- Historic Sites
A Pennsylvania Boyhood
An affectionate memoir of rural life a century ago
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
I was born August 22, 1841, in Amberson Valley, Franklin County, Pennsylvania. My ancestors migrated from Scotland to the north of Ireland soon after 1600 and emigrated from thence to America in 1712, settling in Chester, Pennsylvania. In 1729 they removed to what is now Franklin and named their settlement Culbertson’s Row. They called themselves Scotch-Irish, a domineering race, aggressive, fearless, and tireless.
Amberson Valley, my birthland, lies snuggled between the Kittatinny and Tuscarora mountains: it is about four miles long and one mile wide, well watered, and originally was heavily wooded with oak, chestnut, hickory, sugar maple, and other trees. By the time I arrived on the scene, much of the timber had been cut away by the early settlers, some for building purposes, some for fencing and fuel. Much of it was wantonly destroyed. There was no market for timber at that date—every farmer had timber to burn, and the land was needed for farms.
The inhabitants of the valley were largely self-supporting. There was a sawmill that supplied all the lumber needed; a tannery that furnished an abundance of the best quality of leather for shoes, harnesses, and saddles; and there was a fuller in the valley who washed and whitened wool for weaving and spinning. The family looms wove quantities of cloth, called “linsey-woolsey.” Maple sugar was in plenty; barley and rye were parched and used as a substitute for coffee. Almost every farmer cultivated a small patch of flax, in addition to corn, wheat, rye, and oats, and kept a few sheep; every housewife had her hackle for preparing flax for weaving, and a spinning wheel for transforming the beautiful fleecy wool into hanks of yarn. Many of the larger homes had looms on which the coarser fabrics called homespuns were woven. Among the first pictures in my mind is one of a couple of old ladies, sisters, bearing the quaint names of Leah and Diana, who lived in a little log cabin of two rooms, set in the stoniest part of the valley, and eked out a scanty living by weaving rugs and rag carpets for the neighbors. Often as a boy I sat by their loom and watched these skilled workers toss the shuttle back and forth with a peculiar jerk of the wrist. “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle.”
In those days newspapers had limited circulation in rural districts, and as our valley was not on the line of general travel, news was at a premium. So when, in the early spring, the peddler with his pack would appear bringing news from the outside world and racy neighborhood gossip, which he would enlarge and decorate to suit his hearers’ taste, his arrival was warmly greeted. In the fall he would come again, and at his heels would trail the cobbler, bearing his bag of awls, shoe lasts, and leather, together with his assortment of uncanny tales, folklore and ghost stories, the more improbable, the more readily believed.
The brook which flowed down the center of the valley furnished many quiet pools where good-sized fish lurked and, what was far better, “swimmin’ holes,” the joy of any boy.
In the mountains round the valley there was an abundance of game: deer, wild turkeys, squirrels, and rabbits. Foxes were too numerous for the safety of the barnyard fowl. There were birds galore. As the shadows of evening fell over the land, the melancholy whippoorwill set up his doleful cry, and in the spring great flocks of singing blackbirds would arrive.
The soil was very poor. Nature in one of her upheavals had covered the original limestone with several feet of gravel and rock, and the farmer had a weary task wringing support from the reluctant earth. The life of the housewife was extremely laborious and trying. In addition to such household cares as cooking, sweeping, scrubbing, washing, and ironing, she made the soap, milked the cows, fed the pigs and calves, cared for the chickens, ducks, turkeys, guinea hens, and geese; with the feathers of the last she filled her downy pillows and mattresses. Ofttimes I watched my mother, who, with a set look on her face, held the flapping, squawking goose with one hand and with her other hand plucked the soft white feathers. She made frocks for the girls, pants and coats for the boys, spun the yarn, and knit the socks and mittens for her family. Many times I was lulled to sleep by the soft hum of her spinning wheel or the click of her knitting needles. Most of my mother’s sewing was done at night by the feeble light of a tallow dip. The tallow dip was for family use; the tallow candle was for use when “quality” called in after supper, or on some extra occasion.
The day began at 5 A.M. with breakfast. Prepared, precooked, predigested breakfast foods were not yet invented; bread, meat, potatoes, fruits, and coffee began the day. There was no end to the calls on the mother’s time, strength, and ingenuity.
