Our Last Two Years at Brookton

We used to have great fun playing in the shallow creek that ran behind our Meadville house with its still pool, waist deep. My first adventure in boating was an attempt to navigate this pool in the wash boiler. Of course, the thing instantly tipped over, and I got a ducking. There were plenty of good-sized fish always visible, but you might tickle their noses with a well-baited hook, carefully let down in front of them, and they would pay no attention, or just wiggle their tails good-naturedly, and turn slowly away. We soon learned that they were “suckers,” who never bite but live on microscopic vegetation in the water, taken in through the mouth or gills. It was interesting to watch the opening and closing of the gills as they lay perfectly still and quite tame near the bottom of the pool. They were to be caught only with snares, and these Father bought for us. A snare was a very small, almost invisible brass slip-noose, attached to a fishing line with a sinker properly placed. The art of snaring consisted in deftly slipping the noose over the fish’s head, as far back as the gills without his observing it as he lay still in the water, and at the proper instant, jerking the noose taut and the fish out of the water to dry ground. We spent many a happy hour at this sport and occasionally caught a small fish.

In the fall a great daily pleasure was to watch “the droves” go by. We lived on one of the main arteries between East and West, and in the days before full rail transportation, droves of hundreds of cattle were driven through our section from the country west of us to Albany and the Eastern markets. Sometimes these droves would be miles long. They were fed and pastured by the farmers along the route and so maintained fairly good flesh on their long journey. The drovers had leaders ahead to keep the cattle in the right road, and drivers behind to keep the stragglers in line. At this period, when asked what I expected to do as a man, I always replied that I aimed to be a drover. Sometimes several droves would go by in a day. And as we could see them a long way down the road coming, and an equal distance going, and as the interest never flagged, we spent many a happy hour mounted on the front fence watching them. No one told us the origin, purpose, or destination of these cattle all moving from West to East, and it never occurred to us to inquire.

It was during the Meadville year, when I was approaching twelve years of age, that I first began painfully to realize that religion had personal demands on me, that some time, however reluctantly, I would have to reckon with it, and that I must be “converted,” be baptized, and join the church. The thought of going through the process was terrifying. I was not a bad boy. I had no rebellions against my parents, or against goodness. I was truthful, obedient, dutiful and docile. I had never had bad companions.

I used to witness Father’s baptisms. They were all administered in a pool in the creek, for we had no baptistry. The candidate was usually a woman, and Father would slowly wade out into the waters with her, Father holding both her hands in one of his, while with the other he would press down into the water her clothing which was inclined to be buoyed up. Slowly they would descend while the congregation on both sides of the bank would sing an appropriate hymn. Arrived at suitable depth, Father would say over the baptismal formula and slowly lay back the candidate under the water and immediately raise her up, while the outstretched hands of the deacons’ wives welcomed her to the shore and covered her instantly with warm, dry shawls. That ceremony in the open air, with its solemn tones, its slow movements, its sacred music, its awe-struck assemblage in weird surroundings, was an insuperable barrier to my becoming a Christian. I shrank from the publicity of it. And I could not escape a feeling of repulsion whenever I contemplated personal religion.

This feeling was given emphasis from several circumstances. There was a “Revival” in a nearby Methodist church, and after attending a few evening meetings, several of us school boys agreed half humorously, but half in earnest, to “go forward” to the “anxious seat” the next night. We kept our agreement. We went up all together to the usual accompaniment of music, prayer, and moving exhortation. We were put through the regular courses of personal pleading and heavenly direction, and came out humiliated and ashamed, exactly what we were before. The next day at school we continued the experiment in early piety, by holding during the noon hour a prayer meeting in an old saw mill a few hundred yards from the school house. Several of us offered prayer in true orthodox fashion and then we sheepishly went back to the school house and our usual plays. But the prayer meeting proved an overdose. It ended our piety, the subject was avoided, and after that we were shy enough of the revival. I remember how anxious I was that Father and Mother should never find out that I had “gone forward” at the Methodist revival, for fear they would make inquiries about it. And I must here bear testimony to the good sense of my father and mother on the subject of personal religion. They had too much delicacy of feeling ever to speak to me about it. I suppose they took our going forward, if they learned of it, to be the boyish freak that it was. But there was an old Baptist minister who used occasionally to visit us and torture my brother and me with questions about the welfare of our immortal souls, and always in the presence of each other and our parents. Oh! how we hated the sight of that good man! Little did he realize the exquisite torture that his well-meant but mistaken spiritual ministrations inflicted.

