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Last Of Four Installments A Michigan Boyhood
A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
As a matter of fact girls did not claim much of our attention that summer. We had no time for them, except for those afternoon recess periods, and we usually spent that time swimming, followed by a quick visit to Terpening’s pavilion for ice cream, without bothering to see who was available on the beach. Actually we worked rather hard, seven days a week, and the pay scale began and ended with a weekly wage of five dollars. We were allowed to keep all tips, which helped, but our guests were not lavish in that respect and many of them left no tips at all, so we did not make very much money.
However, we did not really expect to. If we could lay by a few dollars during the summer we were just that much ahead of the game; and besides, at that time and place the going wage for adult labor, unskilled or semiskilled, was fifteen cents an hour. Prices of course were a great deal lower than they are now, but they were never low enough to make that kind of pay scale anything but bad. The men who worked for such wages were getting angry and their anger was becoming visible, even to me. I learned that summer, to my bewilderment, that even our own Benzie county—a bucolic section of the unstained Michigan countryside if ever there was one—had developed quite a number of outright Socialists, and although I occasionally read about Socialists I had not expected actually to see any, especially not this close to home. (They were much in the minority, of course, but their numbers were fairly impressive when the county’s limited population was taken into account.) Men could be seen reading Eugene Debs’s “Appeal to Reason” quite openly; men who lounged on their doorsteps in sweaty undershirts, gnawing at the stems of corncob pipes, not at all the sort of men who went to our church on Sunday to listen to Mr. Mills. It was disturbing to have avowed Socialists right in our midst, and nobody seemed to know what to make of it.
Father would assuredly have had a word for me if I had told him about my state of mind. He was no Socialist, but he knew what these men were angry about and he thought they were right to be angry; in point of fact he was angry too, not because he himself had to work for a genteel-poverty income, but because he believed that greed, oppression, and injustice (visible now and then even in the idyllic forests of Michigan) were threatening to destroy everything that America stood for. Whether he realized it or not, he was looking for a broader field than the principal’s office at Benzonia Academy offered him. He had abundant energy, he could write and speak with genuine eloquence, and he had an eye that could see, and he wanted to use these qualities for something a little more significant than providing artificial respiration for a little school that almost certainly would not survive him. I did not at the time realize that he was going through anything like this.
Father was a dedicated Theodore Roosevelt man, a card-carrying member of the Bull Moose Party. He had campaigned for Roosevelt, on the village and county level, in 1912, and in 1916 he had been elected a delegate to the national convention of the Progressive Party, and down to Chicago he went, to see the great leader in person and get inspiration for the approaching Presidential election.
What he got, of course, was profound disillusionment. Like hundreds of other delegates, he had keyed himself up (in Roosevelt’s own words) to stand at Armageddon and to battle for the Lord, and these were words he could rise to because he was both a devout Roosevelt man and a good Biblical scholar. But the emotional build-up led to nothing but a letdown. Roosevelt was not going to run for President after all, the Progressive Party had served its purpose and would be dismantled; instead of standing at Armageddon, rallying to a great banner held high in a clanging wind, they were to go home quietly, vote for Charles Evans Hughes, and resume their places in the Republican Party which they had spent four years learning to distrust. They had been let down, and it was too much. Father never said much about it, but I am convinced that in the fall of 1916, for the only time in his life, he voted the Democratic ticket. Woodrow Wilson—precise, professorial, full of hard passions but apparently having no zest for living—might seem an unlikely heir for the Bull Moose legacy but he got a lot of Bull Moose votes that fall.
Father brought back from Chicago deep emotions that should have been discharged there and were not, and I think this helped to pull him out of the job he had trained himself for. From the classroom and the pulpit he had fought against ignorance, and against that combination of self-indulgence, ill will, and stupidity that people of his generation called sin, and now it was time to do something else. He had not gone into the Progressive Party just because Roosevelt’s mighty personality had overwhelmed him; he had been headed in that direction for a long time. I suppose he could be called a Populist, although I do not think he would have applied that term to himself, and anyway by this time it has become too vague to mean very much; it is applied nowadays to practically anyone who nourished after 1885, lived west of the Alleghenies, and stood somewhat to the left of Grover Cleveland. An idea of the direction his thoughts had been taking is provided by a Fourth of July speech which he made in some small town in Michigan either in 1906 or 1907.