Home  

Chapter III
Early Memories Of Farm And Hearthstone

From "John Burroughs - Boy And Man" (1920)
By Clara Barrus

Johnnie Burroughs and his friends

We have no photograph of the boy John Burroughs, but his memories of babyhood and childhood will help us to picture to ourselves the kind of a child he was. Strangely enough, for one who was later, for good reasons, to be nicknamed "John o' Birds," his earliest recollection is about a great bird: One summer when he was perhaps three years old, while playing along the road by the big hill some distance beyond the house, he saw a great hawk sailing round and round in big circles, high above him. Like many another hero, ours began by being afraid. Just what he was afraid of he doesn't know, but the sight of that great bird filled him with fear, and, creeping behind a stone wall, he crouched there a long time till the hawk either soared up and up into the blue, or perhaps dropped from his trackless voyage in the sky and pounced upon a meadow-mouse which thought itself hidden in the grass. At length, on peering out and seeing no swooping hawk, Johnnie went marching home.

 
THE STOLEN CAP

Back of the house where he was born is a long broad hill, a lower slope of Old Clump-the mountain in the lap of which the homestead rests. This hill is steep and smooth and fertile. Many an April he has seen it grow ruddy under the plough, its soil of decomposed old red sandstone showing red like a robin's breast in the spring.

In front of the house a long flight of stone steps of rude masonry, built of the native stone, led from the doorway to the road below. On these steps the child of three experienced his first grief: One day as he was playing there the "hired girl," coming out to sweep the door-stones, mischievously snatched his little cap from his head and threw it down the long flight of steps. This seemed a great indignity to the child. He remembers just how disconsolately he stood there, that warm spring day, crying over his stolen cap; how abused he felt; how wistfully he looked up to where his father, with bag slung across his breast, was striding across the side-hill, scattering seedgrain. As he wept he longed for him to come down and punish the girl for throwing his cap down the steps. The injured feeling, the helpless anger, and the desire for justice to be visited upon the culprit which that child then experienced are vividly recalled by the man to-day.

THE OLD KITCHEN

The old kitchen was a plain homely room in which centre some of the tenderest recollections of John Burroughs.

Sealed overhead and on the sides, it was painted a dull red. It was a gloomy room by night with only the fire-light and one flickering candle. There was no carpet or rug on the ash floor. Two windows looked toward the road and one toward the "sapbush," and opening off from it were many doors-the outside door, one to the buttery, one to Mother's bedroom, with the back-bedroom on beyond, the door leading upstairs, with a step from the stairs coming out into the room, and one to the hallway, from which one went down cellar, or on into the other room," as the parlour was always called.

A tall, blue-grey cupboard stood in one corner with the dishes above-they were the mulberry pattern-and victuals below.

The walls were nearly bare. An old Terry clock stood on the shelf, with its quaint scene on the door of a picturesquely clad swain blowing a hornpipe, and a lassie in yellow gown and black slippers dancing. Under the shelf was the Farmer's Almanac. A home-spun roller towel of true democracy hung near the buttery, and a boot-jack by the wood-box.

On the mantelpiece Farmer Burroughs kept his pipes and tobacco, and there were the iron candlesticks, the brass snuffers, and the sulphur matches near by; but when John's father wanted to light his pipe or a candle, he took a live coal from the fire with the tongs, and blew on it, thus making the matches go farther.

Besides the cupboard, there was the cherry drop-leaf dining-table, a stand with the mending basket, the little low blue cradle, a Boston rocker, some wooden-bottom chairs, a few splint-bottom chairs, and the washbench.

The picturesque part of the room, of course, was the deep stone fireplace in which great logs were burned, and the brick oven close by with its heavy, charred door of pine. This oven was deep enough to accommodate twelve loaves and more.

Overhead, at certain seasons, on poles suspended from the ceiling, hung strings of dried apples and rings of pumpkins. On the table, in the winter evenings, sat a pan of apples which one of the boys would bring up from the cellar after supper. There were not many left in it by bed-time .

