since been demonstrated to the loss of investors.

It was in this year that Father built the new church, though not without opposition and difficulty. The former pastor’s relationships by blood and marriage had rather wide ramifications in the community and the good man had remained, of course, an influential member of the church, though he had received Father with coldness from the beginning, probably thinking the church better and more cheaply served by himself. Also, he was rather “Old School” and Father’s preaching proved too aggressive for him. Neither he nor those under his influence displayed zeal or generosity in the new enterprise, and Father had uphill work and not a few trials and discouragements.

My parents talked over all their troubles with entire freedom in the presence of their children. We understood them better than they guessed and entered into all their feelings. We never by a careless word betrayed those rather unthinking confidences, and they were destined to be a useful part of our education. I have deliberately continued and even cultivated with my own children this practice of my parents. I know no better way than free discussion in the presence of the children of the daily problems of the family, including its relations with others, if children are to be trained in such worldly wisdom as their parents have, and in the practical conduct of life.

Our third year at Brookton opened up auspiciously. At last we had a suitable house all to ourselves with a nice barn and garden. It was located in a little hamlet or cluster of houses called by courtesy Meadville from old Dr. Mead, the principal citizen, and was perhaps a mile and a half east of the church, on what was known as the Albany turnpike, a main artery of travel. The house had all the room necessary, and was neat, well painted, and pretty. It had a barn suitable for a horse and a cow, while behind it and on our own premises ran a considerable creek with a convenient pool for bathing and fishing. The neighborhood afforded several pleasant playmates, the district school was not far away, and so we spent in the Meadville house one of our sunniest years.

It was while we lived at Meadville in my eleventh year that we began to take Our Young Folks and for many years it was for us boys the most welcome guest at our house. I can still feel the thrill of pleasure with which I recognized the red cover underneath the wrapper as the mail was brought home. Ten Acres Enough became later a celebrated book, and I doubt not had its influence in creating the present-day corn clubs and other forms of promoting intelligent juvenile farming. “Afloat in a Forest,” a story of the Amazon, was weird and instructive. “Winning His Way” was the first really fascinating story for children I ever read and is one of the very few works of fiction that have lived in my memory. To this day I remember the main incidents and the pictures distinctly. We could hardly wait from month to month for this inspiring story of the rise of a heroic but poor boy to leadership, and his marriage with Azalia Adams, the beautiful daughter of the Judge. I still remember a charming story in one number contributed by Harriet Beecher Stowe—story of a humming bird delightfully illustrated and entitled “Hum the Son of Buzz.” There was a continued story for girls in which I took only a languid interest— “Leslie Goldth waite.” Our Young Folks employed the best writers of the time, and many of its continued stories became celebrated books afterwards. This magazine, since replaced in popular favor by The Youth’s Companion, was an effective agency in cultivating my taste for reading in my impressionable years. It is not from “School Readers” that children learn either to read well or to acquire a taste for reading. Parents should avoid from the first reading aloud to them, but instead should strew their pathway with innocent, fascinating, finely illustrated books suited to their age, their aptitudes and their intelligence, and the little folks will quickly learn to read rapidly and to love books.

My sensibilities in childhood were excited by a number of tragic incidents, occurring close at hand and well adapted to fire the imagination. Each taught an important lesson and had an explanatory relation to my later life and views.

One summer morning, about daylight, we boys who slept in a front room upstairs were awakened by the thundering hoofbeats of a horse going by on the dead run. We well knew what this meant. Somebody was after the doctor, and it was a case of life and death. Our family was all excitement, and in an hour or two we learned the terrible truth. A neighbor, a man of local distinction, had committed suicide. A few months before he had sold his farm nearby and gone to live in the charming little city of Trumanburg, New York. He was advanced in life with a competence and had thought to retire on the savings of his laborious years. But Trumanburg, beautiful as it was, proved to have no permanent charm for him, and he longed, too late, for his old farm and the familiar surroundings. He returned for a brief visit to the old place. The thrilling tragic hoofbeats of that horse at dawn are warning to all of us to enter upon old age with a variety of cultivated tastes with which to occupy and nourish the mind. How greatly to be pitied is an old man, retired from ill health or weakness, who has not learned to know the charm of literature, or other easy forms of self-entertainment!

It was this year that saw the tragic sequel to James Seeley’s religious mania. He had been persuaded by Father, you remember, to go home and had gradually quieted down. A year or two had passed when a religious revival occurred in the “Freewill” Baptist Church near his home. His mania returned, but instead of sending him to an asylum, they thought a sufficient measure of protection would be afforded by a powerful and intelligent young neighbor, Horace Hollister, employed at the Seeley home, ostensibly for other purposes, but really to afford protection for the young wife in case of trouble. But Horace Hollister was cunningly eluded, and the young wife became the fatal victim of the insane husband.

A still more terrible tragedy occurred a little earlier than this near my grandmother’s home. There was a grist mill near Bowers Corners, owned by a kindly and gentle old soul by the name of Howard, and many were the happy hours that I spent exploring the secrets of that old mill on my visits to Grandmother Bowers. This old gentleman had a married son with two little boys. I used to see this son sometimes about the mill. He lived in a house on Grandfather’s farm. His wife had left the children with her husband and gone on a brief visit to her relatives. One day while she was gone the tragedy occurred, with both the little boys as victims.

It was while we lived in Brookton that a double tragedy took place in Ithaca, six miles distant, which for coldblooded atrocity I have not since seen equaled. The victims, two beautiful young lady daughters of a jealous mother, were slowly poisoned with arsenic, administered in small doses to a lingering death.

Now these four tragedies, the too harrowing details of which I have been forced to suppress, were traced at the time, and doubtless truly, to insanity. They occurred almost under my eye, at a time in my life to make a deep and ineffaceable impression. Insanity may be, and often is, a family taint. It is likely to reproduce itself in one or more members of a family, like idiocy or lesser forms of incompetence, from generation to generation, through more than a hundred years, or, as observed by the ancient Hebrews, “until the third and fourth generation.’’ Such families should be avoided in marriage at any cost whatever, and insane members should be segregated by the state. Later reading and observation have confirmed the impressions made indelible in my childhood. One should inquire carefully into the ancestral lines before taking any one into the family by marriage. The taint of hereditary insanity, near or remote, should be a bar at any cost. The carelessness of intelligent families in this particular is appalling. An important reason for preserving long and unbroken lines of hereditary descent with personal detail is to give assurances of entire freedom from any such hereditary taint. Such assurances we are able to give our children on both sides of their parentage.

I do not dwell on these dark pictures. Scenes of horror have no fascination for me. But my experience and observation in early life taught me some valuable permanent lessons that the guarded childhood of my children in Montclair did not afford them. Idiocy for illustration is extremely prevalent, running in families, descending from generation to generation, persisting long, likely to reappear in most unexpected places, and of all family afflictions, except insanity, the worst. In my boyhood we necessarily moved about a good deal, and in no less than six of the hamlets of my childhood there were congenital idiots—one or more. Do not, from any carelessness or false delicacy, permit the introduction of this taint into your family blood, thus far preserved to you by your ancestors free from any taint. I beg each of you to see to it that you hand down your pure blood uncontaminated, to your children’s children.

The best legacy of our ancestors, a legacy more desirable than wealth, or a great name, or great talents, has been the legacy of strong and vigorous health and a constitution untainted with physical disease, mental abnormality, or moral weakness. In my detailed ancestral researches, I have constantly had this most important of all considerations in mind, as a central object of my quest. The result of my studies is altogether reassuring. We have no hereditary taints known to me. Our ancestors have given us strong, elastic, and tough arteries, with every organ in full health and strength.

I suppose the chief protection our ancestors had from disease was that none of them lived in a city. All of our forebears spent their lives in the deep country, generally as farmers. As such they had fresh air, nutritious food, plenty of exercise, and were wholly free from those vices of city life which taint the blood. I know of no case of tuberculosis, or of the abuse of alcohol, or of any hereditary weakness or tendency to any acute or constitutional disease in the direct lines of your mother’s descent or of mine, near or remote.

An ancestry like this is a precious possession. You have only to take care of your health and you will live as long as life is worth living. May you hand down to your descendants as your noblest legacy the vigorous and untainted constitution your lineage has given you. To do so will probably be your main significance in life as it proved to be theirs. Then let it be your first care. And remember that, like liberty, its price is eternal vigilance. It means not only care of your own health, avoidance of all vice and injurious habits, but also close inquiry and any necessary self-denial in behalf of your posterity in forming your marriage alliances. It means more. It means anticipatory, constant, quiet vigilance regarding your children in the incipient stages of their attachments, as well as sound counsel, early inculcated and often repeated. Be sure to read the volume supplementary to this entitled Our American Ancestry.

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Our Last Two Years at Brookton