Tonya Allen, Eric Eldred, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team
WITH A CONCLUSION BY HIS SON
In the beginning, at least, Father wrote these sketches of his boyhood and early farm life as a matter of self-defense: I had made a determined attempt to write them and when I did this I was treading on what was to him more or less sacred ground, for as he once said in a letter to me, “You will be homesick; I know just how I felt when I left home forty- three years ago. And I have been more or less homesick ever since. The love of the old hills and of Father and Mother is deep in the very foundations of my being.” He had an intense love of his birthplace and cherished every memory of his boyhood and of his family and of the old farm high up on the side of Old Clump–“the mountain out of whose loins I sprang”–so that when I tried to write of him he felt it was time he took the matter in hand. The following pages are the result.
MY BOYHOOD By John Burroughs
MY FATHER By Julian Burroughs
Serene, I fold my hands and wait,
Nor care for wind, nor tide, nor sea; I rave no more ‘gainst Time or Fate,
For lo! my own shall come to me.
I stay my haste, I make delays,
For what avails this eager pace?
I stand amid the eternal ways,
And what is mine shall know my face.
Asleep, awake, by night or day,
The friends I seek are seeking me; No wind can drive my bark astray,
Nor change the tide of destiny.
What matter if I stand alone?
I wait with joy the coming years;
My heart shall reap where it hath sown, And garner up its fruit of tears.
The waters know their own, and draw
The brook that springs in yonder heights; So flows the good with equal law
Unto the soul of pure delights.
The stars come nightly to the sky;
The tidal wave comes to the sea;
Nor time, nor space, nor deep, nor high, Can keep my own away from me.
You ask me to give you some account of my life–how it was with me, and now in my seventy-sixth year I find myself in the mood to do so. You know enough about me to know that it will not be an exciting narrative or of any great historical value. It is mainly the life of a country man and a rather obscure man of letters, lived in eventful times indeed, but largely lived apart from the men and events that have given character to the last three quarters of a century. Like tens of thousands of others, I have been a spectator of, rather than a participator in, the activities–political, commercial, sociological, scientific–of the times in which I have lived. My life, like your own, has been along the by-paths rather than along the great public highways. I have known but few great men and have played no part in any great public events–not even in the Civil War which I lived through and in which my duty plainly called me to take part. I am a man who recoils from noise and strife, even from fair competition, and who likes to see his days “linked each to each” by some quiet, congenial occupation.
The first seventeen years of my life were spent on the farm where I was born (1837-1854); the next ten years I was a teacher in rural district schools (1854-1864); then I was for ten years a government clerk in Washington (1864-1873); then in the summer of 1873, while a national bank examiner and bank receiver, I purchased the small fruit farm on the Hudson where you were brought up and where I have since lived, cultivating the land for marketable fruit and the fields and woods for nature literature, as you well know. I have gotten out of my footpaths a few times and traversed some of the great highways of travel–have been twice to Europe, going only as far as Paris (1871 and 1882)–the first time sent to London by the Government with three other men to convey $50,000,000 of bonds to be refunded; the second time going with my family on my own account. I was a member of the Harriman expedition to Alaska in the summer of 1899, going as far as Plover Bay on the extreme N. E. part of Siberia. I was the companion of President Roosevelt on a trip to Yellowstone Park in the spring of 1903. In the winter and spring of 1909 I went to California with two women friends and extended the journey to the Hawaiian Islands, returning home in June. In 1911 I again crossed the continent to California. I have camped and tramped in Maine and in Canada, and have spent part of a winter in Bermuda and in Jamaica. This is an outline of my travels. I have known but few great men. I met Carlyle in the company of Moncure Conway in London in November, 1871. I met Emerson three times–in 1863 at West Point; in 1871 in Baltimore and Washington, where I heard him lecture; and at the Holmes birthday breakfast in Boston in 1879. I knew Walt Whitman intimately from 1863 until his death in 1892. I have met Lowell and Whittier, but not Longfellow or Bryant; I have seen Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Early, Sumner, Garfield, Cleveland, and other notable men of those days. I heard Tyndall deliver his course of lectures on Light in Washington in 1870 or ’71, but missed seeing Huxley during his visit here. I dined with the Rossettis in London in 1871, but was not impressed by them nor they by me. I met Matthew Arnold in New York and heard his lecture on Emerson. My books are, in a way, a record of my life–that part of it that came to flower and fruit in my mind. You could reconstruct my days pretty well from those volumes. A writer who gleans his literary harvest in the fields and woods reaps mainly where he has sown himself. He is a husbandman whose crop springs from the seed of his own heart.
My life has been a fortunate one; I was born under a lucky star. It seems as if both wind and tide had favoured me. I have suffered no great losses, or defeats, or illness, or accidents, and have undergone no great struggles or privations; I have had no grouch, I have not wanted the earth. I am pessimistic by night, but by day I am a confirmed optimist, and it is the days that have stamped my life. I have found this planet a good corner of the universe to live in and I am not in a hurry to exchange it for any other. I hope the joy of living may be as keen with you, my dear boy, as it has been with me and that you may have life on as easy terms as I have. With this foreword I will begin the record in more detail.
I have spoken of my good luck. It began in my being born on a farm, of parents in the prime of their days, and in humble circumstances. I deem it good luck, too, that my birth fell in April, a month in which so many other things find it good to begin life. Father probably tapped the sugar bush about this time or a little earlier; the bluebird and the robin and song sparrow may have arrived that very day. New calves were bleating in the barn and young lambs under the shed. There were earth- stained snow drifts on the hillside, and along the stone walls and through the forests that covered the mountains the coat of snow showed unbroken. The fields were generally bare and the frost was leaving the ground. The stress of winter was over and the warmth of spring began to be felt in the air. I had come into a household of five children, two girls and three boys, the oldest ten years and the youngest two. One had died in infancy, making me the seventh child. Mother was twenty-nine and father thirty-five, a medium-sized, freckled, red-haired man, showing very plainly the Celtic or Welsh strain in his blood, as did mother, who was a Kelly and of Irish extraction on the paternal side. I had come into a family of neither wealth nor poverty as those things were looked upon in those days, but a family dedicated to hard work winter and summer in paying for and improving a large farm, in a country of wide open valleys and long, broad-backed hills and gentle flowing mountain lines; very old geologically, but only one generation from the stump in the history of the settlement. Indeed, the stumps lingered in many of the fields late into my boyhood, and one of my tasks in the dry mid- spring weather was to burn these stumps–an occupation I always enjoyed because the adventure of it made play of the work. The climate was severe in winter, the mercury often dropping to 30 deg. below, though we then had no thermometer to measure it, and the summers, at an altitude of two thousand feet, cool and salubrious. The soil was fairly good, though encumbered with the laminated rock and stones of the Catskill formation, which the old ice sheet had broken and shouldered and transported about. About every five or six acres had loose stones and rock enough to put a rock-bottomed wall around it and still leave enough in and on the soil to worry the ploughman and the mower. All the farms in that section reposing in the valleys and bending up and over the broad-backed hills are checker-boards of stone walls, and the right- angled fields, in their many colours of green and brown and yellow and red, give a striking map-like appearance to the landscape. Good crops of grain, such as rye, oats, buckwheat, and yellow corn, are grown, but grass is the most natural product. It is a grazing country and the dairy cow thrives there, and her products are the chief source of the incomes of the farms.
I had come into a home where all the elements were sweet; the water and the air as good as there is in the world, and where the conditions of life were of a temper to discipline both mind and body. The settlers of my part of the Catskills were largely from Connecticut and Long Island, coming in after or near the close of the Revolution, and with a good mixture of Scotch emigrants.
My great-grandfather, Ephraim Burroughs, came, with his family of eight or ten children, from near Danbury, Conn., and settled in the town of Stamford shortly after the Revolution. He died there in 1818. My grandfather, Eden, came into the town of Roxbury, then a part of Ulster County.
I had come into a land flowing with milk, if not with honey. The maple syrup may very well take the place of the honey. The sugar maple was the dominant tree in the woods and the maple sugar the principal sweetening used in the family. Maple, beech, and birch wood kept us warm in winter, and pine and hemlock timber made from trees that grew in the deeper valleys formed the roofs and the walls of the houses. The breath of kine early mingled with my own breath. From my earliest memory the cow was the chief factor on the farm and her products the main source of the family income; around her revolved the haying and the harvesting. It was for her that we toiled from early July until late August, gathering the hay into the barns or into the stacks, mowing and raking it by hand. That was the day of the scythe and the good mower, of the cradle and the good cradler, of the pitchfork and the good pitcher. With the modern agricultural machinery the same crops are gathered now with less than half the outlay of human energy, but the type of farmer seems to have deteriorated in about the same proportion. The third generation of farmers in my native town are much like the third steeping of tea, or the third crop of corn where no fertilizers have been used. The large, picturesque, and original characters who improved the farms and paid for them are about all gone, and their descendants have deserted the farms or are distinctly of an inferior type. The farms keep more stock and yield better crops, owing to the amount of imported grain consumed upon them, but the families have dwindled or gone out entirely, and the social and the neighbourhood spirit is not the same. No more huskings or quiltings, or apple cuts, or raisings or “bees” of any sort. The telephone and the rural free delivery have come and the automobile and the daily newspaper. The roads are better, communication quicker, and the houses and barns more showy, but the men and the women, and especially the children, are not there. The towns and the cities are now colouring and dominating the country which they have depleted of its men, and the rural districts are becoming a faded replica of town life.
The farm work to which I was early called upon to lend a hand, as I have said, revolved around the dairy cow. Her paths were in the fields and woods, her sonorous voice was upon the hills, her fragrant breath was upon every breeze. She was the centre of our industries. To keep her in good condition, well pastured in summer and well housed and fed in winter, and the whole dairy up to its highest point of efficiency–to this end the farmer directed his efforts. It was an exacting occupation. In summer the day began with the milking and ended with the milking; and in winter it began with the foddering and ended with the foddering, and the major part of the work between and during both seasons had for its object, directly or indirectly, the well-being of the herd. Getting the cows and turning away the cows in summer was usually the work of the younger boys; turning them out of the stable and putting them back in winter was usually the work of the older. The foddering them from the stack in the field in winter also fell to the lot of the older members of the family.
In milking we all took a hand when we had reached the age of about ten years, Mother and my sisters usually doing their share. At first we milked the cows in the road in front of the house, setting the pails of milk on the stone work; later we milked them in a yard in the orchard behind the house, and of late years the milking is done in the stable. Mother said that when they first came upon the farm, as she sat milking a cow in the road one evening, she saw a large black animal come out of the woods out where the clover meadow now is, and cross the road and disappear in the woods on the other side. Bears sometimes carried off the farmers’ hogs in those days, boldly invading the pens to do so. My father kept about thirty cows of the Durham breed; now the dairy herds are made up of Jerseys or Holsteins. Then the product that went to market was butter, now it is milk. Then the butter was made on the farm by the farmer’s wife or the hired girl, now it is made in the creameries by men. My mother made most of the butter for nearly forty years, packing thousands of tubs and firkins of it in that time. The milk was set in tin pans on a rack in the milk house for the cream to rise, and as soon as the milk clabbered it was skimmed.
About three o’clock in the afternoon during the warm weather Mother would begin skimming the milk, carrying it pan by pan to the big cream pan, where with a quick movement of a case knife the cream was separated from the sides of the pan, the pan tilted on the edge of the cream pan and the heavy mantle of cream, in folds or flakes, slid off into the receptacle and the thick milk emptied into pails to be carried to the swill barrel for the hogs. I used to help Mother at times by handing her the pans of milk from the rack and emptying the pails. Then came the washing of the pans at the trough, at which I also often aided her by standing the pans up to dry and sun on the big bench. Rows of drying tin pans were always a noticeable feature about farmhouses in those days, also the churning machine attached to the milk house and the sound of the wheel, propelled by the “old churner”–either a big dog or a wether sheep. Every summer morning by eight o’clock the old sheep or the old dog was brought and tied to his task upon the big wheel. Sheep were usually more unwilling churners than were the dogs. They rarely acquired any sense of duty or obedience as a dog did. This endless walking and getting nowhere very soon called forth vigorous protests. The churner would pull back, brace himself, choke, and stop the machine: one churner threw himself off and was choked to death before he was discovered. I remember when the old hetchel from the day of flax dressing, fastened to a board, did duty behind the old churner, spurring him up with its score or more of sharp teeth when he settled back to stop the machine. “Run and start the old sheep,” was a command we heard less often after that. He could not long hold out against the pressure of that phalanx of sharp points upon his broad rear end.