On Sunday afternoons Mother would read to us stories from the Bible, stories that never grew old. Part of an unseen yet real world, they were woven into the fabric of my life, and back of all was the word God, a word to be seriously spoken. Who was He? Where was He? My mother’s answers were very discreet: “God is everywhere and always doing good.” In my boyish mind I thought of God as grave and reverent, who sat by the side of a great opening at the roof of the sky and watched the world. He held in His hand a rod, with which He pointed out the places which His messengers should visit. With this vision I would fall to sleep in peace.
Many and wonderful were the ways in which fruits, —blackberries, huckleberries, gooseberries, plums, peaches, pears, grapes, and apples—were preserved for winter use. Sometimes I would be allowed to go down to the cellar and view the goodly storeroom where the winter supplies were kept; there were hanging shelves, whereon stood crocks in solemn array, looking as though they were conscious of their juicy contents. There were bins for potatoes, apples, turnips, and the fragrant onion; barrels of pickled beef, and rounds of carefully dried beef. There were hams, pork shoulders and flitches, which had been sugar-cured and then smoked with hickory wood, and corn cobs, hung in rows on hooks set in the sills of the floor overhead.
While the people in the valley were hard workers, they had their recreation. In the spring, summer, and fall there was little time for amusement, but in the winter season the young folks had sleighing parties; meeting in neighbors’ houses for games and occasionally for dances; corn-huskingparties on the barn floor, the happy finder of a red ear of corn being given the right to kiss the girl of his choice. The elderly women had their quilting parties, which furnished an admirable opportunity for social gossip. There were apple-butter boilings, where neighbors took turns stirring the fragrant apple juice, and in the early spring we tapped the sugar maples and boiled down the precious syrup.
The men had their raising bees, when the heavy timbers of houses and barns were put in place; the muster days, when the militia met for instruction and drill and just to have a good time generally. Road making and bridgebuilding were community work, and in mountain country brought the farmers together often.
The elderly people, I thought, had some queer notions. One was that boys should be kept busy to keep them out of mischief. My father displayed great ingenuity in his plans to keep me from idleness, such as picking up stones turned by the plow, or watching the sheep as they nibbled the grass on the commons along the foot of the mountain: sheep have no sense of location or direction; they were continually getting lost, and a lost sheep never finds the way home alone.
In the valley the farmers had two ways of thrashing out their small grain: the century-old way, treading it out by oxen and horses, or beating it out with the flail. When I reached the useful age, five years, I was set astride a quiet horse, the sheaves of grain were spread on the barn floor, and round and round the old horse walked, treading out the grain. Father stood by with a large wooden fork to shake up the straw at times. When I reached the age of eight, I was old enough to use the flail. You can get more exercise and less satisfaction out of half an hour’s work with a flail than out of any other utensil invented by the ingenuity and skill of man.
In 1848 my father purchased a small threshing machine, the first in our section of the country. It was called a beater, I suppose because it beat the grain. The motive power was supplied by four horses. I remember standing off at a safe distance watching the thing start, and as I saw it going I realized that my occupation as a rider of the old horse that trod out the grain, and as an expert wielder of the romantic flail, was ended.
One of the early memories of my boyhood was the Mexican War. A young man, a near neighbor who often spent the evening'.at our home, enlisted early and was sent to Mexico. His death in Mexico was a matter of some importance to all of us at home.
I recall an incident in this connection. One evening my father came into the kitchen. A fire was burning in the wide chimney, and the weather was frosty. We young folks were gathered about the kitchen hearth, cracking nuts and scrapping as usual by the light of the fire, when Father came in and called to Mother, saying: “There must have been a big battle in Mexico today, as the sky in the southwest is so red.”
I ran out of the house to look at the sky. The sun was going down, and lo, across the southwestern end of the valley the sun had hung great clouds, streamers of crimson with edgings of blue and gold. And as I looked at the startling sight, I wondered what a battle was like that could so color the heavens.
Then my father added that old people said that in the war of the Revolution, whenever a battle was fought, the sky was red over where the battle took place.
During my rest hours (and it seemed to me that I had so few rest hours) I was set to study the shorter catechism. I had a very dim notion of what it was all about—I am not sure that I know yet—but my mother wanted me to learn it, and that was enough, so I kept on until I could repeat it without a miss.
After a lapse of fourscore years, I can still visualize the scene: An old-time kitchen, a wide fireplace and slumbering fire, a tallow dip for the light, a small, drowsy boy perched on a high stool by the kitchen table droning the words, a patient mother with book in hand helping him over the hard words.
