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American History
Reminiscences of James David McNitt


(July 3, 1845 - July 25, 1935)

The following is a brief memoir written by James David McNitt in 1931. Eighty-four years earlier, at two months of age, he had accompanied his parents and siblings by covered wagon from Pennsylvania to Indiana, where the family relocated to a two-room cabin. His nine decades spanned an era that began with horse-drawn wagons and ended with air travel. Despite his success in business, like his Scottish forefathers for at least 1,000 years before his birth, James was at heart a man of the soil who harvested crops and bred livestock his entire life. His short memoir provides a remarkable window into the way our ancestors lived in the closing hours of the agricultural before era, before the advent of modern medicine, electricity, mass production and electronic media.

I am writing these incidents in my life to please my daughter Miriam, who furnished the book [for me to write in]. I may destroy it later as it is from a long, worn out mind and body. These things I remember while living in this grand old world for over eighty-four years. Just some of my troubles and pleasures. First, there were eight of my family as follows:

Father, James Glasgow McNitt, Nov. 5, 1810 - May 2, 1847
Mother, Jane Naginey McNitt, Aug. 8, 1812 - May 6, 1856
Sister, Sarah Margaret McNitt, Dec. 22, 1832 - Mar. 13, 1857
Sister, Mary Jane McNitt, Nov. 3, 1834 - April 12, 1858
Brother, Robert Glasgow McNitt, Feb. 7, 1837 - Oct. 2, 1867
Brother Charles More McNitt, Feb. 9, 1840 - Nov. 1, 1892
Brother, William Alexander McNitt, Jan. 10, 1843 -May 1870
Brother, James David McNitt, July 3, 1845 - [July 25, 1935]

In the fall of 1845, Father and Mother left their old home and their friends with their family of six children, Father driving a big team and the big old covered wagon, taking what belongings he could haul. Mother, with the help of the older children, drove a lighter team with a lighter wagon. The youngest child, myself, was about two months old. With this outfit, they left their home in Milford Township, Juniata County, Pennsylvania, and started West, over the mountains, stony roads and mud holes, through Ohio and Indiana, across swamps and streams, arriving six weeks later in the western part of Cass County in Indiana. Here they found only two or three neighbors, but plenty of mud, ponds, wolves, deer and ague and fever and some Indians.

They moved into a log house with one big room, a large fireplace, a small kitchen at the back and a little porch attached to the kitchen. There was a fine spring and a little brook running by the spring. A wagon way, or what they called a road, ran between the barn and the house.

I think the reason they brought two wagons was that the light wagon was not so rough for us children. Also, there were such bad roads and so many mud holes. When Father got stuck in a bad mud hole he would take the team from the light wagon and hitch them ahead of his heavy team and all four would pull him out.

This big covered wagon was very heavy. His tar bucket was hanging on the axle underneath so he could grease it when necessary, as tar is what they greased wagons with at that time. Everyone used the old linchpin wagon and it took plenty of grease or tar to keep the spindle from getting dry and to make the wagon run easily. The wagons had no springs, as they were not made at that time, and I think that baby Jim made the woods ring with his cries when the wagon bumped over those rough roads. I certainly made it lively for my Mother on this trip, as I was only six or eight weeks old.
Father died about eighteen months after landing in Cass County, leaving my Mother alone with her six children and she, herself, were down with ague, chills and a high fever, no one being well enough to wait on the others. I never remember of seeing my Father.

About the first thing I can remember of importance was when two big straight Indians came walking down the road with their feathered decorations. They walked into the barn-lot and around the barn, looked into the barn, stayed around perhaps a half hour then went on westwardly up the road. We were all much frightened and fastened all the doors.

Mother received very few letters from her people in the East as it cost 10 to 20 cents to send a letter, depending on the number of sheets of paper one used and at that time the nearest Post Office was Logansport, which was eleven miles away. It was a big undertaking for her to go to Logansport at that time as she had sold all of the heavy wagons and draft horses and bought a small single horse wagon and a small old gray mare, which the children could drive. To make the trip through the mud and fording the creeks, as there were no bridges, leaving the children before daylight in the morning and returning home after dark was a trial no doubt. I suppose she received an average of two letters per year during the first six or eight years and most of them came West by canal boat.
Next thing I remember well was when my Uncle Charles and Uncle John Naginey (Mother's brothers) came out from Pennsylvania to see us. They came by stage, boat and on foot. When they went home they each bought a horse and went home on horseback. I remember Uncle Charles making me a fine, large bow and arrow, such as Indians used. He wrapped the point of the arrow with a piece of tin. It was fine sport for me.