The churn dog was less obdurate and perverse, but he would sometimes hide away as the hour of churning approached and we would have to hustle around to find him. But we had one dog that seemed to take pleasure in the task and would go quickly to the wheel when told to and finish his task without being tied. In the absence of both dog and sheep, I have a few times taken their place on the wheel. In winter and early spring there was less cream to churn and we did it by hand, two of us lifting the dasher together. Heavy work for even big boys, and when the stuff was reluctant and the butter would not come sometimes until the end of an hour, the task tried our mettle. Sometimes it would not gather well after it had come, then some deft handling of the dasher was necessary.
I never tired of seeing Mother lift the great masses of golden butter from the churn with her ladle and pile them up in the big butter bowl, with the drops of buttermilk standing upon them as if they were sweating from the ordeal they had been put through. Then the working and the washing of it to free it from the milk and the final packing into tub or firkin, its fresh odour in the air–what a picture it was! How much of the virtue of the farm went each year into those firkins! Literally the cream of the land. Ah, the alchemy of Life, that in the bee can transform one product of those wild rough fields into honey, and in the cow can transform another product into milk!
The spring butter was packed into fifty-pound tubs to be shipped to market as fast as made. The packing into one-hundred-pound firkins to be held over till November did not begin till the cows were turned out to pasture in May. To have made forty tubs by that time and sold them for eighteen or twenty cents a pound was considered very satisfactory. Then to make forty or fifty firkins during the summer and fall and to get as good a price for it made the farmer’s heart glad. When Father first came on the farm, in 1827, butter brought only twelve or fourteen cents per pound, but the price steadily crept up till in my time it sold from seventeen to eighteen and a half. The firkin butter was usually sold to a local butter buyer named Dowie. He usually appeared in early fall, always on horseback, having notified Father in advance. At the breakfast table Father would say, “Dowie is coming to try the butter to-day.”
“I hope he will not try that firkin I packed that hot week in July,” Mother would say. But very likely that was the one among others he would ask for. His long, half-round steel butter probe or tryer was thrust down the centre of the firkin to the bottom, given a turn or two, and withdrawn, its tapering cavity filled with a sample of every inch of butter in the firkin. Dowie would pass it rapidly to and fro under his nose, maybe sometimes tasting it, then push the tryer back into the hole, then withdrawing it, leaving its core of butter where it found it. If the butter suited him, and it rarely failed to do so, he would make his offer and ride away to the next dairy.
The butter had always to be delivered at a date agreed upon, on the Hudson River at Catskill. This usually took place in November. It was the event of the fall: two loads of butter, of twenty or more firkins each, to be transported fifty miles in a lumber wagon, each round trip taking about four days. The firkins had to be headed up and gotten ready. This job in my time usually fell to Hiram. He would begin the day before Father was to start and have a load headed and placed in the wagon on time, with straw between the firkins so they would not rub. How many times I have heard those loads start off over the frozen ground in the morning before it was light! Sometimes a neighbour’s wagon would go slowly jolting by just after or just before Father had started, but on the same errand. Father usually took a bag of oats for his horses and a box of food for himself so as to avoid all needless expenses. The first night would usually find him in Steel’s tavern in Greene County, half way to Catskill. The next afternoon would find him at his journey’s end and by night unloaded at the steamboat wharf, his groceries and other purchases made, and ready for an early start homeward in the morning. On the fourth night we would be on the lookout for his return. Mother would be sitting, sewing by the light of her tallow dip, with one ear bent toward the road. She usually caught the sound of his wagon first. “There comes your father,” she would say, and Hiram or Wilson would quickly get and light the old tin lantern and stand ready on the stonework to receive him and help put out the team. By the time he was in the house his supper would be on the table–a cold pork stew, I remember, used to delight him on such occasions, and a cup of green tea. After supper his pipe, and the story of his trip told, with a list of family purchases, and then to bed. In a few days the second trip would be made. As his boys grew old enough he gave each of them in turn a trip with him to Catskill. It was a great event in the life of each of us. When it came my turn I was probably eleven or twelve years old and the coming event loomed big on my horizon. I was actually to see my first steamboat, the Hudson River, and maybe the steam cars. For several days in advance I hunted the woods for game to stock the provision box so as to keep down the expense. I killed my first partridge and probably a wild pigeon or two and gray squirrels. Perched high on that springboard beside Father, my feet hardly touching the tops of the firkins, at the rate of about two miles an hour over rough roads in chilly November weather, I made my first considerable journey into the world. I crossed the Catskill Mountains and got that surprising panoramic view of the land beyond from the top. At Cairo, where it seems we passed the second night, I disgraced myself in the morning, when Father, after praising me to some bystanders, told me to get up in the wagon and drive the load out in the road. In my earnest effort to do so I ran foul of one side of the big door, and came near smashing things. Father was humiliated and I was dreadfully mortified.
With the wonders of Catskill I was duly impressed, but one of my most vivid remembrances is a passage at arms (verbal) at the steamboat between Father and old Dowie. The latter had questioned the correctness of the weight of the empty firkin which was to be deducted as tare from the total weight. Hot words followed. Father said, “Strip it, strip it.” Dowie said, “I will,” and in a moment there stood on the scales the naked firkin of butter, sweating drops of salt water. Which won, I do not know. I remember only that peace soon reigned and Dowie continued to buy our butter.
One other incident of that trip still sticks in my mind. I was walking along a street just at dusk, when I saw a drove of cattle coming. The drover, seeing me, called out, “Here, boy, turn those cows up that street!” This was in my line, I was at home with cows, and I turned the drove up in fine style. As the man came along he said, “Well done,” and placed six big copper cents in my hand. Never was my palm more unexpectedly and more agreeably tickled. The feel of it is with me yet!
At an earlier date than that of the accident in the old stone school house, my head, and my body, too, got some severe bruises. One summer day when I could not have been more than three years old, my sister Jane and I were playing in the big attic chamber and amusing ourselves by lying across the vinegar keg and pushing it about the room with our feet. We came to the top of the steep stairway that ended against the chamber door, a foot or more above the kitchen floor, and I suppose we thought it would be fun to take the stairway on the keg. At the brink of that stairway my memory becomes a blank and when I find myself again I am lying on the bed in the “back-bedroom” and the smell of camphor is rank in the room. How it fared with Jane I do not recall; the injury was probably not serious with either of us, but it is easy to imagine how poor Mother must have been startled when she heard that racket on the stairs and the chamber door suddenly burst open, spilling two of her children, mixed up with the vinegar keg, out on the kitchen floor. Jane was more than two years my senior, and should have known better.
Vivid incidents make a lasting impression. I recall what might have been a very serious accident had not my usual good luck attended me, when I was a few years older. One autumn day I was with my older brothers in the corn lot, where they had gone with the lumber wagon to gather pumpkins. When they had got their load and were ready to start I planted myself on the load above the hind axle and let my legs hang down between the spokes of the big wheel. Luckily one of my brothers saw my perilous position just as the team was about to move and rescued me in time. Doubtless my legs would have been broken and maybe very badly crushed in a moment more. But such good fortune seems to have followed me always. One winter’s morning, as I stooped to put on one of my boots beside the kitchen stove at the house of a schoolmate with whom I had passed the night, my face came in close contact with the spout of the boiling tea kettle. The scalding steam barely missed my eye and blistered my brow a finger’s breadth above it. With one eye gone, I fancy life would have looked quite different. Another time I was walking along one of the market streets of New York, when a heavy bale of hay, through the carelessness of some workman, dropped from thirty or forty feet above me and struck the pavement at my feet. I heard angry words over the mishap, spoken by someone above me, but I only said to myself, “Lucky again!” I recall a bit of luck of a different kind when I was a treasury clerk in Washington. I had started for the seashore for a week’s vacation with a small roll of new greenbacks in my pocket. Shortly after the train had left the station I left my seat and walked through two or three of the forward cars looking for a friend who had agreed to join me. Not finding him, I retraced my steps, and as I was passing along through the car next my own I chanced to see a roll of new bills on the floor near the end of a seat. Instinctively feeling for my own roll of bills and finding it missing, I picked up the money and saw at a glance that it was mine. The passengers near by eyed me in surprise, and I suspect began to feel in their own pockets, but I did not stop to explain and went to my seat startled but happy. I had missed my friend but I might have missed something of more value to me just at that time.
A kind of untoward fate seems inherent in the characters of some persons and makes them the victims of all the ill luck on the road. Such a fate has not been mine. I have met all the good luck on the road. Some kindly influence has sent my best friends my way, or sent me their way. The best thing about me is that I have found a perennial interest in the common universal things which all may have on equal terms, and hence have found plenty to occupy and absorb me wherever I have been. If the earth and the sky are enough for one, why should one sigh for other spheres?
The old farm must have had at least ten miles of stone walls upon it, many of them built new by Father from stones picked up in the fields, and many of them relaid by him, or rather by his boys and hired men. Father was not skilful at any sort of craft work. He was a good ploughman, a good mower and cradler, excellent with a team of oxen drawing rocks, and good at most general farm work, but not an adept at constructing anything. Hiram was the mechanical genius of the family. He was a good wall-layer, and skilful with edged tools. It fell to his lot to make the sleds, the stone-boats, the hay-rigging, the ax helves, the flails, to mend the cradles and rakes, to build the haystacks, and once, I remember, he rebuilt the churning machine. He was slow but he hewed exactly to the line. Before and during my time on the farm Father used to count on building forty or fifty rods of stone wall each year, usually in the spring and early summer. These were the only lines of poetry and prose Father wrote. They are still very legible on the face of the landscape and cannot be easily erased from it. Gathered out of the confusion of nature, built up of fragments of the old Devonian rock and shale, laid with due regard to the wear and tear of time, well- bottomed and well-capped, establishing boundaries and defining possessions, etc., these lines of stone wall afford a good lesson in many things besides wall building. They are good literature and good philosophy. They smack of the soil, they have local colour, they are a bit of chaos brought into order. When you deal with nature only the square deal is worth while. How she searches for the vulnerable points in your structure, the weak places in your foundation, the defective material in your building!
The farmer’s stone wall, when well built, stands about as long as he does. It begins to reel and look decrepit when he begins to do so. But it can be relaid and he cannot. One day I passed by the roadside to speak with an old man who was rebuilding a wall. “I laid this wall fifty years ago,” he said. “When it is laid up again I shall not have the job.” He had stood up longer than had his wall.
A stone wall is the friend of all the wild creatures. It is a safe line of communication with all parts of the landscape. What do the chipmunks, red squirrels, and weasels do in a country without stone fences? The woodchucks and the coons and foxes also use them.
It was my duty as a farm boy to help pick up the stone and pry up the rocks. I could put the bait under the lever, even if my weight on top of it did not count for much. The slow, patient, hulky oxen, how they would kink their tails, hump their backs, and throw their weight into the bows when they felt a heavy rock behind them and Father lifted up his voice and laid on the “gad”! It was a good subject for a picture which, I think, no artist has ever painted. How many rocks we turned out of their beds, where they had slept since the great ice sheet tucked them up there, maybe a hundred thousand years ago–how wounded and torn the meadow or pasture looked, bleeding as it were, in a score of places, when the job was finished! But the further surgery of the plough and harrow, followed by the healing touch of the seasons, soon made all whole again.
