After two summers at the old stone jug, as they called the first
school that John attended, the Burroughs youngsters went to the West
Settlement school, John going there in the summer till he was eleven
or twelve, when, being old enough to help on the farm in earnest, his
schooling was confined to winters. His last winter there was in his
It was a long way to school now-up a hill, down a smooth rolling
meadow, through a piece of woods, through more meadow and pasture
land, then across a creek in the valley -- a mile and a half from
home. Never too long a walk in summer, but trudging through the snows
those long winters was a tough experience. With caps pulled down over
forehead and ears, muffled in comforters, they battled with wind and
snow, often wading through drifts waist-high, the snow getting in at
their boot-tops, later to melt and trickle down and add to their
discomfort during the thawing-out process around the school-house
stove. Oh! the misery of that process, from the time their numb hands
and feet began to tingle on through the forenoon when the burning and
itching drove them frantic! and drove the teacher frantic, too, with
the uneasy wriggling and shuffling induced by their chilblains!
The footpaths they followed, especially in summer, furnished a good
deal of natural history for an observing boy: There were trout in the
valley stream. They used to feel for them under the banks; by
slipping their hands along, they could often get good big fellows,
grabbing them under the gills. Squirrels scampered along the fences,
and in winter skunks and 'coons sometimes sallied forth from the
woods and crossed their path. In the May woods they gathered the
early wild flowers, and sought the crisp, aromatic, crinkle-root to
eat with their bread and butter at noon, though John usually ate his
before reaching school. They carried their lunches in a little red
and white splint basket-rye bread and butter, apple-pie (which in
winter was often frozen on reaching school), cookies and apples.
The spring that supplied the drinking water was "quite a
piece" up the hill, and John's desire to make himself useful
took the form of coaxing for this daily task. It was surprising how
often he found that spring roiled by a frog or a muskrat,
necessitating a long wait for it to settle; surprising, too, how
painfully neat he was, requesting permission at very short intervals
to go out and wash his slate!
The noon-mark cut in the window-sill of the old schoolhouse was a
point of daily interest to the boys. Watching when the sun got there,
they grew exceedingly restive if the teacher did not dismiss school
on the instant.
Sometimes the boys went down to Stratton Falls for their nooning,
bathing in the creek under the rocks. It was a long way off, and
occasionally they decided that since they would be tardy anyhow, they
might as well stay all the afternoon and get material for slate
pencils. Loitering there in the deep gorge worn in the shaly rocks,
they hunted out the soft green streaks in the red sandstone, first
testing them on their teeth to make sure they would not scratch their
slates! They saved these up till winter, whittling them out into
pencils in the long evenings before the fire. Some boys became very
deft at pencil-making. It was quite a trick to get a good-sized
piece, nicely whittled, without breaking it, and a boy who could do
it extra well was the envy of the whole school. The best pencils were
used as barter. John always envied one boy an especially fine long
pencil with its shining-copper gun-cap. He was never able to swap his
pocket treasures for it, and when his hair was white with age he
confessed that he had seldom coveted anything in life as he did that
slate pencil of Hi Bouton's. There was another thing he remembers
coveting-the hair of a boy named John Shout. The Shout boy, who was
his senior by several years, spent half his time in school curling
his hair under so that it formed a beautiful glossy roll in the neck;
he also had a peculiar well-trained lock in front by his cowlick,
which was John's despair.
"How I envied that boy his hair! I tried to make mine curl
under, but it wouldn't; I was always imitative, and I guess I am
still-in certain things," he confesses.
He says further of these days:
John Shout went away to study and came back a doctor. One summer when
he came home -- I was in the garden weeding onions -- I remember how
nimbly he stepped as he went by our house. Later, when practising
there, for some reason he shot at poor old Cuff, putting a
bullet-hole in his hip, and one day after that, as he was riding past
with his saddle-bags, Cuff, who was the kindest dog in the world, ran
out and nearly pulled him off his horse. He never forgave him the
injury -- a good illustration of the associative memory of the dog.
It was in this school that John took his first writinglessons, simple
lessons consisting of straight lines and pothooks turned upside down.
I was between six and seven, I think. Liberty Cator and I were
learning at the same time. I can see yet how he used to squeeze the
quill. I did not make quite such hard work of it. When we got so we
could make the pot-hooks, we would put two together to make an n, and
three to make an m. We learned coarse hand (capitals) before we tried
We took our goose-quills to school and the teacher made our
pensthat's what a pen-knife was for, you know; he also sharpened them
for us when they needed it. "Please, sir, will you mend my
pen?" was a request the teacher must have found very tiresome.
Hiram made our ink-wells by casting them from molten lead. We carried
them home in our pockets so the ink wouldn't freeze. Our ink,
sometimes black, and sometimes purple, was bought at the village
store -- no, it was earlier than my time that they used poke-berry
juice for ink. Hiram would take a cylindrical piece of dozy wood and
hollow it out, shaping it like the cavity of an ink-well; then, tying
a piece of moistened fool's cap paper around it, he poured in the
lead, later digging out the wood. For the cork he whittled a pine
stick to fit.