Jane Naginey McNitt's cabin beside the Old White Post Road in
Jefferson Township near Logansport, Indiana. Photo taken in 1898
by her grandson Robert Joseph McNitt with a home-built plate glass camera.
Many families traveled this road in covered wagons on their way to
the western states. They frequently camped in her clearing and frail women,
infants and the sick were invited to sleep inside with Jane and her children.

Early School Days
My sister Mary thought I should go to school with her one day. A neighbor's boy was teacher. It was in an old log house, standing in the woods about one and one half mile from home. There was a big fireplace, one window, slab seats so high that my feet would not reach the floor by six or eight inches. The old log house was still standing in 1929. I guess my sister thought I would get hungry so she filled my pockets with apples. We went to the school house and they seated me by the right side of the fireplace where I would get warm. I suppose I was especially attractive or made it so. It was the habit of the teacher to sit up in one corner of the room and have the little ones come and stand by his knee, one at a time, and see if they could say their A.B.C's. After quite a little while he asked me to come over to him and say my A.B.C's, but I did not go. After trying for some time, he thought he would come and sit down beside me and see what I knew, but when he started toward me I did not know what he meant to do, so I showed fight and as fast as I could get the apples out of my pockets I let drive as straight and as hard as my little arms would let go. Then I got frightened and sister Mary had to take me home. John Renberger, the teacher, referred to this incident after I was 35 years old.

The next school I remember was in a log house about one mile from home. I think I was about eight years old. This old log house had a fireplace and slab seats. One log had been sawed out of one end to make a window and I think there was oiled paper instead of glass. I think I had no apples this time and had lost my grit as a fighter and got along better.

Then for about six or seven years after that, the only school was about three miles from home. This I attended when it was not too cold and stormy, perhaps one or two days a week and the school only lasted two or three months a winter depending upon how much public money they could raise. When I was about fifteen years old a school house was built about one mile from home, and we had school three months during each winter, but on account of work, I went only part of the time. But I struck a good job when school began in the new school house, as the teacher hired me to sweep out the room, dust, carry enough wood in out of the snow to last all day, build a good fire early and have the school room warm when the school took up. For all of this work, cold and warm, I received the fine salary of five cents per day and never complained, as I was glad to get it. I studied hard at night and did my chores at home and there were plenty of them. I kept up with my classes, such as they were, pretty well.

When I was about eighteen or nineteen years old, I wanted something a little better and when a summer and fall Normal School opened up at Idaville, about eight miles from home, I with my brother Robert, who was an excellent man and like a father to me, but never had a chance for much schooling, went to Idaville and made arrangements for me to attend the Normal School.
With two neighbor boys I rented a small room upstairs and we set up three beds and did our own cooking. When the school ended I had worked too hard and the food was too poor, so that I went home with a bad case of dyspepsia, from which I suffered a great many years. I think it was the next year that I attended the old Seminary in Logansport. I still felt that I wanted a better education so I started in and completed a course at Hall's Commercial School in Logansport, and I think this helped me very much through the remainder of my life.

When I returned from Normal School at Idaville I was elected to be teacher in our home school. I succeeded very well, but squirm when I think of the children being taught by such an uneducated man. This job gave me a little money so that the next fall I attended the Short Course at the Old Seminary in Logansport. Then I taught the next two years, very pleasant, happy three months each winter. The last school was at the old Penn School about three miles east from home. I had eighty-four scholars on my school register and taught A.B.C. Primer; 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Readers; Spelling, Arithmetic; Geography; Grammar and a little History. I kept this old Register until the Logansport Flood in 1913 and think it was washed away or lost when we moved to the new home on the hill in Clay Township. It was over fifty years old when it was lost.