The work on the farm in those days varied little from year to year. In winter the care of the cattle, the cutting of the wood, and the thrashing of the oats and rye filled the time. From the age of ten or twelve till we were grown up, we went to school only in winter, doing the chores morning and evening, and engaging in general work every other Saturday, which was a holiday. Often my older brothers would have to leave school by three o’clock to get home to put up the cows in my father’s absence. Those school days, how they come back to me!–the long walk across lots, through the snow-choked fields and woods, our narrow path so often obliterated by a fresh fall of snow; the cutting winds, the bitter cold, the snow squeaking beneath our frozen cowhide boots, our trousers’ legs often tied down with tow strings to keep the snow from pushing them up above our boot tops; the wide-open white landscape with its faint black lines of stone wall when we had passed the woods and began to dip down into West Settlement valley; the Smith boys and Bouton boys and Dart boys, afar off, threading the fields on their way to school, their forms etched on the white hillsides, one of the bigger boys, Ria Bouton, who had many chores to do, morning after morning running the whole distance so as not to be late; the red school house in the distance by the roadside with the dark spot in its centre made by the open door of the entry way; the creek in the valley, often choked with anchor ice, which our path crossed and into which I one morning slumped, reaching the school house with my clothes freezing upon me and the water gurgling in my boots; the boys and girls there, Jay Gould among them, two thirds of them now dead and the living scattered from the Hudson to the Pacific; the teachers now all dead; the studies, the games, the wrestlings, the baseball–all these things and more pass before me as I recall those long-gone days. Two years ago I hunted up one of those schoolmates in California whom I had not seen for over sixty years. She was my senior by seven or eight years, and I had a boy’s remembrance of her fresh sweet face, her kindly eyes and gentle manners. I was greeted by a woman of eighty-two, with dimmed sight and dulled hearing, but instantly I recognized some vestiges of the charm and sweetness of my elder schoolmate of so long ago. No cloud was on her mind or memory and for an hour we again lived among the old people and scenes.
What a roomful of pupils, many of them young men and women, there was during those winters, thirty-five or forty each day! In late years there are never more than five or six. The fountains of population are drying up more rapidly than are our streams. Of that generous roomful of young people, many became farmers, a few became business men, three or four became professional men, and only one, so far as I know, took to letters; and he, judged by his environment and antecedents, the last one you would have picked out for such a career. You might have seen in Jay Gould’s Jewish look, bright scholarship, and pride of manners some promise of an unusual career; but in the boy of his own age whom he was so fond of wrestling with and of having go home with him at night, but whose visits he would never return, what was there indicative of the future? Surely not much that I can now discover. Jay Gould, who became a sort of Napoleon of finance, early showed a talent for big business and power to deal with men. He had many characteristic traits which came out even in his walk. One day in New York, after more than twenty years since I had known him as a boy, I was walking up Fifth Avenue, when I saw a man on the other side of the street, more than a block away, coming toward me, whose gait arrested my attention as something I had known long before. Who could it be? I thought, and began to ransack my memory for a clew. I had seen that gait before. As the man came opposite me I saw he was Jay Gould. That walk in some subtle way differed from the walk of any other man I had known. It is a curious psychological fact that the two men outside my own family of whom I have oftenest dreamed in my sleep are Emerson and Jay Gould; one to whom I owe so much, the other to whom I owe nothing; one whose name I revere, the other whose name I associate, as does the world, with the dark way of speculative finance. The new expounders of the philosophy of dreams would probably tell me that I had a secret admiration for Jay Gould. If I have, it slumbers deeply in my sub-conscious self and awakens only when my conscious self sleeps.
But I set out to talk of the work on the farm. The threshing was mostly done in winter with the hickory flail, one shock of fifteen sheaves making a flooring. On the dry cold days the grain shelled easily. After a flooring had been thrashed over at least three times, the straw was bound up again in sheaves, the floor completely raked over and the grain banked up against the side of the bay. When the pile became so large it was in the way, it was cleaned up, that is, run through the fanning mill, one of us shovelling in the grain, another turning the mill, and a third measuring the grain and putting it into bags, or into the bins of the granary. One winter when I was a small boy Jonathan Scudder threshed for us in the barn on the hill. He was in love with my sister Olly Ann and wanted to make a good impression on the “old folks.” Every night at supper Father would say to him, “Well, Jonathan, how many shock today?” and they grew more and more, until one day he reached the limit of fourteen and he was highly complimented on his day’s work. It made an impression on Father, but it did not soften the heart of Olly Ann. The sound of the flail and the fanning mill is heard in the farmers’ barns no more. The power threshing machine that travels from farm to farm now does the job in a single day–a few hours of pandemonium, with now and then a hand or an arm crushed in place of the days of leisurely swinging of the hickory flail.
The first considerable work in spring was sugar-making, always a happy time for me. Usually the last half of March, when rills from the melting snow began to come through the fields, the veins of the sugar maples began to thrill with the spring warmth. There was a general awakening about the farm at this time: the cackling of the hens, the bleating of young lambs and calves, and the wistful lowing of the cows. Earlier in the month the “sap spiles” had been overhauled, resharpened, and new ones made, usually from bass wood. In my time the sap gouge was used instead of the auger and the manner of tapping was crude and wasteful. A slanting gash three or four inches long and a half inch or more deep was cut, and an inch below the lower end of this the gouge was driven in to make the place for the spile, a piece of wood two inches wide, shaped to the gouge, and a foot or more in length. It gave the tree a double and unnecessary wound. The bigger the gash the more the sap, seemed to be the theory, as if the tree was a barrel filled with liquid, whereas a small wound made by a half-inch bit does the work just as well and is far less injurious to the tree.
When there came a bright morning, wind northwest and warm enough to begin to thaw by eight o’clock, the sugar-making utensils–pans, kettles, spiles, hogsheads–were loaded upon the sled and taken to the woods, and by ten o’clock the trees began to feel the cruel ax and gouge once more. It usually fell to my part to carry the pans and spiles for one of the tappers, Hiram or Father, and to arrange the pans on a level foundation of sticks or stones, in position. Father often used to haggle the tree a good deal in tapping. “By Fagus,” he would say, “how awkward I am!” The rapid tinkle of those first drops of sap in the tin pan, how well I remember it! Probably the note of the first song sparrow or first bluebird, or the spring call of the nuthatch, sounded in unison. Usually only patches of snow lingered here and there in the woods and the earth- stained remnants of old drifts on the sides of the hills and along the stone walls. Those lucid warm March days in the naked maple woods under the blue sky, with the first drops of sap ringing in the pans, had a charm that does not fade from my mind. After the trees were all tapped, two hundred and fifty of them, the big kettles were again set up in the old stone-arch, and the hogsheads in which to store the sap placed in position. By four o’clock many of the pans–milk pans from the dairy– would be full, and the gathering with neck yoke and pails began. When I was fourteen or fifteen I took a hand in this part of the work. It used to tax my strength to carry the two twelve-quart pails full through the rough places and up the steep banks in the woods and then lift them up and alternately empty them into the hogsheads without displacing the neck yoke. But I could do it. Now all this work is done by the aid of a team and a pipe fastened on a sled. Before I was old enough to gather sap it fell to me to go to the barns and put in hay for the cows and help stable them. The next morning the boiling of the sap would begin, with Hiram in charge. The big deep iron kettles were slow evaporators compared with the broad shallow sheet-iron pans now in use. Profundity cannot keep up with shallowness in sugar-making, the more superficial your evaporator, within limits, the more rapid your progress. It took the farmers nearly a hundred years to find this out, or at least to act upon it.
At the end of a couple of days of hard boiling Hiram would “syrup off,” having reduced two hundred pails of sap to five or six of syrup. The syruping-off often occurred after dark. When the liquid dropped from a dipper which was dipped into it and, held up in the cool air, formed into stiff thin masses, it had reached the stage of syrup. How we minded our steps over the rough path, in the semi-darkness of the old tin lantern, in carrying those precious pails of syrup to the house, where the final process of “sugaring off” was to be completed by Mother and Jane!
The sap runs came at intervals of several days. Two or three days would usually end one run. A change in the weather to below freezing would stop the flow, and a change to much warmer would check it.
The fountains of sap are let loose by frosty sunshine. Frost in the ground, or on it in the shape of snow and the air full of sunshine are the most favourable conditions. A certain chill and crispness, something crystalline, in the air are necessary. A touch of enervating warmth from the south or a frigidity from the north and the trees feel it through their thick bark coats very quickly. Between the temperatures of thirty- five to fifty degrees they get in their best work. After we have had one run ending in rain and warmth, a fresh fall of snow–“sap snow”, the farmers call such–will give us another run. Three or four good runs make a long and successful season. My boyhood days in the spring sugar bush were my most enjoyable on the farm. How I came to know each one of those two hundred and fifty trees–what a distinct sense of individuality seemed to adhere to most of them, as much so as to each cow in a dairy! I knew at which trees I would be pretty sure to find a full pan and at which ones a less amount. One huge tree always gave a cream-pan full–a double measure–while the others were filling an ordinary pan. This was known as “the old cream-pan tree.” Its place has long been vacant; about half the others are still standing, but with the decrepitude of age appearing in their tops, a new generation of maples has taken the place of the vanished veterans.
While tending the kettles there beside the old arch in the bright, warm March or April days, with my brother, or while he had gone to dinner, looking down the long valley and off over the curving backs of the distant mountain ranges, what dreams I used to have, what vague longings, and, I may say, what happy anticipations! I am sure I gathered more than sap and sugar in those youthful days amid the maples. When I visit the old home now I have to walk up to the sugar bush and stand around the old “boiling place,” trying to transport myself back into the magic atmosphere of that boyhood time. The man has his dreams, too, but to his eyes the world is not steeped in romance as it is to the eyes of youth.
One springtime in the sugar season my cousin, Gib Kelly, a boy of my own age, visited me, staying two or three days. (He died last fall.) When he went away I was minding the kettles in the woods, and as I saw him crossing the bare fields in the March sunshine, his steps bent toward the distant mountains, I still remember what a sense of loss came over me, his comradeship had so brightened my enjoyment of the beautiful days. He seemed to take my whole world with him, and on that and the following day I went about my duties in the sap bush in a wistful and pensive mood I had never before felt. I early showed the capacity for comradeship. A boy friend could throw the witchery of romance over everything. Oh, the enchanted days with my youthful mates! And I have not entirely outgrown that early susceptibility. There are persons in the world whose comradeship can still transmute the baser metal of commonplace scenes and experiences into the purest gold of romance for me. It is probably my feminine idiosyncrasies that explain all this. Another unforgettable passion of comradeship in my youth I experienced toward the son of a cousin, a boy four or five years old, or about half my own age. One spring his mother and he were visiting at our house eight or ten days. The child was very winsome and we soon became inseparable companions. He was like a visitor from another sphere. I frequently carried him on my back, and my heart opened to him more and more each day. One day we started to come down a rather steep pair of stairs from the hog-pen chamber; I had stepped down a few steps and reached out to take little Harry in my arms, as he stood on the floor at the head of the stairs, and carry him down, when in his joy he gave a spring and toppled me over with him in my arms, and we brought up at the bottom with our heads against some solid timbers. It was a severe shake- up but hurt my heart more than it did my head because the boy was badly bruised. The event comes back to me as if it were but yesterday. For weeks after his departure I longed for him day and night and the experience still shines like a star in my boyhood life. I never saw him again until two years ago when, knowing he lived there, a practising physician, I hunted him up in San Francisco. I found him a sedate gray- haired man, with no hint, of course, of the child I had known and loved more than sixty years before. It has been my experience on several occasions to hunt up friends of my youth after the lapse of more than half a century. Last spring I had a letter from a pupil of mine in the first school I ever taught, in 1854 or ’55. I had not seen or heard from him in all those years when he recalled himself to my mind. The name I had not forgotten, Roswell Beach, but the face I had. Only two weeks ago, being near his town, it occurred to me to look him up. I did so and was shocked to find him on his deathbed. Too weak to raise his head from his pillow he yet threw his arms around me and spoke my name many times with marked affection. He died a few days later. I was to him what some of my old teachers were to me–stars that never set below my horizon.
My boyish liking for girls was quite different from my liking for boys– there was little or no sense of comradeship in it. When I was eight or nine years old there was one girl in the school toward whom I felt very partial, and I thought she reciprocated till one day I suddenly saw how little she cared for me. The teacher had forbidden us to put our feet upon the seats in front of us. In a spirit of rebellion, I suppose, when the teacher was not looking, I put my brown, soil-stained bare feet upon the forbidden seat. Polly quickly spoke up and said, “Teacher, Johnny Burris put his feet on the seat”–what a blow it was to me for her to tell on me! Like a cruel frost those words nipped the tender buds of my affection and they never sprouted again. Years after, her younger brother married my younger sister, and maybe that unkind cut of our school days kept me from marrying Polly. I had other puppy loves but they all died a natural death.
But let me get back to the farm work.