A humble, homely room it was, but there the boy John Burroughs lounged and dreamed by the fire, and read and pondered in the candle-light. " How far that little candle throws its beams!"

THE BLACK HOLE

By day the doorway leading to Mother's bedroom was just a doorway, nothing more, but by night it was another story. Granther Kelly's tales of hobgoblins caused strange things to happen after dark. One night when John's parents had been to Red Kill, eight miles over the mountain, to visit Uncle Martin, and were late in returning, and that doorway was as dark as Podunk, as the lad's father used to say, the goblins certainly seemed hovering just beyond that opening. Huddled in the furthest comer of the dimly-lighted kitchen sat little John with his brothers and sisters, all of them watching uneasily that blackness of darkness.

What fearsome creatures lurk there? How long will they stay hidden? What hideous shapes will they take when they loom up in that doorway? Will Mother never come? How the wind howls! How the shutters rattle! And that black doorway on which their gaze is riveted!

But, Joy! the sound of wheels!

"They've come! They've come!"

Father's voice is heard shouting for the lantern. The huddled group scatters. Glad cries and skurrying feet greet Mother's return to her frightened baims. As she comes hurrying in at the door, Fear flies out at the window, and in the bustle and talk the lurking spectres vanish, too.

The little bedroom is soon cheery with candle-light. The trundle-bed is drawn out from under the big bed, and John and Eden, tucked in by Mother's comforting hands, forget all about the great black hole as they drowsily slip away to the Land of Nod.

ROUGH AND TUMBLE (As told by John)

"One day when Sister Jane and I -- we must have been very young-were playing in the unused chamber overhead, we found an old keg and proceeded to ride about on it, leaning on with our chests and pushing with our feet.

" When we came to the head of the stairs, the long flight did not give us pause. We rolled on down, struck the door at the foot, and burst into the kitchen like a catapult, and there we sprawled! It nearly seared Mother to death. I was knocked senseless and only remember waking up in the back-bedroom with the smell of camphor pervading the room. How Jane fared, I don't remember."

A TORCHLIGHT PROCESSION

Martin Van Buren was President of the United States when John was born, and John was three and a half years old when the campaign was on for the election of Harrison and Tyler. He remembers that well. Of course he did not know what it all meant, nor why they shouted " Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!" and "Van, Van, is a used-up man!" It was many years later before he understood the significance of those rallying cries of the Whigs, or learned of the old hero's defeat of Tecumseh at Tippecanoe Creek so many years previous; but he clearly recalls the men going by with torches in a lumber wagon, with a 'coon hoisted high on the end of a pole. He has no recollection of the log cabin with its latch-string hanging out, or of the hard cider that also figured so conspicuously in the spectacular processions of the Harrison-Tyler campaign.

THE RED BIRD

One day in May when Johnnie, a child of four, was playing near the hearthstone, the housemaid came in with a pail of chips on which there lay a bright red bird found in the chip-yard. When the child spied the bright bird with its coal black wings (a scarlet tanager), he jumped up and ran eagerly to the maid; but the next instant discovered that the bird was limp and lifeless. From the brilliant little creature he got his first realization of death.

Tears filled his eyes as he turned away to his corner on the hearth; a queer ache came in his throat-love and sympathy for the little bird were born together in his heart; but curiosity was born also, and he soon turned back, and taking the dead bird in his hand, stroked its scarlet plumage.

MINDING THE BABY

"Come, John, and mind the baby!" his mother used

call, and John, a boy of five or six, would come and rock the little low pine cradle where lay baby Abigail, while his mother went to her spinning in the chamber above. Sitting on the cradle at its foot and rocking back and forth, back and forth, he listened to the monotonous humming of the spinning-wheel till, falling asleep himself, he dropped over by the side of the baby, where his mother would come and find them both.

