Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Story of a Pioneer
In the wilderness

Like most men, my dear father should never have married. Though his nature was one of the sweetest I have ever known, and though he would at any call give his time to or risk his life for others, in practical matters he remained to the end of his days as irresponsible as a child. If his mind turned to practical details at all, it was solely in their bearing toward great developments of the future. To him an acorn was not an acorn, but a forest of young oaks.

Thus, when he took up his claim of three hundred and sixty acres of land in the wilderness of northern Michigan, and sent my mother and five young children to live there alone until he could join us eighteen months later, he gave no thought to the manner in which we were to make the struggle and survive the hardships before us. He had furnished us with land and the four walls of a log cabin. Some day, he reasoned, the place would be a fine estate, which his sons would inherit and in the course of time pass
on to their sons--always an Englishman's most iridescent dream. That for the present we were one hundred miles from a railroad, forty miles from the nearest post-office, and half a dozen miles from any neighbors save Indians, wolves, and wildcats; that we were wholly unlearned in the ways of the woods as well as in the most primitive methods of farming; that we lacked not only every comfort, but even the bare necessities of life; and that we must begin, single-handed and untaught, a struggle for existence in which some of the severest forces of nature would be arrayed against us--these facts had no weight in my father's mind. Even if he had witnessed my mother's despair on the night of our arrival in our new home, he would not have understood it. From his viewpoint, he was doing a man's duty. He was working steadily in Lawrence, and, incidentally, giving much time to the Abolition cause and to other big public movements of his day which had his interest and sympathy. He wrote to us regularly and sent us occasional remittances, as well as a generous supply of improving literature for our minds. It remained for us to strengthen our bodies, to meet the conditions in which he had placed us, and to survive if we could.

We faced our situation with clear and unalarmed eyes the morning after our arrival. The problem of food, we knew, was at least temporarily solved. We had brought with us enough coffee, pork, and flour to last for several weeks; and the one necessity father had put inside the cabin walls was a great fireplace, made of mud and stones, in which our food could be cooked. The problem of our water-supply was less simple, but my brother James solved it for the time by showing us a creek a long distance from the house; and for months we carried from this creek, in pails, every drop of water we used, save that which we caught in troughs when the rain fell. We held a family council after breakfast, and in this, though I was only twelve, I took an eager and determined part. I loved work--it has always been my favorite form of recreation--and my spirit rose to the opportunities of it which smiled on us from every side. Obviously the first thing to do was to put doors and windows into the yawning holes father had left for them, and to lay a board flooring over the earth inside our cabin walls, and these duties we accomplished before we had occupied our new home a fortnight. There was a small saw-mill nine miles from our cabin, on the spot that is now Big Rapids, and there we bought our lumber. The labor we supplied ourselves, and though we put our hearts into it and the results at the time seemed beautiful to our partial eyes, I am forced to admit, in looking back upon them, that they halted this side of perfection. We began by making three windows and two doors; then, inspired by these achievements, we ambitiously constructed an attic and divided the ground floor with partitions, which gave us four rooms.

The general effect was temperamental and sketchy. The boards which formed the floor were never even nailed down; they were fine, wide planks without a knot in them, and they looked so well that we merely fitted them together as closely as we could and lightheartedly let them go at that. Neither did we properly chink the house. Nothing is more comfortable than a log cabin which has been carefully built and finished; but for some reason--probably because there seemed always a more urgent duty calling to us around the corner--we never plastered our house at all. The result was that on many future winter mornings we awoke to find ourselves chastely blanketed by snow, while the only warm spot in our living-room was that directly in front of the fireplace, where great logs burned all day. Even there our faces scorched while our spines slowly congealed, until we learned to revolve before the fire like a bird upon a spit. No doubt we would have worked more thoroughly if my brother James, who was twenty years old and our tower of strength, had remained with us; but when we had been in our new home only a few months he fell and was forced to go East for an operation. He was never able to return to us, and thus my mother, we three young girls, and my youngest brother--Harry, who was only eight years old--made our fight alone until father came to us, more than a year later.