When I was President of the Logansport Loan and Trust Company I had many of my old scholars come in and tell me what a good time we had, describing many incidents which occurred at the time I taught school. They went to school early one day just before Christmas and locked the door against me and I had to treat the school with cider and apples. I think this last term which I taught was one of the happiest winters I ever spent in my young days, with the old fashioned spelling schools and the singing schools.

In the first school I taught there were two big boys, who in the preceding term had whipped the teacher out, and he had to close the school near the middle of the term. When I started to teach at the beginning of the next year they tried the same game with me. I gave one of them a sound whipping with a good young hickory. He got up and left school but came back about two weeks later. I treated him just fine and we had no more trouble and he was one of my best scholars. This boy's family moved west and I did not see until I was walking down 4th street to the Court House, nearly fifty years later when a man coming toward me stopped and asked if I was Mr. McNitt. When I said that I was, he said, "Do you know me?" I said, "I believe that I have seen you at some time, but I am unable to name you." He then said, "Do you remember giving a bad boy a devilish hard whipping when you taught school at the old Vernon Schoolhouse?" Then I said, "Yes, I do and you are Samuel Small." He said that whipping was the best thing which ever happened to him as he needed it. We had a very pleasant visit.

About the year 1927 at a funeral a lady came up and shook hands, saying, "You do not remember me, but when I was a little girl I went to school with you. You came from your home on horseback and one wet, cold evening you told me to wait and you would take me home. You rode up to a stump and I climbed up behind you and rode home safely." I said, "Oh yes, I know you now, that was Hetty Hendrick." "Yes", she said, "but it is Hetty Weaver now and, oh, what a jolly time we all had that winter." A very happy meeting.

Going back to my early life I shall mention some happenings which I remember from my childhood.
First, I want to state that I had a fine, noble mother; a kind, Christian woman, coming from Scotch-Irish ancestors and of strict Christian raising. She had unusual executive ability, and was a strict observer of the Sabbath Day. All the work, such as cutting firewood, splitting kindling, etc. was done by us children and had to be brought in the house on Saturday evening so that we were all in good clean shape for Sunday morning. There were very few Sundays that Mother did not get her little ones around her knee and read the Bible or some Bible story. I only wish I could have had her with me longer that I might have had her counsel and advice later in life.

She was a very courageous woman. She took my brother and me, when I was about five or six years old, and went down through the barn lot, then along the road about three quarters of a mile to a neighbor's house. When we went in, the neighbor woman exclaimed, "Why, Mrs., McNitt, did you meet not a meet a mad dog? One just left the gate and went up the road your way." She said it was slobbering at the mouth and she knew it was mad. Mother said, "If that is so, I must go back at once as I left the girls at home." She found a big club and took us back home. When we got in the barn lot the girls were watching for us, as they had seen the dog come into the yard and fight our two half-bull dogs.

They called to Mother, saying that the dog was somewhere about the house. other put my brother and me up on a high fence and went up beyond the orchard, where two men were cutting wheat. They came with Mother to the house, put us inside, then went to the barn returning soon with pitchforks and located the mad dog under the porch floor behind the kitchen. Lifting the loose boards, they killed the dog. Our dogs had been wounded and Mother was afraid to keep them. The men chained them for a day or two and then killed them. They offered protection for Mother and her family and she found it hard to part with them. There were wolves as well as thieves and Indians in the country and we often saw Mother leave the house on the darkest nights to help the dogs chase away some marauder.

Mother always had a fine garden and once in a great while she would have my oldest brother hitch the old mare to the little wagon and drive to Logansport with her and the wagon loaded with butter, eggs, berries, currents and garden truck to be traded for tea, coffee, sugar, muslin and such supplies. They would start before daylight (3 A.M.) and return an hour or two after dark. We would stand at the door and listen for first sound of the rattle of the wagon wheels and would be very happy when we heard the first rattle in the still night as the wagon came through the woods, a mile or two away. These were hard trips in the little wagon, with no springs to soften the rough places in the road. Besides the fine garden, we had a good orchard with apples and cherries. Mother was a good cook and we always found at least cakes and doughnuts in our stockings on Christmas Morning.