THE CRICKETS ON THE HEARTH

He liked to lie on the hearth in front of the big fire of an evening and watch the light-coloured, long-horned crickets; and the crickets liked the warm cozy corner as well as John did. He had a grudge against the greedy creatures, for Granther had told him they ate holes in his stockings.

Night after night he lay there and watched his mother patiently darning, her tallow dip hung on the back of a chair. He pitied her; the pile of stockings always stayed the same size. He wondered just which hungry crickets made those big holes in the heels which took her so long to mend; and not knowing, caught and killed every one he could. They were lively things and jumped a long ways with those long legs, but John was lively too, and grew very spry, pouncing on them as they came up out of the cracks in the floor.

RUINED CASTLES

Hiram, Wilson, and Curtis, the elder brothers, often sat around the hearth in the long winter evenings shelling corn into a bushel basket. A long frying-pan handle thrust through the ears of the basket was held in place at

either end by chairs on which the shellers sat as they scraped the yellow ears against the iron. John and Eden hovered near, delighting in the rattle of the kernels and the golden shower falling into the basket. When there were enough empty cobs they seized upon them and built houses, bridges, and castles that towered uncertainly.

"Here! pick up them kernels!" the elder boys would shout, and as John and Eden scrambled about in quest of the scattered corn, the shellers mischievously toppled over their carefully-built structures. Angry, but undismayed, the little builders set to work to reconstruct their ruined castles.

THE FIRST JOURNEY

The child loved best to play about the hearth and the door-stones, but there came a day, when he was four or five years old, when a new desire burned within, and he made his first journey out into the world.

Out past the watering-trough and the barn he ran, up the hill, past the "Pennyroyal Rock," past the turn in the road, and then started on down the Deacon road as fast as his sturdy little legs could carry him, all the ardor of the explorer urging him on; but on suddenly looking back and seeing how far he was from home, he was seized by a panic and ran back as fast as he could.

" I have seen a young robin do the very same thing on its first journey from the nest," said the man in recalling this episode.

THE FIRST DAY AT SCHOOL

Before John was five years old he was sent to school a mile and more away, to the old stone school-house down on the Hardscrabble road.

" He may as well be learning his a-b abs in school as getting underfoot at home," his mother said. So she dressed him in his first suit; it was of striped blue and white cotton; he had watched her make it, and was especially proud of the little caps on the shoulders that flopped as he ran.

How excited he was as he started out over the hills with his sister, Olly Ann!

"Who lives here?" "And here?" he asked as they passed the few houses along the way.

Where Johnnie learned his letters

 
The walls of the schoolroom were of rough, unhewn stone, whitewashed. The floor was built on an incline, so that the back seats were higher than those in front. The smaller fry sat around the wall on a bench made of a broad hemlock slab with widely slanting legs, the seat so much too high that John's feet dangled uncomfortably.

A few days later, when some of the newness of school had worn off, the little fellow fell asleep and, tumbling off the bench backward, cut his head on the rough stone wall.

He fainted and was carried to a neighbour's, where camphor was rubbed on his temples, and the ugly cut dressed with liniment. Even now, when past eighty-three, the smell of camphor recalls that darkened room, the high bed on which he found himself on coming to, and his bandaged head.

 
He learned his letters from the old Cobb spelling-book, and had a hard time before he could tell b from d and c from e; but he conquered these difficulties before Hen Meeker, a much bigger boy, did, and one day when Hen stuck on e, the teacher shamed him by saying:

"Why, even little Johnnie Burroughs can tell what letter that is. Come here, Johnnie! -- what is that?" And sliding down from the high bench, Johnnie proudly marched to the teacher's desk and announced that it was e!