Winter sports consisted chiefly of snow fights, coasting down the
hill-meadows on the crust, and fishing for suckers through the ice.
They had only such sleds as they made. Sometimes they slid on
barrel-staves fastened together, and sometimes on the rude sled with
ash runners that Hiram made -- a sled with steel runners being a
luxury of which they never even dreamed.
There being no ice very near, John did not learn to skate when a boy;
in fact, he never had on a pair of skates till, when five and twenty,
he learned to skate on the Hudson. But winter fishing was a sport not
to be sneezed at. John ran away one day and went fishing in the
Pepacton with four men who, happening by the school-house at recess,
asked him to come along.
Cutting holes in the ice midway of the long still reach of the river,
and at either end, the men stationed John at the end of the reach
with a long pole. He felt very important at this. Two of the men,
starting at the end of the pool, hammered the ice with axes as they
came down while the others, lying with faces close to the water,
watched at the holes and hooked up the fish which shot along
underneath. It was John's stunt to thrust the pole under the ice and
keep the water so agitated as to turn the school of fish back as it
came down, and he did it well. At each drive, for a few minutes, the
fish were snatched up through the holes at a lively rate, till the
ice round about was a mass of suckers, with now and then a trout.
Gathering up the fish the men carried them, a bushel basket-full,
over to the inn at Shacksville, proceeding to divide them. As there
were four men in the party, they began throwing out the fish in four
equal piles. John stood there looking mournfully on when one of the
men, chancing to glance up and see the lad's expression, called out,
"Why, here's Johnny-we must give him some"; so each in turn
threw him a sucker from his pile till he had a very respectable one
of his own. Hurrying home, he trusted to the fine mess of fish to
atone for his truancy.
The summer games they played at school were chiefly ball, I Spy,
Head-All, Den, and Throwing Knives-the boy who threw the farthest
getting the choice of knives. The boys made their own balls,
ravelling out old stocking legs, winding them tight, and covering
them with leather which they sewed with a waxed-end, if they could
get one from the cobbler in the village. Their bats were hand- his
made, crude affairs. Head-All was a game much like Pom-Pom-Pull-Away
of to-day. Den was one in which the boy who was "It" led
off, fleeing like a deer across the fields, the others taking after
him for a specified goal.
At recess the boys used to propound riddles to one another. Here is
one that John remembers:
Danced in a mud puddle,
In red-top boots and a green fur hat.
Guess all your life-time,
You can't guess that.
The answer is the masculine to one of our domestic fowl. (A drake.)
There were perhaps two dozen books in the library of the West
Settlement school, and John used to take them out regularly, reading
them over and over. They were mostly books of travel or of adventure.
Murphy, the Indian Killer he read again and again, thrilled by the
heroism of that intrepid fighter of Red men and Tories. The Life of
Washington, the authorship of which is unknown to him, also made a
lasting impression upon him when he was probably not more than eight
years of age. He recalls how one Sunday morning when he and his
brother Hiram and a cousin were playing through the house, carrying
this book in his hand, he would stop every little while and read
aloud a certain passage which moved him strangely. Its eloquence
almost lifted him out of himself, although the older boys seemed
indifferent to it. In this connection he recalls other exalted
emotional states which occasionally came to him a few years later,
particularly one of a June morning when, walking on the top of a
stone wall across the summit of a hill, a piece of a root shaped like
a pistol in his hand, he felt an unwonted joy. Walking along the
toppling stones, flourishing his rude plaything, he called and
shouted and exulted, drunk with the wild joy of living. Life was
amazingly beautiful at that moment, and his soul sparkled and flashed
in the sunlight.
His sensitiveness to the eloquence of the
Washington book might lead us to expect a more critical taste for
other literature than we find borne out by the facts. Truth compels
the statement that at the age of ten he delighted in a book of Negro
jingles... (webmaster's note)
Uncle Tom's Cabin was published when John was a lad of fifteen, and
although he must have heard much talk of a book which made the stir
it did, then and later, still he never read it, and, what is more,
doesn't remember ever having had a copy in his hands.
At about the same time (1852) Kossuth came to the United States to
stir up sympathy for the Hungarians ground down by the Austrians.
Although John remembers often hearing Kossuth's name, the only
association he had with it was with the large black Kossuth hats
which came into vogue at that time-current history topics evidently
were not made much of in the West Settlement school.
Some scenes of those school days are vividly stamped on John's
memory: One of his teachers, Bill Allaben, struck Dave Smith on the
head, and Sandy, Dave's elder brother, spoke up, saying, " My
father don't want you to hit us on the head," whereupon the
angry teacher laid the whip on Sandy, belabouring him more and more
as he failed to flinch, striking him so hard that the whip made a
dent in the desk where it hit the edge. "But Sandy was
game," said grown-up John, admiringly, recalling his spunk --
"his Scotch was up-the man was contemptible --we ought to have
put him out-doors! "
Hiram once " sassed back " another teacher (Graves), an
inefficient man who was having a hard time with the grammar lesson.
