Monday, January 11, 2016

W.D. Gay's Warren Township Adventures (Part 2)

This is the second installment of a five-part memoir of life during the 1870s in Warren Township, written by William DeForrest Gay and published in The Chariton Herald-Patriot during 1936. At the time, "Bill" Gay was in his early 70s and his health was severely impaired.

While there's no reason to doubt the general accuracy of his memoir, it's useful to remember that Bill Gay was a gifted story-teller rather than an historian. And like most story-tellers, he embroidered the bare fabric of his narrative sometimes, and upon occasion added a crochet border.

You'll find the first installment of the memoir here and information about the Champlin store in this earlier post.

The illustration is a bit of embroidery, too. That's the pioneer log cabin on the Lucas County Historical Society Museum campus, not an authentic Warren Township artifact. The logs of this recreation came from a pioneer cabin in northwest Lucas County instead.


One of your subscribers, Miss Ruth Schwartz, who is connected with Immanuel hospital where I am a patient, has brought to my room your issue of June 27 in which is printed my narrative of pioneer days in Lucas County.

I have recently lost both legs above the knees, the sight of one eye and partial sight of the other. One of my hands also is badly crippled.

Still, life is not so bad. I am no longer worried over the price of silk socks, have no cold feet, corns or bunions, and no longer long for a bicycle like I did in 1873.

As I look back along the long road I have traveled it seems to me it has been a good road and only joy, song and gladness have I met along the way. Especially is this true of my childhood and early youth in Lucas county. Good water, good soil, good climate and good people will always be found together, and most Iowa counties have these conditions in abundance. My mother used to tell an old saying. It was:

A traveler stopped at a farm house for a drink of water. An old lady served him. He told her he was looking for a new location. "What kind of neighbors have you around here?" he asked.

"Well," she replied, "what kind did you have where you came from?"

"Mean, mean as pizen, all of them," he said.

"So?" she queried. "Then I guess you'd better go farther west, for you would probably find them the same here."

And how true that is.

I remember my mother as always wearing a clean, white apron with a double bow tied back. She never weighed more than 100 pounds, yet I have many times seen her carry two wooden pails of water 60 rods with which to do the family washing. Going and returning, she would sing like a lark "Rock of Ages" and "Jesus Lover of My Soul," the composition of Charles Wesley which has brought peace and contentment to vast multitudes. She made her yeast of corn meal, made the finest starch of grated white corn, made great cakes of soap in a huge iron kettle, made clothing, knit socks and mittens for seven youngsters, and her only complaint was that she had nothing to do. She was a faithful wife and mother, and the same was true of most all of our neighbors.

What a grand and glorious world this wold be if the men had as much "gumption" and ability as the females of the specie.

Young things now-a-days shudder when told of the pioneer's so-called hardships of horse and buggy days. For two or three years our family had only corn bread in some form. No bananas, no California fruit of any kind, no cake, little brown sugar. We had no pasteurized milk, whatever that is, and, thank God, no spinach. There was no tooth powder, no pills, no boxed breakfast wheat at $20 a bushel. But we had health, good teeth, strong bodies and endurance.

Along the creeks were wild plums in endless varieties --- grapes, paw-paws, red and black haws, acres of wild strawberries and hundreds of acres of wild, luscious blackberries were to be found. For greens we had mustard and lamb quarter. Sassafras bark and that aromatic root, sweet annis, we got in the timber, where also grew on north hillsides the glorious May Apple or "Mandrake," the springtime flowers such as the gorgeous Lady Slippers, Larkspur, Dutchman's Breeches and later the Prairie Lillies. Solomon, in all his glory, was not so arrayed.

Champlin's Store

"The Store" to our childish eyes was a gorgeous and impressive place, with the smell of leather boots, coffee, spices and dry goods. Then, too, it seemed large, yet it was only one small room, a part of his dwelling house and farm.

He was a small man with a  pointed beard and wore his trousers inside his boot tops --- a down east Yankee all over. He was shrewd, hard-working, keen as a kite and, father said, square and honest, although somewhat grouchy.

On the east side near a window were shelves, one of which held square jars of glass with round, tin covers. In one was hard chocolate candy, size and shape of a gold thimble. One contained lemon stick candy and another horehound candy. The fourth held licorice root.

On a high counter nearby was a platform scale, with beam and weight and a large scoop, or hopper, in which all the weighing was done. Ever the chocolates were weighed, but I wondered why, as we always got five for five cents. Later on I will say more about these chocolates.

I think, but am not sure, that the storekeeper was about 40 years old when he married John Culbertson's sister. I think her first name was Sarah. Two of her brothers had taught my school and were perhaps the best teachers we had. Sarah was a fine, handsome woman, and very intelligent.

Picking Cherries

It was in 1872 or '73 when I got rich. I found a gopher trap and sold it to Mr. Vorse for 15 cents --- one paper 10-cent bill and one five-cent bill.

Then, glory be, an old white haired man named Walters who lived east of us in a two-room log cabin said to me, "Say, Bub, if you all will drop corn in the hoe holes for a few days I'll plum pizen yer pocket with a sliver quarter. Do it, Bub?"

I nodded my head vigorously. Luck and prosperity were certainly camping on my trail. I wondered what a silver coin looked like. The two days seemed short. From a cowhide trunk under the bed he dug out the coin and placed it in my tiny, calloused hand. I was so overcome with joy and gratitude I could not speak, but could shed tears copiously. On my way home I decided I had cheated the fine old man and went back and told his fine old wife I had not earned so vast an amount of wealth. She patted my shock of midnight hair, gently pushed it back and pressed her harsh lips to my damp brow.