On the first of April 1864, we moved again, our fourth and last move at Mottville. We returned to the neighborhood of the Miller House with the old familiar neighbors and surroundings, only now we were at the very foot of the steep range of hills and could more often feast on its glorious views. This home we called the Cooper House. We used to pick huckleberries on the side of the mountain and climb the steep “log slide” to get the magnificent view of the distant Cayuga Lake.

Here I had my first real sickness. It was called bilious fever. It was severe. There was a consultation of doctors and for a time my parents were much concerned. I well remember the fantastic shapes the wall paper assumed in my delirium. It was followed by jaundice and my recovery was extremely slow.

Our Young Folks continued. We took also the Atlantic Monthly, and there was in it an occasional story interesting to children. In that year also, for lack of more attractive reading, I fell upon Josephus’ History of the Jews and read a large part of it. It is by no means devoid of interest for children, I assure you. I quite fell in love with old Josephus himself and have had a warm spot in my heart for him ever since, notwithstanding his discrediting critics.

But the Cooper House year had its trials and my sense of fidelity to truth compels me to share them with these pages. The schools of this four years’ pastorate were exactly on the model of the Centre Lisle school, except that the school houses were not so good, and the children were not so well bred. Then at Brookton we had a bully, and I was his pet aversion. Freeman Ault was his name, an ugly, freckled, stocky boy, several years older and much stronger. He “picked” on everybody, but on me in particular. He once hurled a packed snow ball at me only a few yards away, with all his might, and hurt me badly by hitting me with full force squarely on the ear. How I longed to fight and whip that bully! Thirty years later I visited that town and inquired for “Freem” Ault, and learned he was a section boss on the railroad. He still deserved the sound thrashing he never got from me. I did have one fight, though, that year, the only fight of my life. It was with two playmates with whom I had quarreled, and I was myself half to blame. Port and George Keeler and I were good friends enough, and one winter day, more in sport than otherwise, they tied my comforter during recess into as many hard knots as could be made in it, and the whole school knew it. The thing happened somehow to strike me as a public insult, requiring due challenge and combat. I issued the challenge and immediately after school I jumped on the older brother, Port, and soon had him down, with George vigorously attacking me from behind. We were parted with a drawn battle, but I had a bloody nose. There were two memorable things about this fight. The teacher washed my face and labored with me about the fight. But the only thing I remember of all she said was that I ought to be ashamed, I, the pastor’s son, to fight with those two lowdown Keeler boys (whose father was shoemaker). This was my first flattering intimation that we were not, on account of our poverty, at the bottom of the social ladder. She washed off the blood and I went home with no notion of telling on myself. Mrs. Cooper, a neighbor with two children at school, called before dark, and looked on me with a fixed gaze, that was embarrassing to my guilty conscience, but she said nothing to me or to my mother. My relief, however, was short lived. Next day that mean and meddlesome Deacon Johnson of small intelligence felt it to be his duty, as an officer of the church, to visit Father and Mother, and assist them in the family discipline. During his prolonged call no suitable opening seemed to offer until, when it was time for him to go, Father, according to custom, invited him to offer a parting prayer. This was his opportunity. He managed before he wound up to get in a petition that we children might be forgiven “for the sins which perhaps our parents didn’t know anything about.” Of course, so soon as he was out of the door, Mother put both Frank and me through the third degree. Frank easily escaped, but Mother wormed out of me the details of my fight, its cause, its result, and the teacher’s rebuke. And Mother was indignant—not at me, but at Deacon Johnson and his meddlesome prayer. I was not punished, or even rebuked. No harm was done by the fight, and always after that the Keeler boys and I were excellent friends. I certainly had parents of sense.