Now Hiram was a "cracker-jack" at parsing though he could
not write a grammatical sentence to save his life. In fact, all the
boys were blissfully ignorant of there being any connection between
parsing and correct speech. Seeing the teacher evidently in doubt
about a point, Hiram ventured a suggestion.
"I don't want any of your help," snapped the teacher.
"Well, you need some help," retorted Hiram; and the evident
truth of the retort doubtless saved the froward pupil a flogging.
One day this same teacher, on detecting a boy eating apples behind
his Olney's Geography, peremptorily called him to the middle of the floor:
" I saw you this time," he triumphed as the boy approached.
"Saw me what?" indistinctly articulated the boy
"Bite that apple."
"Open your mouth!"
The boy obeyed, and from its depths the teacher extracted a piece of apple.
"Didn't know it was there," announced the culprit, unabashed.
Commenting further on his school-fellows, Mr. Burroughs, in his
eighty-third year, said:
There are only three or four of us left, so far as I know, and very
few of us have made any great record for ourselves.
There was George H. Cator, my seat-mate, the old man you have seen
wheeling the mail bags on a wheel-barrow from the station-he died a
year or so ago-George didn't like work any better than I didhe led a
desultory kind of life, sitting round taverns a good deal. George
gave far more promise of amounting to something than I did. I can
remember how much fun he always made at the apple-cuts, while I would
sit there mute and stupid, filled with envy.
There were the Scudder boys and girls, two families of them. Milton
was a bright, well-mannered fellow-studied law, went West, and died
there in early manhood, and Peace, his sister, died long ago. Rube
Scudder, the boy who walked with me to Lexington that time to spend
the Fourth, was a jolly, freckle-faced lad with sandy hair. He was a
good fiddler -- I've told you how he could dance the "juba"
[and he gets up and shows how he did it] to the envy of all the other
boys. He became a school teacher-died in Beaverkill in 1870. It was
his father that shot the sheriff in the Anti-rent trouble, and his
grandfather, old Deacon Scudder, whose apples we used to steal.
The Smith boys and girls lived where Tommy Smith lives now; they were
canny Scots. Some of the children were born in Scotland. The boys
wore little Scotch caps to school. I remember they sometimes brought
cold pancakes for luncheon, which caused some of the boys to sneer,
but now any of them could buy and sell those boys. They were all
thrifty, and have been prosperous farmers. Most of them flew far and
wide like thistle-down. John and Will and Sandy, who went West, have
accumulated a good deal. I had a letter from Sandy a few weeks ago;
he was my favourite. It was Sandy I have spoken of in one of my books
who, when a child, riding through that wild mountain pass-the Long Woods-asked:
"Mither, is there a God here?"
Andrew Corbin and Jay Gould sat behind George and me in school.
Andrew became a merchant, first in Roxbury, then in Bloomville, where
he died years ago, and Jay everybody knows that Jay became a multimillionaire.
Jay had several sisters-Betty, Annie, Polly and Sally. Betty was a
stern girl with the Gould pride, who carried a stiff upper lip, like
her father. I remember once when a phrenologist came to town she and
I went to have our heads examined. He told me I was going to become a
rich man! I believed in phrenology then. Sally was much like Betty.
Annie was a beautiful girl, modest and gentle and conscientious. I
shall never forget her sweet eyes; and Polly, ah! Polly was the
flower of the family -- a very sweet girl -- I remember once at noon
in the old schoolhouse when we were all playing about -- I a boy of
fourteen had an end of one of the seats up on my head-Polly stood
there looking on, and suddenly rushed up and kissed me. She was two
or three years older. I suppose I flushed and was too bashful and
awkward to kiss her, as I probably wanted to do-sweet Polly Gould!
I'm sure she was just as winsome as Leigh Hunt's "Jenny":
Time, you thief! who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I'm growing old, but add
"Jay seems to have been the only one of the West Settlement boys
to make his mark in the world."
"Except J. B.," I remind him.
"Well, yes, J. B. has made some marks-on paper; some of them may
last -- I hope so-but he has spoiled a good deal of paper and ink in
So it was in this little old school-house that John Burroughs and Jay
Gould were school-fellows seventy-odd years ago. Here they played and
wrestled together, swapped slate pencils, traded knives and marbles,
helped each other out of scrapes, and into them, and went home with
each other nights; or, rather, John sometimes went home with Jay, not
Jay with John.
"He was too proud to stay at our house."
When asked what Jay had to be proud of, he answered, "Well, the
Goulds were very prosperous, and naturally stiff-necked; and they
lived in a little better style than the other farmers."
Both these boys left school early, going out into the world with
little education beyond that of the district school. Each in his way
attained national and international fame, though doubtless neither
they nor their school-fellows dreamed that either would ever be heard
from outside of Roxbury.
Jay used to snicker when John stammered in the reading-class, which
cut John so keenly that he often stayed out after recess till the
class was dismissed, the indulgent teacher ignoring his absence.
John was stockier than Jay and a trifle taller, and could, as a rule,
throw Jay when they wrestled unless Jay, ignoring the rules of the
game, broke his hold.
"Now, Jay, you broke your holt -- that wa'nt fair,"
protested John; but the victor, having adopted rules of his own,
would answer convincingly, "But I'm on top, ain't I?"
