Thursday, January 14, 2016

W. D. Gay's Warren Township Adventures (Part 4)

John James Audubon's depiction of Pinnated Grouse, or Greater Prairie-Chicken

This is the fourth installment of William DeForrest Gay's memoir of a childhood spent in the May crossroads community of Warren Township during the 1870s. It was published in the Herald-Patriot on Sept. 3, 1936. At the time it was written, Bill Gay was in his early 70s and an invalid who would spend his remaining years as a resident of the Nazareth Home for the Aged Invalid in Omaha. Prior to that, however, he had been since 1898 a community leader in the Page County town of Essex, just northeast of Shenandoah, where he operated a jewelry store and worked as a watch-maker.

The Henry Field mentioned in this installment was the nationally renowned Shenandoah-based seed and nurseryman, who also commencing in 1924 broadcast over the airwaves from his own radio station KFNF. It sounds as if Field had mentioned Bill Gay in some of his broadcasts.

Gay's parents were Thomas and Lotilla "Tillie" Ann Gay, who had a total of eight children. Bill, born in 1863, was the oldest son. His brother, Eugene, was two years younger. A third son, Alva, was born in 1870 and was too young to form the bond his older brothers did. There also were five Gay daughters, Carrie, Adeline, Olive Emma, Nellie and Maggie. 

The sister remembered in this article was Nellie, who died as a small child during 1875 or 1876. She is the only Gay family member buried at Goshen Cemetery. Her parents are buried in the Chariton Cemetery.


I think it was early October, 1873, when Father got a letter from a wealthy relative in New York City. He was coming to our farm to shoot the regal prairie chicken. It was said that he had shot moose in Maine and big game in Africa, but never had seen the Queen of Birds, the Pinnated Grouse.

For some reason I never knew why, Gene and I regarded all who lived in towns as ninnies, sissies, no good, puny, no gumption. When Father was unloading him and his baggage we looked through a knothole in the smokehouse door and commented on the outfit. We were astounded to see a fine specimen of real manhood, 35 years old, soft voice and "Oh, look at his muscle. Say Bill, that feller never growed up in no city, did he?" said Gene.

"Nope," I replied, "he's fooling us. Look at that dog. Gosh. Look at his tail. What's that reading on the crate?"

We read, "Satan, William Sing, owner, New York City."

"Wouldn't that strangle ya? Bringing a dog all the way from New York. He must be queer. What's that? Gosh, a gun. In a leather case, too. Say, Gene, he may possible be genuine."

And sure enough he was a No. 1 gentleman and a good sport. That night he slept on a corn husk mattress, the first time in his life, and declared it good. When our breakfast was over he asked Mother for six hard fried eggs and two pork sausages for Satan. Mother gasped, but father saved her by saying, "Certainly, Tillie will fix it up."

"Geeze," I thought. "Feeding the devil eggs worth six cents a dozen at the store. He must be rich indeed."

Then he came out in a hunting costume. And his gun --- what a gun it was. A muzzle-loader, finished like a new piano, with locks and guard gold or gold-plated and his name beautifully engraved thereon. We were raising our estimate every minute of this "town Jake."

Perhaps I had best mention here that about this time father was obtaining good building contracts and was bringing home the bacon. We now had white bread, layer cake and twisted doughnuts in plenty. Father was busy in his shop, making furniture of native black walnut for a new house. "This boy will show you where the birds are," he told Mr. Sing.

We set off across a stubble field, Satan ranging ahead. I knew of a buckwheat patch that had been frost-bit, and all the seed had fallen. As we neared this field he said, "The birds are there, by crackle. See Satan?"

"I'h huh," I said. "I see him. I saw him before you took him out of the crate. You just can't shoot them. They're all hid and they whoop up before you see them. I've had them get almost under my feet."

He smiled and told me to look at Satan.

Satan was "froze," one hind foot was up, his head turned, his eyes glossy. Sing cocked both hammers, put the gun at ready. "All right, Satan." Satan stepped forward. Two birds thundered up, one went to the right, one left. Both birds were killed. To say I was surprised does not describe my sensations. I had never see one killed in the air. Again Satan "froze" and two more birds fell. The dog then brought the four birds and laid them near us. Sing look at them. "I am sure," he said, "this is the finest game bird in the world."

