It was during my second winter of school teaching that, to use the phrase still current, I “experienced religion.” I had passed through several of Father’s revivals and other revivals with no other result than agitation and resistance. But I was “converted” away from all home influences, in a community in which there was no church, in a home in which there was no family worship, and without a word of entreaty or admonition from anyone.
I had passed, in fact, from boyhood to adolescence, and had arrived at the age when, with all boys, body and mind grow rapidly. My growth had possibly been speeded up for the moment by my responsibilities as a teacher, and the circumspection and reflection that teaching daily involved. As I had always been a reasonably conscientious boy, I had at no time a deep sense of guilt, such as the revivalists of those days sought to create, and little fear of hell, such as the revivalists always sought to awaken. I felt no overwhelming need of a crucified Savior, whose blood must procure forgiveness. I suppose that a sense of moral beauty had begun to develop with my awakening physical and social sensibilities. I began to see the wondrous beauty of the character and words of Jesus: his teachings, particularly his social and moral teachings, became attractive, and I was drawn to his person and character, and felt that throughout my life I wanted to side with him and his friends against the world and his enemies. Such, frankly, was the only “conversion” I ever had. This experience of religion, as I now see it, was the usual awakening in right-minded young men and women at the dawn of the fuller life, of the sense of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and the dedication of themselves to a life of disinterested human service. This was and is my religion. It has never changed and is wholly dissociated from all doctrinal speculation.
Our straitened financial condition brought other helpful experiences besides that of teaching. For several months I was clerk in one of the village dry goods and grocery stores. The work brought me into contact with people, and was full of variety, novelty, and social interest. I liked to chat with men and women, and to dicker with them, for we were no one-priced affair. Meeting as I did many people every day, whom I was bound to keep good-natured and sociable, I acquired in the store more familiarity with people than I could have had otherwise, and it has enabled me ever since to talk intimately with all sorts of persons, and to reverence the worthy poor who do the manual work of the world.
Another experience of value was my clerkship in our village bank. Our banker, a man then of fifty years or more, we will call by the (nom de plume) of the Honorable John Smith, a graduate of Harvard, surveyor of olden times, land speculator, and alleged millionaire, universally known as “Hog Eye” Smith in northeast Kansas. His inelegant soubriquet was the penalty of his thoughtless methods, for he was not at heart a bad man. He had a small, cold, gray, pitiless eye, and a hard face, in which compassion found no visible place. He had one clerk—a bookkeeper named Wheeler who was in the advanced stages of consumption. Poor Wheeler died and Mr. Smith cast his eye on me as possible successor. He offered me the place on trial for a month at Twenty Dollars, I to board at home, a mile and a half away. In our financial straits I accepted. Mr. Smith had only one room for his business. He kept his money and valuable papers in an enormous safe with two big wing doors. He had never trusted any clerk under any circumstances to handle his cash. He was his own receiving and paying teller. My job, which was to write the letters from dictation and keep the books, I liked fairly well, though I saw the meanness of Smith, some element of which was certain to color nearly every transaction and conversation.