On Easter Morning, Mother would sew a bit of calico print around some eggs and wet them. The fading dyes produced fantastic colors on the eggs. If the snow no longer covered the wheat, she would pull off some of the tender green blades and put them in the water when she boiled the eggs. They would cling to the eggs and produce beautiful stripes. These were simple home customs, but I missed them terribly after the death of my Mother.

I am wondering and thinking of her this last day of August, 1925, while Carrie and Ethel have gone to the teacher's institute. I have wondered why such a good, kind, and loving Mother should be called to leave a family of six children when there was no Father to care for them. It certainly was hard for her to go and leave them. She was so brave, so noble, such a kind face, so cheerful always with her children, in spite of so many things to make her sad. The day they carried her out of that old log house was a very sad one for me. It seemed that I had lost everything, and when our kind neighbors shoveled the earth down on top of that rough wooden box in the grave, the rattling was the most horrible sound I have ever heard. I am thinking now that the Mother of my own children was so much like my Mother. She was a blessing to our children and God was kind to let them spend so many happy days together. I always thought I was a good husband, but today as I think back I see where I could have brought more happiness into her life. I only wish I were able to write and leave a verse or two in memory of those two good women. my only hope is that God will help me to so live that I will be fit to meet them in that house where these sad tears will not be shed and where parting will be no more.

I had good, kind brothers and sisters. I had many happy days with brother Will as he was near my own age and size. We spent many a moonlight night around the straw stack, scuffling and wrestling for hours to see which of us could throw the other down, or in winter sliding down hill on our homemade sleds. I think this is what gave me strong arms.

I remember there was quick sand at one place in the creed near our cabin and any creature walking on that spot would sink in. The day after a very heavy rain the fresh sand washed over the spot making it appear firm and to try it out I walked on it with bare feet. The sand and water oozed up between my toes and looked nice and felt good, so I kept working my feet and toes until I found that I could not pull them out. Of course, I began to holler to Mother, but did not succeed in making her hear me until I was almost under. I think she got boards somewhere and walked in and pulled me out.

Mother met her death by fighting a prairie fire on a very windy day. The fire burned all our West fences and was coming down to the buildings. Mother took off her heavy woolen underskirt and soaked it in a little spring branch near the cabin. With this wet skirt she put out the fire near the cabin. She was very tired and warm and went to the spring and drank too much cold water, with the result that she took her bed and died in a few days. When she knew the end was near she called all of us children to her bed and asked us to continue living in the home as long as possible and to be fair and kind to each other, avoiding quarreling and strife. I have always thought God granted my Mother's wish. During all my life I cannot remember any bad feelings among us brothers and sisters. We were associated in many partnerships and business deals without argument or strife. There was always a spirit of giving rather than taking.

Brother Robert was a dear, good brother and father to me as long as he lived, a noble man giving me good advice. He taught me how to use the old grain cradle so that I learned how to swing it into the heavy golden grain and draw in a full swath and do it easily. I think he made me one of the best cradlers in our neighborhood. He taught me how to judge a good horse or cow and many other useful things.

Sister Sarah died about one year after my mother and sister Mary went about a year after Sarah. Robert was married about this time and made a home for William and me. Charles was teaching school and going to school. He went east to teach. Brother Will and I lived with Robert until he died in 1867, then we were without a housekeeper until Will married. Then he made a home for me until he died in 1870. Then I did the best I could until about 1872 when I married one of the best and sweetest girls that ever lived and from that time on, for over fifty years, she made me the happiest years of my life except those when my Mother was living. And now I have the noblest and kindest children I think ever lived and the credit for this is due to the good, kind mother they had.

My Business Career
At first I was helping on the farm and attending winter school, such as we had. Later I went to Normal School at Idaville, holding the small interest I had in the old farm. (Worth about $1,000.00 at that time.) After my brothers Robert and William died, I rented a part of the land and paid my board and farmed the remainder myself. About 1868 or 1869, I rented all of the farm and went to Logansport and attended Hall's Commercial School, boarding with brother Charles. During one year, I clerked and kept books in a small grocery store.