We now had great respect for the "town Jake." He was a regular fellow. When we arrived home he gave us a dollar each. We felt sorry for him as we were afraid he would go broke and could not ride the cars back to New York. Sometimes he would split a soda biscuit and butter it for Satan. But of course he knew all the time that he would leave Mother a fist full of $10 bills when his visit came to an end.

I have no doubt some of the readers will say that I am living now in the past, in the horse and wagon days. it seems to me I have the same ambition for achievement and adventure in age as in youth. Yet I know adventure will never again be mine. Perhaps I've had my share. But who, having lived in those days, wishes to forget?

The Goshen Graveyard

In the early 70's we laid our little sister, two years old, in this lonely and unkempt acre. It was the first time we had looked on the face of death. Every detail of that tragedy is written on my memory. There was a long line of farm wagons, with the one ahead bearing the little $7 casket. As we stood by the grave and heard the droning voice of the preacher prolonging the agony as long as possible I wondered if Goshen had anything in common with Ghosts.

Through my hot tears I saw the leaning stones around us. Some, indeed, were lying flat down. The prairie grass was high. A wild vine covered a tall stone, and only the vine was beautiful. I saw high weeds in the fence row and by the broken gate, then I thought of the lines,

"I passed by his vineyard,
I saw the wild brier,
The thorn and the thistle
Grew higher and higher."

No song of childhood ever echoed here. All who entered and departed were burdened with grief, sorrow and tears. But possibly some man or woman lying in this neglected acre might, if given the opportunity and environment, have become great in state or national affairs. Who knows?

After 50 years

Oct. 10, 1926 or 1927, I was alone in my store and restless. Indian summer was in the air and over the land. From a drawer in my safe I brought out an old McGuffey's Reader. On the inside cover I read, "Oct. 11, 1873. Today we (Gene and me) have found a blackhaw tree in the garden of Eden. We don't tell nobody. We will keep it dark."

It seemed I could smell the same pungent hazel pods, see the seal brown nuts. I was living again as a carefree boy. How I wished I could go back to the old hunting ground. Then a loud voice startled me. "Well, why in the Sam Hill can't you?" A customer had sneaked in and caught me talking out loud.

"Well," I said, "It's because I haven't got gumption."

Then I took stock. My much-loved wife resting under the cypress threes these 15 years, children gone and all doing fine, alone in my house and store, a sizable chunk of gold, owe no man a cent. Why not? I looked at the big regulator. Two o'clock, the cars would be here in eight minutes. I had no time to get a ticket.

The conductor came along. "Ticket?"

"I have none."

"Where to?"

"Don't know and don't care."

"Know when you are coing back?"

"Not until I find some blackhaws and hazel nuts."

"Say, you better try Humeston."

"All right. How much?"

"Come in the smoker."

In the smoker we sat together and the conversation continued.

"Say, your name isn't Gay, is it?" he asked.

"Sure is."

"So you're the guy that Henry Field says invented the town of Essex. Well, say. Two bucks as far as you want to ride. Even to Keokuk."

I slipped him the coins and he put them in his vest pocket while winking his left eye. Oh, well, perhaps he needed the money and the road was probably broke anyway. And I was not heavy to haul.


Sometime after dark I got off at Humeston and later came a train for Chariton. Soon the brakeman yelped, "Derby?" Why not Derby? I was the only one to get off. Only a mail man was visible. It must have been 10:30 p.m. Soon I was alone in the dark in a hamlet I had not seen for 50 years. All shops were closed and silent. I crossed the road north and came to an outside stairway. Upstairs was a weak light. Pausing there I heard a voice. It said, "Gimmee the bones. Come seven, come seven. I win, fill the pot."

Derby as it was in 1895.

Up the stairs I went. All noise ceased and the light went out. I knocked and asked, "Where do they park the hotel?"

"In a farm house, across the track," came a ghostly voice.

I finally found what might be the one. My knock brought results. "Come right in," a man said. "Want a bed?" He ushered me into a large room. Clean, spotless white, and what a bed. Many times I had paid 10 times what he charged me for a bed not nearly as good.

The odor of ham and coffee awakened me about daylight. At the table in the big, clean kitchen was the man and wife, a clerk and a young school ma'am. I looked out a window and saw a tomato patch with loads of crimson fruit. A fringe of Jack Frost was on the grindstone frame. They gave me three big ones sliced, cold as snow. What a breakfast that was. Why will people live in a city and pay 35 cents for three wilted, half-ripe tomatoes that were picked in Texas a week previous.  My bill for room and breakfast was $1. I felt like I had stolen something. 