The gathering of the things in the sugar bush, when the flow of sap had stopped, usually fell to Eden and me. We would carry the pans and spiles together in big piles, where the oxen and sled could reach them. Then when they were taken to the house it was my mother’s and sister’s task to get them ready for the milk.
The drawing out of the manure and the spring ploughing was the next thing in order on the farm. I took a hand in the former but not in the latter. The spreading of the manure that had been drawn out and placed in heaps in the fields during the winter often fell to me. I remember that I did not bend my back to the work very willingly, especially when the cattle had been bedded with long rye straw, but there were compensations. I could lean on my fork handle and gaze at the spring landscape, I could see the budding trees and listen to the songs of the early birds and maybe catch the note of the first swallow in the air overhead. The farm boy always has the whole of nature at his elbow and he is usually aware of it.
When, armed with my long-handled “knocker,” I used to be sent forth in the April meadows to beat up and scatter the fall droppings of the cows –the Juno’s cushions as Irving named them–I was in much more congenial employment. Had I known the game of golf in those days I should probably have looked upon this as a fair substitute. To stand the big cushions up on edge and with a real golfer’s swing hit them with my mallet and see the pieces fly was more like play than work. Oh, then it was April and I felt the rising tide of spring in my blood, and a bit of free activity like this under the blue sky suited my humour. A boy likes almost any work that affords him an escape from routine and humdrum and has an element of play in it. Turning the grindstone or the fanning mill or carrying together sheaves or picking up potatoes or carrying in wood were duties that were a drag upon my spirits.
The spring ploughing and the sowing of the grain and harrowing fell mainly to Father and my older brothers. The spring work was considered done when the oats were sowed and the corn and potatoes planted: the first in early May, the latter in late May. The. buckwheat was not sown until late June. One farmer would ask another, “How many oats are you going to sow, or have you sown?” not how many acres. “Oh, fifteen or twenty bushels,” would be the answer.
The working of the roads came in June after the crops were in. All hands, summoned by the “path master,” would meet at a given date, at the end of the district down by the old stone school house–men and boys with oxen, horses, scrapers, hoes, crowbars–and begin repairing the highway. It was not strenuous work, but a kind of holiday that we all enjoyed more or less. The road got fixed after a fashion, here and there–a bridge mended, a ditch cleaned out, the loose stones removed, a hole filled up, or a short section “turnpiked”–but the days were eight- hour days and they did not sit heavy upon us. The state does it much better now with road machinery and a few men. Once or twice a year Father used to send me with a hoe to throw the loose stones out of the road.
A pleasanter duty during those years was shooting chipmunks around the corn. These little rodents were so plentiful in my youth that they used to pull up the sprouting corn around the margin of the field near the stone walls. Armed with the old flint-lock musket, sometimes loaded with a handful of hard peas, I used to haunt the edges of the cornfield, watching for the little striped-backed culprits. How remorselessly I used to kill them! In those days there were a dozen where there is barely one now. The woods literally swarmed with them, and when beechnuts and acorns were scarce they were compelled to poach upon the farmer’s crops. It was to reduce them and other pests that shooting matches were held. Two men would choose sides as in the spelling matches, seven or eight or more were on a side, and the side that brought in the most trophies at the end of the week won and the losing side had to pay for the supper at the village hotel for the whole crowd. A chipmunk’s tail counted one, a red squirrel’s three, a gray squirrel’s still more. Hawks’ heads and owls’ heads counted as high as ten, I think. Crows’ heads also counted pretty high. One man who had little time to hunt engaged me to help him, offering me so much per dozen units. I remember that I found up in the sap bush a brood of young screech owls just out of the nest and I killed them all. That man is still owing me for those owls. What a lot of motley heads and tails were brought in at the end of the week! I never saw them but wish I had. Repeated shooting matches of this kind, in different parts of the state, so reduced the small wild life, especially the chipmunks, that it has not yet recovered, and probably never will. In those days the farmer’s hand was against nearly every wild thing. We used to shoot and trap crows and hen hawks and small hawks as though they were our mortal enemies. Farmers were wont to stand up poles in their meadows and set steel traps on the top of them to catch the hen hawks that came for the meadow mice which were damaging their meadows. The hen hawk is so named because he rarely or never catches a hen or a chicken. He is a mouser. We used to bait the hungry crows in spring with “deacon” legs and shoot them without mercy, and all because they now and then pulled a little corn, forgetting or not knowing of the grubs and worms they pulled and the grasshoppers they ate. But all this is changed and now our sable friends and the high-soaring hawks are seldom molested. The fool with a rifle is very apt to shoot an eagle if the chance comes to him, but he has to be very sly about it.
The buttercups and the daisies would be blooming when we were working the road, and the timothy grass about ready to do so–pointing to the near approach of the great event of the season, the one major task toward which so many other things pointed–“haying;” the gathering of our hundred or more tons of meadow hay. This was always a hard-fought campaign. Our weapons were gotten ready in due time, new scythes and new snaths, new rakes and new forks, the hay riggings repaired or built anew, etc. Shortly after the Fourth of July the first assault upon the legions of timothy would be made in the lodged grass below the barn. Our scythes would turn up great swaths that nearly covered the ground and that put our strength to a severe test. When noon came we would go to the house with shaking knees.
The first day of haying meant nearly a whole day with the scythe, and was the most trying of all. After that a half day mowing, when the weather was good, meant work in curing and hauling each afternoon. From the first day in early July till the end of August we lived for the hayfield. No respite except on rainy days and Sundays, and no change except from one meadow to another. No eight-hour days then, rather twelve and fourteen, including the milking. No horse rakes, no mowing machines or hay tedders or loading or pitching devices then. The scythe, the hand rake, the pitchfork in the calloused hands of men and boys did the work, occasionally the women even taking a turn with the rake or in mowing away. I remember the first wire-toothed horse rake with its two handles, which when the day was hot and the grass heavy nearly killed both man and horse. The holder would throw his weight upon it to make it grip and hold the hay, and then, in a spasm of energy, lift it up and make it drop the hay. From this rude instrument, through various types of wooden and revolving rakes, the modern wheeled rake, with which the raker rides at his ease, has been evolved. At this season the cows were brought to the yard by or before five, breakfast was at six, lunch in the field at ten, dinner at twelve, and supper at five, with milking and hay drawing and heaping up till sundown. Those mid-forenoon lunches of Mother’s good rye bread and butter, with crullers or gingerbread, and in August a fresh green cucumber and a sweating jug of water fresh from the spring–sweating, not as we did, because it was hot, but because it was cold, partaken under an ash or a maple tree–how sweet and fragrant the memory of it all is to me!
Till I reached my ‘teens it was my task to spread hay and to rake after; later I took my turn with the mowers and pitchers. I never loaded, hence I never pitched over the big beam. How Father watched the weather! The rain that makes the grass ruins the hay. If the morning did not promise a good hay day our scythes would be ground but hung back in their places. When a thunderstorm was gathering in the west and much hay was ready for hauling, how it quickened our steps and our strokes! It was the sound of the guns of the approaching foe. In one hour we would do, or try to do, the work of two. How the wagon would rattle over the road, how the men would mop their faces and how I, while hurrying, would secretly exult that now I would have an hour to finish my crossbow or to work on my pond in the pasture lot!
Those late summer afternoons after the shower–what man who has spent his youth on the farm does not recall them! The high-piled thunder heads of the retreating storm above the eastern mountains, the moist fresh smell of the hay and the fields, the red puddles in the road, the robins singing from the tree tops, the washed and cooler air and the welcomed feeling of relaxation which they brought. It was a good time now to weed the garden, to grind the scythes, and do other odd jobs. When the haying was finished, usually late in August, in my time, there was usually a let-up for a few days.
I was the seventh child in a family of ten children: Hiram, Olly Ann, Wilson, Curtis, Edmond, and Jane came before me; Eden, Abigail, and Eveline came after me. All were as unlike me in those mental qualities by which I am known to the world as you can well conceive, but all were like me in their more fundamental family traits. We all had the same infirmities of character: we were all tenderfeet–lacking in grit, will power, self-assertion, and the ability to deal with men. We were easily crowded to the wall, easily cheated, always ready to take a back seat, timid, complying, undecided, obstinate but not combative, selfish but not self-asserting, always the easy victims of pushing, coarse-grained, designing men. As with Father, the word came easy but the blow was slow to follow. Only a year or two ago a lightning-rod man made my brother Curtis and his son John have his rods put upon their barn against their wills. They did not want his rods but could not say “No” with enough force. He simply held them up and made them take his rods, willy nilly. Curtis had maps, books, washing machines, etc., forced upon him in the same way. I am able to resist the tree men, book agents, etc., and the lightning-rod man, for a wonder, found me a decided non-conductor; but I can see how my weaker brothers failed. I have settled a lawsuit rather than fight it out when I knew law and justice were on my side. My wife has often said that I never knew when I was imposed upon. I may know it and yet feel that resenting it would cause me more pain than the affront did. Strife and contention kill me, yet come easy to me, and did to all my family. My sense of personal dignity, personal honour, is not a plant of such tender growth that it cannot stand rough winds and nipping frosts. That is a flattering way of saying that we are a very non- chivalrous tribe and would rather run away than fight any time. During the anti-rent war in Delaware County in 1844, Father, who was a “down renter,” once fled to a neighbour’s house when he saw the posse coming and took refuge under the bed, leaving his feet sticking out. Father never denied it and never seemed a bit humiliated when twitted about it. Grandfather Kelly seems to have used up all our fighting blood in campaigning with Washington, though I more than half suspect that our noncombativeness comes from the paternal side of the family. As a school boy I never had a fight, nor have I ever dealt or received a hostile blow since. And I never saw but one of my brothers fight at school, and he fought the meanest boy in school and punished him well. I can see him now, sitting on the prostrate form of the boy, with his hands clinched in the boy’s hair and jamming his face down into the crusty snow till the blood streamed down his face. The nearest I ever came to a fight at school was when, one noontime, we were playing baseball and a boy of my own age and size got angry at me and dared me to lay my hand on him. I did it quickly, but his bite did not follow his bark. I was never whipped at school or at home that I can remember, though I no doubt often deserved it. There was a good deal of loud scolding in our family but very few blows.
Father and Mother had a pretty hard struggle to pay for the farm and to clothe and feed and school us all. We lived off the products of the farm to an extent that people do not think of doing nowadays. Not only was our food largely home grown but our clothes also were home grown and home spun. In my early youth our house linen and our summer shirts and trousers were made from flax that grew on the farm. Those pioneer shirts, how vividly I remember them! They dated from the stump, and bits of the stump in the shape of “shives” were inwoven in their texture and made the wearer of them an unwilling penitent for weeks, or until use and the washboard had subdued them. Peas in your shoes are no worse than “shives” on your shirt. But those tow shirts stood by you. If you lost your hold in climbing a tree and caught on a limb your shirt or your linen trousers would hold you. The stuff from which they were made had a history behind it–pulled up by the roots, rooted on the ground, broken with a crackle, flogged with a swingle, and drawn through a hetchel, and out of all this ordeal came the flax. How clearly I remember Father working with it in the bright, sharp March days, breaking it, then swingling it with a long wooden sword-like tool over the end of an upright board fixed at the base in a heavy block. This was to separate the brittle fragments of the bark from the fibres of the flax. Then in large handfuls he drew it through the hetchel–an instrument with a score or more long sharp iron teeth, set in a board, row behind row. This combed out the tow and other worthless material. It was a mighty good discipline for the flax; it straightened out its fibres and made it as clear and straight as a girl’s tresses. Out of the tow we twisted bag strings, flail strings, and other strings. With the worthless portions we made huge bonfires. The flax, Mother would mass upon her distaff and spin into threads. The last I saw of the old crackle, fifty or more years ago, it served as a hen roost under the shed, and the savage old hetchel was doing duty behind the old churner when he sulked and pulled back so as to stop the churning machine. It was hetcheling wool then instead of flax. The flax was spun on a quill which ran by the foot and the quills or spools holding the thread were used in a shuttle when the cloth was woven. The old loom stood in the hog-pen chamber, and there Mother wove her linen, her rag carpets, and her woollen goods. I have “quilled” for her many a time–that is, run the yarn off the reel into spools for use in the shuttle.
Father had a flock of sheep which yielded wool enough for our stockings, mittens, comforts, and underwear, and woollen sheets and comforts for the beds. I have some of those home-made woollen sheets and bed covers now at Slabsides.
