This is the third installment of William DeForrest Gay's memoir of boyhood life during the 1870s near the May crossroads community in Warren Township. It was published in The Herald-Patriot of Aug. 27, 1936.
Bill Gay writes quite a bit about Chariton in this installment. The photo above, which dates from ca. 1872-73, shows the west side of the square as Gay would have seen it when about 10 years old. The edge of the brand new Mallory Opera Block is at far right. The one-story building next to it was D.Q. Storie's drug store and Lockwood Jewelry soon would move into the two-story building to its left. The three-story Manning & Penick Building, although substantially altered, is only building north of the alley still standing.
Lest I forget, I wish to pay my respects to that fine old lady and her husband who lived in the cabin east of us. It seems that after the Civil War they came north from Tennessee. Every evening Gene and I drove our milk cows home past their cabin. A few days previous Mother had asked Father who had moved into the cabin. Our hired man spoke up and said, "It's Old Watters."
Now note the power of suggestion to a child. Gene and I immediately classed Watters with a worthless character known as "Old Ike" on "Big Hill." We gathered our pockets full of pebbles. When we came past his cabin it was dusk. A lamp was lighted in the four-pane window. We let the cows go on ahead, then we threw stones at the house. One crashed through the glass, and we ran. We felt guilty, talked it over, but decided it was all right, as it was only "Old Watters" anyhow.
A little later we were called into the house to meet the white-haired couple. We heard Father say, "I can't believe it." They all looked very solemn. "Did you do it, boys?" Father asked. We nodded our heads and dug our toes into the pine floor. They begged father not to punish us, then they talked of two boys --- one black-haired like me, the other a tow-head like Gene. Father gave them $1 for a new glass.
We did not then know, but do now, that they were telling of their two fine, young sons who had given the last full measure of devotion in Pickett's famous charge and had faced the cannon manned by the Boys in Blue in the Battle of Gettysburg. Not all the Boys in Gray were rebels.
Perhaps, among the early merchants, I best remember Eli Manning, as we did most of our buying and trading there. Then there was D.Q. Storie's drug store on the west side, and Peake's Jewelry window, in Storie's store. Jay Smyth later had a fine general store on the north side.
L.F. Maple had a fine book and variety store, and Amos Wright had a jewelry case there in Maple's store. I bought my first watch of him. A key-wind Elgin, in silver hunting case, $12. Wright was a fine man. Later he went to Portland, Ore.
On the north side, too, was the Captain Gardner, who had a small office on the ground floor, and Father, as justice of the peace, had considerable business with him. Perhaps he was a lawyer. Anyway, he was a very fine gentleman.
G.W. Blake had a fine hardware store on the northwest corner. G.W. Lockwood had a beautiful jewelry stone on the west side. One time father and I bought a mouth organ of him for 25 cents. He showed us a whole big drawer full of them. It didn't seem right to me for one man to own so many, while I only had one, so I slipped an extra one up my sleeve.
Going up the hill near Mallory's Farm (a short distance west of Chariton on the north side of what now is U.S. Highway 34), I could no longer control my guilty conscience. Leaning outward, I dropped the harp in front of the rear wheel, in the mud, then cried out loud, very loud. Then to Father I bared my soul. He turned back towards town and went straight into Lockwood's store. "My son here pilfered a harp an hour ago, and we have come in to pay for it."
"Oh, that's all right," said the jeweler.
But father laid down the money.
As we passed the spot where laid the harp, father said, "Well son, you won't do that again, will you?"
"No, sir," I said, and meant it.
That was all he ever said or did about it.
John Bentley had a wonderful blacksmith shop, and a fine old man by the name of Courtleyow (Jacob Cortelyou) was the gunsmith --- a silent man, very busy, and I can now see, ince I myself am a mechanic, he was a wonderful workman, and a reliable man and highly regarded as a man skilled in such work.
The Depot Hotel
In our early youth, Gene and I always went to the depot when in town. If there was anything we loved better than the odor of black gun powder, it was the smell of the engine oil. All the workers around the depot knew us, and the switch engineer sometimes let us in the cab for a short time. Upstairs we know the "Brass Pounder" who often let us in on the mysterious place (the telegraph office).
The depot was said to be the finest between Chicago and Omaha.