The sun was now rising across the track. I saw a man unlock his store and an oldster who followed him in. It seemed to be the identical store where we used to trade pelts for ammunition. It had the very same odor, too. It smelled good. The one customer leaned up against a crate of small, wilted cabbage from California. I engaged him in conversation.

"Live here, do you?" I asked.

"Yep, born here."

"Know where Champlin's store is?"

"Yep. Know everybody in 10 miles around. Born here."

"About where does Tom Gay live?"

"He don't live. He's dead. But it was Thomas. Seemed to kinda rile him, being called Tom."

"Fight, would he?"

"Hell no, he wouldn't fight. But somehow, I dunno, nobody called him Tom."

"Did he have any sons?"

"I'd say he did, two or three of them. The two older ones trailed together like a pair of wolves. The blackheaded one we called Supple."

"Supple?" I asked. "Funny name, isn't it?"

"Nothing funny about it to them that knowed him. There was a yarn going around here thay when he was a baby his maw left him on the kitchen rug while she went out to pick gooseberries. Not hearing any yelps, she sneaked up and look through the window and there was the baby, both legs tied in a hard knot around its neck and playing marbles with himself, having a good time. That was the black-headed one. The other one was a tow head and where one was seen the other was never more than 20 feet away."

"Do you have any idea where the boys are now?" I asked.

"Well now, seems like the youngest went to college and got turned into a preacher or something."

"Is that so? Funny, isn't it?"

"Yes," he replied. "It is queering, seeking as folks said they'd be hung before they was dry beind their ears. The middle one, the tow head, went out to Washington state and word came back he sells thousands of cars of apples and got rich, I guess."

"What about the other one, around here?"

"Nope," he said, "seems like he went out west somewhere and got himself a jewelry store. Made a right smart pile, then somehow got into Uncle Sam's jail house and ...."

Woof! Getting too close to home. I came very near falling into a barrel of pickled herring.

"Still and all," he continued, "mebby it wasn't so. My wife always said that black head wasn't mean, just had too much gumption. Never did want to do anything like anybody else. He'd climb trees feet up and come down head first like a sap sucker. Got licked once in school for walking on his hands."

I never told him who I was, but later I heard he had found out.


As I left the store I bumped into a 14-year-old boy, good looking rascal.

"Want to drive, mister? Dollar a day and you pay everything. I've got an old Ford, but she takes the hills on high," he declared.

"A block or two east he drop up to a very small store. "Get the Camels here," he said.

I went in and met the owner, who was also head clerk. I laid down 40 cents, asked for two packs of Camels, and at once he said: "Oh, say now, mister. Don't ask me to sell them for less than two bits. If you only knowed how much they cost me you'd be ashamed to ask it."

I thought sure he was going to cry, so went away and left him alone with his Camels and burden of sorrow. I expect his store will always be small.

On the road to the store the lay of the land seemed familiar to me, but the hills were much smaller. Then, too, I missed the friendly, mellow rail fences, the waving bluestem, the berries and vines in the hedge rows. Now we crossed the "crick," but the spreading elms and giant shell bark hickory trees were gone. I saw the place where we caught the lowly catfish on a cotton line, one-cent hook and hazel rod, but I don't think one could be caught there now. Since those days I have fished many lakes and streams from Lake Superior to the Cataline channel in the Pacific, but none gave me anything like the thrill I got when pulling out a one pound channel cat from the "crick," and none was better to eat.

At the store, I missed the 12 big cottonwood trees. I had thought they would be there. Where they had stood was a row of dying apple trees. The school house looked the same, only a tower and a bell had been added.

1 comment:

ruth said...

I just want to say I loved this very much. I was born in Guthrie Center, Iowa. I spent my childhood years in Iowa, 8 years in Lucas County, attended Norwood Consolidated and four years at Chariton High, 1953-1956. Five years previous, I lived just across the Iowa Southern border, near Milan, Missouri. I had a 'crick' nearby that I caught catfish and perch, gathered the beautiful buckeye nuts I would cherish, wild grown strawberries along the side of the road, sweet thorny blackberries, buttercup, bluebells, Mom and I picking gunnysacks full of elderberries, searching hroughout the woods for tender spring 'greens'. Best childhood ever and I sincerely believe that.
Ruth Rosenberger Ferguson, born 1938