Before the sheep were sheared in June they were driven two miles to the creek to be washed. Washing-sheep-day was an event on the farm. It was no small task to get the sheep off the mountain, drive them to the deep pool behind old Jonas More’s grist mill, pen them up there, and drag them one by one into the water and make good clean Baptists of them! But sheep are no fighters, they struggle for a moment and then passively submit to the baptism. My older brothers usually did the washing and I the herding. When the shearing was done, a few days later the poor creatures were put through another ordeal, to which after a brief struggle they quickly resigned themselves. Father did the shearing, while I at times held the animal’s legs. Father was not an adept hand with the shears and the poor beast usually had to part with many a bit of her hide along with her fleece. It used to make me wince as much as it did the sheep to see the crests of those little wrinkles in her skin clipped off.
I used to wonder how the sheep knew one another and how the lambs knew their mothers when shorn of their fleeces. But they did. The wool was soon sent to the fulling mill and made into rolls, though I have seen it carded and made into rolls at home by hand. How many bundles of rolls tied up into sheets I have seen come home! Then in the long summer afternoons I would hear the hum of the big spinning wheel in the chamber and hear the tread of the girl as she ran it, walking to and fro and drawing out and winding up the yarn. The white rolls, ten inches or more long and the thickness of one’s finger, would lie in a pile on the beam of the wheel and one by one would be attached to the spindle and drawn out into yarn of the right size. Each new roll was welded on to the end of the one that went before it so that the yarn did not show the juncture. But now for more than sixty years the music of the spinning wheel has not been heard in the land.
Mother used to pick her geese in the barn where Father used to shear the sheep; and to help gather in the flock was a part of my duty also. The geese would submit to the plucking about as readily as the sheep to the shearing, but they presented a much more ragged and sorry appearance after they had been fleeced than did the sheep. It used to amuse me to see them put their heads together and talk it over and laugh and congratulate each other over the victory they had just won!–they had got out of the hands of the enemy with only the loss of a few feathers which they would not want in the warm weather! The goose is the one inhabitant that cackles as loudly and as cheerfully over a defeat as over a victory. They are so complacent and optimistic that it is a comfort to me to see them about. The very silliness of the goose is a lesson in wisdom. The pride of a plucked gander makes one take courage. I think it quite probable that we learned our habit of hissing our dissent from the goose, and maybe our other habit of trying sometimes to drown an opponent with noise has a like origin. The goose is silly and shallow-pated; yet what dignity and impressiveness in her migrating wild clans driving in ordered ranks across the spring or autumnal skies, linking the Chesapeake Bay and the Canadian Lakes in one flight! The great forces are loosened and winter is behind them in one case, and the tides of spring bear them on in the other. When I hear the trumpet of the wild geese in the sky I know that dramatic events in the seasonal changes are taking place.
I was the only one of the ten children who, as Father said, “took to larnin’,” though in seventy-five years of poring over books and periodicals I have not become “learned.” But I easily distanced the other children in school. The others barely learned to read and write and cipher a little, Curtis and Wilson barely that, Hiram got into Greenleaf’s Grammar and learned to parse, but never to write or speak correctly, and he ciphered nearly through Dayball’s Arithmetic. I went through Dayball and then Thompkins and Perkins and got well on into algebra in the district school. My teacher, however, when I was about thirteen or fourteen, did not seem much impressed by my aptitude, for I recall that he told other scholars, boys and girls of about my own age, to get them each a grammar, but did not tell me. I felt a little slighted but made up my mind I would have a grammar also. Father refusing to buy it for me, I made small cakes of maple sugar in the spring and, peddling them in the village, got money enough to buy the grammar and other books. The teacher was a little taken aback when I produced my book as the others did theirs, but he put me in the class and I kept along with the rest of them, but without any idea that the study had any practical bearing on our daily speaking and writing. That teacher was a superior man, a graduate of the state normal school at Albany, but I failed to impress him with my scholarly aptitudes, which certainly were not remarkable. But long afterward, when he had read some of my earlier magazine articles, he wrote to me, asking if I were indeed his early farm boy pupil. His interest and commendation gave me rare pleasure. I had at last justified that awkward intrusion into his grammar class. Much later in life, after he had migrated to Kansas, while on a visit East he called upon me when I chanced to be in my native town. This gave me a still deeper pleasure. He died in Kansas many years ago and is buried there. I have journeyed through the state many times and always remember that it holds the ashes of my old teacher. It is a satisfaction for me to write his name, James Oliver, in this record.
I was in many respects an odd one in my father’s family. I was like a graft from some other tree. And this is always a disadvantage to a man– not to be the logical outcome of what went before him, not to be backed up by his family and inheritance–to be of the nature of a sport. It seems as if I had more intellectual capital than I was entitled to and robbed some of the rest of the family, while I had a full measure of the family weaknesses. I can remember how abashed I used to be as a child when strangers or relatives, visiting us for the first time, after looking the rest of the children over, would ask, pointing to me, “That is not your boy–whose is he?” I have no idea that I looked different from the others, because I can see the family stamp upon my face very plainly until this day. My face resembles Hiram’s more than any of the others, and I have a deeper attachment for him than for any of the rest of my brothers. Hiram was a dreamer, too, and he had his own idealism which expressed itself in love of bees, of which he kept many hives at one time, and of fancy stock, sheep, pigs, poultry, and a desire to see other lands. His bees and fancy stock never paid him, but he always expected they would the next year. But they yielded him honey and wool of a certain intangible, satisfying kind. To be the owner of a Cotswold ram or ewe for which he had paid one hundred dollars or more gave him rare satisfaction. One season, in his innocence, he took some of his fancy sheep to the state fair at Syracuse, not knowing that an unknown outsider stood no chance at all on such an occasion.
Hiram always had to have some sort of a plaything. Though no hunter and an indifferent marksman, he had during his life several fancy rifles. Once when he came to Washington to visit me, he brought his rifle with him, carrying the naked weapon in his hand or upon his shoulder. The act was merely the whim of a boy who likes to take his playthings with him. Hiram certainly had not come to “shoot up” the town. In the early ’60’s he had a fifty-dollar rifle made by a famous rifle maker in Utica. There was some hitch or misunderstanding about it and Hiram made the trip to Utica on foot. I was at home that summer and I recall seeing him start off one June day, wearing a black coat, bent on his fifty-mile walk to see about his pet rifle. Of course nothing came of it. The rifle maker had Hiram’s money, and he put him off with fair words; then something happened and the gun never came to Hiram’s hand.
Another plaything of his was a kettle drum with which he amused himself in the summer twilight for many seasons. Then he got a bass drum which Curtis learned to play, and a very warlike sound often went up from the peaceful old homestead. When I was married and came driving home one October twilight with my wife, the martial music began as soon as we hove in sight of the house. Early in the Civil War, Hiram seriously talked of enlisting as a drummer, but Father and Mother dissuaded him. I can see what a wretched homesick boy he would have been before one week had passed. For many years he was haunted with a desire to go West, and made himself really believe that the next month or the month after he would go. He kept his valise packed under his bed for more than a year, to be ready when the impulse grew strong enough. One fall it became strong enough to start him and carried him as far as White Pigeon, Michigan, where it left him stranded. After visiting a cousin who lived there he came back, and henceforth his Western fever assumed only a low, chronic type.
I tell you all these things about Hiram because I am a chip out of the same block and see myself in him. His vain regrets, his ineffectual resolutions, his day-dreams, and his playthings–do I not know them all?–only nature in some way dealt a little more liberally with me and made many of my dreams come true. The dear brother!–he stood next to Father and Mother to me. How many times he broke the path for me through the winter snows on the long way to school! How faithful he was to write to me and to visit me wherever I was, after I left home! How he longed to follow my example and break away from the old place but could never quite screw his courage up to the sticking point! He never read one of my books but he rejoiced in all the good fortune that was mine. Once when I was away at school and fell short of money, Hiram sent me a small sum when Father could not or would not send. In later life he got it paid back manyfold–and what a satisfaction it was to me thus to repay him!
Hiram was always a child, he never grew up, which is true of all of us, more or less, and true of Father also. I was an odd one, but I shared all the family infirmities. In fact, I have always been an odd one amid most of my human relations in life. Place me in a miscellaneous gathering of men and I separate from them, or they from me, like oil from water. I do not mix readily with my fellows. I am not conscious of drawing into my shell, as the saying is, but I am conscious of a certain strain put upon me by those about me. I suppose my shell or my skin is too thin. Burbank experimented with walnuts trying to produce one with a thin shell, till he finally produced one with so thin a shell that the birds ate it up. Well, the birds eat me up for the same reason, if I don’t look out. I am social but not gregarious. I do not thrive in clubs, I do not smoke, or tell stories, or drink, or dispute, or keep late hours. I am usually as solitary as a bird of prey, though I trust not for the same reason. I love so much to float on the current of my own thoughts. I mix better with farmers, workers, and country people generally than with professional or business men. Birds of a feather do flock together, and if we do not feel at ease in our company we may be sure we are in the wrong flock. Once while crossing the continent at some station in Minnesota a gray-bearded farmer-like man got on the train and presently began to look eagerly about the Pullman as if to see what kind of company he was in. After a while his eye settled on me at the other end of the car. In a few minutes he came over to me and sat down beside me and began to tell me his story. He had come from Germany as a young man and had lived fifty years on a farm in Minnesota and now he was going back to visit the country of his birth. He had prospered and had left his sons in charge of his farm. What an air he had of a boy out of school! The adventure was warming his blood; he was going home and he wanted someone to whom he could tell the good news. I was probably the only real countryman in the car and he picked me out at once, some quality of rural things hovered about us both and drew us together. I felt that he had paid me an involuntary compliment. How unsophisticated and communicative he was! So much so that I took it upon myself to caution him against the men he was liable to fall in with in New York. I should like to know if he reached the fatherland safely and returned to his Minnesota farm.
When I was a boy six or seven years old a quack phrenologist stopped at our house and Father kept him over night. In the morning he fingered the bumps of all of us to pay for his lodging and breakfast. When he came to my head I remember he grew enthusiastic. “This boy will be a rich man,” he said. “His head beats ’em all.” And he enlarged on the great wealth I was to accumulate. I forget the rest; but that my bumps were nuggets of gold under the quack’s fingers, this I have not forgotten. The prophecy never came true, though more money did come my way than to any of the rest of the family. Three of my brothers, at least, were not successful from a business point of view, and while I myself have failed in every business venture I ever undertook–beginning with that first speculative stroke sometime in the ‘forties when, one March morning, I purchased the prospective sap of Curtis’s two maple trees for four cents; yet a certain success from a bread-and-butter point of view has been mine. Father took less stock in me than in the other boys–mainly, I suppose, on account of my early proclivity for books; hence it was a deep satisfaction to me, when his other sons had failed him and loaded the old farm with debt, that I could come back and be able to take the burden of the debts upon myself and save the farm from going into strange hands. But it was my good fortune, a kind of constitutional good luck and not any business talent that enabled me to do so. Remembering the prediction of the old quack phrenologist, I used to have my dreams when a boy, especially on one occasion, I remember, when I was tending the sap kettles in the sugar bush on a bright April day, of gaining great wealth and coming home in imposing style and astonishing the natives with my display. How different the reality from the boy’s dream! I came back indeed with a couple of thousand dollars in my pocket (on my bank book), sorrowing and oppressed, more like a pilgrim doing penance than like a conqueror returning from his victories. But we kept the old farm, and as you know, it still plays an important part in my life though I passed the title to my brother many years ago. It is my only home, other homes that I have had were mere camping places for a day and night. But the wealth which my bumps indicated turned out to be of a very shadowy and uncommercial kind, yet of a kind that thieves cannot steal or panics disturb.
