Ovid and the West

In the spring of 1866, when I was nearly thirteen, we moved from Tompkins County to Seneca County, New York. This county embraces the territory lying between the Seneca and Cayuga Lakes. We settled in Ovid, the county seat, situated near the center, midway between the lakes and almost, if not quite precisely, on the highest point in the county. The village was many times larger than any we had known before. It had several business blocks compactly built, a somewhat imposing court house, and was in other ways attractive. We lived in Orchard Street, in a house not different from the better dwellings we had previously known. While the Baptist church edifice was a tasteful building inside and out, with a fine basement for the Sunday school, there were unfortunately almost no Baptists, either in the town or vicinity, and the church membership was very, very small. In accepting such a pastorate, Father was mistaken from every viewpoint. The church was almost wholly supported by one wealthy family, and indeed by one member of the family, the grandmother, eighty years old.

Seneca County is agriculturally one of the richest in the State of New York, or in the country. Not condemned as the farmers of Broome and Tompkins Counties were to mere grass and hay growing and to dairying, the opulent tillers of Seneca County raised heavy crops of wheat and corn and clover with abundance of peaches and grapes and other fruits. Land was rich and farms costly, and the homes of the farmers were commodious and well kept, with ample premises, fruit trees, and outbuildings. I came to realize there for the first time how great had been the handicap under which my ancestors in Broome County for three generations had farmed, for I was introduced now by striking contrast into a world of beauty, comfort and abundance.

There was a coeducational preparatory school in Ovid, under Methodist auspices, called The “East Genesee Conference Seminary.’’ As principal the seminary had an excellent man, a Mr. Sanford, and as preceptress a highly esteemed lady of middle life, a Miss Longworth. In this seminary I studied for two terms and, as usual, remember not one thing about my studies, except that I passed the state regents examination in spelling, and that I was not in the preparatory department as were most of the boys of my age, but in the seminary proper. The primary scholars gave me a new nickname— Bars—a play on Gates. My fond mother comforted me with the assurance that the nickname was given me by the “little primaries” from envy, for I was sensitive, and it stung me. But the charming face and character of the gentle but careworn Mr. Sanford touched my childish sympathy and gave me an ideal of moral beauty that has always remained with me.

Our stay in Ovid was destined to be short, as might indeed have been apprehended. In his choice of pastorates Father had sought only what he called divine guidance. This, I think, he got, or thought he got, mainly in prayer. Considerations of worldly wisdom he resolutely put aside. The practical judgment of his wife was indeed influential, but not decisive. Nor was he in his early ministry guided by the wholly widest influence if he would attain the highest usefulness, for at Ovid he was condemned in advance to preach to a mere handful. The decisive factor in his decisions seemed to be where he and his family might make the largest sacrifices. Before the end of the year, the dear old lady, our main support, died, leaving us in midair, with neither congregation nor salary. An immediate change of pastorate became necessary and, after much consultation and deep dubitations, Father determined to accept the counsel of an old ministerial friend and correspondent, Huntly by name, then a Western missionary, and offer himself to the American Baptist Home Mission Society as a missionary to the destitute West.

And so, ended our year in Ovid, a year of transition from childhood to youth, a year in a community and in a school of far higher and more attractive type than I had yet known. That year was the vestibule of the better social and intellectual life in which it was my good fortune ever after to live.

Father was commissioned by the American Baptist Home Mission Society as a general missionary to northwest Missouri, where Mr. Huntly was, and northeast Kansas. We closed up our household affairs at Ovid, sold all the bulky things at auction, shipped to the new field all our lighter and more valuable things and keepsakes, strongly boxed, made farewell visits to our grandparents in Broome County, and on the thirteenth of May 1867, took a train on the Erie Railroad for the West.

It was a slow, dusty, and for Father and Mother, deafening and nearly sleepless journey. The roar of the ancient passenger train was worse than the present freight trains, there were no sleeping cars, nor diners, and we carried our provisions, there being only lunch stations occasionally, with a five to twenty minutes’ halt in which to snatch food. The passenger cars were not vestibuled as now and were connected at about a foot’s distance from each other by big iron links, an inch thick. We broke our journey at Chicago for one night’s needed sleep in a hotel, and spent another night at Quincy, Illinois. At St. Joseph, Missouri, beyond which at that time there was no railroad, we took a Missouri River steamboat upstream thirty miles, but by the winding river some sixty miles, and arrived at our destination at Forest City, Missouri, at about one o’clock p.m. on May seventeenth, 1867.