There in a corner of the school-yard he experienced his first betrayal: Something having happened to cause him deep chagrin, he had gone there to be by himself and weep. An older boy, the meanest boy in school-and he became the meanest man in the town-found him snivelling and sulking under a tree, and promised him a fine long slate-pencil if he would tell him what he was crying about. John hesitated, but that pencil did the business. As soon as he confessed, however, the scoundrel ran away with the pencil, shouting the secret to the other boys!

Some months later John's sense of justice was satisfied when his brother Wilson had a fight with that boy and "licked" him. The fight had started over some other mean trick. Wilson threw the rascal down and, sitting on his back, grabbed him by the hair and jammed his face down on the crusty snow till it bled. The other boys, egging him on, cried, "Give it to him, Wilson! Give it to him! "

"Wilson, I'll take the law "-the victim tried to protest, and down would go his face again in the snow.

Little John, remembering his own grievance, and the older boys, with many an old score charged to the culprit, looked on, gloating to see the bully get what was coming to him.

THE FIRST SWEETHEART (As told by John)

"I can see her now, as she came running down the hill from the school-house, the cape of her little pink sunbonnet fluttering in the breeze," said Mr. Burroughs as he pointed out the course she took down the road to her home.

" I must have been between five and six years old. I had gone over to Neighbour Bartram's in the West Settlement with Father on a stoneboat drawn by the oxen. Father probably went there to help him draw stones for a new piece of wall-they used to exchange work in that way.

" I can hear her father's voice as he sent it over the hills to the school-house -- he had a prodigious voice -- 'Eleanor, come home!' And soon she came flying down the road to play with me.

"We played by the barn on a little mound of hay. I remember we made a nest there I can see her now as she took a wisp of hay and pinched it together, making believe it was an egg and that she was a hen -- I can see the sharp angles of the shining hay as she tried to shape it like an egg before she hovered it in the nest."

The time to leave little Eleanor came all too soon. John felt very forlorn as he and his father followed the oxen homeward, and the little pink sunbonnet down there in the valley grew smaller and smaller, and finally was entirely lost to view.

THE STRANGE BIRD IN THE DEACON WOODS

One Sunday in May when John was seven or eight years old, as he and his brothers were in the Deacon woods after wintergreens, and he lay on the ground idly gazing into the branches above him, he spied a small bluish bird with a white spot on each wing, flitting amid the branches.

Excited, he questioned his brothers as to what it was. They neither knew nor cared, but it was a great event to him. Right here in these woods come strange birds from distant lands! It fired his imagination: " I must be on the lookout for them-Where can I find out what they are? - I wonder if this one will ever come again

thoughts like these flashed through the mind of the curious boy as he watched the little visitant hopping in the beech trees before it flew away.

It was not till near twenty years after that he learned its name-the black-throated blue warbler. There were no bird books to help boys in those days. The one who started the making of many books of this kind was then just getting his first lessons from the Book of Nature; he was, in fact, at this stage, only looking at the illustrations.

A few weeks later, again the Burroughs boys, with a neighbour, were roaming the same woods when a brown bird with a speckled breast flew from a bush to the ground in front of them.

"What is it?" asks John, the ever-curious.

 
"A brown thrasher," replies the older boy, and John knows no better then. But years later, remembering the ways and looks of that bird, he decided that it was a hermit thrush. He had it "for keeps" in eye and memory long before he knew its name.

THE BOY AND THE ELFIN PIPER

In the bright March days of the spring when our lad was eight years old he grew very curious as to what it was making those shrill cheery sounds in the swampy places. What bird is it wetting its whistle down in the bog, he wondered. He asked everybody around, but as no one could tell him, decided to find out for himself.

One evening while it was yet light, going to the rushes alone and creeping in among them, he scrooched down and stayed there a long time, as still as a mouse.

Soon a tiny, yellowish-brown, mottled frog, less than an inch long, with pointed nose and bulging eyes, climbed the bulrush, hand over hand, as a sailor climbs a mast.