In 1872, I married and in 1873 I went into partnership with my father-in-law, Joseph Uhl, in a wholesale and retail grocery, handling also wool, flour and feed. This was very successful but I worked too hard and broke down in health. Old Doctor Fitch told me that I must get out of doors, or I would go to the graveyard. Then I bought more land and went to farming, but spending a part of my time in buying live stock and shipping to Chicago or Eastern markets and buying wool and shipping to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. I did this for about ten years.

I took over contracts for digging large ditches in Cass and Carroll Counties with large steam dredges which were just coming into use. After the ditches were dug we had to collect the assessments from the individual farmers who had been benefited by the improvement, so the job ran over four years but took only part of my time.

Then I bought more land and carried on the feeding of live stock along with my farming very successfully until 1902, when I bought some stock in a new bank being organized in Logansport and was elected its first President. Called the Logansport Loan and Trust Company, this bank started with a capital stock of $100,000.00 fully paid in. I served as President until late in 1923 when I resigned because of the critical illness of my wife. This bank was very successful, considering that there were already five banks in that small city. Its assets grew to more than $2,000,000.00 while I was President.

In looking over my records I found that our Trust Department was Administrator or Guardian in over forty Estates and I personally looked after this part of our business. Most of my banking years were happy ones, we were helping so many people and knew that the bank was growing.
A short time after I left the bank I was in the hospital for an operation and since that time have been taking life easy. My good daughter Carrie is taking good care of me and now in August, 1925, I and my daughter are living in a very comfortable house on the bank of Eel River where I have the pleasure of taking care of a very nice flock of black face sheep and a good cow, and where my kind children come and enjoy the old home frequently, which makes us very happy.

And yet, while counting up the present and the past I can call up so many happy as well as sad things that happened as my memory calls back seventy-five years and then forward, when Father died about 1847. How I wish I could remember seeing his face, but how sad I feel when I think of it. But he was a good, kind husband and father, but it was not to be so and we pass it. Then the more happy days come to me when I see my good Mother with her family of six, sitting around the large old fireplace eating apples and she telling or reading us some story, and we surely had our fun. Mother made fun with her children when she could forget the day she had to part with our Father, and she enjoyed the children's fun. We had many a play on the old oak floor in the big room, with the big, bright fire. Then the fire would get low and Mother or my oldest brother would roll on another big backlog and perhaps it would partly burn up, leaving a big pile of chunks and coals and Mother would say that we must go to bed. Then she would pull out the trundle beds, which were kept under the large beds, and if the night was cold and frosty she would warm a blanket and lay it in the bed for us little ones and wrap us up good and warm. Then she would cover the big bed of coals with ashes.

Next morning she was up first and having kindling and wood ready, she soon had a good fire for us to get up and dress by. She would then go out into the cold kitchen and soon have a good fire in the cook stove. Then we would smell the good fresh sausage gravy and the buckwheat cakes, and soon we were around the big table enjoying breakfast while Mother baked more of those nice light cakes.
Perhaps the next night we were all out sliding down the hill with our homemade sleds in the moonlight, trying to see which one of us could go the farthest. Once it rained hard when the ground was frozen and then it turned cold quickly so that a large area of very smooth ice was in the field. Will and I were in our teens and decided to make a flying jack. We went into the woods and cut a pole about twenty-five feet long. Then we made a hole in the ice and drove a large stake through the hole and on down into the soil. We bored a hole through the pole at the large end and also bored a hole into the top of the stake, then placed the pole on the top of the stake and put a pin of iron through the hole in the pole and on down into the hole in the top of the stake. We tied our sled to the small end of the pole and taking turns, one of us rode on the sled while the other pushed the large end of the pole around, making the sled and its rider go wonderfully fast. We then decided to do better by hitching the mare to the short end of the pole. She was rough shod and had no difficulty walking on the ice. With the sled tied to the other end of the pole we went a flying but almost met with disaster when the string drawing the sled broke while it was swirling around at the speed of about thirty-five miles per hour and we shot off at a tangent towards the rail fence at the edge of the ice. Three rails rose above the ice and when I saw the danger I raised myself up as I neared the fence and slid over the top without injury, while the sled was smashed. We had great fun that day.

Mother was so happy when she got a letter from her folks, perhaps two or three in one year. They would come by canal boat, stage or by someone who was moving out to our part of Indiana. Sometimes a letter would tell of the death of a member of her family which had occurred two or three months before the letter came to her. I would watch her face as she opened a letter and if I saw the tears start I knew that it brought her sad news.