No child ever clothed fairyland with more charms than my imagination for a month had given to Forest City. To my excited childish fancy, it was far larger and more beautiful than Ovid, or Ithaca, or Trumansburg, the finest town I had known, for it was a city, and it was a Forest city—its broad streets lined with magnificent trees so as to give it almost the appearance of a vast park. About twelve o’clock we began to near my Forest City, and I stood out on the upper deck to catch the first glimpse of this earthly paradise. It was dinner time, as the town appeared in a deep bend of the river, and Mother vainly tried to make me eat for the first glimpse of Forest City took away my appetite. I could not touch a morsel, and as we tied the steamer up to the mud bank of the Missouri, bitter tears coursed down my cheeks. It was a dirty little landing on the Missouri bottom, with a few ramshackle warehouses covered with circus posters on the river bank, a line of hitching posts in front of a few miserable, filthy stores, and to the posts were hitched several saddled mules, with not a carriage or even a horse in sight. The town was surrounded by steep and wooded bluffs. It was a typical Southern trading post of the antebellum type, redolent of whiskey, tobacco, half-clad “white trash,” and Negroes. Such was our uninviting welcome to the West in 1867.

But my stay in Forest City was not to be of long duration. It was soon decided that Father’s part of the common missionary field should be northeast Kansas, while Mr. Huntly would retain northwest Missouri. The first and most pressing question in our little home circle then became the continuation of my school life. I had already learned all that the schools in Forest City could teach, but my faithful and solicitous parents had determined in their indigence to continue my education. After much discussion it was decided that I should be sent back East to board and attend the seminary at Ovid, where my Aunt Mary was about to take her senior year. All arrangements were made and the last night at home arrived. The next day I was to be accompanied as far as St. Joseph, and there started on my long trip eastward. My trunk was packed, and I went to bed, but not to sleep. The realization of the separation from my mother and father and brother, for how long no one knew, perhaps for years, overwhelmed me. I cried all night. On arising the next morning and comparing notes, it appeared that Father and Mother had done the same thing. The whole plan was again reviewed and speedily given up, to the relief of us all. We ascertained, on inquiry, that there was a “University,” so-called, at Highland, a little town across the river in Kansas, about ten miles away, and while this nascent institution had hardly as yet reached the stage of preparatory school, it could nevertheless carry my studies forward. Accordingly, arrangements were made for me to board and attend school at Highland, and so about the middle of September 1867, my father took me over to Highland.

Meanwhile my summer in Forest City need not detain us. We found pleasant playmates there. I shot a quail or two, and one big rattlesnake curled up on a log, a monstrous, mottled, fearsome thing, with a flat, triangular head and nine rattles. We learned to manage canoes in the river, big heavy affairs, hollowed out of logs. During the summer the Missouri, which bent around in more than a half-circle to reach Forest City, cut a new swift channel straight across the narrow connecting isthmus, and left Forest City five miles inland. This, however, proved no great loss, certainly not to me, for the St. Joseph and Nebraska City Railroad was built through the town that summer, and I had the delight of watching the grading of it, the laying of the rails, and the incoming of the first train.

It was arranged that at Highland I should board with a Mr. and Mrs. Ricker, who lived about a mile from the “University” which by courtesy we will always call it. They were excellent Methodist people, without children, and besides me were boarding a young Methodist preacher named Buck, who was supplementing his rather meager education by attending the University, while he supplied churches on Sunday. He was a most excellent and worthy young man, studious, conscientious, and dignified. I have not followed his after career, but I have always respected him. His influence over me was only good. The Rickers, excellent country people from Vermont, lived in a little bit of a one-story house, and Mr. Buck and I slept in the best room. Mr. Buck always knelt in silent prayer by the bedside, an unconscious rebuke, as I felt, to my impenitence, but he had too much tact to annoy me about personal religion.

It was on a Wednesday that Father brought me over to Highland and left me with fond goodbye at the Ricker home. He had hardly turned his back before I was overwhelmed with a sense of desolation and homesickness, and I gazed at his retreating figure through tears. The next Friday night I struck straight for Forest City, ten miles away, on foot, crossing the Missouri at Iowa Point in a row boat and reached home the happiest boy that ever returned to his father’s house. It was then and there arranged as a condition of my remaining at school that I could come home at any time the homesickness became unendurable, but it was hoped I could always stand it from Monday until Friday night. This was hard at first, but I did it, though never did I fail to take the trip on Friday, returning early Monday morning. None of my children and none of my acquaintance have ever suffered from homesickness as I have. Although this was the first hard attack, it was by no means the last, and I do not yet quite understand the peculiarity of my nature which exposed me for many years to this distressing malady.

If I have detained you too long on these stories of my infancy and childhood, the fault is deliberate. I have chosen each of the incidents for its suggestion, even though in itself trivial. Taken together, these stories give a true picture of the family and school life, at its best, of country boys and girls of the fifties, north of the Ohio River. These scenes of my childhood are indelibly impressed upon my memory. I can see clearly in the retrospect that they were permanent basic formative influences on my plastic mind and heart. We have always been taught that the boy is father to the man, but not until old age can we know it. In rearing your children, remember that the years of early childhood usually fix the character and destiny of the man. You forget it at their peril.

I began my school year at Highland in the September after the July in which I reached my fourteenth year, and about the first of the following January, namely, January 1868, the family moved to Highland.

Next Section:
Our Kansas Home