John held his breath. He was afraid the little creature would hear his heart thumping and jump out of sight. But lo! the bag-pipe that the midget carries under his chin swelled up as though it would burst and Phee, phee, phee! shrilly called the elfin piper, just a few inches from the ears of the patient lad.

Cautiously he stretched forth his hand and grasped the elf. After a long time, when the tiny creature had become accustomed to his new perch, he inflated his throat and piped from the boy's hand!

It was the spring peeper (Hyla crucifier) whose shrill pipings we hear in the marshes in early spring.

THE LITTLE SAWMILL

In John's boyhood it was an unheard of thing to have pleasures planned for boys and girls. Life was a serious

matter for the grown-ups, and they tried, though in vain, to make the youngsters regard it in the same light. Play was not considered a preparation for life's activities as it happily is to-day. Toys were rare articles. Boys had to make their playthings or go without. Holidays were as scarce as hen's teeth, or as white blackbirds, and it sometimes keeps one guessing to see where the boys, with all their chores to do, got in any fun. But they managed it somehow, gleaning it here and there, from day to day.

By the roadside, in a little stream that overflowed from the watering-trough, Hiram helped him build a small sawmill when John was about ten years old. He made the little dam himself, working at it in the long summer forenoons as, barefooted, he splashed about in the mud, lugging the pieces of sod and the stones, and fitting them snugly in place.

The flume consisted of an old pump-log with a tin horn at the end. The slant was at an angle of about thirty degrees. The water came out at the end of the horn with a good deal of force and struck the buckets of the wheel, causing the wheel to revolve pretty swiftly. It was an overshot wheel with tin buckets. On the shaft of the wheel they fixed a little crank with a frame and a small saw, the saw having been cut out of a piece of tin. The gate was like the gate of a regular sawmill, and this held the saw which played up and down in a proper groove of the upright frame. There was a little carriage which they had to move by hand, on which the log rode; and for a sawlog he used huge cucumbers, sawing them up into the desired lengths.

One day a farmer and his wife driving along paused and watched him working at his little mill.

"Hello, there!" the farmer called out. "What's the price of cucumber logs to-day? " And as they drove on the goodwife exclaimed, " I declare, that boy's as odd as Dick's hat-band!"

As he grew older he did not relish being called odd. "An odd 'un " was a phrase often applied to him. It always struck him as something not quite nice, he did not know exactly why. When strangers came to the house, and singling him out, asked, "Whose boy is that? -- he ain't your boy," he would hang his head in shame.

Uncle William and Aunt Nora who came from Rochester evidently liked the "odd" boy, and tried to get Farmer Burroughs to let them have him to bring up. The lad thought he wanted to go with them, but his parents couldn't make up their minds to give up their "odd 'un."

THE OLD DOCTOR

One summer day when John was digging potatoes out beyond the orchard, he heard Gould Bouton, who had been hunting with Elihu Meeker up on Old Clump, shout down that Elihu had fallen from a ledge and was badly hurt.

Farmer Burroughs and Hiram went up there with the sled and the oxen and brought him down to the house, and Curtis hurried down to the "Hollow" for old Doctor Newkirk.

The man's groans were terrible to hear, and to John and Eden, looking on and watching for the doctor, it seemed an eternity. They feared Elihu would die before the doctor could get there.

Finally they spy him as he appears over the top of the hill -- a tall man, urging on his horse, his big leather saddlebags bobbing up and down behind on the horse',; back.

" The doctor's coming! " the boys shout, running to the house, and they feel a great load lifted -- Elihu will be saved now, the doctor has come! What utter confidence they feel in his mere presence!

There were times, however, when the doctor's coming was not so welcome to the boys, the times when there were teeth to be pulled. That was a fearful ordeal: With his turnkey wound with his red bandanna to keep it from slipping, the old doctor would clamp on the instrument of torture and twist and twist. It had a swinging-hook that came out at the side of the lever, like a cant-hook, which grasped the tooth, and the more he twisted, the harder it gripped. It would lift one out of his chair if he didn't hang on to the rungs, and after a while something had to give way.