I remember the first day I went to school, probably near my fifth year. It was at the old stone school house, about one and a half miles from home. I recall vividly the suit Mother made for the occasion out of some striped cotton goods with a pair of little flaps or hound’s ears upon my shoulders that tossed about as I ran. I accompanied Olly Ann, my oldest sister. At each one of the four houses we passed on the way I asked, “Who lives there?” I have no recollection of what happened at school those first days, but I remember struggling with the alphabet soon thereafter; the letters were arranged in a column, the vowels first, a, e, i, o, u, and then the consonants. The teacher would call us to her chair three or four times a day, and opening the Cobb’s spelling-book, point to the letters one by one and ask me to name them, drilling them into me in that way. I remember that one of the boys, older than I, Hen Meeker, on one occasion stuck on “e.” “I’ll bet little Johnny Burris can tell what that letter is. Come up here, Johnny.” Up I went and promptly answered, to the humiliation of Hen, “e.” “I told you so,” said the school marm. How long it took me to learn the alphabet in this arbitrary manner I do not know. But I remember tackling the a, b, abs, and slowly mastering those short columns. I remember also getting down under the desk and tickling the bare ankles of the big girls that sat in the seat in front of me.
The summer days were long and little boys must sit on the hard seats and be quiet and go out only at the regular recess. The seat I sat on was a slab turned flat side up and supported on four legs cut from a sapling. My feet did not touch the floor and I suppose I got very tired. One afternoon the oblivion of sleep came over me and when I came to consciousness again I was in a neighbour’s house on a couch and the “smell of camphor pervaded the room.” I had fallen off the seat backward and hit my head on the protruding stones of the unplastered wall behind me and cut a hole in it, and I suppose for the moment effectively scattered my childish wits. But Mrs. Reed was a motherly body and consoled me with flowers and sweets and bathed my wounds with camphor and I suppose little Johnny was soon himself again. I have often wondered if a small bony protuberance on the back of my head dated from that collision with the old stone school house.
Another early remembrance connected with the old stone school house is that of seeing Hiram, during the summer noons, catch fish in a pail back of old Jonas More’s grist mill and put them in the pot holes in the red sandstone rocks, to be kept there till we went home at night. Then he took them in his dinner pail and put them in his pond down in the pasture lot. I suspect that it was this way that chubs were introduced into the West Settlement trout stream. The fish used to swim around and around in the pot holes seeking a way to escape. I would put my finger into the water but jerk it back quickly as the fish came around. I was afraid of them. But before that I was once scared into a panic by a high-soaring hen hawk. I have probably pointed out to you where, one summer day, as I was going along the road out on what we called the big hill, I looked skyward and saw a big hen hawk describing his large circles about me. A sudden fear fell upon me, and I took refuge behind the stone wall. Still earlier in my career I had my first panic farther along on this same road. I suppose I had started off on my first journey to explore the world when, getting well down the Deacon road beside the woods, I looked back and, seeing how far I was from home, was seized with a sudden consternation and turned and ran back as fast as I could go. I have seen a young robin do the same thing when it had wandered out a yard or so on the branch away from its nest.
I mastered only my a-b-c’s at the old stone school house. A year or two later we were sent off in the West Settlement district and I went to school at a little unpainted school house with a creek on one side of it and toeing squarely on the highway on the other. This also was about one and a half miles from home, an easy, adventurous journey in the summer with the many allurements of fields, stream, and wood, but in winter often a battle with snow and cold. In winter we went across lots, my elder brothers breaking a path through the fields and woods. How the tracks in the snow–squirrels, hares, skunks, foxes–used to excite my curiosity! And the line of ledges off on the left in the woods where brother Wilson used to set traps for skunks and coons–how they haunted my imagination as I caught dim glimpses of them, trudging along in our narrow path! One mild winter morning, after I had grown to be a boy of twelve or thirteen, my younger brother and I had an adventure with a hare. He sat in his form in the deep snow between the roots of a maple tree that stood beside the path. We were almost upon him before we discovered him. As he did not move I withdrew a few yards to a stone wall and armed myself with a boulder the size of my fist. Returning, I let drive, sure of my game, but I missed by a foot, and the hare bounded away over the wall and out into the open and off for the hemlocks a quarter of a mile away. A rabbit in his form only ten feet away does not so easily become a rabbit in the hand. This desire of the farm boy to slay every wild creature he saw was universal in my time. I trust things have changed in this respect since then.
At the little old school house I had many teachers, Bill Bouton, Bill Allaben, Taylor Grant, Jason Powell, Rossetti Cole, Rebecca Scudder, and others. I got well into Dayball’s Arithmetic, Olney’s Geography, and read Hall’s History of the United States–through the latter getting quite familiar with the Indian wars and the French war and the Revolution. Some books in the district library also attracted me. I think I was the only one of the family that took books from the library. I recall especially “Murphy, the Indian Killer” and the “Life of Washington.” The latter took hold of me; I remember one summer Sunday, as I was playing through the house with my older brothers, of stopping to read a certain passage of it aloud, and that it moved me so that I did not know whether I was in the body or out. Many times I read that passage and every time I was submerged, as it were, by a wave of emotion. I mention so trifling a matter only to show how responsive I was to literature at an early age. I should perhaps offset this statement by certain other facts which are by no means so flattering. There was a period in my latter boyhood when comic song-books, mostly of the Negro minstrely sort, satisfied my craving for poetic literature. I used to learn the songs by heart and invent and extemporize tunes for them. To this day I can repeat some of those rank Negro songs.
My taste for books began early, but my taste for good literature was of a much later and of slow growth. My interest in theological and scientific questions antedated my love of literature. During the last half of my ‘teens I was greatly interested in phrenology and possessed a copy of Spurzheim’s “Phrenology,” and of Comb’s “Constitution of Man.” I also subscribed to Fowler’s _Phrenological Journal_ and for years accepted the phrenologists’ own estimate of the value of their science. And I still see some general truths in it. The size and shape of the brain certainly give clues to the mind within, but its subdivision into many bumps, or numerous small areas, like a garden plot, from each one of which a different crop is produced, is absurd. Certain bodily functions are localized in the brain, but not our mental and emotional traits–veneration, self-esteem, sublimity–these are attributes of the mind as a unit.
As I write these lines I am trying to see wherein I differed from my brothers and from other boys of my acquaintance. I certainly had a livelier interest in things and events about me. When Mr. McLaurie proposed to start an academy in the village and came there to feel the pulse of the people and to speak upon the subject I believe I was the only boy in his audience. I was probably ten or twelve years of age. At one point in his address the speaker had occasion to use me to illustrate his point: “About the size of that boy there,” he said, pointing to me, and my face flushed with embarrassment. The academy was started and I hoped in a few years to attend it. But the time when Father could see his way to send me there never came. One season when I was fifteen or sixteen, I set my heart on going to school at Harpersfield. A boy whom I knew in the village attended it and I wanted to accompany him. Father talked encouragingly and held it out as a possible reward if I helped hurry the farm work along. This I did, and for the first time taking to field with the team and plough and “summer fallowing” one of the oat-stubble lots. I followed the plough those September days with dreams of Harpersfield Academy hovering about me, but the reality never came. Father concluded, after I had finished my job of ploughing, that he could not afford it. Butter was low and he had too many other ways for using his money. I think it quite possible that my dreams gave me the best there was in Harpersfield anyway–a worthy aspiration is never lost. All these things differentiate me from my brothers.
My interest in theological questions showed itself about the same time. An itinerant lecturer with a smooth, ready tongue came to the village charged with novel ideas about the immortality of the soul, accepting the literal truth of the text “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” I attended the meetings and took notes of the speaker’s glib talk. I distinctly remember that it was from his mouth that I first heard the word “encyclopaedia.” When he cited the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” in confirmation of some statement, I had no doubt of its truth, and I resolved sometime to get my hands on that book. I still have those notes and references that I took sixty years ago.
At a much earlier stage of my mental development I had a passion for drawing, but, quite unguided, it resulted only in a waste of paper. I wanted to walk before I could creep, to paint before I could draw, and getting a box of cheap water colours, I indulged my crude artistic instincts. My most ambitious piece was a picture of General Winfield Scott standing beside his horse and some piece of artillery, which I copied from a print. It was of course an awful daub, but in connection with it I heard for the first time a new word,–the word “taste” used in its aesthetic sense. One of the neighbour women was calling at the house, and seeing my picture said to Mother, “What taste that boy has.” That application of the word made an impression on me that I have never forgotten.
About this time I heard another new word. We were working on the road, and I with my hoe was working beside an old Quaker farmer, David Corbin, who used to be a school teacher. A large flat stone was turned over, and beneath it in some orderly arrangement were some smaller stones. “Here are some antiquities,” said Mr. Corbin, and my vocabulary received another addition. A new word or a new thing was very apt to make its mark upon my mind. I have told elsewhere what a revelation to me was my first glimpse of one of the warblers, the black-throated blue-back, indicating as it did a world of bird life of which I had never dreamed, the bird life in the inner heart of the woods. My brothers and other boys were with me but they did not see the new bird. The first time I saw the veery, or Wilson’s thrush, also stands out in my memory. It alighted in the road before us on the edge of the woods. “A brown thrasher,” said Bill Chase. It was not the thrasher but it was a new bird to me and the picture of it is in my mind as if made only yesterday. Natural History was a subject unknown to me in my boyhood, and such a thing as nature study in the schools was of course unheard of. Our natural history we got unconsciously in the sport at noon time, or on our way to and from school or in our Sunday excursions to the streams and woods. We learned much about the ways of foxes and woodchucks and coons and skunks and squirrels by hunting them. The partridge, too, and the crows, hawks, and owls, and the song birds of the field and orchard, all enter into the farm boy’s life. I early became familiar with the songs and habits of all the common birds, and with field mice and the frogs, toads, lizards, and snakes. Also with the wild bees and wasps. One season I made a collection of bumblebee honey, studying the habits of five or six different kinds and rifling their nests. I kept my store of bumble-bee honey in the attic where I had a small box full of the comb and a large phial filled with the honey. How well I came to know the different dispositions of the various kinds–the small red-vested that made its nest in a hole in the ground; the small black-vested, the large black-vested, the yellow-necked, the black- banded, etc., that made their nests in old mice nests in the meadow or in the barn and other places. I used to watch and woo the little piping frogs in the spring marshes when I had driven the cows to pasture at night, till they would sit in my open hand and pipe. I used to creep on my hands and knees through the woods to see the partridge in the act of drumming. I used to watch the mud wasps building their nests in the old attic and noted their complaining cry while in the act of pressing on the mud. I noted the same complaining cry from the bees when working on the flower of the purple-flowering raspberry, what we called “Scotch caps.” I tried to trap foxes and soon learned how far the fox’s cunning surpassed mine. My first lesson in animal psychology I got from old Nat Higby as he came riding by on horseback one winter day, his huge feet almost meeting under the horse, just as a hound was running a fox across our upper mountain lot. “My boy,” he said, “that fox may be running as fast as he can, but if you stood behind that big rock beside his course, and as he came along should jump out and shout ‘hello,’ he would run faster.” That was the winter when in fond imagination I saw a stream of silver dollars coming my way from the red foxes I was planning to deprive of their pelts when they needed them most. I have told elsewhere of my trapping experiences and how completely I failed.
I was born at Roxbury, N. Y., April 3, 1837. At least two other American authors of note were born on the third of April–Washington Irving and Edward Everett Hale. The latter once wrote me a birthday letter in which he said, among other things, “I have been looking back over my diaries to see what I was doing the day you were being born. I find I was undergoing an examination in logic at Harvard College.” The only other American author born in 1837 is William Dean Howells, who was born in Ohio in March of that year.
I was the son of a farmer, who was the son of a farmer, who was again the son of a farmer. There are no professional or commercial men in my line for several generations, my blood has the flavour of the soil in it; it is rural to the last drop. I can find no city dwellers in the line of my descent in this country. The Burroughs tribe, as far back as I can find any account of them, were mainly countrymen and tillers of the soil. The Rev. George Burroughs, who was hung as a witch at Salem, Mass., in 1694, may have been of the family, though I can find no proof of it. I wanted to believe that he was and in 1898 I made a visit to Salem and to Gallows Hill to see the spot where he, the last victim of the witchcraft craze, ended his life. There is no doubt that the renegade preacher, Stephen Burroughs, who stole a lot of his father’s sermons and set up as a preacher and forger on his own account about 1720, was a third or fourth cousin of my father’s.
Farmers with a decidedly religious bent contributed the main elements of my personality. I was a countryman dyed in the wool, yea, more than that, born and bred in the bone, and my character is fundamentally reverent and religious. The religion of my fathers underwent in me a kind of metamorphosis and became something which would indeed have appeared like rank atheism to them, but which was nevertheless full of the very essence of true religion–love, reverence, wonder, unworldliness, and devotion to ideal truth–but in no way identified with Church or creed.