"Dry your tears, little boy," she said. "You all have earned a sight more and some day I will give you all more. Wait --- yes, let me see now." She went to the trunk and dug up a huge copper coin, two cents, 1856, and a small penny dated 1863. My luck still held.


Perhaps it was '72 or '73 when Captain B. rode into our yard on a beautiful coal black horse. He lived near Amity School House, a fine man and propserous. "Bub," he addressed me, "you come over to my house and pick cherries and I'll give you 50 cents a day." I grew dizzy, my good fortune was coming in leaps and bounds. I climbed up behind the saddle and we galloped away. For seven hours I pulled the luscious fruit, then we had dinner. After dinner he advised me that he was feling fine and would pick them himself while I could saw wood. The buck saw was dull, the oak wood so hard, the day so hot and I was so tired. My small hands were blistered and the saw handle was too large for them. Then I thought of home and mother. I looked at the trees. His back was visible through the foliage. It was near sundown and I was hungry, thirsty and barefoot. To think was to act and like a deer I sprinted away for home. That was the last time I saw him for 50 years.


There was a man lived west of Uncle Billy Young named John Bell --- Uncle John, they called him. A Civil War officer, he was as fine a man as ever lived in these parts. One time I rode a horse beside his mount as we went to salt his cattle, roaming in the Whitebreast hills. A buyer rode up on a dark sorrel mare.

"How many steers have you, three-year-olds?" he asked.

"Eighty," said Bill.

"Give you $75 apiece for them."

"Nope," said Bell, "takes eighty."

All right," said the buyer. "Drive 'em to Lucas tomorrow."

We did and John carried home a bag of gold, all gold, $6,400. He let me count it and then took it upstairs.


There is one more experience I will write about before closing this chapter. It was January. I was eight or nine years old, I am not positive which. Early in the morning, father started to his school at Goshen.

"Oh, Thomas," cried mother, "how I do wish you had an overcoat and felt boots." She hugged him, kissed his bearded cheek while tears fell and sobs shook her frail frame.

"Tillie," he said, "I'm a man. No cold or storm stops me. I'll be sweating when I get there. But if this storm gets worse, I'll stay the night at Mr. Conner's house close to the school house. Don't worry, there's plenty of hickory wood in the wood house." Then he walked westward into the 20-below-zero bitter wind and deep, drifting snow.

Around 3 p.m. the storm blew with increasing fury, the wind shipping a cold and cutting snow. A rider, an old-like man, dismounted close to our kitchen door. His huge beard was full of ice. He seemed faint. "My feet," he yelped, "my feet." Mother got his horse stabled and the man somehow got his boots off, his feet in the oven. We could see that Mother did not trust this fellow. His eye was shifty, and mother was easy to look at. Soon he said, "I have a telegram from Pike county, Illinois, for Thomas Gay. As soon as I get five dollars you can read it and, by God, not before. Seven miles in this storm is hell."

Mother had $4 but it was no go. We children dug up all our pennies and there was $4.97. Then mother read the yellow message, "Come at once, your father is dying."

Mother did not then weep, but she seemed stunned. The message bearer went to sleep in his chair and we were cautioned not to waken him. It must have been near 4 p.m. when she decided what to do. In our small barn was our only horse, Dolly, a beautiful dappled gray, not yet four years old. This mare was proud as a peacock, keen as a blade and withal gentle as a lamb and extremely intelligent. Mother fed her a lot of warm corn dodger, gave her some water, put on a light saddle. I helped her all I could. When the mare was ready she dropped on her knees, her firm arms around my body, and prayed "Oh Mericful God, tell me, thy sinful child, tell me in some way whom will sacrifice, my man or my child."

"Willie," she then asked, "can you ride four miles?"

"Yes, yes, it's fun. I'll go a-tearin' mother. Let me go."

It was dusk when I rode away, fearless with the fearlessness of extreme youth, westward ho. The mare bucked the wind and deep drifts between the rail fences. One mile, then the road ran south and the ground was bare. The mare broke into a sweeping gallop for a mile, took one long breath, and then plunged into the drifts for another two miles west.

I rode her up onto the stone door steps. She threw a long-drawn nicker. Father was inside, he knew that call, opened the door, dragged me inside, while the mare pawed and her iron shoes struck bright sparks on the stone.

Mr. Conner stabled and cared for the mare while father looked to my comfort. Mrs. Conner fried eggs and a huge slice of hickory cured ham for me. I had been three and a half hours on the road, but was not frozen at all. Father scolded me for coming for him on such a night. "Why, why father," I faltered, "I've brought you a paper."

"Where is it?" he barked.

"Here it is," as I fumbled in my shirt.

He read it, said "hummm," then turned to Conners' 12-year-old boy and asked, "Elmer, will you please saddle my mare?" The boy soon came up and father, in a borrowed overcoat, rode away while I stayed. When he arrived home he found the message man's mount lame. Father again mounted his mare and rode to Chariton for a midnight train. He left the man to stay overnight at our house.

Mother put the man in her bed downstairs while she went up with the six children. Later I learned the stair door had no lock, so she got father's Civil War sword, his musket with bayonet on, and sat on the top step all night, sword at read and rifle nearby, while the kids slept peacefully under feather beds and buffalo robes. The gray mare made 15 and a half miles that night.

I have no recollection of how or when I got home, but I do know that before I opened the door I heard mother's sweet voice singing, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow." Mother swarmed over me like a hen over a chicken.

"Aw, mom, cut it out. I'm a man now, like father. 'Nuther thing, all you kids set up and listen, likewise observe. From now on my name ain't Willie, nor Billie, nor Will. It's Bill."

And sure enough, it's Bill yet. My good luck still camps on my spoon.

(In my next chapter I shall include some "old timers" and a big snake scare on the Whitebreast breaks. Also trapping grouse, and our first gun.)

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