A Pennsylvania Boyhood

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There was a family of three, quartered near our rooms, who talked all the time, all at once, and their voices were pitched in a shrieking key. With this trio was an old man. He was among them, but not of them. Rather tall and spare, he wore old-fashioned clothing; he had come out of the past, a “relic of a bygone age.” My father learned that he had been a soldier of the American Revolution, and he took my brother William and myself to see the elderly soldier. The old gentleman lived in the twilight memories of the past; he talked freely of his services under Washington, Greene, and Mad Anthony Wayne.

The sight of the old soldier awakened my boyish interest. In my mind, I could imagine myself marching by his side to the shrill notes of the fife and the bloodstirring drumbeat on the battlefields of Lexington and Trenton, of Camden and Yorktown. It was as though a voice had called me saying, “Be ready, I may need you.”

On our arrival at St. Louis, we boarded another steamer bound for Iowa and St. Paul, Minnesota. The accommodations on the second steamer were similar to those on the first, but we were among a new set of travellers. There were not so many now, so we had more space; the old soldier and the trio of clamoring foghorns had disembarked at St. Louis.

As we moved northward from St. Louis, the weather grew cooler. The month was waning, and as we neared the end of our long journey our spirits rose. The older folks talked of plans for the new life in the new land. We reached Princeton, Iowa, at noon on a day in late October, 1849. The day was warm, sunshine welcomed our party to Iowa. Wagons were on hand to carry us and our household goods to our new home seven miles west.

It was well toward evening when all were ready to start. After we had been on the way a few miles, the weather suddenly changed, the wind veered to the northwest, a biting blast beat in our faces; winter was showing her teeth early. Night overtook us before we reached our destination.

Mother begged the driver to stop at the first house, which proved to be a small sod dugout of two rooms, occupied by a frontiersman, his wife, two children, and three dogs. The fire was stirred up and we soon thawed out, ready for another attempt to reach our destination, which we did in a short time.

Our new home was a large stone building, erected without any regard for convenience or comfort. Our bedding was spread on the floor for the first night’s rest in what was to be our home for four eventful years. Here my eldest brother and sister both were married; here my second eldest sister entered on that long, final, mysterious journey, and here a brother and two sisters were added to the family circle.

The day after our arrival broke fair, and we children were out taking an inventory of our surroundings. On the north, a perfectly level plain stretched out to a small river, bordered by a belt of timber, three miles distant. On the south, rolling prairies, utterly treeless, extended for several miles; we had but one neighbor within three miles. Game was abundant, herds of antelope and deer were in sight almost any hour of the day; wild geese and ducks, prairie chickens, grouse, and quail were plentiful.

In the evening about sundown our play was interrupted by our mother, who came running toward us calling, “Look at the wolves.” We turned to look in the direction of the fence a few rods away, and there to our horror were perhaps half a dozen gray wolves glaring at us through the fence. At the appearance of our mother and our two elder sisters, the wolves trotted away.

A few days after our arrival in Iowa we were treated to a sight magnificent but fearsome, a prairie on fire. Just before dusk one evening we noticed great clouds of smoke darkening the western sky, and as night came on we were startled and frightened at the sight of a long line of fire moving toward us, driven by a westerly wind. The sight was majestic beyond anything to be seen on earth, and yet terrifying; the low, cringing, creeping flame, then the sudden leaping high in the air of great fiery tongues, sputtering, hissing, snapping.

The prairie was covered with a heavy crop of dry grass, much of it two feet high; there was nothing to stop the onward rush of the fire save half a dozen small farmhouses and outbuildings which were protected by strips of plowed land, about a rod wide, called firebreaks.

It was a new thing in our lives. We folks stood spellbound for a time, not fully aware of the danger that menaced our home. But while we were hesitating and debating just what to do, our nearest neighbor, he of the sod dugout, came hurrying up to our house, calling on the men to get out the plows, and the women and children to get old bags and blankets and buckets of water and fight the fire, or we would all be burned out of house and home.

What a wild rush for the next few minutes! Our neighbor led the procession. There was an old firebreak around our place. The plowmen soon were turning this over again. The women and children were stationed along the newly plowed strip with buckets of water and bags. Backfires were kindled at many places; our work was to prevent the backfire from sneaking across the plowed ground. This did happen in some cases, and vigilance was needed.

On came the devouring flood of flame and the smothering clouds of smoke, but when it reached the slowly creeping backfire, it died down and perished in a moment. The great flames swept by on either side, but we were safe.