Mother was practically an invalid. She had a nervous affection which made it impossible for her to stand without the support of a chair. But she sewed with unusual skill, and it was due to her that our clothes, notwithstanding the strain to which we subjected them, were always in good condition. She sewed for hours every day, and she was able to move about the house, after a fashion, by pushing herself around on a stool which James made for her as soon as we arrived. He also built for her a more comfortable chair with a high back. The division of labor planned at the first council was that mother should do our sewing, and my older sisters, Eleanor and Mary, the housework, which was far from taxing, for of course we lived in the simplest manner. My brothers and I were to do the work out of doors, an arrangement that suited me very well, though at first, owing to our lack of experience, our activities were somewhat curtailed. It was too late in the season for plowing or planting, even if we had possessed anything with which to plow, and, moreover, our so-called ``cleared'' land was thick with sturdy tree-stumps. Even during the second summer plowing was impossible; we could only plant potatoes and corn, and follow the most primitive method in doing even this. We took an ax, chopped up the sod, put the seed under it, and let the seed grow. The seed did grow, too--in the most gratifying and encouraging manner. Our green corn and potatoes were the best I have ever eaten. But for the present we lacked these luxuries. We had, however, in their place, large quantities of wild fruit--gooseberries, raspberries, and plums --which Harry and I gathered on the banks of our creek. Harry also became an expert fisherman. We had no hooks or lines, but he took wires from our hoop-skirts and made snares at the ends of poles. My part of this work was to stand on a log and frighten the fish out of their holes by making horrible sounds, which I did with impassioned earnestness. When the fish hurried to the surface of the water to investigate the appalling noises they had heard, they were easily snared by our small boy, who was very proud of his ability to contribute in this way to the family table. During our first winter we lived largely on corn-meal, making a little journey of twenty miles to the nearest mill to buy it; but even at that we were better off than our neighbors, for I remember one family in our region who for an entire winter lived solely on coarse-grained yellow turnips, gratefully changing their diet to leeks when these came in the spring.

Such furniture as we had we made ourselves. In addition to my mother's two chairs and the bunks which took the place of beds, James made a settle for the living-room, as well as a table and several stools. At first we had our tree-cutting done for us, but we soon became expert in this gentle art, and I developed such skill that in later years, after father came, I used to stand with him and ``heart'' a log.

On every side, and at every hour of the day, we came up against the relentless limitations of pioneer life. There was not a team of horses in our entire region. The team with which my brother had driven us through the wilderness had been hired at Grand Rapids for that occasion, and, of course, immediately returned. Our lumber was delivered by ox-teams, and the absolutely essential purchases we made ``outside'' (at the nearest shops, forty miles away) were carried through the forest on the backs of men.

Our mail was delivered once a month by a carrier who made the journey in alternate stages of horseback riding and canoeing. But we had health, youth, enthusiasm, good appetites, and the wherewithal to satisfy them, and at night in our primitive bunks we sank into abysses of dreamless slumber such as I have never known since. Indeed, looking back upon them, those first months seem to have been a long-drawn-out and glorious picnic, interrupted only by occasional hours of pain or panic, when we were hurt or frightened. Naturally, our two greatest menaces were wild animals and Indians, but as the days passed the first of these lost the early terrors with which we had associated them. We grew indifferent to the sounds that had made our first night a horror to us all-- there was even a certain homeliness in them--while we regarded with accustomed, almost blase eyes the various furred creatures of which we caught distant glimpses as they slunk through the forest. Their experience with other settlers had taught them caution; it soon became clear that they were as eager to avoid us as we were to shun them, and by common consent we gave each other ample elbow-room. But the Indians were all around us, and every settler had a collection of hair-raising tales to tell of them. It was generally agreed that they were dangerous only when they were drunk; but as they were drunk whenever they could get whisky, and as whisky was constantly given them in exchange for pelts and game, there was a harrowing doubt in our minds whenever they approached us.

In my first encounter with them I was alone in the woods at sunset with my small brother Harry. We were hunting a cow James had bought, and our young eyes were peering eagerly among the trees, on the alert for any moving object. Suddenly, at a little distance, and coming directly toward us, we saw a party of Indians. There were five of them, all men, walking in single file, as noiselessly as ghosts, their moccasined feet causing not even a rustle among the dry leaves that carpeted the woods. All the horrible stories we had heard of Indian cruelty flashed into our minds, and for a moment we were dumb with terror. Then I remembered having been told that the one thing one must not do before them  is to show fear. Harry was carrying a rope with which we had expected to lead home our reluctant cow, and I seized one end of it and whispered to him that we would ``play horse,'' pretending he was driving me. We pranced toward the Indians on feet that felt like lead, and with eyes so glazed by terror that we could see nothing save a line of moving figures; but as we passed them they did not give to our little impersonation of care-free children even the tribute of a side-glance. They were, we realized, headed straight for our home; and after a few moments we doubled on our tracks and, keeping at a safe distance from them among the trees, ran back to warn our mother that they were coming.