I have witnessed many great scenes and pageants and memorable events in the course of a long life, yet most of them are but faint shadows on the canvas of memory, blurred by the years; but this lowly scene in all its original beauty abides in unchanging freshness.
The kitchen was a very important part of the house. Ours was a large room with a porch on the west and east sides. The north end of the room was taken up by a wide chimney, in which hung a crane for pots and kettles; a wide stone hearth lay in front of the fireplace. Much of the cooking was done in what were called Dutch ovens. A shovel of redhot coals was raked out from the fireplace onto the hearth, the oven was set on the coals, the food was put in the oven, the heavy iron lid was set on top, a shovel of hot coals put on the lid, and the baking process began.
Bread and pies were baked in an oven out of doors. A rough base about four feet square and three and a half feet high was built of stone and mortar. On top of this a circular dome was built, of smaller stones and mortar, three feet in diameter and eighteen inches high, with walls eight inches thick; on one side there was an opening a foot square. When the oven was needed for cooking, it was filled with wood and chips, which were set on fire and left burning until the fuel was consumed. Then the bread, pies, and cakes were put in, the oven door was securely fastened, and the baking began.
There was some folklore among the people, and a good deal of superstition. Very few had the hardihood to pass through the graveyard on a moonless night, lest they meet a ghost. Some believed that on very dark and stormy nights “graveyards did yawn and ghosts did stalk forth.” Rarely would a mother dare trim her baby’s nails before he was a year old, for fear the child would become a thief.
One old woman in our neighborhood, of preternatural ugliness, was accused of bewitching the neighbors’ cattle with two dread diseases, “hollow-horn” and “wolf-in-the-tail.” In a nearby lonely cove in the mountain there was an old tumble-down house where years agone a man hanged himself; rumor said that the wretch’s ghost was often seen at night sneaking about the ruined house with a rope in his hand.
Our section of the valley boasted a church building, the only one in the valley. It was built of logs, weatherboarded on the outside and plastered within, unpainted, without a particle of adornment. The windows had outside blinds, but I never saw them open; there was a center aisle; the men sat on the left side, the women on the right side. The preaching was of that virile type which left the sinner no loophole for escape. It was simply: Believe what I am telling you or be damned. There was reverence, seriousness, and sincerity. “Thus saith the Lord” was not lost on the hearers; it enabled men and women to smile at hardships, to do and endure. It was the preaching needed for that age.
I liked to go to church. There was in the quiet of the place, in the subdued manner of the people, a gentleness not apparent on weekdays, a toning down of the rough exterior. Everyone was in his best clothes and on his best behavior. The stress and haste of life were left outside for a time. The mind shared in the physical reaction and relief, and there fell on our souls a comforting sense of the reality and presence of the Infinite.
The church was also a public clearinghouse for information. Important news found easy circulation; it was a time and place for friendly intercourse, neighborhood gossip, and social reunions, where the cares and drudgery of the past week were forgotten.
The schoolhouse was a small affair, eighteen by twenty-four feet, built of logs and very roughly finished; at each end of the room there was a small window with six panes of glass. In the center of the room was a large, long stove. At one end of the room was the teacher’s desk on which lay several good-sized rods of tough wood. These rods were for use, not ornament. The school directors went on the theory “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Seats for the scholars were arranged around the other three sides of the room. These seats were simply benches without backs, and were easily tipped over, which sometimes caused confusion. Our writing desks were long, wide boards fastened to the wall, extending round three sides of the room. The course of study was the three R’s, administered in small doses. We were required to bring with us a copybook, a spelling book, a small arithmetic, and a copy of the New Testament—our school reader. Arithmetic was our terror; we never got beyond common fractions. The close of the school term of three months found most of us floundering in a bogmire of fractions.
There were many places of interest in the valley. The first of these was, in my mind, the old eagle’s tree, as we called it. In an abandoned field at the foot of the mountain there was left standing a big tree, long since dead, which an old eagle had selected as his roosting place. Sometimes we boys would pay a visit to the field to catch a view of the eagle, but we were very careful not to venture beyond the fence that surrounded the field; we had been warned that eagles sometimes carried off small boys.
Another favorite spot was at the ford, where the road crossed the creek. A big log, flattened on one side for the use of foot passengers, was placed across the creek by the roadside. I remember this log very well. One day I was crossing the creek on the log when my dog ran by me and upset me into the water.
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.