I used to feel that my religious temperament was as clearly traceable to the hard Calvinism of my fathers, as the stratified sandstone is traceable to the old granite rock, but that it had undergone a sea change as had the sandstone, or in my case a science change through the activity of the mind and of the age in which I lived. It was rationalism touched with mysticism and warm with poetic emotion.
My paternal grandfather and great-grandfather came from near Bridgeport in Connecticut about the end of the Revolution and settled in Stamford, Delaware County, New York. Captain Stephen Burroughs of Bridgeport, a mathematician and a man of note in his time, was Father’s great uncle. Father used to say that his uncle Stephen could build a ship and sail it around the world. The family name is still common in and about Bridgeport. The first John Burroughs of whom I can find any record came to this country from the West Indies and settled in Stratford, Conn., about 1690. He had ten children, and ten children to a family was the rule down to my own father. One October while on a cruise with a small motor boat on Long Island Sound, stress of weather compelled us to seek shelter in Black Rock harbour, which is a part of Bridgeport. In the morning we went ashore, and as we were walking up a street seeking the trolley line to take us into the city, we saw a large brick building with the legend on it–“The Burroughs Home.” I felt like going in and claiming its hospitality–after our rough experience on the Sound its look and its name were especially inviting. Some descendant of Captain Stephen Burroughs was probably its founder.
My great-grandfather, Ephraim, I believe, died in 1818, and was buried in the town of Stamford in a field that is now cultivated. My grandfather, Eden Burroughs, died in Roxbury in 1842, aged 72, and my father, Chauncey A. Burroughs, in 1884 at the age of 81.
My maternal grandfather, Edmund Kelly, was Irish, though born in this country about 1765. It is from his Irish strain that I get many of my Celtic characteristics–my decidedly feminine temperament. I always felt that I was more a Kelly than a Burroughs. Grandfather Kelly was a small man, with a big head and marked Irish features. He entered the Continental army when a mere lad in some menial capacity, but before the end he carried a musket in the ranks. He was with Washington at Valley Forge and had many stories to tell of their hardships. He was upward of seventy-five years old when I first remember him–a little man in a blue coat with brass buttons. He and Granny used to come to our house once or twice a year for a week or two at a time. Their permanent home was with Uncle Martin Kelly in Red Kill, eight miles away. I remember him as a great angler. How many times in the May or June mornings, as soon as he had had his breakfast, have I seen him digging worms and getting ready to go a-fishing up Montgomery Hollow or over in Meeker’s Hollow, or over in West Settlement! You could always be sure he would bring home a nice string of trout. Occasionally I was permitted to go with him. How nimbly he would walk, even when he was over eighty, and how skilfully he would take the trout! I was an angler myself before I was ten, but Grandfather would take trout from places in the stream where I would not think it worth while to cast my hook. But I never fished when I went with him, I carried the fish and watched him. The pull home, often two or three miles, tried my young legs, but Grandfather would show very little fatigue, and I know he did not have the ravenous hunger I always had when I went fishing, so much so that I used to think there was in this respect something peculiar about going fishing. One hour along the trout streams would develop more hunger in me than half a day hoeing corn or working on the road–a peculiarly fierce, all-absorbing desire for food, so that a piece of rye bread and butter was the most delicious thing in the world. I remember that one June day my cousin and I, when we were about seven or eight years old, set out for Meeker’s Hollow for trout. It was a pull of over two miles and over a pretty hard hill. Our courage held out until we reached the creek, but we were too hungry to fish; we turned homeward and fed upon the wild strawberries in the pastures and meadows we passed through and they kept us alive until we reached home. Oh, that youthful hunger beside the trout stream, was there ever anything else like it in the world!
Grandfather Kelly was a fisherman nearly up to the year of his death at the age of eighty-eight. He had few of the world’s goods and he did not want them. His only vice was plug tobacco, his only recreation was angling, and his only reading the Bible. How long and attentively would he pore over the Book!–but I never heard him comment upon it or express any religious opinion or conviction. He believed in witches and hobgoblins: he had seen them and experienced them and used to tell us stories that almost made us afraid of our own shadows. My own youthful horror of darkness, and of dark rooms and recesses and cellars even in the daytime, was due no doubt largely to Grandfather’s blood-curdling tales. Yet I may be wrong about this, for I remember a fearful experience I had when I was a child of three or four years. I see myself with some of the other children cowering in a corner of the old kitchen at night with my eyes fixed on the black space of the open door of the bedroom occupied by my father and mother. They were out for the evening and we were waiting for their return. The agony of that waiting I shall never forget. Whether or not the other children shared my fear I do not remember; probably they did, and maybe communicated their fear to me. I could not take my eyes off the entrance to that black cavern, though of what I may have fancied it held that would hurt me I have no idea. It was only the child’s inherited fear of the dark, the unknown, the mysterious. Grandfather’s stories, no doubt, strengthened that fear. It clung to me all through my boyhood and until my fifteenth or sixteenth year and was peculiarly acute about my twelfth and thirteenth years. The road through the woods at twilight, the barn, the wagon house, the cellar set my imagination on tiptoe. If I had to pass the burying ground up on the hill by the roadside in the dark, I did so very gingerly. I was too scared to run for fear the ghosts of all the dead buried there would be at my heels.
Probably I get my love for the contemplative life and for nature more through my mother than through my father; Mother had the self- consciousness of the Celt, Father not at all, though he had the Celtic temperament: red hair and freckles! The red-haired, freckled, harsh- voiced little man made a great deal of noise about the farm–shouting at the stock, sending the dog after the cows or after the pigs in the garden, or calling his orders to us in the field or shouting back his directions for the work after he had started for the Beaver Dam village. But his bark was always more to be feared than his bite. He would threaten loudly but punish mildly or not at all. But he improved the fields, he cleared the woods, he battled with the rocks and the stones, he paid his debts and he kept his faith. He was not a man of sentiment, though he was a man of feeling. He was easily moved to tears and had strong religious convictions and emotions. These emotions often found vent in his reading his hymn book aloud in a curious undulating sing- song tone. He knew nothing of what we call love of nature and he owed little or nothing to books after his schoolboy days. He usually took two weekly publications–an Albany or a New York newspaper and a religious paper called _The Signs of the Times_, the organ of the Old School Baptist Church, of which he was a member. He never asked me about my own books and I doubt that he ever looked into one of them. How far the current of my thoughts and interests ran from the current of his thoughts and interests! Literature he had never heard of, science and philosophy were an unknown world to him. Religion (hard predestinarianism), politics (democratic), and farming took up all his thoughts and time. He had no desire to travel, he was not a hunter or fisherman, and the shows and vanities of the world disturbed him not. When I grew to crave schooling and books he was disturbed lest I become a Methodist minister–his special aversion. Religion on such easy and wholesale terms as that of his Methodist neighbours made his nostrils dilate with contempt. But literature was an enemy he had never heard of. A writer of books had no place in his category of human occupations; and as for a poet, he would probably have ranked him with the dancing master. Yet late in life, when he saw my picture in a magazine, he is said to have shed tears. Poor Father, his heart was tender, but concerning so much that fills and moves the world, his mind was dark. He was a good farmer, a helpful neighbour, a devoted parent and husband, and he did well the work in the world which fell to his lot to do. The narrowness and bigotry of his class and church and time were his, but probity of character, ready good will, and a fervent religious nature were his also. His heart was much softer than his creed. He might scoff at his neighbour’s religion or politics, but he was ever ready to lend him a hand.
The earliest memory I can recall of him dates back to a spring day in my early childhood. The “hired girl” had thrown my straw hat off the stonework into the road. In my grief and helplessness to punish her as I thought she merited, I looked up to the side hill above the house and saw Father striding across the ploughed ground with a bag strung across his breast from which he was sowing grain. His measured strides, the white bag, and his regular swinging arm made a picture on the background of the red soil, all heightened no doubt by my excited state of mind, that stamped itself indelibly upon my memory. He strode across those hills with that bag suspended around his neck, sowing grain, for many years.
Another spring picture of him much later in life, when I was a man grown and home on a visit, comes to mind. I see him following a team of horses hitched to a harrow across a ploughed field, dragging in the oats. To and fro he goes all afternoon, the dust streaming behind him and the ground smoothing as his work progressed I suppose I had a feeling that I should have taken his place. He always got his crops in in season and gathered in season. His farm was his kingdom and he wanted no other. I can see him going about it, calling the dog, “hollering” at the cattle or the sheep or at the men at work in the fields, making a great deal of unnecessary noise, but always with an eye to his crops and to the best interests of the farm. He was a home body, had no desire to travel, little curiosity about other lands, except, maybe, Bible lands, and felt an honest contempt for city ways and city people. He was as unaffected as a child and would ask a man his politics or a woman her age as soon as ask them the time of day. He had little delicacy of feeling on the conventional side but great tenderness of emotion on the purely human side. His candour was at times appalling, and he often brought a look of shame into Mother’s face. He had received a fairly good schooling for those times and had been a school teacher himself in the winter months. Mother was one of his pupils when he taught in Red Kill. I passed the little school house recently and wondered if there was a counterpart of Amy Kelly among the few girls I saw standing about the door, or if there was a red-haired, freckled, country greenhorn at the teacher’s desk inside. Father was but once in New York, sometime in the ’20’s, and never saw the capitol of his country or his state. And I am sure he never sat on a jury or had a lawsuit in my time. He took an interest in politics and was always a Democrat, and during the Civil War, I fear, a “copperhead.” His religion saw no evil in slavery. I remember seeing him in some political procession during the Harrison Campaign of 1840. He was with a gang of men standing up in a wagon from the midst of which rose a pole with a coon skin or a stuffed coon upon it. I suppose what I saw was part of a Harrison political procession.
Father “experienced religion” in his early manhood and became a member of the Old School Baptist Church. To become members of that church it was not enough that you wanted to lead a better life and serve God faithfully; you must have had a certain religious experience, have gone through a crisis as Paul did, been convicted of sin in some striking manner, and have descended into the depths of humiliation and despair, and then, when all seemed lost, have heard the voice of forgiveness and acceptance and felt indeed that you were now a child of God. This crucial experience the candidate for church membership was called on to relate before the elders of the church, and if the story rang true, he or she was in due time enrolled in the company of the elect few. No doubt about its being a real experience with most of those people–a storm-and-stress period that lasted for weeks or months before the joy of peace and forgiveness came to their souls. I have heard some of those experiences and have read the record of many more in _The Signs of the Times_, which Father took for more than fifty years. The conversion was radical and lasting, these men led changed lives ever after. With them once a child of God, always a child of God, reformation never miscarried. It was an iron-clad faith and it stood the wear and tear of life well. Father was not ostentatiously religious. Far from it. I have known him to draw in hay on Sunday when a shower threatened, and once I saw him carry a gun when the pigeons were about; but he came back gameless with a guilty look when he saw me, and I think he never wavered in his Old School Baptist faith. There were no religious observances in the family and no religious instruction. Father read his hymn book and his Bible and at times his _Signs_, but never compelled us to read them. His church did not believe in Sunday-schools or in any sort of religious training. Their preachers never prepared their sermons but spoke the words that the Spirit put into their mouths. As they were mostly unlettered men the Spirit had many sins of rhetoric and logic to answer for. Their discourses did more credit to their hearts than to their heads. I recall some of their preachers, or Elders, as they were called, very distinctly–Elder Jim Mead, Elder Morrison, Elder Hewett, Elder Fuller, Elder Hubble–all farmers and unlearned in the lore of this world, but earnest men and some of them strong, picturesque characters. Elder Jim Mead usually went barefooted during the summer, and Mother once told me that he often preached barefooted in the school house. Elder Hewett was their strong man during my youth–a narrow and darkened mind tried by the wisdom of the schools, but a man of native force of character and often in his preaching attaining to a strain of true and lofty eloquence. His discourses, if their jumble of Scriptural texts may be called such, were never a call to sinners to repent and be saved–God would attend to that Himself–but a vehement justification from the Scriptures of the Old School Baptist creed, or the doctrine of election and justification by faith, not by works. The Methodists or Arminians, as he called them, were a thorn in his side and he never tired of hurling his Pauline texts at their cheap and easy terms of salvation. Could he have been convinced that he must share Heaven with the Arminians, I believe he would have preferred to take his chance in the other place. Religious intolerance is an ugly thing, but its days in this world are numbered, and the day of the Old School Baptist Society seems numbered. Their church, which was often crowded in my youth, is almost deserted now. This generation is too light and frivolous for such a heroic creed: the sons of the old members are not men enough to stand up under the moral weight of Calvinism and predestination. Absurd as the doctrine seems to us, it went with or begot something in those men and women of an earlier time–a moral fibre and depth of character–to which the later generations are strangers. Of course those men were nearer the stump than we are and had more of the pioneer virtues and hardiness than we have, and struggles and victory or defeat were more a part of their lives than they are of ours, a hard creed with heroic terms of salvation fitted their moods better than it fits ours.