As it happened, James was away, and mother had to meet her unwelcome guests supported only by her young children. She at once prepared a meal, however, and when they arrived she welcomed them calmly and gave them the best she had. After they had eaten they began to point at and demand objects they fancied in the room--my brother's pipe, some tobacco, a bowl, and such trifles--and my mother, who was afraid to annoy them by refusal, gave them what they asked. They were quite sober, and though they left without expressing any appreciation of her hospitality, they made her a second visit a few months later, bringing a large quantity of venison and a bag of cranberries as a graceful return. These Indians were Ottawas; and later we became very friendly with them and their tribe, even to the degree of attending one of their dances, which I shall describe later.

Our second encounter with Indians was a less agreeable experience. There were seven ``Marquette warriors'' in the next group of callers, and they were all intoxicated. Moreover, they had brought with them several jugs of bad whisky-- the raw and craze-provoking product supplied them by the fur-dealers--and it was clear that our cabin was to be the scene of an orgy. Fortunately, my brother James was at home on this occasion, and as the evening grew old and the Indians, grouped together around the fire, became more and more irresponsible, he devised a plan for our safety. Our attic was finished, and its sole entrance was by a ladder through a trap-door. At James's whispered command my sister Eleanor slipped up into the attic, and from the back window let down a rope, to which he tied all the weapons we had--his gun and several axes. These Eleanor drew up and concealed in one of the bunks. My brother then directed that as quietly as possible, and at long intervals, one member of the family after another was to slip up the ladder and into the attic, going quite casually, that the Indians might not realize what we were doing. Once there, with the ladder drawn up after us and the trap-door closed, we would be reasonably safe, unless our guests decided to burn the cabin.

The evening seemed endless, and was certainly nerve-racking. The Indians ate everything in the house, and from my seat in a dim corner I watched them while my sisters waited on them. I can still see the tableau they made in the firelit room and hear the unfamiliar accents of their speech as they talked together. Occasionally one of them would pull a hair from his head, seize his scalping-knife; and cut the hair with it--a most unpleasant sight! When either of my sisters approached them some of the Indians would make gestures, as if capturing and scalping her. Through it all, however, the whisky held their close attention, and it was due to this that we succeeded in reaching the attic unobserved, James coming last of all and drawing the ladder after him. Mother and the children were then put to bed; but through that interminable night James and Eleanor lay flat upon the floor, watching through the cracks between the boards the revels of the drunken Indians, which grew wilder with every hour that crawled toward sunrise. There was no knowing when they would miss us or how soon their mood might change. At any moment they might make an attack upon us or set fire to the cabin. By dawn, however, their whisky was all gone, and they were in so deep a stupor that, one after the other, the seven fell from their chairs to the floor, where they sprawled unconscious. When they awoke they left quietly and without trouble of any kind. They seemed a strangely subdued and chastened band; probably they were wretchedly ill after their debauch on the adulterated whisky the traders had given them.

That autumn the Ottawa tribe had a great corn celebration, to which we and the other settlers were invited. James and my older sisters attended it, and I went with them, by my own urgent invitation. It seemed to me that as I was sharing the work and the perils of our new environment, I might as well share its joys; and I finally succeeded in making my family see the logic of this position. The central feature of the festivity was a huge kettle, many feet in circumference, into which the Indians dropped the most extraordinary variety of food we had ever seen combined. Deer heads went into it whole, as well as every kind of meat and vegetable the members of the tribe could procure. We all ate some of this agreeable mixture, and later, with one another, and even with the Indians, we danced gaily to the music of a tom-tom and a drum. The affair was extremely interesting until the whisky entered and did its unpleasant work. When our hosts began to fall over in the dance and slumber where they lay, and when the squaws began to show the same ill effects of their refreshments, we unostentatiously slipped away.