One day while I was sauntering around asking questions, "John Bull" --- better known as Mr. Wormey --- who conducted the hotel part, addressed me. "Are you a son of Tom Gay?"
"No sir," I replied, "my father is Thomas Gay."
"Oh, of course, how stupid I am," he said. "I am wondering how you would like to work for me.
"Sure, you bet. I mean, certainly, I'd love it. Where is the work?" I asked, shucking my coat.
"Keep your coat on, son," he said. "Have you ever had experience in conducting a lunch counter?"
"Good. You're the lad I want."
He gave me the night shift. The former employee stayed one night to show me around. Checking up on old books, I found the night "take" to be around $7.50 while the day run was twice that. At the end of the first week I had not increased the take much, then an idea hit me. I fired the cook and got a new one, a nice young farm girl --- a "humdinger." She also helped me out with No. 2 train and our sales were soon $25 a night. No. 2 then came in at 1:10 a.m. No. 3, midday, was the big money-maker for the dining room. Meals were 75 cents. Two tables went the length of the room, and when a big Zulu beat a brass gong they swarmed in. Every Saturday night, No. 2 brought in a deer, elk or antelope for Sunday dinner, and on Christmas the hotel had green corn and strawberries, new peas and other vegetables.
Joe Dorsey was room clerk at night, and always went to sleep about 1 a.m. The ticket agent had his office near the end of my counter. He was a fine fellow, and through a crack in his office I was able to trap a porter stealing $3.50 from my money drawer. I got the money out of his shoe and gave him two hours to leave. He hopped a freight for St. Joe. My salary was $3 per week.
Now comes Lafe Mauk, the new occupant of the log cabin to the east. We all liked this man and his fine, young wife. Later, I think, he owned a hardware store in Chariton.
One evening in mid-June he came to our house and said that while rounding up cows out on "the ridge" he had been chased by a huge black snake. He described it in detail as 10 feet long, black, and thick as a rolling pin.
Father wasn't much impressed, but Gene and I were excited. The snake story went over the neighborhood like a hot wind. In about a week, Dan Carr, an Irish lad, saw it. He described it as 20 feet long, with a "stinger" on its tail shaped like the head of Satan. It was thick as a stove pipe and had red eyes, teeth six inches long, but was still black. A few days later another fellow saw it chasing a mule. It was now 30 feet long with stinger still affixed. It ran through brush with its head well above and made a noise louder than a corn sheller.
The story now was all over the township, the chief topic of conversation. We boys professed not to believe it, but I think we did.
Finally came September. Nothing of the snake had been heard for a few weeks; the talk had died out.
About this time Gene and I went out in the hills to catch up two horses. We each took a halter, as the horses were afraid of a bridle. When we came to the ridge we found plenty of hazel nuts ready to eat, and as we needed both hands to husk nuts, we tied the halters about our waists. Gene's halter was equipped with a 10-foot, black, heavy leather strap which somehow came untied and dragged behind him as we went slowly downhill in a narrow cow path. The nut bushes dropped low near the path, heavy with huge gold pods.
Gene was ahead. Then, I happened to set my bare foot on the end of his strap. He stepped forward, felt the pull, then looked back. He rent the air with a war whoop that would make Sitting Bull's ghost turn green with envy. Fast and faster down the path he sped, with the strap writhing and hissing behind. Once it caught in the brush then flew forward and encircled his neck. Wildly, he tore it loose, still screaming.
Looking back, I was, to quote an expression of those days, plumb flabbergasted. I could not imagine what it was all about, and all I could do was to keep up with him if possible. At the bottom of the hill was a ditch. Gene cleared it, and while in the air, his bare legs were working, trying to get a toe hold.
Up the next hill he dashed. Half-way up he let loose one last shriek of despair and leaped head first into a huge, wild gooseberry bush. There he lay trembling. Shudders ran over his body. I raised him to his feet, looked into his wild eyes. He was staring at the strap with incredulity stamped on his freckled face. Soon he sat weakly down on a rock, gathered in the strap, and said, "Well, it's just about the length that Lafe said it was."
"Gene," I asked, "How soon can I tell about this snake?"
"He pondered a moment, then said, "Sixty years, Bill."
"I promise, brother."
Well, the 60 years are now up.
My next article will be "After 50 Years" and "A Man from New York City and Satan."