One day when required to write a composition, John had copied
something from an almanac and passed it off as original. Detecting
the theft, the teacher sentenced him to stay after school, unless he
should hand in a certain number of lines before the close of school.
Taking pity on him, Jay wrote some doggerel on his slate and, nudging
John, passed it under the desk for him to copy, John, neither too
conscientious nor too critical to accept it, copied it off on his own
slate and shamelessly turned it in as his, going Scot-free when
school was out.
These are the lines with which Jay Gould came to the rescue of John Burroughs:
Time is flying past,
Night is coming fast,
I, minus two, as you all know,
But what is more I must hand o'er
Twelve lines by night
Or stay and write.
Just eight I've got,
But you know that's not
Enough lacking four;
But to have twelve
It wants no more.
Note the economy, the thriftiness, and the sharp bargain that this
Shylock of a poet drove with the inexorable teacher, even when
dealing for another! The genius of the financier showed even then.
The required number of lines was furnished, but-could lines be
shorter? The law was fulfilled to the letter, nor wrote he more, nor
less, than just twelve lines!
A few years later, when Jay Gould was hard up, John, buying two old
books of him, -- a German grammar and a work on geology-helped him
out of a tight place, paying him eighty cents. Jay had then left
school and was living in the village over his father's store and
tin-shop, and working at a map of Delaware County. So the future
financier helped the future writer with his pen, and the future
writer helped the future financier with his coins! John once helped
out Jay with eighty cents, but Jay left eighty million dollars when
Jay used to coax me to go home with him nights. I remember staying
there once when they lived in the village, when I had to leave very
early in the morning. It was Election Day, and as I went out on the
silent village square, I heard a voice bawl out: "Hear ye! hear
ye! hear ye! the polls of this election are now open!" It was
Burhans, the town clerk, opening Election, but there wasn't a blessed
soul around to hear but me.
No, I never saw Jay after the Roxbury days-not to speak with him. He
surveyed for the map after leaving school, then wrote a history of
Delaware County, then got into his various speculations. Our paths
lay far apart.
I have never followed his career very closely.
I saw him once in New York, on Fifth Avenue, many years later
recognized his gait at once. And once he came in the Treasury
Department in Washington where I was working. The Deputy Comptroller
brought some officers from the Commercial Bank of New York in there,
requesting me to show them the vault, and Jay was among them. He did
not recognize me, though I knew him instantly. I showed them the
vault, but did not make myself known to Jay-Yes, one would think I
would have-there's a queer streak in me, I guess.
When Jay Gould helped him out by supplying those lines, it is clear
that John's desire to write had not yet come to him; in fact, at that
period he usually got out of the required task in one way and
another. He never could write to order, anyhow; the spirit has to
move him first, and the spirit never moved for those Friday afternoon
compositions. Why, even one of his teachers, Walter Eliot, with whom
John was a favourite, took pity on the lad one day and wrote a
composition for him, letting him copy it surreptitiously, so as to
maintain discipline. It was something about Napoleon. All that he now
remembers of it is that it had a high-sounding expression about the
bridge of Lodi. He remembers, however, his sheepish feeling while
standing there and reading the composition he had not written. It
cured him of wanting to repeat the experience.
He developed rather early a keen interest in words, and always tried
to find the meaning of new ones he heard. A woman calling at the
house one day, on seeing him trying to make a coloured drawing,
exclaimed, " Why, what taste that boy has! "
John pricked up his ears-" Taste! then there is a kind of taste
besides that of things to eat!" He was copying a chromo of
General Winfield Scott, in which the hero stood by his horse and a
nearby cannon. This was presumably shortly after the Mexican War when
Farmer Burroughs, his admiration aroused in the hero of Lundy's Lane
and Chapultepec, had bought the chromo.
Another addition to John's vocabulary at this time came about thus:
One day while watching some men at work on the road, he saw one
unearth a queer looking stone and, examining it interestedly, say,
"What have we here-some antiquities!"
"Antiquities!" John asked what that meant, and in the
explanation a new world was opened up to him.
As he grew older he became more and more keen about words. He liked
to say over certain phrases met in books. Certain words themselves
captivated him. The words "Encyclopaedia Britannica," heard
at a lecture in the village, fascinated him -- they made such a fine
mouthful! He copied in a little book high-sounding sentences that
appealed to him-the future writer was just beginning to handle
curiously his tools.
(Chancing to come upon the name and a wood-cut of John Burroughs the
other day while looking up something in the Encyclopaedia Britannica,
I showed him the picture -an atrocious one, however. He made some
uncomplimentary remark about "the old codger" to which I
replied, "But think how astounded that West Settlement lad would
have been had anyone told him he would sometime see his name and
picture, good or poor, in the Encyclopaedia Britannica! ")
John's father was frequently annoyed by his requests for things his
brothers never mentioned, especially books. He could not understand this.
"Why should he want things the others don't want?" he
complainingly asked the lad's mother, and she could only reply by
saying vaguely, "Why, you know he is different from the
others"; and it was reason enough for her. When John came home
from school one day all on fire with enthusiasm for an algebra, his
father, whose education never took him even through the back part of
the arithmetic, inquired impatiently, "An algebra! What is an algebra?