During the winter life offered us few diversions and many hardships. Our creek froze over, and the water problem became a serious one, which we met with increasing difficulty as the temperature steadily fell. We melted snow and ice, and existed through the frozen months, but with an amount of discomfort which made us unwilling to repeat at least that special phase of our experience. In the spring, therefore, I made a well. Long before this, James had gone, and Harry and I were now the only outdoor members of our working-force. Harry was still too small to help with the well; but a young man, who had formed the neighborly habit of riding eighteen miles to call on us, gave me much friendly aid. We located the well with a switch, and when we had dug as far as we could reach with our spades, my assistant descended into the hole and threw the earth up to the edge, from which I in turn removed it. As the well grew deeper we made a half-way shelf, on which I stood, he throw- ing the earth on the shelf, and I shoveling it up from that point. Later, as he descended still farther into the hole we were making, he shoveled the earth into buckets and passed them up to me, I passing them on to my sister, who was now pressed into service. When the excavation was deep enough we made the wall of slabs of wood, roughly joined together. I recall that well with calm content. It was not a thing of beauty, but it was a thoroughly practical well, and it remained the only one we had during the twelve years the family occupied the cabin.

During our first year there was no school within ten miles of us, but this lack failed to sadden Harry or me. We had brought with us from Lawrence a box of books, in which, in winter months, when our outdoor work was restricted, we found much comfort. They were the only books in that part of the country, and we read them until we knew them all by heart. Moreover, father sent us regularly the New York Independent, and with this admirable literature, after reading it, we papered our walls. Thus, on stormy days, we could lie on the settle or the floor and read the Independent over again with increased interest and pleasure.

Occasionally father sent us the Ledger, but here mother drew a definite line. She had a special dislike for that periodical, and her severest comment on any woman was that she was the type who would ``keep a dog, make saleratus biscuit, and read the New York Ledger in the daytime.'' Our modest library also contained several histories of Greece and Rome, which must have been good ones, for years later, when I entered college, I passed my examination in ancient history with no other preparation than this reading. There were also a few arithmetics and algebras, a historical novel or two, and the inevitable copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin, whose pages I had freely moistened with my tears.

When the advantages of public education were finally extended to me, at thirteen, by the opening of a school three miles from our home, I accepted them with growing reluctance. The teacher was a spinster forty-four years of age and the only genuine ``old maid'' I have ever met who was not a married woman or a man. She was the real thing, and her name, Prudence Duncan, seemed the fitting label for her rigidly uncompromising personality. I graced Prudence's school for three months, and then left it at her fervid request. I had walked six miles a day through trackless woods and Western blizzards to get what she could give me, but she had little to offer my awakened and critical mind.

My reading and my Lawrence school-work had already taught me more than Prudence knew--a fact we both inwardry--admitted and fiercely resented from our different viewpoints. Beyond doubt I was a pert and trying young person. I lost no opportunity to lead Prudence beyond her intellectual depth and leave her there, and Prudence vented her chagrin not alone upon me, but upon my little brother. I became a thorn in her side, and one day, after an especially unpleasant episode in which Harry also figured, she plucked me out, as it were, and cast me for ever from her. From that time I studied at home, where I was a much more valuable economic factor than I had been in school.

The second spring after our arrival Harry and I extended our operations by tapping the sugar-bushes, collecting all the sap, and carrying it home in pails slung from our yoke-laden shoulders. Together we made one hundred and fifty pounds of sugar and a barrel of syrup, but here again, as always, we worked in primitive ways. To get the sap we chopped a gash in the tree and drove in a spile. Then we dug out a trough to catch the sap. It was no light task to lift these troughs full of sap and empty the sap into buckets, but we did it successfully, and afterward built fires and boiled it down. By this time we had also cleared some of our ground, and during the spring we were able to plow, dividing the work in a way that seemed fair to us both. These were strenuous occupations for a boy of nine and a girl of thirteen, but, though we were not inordinately good children, we never complained; we found them very satisfactory substitutes for more normal bucolic joys. Inevitably, we had our little tragedies. Our cow died, and for an entire winter we went without milk. Our coffee soon gave out, and as a substitute we made and used a mixture of browned peas and burnt rye. In the winter we were always cold, and the water problem, until we had built our well, was ever with us.

