|May School at Hunter Tree Farm.|
This is the fifth and final installment of William DeForrest Gay's memoir of boyhood during the 1870s near May crossroads in Lucas County's Warren Township. At the time it was written, Bill Gay was in his early 70s, severely handicapped after the loss of both legs in an automobile crash and a resident of the Nazareth Home for the Aged Invalid in Omaha. This installment was published in The Herald-Patriot of Oct. 8, 1936.
At least one more installment was planned, but something Bill had written in this or an earlier installment had offended someone --- that's a story for the epilogue. Keep in mind that Bill Gay was a story-teller, not an historian. While there's no reason to doubt the historical framework in which he was writing, obviously many of the details were recreated.
The photo is of May School in its final incarnation, now located at Hunter Tree Farm just northwest of Chariton. This would not have been the building Bill Gay remembered. Although May School always was in the same location, the northeast corner of the May crossroads, this is a newer structure. After consolidation of Lucas County's rural school districts, an attempt was made to keep this building in place as a township hall. When it became clear that this was impractical, the building was sold, moved to Chariton by the Hunters and beautifully restored. It now houses a holiday shop open during the pre-Christmas season.
I was especially interested in this installment because it is the only first-hand account I've seen of what now is called the Gay-Plymate Pioneer Cemetery, located some distance off the road on what had been the James T. Plymate --- later Thomas Gay --- farm at Freeland, across the fields northeast of the school. James Plymate actually died during April of 1857, according to the 1881 history of Lucas County, but Bill Gay's memoir confirms that his grave was marked originally by an inscribed field stone and suggests that three other graves were located nearby. The cemetery has not been disturbed, but there are no signs of the graves now.
As I went into the (Champlin) store (at May crossroads), a feeling came over me I have not the words to describe. Quickly I looked it over. It seemed the same, but much smaller, and a larger window had been added. Then --- Sarah came in. I could hardly believe it. She looked the same, had the same smile and tinkling laugh and the same intelligent and cheerful face.
"Something?" she asked.
"Give me some of those chocolates, up there in the jar. I want to see if they taste the same as they did 50 years ago."
"I guess they do," she said. "Did you get them here so long ago?"
"Pounds and pounds of them," I told her.
She looked me over, but I saw no sign of recognition. "Sarah," I asked, "where's George?"
"In his grave," she replied, "Long ago."
"Do you remember Willie and Gene?"
She seemed startled, looked me over, and said, "Yes, yes, and you're Willie. Oh, the years, the years, where have they gone?"
"Do you mind if I call you Sarah?"
"I'd love it. It's been years and years since I've heard my own name."
"Sarah," I asked, "have you any cherry pie?"
"Yes. Canned cherry, baked today; come into the kitchen Willie."
Just then a customer came in and departed with two packs of cigarettes, 40 cents, one package of prunes, 20 cents.
We went into the diniig room and Sarah asked the maid to set out coffee, cherry pie and blackberry jam.
"Sara," I asked, "wasn't George fond of cherry pie?"
She gave me a searching look and said, "Have you by any chance heard that old yarn?"
"Yes, I remember it, my sister Carrie was here at the time."
"Well," she said, 'George asked me to bake a cherry pie for dinner. He said, sure there's no seeds, not a damn seed, understand? I've got a sore tooth, and if one seed is in that pie I'll get it.' I assured him it would be seedless."
Dinner time came. George saw a huge piece of pie near his plate and ate it cautiously. Finding no seeds he took another piece with more speed. Then --- suddenly it happened. He hit a seed with his sore molar. Up he went into the air, cracked his heels together, and came down yelping and running north."
He went into the barn before going back into the house. In the barn he came face to face with Oscar Olson, the big Swede hired man, and started right in giving orders. The Swede, never having see George before, twisted his neck some, thinking him a bum, then put him head-first in an empty bran barrel and whacked his pants with an oaken barrel stave. At every whack George rent the air with a war whoop. Sarah, hearing the fracas, ran down to the barn. She had heard those vocal chords before. They emptied poor George out, and Sarah introduced him to Oscar as "Mr. Champlin."