We had two fine half Bull Dogs which were likely to fight when they were fed out in front of the porch. One day, when brother Will was about thirteen years old he got mixed up in one of their fights and had the flesh torn off the back of one of his hands.

I can recall very clearly that on cold winter days we would take a yolk of oxen and hitch them to the log sled, which consisted of a heavy cross timber fastened to two strong runners and a tongue. Going out into the woods we would cut down a large tree, chop it into lengths about twenty feet long, roll one end over the bolster of the sled and chain it tight. Then the oxen would drag it on the snow to the wood lot near the cabin. As we found time we cut the log into pieces which we were able to carry into the house and roll back into the fireplace. This was pretty hard, cold work, but I enjoyed it. As we had no saws large enough, all the cutting had to be done with axes. We sharpened the axes on a grindstone.

Brother Robert was very fond of baked potatoes. He would pick out eight or ten nice smooth medium size potatoes, dig a hole in the hot ashes at the side of the fireplace, cover the potatoes with ashes and soon had choice mealy potatoes for supper.

Brother Will and I got to be the same size when I was fourteen years old and the school teacher would get us mixed up in class, calling Will, James or James, Will. When I bought a pair of boots which were too small and had a shoemaker sew a piece of leather into the instep, he used this patch to identify me and was able to keep us straight.

After a few days I noticed that he looked at our feet before calling our names, and after hard work persuaded Will to change boots with me. Then we enjoyed the fun until the teacher discovered our trick.

When I was about eight years old I came home from school one day and discovered a clock on the mantel over the fireplace. Mother had bought it from a peddler. It struck the hours and was a wonder for all of us as we had never had a timepiece. It is now on the mantle over the fireplace in our new home on the hill, still keeping good time this twentieth day of January, 1932. I recall the day Mother bought it as clearly as though it were today.

The Prairie Fire Which Killed my Mother
There had been little rain during the spring and everything in the fields and woods was very dry. Several hundred acres of prairie land lay West of our cabin. It was the last day of school and there was an entertainment at the school house, which was about two miles from our home. We children all started off, Brother Robert and Sister Mary on horseback; Charles, Will and I on foot. Mother remained at home. We had reached the schoolhouse and Robert was nearly half way there when a big smoke rose up West of our cabin and we all hurried home.

Robert arrived there first and hitched the horses to the plow and tried to plow a strip along our West fence with the purpose of starting a small fire on our land to hold back the big fire coming from the West. But the wind blew burning grass and leaves across the plowed strip, burning all our fencing except that around the orchard and cabin. It was Mother who had saved them from the flames. When she saw the fire coming from the West, she first tried to stop it at our West fence. When she saw that the strong wind made that impossible she removed her heavy woolen petticoat, made it soaking wet in the little branch of the creek which ran up into the orchard, and wet the grass and fences around the orchard and cabin, thus stopping the fire. It surely was a dark, smoky, black, sad evening for us all when Mother took her bed and it being her last days work, trying to save the old log cabin.

How I Met the Girl Who Was to Become My Wife
A Mission had been conducted at the West Side Free School. My brother Charles and Louis Metzker served as elders at Communion and Mattie McMasters, Mary Ellen Uhl and Nettie Stanley, also from the Presbyterian Church, helped in the services. I went over with Charles and got acquainted with the girls.

Bob McMasters suggested that we go down and call at Mary Ellen's home some evening. We did so, and that kind of broke the ice. That winter I got up a bobsled ride with Pete Walker, Will Walker, Doctor Gemmill, Charlie Rauch and Steve Boyer, each inviting a girl, and we rode out to the c Farm and had an Oyster Supper. I had a team of matched black horses with a lot of spirit and Mary Ellen went with me in the sleigh frequently that winter, and in the buggy during the spring and summer that I clerked and kept books in a grocery in Logansport. On July 4th we started out early, about ten o'clock, going South and returned past the old mill where her home was. Her mother asked me to stay for dinner. That was one of the happiest days I ever had, and we were married the next December.

This account was kindly provided by Jim McNitt


 

 


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