John used to hang on for dear life.

"The old doctor certainly went to the root of the matter," his victim said, reminiscently.

THE FIRST CIRCUS

Our lad was twelve years old before he went to a circus. He almost jumped out of his skin when he found he could go, and when the great day arrived-the Day! -- he hustled through his chores with amazing speed. Wheedling his mother into giving him his dinner earlier than usual, he did not wait even for a second piece of pie.

Just as he was starting off alone, all a-quiver with excitement, to go across the hills and down to the " Hollow," something happened: His father shouted that one of the new cows had got out and had started back toward her old home.

"Go and head her off-right away!"

"Why can't Curt do it?" John urged, but his father's verdict was uttered in no uncertain tones:

"You've got to get that cow before you go!"

" I ran all the way down to 'Riah Bartram's and headed her off, and brought her back," said he, "and then ran 'cross lots down to the circus, lickety-split."

The circus was down in the village on the great flats where General Training was annually held. (Every spring neighbourhood companies congregated on the flats to go through the manual of arms-Company Training-but in the fall more companies gathered from far and wide for General Training. Echoes from the Mexican War were still keeping up an interest in military matters. The boys thought Major Preston a great soldier as he rode about on his spirited horse like a general on the field of battle.) But General Training was a tame affair compared to a circus! There were the great white tents gleaming in the sunlight, the Pepacton winding in the rear-bustle, gaiety, and throbbing excitement everywhere-the Babel of voices, the splendid gilded wagons, the music of the brassband, the calls of the wild animals-all the novel sights and sounds and smells on every hand! John stumbled over guyropes as he hurried along. How his heart thumped against his chest! "By creaky!'' but wasn't he glad he was there!

He had no money for side shows, but borrowed a sixpence of Abe Meeker and went into one where he saw a woman handling snakes. They were winding around her arm and writhing in her lap. He also saw a blind girl reading the Bible! Never having heard of this method of reading for the blind, he stood in open-mouthed wonderment watching the girl's sensitive fingers trace the raised letters rapidly while she read aloud from the queer-looking colourless page.

Once inside the magic tent, first one allurement, then another distracted the bewildered boy. What a delicious feeling as he walked over the carpet of straw in the subdued light! Which tier of those seats shall he choose? How can he watch them all? Why do they go so fast?the bareback riders, the jugglers, the rope-walkers, the acrobats in their pink tights, and the dancers! -- It will all be over too soon!

Best of all was the jolly painted clown who jumped and rubbed his legs as if it hurt whenever the Ring Master cracked his whip. John remembers one of the jokes to this day:

"Why is 'lasses candy like a hoss?

"'Cause the more you lick it, the faster it goes," -- and Crack! goes the whip again!

"Baba" and the grandchildren on his boyhood rock

 
A pity that such delights must end! but long before the show was over John had an uncomfortable sense of preparations being made on all sides for the packing up and moving on. Suddenly he realized that it was all over. How he longed to hang around and see the last of the splendid caravan! Why, all this stir and commotion and lightning speed are as good as the circus itself! But, looking at the sun, he suddenly remembered the chores; he became conscious, too, of a gnawing feeling in his stomach; and, with one long last glance at the hurly-burly on the flats, he faced toward home and slowly climbed the hills, his head whirling from all that he had seen.

Footnotes:
  •  "sapbush": A grove of sugar maple trees (Return)
  •  stone-boat: A drag or sled without runners, used for hauling stone (Return)
  •  spring peeper: Formerly called Pickering's Frog (Hula pickeringi) (Return)
  •  Pepacton: Pepacton is the Indian name for the East Branch of the Delaware, which flows through Roxbury (Return)
  •  

    Previous Chapter | Back to the Index | Next Chapter

     


    Home
    Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
    The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
    are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery