- Historic Sites
A Pennsylvania Boyhood
An affectionate memoir of rural life a century ago
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
Up the creek was our neighborhood “swimmin’ hole.” It was a beautiful spot, out in the sunshine, and the pool had a sandy bottom. There was another spot on the road leading southward from our house where a small stream trickled across the roadway. Here from early spring till late fall was a trysting place for butterflies. Scores of the beautiful creatures flitted about, lazily fanning the air with their rainbow-colored wings.
All this and much more that cannot be framed in words—the intangible spirit of the field, the forest, the valley, and the mountains—we must leave behind, for in the fall of 1849 my father was taken with a heavy case of “western fever.” He caught the malady from his cousin, who had spent the summer of 1848 in Iowa and had made large investments in prairie lands. He was a good talker and easily persuaded my father that Iowa was the new land of promise, so our farm and all the stock was sold, our household goods were packed in wagons, good-byes were said, and we turned our faces toward the west.
Our means of transportation were two large covered wagons, each drawn by four stout horses. Room was reserved in one of the wagons for Mother and the smaller children. The larger children were booked to walk; thus we became part of that great caravan moving overland in the conquest of the West.
I well remember our start, on a Monday morning long before daylight. As our wagons rumbled down the valley, our old friends and neighbors called goodbye from their doorways and windows.
I was a boy of eight years, and this was the first great adventure of my life. I had had two sensational episodes in my life, but neither compared with the western journey.
When I was six years old my father took me with him on one of his trips over the mountains to the county town. I had often heard him speak of the train coming into the town, but I could not understand how the cars were drawn by a steam engine, so he promised me a trip to see for myself. One evening he told Mother to fix me up; he would take me along on the morrow.
It was my first journey away from home, and at starting the sensation was novel and enjoyable. But as we began to climb the mountains the familiar scenes were left behind and we passed out of sight of home. Then I regretted my journey. Oh, how I wished myself back home!
We reached our destination about noon and put up at the tavern for dinner. There was a porch in front. I waited on the porch until Father and the stableman put the horses away. In the meantime I peeked about. A large room opened onto the porch. On one side was the office; behind the office stood a line of shelves on which were arrayed, in rows, bottles big and little. I had never seen so many bottles in my life. Men came in, mostly countrymen, and called out to the clerk. He would reach up, take a bottle from the shelf, and pour some of its contents into dirty glasses. The men swallowed the liquid with a grimace, as though the stuff were unpalatable, and wiped their mouths with the backs of their hands. Then they would go to a corner of the room where there was a tin basin grimy with dirt, pour some water into the basin, wash their hands and faces, and dry off with a towel dirtier than the basin. They looked robust, healthy; maybe dirt agreed with them.
The dinner bell rang and Father took me into the dining room. The men nearly knocked me down in the rush; they seemed to be in a hurry—ate in a hurry, talked in a hurry, walked in a hurry. I did not enjoy my dinner; the food didn’t taste like the dinners at home. I was glad when it was over.
After dinner Father took me out to see the cars. As we passed down the street, we crossed a small stream on a large stone bridge. By the bridge there was a water wheel, which was turned by the stream that flowed under the bridge. I told Father to stop, I wanted to see the wheel go round. We stopped a few minutes. I was fascinated by the wheel, every detail was impressed on my memory. We went on to see the railroad cars, but I hardly saw them, they made no mark on my mind; the water wheel had filled every corner and nook of my little head.
At 3 P.M. , to my joy, we started homeward. It was late when we arrived. Mother had placed a dim light in the kitchen window that looked toward the road. The next day I began work on a small water wheel like the one I had seen in town; when it was finished I set it running in a little rivulet that crossed the road a short distance below our house.
The fall of 1848 furnished another adventure. One evening at dusk Father called to Mother to gather the children into the house at once and keep them in. This was an unheard-of thing, but Mother corralled her troop in the kitchen; it was cool and there was a glowing fire in the wide, open fireplace. After dark Father came in and explained what had happened.
That evening just before dark Father had discovered five Negroes, one woman and four men, hiding in the orchard; they were runaway slaves, on their way from the South to Canada. I subsequently learned that this was not my parents’ first venture in keeping a station on the once famous underground railroad.
After Father and Mother had a talk, they prepared a basket of food and a jug of water and carried it to the barn for the fugitives. The folks had just gotten back from the barn, and we were all talking about the strange adventure, when we heard a loud hello at the pump by the roadside west of the house, perhaps twenty feet from the kitchen.