The autobiography of a Pennsylvanian/03 Que Faire?

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Que Faire?

THOUGH entirely prepared for the Sophomore Class at Yale, and in fact having progressed much farther in my studies than the requirements, the proposition had to be abandoned for the very prosaic reason that the necessary money could not be secured.

Most people look back to their youth as a time of enjoyment, free from the sense of responsibility. With me the approach to manhood was a period filled with anxieties and uncertainties. I was about five feet ten inches in height, slim and anæmic, and weighed about one hundred and twenty-seven pounds. The mental attitude of those around me had a tendency to depress rather than to encourage. My uncle, Dr. Samuel A. Whitaker, once told somebody that I should probably live to be about eighteen years of age, and in some way the diagnosis or prophesy had come to me. He did not stand alone; others of my relatives, more blunt than discreet, had indicated by word or manner a somewhat similar opinion and I had come to regard such a result as probable. I hoped to be able to last until thirty-five, so that I might have the opportunity to see whether I could not do some useful thing in life. Remembering these moods now, I can see that they were entirely unreal, because they were always accompanied with a determination to take hold somewhere and a sense that I would succeed. This is not the feeling of a moribund or weakling. Nevertheless I must have approached a condition not then recognized but which I have since come to know as nervous prostration. Once, after going with my mother to the railroad station to take a train, some ill-defined sensation compelled a return home. I could not lift a spoon or hold a pen to write or do many little things in the presence of other persons. All of the while I felt the necessity of getting started in some occupation in which I could earn enough to take care of myself and perhaps be helpful to the rest; but to find the opening was the problem. I knew that finally I should reach the law and in the meantime was ready to do whatever happened to be within reach. I made an application for a clerkship in the office of the Phœnix Iron Company. I asked for a place in the general store of Reeves & Cornett, a close-fisted firm doing business in Phœnixville. I tried to get my uncle, George W. Whitaker, to give me a place at the Durham Iron Works, but he pursued the cautious and safe policy of not having any of the family around him.

In the early days of the war, there was a great gathering of mules, about thirty thousand of them, in a camp of the Commissary Department at Perryville, Maryland, and having reason to believe that I could exert some influence upon Colonel Charles G. Sawtelle, in command there, I asked for some sort of a position in connection with the handling of those mules. Happily for me, all of these efforts ended in failure. So often the disappointments of life turn out for our benefit. Twice during each week I arose at daylight and trudged across the long bridge to the town market, and returning carried back in a large basket perhaps twenty-five pounds of beef to my mother. Connected with the house was a large garden in which grapes grew over an arbor and therein my good old grandmother had rows of gooseberry bushes and currant bushes — red, black and white — and planted hollyhocks and dahlias, to her delight. I dug the garden, all with a spade, and cultivated it, raising radishes, peas, beans, asparagus, cabbage, turnips, beets, com and potatoes.

In Phœnixville the Young Men's Literary Union had a room over the store of Reeves & Cornett, at the corner of Bridge and Main streets, and there subscribed not only for the daily newspapers of Philadelphia and New York, and the magazines, but even for the London Punch and Times and the London Art Journal and Harper's Weekly, Vanity Fair and the Scientific Monthly. It likewise had a fair library of romance, history and science. On certain evenings topics of the day were discussed in formal debate. The debating societies of my youth certainly helped me very much to gain self-possession and to develop the capacity for public speech which I have been called upon to exercise all through life. Among the members were the two lawyers then in the town — William H. Peck, who had studied both medicine and law, subsequently becoming a surgeon in one of the regiments during the war, a fluent man of some attainments, and perhaps, for this reason, looked upon with disfavor, and Charles Armitage, slouchy, ill-trained, ignorant and good-natured, who was always a favorite and was later killed while fighting the battles of his country. Among the other members were Ashenfelter, before referred to, Horace Lloyd, an upright, narrow and methodical clerk in the bank, and Josiah White. White had force of character. Ashenfelter annoyed him, and White emptied a bottle of ink over the light coat of his tormentor. Lloyd occupied two chairs, one with his heels, absorbing the Tribune, which he had held on to during the greater part of the evening. White interrupted this serenity by setting fire to the paper. A lieutenant in Company G of the First Pennsylvania Reserves, he was wounded at Antietam and killed in the Wilderness. I became president of the Literary Union.