John tried to explain, but hesitated and stammered and, scenting
failure, gave it up before his father shouted his refusal. The mother
plead for the lad in vain. Next day, on starting for the village,
John returned to the charge, but with no better success. With that
emphatic No! ringing in his ears he set off, but on nearing the
Pennyroyal Rock at the top of the hill, heard his father shouting
that he might have his algebra-his mother had gained the point. His
"dander" being up by that time, however, he decided he
would wait and earn his own algebra, which he did by his early sugar-making,
of which we have read. Richer than all the Goulds in later years was
that farmboy when some of that precious selfearned money secured his
algebra. He had suddenly come into possession of two treasures-the
book itself, and the comfortable realization that within himself lay
the means to meet his growing desire for books. Later he earned a
coveted rhetoric in the same way.
A curiosity which his brothers did not share led him, at thirteen, to
attend a lecture in the village in which the starting of a new
Academy in Roxbury was agitated. He was the only lad among a small
group of men and women. Urging the matter eloquently, the speaker
told what a boon it would be to the girls and boys of the
vicinity"boys like that one there," he said, pointing to
John; and John dropped his head and blushed, but went home fired with
the thought of the new Academy, and with the visions of learning
evoked by the speaker's words.
A wave of excitement was sweeping over the United States while John,
a boy of twelve, was still attending the West Settlement school-the
Gold Fever that raged in 1849 and later.
Talk concerning that wonderful Eldorado in the newly acquired state
of California, kept the West Settlement boys pretty well stirred up.
Someone in California had picked up a piece of gold along the
American river the year before while excavating for a mill-race. The
news had spread like wild fire, first to Mexico and the Sandwich
Islands, as the Hawaiian islands were then called, and later to the
East Atlantic States. Daily the boys heard tales of the Forty-niners
-- of the mad rush they were making to the mountains of California to
dig for gold. Thousands of men left the East during that year, lured
by tales of the washings along the western rivers, yielding the
diggers fifteen and twenty dollars a day, while those who struck rich
"placers" were said to make even five thousand dollars a
day! Such rich streaks, however, were quickly worked out, and the
unlucky ones who rushed there later often met with the cruellest
disillusionment. Frenzied by fabulous tales, the prospectors would
often leave a promising locality, journeying far away in quest of
better "diggings," only to meet discouragement and failure,
sometimes starvation and death. These tales, however, were not the
ones that reached the East-not until some time later; only the
glowing tales were circulated, fanning the flame in every little
village and town.
Excitement among the schoolboys rose to the highest pitch when three
Roxbury fellows, between twenty-five and thirty years old, caught the
fever, and the citizens of the village made up a purse to help them
off. They went on ships to the Isthmus of Panama, and, making their
way across, partly on foot, took their chances with hosts of other
gold-crazed adventurers who fought desperately for passage on the
overburdened ships sailing up the Pacific Coast.
But, alas! none of those Roxbury youths made their "pile."
After the first glowing letters, news of them practically ceased.
Whatever adventures they had were unknown to their anxious townsmen.
One died in California, in the Fraser River rush, it is thought; the
fate of another was always a mystery; and the third (Kennedy)
returned home, a poor man, ultimately, however, making his fortune by
foisting on a credulous public the much advertised panacea-Dr.
Kennedy's Favourite Remedy!
Another historic wave of excitement, this time of a religious nature,
swept over the country the year after the Gold Fever started. It was
caused by a third prophecy of the Millerites, or Adventists,
heralding the Second Coming of Christ. This sect had set previous
dates in 1843 and 1844, and the faithful had duly provided themselves
with ascension robes preparatory to the end of the world. When, in
1850, a third prophecy was made, the expectant believers, undaunted,
again made ready to welcome the chariot of the Lord.
There was considerable commotion around Roxbury as the appointed time
drew near. One day at school when a terrific thunder storm arose, the
big girls, greatly excited, regarded that as a sure sign and portent
of the approaching end.
As the forked lightning played across the heavens, and crash after
crash of thunder broke over their heads, as ominous clouds darkened
the sky, and the rain in heavy sheets completely obliterated the
mountains on the opposite side of the valley, the terror-stricken
girls trembled and paled and wept. They feared each crash would prove
the last before the final trump should sound. Some huddled in
frightened silence, others screamed and groaned, a few prayed, as
peal after peal crashed over the little school-house. And when they
saw a huge black cloud come driving across the sky from the East,
they shrieked, "There it comes!" and buried their heads in
their arms, in abject terror awaiting the end!
John bad heard, unmoved, this talk about the end of the world, but
when he saw the terror among the girls, and among some of the boys as
well, combined with the unusual electric display, he began to be a
little imbued with belief in the prophecy. He grew solemnly observant
as that ominous cloud came driving toward them. If, indeed, this was
to be the end of the world, he wanted to see what it was like! But
the cloud was no chariot-it held only water. The lightning ceased,
the thunder died away, and as the valley was again flooded with
sunlight, the girls grew calm. Then and there the observant lad,
putting that enlightening experience in his mental pipe, smoked it,
reducing it to what it was worth-ashes. "And that's the cheese
of it!" was, in the Roxbury vernacular, his sensible conclusion.