Father joined us at the end of eighteen months, but though his presence gave us pleasure and moral support, he was not an addition to our executive staff. He brought with him a rocking-chair for mother and a new supply of books, on which I fell as a starving man falls upon food. Father read as eagerly as I, but much more steadily. His mind was always busy with problems, and if, while he was laboring in the field, a new problem presented itself to him, the imperishable curiosity that was in him made him scurry at once to the house to solve it. I have known him to spend a planting season in figuring on the production of a certain number of kernels of corn, instead of planting the corn and raising it. In the winter he was supposed to spend his time clearing land for orchards and the like, but instead he pored over his books and problems day after day and often half the night as well. It soon became known among our neighbors, who were rapidly increasing in number, that we had books and that father like to read aloud, and men walked ten miles or more to spend the night with us and listen to his reading. Often, as his fame grew, ten or twelve men would arrive at our cabin on Saturday and remain over Sunday. When my mother once tried to check this influx of guests by mildly pointing out, among other things, the waste of candles represented by frequent all-night readings, every man humbly appeared again on the following Saturday with a candle in each hand. They were not sensitive; and, as they had brought their candles, it seemed fitting to them and to father that we girls should cook for them and supply them with food.

Father's tolerance of idleness in others, however, did not extend to tolerance of idleness in us, and this led to my first rebellion, which occurred when I was fourteen. For once, I had been in the woods all day, buried in my books; and when I returned at night, still in the dream world these books had opened to me, father was awaiting my coming with a brow dark with disapproval. As it happened, mother had felt that day some special need of me, and father reproached me bitterly for being beyond reach--an idler who wasted time while mother labored. He ended a long arraignment by predicting gloomily that with such tendencies I would make nothing of my life. The injustice of the criticism cut deep; I knew I had done and was doing my share for the family, and already, too, I had begun to feel the call of my career. For some reason I wanted to preach--to talk to people, to tell them things. Just why, just what, I did not yet know--but I had begun to preach in the silent woods, to stand up on stumps and address the unresponsive trees, to feel the stir of aspiration within me. When my father had finished all he wished to say, I looked at him and answered, quietly, ``Father, some day I am going to college.'' I can still see his slight, ironical smile. It drove me to a second prediction. I was young enough to measure success by material results, so I added, recklessly: ``And before I die I shall be worth ten thousand dollars!''

The amount staggered me even as it dropped from my lips. It was the largest fortune my imagination could conceive, and in my heart I believed that no woman ever had possessed or would possess so much. So far as I knew, too, no woman had gone to college. But now that I had put my secret hopes into words, I was desperately determined to make those hopes come true. After I became a wageearner I lost my desire to make a fortune, but the college dream grew with the years; and though my college career seemed as remote as the most distant star, I hitched my little wagon to that star and never afterward wholly lost sight of its friendly gleam. When I was fifteen years old I was offered a situation as school-teacher. By this time the community was growing around us with the rapidity characteristic of these Western settlements, and we had nearer neighbors whose children needed instruction. I passed an examination before a schoolboard consisting of three nervous and self-conscious men whose certificate I still hold, and I at once began my professional career on the modest salary of two dollars a week and my board. The school was four miles from my home, so I ``boarded round'' with the families of my pupils, staying two weeks in each place, and often walking from three to six miles a day to and from my little log school-house in every kind of weather. During the first year I had about fourteen pupils, of varying ages, sizes, and temperaments, and there was hardly a book in the school-room except those I owned. One little girl, I remember, read from an almanac, while a second used a hymn-book.

In winter the school-house was heated by a wood-stove, to which the teacher had to give close personal attention. I could not depend on my pupils to make the fires or carry in the fuel; and it was often necessary to fetch the wood myself, sometimes for long distances through the forest. Again and again, after miles of walking through winter storms, I reached the school-house with my clothing wet through, and in these soaked garments I taught during the day. In ``boarding round'' I often found myself in one-room cabins, with bunks at the end and the sole partition a sheet or a blanket, behind which I slept with one or two of the children. It was the custom on these occasions for the man of the house to delicately retire to the barn while we women got to bed, and to disappear again in the morning while we dressed. In some places the meals were so badly cooked that I could not eat them, and often the only food my poor little pupils brought to school for their noonday meal was a piece of bread or a bit of raw pork.