Near the end of my trial month, an exciting incident occurred. It was in the evening and Smith was dictating. He began a letter to a man to whom he owed a considerable sum of money. The due date had passed, probably by Smith’s forgetfulness. Smith was punctilious in the extreme when money was due himself and never failed to penalize by heavy extortion any neglect of a debtor, however straitened. But here he was himself in the humiliating position of having failed to pay on the due date a note of hand to a well-known and high-spirited business man in a neighboring town. He began dictating his letter, which was to enclose the check, with interest to the due date, but not the date of payment, and the first thing he said was, “date that letter ten days back to the date when the money was due,” and then proceeded with the letter. I wrote it out to his dictation but did not put in the false date. This he noticed and at the end of the letter he again requested me to put in the false date. I then said I did not wish to date the letter wrongly. He insisted that I had no responsibility in the matter, the date was his. I now think he was right, but I hesitated and in fact declined. Smith flew into a rage. “Young man,” said he in tones of thunder, “if you work for me you will do what I say and write what I dictate.” This fired me in turn, “Mr. Smith,” said I, “you haven’t money enough in that safe to make me write a false date on this letter.” Mr. Smith cooled down, and the evening ended without my dating the letter. In a few days my month was up, and I expected of course to be discharged. To my surprise he told me my work was satisfactory and I could return. But meanwhile I had come to realize the value of the work I was doing, and its long hours extending late in the evening, and we all at home felt that the stingy pay was an imposition that we ought not to stand. We determined to ask Sixty Dollars a month and board, which was entirely fair and reasonable, expecting Smith to decline. To our great surprise he assented without objection and took me into his own home. And then came another surprise. He gave me a safe of my own, placed me behind a counter, and put into my hands the handling of all the cash in and out, a thing which his suspicious nature had never before dared to entrust to any person. It was necessary for him to receive from St. Joseph and Atchison, from time to time, large packages of cash, amounting to many thousands of dollars. These were delivered by express at the railroad station several miles away, and he himself had always hitherto driven for these packages. Now he sent me with his horse and buggy. If the James and Younger brothers, who at that time were operating just across the river in Missouri, had known of those lonely and unprotected journeys, they would have given me short shrift. Indeed, it was only a year or two after I left Smith for college that one of the James brothers entered Smith’s bank for the purpose of killing him and robbing the safe. He confessed afterwards that he did not do it, only because from the plain room and poor furnishings he did not think there was money enough to justify the risk. Having now become convinced that I was trustworthy, Mr. Smith often left me alone to run the business of his little bank for days at a time. My banking experience taught me exactness in business transactions, gave me a limited knowledge of bookkeeping, taught me the value of interest, and the importance of having a bank account, and familiarized me besides with the simpler business usages and some of the simpler laws of credit and security. The experience was useful in later life.
After some months I had a severe sickness. What it may have been I do not know. It left me extremely weak and with a deeper depression of spirits than I have ever experienced since. Mr. Smith now filled my place with a most estimable man. So ended the banking episode.
Another experience of several months, growing out of our financial needs, was more profitable in money earned than any of those I have mentioned. It consisted in the canvass of farmers for the introduction of a new patent harrow. Our Uncle Russell was at this time occupying a responsible position in the office of a big nursery firm at Geneva, New York, which had incidentally brought out a light harrow with small, slanting teeth of steel, very superior to the centuries-old farmers’ “drag,” and especially adapted to the light prairie soils of Kansas. Russell proposed that we take the agency for this harrow. We tried the harrow ourselves and found it the right thing. We were to have a commission of Five Dollars for selling the implement at Twenty-seven Dollars delivered, we to take all risks of collection. We had a little model made that I could carry around in a box in my hand. We bought a sulky and an old blind pony, and I started out to canvass the leading farmers in our own and neighboring counties. I took subscriptions, with the agreement that the purchasers could return the harrow in three days if it was not found as represented. I sold eighty in the first season. One man did his spring harrowing of some eighty acres in three days and then returned the harrow with alleged dissatisfaction, only to buy one a few months later; but such instances of fraud were rare, and we lost nothing by bad debts. I used to stop for meals and lodging with the farmers, always tendering pay which, however, was seldom accepted. Often the farmers had cabinet organs or pianos. At that time, I could sing quite a number of solos in a way to please an uncultivated taste and even such amateurs as my mother, and I used to entertain the farmers’ families with these songs. After its introduction the first year the harrow sold itself, and we ultimately sold some three hundred, at an average profit of about Five Dollars each, or nearly or quite Fifteen Hundred Dollars in all. This was enough to pay at a later period the expenses of my junior and senior years in the University of Rochester. Of course, in canvassing hundreds of farmers for my harrow, studying the best methods of approach, the peculiarities of my man, the most persuasive presentation, the proper terminal, leaving an opening, if desirable, for a future day, I acquired a little experience in the arts of negotiation with which to begin my financial work in later years.
I count these various activities of my youth, such as teaching school, clerking in a general store, handling the money, books, interest, discount, and exchange of a small bank, and of selling harrows to farmers, as of higher educational value than school alone could ever have given, especially as all of it proved useful to me in after life.
During these years the farm was developed and enlarged, and a big crop of winter wheat luckily, at a time of general failure of the wheat harvest elsewhere, brought a very high price, and paid the last of our debt.
I never worked at home, except occasionally and incidentally, in the intervals of my other employments and of my studies, but the farm gave my brother Frank something with which fully to occupy his time and energy, and to give him the sense of a mission in life, while its proceeds on its sale furnished the main support of my father and mother in their declining years.