The only Movies in John's school-days were, for example, those of
actual life, of cattle and sheep wending their way down the steep
paths in the pastures, of oxen drawing the stone-boat, goaded on by
the farm-boy's gad as he shouted his gee's and bases; of trout
darting in the meadow-brooks; of hosts of wild pigeons darkening the
skies, wheeling and alighting in the nearby woods-tame affairs
compared to the Movies that thrill the boys and girls of to-day! So
when John craved excitement he went 'cross lots down to the village
to a lecture! and not a lecture arranged to interest the young
either, for of such there were none; but he eagerly accepted whatever
offered, glad of anything on which to feed his growing hunger for
intellectual things. During that last term at the district school, he
attended two consecutive lectures in the village, in which the
speaker aimed to prove that the soul was not immortal. "Immortal
fiddlesticks!" thought Hiram and the other boys, as they poked
fun at John for taking those long lonely walks over the hills in the
dark, to listen to such fol-de-rol. But something drew him there.
Listening eagerly, taking notes of the Biblical passages cited by the
lecturer in support of his views, he looked these up on reaching
home. (It was with a peculiar interest that I recently examined those
pencilled citations made in a little notebook by that eager,
thoughtful lad so long ago.) He was by that time beginning to look on
both sides of a question, beginning to test things, and to do a
little real thinking on his own account, though in a vague, untutored way.
As we have seen, John's desire for knowledge and hunger for books
became acute that last year at the district school. He had, in fact,
for two years previous, longed for something more than the humble
little school offered. During the summer of his fifteenth year, as he
had watched the village Academy nearing completion, he had pic t ured
I him self going 'cross lots in the fall to join the first pupils to
enter its walls. But his father had effectually dashed those hopes
before school opened. John coaxed and his mother pleaded in vain, his
father, however, giving a half promise that if he stuck to the fall
work, he might go to the Academy for the winter term. He kept his
part of the bargain, but his father did not keep his. When winter
came it looked like a piece of nonsense to Farmer Burroughs-the
school in the West Settlement was "good enough for anybody."
So there John continued to go, but how yearningly he regarded the
boys who attended the Academy! They seemed to move in another sphere.
The following summer his aspirations mounted still higher-he wanted
to go away to school. Dave and Sandy Smith had come back from the
Franklin Institute with glowing accounts of the life there, and Dick
Van Dyke from Harpersfield with equally glowing tales of the seminary
there. Both of these places drew John powerfully, and he longed, oh,
how he longed, to go to one or the other! The Franklin school, being
farther away, seemed quite out of reach, but Harpersfield --
Harpersfield! -- the very name breathed romance and a world of possibilities!
The lad's yearnings, together with the pleadings of his mother, so
moved the obdurate father that he again made John a promise: if he
would work like a nailer through the fall, he thought he could manage
to send him to Harpersfield for the winter term!
Day by day in the September weather, John followed the plough on the
side-hill lot above the sap-bush, crossploughing to prepare the
ground for rye. His hands were on the plough-handles, but his head
was in the clouds, and Harpersfield was at the end of every furrow!
It was a world of alluring day-dreams in which he dwelt, as,
following old Prince and Pete, though jerked about by the
plough-handles, he moved in an enchanted land.
Yet, dreamer that he was, he never lost interest in the wild life
around him; many a pleasant incident marked his humdrum toil. Like
the Poet Plough-boy of bonnie Scotland, our Plough-boy of the
Catskills one day unwittingly routed with his cruel colter a "
wee, sleekit, timorous beastie" from her nest. It was the little
white-footed mouse, the deer mouse, which, as she scampered away with
the young clinging to her teats, looked like the "raggedy
man" of Mouseland. She jumped so fast in her fright that some of
the young fell off, but, plucky little mother that she was! running
to a place of safety with the hangers-on, she soon returned and
searched for the backsliders, which, on finding, she seized as a cat
does her kittens, and made off right speedily.
When winter came, alas! it proved to be the winter of our hero's
discontent. Dick Van Dyke went back to school alone-the expense
looked too big to John's father when the pinch came.
"He didn't mean to break his word," says the son in later
years, "but there was very little money. I often wonder how they
got along as well as they did with so little." Bitter as was the
disappointment, he swallowed it in silence, no one but his mother
divining how bitter it was.
Going for his last term at the home school that winter (1853), he
studied with unwonted earnestness, buoyed up by the determination to
get away to school soon on money of his own earning.
Years after, in speaking of this he said, "I was better
unhelped, as it turned out, and better for all I could help father.
He could not understand my needs, but love outweighs understanding,
and he was a loving father all the same."
He cannot, even now, hear the name of Harpersfield without a
momentary glow on his mental horizon, it was so interwoven with his
youthful hopes and dreams. He often says he is not so sure but that
he had the best of Harpersfield after all, since the desire to go,
the effort to make himself worthy to go, the mental awakening and the
high dreams were, after all, the main matter. "I doubt if the
reality," he adds, "would have given me anything more
valuable than these. The aspiration for Knowledge opens the door of
the mind and makes ready for her coming."