I earned my two dollars a week that year, but I had to wait for my wages until the dog tax was collected in the spring. When the money was thus raised, and the twenty-six dollars for my thirteen weeks of teaching were graciously put into my hands, I went ``outside'' to the nearest shop and joyously spent almost the entire amount for my first ``party dress.'' The gown I bought was, I considered, a beautiful creation. In color it was a rich magenta, and the skirt was elaborately braided with black cable-cord. My admiration for it was justified, for it did all a young girl's eager heart could ask of any gown--it led to my first proposal. The youth who sought my hand was about twenty years old, and by an unhappy chance he was also the least attractive young person in the countryside--the laughing-stock of the neighbors, the butt of his associates. The night he came to offer me his heart there were already two young men at our home calling on my sisters, and we were all sitting around the fire in the living-room when my suitor appeared. His costume, like himself, left much to be desired. He wore a blue flannel shirt and a pair of trousers made of flour-bags. Such trousers were not uncommon in our region, and the boy's mother, who had made them for him, had thoughtfully selected a nice clean pair of sacks. But on one leg was the name of the firm that made the flour--A. and G. W. Green--and by a charming coincidence A. and G. W. Green happened to be the two young men who were calling on my sisters! On the back of the bags, directly in the rear of the wearer, was the simple legend, ``96 pounds''; and the striking effect of the young man's costume was completed by a bright yellow sash which held his trousers in place.

The vision fascinated my sisters and their two guests. They gave it their entire attention, and when the new-comer signified with an eloquent gesture that he was calling on me, and beckoned me into an inner room, the quartet arose as one person and followed us to the door. Then, as we inhospitably closed the door, they fastened their eyes to the cracks in the living-room wall, that they might miss none of the entertainment. When we were alone my guest and I sat down in facing chairs and in depressed silence. The young man was nervous, and I was both frightened and annoyed. I had heard suppressed giggles on the other side of the wall, and I realized, as my self-centered visitor failed to do, that we were not enjoying the privacy the situation seemed to demand. At last the youth informed me that his ``dad'' had just given him a cabin, a yoke of steers, a cow, and some hens. When this announcement had produced its full effect, he straightened up in his chair and asked, solemnly, ``Will ye have me?''

An outburst of chortles from the other side of the wall greeted the proposal, but the ardent youth ignored it, if indeed he heard it. With eyes staring straight ahead, he sat rigid, waiting for my answer; and I, anxious only to get rid of him and to end the strain of the moment, said the first thing that came into my head. ``I can't,'' I told him. ``I'm sorry, but--but--I'm engaged.'' He rose quickly, with the effect of a half-closed jack-knife that is suddenly opened, and for an instant stood looking down upon me. He was six feet two inches tall, and extremely thin. I am very short, and, as I looked up, his flour-bag trousers seemed to join his yellow sash somewhere near the ceiling of the room. He put both hands into his pockets and slowly delivered his valedictory. ``That's darned disappointing to a fellow,'' he said, and left the house. After a moment devoted to regaining my maidenly composure I returned to the living-room, where I had the privilege of observing the enjoyment of my sisters and their visitors. Helpless with mirth and with tears of pleasure on their cheeks, the four rocked and shrieked as they recalled the picture my gallant had presented. For some time after that incident I felt a strong distaste for sentiment.

Clad royally in the new gown, I attended my first ball in November, going with a party of eight that included my two sisters, another girl, and four young men. The ball was at Big Rapids, which by this time had grown to be a thriving lumber town. It was impossible to get a team of horses or even a yoke of oxen for the journey, so we made a raft and went down the river on that, taking our party dresses with us in trunks. Unfortunately, the raft ``hung up'' in the stream, and the four young men had to get out into the icy water and work a long time before they could detach it from the rocks. Naturally, they were soaked and chilled through, but they all bore the experience with a gay philosophy. When we reached Big Rapids we dressed for the ball, and, as in those days it was customary to change one's gown again at midnight, I had an opportunity to burst on the assemblage in two costumes--the second made of bedroom chintz, with a low neck and short sleeves. We danced the ``money musk,'' and the ``Virginia reel,'' ``hoeing her down'' (which means changing partners) in true pioneer style. I never missed a dance at this or any subsequent affair, and I was considered the gayest and the most tireless young person at our parties until I became a Methodist minister and dropped such worldly vanities. The first time I preached in my home region all my former partners came to hear me, and listened with wide, understanding, reminiscent smiles which made it very hard for me to keep soberly to my text.

