A Pennsylvania Boyhood


The year 1851 was the year noted for the great flocks of carrier niseons that infested the country. It was seeding time in the spring when tens of thousands of pigeons invaded the country. Where they came from, no one knew. After a few weeks they disappeared, and where they went, no one knew. Our small grains were sown by hand, and the birds followed the sower, devouring the grains as fast as they were sown; so numerous and so tame were they that we could kill them with a stick.

The pigeons were not the only enemies we had to fight in the seeding season. Gophers, chipmunks, and ground squirrels drove us to the verge of madness in corn-planting time. The field for corn was carefully prepared; long, straight, shallow furrows were made across the field in two directions at right angles, and the seed corn was dropped three or four grains at a time, just where the furrows crossed each other. A man followed the dropper and covered the seed corn with soft, mellow dirt and then nressed the dirt firm with his foot.

Now it is hard to believe, but those gophers and ground squirrels caught on to the footmark in no time. On the second day, when we reached the field to continue our corn planting, we were amazed to find the little devils had followed the furrows and wherever there was the pressure of the shoe, there they had dug up the seed corn and eaten the heart out of it. Fully one-half of the first day’s planting had been eaten. Our corn planting was finally completed with success, but it took us a long time to rid the fields of the pests.

The year of 1852 was a year of great political excitement. It was worse than the visits of the pigeons, or the squirrel and gopher pests of 1851.

The question of slavery was discussed heatedly. A book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin furnished fuel for the fire. In November, 1852, my father took a load of voters to the polls, seven miles distant. General Winfield Scott of Mexican fame, the last candidate of the Whigs, on that day went down to defeat. It was late in the afternoon before my father succeeded in getting his voters back into the wagon: too much Iowa corn juice. The old Whig banner was folded, never to float to victory again. As we rode home I could hear the older men predicting a storm and a bloody outcome.

On the breakup of the Whig party, the Republican party was organized, and my father joined it. In the campaign of 1856, John C. Frémont was its candidate. Slavery was all the talk. In addition to the county papers my father took Horace Greeley’s paper, the New York Tribune , which became my father’s confession of faith in politics. Father went to church Sunday morning to see that we had Republican gospel, and in the afternoon he read the Tribune . Uncle Tom’s Cabin had exposed the social and moral injustices of slavery.

It was now evident to all that America had reached the end of the old road; freedom and slavery could no longer walk together.

In the fall of 1858 a great comet appeared in the western skies, and dire were the prophecies. For weeks it moved across the sky, a gleaming head with a great fan-shaped train. As we watched it from our front yard, strange weird thoughts were in our minds.