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The McGills
The Incubus Is Being Raised—Prospects Brighten—The First School


Arthur and Patrick McGill had no dealings directly with the Holland Land company. Their titles and possessions were never called in question, and their personal relations with the management were strictly formal. They were not of the kind who fall in line and keep step with file leaders; they acknowledged no leaders, and though always courteous, were never obsequious to assumed authority. They made their own plans and executed them in their own way—they blazed their own trail and followed it at will. Encroach upon them wrongfully, and the spines of the thistle hardened— "Touch and I pierce," was the ancient motto of their race, and it held good on French Creek as it had for a thousand years on the banks of the Clyde.

Their holdings were comparatively small, but they were the free unimpeached lords of the soil, owing no service to company or gang, and as such in the sight of God and humanity, ranked high over sordid aims and lust of gain. They cringed to no man—it was theirs to strike hands with destiny on the higher plane of the inalienable rights of man—and look down with scorn on the mercenary tools of foreign wealth who were ravaging this fair "garden of the Gods."

It was during this crisis from 1799 to 1824 that the "actual settlers" did their most strenuous work in expanding and advancing the interests of the people in the French Creek country. They were safe from the terror of forfeiture and eviction that menaced so many homes, and they grappled with strong arms the difficulties with which they were environed. They hewed ways through the forests to open communication with the outside world. They built flatboats and barges and constructed rafts to float lumber and anything salable down the stream and subsidized keel-boats to bring up supplies. Their numbers were limited, for the spoilers hewed close to the line. Four tracts of land only in the McGill Settlement escaped spoliation, and they were those of Roger Alden, Patrick and Arthur McGill and Thomas Campbell, all adjoining - the last named being a triangle on the stream containing one hundred and sixty-eight acres. All the remainder of Woodcock township except the Humes tract (then in Rockdale) was seized and appropriated to the use of "several wealthy gentlemen in Holland."

It will be readily seen that though the "actual settler" did not pay tribute directly to the beast his hands were tied for want of money, all of which was sent over the sea, and he had no means to break through to the markets. However, he came to the front and did all that man could do. In this time of sore need the plunging energies of Arthur McGill and a few more like him were beyond value - they were a beneficence. It was these men who opened a highway over the mountains and rivers to the city of Philadelphia, four hundred miles away, and started the Conestoga to climbing the hills on its voyage of relief. Many of them sacrificed every thing they had and went down into obscurity and are never to be mentioned in the history of "Our Country and Our People."

The Holland Land Company built no roads, except perchance a trail to lead purchasers to remote vacant lands. They built no mills but those of the most temporary character, designed solely to enhance the value and sale of their property, and these were disposed of at a profit as soon as they had fulfilled the purpose of their erection. They opened no avenues to wealth that did not empty the proceeds into their coffers. They did not promote the prosperity of the country, but they retarded it. They did not advance civilization, but by their greed they debauched it. They were not a blessing to "Our Country and Our People," but a curse. They present a theme for Dante; I am not equal to the possibilities of the epic.

It has been intimated that the little Dutchmen behind the dykes had some glimmering of the hereafter when they looked over those nine hundred thousand acres of stolen land - and being great theologians they proceeded promptly to abolish hell and set up a new religion better adapted to the circumstances of the case.

Patrick was not built for the rough and tumble of the frontier, at least, he was not as sturdy physically as his distinguished brother and many others, but was none the less useful. He associated himself with other pioneers who were interested in building up the country and by combining their means brought sheep, cattle, hogs and horses from the Rappahannock valley in Virginia and distributed them among the farmers at cost, without one cent of profit, and the result was that in a few years droves of animals were being driven over the mountains and cash returned to the producers.

Their stock was not of the fancy imported kind - they could not afford such - but were animals adapted to the climate and existing conditions in the bush. The cattle were of the hardy white oak brand that could winter on the twigs of fallen trees and come out strong in the spring - coarse wooled sheep that could stand the rigors of the climate and yield large supplies of wool, mutton and tallow; and the razorback hog that could forage for roots after the mast failed in the fall of the year - animals tough as the settlers and inured to the thumps of adversity.

The razorback hog, often spoken of with much contumely, was really a useful animal to the husbandman in the early days.

In the fall of the year the hills were rich with mast, all kinds of nuts and other edible growths upon which the beasts fed and fattened with great content. Each farmer had from thirty to forty head bearing his mark, and they roamed the forest at will, devoured the nuts, slept under the trees and grew fat. When they were gathered in and slaughtered, the meat, smoked and reduced to bacon, was a most delectable article of food, as well as a valuable commodity of commerce and trade. The hogs left over after the butchering generally returned to the woods and rooted their way through the winter, requiring no further care and coming out in the spring, thin, flexible and ready to pick up anything in sight. They were little or no trouble to the owners, cost comparatively nothing to keep and were the scavengers of the farm and forest.