We were always poor, but during this last year at Brookton we touched deep poverty. I have Father’s old account books. There was no church treasurer. People handed their church subscription to him from time to time in cash, as it became convenient. Father’s usual salary amounted to about Two Hundred and Fifty Dollars per annum, and his “donation” added about Fifty Dollars more. His wood was usually furnished, and we had trifling presents. So, we were always poor, but during the Civil War we became progressively poorer, because while the salary did not rise, the cost of living did. Father’s was probably a typical case of the country pastor. He had to keep a horse, because his church was scattered and expected the usual amount of pastoral visits and preaching at out-stations. He had to dress in ministerial broadcloth and to wear a silk hat; he must take papers and magazines, buy and read books, and his wife and family must dress respectably. Father always had to pay rental of not less, I think ordinarily, than Fifty Dollars a year for his house. He received a few wedding fees of Two to Five Dollars, never, I believe, a funeral fee. Never while he lived in the State of New York did Father receive so much as Four Hundred Dollars in money in any one year. How we lived is a miracle of economy and domestic skill. Our food consisted of garden vegetables that we raised, the pig we fattened, the milk from our cow, eggs from our hens, and corn meal that we purchased and made into mush and “Johnny cake.” But this year we could not make ends meet, even with Mother’s utmost skill. So, to eke out a little more, Father took the janitorship of the church, at, I think, a dollar per Sunday, and most of the work of sweeping it out, heating, and light it fell to Frank and me, aged fourteen and twelve. Ordinarily there was little hardship in it, and we felt honored by the responsibility. But in the winter, on very cold mornings, with the mercury at times twenty-five below zero, we had to get up before daylight, walk a mile to the church, and kindle and replenish the fires until the church was warm. There was a hardship, but it was our worst. Also, we boys tried to sell United States maps from house to house, cheap affairs that we could sell for fifty cents at some profit, but a few days of this showed that there was not enough in it to pay the feed of Jack, the horse, and the wear and tear on the old buggy. Then we were given a commission of twenty-five cents each for the purchase of calf skins from the farmers, and we drove quite a business in this and made several needed dollars, traveling over the country buying hides on our judgment of their value. We turned them in to a tannery twenty miles away. But we had plenty to eat, and no food since has ever tasted better than our mush and milk and Johnny cake. We were warmly clad in the coldest weather, and though the snow sometimes sifted in through the roof on our bed in the Cooper House, and we woke up with a blanket of snow on the quilts, we never slept cold. My home-made clothes looked better and were better than the store clothes that other boys had, though I did not know it then.

The Civil War broke out in 1861, while we still lived at Centre Lisle, and its first year we spent there. I remember only the drilling, the assassination of Colonel Ellsworth, and the Battle of Bull Run. The remaining three years of the war were spent at Brookton and there I remember Father’s impatience with McClellan and the “All Quiet on the Potomac.” Father was intensely interested in the war, was an ardent Republican, kept himself well posted, frequently preached war sermons, especially on days of national humiliation, fasting and prayer appointed by President Lincoln, and the staple of daily conversation at home was the war and war news. Father wanted to go, as chaplain, but never got an appointment as he had no political “pull.” He stood the drafts and, to the unspeakable relief of Mother and us children, his name was not drawn. The results in after life of my childhood’s acquaintance with the war were mainly to interest me in the history of the country, the controversies out of which the war grew, the story of the war itself, of the Reconstruction period that followed it, the lives of the great statesmen, and the great generals that played prominent parts in it, monographs on battles and campaigns, even regimental histories. Also, I have visited Gettysburg many times and once at a convenient time went over the field of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge.

I was nearly twelve at the end of the war. It proved to be my last district school year, for I had gone through about all that was taught in the district school of reading, spelling, writing, arithmetic, geography, and grammar. You would like to have it recorded here that I was a very bright, ambitious boy, that I loved my studies, and stood at the head of my classes. But that would not be true. What is true is this: I was a docile boy, obedient, easily managed, never mischievous and after Cornelius Lusk, never punished, a favorite with my teachers, all of whom I liked—good and poor alike. I enjoyed school only because of the association with other children. In my studies I did what I was told to do, and got my lessons conscientiously and as well as the others, but I did not love my studies. We had no marks and there was no certain or public way of distinguishing who did the best. Certainly, I never had the slightest ambition or incentive to excel in school work, and I cannot now recall that such a thought ever entered my mind. I am sure I had no special aptitude for acquiring knowledge. One day, however, my pencil rolled down my sloping desk into my lap, making, of course, an audible sound. It occurred to me that there was no visible necessity for this sound. Why should any noise be made? What is the cause of sound? I was so impressed with the thought that I called the teacher, let the pencil roll down again, and at last, with some difficulty, made her understand my question as to what is the cause of sound. She gave it up. Such a question had never entered her mind. She frankly replied that she did not know, but she added, “When you grow up you ought to go to college.” Then and there the seed of my college education was planted in my mind and grew to its fruitage in later years. This was my first adventure in scientific research.

Next Section:
Ovid and the West