In the near future I had reason to regret the extravagant expenditure of my first earnings. For my second year of teaching, in the same school, I was to receive five dollars a week and to pay my own board. I selected a place two miles and a half from the school-house, and was promptly asked by my host to pay my board in advance. This, he explained, was due to no lack of faith in me; the money would enable him to go ``outside'' to work, leaving his family well supplied with provisions. I allowed him to go to the school committee and collect my board in advance, at the rate of three dollars a week for the season. When I presented myself at my new boarding-place, however, two days later, I found the house nailed up and deserted; the man and his family had departed with my money, and I was left, as my committeemen sympathetically remarked, ``high and dry.'' There were only two dollars a week coming to me after that, so I walked back and forth between my home and my school, almost four miles, twice a day; and during this enforced exercise there was ample opportunity to reflect on the fleeting joy of riches.

In the mean time war had been declared. When the news came that Fort Sumter had been fired on, and that Lincoln had called for troops, our men were threshing. There was only one threshing machine in the region at that time, and it went from place to place, the farmers doing their threshing whenever they could get the machine. I remember seeing a man ride up on horseback, shouting out Lincoln's demand for troops and explaining that a regiment was being formed at Big Rapids. Before he had finished speaking the men on the machine had leaped to the ground and rushed off to enlist, my brother Jack, who had recently joined us, among them. In ten minutes not one man was left in the field. A few months later my brother Tom enlisted as a bugler--he was a mere boy at the time--and not long after that my father followed the example of his sons and served until the war was ended. He had entered on the twenty-ninth of August, 1862, as an army steward; he came back to us with the rank of lieutenant and assistant surgeon of field and staff.

Between those years I was the principal support of our family, and life became a strenuous and tragic affair. For months at a time we had no news from the front. The work in our community, if it was done at all, was done by despairing women whose hearts were with their men. When care had become our constant guest, Death entered our home as well. My sister Eleanor had married, and died in childbirth, leaving her baby to me; and the blackest hours of those black years were the hours that saw her passing. I can see her still, lying in a stupor from which she roused herself at intervals to ask about her child. She insisted that our brother Tom should name the baby, but Tom was fighting for his country, unless he had already preceded Eleanor through the wide portal that was opening before her. I could only tell her that I had written to him; but before the assurance was an hour old she would climb up from the gulf of unconsciousness with infinite effort to ask if we had received his reply. At last, to calm her, I told her it had come, and that Tom had chosen for her little son the name of Arthur. She smiled at this and drew a deep breath; then, still smiling, she passed away. Her baby slipped into her vacant place and almost filled our heavy hearts, but only for a short time; for within a few months after his mother's death his father married again and took him from me, and it seemed that with his going we had lost all that made life worth while.

The problem of living grew harder with everyday. We eked out our little income in every way we could, taking as boarders the workers in the logging-camps, making quilts, which we sold, and losing no chance to earn a penny in any legitimate manner. Again my mother did such outside sewing as she could secure, yet with every month of our effort the gulf between our income and our expenses grew wider, and the price of the bare necessities of exisence{sic} climbed up and up. The largest amount I could earn at teaching was six dollars a week, and our school year included only two terms of thirteen weeks each. It was an incessant struggle to keep our land, to pay our taxes, and to live. Calico was selling at fifty cents a yard. Coffee was one dollar a pound. There were no men left to grind our corn, to get in our crops, or to care for our live stock; and all around us we saw our struggle reflected in the lives of our neighbors.

At long intervals word came to us of battles in which my father's regiment--the Tenth Michigan Cavalry Volunteers--or those of my brothers were engaged, and then longer intervals followed in which we heard no news. After Eleanor's death my brother Tom was wounded, and for months we lived in terror of worse tidings, but he finally recovered. I was walking seven and eight miles a day, and doing extra work before and after school hours, and my health began to fail. Those were years I do not like to look back upon--years in which life had degenerated into a treadmill whose monotony was broken only by the grim messages from the front. My sister Mary married and went to Big Rapids to live. I had no time to dream my dream, but the star of my one purpose still glowed in my dark horizon. It seemed that nothing short of a miracle could lift my feet from their plodding way and set them on the wider path toward which my eyes were turned, but I never lost faith that in some manner the miracle would come to pass. As certainly as I have ever known anything, I KNEW that I was going to college!

Return to Contents Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus