Our Kansas Home

The Village of Highland is in Doniphan County, the extreme northeastern county of the State of Kansas. My father’s choice of Highland as our Kansas home was due wholly to the superior educational facilities that the so-called Highland University offered to me. I did not then realize, as I now do gratefully, that my education was always the governing factor in our family plans.

The idea of founding an institution of learning under Presbyterian auspices in northeast Kansas originated with the Reverend Dr. Samuel Irvine, a Presbyterian missionary to the tribe of Iowa Indians, whose wigwams were located on what became our own home site about a mile north of the present town of Highland. Dr. Irvine persuaded the synod of Kansas to adopt his plan and to accept Highland, then vacant land, as its location. The money for the building was contributed by the East. Settlers were attracted and the University was soon surrounded by an intelligent community.

At the outset let me warn you not to make the mistake of judging our Kansas home as belonging to the “wild and woolly West.” Highland was exceptional. To begin with, the five or six counties of extreme northeastern Kansas, culminating in Doniphan County, are in climate and natural resources the most desirable known to my father or even to this day to me. Corn, wheat, all the cereals and grasses, including alfalfa, grow wondrously without artificial fertilization. All kinds of fruit common to temperate climates, including peaches, apples, and grapes, grow prodigally and are of choice flavor. The soil consists of loess, the wind-blown dust of the distant Rockies through ages, and in our county eighty feet or more in depth without a pebble. The ordinary crops are prodigious and the farmers rich.

My brother Frank, who was now sixteen, would need occupation, and my father purchased a tract of land about a mile north of Highland for our family home, consisting of fifty-one acres, eligibly located, affording extensive views far across the river into Missouri. This little farm ultimately became one hundred and fifty-six acres by successive purchases. We immediately built a too costly home, mainly on credit, and had hardly completed it before we were met by a collapse in prices of farm products and found ourselves overwhelmed with debt. It proved, however, as we shall see, to be a useful experience. It did, indeed, postpone my college course for two years, but even that was, as I have since thought, a gain.

Highland University had a slightly campus of ten acres, its single building was of two stories, of fifty by eighty feet.

When we went to Highland, the University was a small, select school for both sexes, conducted by Professor William T. Gage, a very recent graduate of Dartmouth, and his beautiful and accomplished wife. The instruction was better than any I had known in the East. A year or two later, Park College, a Presbyterian institution in Missouri, was moved bodily to Highland University, with a complete college curriculum, for college classes, and the usual staff of instructors, for the usual classical course. Several of the professors were men of distinction, character, and eloquence.

The town of Highland formed a fit setting for the University. It had originally been settled from New England. I could easily count twenty families of New England culture that would have graced any community anywhere, and the growing University drew to the town, as the years went by, many more of kindred spirit and purpose. It is more than thirty years since I last visited Highland, but I am told by an old resident who recently returned from a visit there that it is a rich and rarely beautiful town. As the years have gone by, and my knowledge of educational values has widened, I have learned cordially to appreciate the educational opportunities, public and private, of my Kansas home.

Deeply in debt for the farm and improvements, it became necessary for us all as a family to work together to pay the debt. For three successive winters I taught school. My teaching experience began with the January after I was fifteen. At sixteen I went back to the same school and taught the winter session of four months, and at seventeen I taught nearer home so as to save board. All the wages were turned over to Father and Mother for the debt. One winter I “boarded round” to save the Forty Dollars which my board would cost. This was my own idea, for with this money so saved I planned to buy a fine full- jeweled, silver hunting case Elgin watch. I had written for all the literature, and knew every watch movement of both the Elgin and the

Waltham makes. Never was a boy more eager for anything on earth than I was for that watch. I thought of it by day and dreamed of it by night. At last spring came, and with it my Forty Dollars in cash. My watch was assured but now, with the money actually in hand and faced with the final decision, there arose a serious question of conscience. With that money I could buy a heifer, of which we were in sore need, and a fine heifer was for sale in the district for that price. I wrestled with the question and finally won the victory over temptation of the watch. The heifer was driven home, and proved a treasure, for never to our knowledge did cow give more or richer milk or produce finer calves. In this spirit we all worked together.

My teaching was useful to me in developing the sense of responsibility. It began when I was a mere lad of fifteen, hardly more than a child, but responsible for instruction and discipline indoors and out, and obliged to think, to plan, to watch my words and conduct, and to act becomingly at all times, in school and out of it. No training, whether of academy or college, could have been more conducive to growth. I taught all the common branches, and algebra in addition, and this teaching served to review and fix thoroughly in memory all my previous instruction.

Was I a good teacher? I can say only that I was then so regarded, but ideals were not high or exacting. I went back at sixteen to the school I taught at fifteen, for a double term and at twice the monthly wage, and to my next school, near Highland, where I taught at seventeen, I was invited to return the next winter.

With so young a teacher, the question of discipline would naturally arise, but fortunately I had little trouble, for the children and young people were uniformly obedient, orderly, and docile. There were always several young men in my earliest schools that were older, bigger, and stronger than I, but these boys were friendly and would have protected me against any attempted aggression.

I find among my papers an amusing letter of mine, written in 1869 to my anxious mother, during my first term, for Mother was afraid I would be cold in the sometimes severe winter weather, and also that I could not keep perfect order. I reproduce it with all its errors and, in a boy of fifteen, its funny role of dignity.

“As I have before told you there is a splendid stove in the schoolroom, and in the cold days I keep it filled with wood, and I think no one has pet complained of being cold.

“In regard to my scholars’ pupils taking more liberties, I have always checked the least indication of it, and have never failed to reprove a scholar every time they were in the least degree out of order. I think this has produced the desired effect and as the term advances I find the scholars giving me less trouble and are trying to do more and more in accordance with my wishes.

“I have yet tried not to be stern or exacting but have expressed sorrow at their little transgressions rather than anger. I think this has caused the children to like me better than they would if I had been stern and ruled them by fear rather than love.

“I find that praise and encouragement works wonders, and when I praise a scholar for a good lesson, he is pretty sure to have the next one good and takes a great deal more interest in it.

“Mr. Chase tells me that all the districts are perfectly satisfied.

“Mrs. Thrift, the wife of one of the trustees, told me that I was the only one that had ever caused her son to be interested in his books, and that he now took his books home and studied in the evening, a thing he had never done before. These testimonials encourage me to try harder.”

This forgotten letter is precious to me as a token of my mother’s love. I found it forty years later, carefully preserved, with all its naive self-revelation, among her most treasured possessions.


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