My youthful faith in a jealous and vengeful God, which in some way had been instilled into my mind, was rudely shaken one summer day during a thunderstorm. The idea had somehow got into my head that if in any way we mocked the powers up above or became disrespectful toward them, vengeance would follow, quick and sure. At a loud peal overhead the boy I was playing with deliberately stuck up his scornful lips at the clouds and in other ways expressed his defiance. I fairly cringed in my tracks; I expected to see my companion smitten with a thunderbolt at my side. That I recall the incident so vividly shows what a deep impression it made upon me. But I have long ceased to think that the Ruler of the storms sees or cares whether we make faces at the clouds or not–do your work well and make all the wry faces you please.
My native mountain, out of whose loins I sprang, is called the Old Clump. It sits there with bare head but mantled sides, looking southward and holding the home farm of three hundred and fifty acres in its lap. The farm with its checkered fields lies there like a huge apron, reaching up over the smooth sloping thighs on the west and on the east and coming well up on the breast, forming the big rough mountain fields where the sheep and young cattle graze. Those mountain pastures rarely knew the plough, but the broad side-hill fields, four of them, that cover the inside of the western thigh, have been alternately ploughed and grazed since my boyhood and before. They yield good crops of rye, oats, buckwheat, and potatoes, and fair summer grazing. In winter huge snow banks lie there just below the summit of the hill, blotting out the stone fences beneath eight or ten feet of snow. I have known these banks to linger there until the middle of May. I remember carrying a jug of water one hot May day to my brother Curtis who was ploughing the upper and steepest side hill, and whose plough had nearly reached the edge of the huge snow bank. Sometimes the woodchucks feel the call of spring in their dens in the ground beneath them and dig their way out through the coarse, granulated snow, leaving muddy tracks where they go. I have “carried together” both oats and rye in all these fields. One September, during the first year of the Civil War, 1862, we were working in the oats there and Hiram was talking hourly of enlisting in the army as a drummer boy. When the cattle are grazing there, one may often see them from the road over the eastern leg of Old Clump which is lower, silhouetted against the evening sky. The bleating of the sheep in the still summer twilight on the bosom of Old Clump is also a sweet memory. So is the evening song of the vesper sparrow, which one may hear all summer long floating out from these sweet pastoral solitudes. From one of these side-hill fields, Father and his hired man, Rube Dart, were once drawing oats on a sled when the load capsized while Rube had his fork in it on the upper side trying to hold it down, and the fork with Rube clinging to it described a complete circle in the air, Rube landing on his feet below, none the worse for his adventure.
Grandfather’s farm, which he and Grandmother carved out of the wilderness in the last years of 1700 and where Father was born in 1802, lies just over the hill on the western knee of Old Clump, and is in the watershed of West Settlement, a much broader and deeper valley of nearly a dozen farms, and to which my home valley is a tributary. The sugar bush lies near the groin of the old mountain, the “beech woods” over the eastern knee, and the Rundle Place, where now is Woodchuck Lodge, is on his skirts that look eastward. Hence, most of the home farm stands apart in a valley by itself. As you approach on the train from the south you may see Old Clump rising up in the north eight or ten miles away, presenting the appearance of a well-defined cone, with the upper portion of the farm showing, and hiding behind it the mountain system of which it is the southern end.
Old Clump figured a good deal in my boyhood life and scarcely less in my life since. The first deer’s horn I ever saw we found there one Sunday under a jutting rock as we were on our way to the summit. My excursions to salt and count the sheep often took me there, and my boyhood thirst for the wild and adventurous took me there still oftener. Old Clump used to lift me up into the air three thousand feet and introduce me to his great brotherhood of mountains far and near, and make me acquainted with the full-chested exhilaration that awaits one on mountain tops. Graham, Double Top, Slide Mountain, Peek o’ Moose, Table Mountain, Wittenburg, Cornell, and others are visible from the summit. There was as well something so gentle and sweet and primitive about its natural clearings and open glades, about the spring that bubbled up from under a tilted rock just below the summit, about the grassy terraces, its hidden ledges, its scattered, low-branching, moss-covered maples, the cloistered character of its clumps of small beeches, its domestic looking mountain ash, its orchard-like wild black cherries, its garden- like plots of huckleberries, raspberries, and strawberries, the patches of fragrant brakes like dense miniature forests through which one wades as through patches of green midsummer snow, its divine strains of the hermit thrush floating out of the wooded depths below you–all these things drew me as a boy and still draw me as an old man.
From where the road crosses the eastern knee of Old Clump to where it crosses the western knee is over half a mile. Well down in the valley between them the home buildings are situated, and below them the old and very productive meadows, only the upper borders of which have ever known the plough. The little brooklet that drains the valley used to abound in trout, but in sixty years it has dwindled to such an extent and has been so nearly obliterated by grazing cattle that there are no trout until you reach the hemlocks on the threshold of which my fishing excursions of boyhood used to end. The woods were too dark and mysterious for my inflamed imagination–inflamed, I suppose, by Grandfather’s spook stories. In this little stream in the pasture I used to build ponds, the ruins of one of which are still visible. In this pond I learned to swim, but none of my brothers would venture in with me. I was the only one in the family who ever mastered the art of swimming and I mastered it by persistent paddling in this pond on Sundays and summer evenings and between my farm duties at other times. All my people were “landlubbers” of the most pronounced type and afraid to get above their knees in the water or to trust themselves to row-boats or other craft. Here again I was an odd one.
I used to make kites and crossbows and darts and puzzle people with the trick of the buncombe blocks. One summer I made a very large kite, larger than any I had ever seen, and attaching a string fully half a mile long sent it up with a meadow mouse tethered to the middle of the frame. I suppose I wanted to give this little creature of the dark and hidden ways of the meadow–so scared of its life from hawks, foxes, and cats, that it rarely shows itself out of its secret tunnels in the meadow bottoms or its retreats under the flat stones in the pastures–a taste of sky and sunshine and a glimpse of the big world in which it lived. He came down winking and blinking but he appeared none the worse for his trip skyward, and I let him go to relate his wonderful adventure to his fellows.
Once I made a miniature sawmill by the roadside on the overflow of water from the house spring that used to cause people passing by to stop and laugh. It had a dam, a flume, an overshot wheel ten inches in diameter, a carriage for the log (a green cucumber), a gate for the tin saw about six inches long, and a superstructure less than two feet high. The water reached the wheel through a piece of old pump log three or four feet long, capped with the body of an old tin dinner horn. Set at quite an angle, the water issued from the half-inch opening in the end of the horn with force enough to make the little wheel hum and send the saw through the cucumber at a rapid rate–only I had to shove the carriage along by hand. Brother Hiram helped me with the installation of this plant. It was my plaything for only one season.
I made a cross-gun that had a barrel (in the end of which you dropped the arrow) and a lock with a trigger, and that was really a spiteful, dangerous weapon. About my fifteenth year I had a real gun, a small, double-barrelled gun made by some ingenious blacksmith, I fancy. But it had fairly good shooting qualities–several times I brought down wild pigeons from the tree tops with it. Rabbits, gray squirrels, partridges, also fell before it. I bought it of a pedlar for three dollars, paying on the instalment plan, with money made out of maple sugar.
On the wooded west side of Old Clump we used to hunt rabbits–really the northern hare, brown in summer and white in winter. Their runways made paths among the mountain-maple bushes just below the summit. On the eastern side was a more likely place for gray squirrels, coons, and partridges. Foxes were at home on all sides and Old Clump was a favourite ground of the fox hunters. One day of early Indian summer, as we were digging potatoes on the lower side hill, our attention was attracted by someone calling from the edge of the woods at the upper side of the sheep lot. My brothers rested on their hoe handles a moment and I brushed the soil from my hands and straightened up from my bent attitude of picking up the potatoes. We all listened and looked. Presently we made out the figure of a man up by the edge of the woods and soon decided from his excited voice and gestures that he was calling for help. Finally, we made out that someone was hurt and the oxen and sled were needed to bring him down. It turned out to be a neighbour, Gould Bouton, calling, and Elihu Meeker, his uncle, who was hurt. They were fox hunting and Elihu had fired at the fox from the top of a high rock near the top of Old Clump and in his excitement had in some way slipped from the rock and fallen on the stones fifteen or twenty feet below and sustained serious injury to his side and back. With all possible speed the oxen and sled were got up there and after long waiting they returned to the house with Elihu aboard, groaning and writhing on a heap of straw. The injury had caused him to bleed from his kidneys. In the meantime Doctor Newkirk had been sent for and I remember that I feared Elihu would die before he got there. What a relief I felt when I saw the doctor coming on horseback, in the good old style, running his horse at the top of his speed! “Now,” I said, “Elihu will be saved.” He had already lost a good deal of blood, but the first thing the doctor did was to take more from him. This was in times when bleeding was about the first thing a doctor did on all occasions. The idea seemed to be that you could sap the strength of the disease by that means without sapping the strength of the man. Well, the old hunter survived the double blood-letting; he was cured of his injury and cured of his fox-hunting fever also.
He was a faithful, hard-working man, a carpenter by trade. He built our “new barn” in 1844 and put a new roof on the old barn. Father got out the timber for the new barn in old Jonas More’s hemlocks and hauled it to the sawmill. Lanson Davids worked with him. They had their dinner in the winter woods. One day they had a pork stew and Father said he had never eaten anything in his life that tasted so good. He and Mother were then in the flower of their days and Lanson Davids said to him on this occasion: “Chauncey, you are the biggest hog to eat I ever saw in my life.” “I was hungry,” said Father.
We had “raisings” in those days, when a new building was put up. The timbers were heavy, often hewn from trees in the woods, set up, pinned together in what were called “bents.” In a farmer’s barn there were usually four bents, tied together by the “plates” and cross beams. I remember well the early summer day when the new barn was raised. I can see Elihu guiding the corner post of the first bent and when the men were ready calling out: “All together now,” “set her up,” “heave ‘o heave, heave ‘o heave,” till the bent was in position.
One June when he was shingling the old barn he engaged me to pick him some wild strawberries. When I came in the afternoon with my four-quart pail nearly full he came down off the roof and gave me a silver quarter, or two shillings, as then called, and I felt very rich.
It is an open country, like an unrolled map, simple in all its lines, with little variety in its scenery, devoid of sharp contrasts and sudden changes and hence lacking in the element of the picturesque which comes from these things. It is a part of the earth’s surface that has never been subject to convulsion and upheaval. The stratified rock lies horizontally just as it was laid down in the bottom of the Devonian Seas millions of years ago. The mountains and the valleys are the result of vast ages of gentle erosion, and gentleness and repose are stamped upon every feature of the landscape. The hand of time and the slow but enormous pressure of the great continental ice sheet have rubbed down and smoothed off all sharp angles, giving to the mountains their long sweeping lines, to the hills their broad round backs, and to the valleys their deep, smooth, trough-like contours. The level strata crop out here and there, giving to the hills the effect of heavy eyebrows. But occasionally it is more than that: in the mountains it is often like a cavernous mouth into which one can retreat several yards, where the imaginative farm boy loves to prowl and linger like the half savage that he is and dream of Indians and the wild, adventurous life. There were a few such cavernous ledges in the woods on my father’s farm where one could retreat from a sudden shower, but less than a mile away there were two lines of them, one on Pine Hill and one on Chase’s Hill, where the foundations of the earth were laid open, presenting a broken and jagged rocky front from ten to thirty or forty feet high, gnawed full of little niches and pockets and cavernous recesses by the never-dulled tooth of geologic time and affording dens and retreats where Indians and wild beasts often took refuge. As a boy how I used to haunt these places,