In the year 1859 I suggested to my cousin, Benjamin R. Whitaker, that we two, he being then fifteen and I sixteen, take a walk across country down into the State of Maryland. At that time it was not the habit to walk. Soon afterward the war made walking a necessity to many and disclosed to the rest their capacity for this kind of exercise, and in recent years fashion has made it a conventional thing to do. But then every countryman who had half a mile to traverse hitched his horse to a buggy and drove. Our proposition had no precedent among the people we knew and was regarded as bold and venturesome. Whitaker's father overcame the fears of his mother by telling her we would probably go as far as West Chester, fifteen miles away, but that he fully expected to see us at home the next evening. We started in the early morning, with staff and satchel, and in an outing of about two weeks made a trip of one hundred and seventy-five miles, walking at the rate of from twenty-five to thirty miles a day. We crossed the Chester Valley to West Chester, thence to Unionville and Oxford and the rough section of Lancaster County towards Peach Bottom, over the Susquehanna River at Conowingo bridge, through Harford County, Maryland, by the dilapidated old village of Dublin, to the Deer Creek, where my uncle, Washington Pennypacker, then owned a farm. His oldest son, Matthias, about my own age, lost his life in the war, and he with his family, insisting upon flying the flag of the country from the top of his house, was soon afterward driven from the state. Here we remained for a few days, Benjamin for the first time making the acquaintance of a hornet, visited the granite rocks of Deer Creek, and then walked to Havre de Grace, encountering a severe thunder shower on the way. There, a mile and a half from the town, my uncle, William P. C. Whitaker, owned the beautiful place called Mount Pleasant. The mansion of brick, plastered, with an elaborately carved walnut stairway running from the main hall to the second story, and taking flight by a bridge across the hall from one side of a gallery to the other, occupied at the time of the War of 1812 by Colonel Hughes, one of the proprietors of the Principio Iron Works, overlooked the Chesapeake Bay, and from the front a long avenue ran to the bay through a wood of forest trees. From there we crossed the Susquehanna to Principio, and through the lower part of Chester County to Avondale and Kennett Square. The last day's walk was from Kennett Square to Phœnixville. As we went down Main Street, on our way home, we met a rather stout, full-faced man with a sandy complexion and side whiskers who greeted our return with, “I shall put you in the paper.” He has had a career, and it is worth while to stop and look at him. I can well remember the healthy appearance, the cordial and attractive manner and the pleasing personality.

John Henry Puleston at that time was the editor of the Phœnixville Guardian, a weekly newspaper which had a brief and checkered existence. He came to Phœnixville from Scranton and in a few months he left the town, owing everybody in it who could be persuaded by affability to trust him, even the poor woman who did the family washing. No doubt he was absolutely without resources. Soon afterward Governor Curtin appointed him an agent for the State at Washington. He then became associated with Jay Cooke, who sent him to London, where he acquired an interest in the firm and became its representative in England. When Cooke went down under the weight of the Northern Pacific Railroad, in some way Puleston managed to hold up his end and became wealthy. Presently he was made a baronet and went to Parliament, and he died a few years ago in a castle in Wales which he had bought with his acquisitions. Many years after I had met him on Main Street. I was one of the managers of the Penn Club, an organization of note in Philadelphia. It was determined to tender the hospitalities of the club and give a reception to a distinguished member of the British Parliament about to visit America. The arrangements had progressed to a certain extent, but were revoked when it was bruited about that if he came he would fall into the hands of the sheriff. Thereupon Sir John Henry Puleston, M. P. — it was he — hunted up his old debts and paid them. To all of his American acquaintances he was kind and attentive when they sought him, and his neglect of his obligations of the past was probably as much due to inertia as to any other cause.