Father went out to answer the call. I sneaked out to hear what was going on; my father, seeing me, gave me a ringing cuff on the ear, and sent me back to the house. I went back and sat down on the porch, but my ears were sharp and I heard the whole story. These creatures, the two men at the pump, were hunting the five runaways. The fact was, although I did not know it then, that Captain Culbertson’s house was marked by the “slave catchers.” The owners of runaway slaves would frequently advertise the loss of their slaves, giving descriptions and offering rewards for their capture; and sad to say, there were men on the border low-down enough to pursue and sometimes capture the poor wretches. The first words spoken were startling. “Captain, we are chasing five runaway Negroes. We have traced them to this neighborhood. Have you seen anything of them?” There was a silence for a moment, and then Father said: “Well, Jim, if I had I would not tell you. You don’t think that I would help you in your dirty business? If that is all you want to see me about, you might as well move on.” Jim and his unsavory partner moved on.
That night about midnight the runaways were piloted by my father up to the head of the valley and given directions about how to move onward on the mysterious underground railway that led toward freedom. This was the last chapter of my parents’ connection with the underground system. The situation was becoming dangerous. In one of the parties of slaves who passed through our hands was a sick woman who could no longer keep up with her companions; she was cared for by Mother until she was able to go forward on her difficult journey.
But as I have said, the trip to the new West was the third and greatest of my boyhood sensations. The only shadow that marred the fair scene was that Mother did not seem herself. I could not fathom the cause then. I know now; all her life had its roots here. Here she was born, here she was married, here her children were born, here dwelt her kinsfolk, the strong, far-reaching ties of blood and friendships. Here she had borne the heat and the burden; now, when the shadows were beginning to lengthen, all must be put behind her, and in a strange land a new beginning must be made.
Toward evening of the first day we reached Fort Loudon at the foot of the valley, on the Baltimore and Pittsburgh pike, then the great highway from the East to Pittsburgh. Here were long trains of covered wagons, and great coaches, drawn by six horses, carrying mail and passengers. To me, a boy raised in the quiet of the country, it was a wonderful sight to watch the great coaches whirl by, raising clouds of dust, the driver so skillfully guiding the swiftly moving horses. Had I been able to drive a six-horse coach, my boyish ambition would have been fully satisfied.
Every day was full of excitement—new scenes, new faces. It was circus and movie, two in one, in real life, nothing made up. Many of the gentlemen in the coaches wore high white collars, great silk stocks, high stiff hats, rich blue shad-bellied coats adorned with highly polished brass buttons. The ladies had great poke bonnets; I cannot describe their garments. At the posthouses, the “quality” dined in a separate room and had waiters; we common folks ate in the ordinary dining room and helped ourselves. Mother and the children slept in the posthouses; Father slept in the wagon to care for the stuff.
All went well until we reached the Allegheny Mountains; here we had some real excitement. A driving snowstorm came down on the mountain unexpectedly, a month too soon. The wind blew straight into the faces of the drivers. The rule of the road was that the teams ascending should have the right of way. When the storm was at its worst, we met teams coming down the mountain, and for some reason they refused to give way. Hades broke loose, epithets were hurled back and forth, two or three men stripped for the fray, vowing they would pitch each other down the mountainside. But soon the storm diminished in severity, the gentlemen who had shed their coats put them on again, the train descending the mountain gave way, and our caravan moved on up the mountain. After this incident, our journey was without any untoward event.
Our caravan reached Pittsburgh on a Saturday afternoon. Next morning we and our chattels were dumped on board a steamer bound for St. Louis. As we drove down through the city to the steamboat landing, I noticed that the boys, who were on their way to Sunday school, wore short pants reaching just below the knees and long stockings. I called Mother’s attention to it, and asked if that was the right way for boys to dress.
There were many strange sights and stranger sounds. We passed a church; the doors were open, and someone was playing an organ. I did not know then what an organ was. I only knew that something within me responded to the stirring chords. I was accustomed to the music of the violin, but the tones of the organ sent their plummet down into the deeper soundings of the soul. I had crossed the threshold of a new world.
The steamers of those days were built with an eye to the needs of the great body of immigrants then moving west, to give comfortable accommodations at a price within their means for themselves and their stock. On the lower deck toward the stern of the boat, suites of rooms were fitted up in simple fashion, with a large stove outside where all the families could prepare their meals.
In the center of the boat, just forward and adjoining the family section, stalls were prepared for horses and cattle, and sties for pigs. There were coops for chickens, crates for ducks and geese.
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.
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.