The much maligned razorback was not pretty to look upon. His body was long, thin, wide, slab-sided and covered with sandy red bristles - his limbs long, an could outrun a deer - if he could be taught to in the right direction he would have proved a wonder on the race track - but this could never be done. His eyes were close together and had a mean look, but his snout was the crowning deformity of the poor beast - it beat the Jews. He was exceedingly handy with that offensive member, and to ward against it was a work of high art, and, really the greatest item of expense in keeping the razorback was to fence him out of the growing crops. But at that time the ungainly brute was more valuable to the farmer than Berkshire or Chester White could possibly have been. He was made to live on the only forage they could provide, and with all his ugliness he had some useful qualities. Razorback bacon that had been smoked over a green hickory fire was a dainty that the great Chefs of London and Paris could never approach, and the article became a staple in trade and proved a valuable factor in raising the Dutch incubus that oppressed the people.

The scheme to stock the country with domestic animals suited to the climate and forage conditions worked admirably and was a considerable relief to the financial pressure of the times. And there were other agencies that brought aid and assistance to the good work.

The transportation of salt from the Saline works in New York by way of Erie and Waterford and thence by French Creek to the lower country created a great demand for flatboats and consequent market for lumber, and the ke-chuck-kechuck-ke-chuck of every little sash-saw in the country could be heard day and night. Times began to brighten as the poor people began to feel money in their pockets. Other people came in with means to pay for their farms and help on with the improvements without sensibly feeling the pressure; the incubus was being raised, and hope renewed. Spinning wheels, looms, and flax brakes were running; the wheels of domestic industry hummed, and no more frugal and industrious people ever lived than those old pioneers in the French Creek valley.

The operation of Alden's Mills at their doors was a great relief to Arthur and Patrick McGill. They were located on the best water power on the river and one that never failed. Other mills, for thirty miles around, were compelled to shut down a portion of each year on account of the drouth, but such has never been the case at this point. When constructing the mills, Major Alden built a log blacksmith shop on or near the spot where the trolley depot now stands, and used it for the purpose of forging the nails used for the building, every one of which was made by hand. While engaged at this work the smith did jobs of custom work which was a great convenience, but when the mills were completed Vulcan banked his fires and went on strike and the building was left vacant. Patrick McGill obtained from Major Alden the temporary use of the structure for school purposes, and it was thoroughly renovated and whitewashed with blue clay inside and out, a plank floor laid - glass windows put in - a fireplace constructed and other improvements made. Slabs were procured from the mill, holes bored and legs inserted, long ones for the large pupils and short for the little ones. Miss Betsy McCall, a bright-eyed girl recently imported from the Susquehanna country, who had learned the rudiments, was duly installed as teacher. Thus the first school at Alden's Mills where Sagerstown now stands was inaugurated through the agency, efforts and at the expense of Patrick McGill. It was not a great institution, but it filled a long felt want.

Betsy kept on teaching, whether paid or not, relieved once in a while by some tramp pedagogue who would teach a term of two or three months gather up what little money he could - and then leave, when patient Betsy would return to her work and pursue her unrequited way. She was not a great teacher, but was useful in her patient, humble way.

The drunken little Irish schoolmaster was much in evidence during the early days. He was a literary tramp - a scholar - a sot and a gentleman. He was always a graduate of some great institution of learning in the Old Country, and this was sober truth, for he carried the credentials to show and was unquestionably a scholar of no mean attainments, but his erratic habits were such as to exclude him from the profession in higher schools of repute. He was always neatly dressed, polite and affable - loaded with a fund of wit, anecdote and pleasantry that rendered him a welcome guest to cultured men who had long been sequestered from congenial society. He would tarry awhile, instruct the boys, not only in learning, but also in deportment, and in the manners and customs of polite society, but just when he had made himself almost indispensable in the family circle, he would get on a glorious drunk and have a hilarious old time, after which he would betake himself to the road and be seen no more.

Several of these roving gentlemen from time to time bestowed their society on Patrick, and it is thought that he was not averse to their entertainment, for by that means he secured facilities for instructing his boys that could not otherwise be obtained. He enjoyed their company and retained them as private tutors for his family. It is believed that Arthur's family were given the same advantages, for there was not one of Arthur's four boys and Patrick’s three who was not well equipped for the transaction of business in any ordinary line. They never attended Betsy McCall’s academy and there is no record of any of them having attended school away from home, except that my father, John, went one term to the Meadville Academy, and it is very probable that Arthur’s John enjoyed the advantages of the schools at Erie, where he lived from fourteen years of age to twenty-one. They were well educated at home by private instructors. When grown they were fully competent to take positions with any of the "landed gentry" with whom they chose to associate.

The Betsy McCall Academy was purely a beneficence on the part of Major Alden and Patrick McGill for the benefit of those who were otherwise deprived of all chances of schooling, and though very humble, it was really a blessing. Much has been written about that first school.

One great historian says that Jonathan G. David taught the first school in the old blacksmith shop. Jonathan G. David never taught any school at Alden’s Mills or in Sagerstown, but his father, Rev. Owen David, a Baptist clergyman, came in later and did supplant Betsy for a term or two. Betsy’s labors and toils and triumphs preceded the advent of all this trash. She taught the first school on French Creek, between Meadville and the Dead-water.


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