(More than sixty years after those Harpersfield longings, the
grown-up boy took some of us in his car to Harpersfield -- his
Carcassonne! All eagerness as we set out, and talking animatedly, he
grew strangely quiet as we neared the place. The seminary was no
longer standing. He wandered alone up and down the little street, as
though in search of something, and we who looked on at a distance
knew that the Harpersfield he beheld was not the sorry little hamlet
which we saw, but the Harpersfield of that Plough-boy's dreams.
Though walking down near us in reality, he walked alone and lonely
there, the Street of Lost Time.
"Alas!" said he, on rejoining us, "here are only the
ashes of my boyhood dreams-the Academy, they tell me, was burned
That winter, engaging in some of the pleasures of a grown-up youth,
John began to be more concerned about his personal appearance; he
sometimes indulged in a hair-cut at the village barber's, and sported
a pair of fine calfskin boots, with high heels, elegant affairs which
he wore to the neighbourhood apple-cuts with bashful pride.
Apple-cuts, which were held around at the various farm-houses in the
late autumn evenings, were the chief social affairs of those days.
The young folks went dressed in their best; the girls brought their
aprons and paring knives, the boys their jack-knives. The
extravagance of several lighted candles was afforded on such occasions.
One person sat at the machine and pared the apples, while the youths
and maidens sitting around cut, cored, and strung them for drying. It
is said that there were often other things cut and dried at those
old-time gatherings besides apples.
The work progressed amid great chattering and chaffing, and after
pie, doughnuts, and cider were served, they sometimes danced, though
this was regarded as sinful by their parents.
Once at an apple-cut at the Burroughs homestead, the nor parents
being away, Hiram proposed a dance, but Jane, the who had been
recently baptized over in the creek at Stratton Falls, protested
against so sinful a pastime.
Hiram and John, unregenerate that they were! being deaf to her
scruples, the dance was soon well under way, Hiram playing the
jewsharp, John calling off. The awkward youths and shy maidens were
fast losing their bashfulness in the mazes of the quadrille when
conscientious Jane rang the curtain down on their pleasure. None
could be deaf to the persuader to which she resorted: Seizing the
dinner-bell, she rang it with such prolonged zeal that the revellers
were forced to abandon their unholy frivolity.
There was a jolly old sailor who sometimes fiddled for them at the
apple-cuts, singing rollicking ditties as he played:
Oh! my Bowery girl, ain't ye comin' out to-night?
Ain't ye comin' out to-night?
Oh! my Bowery girl, ain't ye comin' out to-night
Ain't ye comin' out to-night?
To dance by the light of the moon?
Oh! I danced all night and my heel kep' a-rockin',
My heel kep' a-rockin',
Oh! I danced all night and my heel kep' a-rockin'
My heel kep' a-rockin',
An' I danced with a gal with a hole in her stockin'
The purtiest gal in the room!
And down he would bring his foot with a rousing slam at the end!
At an apple-cut over in the West Settlement it seemed to be generally
understood that Jim Bartram was to see Jane Burroughs home, and all
the young folks were expecting that John would be equally gallant and
see Eleanor Bar-tram home-little Eleanor of the pink sunbonnet, the
sweetheart of his childhood. He knew that this was expected of him,
suspected that Eleanor herself expected it, and even had some
hankering after the experience; but he was very bashful, and there
were those blackguarding boys and giggling girls standing around
while he valiantly tried to muster up courage to step up and say in
his most polite manner, while offering his arm, "Please may I
see you home to-night? "
Eleanor was walking demurely alone behind a blushing couple who had
already run the gauntlet. As she neared the place where John stood,
he made a start, then drew back-no use, he couldn't screw his courage
to the point, and little Eleanor tagged along, unescorted, behind her
sisters and their beaux.
John had to stand a good deal of bantering the next day:
" Did you have your 'mitten' on, John? " " Maybe he
was afraid Eleanor'd give him the mitten." "Afraid of a
girl, were you? "-taunts like these were volleyed at the
diffident suitor, till in desperation, he blurted out, " I'll be
darned if I'd go all the way down the road with her, and come back
alone over the hill in the dark." And, if the truth must be
told, that was the "cheese" of it!
There came a time, however, and not many months later, when he
conquered this difficulty. He was soon calling of a Sunday night at a
little red house in the village and paying bashful court to gentle
Mary Taft, toward whom he had long felt a decided leaning, in spite
of her having eaten so greedily of his maple sugar a year or two before.
Those Sunday night visits were a sort of
"linked-sweetness-long-drawn-out." The bashful pair sat at
a respectful distance from each other. The conversation was never
brisk, and the swain would get pretty sleepy before midnight.
Promptly on the stroke of twelve, Mary would withdraw, returning soon
with a pie and a cake, after which the talk would grow a bit
livelier. " The Lord only knows what we talked about,"
Mary's reticent beau declares. After refreshments were discussed, the
hours again dragged wearily on until two-the accepted time for such
visits to end-to leave earlier were to slight the maid!