"By Golly," roared Oscar, "das ban a good yoke on me, don't it?" He slapped his huge thigh and laughed. It was said that even the mules laughed. But, just the same, George was a good neighbor and strictly honorable. trusted by all.
My next stop was at Captain B's place. How short the two and a half miles seemed now, and how long it seemed when we walked to Sunday school nearby. Cap B was in the barn lot, tinkering with a tractor. He seemed very old, but perhaps not more than 78.
"Something to sell?" he asked.
"No, sir. I've come to collect 50 cents."
"For picking cherries and sawing wood one very long day in the early '70s."
He looked me over thoroughly, then drew out a coin.
"Here's the money, Willie," he said, and went on working.
"Thanks, Captain," I said, and drove away.
On the southwest corner of our farm was, and still is, a half acre of native sod no plow has ever turned. There were four graves, evidently white. These four were fenced with oak rails the last time I had seen them. Now the rails were rotted down, no trace remained. One small boulder remained to mark the place. Crudely chiseled was the name of "J. Plymut, 1853."
I sat down on the rock and looked southwest and east, where a poor crop of corn was ripening. But what I saw was swaying bluestem grass, sweet William and prairie lilies. I saw the nests of prairie hens and of the golden plover and meadow lark and bobelink. And now, only a half acre remained unspoiled. I was told that the lilies still bloomed there.
A short time later we were again passing May school. Children were filing out, and I thought of a little girl who had obtained at least a part of her early education there. She is now living in Council Bluffs, Ia., and is the highly-respected superintendent of schools in her county. She has very ably administered the office for around 15 years.
There, too, was Orin Woods, older son of Newell Woods, who lived in a log house 80 rods from May. He became the best known man in Wyoming. (Orin Hazen Woods, 1869-1907)
Many more, too, I could name who have made good in the world of trade. Perhaps the education they obtained there in pioneer days was as good as they get nowadays in the town and city schools.
"Drive north, Bub, I'm looking for a tree in a garden."
"Gosh," he said, "a grave yard, now a tree. Ain't there no trees where you come from?"
"Not like my tree," I told him. "Whoa! Here's where I walk a bit. You stay here."
Over a wire fence I went --- the friendly rails were gone --- down a hill, then up another hillside. Up I went through a tangle of hazel, loaded with huge pods drooping low with ripe, heavy nuts. Half way up I looked for the old rail fence. It was gone. But the tree was there, loaded with blackhaws.
And there, too, was a pair of belated robins feasting. There, too, was the same flat rock on which we cracked the shell barks.
Now again I was a barefoot boy.
Was it the same tree? It seemed the same, but was probably a seedling. Fifty years is a "right smart spell."
Taking off my shoes and socks, I wiggled my feet in the dam fragrant mold and ate fruit and nuts. Then the driver crashed through the brush.
"Say," he yelped, "thought I was hired to drive. I wanta earn my dollar a day."
"You're not getting a dollar a day. You're getting two. Drive back to the store and get two big sacks and a basket and string. And get going, it's soon sundown."
Only one thing was missing; Gene, my brother. A few years ago he came east to see me, and also sell a few carloads of fruit. He told me of his love for the mountains.
"Yea," I said, "I'm told there are no big snakes there."
"Instantly he turned on me a piercing eye and drawled, 'I may be afraid of snakes, but they are the only thing I am afraid of. Another thing, Bill, when I shoot at a dove she don't fly away looking back over her shoulder and making faces at me. But Bill, I did feel awful sorry for you, gnawing on that fowl's neck, while I was working down the giblets and white meat.'
What a wonderful and glorious thing is brotherly love, when it endures for three score and 10 years..
"Gene," I said, "with no legs I will never again roam the Whitebreast brakes, but you may."
"No," he said, "It wouldn't be the same --- alone. But who knows, there may be hills and vales in the happy hunting grounds."
"I hope so, Gene."
He looked away over the fields, a far away look in his eyes, and said, "So do I, Bill."