The winter of 1861-62 I spent at the store of Whitaker & Coudon, a firm consisting of my grandfather, my great-uncle, George P. Whitaker, of Principio, and the son-in-law of the latter, Joseph Coudon, who then lived in Camden. Their store ran from Water Street to Delaware Avenue in Philadelphia and there they sold the iron made at Durham and Principio furnaces, and likewise represented the Schalls of Norristown; White, Ferguson & Co. of Robesonia; and other iron firms, and were the sole agents for the Burdens of Troy, New York, in the sale of their horseshoes. I assisted Oliver C. Lund, a gouty, white-haired old retainer, perched upon a high stool, to keep the books and also rolled out kegs of nails and horseshoes, when they were to be shipped, and did whatever else was to be done. I boarded at a hotel on the east side of Third Street and there added somewhat to my reputation as a checker player. An irascible Irishman named Felix O'Barr had come to be recognized as the champion among the merchants and their clerks who found a temporary home at the hotel. One evening he met an opponent to whom he was compelled to succumb. After the match had been lost he said to his foe, “You can't play checkers. There is a boy here who can beat you.” And the boy did.

In the summer of 1862, at Mont Clare, I one day read an announcement that Mr. Cruikshank, the county superintendent of public schools in Montgomery County, would hold an examination to determine the selection of teachers for the following winter. Without a word to any one, I put a saddle on the bay horse, rode over to the Trappe, in company with numerous other applicants took the examination, and in the evening came home with a certificate in my pocket. At my request the directors gave me the school at Mont Clare, a little one-story stone building with one room. It has since been torn down. Mr. C. Herman Oberholtzer of Phœnixville had a cane made from the wood with the figure of the house carved on it and presented it to me. I taught for a term of eight months for a compensation of thirty dollars per month. The children were of both sexes and ranged from little tots, trying to learn their A, B, C's, to young men and women eighteen years of age, and in all there were from fifty to sixty scholars. It had been a disorderly school and one of the amusements in earlier winters had been to put the teacher out of the room. I used various devices to establish and enforce discipline. When a boy used filthy language I washed out his mouth with coarse soap. I compelled a disobedient scholar to stand in the corner with his face to the wall, a position which in time grew to be very monotonous. The names of those who did the best each week were kept on the blackboard where all could see them. I kept regular records of accomplishment and conduct and sent the results at stated intervals to the parents. One of the largest boys, as old as myself and no doubt much stronger, the son of a farmer named Strough, once committed some gross offense and I determined that unless I should flog him my hold was gone. I quietly told him that I wanted him after the school had been dismissed. The children watched in awe and I was probably as uneasy as he. Near the close of the session his nerve gave way and grabbing his books he made a bolt for the door, much to my relief, and I never saw him more. I had a class in Brooks' Mental Arithmetic, and one of the young women, a Miss Caroline Billew (Boileau), went entirely through Greenleaf's Arithmetic with me. Once a month I rode on horseback six miles to a teachers' institute at the Trappe and there, among other teachers, met H. W. Kratz, now president of the Schwenksville National Bank.

After all of these more or less desultory efforts to secure a foothold, at last the uncertainties disappeared and my course became fixed. My grandfather, somewhat influenced by my uncle, Joseph, concluded to advance me the money with which to read law. He was much aroused over the war and it is very likely that my recent participation in some of its events had finally convinced him that I had sufficient character to make the expenditure of the money a fair business risk. The counsel of Whitaker & Condon had been James Otterson, but not long before, Otterson had taken into an important matter for them, Peter McCall and he had made a very favorable impression. It was determined that I should enter the office of Mr. McCall. But I was then about twenty years and six months old. If I began the office study before the age of twenty-one, I was required to study for three years, and if after twenty-one, then but two years. We determined that these six months should be saved. At that time Enoch Taylor, the brother of the most intimate friend of my mother, more of a conveyancer than a lawyer, afterward sheriff of Philadelphia, had an office on Sixth Street on the east side not far from Race. He was a thin, nervous, childless, timid man, with so abundant a knowledge of real estate and its transactions that whenever a Republican was elected sheriff of the county he was selected as chief deputy, in order to see that the unknowing sheriff did not get into trouble. Finally at a time of political upheaval he was himself elected sheriff. He very kindly consented to let me read in his office temporarily and there I made my acquaintance with Blackstone. He had one assistant, Elias P. Smithers, who had come to the city from Delaware, then very much attached to the work of the Methodist Episcopal Church and almost a devotee. Later he broadened, came to the bar, entered politics, became register of wills, and died from a fall down a stairway, leaving a considerable estate. After my birthday in April of 1864, I entered the office of Peter McCall and may then be regarded as having commenced the serious business of life.