There was no fear of the dark then as he started on his homeward walk
over the hills and through the woods.
He only wondered how soon he might arrange to call on Mary again. If
one went every Sunday night, it meant an engagement; he was
circumspect and ruled that out; but, asking himself whether he would
wait two, or three, weeks, he strongly inclined to but two.
Such allurements, however, did not make him lose sight of his
resolution to earn money in the spring for some real schooling, and
in late March, shortly before his seventeenth birthday, he started
out to seek a place as teacher. He went down into Ulster County, to
Dr. Hull's, a friend of his father's, to seek a school-his only
journey of any account since when, a lad of eleven, he had gone to
Catskill on his father's load of butter!
With his black oilcloth satchel in hand, and a few dollars in his
pocket, earned, as usual, by making maple-sugar, he went forth with a
heart full of vague yearnings and forebodings.
There was a heavy snow-squall as he crossed Batavia mountain into Red
Kill, going over the saddle of the mountin and following the same
course his father used to point out as the one he had taken on his
old sorrel mare when courting John's mother. Walking the eight miles
to Uncle Martin's, he was driven next day to Griffin's Corners to
take the stage-coach for Olive.
Standing in the tavern door while waiting for the stagecoach, he was
anxious and uncomfortable. He did not even know how the
"stage" would look; knew not in the least how to act, nor
what would be expected of him. Learning at the tavern what the fare
would be, he paid it at the rate of a six-pence a mile for some
thirty-odd miles, and soon after saw the old Concord coach, drawn by
four horses, come driving up with a flourish. The young traveller
watched them enter his name on the way-bill, and, at the brusque
command of the driver to hustle, climbed nimbly to the top of the
coach behind the driver, his heart beating violently as they started off.
On leaving the snowy hills of Delaware County and dropping down into
the milder climate of Ulster, John grew more and more homesick, but
on reaching the old Doctor's, was greatly cheered by the warm welcome
he received. The next day, riding with the Doctor on his rounds, he
made inquiries everywhere about schools in need of a teacher. After
three days of this he heard of a school eight miles away, in Tongore,
and walking there, hunted up the trustees, and made application. How
uncomfortable he felt as they looked him over sharply, questioning
him as to his ability!
"I cal'late ye hain't had much experience," said one of
them, " but we'll let ye know in the course of a week, or sech matter."
It was the first day of April when he started back home, a few days
before his seventeenth birthday. As they stopped at the same tavern
to change horses, seeing a copper cent lying on the floor, John
stooped to pick it up, but found it nailed fast. Great was his
mortification, and keenly was he aware of the sly looks and chuckles
of bartender and bystanders!
Before the week ended a letter came from the trustees bidding him
come at his earliest opportunity. Wages were to be ten dollars the
first month, and eleven a month for the other five if he should prove
satisfactory, "and board 'round." Elated, he answered that
he would be on hand to open school the next Monday.
Then came the real leave-taking. His mother was full of anxious care
as she mended and packed his clothes. Breakfast was over before
daylight, the lunch was put up, and all stood silently around to say
good-bye to John, going away from home to "keep school."
The father was silent, the mother was silent, too, but busy, proud
and anxious-her boy, John, the apple of her eye, was going out into
the world alone! Did her divining heart know that he was going to
meet renown? that he was going to do work. of enduring worth? that he
was going to write his name deeply on the hearts of men? The brothers
hung around, half envious, half incredulous of his success; his
sisters stood by shy and tearful, and with a lump in his throat and a
wistful look at the group on the doorsteps, the agitated lad climbed
up on the spring-seat beside his father, and they drove briskly the
ten miles to Dimmick's Corners (now Arkville) to meet the
"stage" -- John, especially, in trepidation lest it leave
before they should get there.
He felt more experienced as he mounted the Concord coach for his
second trip. In due time the rocking vehicle set him down at Terry's
Tavern, whence he walked the few remaining miles to Tongore in the
The little spring peepers were piping in the ponds, and the familiar
sound made the pent-up feelings of the homesick boy almost burst
their bounds-this boy starting out to work his way in the world! He
was very forlorn. Oh! if he were only home again! If he could only
see the old hills instead of this strange land! But, no longer the
child of four on that first journey on the Deacon road-the child that
had looked back, and on seeing how far he was from home, had ran back
as fast as he could! -- there can be no running back now! he must
push on, wherever the road leads!
The long road at last had a turning. Just as the weight on his heart
was the heaviest, he spied a man with a strangely familiar gait
coming around a bend. His heart leapt up as he beheld Neighbour
Scudder, Rube's father, who had been to Tongore to deliver a yoke of
oxen. Cheered by the brief encounter, John made the rest of the
journey with a lighter heart. Soon he was almost exulting in the new
experience. To-morrow he would begin teaching! His wages would enable
him to go away to school!
That night his head fairly buzzed with plans and projects and it was
long before he fell asleep.
It was a different world into which he awakened. Though still
thinking wistfully of the home amid the hills, he followed eagerly
the beckoning Future.
The Plough-boy went forth to make his dreams come true!
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