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Grandmother Brown's Hundred Years

1827 - 1927



"Tell me something about the home in Ames where you first went to housekeeping, Grandmother Brown,"  I begged.

"Oh, it wasn't much to brag of," she answered.  "We began with two rooms and a porch in a house which stood a little distance up the hill from the store.  Across the run or creek which we had to cross to reach the store lay an old gunwale of poplar.  It had been intended for the side of a flatboat and had floated down there in some spring freshet.  When the spring rains were heavy the water rose almost to the gunwale.

"Though I hadn't much house, I had heavy housework from the first.  Aut Dickey and two men who worked with him and Dan'l in the store boarded with us.  Four hearty men to cook and wash for is all the work one young girl needs to keep her occupied.  But I was ambitious to help get ahead in the world.  And I was conscientious and used to working hard.  So I put my shoulder to the wheel without complaint.

"After a while we built a house near the store.  But, oh dear, oh dear, it wasn't at all what I wanted or what it might so easily have been.  There was no upstairs, and no way of getting up into the attic space.  Six rooms we had and seven outside doors.  And not a bedroom in it that could be swept properly.  It wasn't the plan I wanted.  In time, Dan'l came to advise people to have me draw their plans.  I made over Sister Ann's house once so as to accommodate two families.  yes, at the end Dan'l got so he thought I knew it all.  He told Lizzie, once, that her mother was about the best manager he ever saw.  But it took a long time for him to realize it, and there wasn't much to manage by the time he was convinced.  That first house was one of his mistakes.

"When my father's estate was finally settled a few hundred dollars came to me.  With part of it I bought a walnut breakfast table with fall leaves and a drawer in which to keep the tablecloth.  I also bought a cherry bureau, a cherry bedstead, and a cherry candle stand - pretty pieces, all of them.  The candle stand had a bird's-eye maple drawer with cherry knobs.  When evening came we used to set a candle on the candle stand and pull the stand into the centre of the room so that four people could sit around it and see to work.  When we left Ames that candle stand was sold, but the cherry dresser I brought with me to Iowa, - all the way down the Ohio and up the Mississippi, - and there it is over in the corner right this very minute."

"And now tell me about the coming of your family,"  I suggested.

"Well, my dear, I was always one to take things hard.  Life has always meant so much to me.  So you wouldn't expect me to, have an important thing like a baby without some fuss.  The pangs of childbirth!  I once knew a woman who said it cost her no pain to have a child, but that was not my experience.  In the Bible, whenever there is need to illustrate the utmost agony, comparison is made of 'the woman in travail.'

"We were married in October, and the next October Willie was here.  I had grown up among babies and cared for them when only a child myself, and yet I was hardly prepared for the ordeal that awaited me.  Even my baby clothes' didn't seem to be quite right.  Ma laughed when I showed them to her.  'Why, my dear, did you measure the cat?' she exclaimed.  'They are so tiny.'

"And Willie was a big, bouncing boy who nearly killed me as he tore his way into life.  Ma was not with me then, only an aunt of Dan'l's and his cousin's wife.  The doctor who attended me was a bad man and drunken.  First, he bled me - think of it!  Then, after he had taken a pint of my blood, he gave me a cup of ergot to hasten labor.  I was young and strong and he was anxious to be off.  When my agony could go no further, I lost consciousness.  All I remember is seeing my hands drawing up in front of my eyes.  'Oh, if they'll just drop me down, down into that black hole, oh, if they only will,' I agonized, 'it will be all right.'  When I came to, I heard a baby cry.  'Your beautiful baby!' they told me.'

"Twenty months later Charlie came.  He was nice looking baby, too.    My mother was there that time.  When he was born, I said:  'Is that all?'  'My dear child, I should think that was enough,' Ma said.  It was really a very happy day.  Amesville was having a temperance rally and Charlie was born in the midst of the picnic, you might say.  'So I've been a Prohibitionist ever since,' he always says when reminded of the incidents connected with his birth, and it's true that he has never tasted strong drink or tobacco.  You see, it was this way:  Tables for the picnic were set in the old  next to our place.  My mother and the girl we had to help had baked things for the picnic. The Amesville people had prepared a fine dinner, and Libbie's husband, Nelson Van Vorhes, was to be the speaker.  Ma had been teasing me right along, saying:  'I guess you're waiting for the rally day, Maria.  Then you will rally, sure enough!'  Well, I was sitting by the window looking out on the picnic grounds when I saw the big band wagon from Athens come driving over the bridge.  It was a fine large red wagon, and the band boys wore red jackets and white pants with red stripes down their legs.  Brother John was leader of the band.  I wanted to see him and visit with him that day, but instead I called, 'Ma, you'll have to fix my bed.'  All through my labor I could hear the music and I think it helped to dull my pains.  Well, my boy Charlie's been wonderful fond of music ever since; he could always sing, could imitate a horn, too, so that you wouldn't know the difference.  When the news of his arrival was taken to John, he said to the members of the band:  'At noon we'll go serenade my sister and her new baby.'  They played all my favorite tunes, Brother John knowing my choice.

"When Charlie was four years old, Lizzie was born.  She was a big, strong baby with lots of hair.

"Two years later came Gus.  He was so good-natured and smiling, the loveliest baby!  He's a good boy yet.  None of my babies was hard to get along with except Lizzie.  She wanted me to hold her in my arms all the time.  Gus was so fat that when I tied a ribbon around his wrist you couldn't see anything but the bow.  I had to be so careful of him to keep him from being chafed and chapped all the time!  Such creases in his legs!  Such dimples in his back!  We had no talcum powder in those days.  My mother used to scorch flour, holding it on a shovel over the fire, and rub it on the babies, and I would tear old  handkerchiefs into strips and lay them in the creases of Gussie's fat little body.  We had no safety pins!  It was necessary to be so careful in the dressing of the little children!

"These were my four little Buckeyes, all born in Ohio before I was twenty-eight.  Later, in Iowa, I had four little Hawkeyes.  The last one, your Herbert, was born two months before my forty-third birthday.

"If I was busy before my babies came, I was rushed as my family increased.  I think now that I attempted too much.  My sisters helped me out at times.  Until she married Reed Golden in 1852, Kate used to be at Amesville a good deal.  She was a nice help for me.  But full of mischief, too.  I remember one time when Dan'l started off, horseback, on an errand up the road, Kate said she'd like to go along.  So Dan'l told her to hop on behind.  She snatched up her sunbonnet and struck her knitting in her pocket.  Not far from Ames was a little settlement of homes.  'As we passed those houses,' said Dan'l,  'I noticed everybody staring and laughing, so I looked behind me.  And there was Mistress Kate sitting with her face to the horse's tail, her skirts spread out all over his rump, and herself calmly knitting as we clattered along.'  Another time when Kate was with us there was a party at Colonel Boyles's.  The son of the house came along just as Kate, in high spirits, was talking to a lively group of young folks.  'Kate, your arm's as cold as a dog's nose,'  he said, touching her bare arm as he passed.  'Let's see,'  she answered instantly, reaching up her hand and tweaking the young man's nose.

"Sister Mary spent a good deal of time with us, too.  Though eight years younger than I, and hardly more than a little girl, she could be counted on as everyday reliable help whenever she was with me.  She always left crying and wanting to stay longer.

"Our babies were likely children, every one of them, as pretty and smart as parents could want.  I remember how we laughed at Willie when we were driving with him and the baby over to Ma's in Athens one pleasant day.  We had told him to tell his grandmother that he'd be three in October.  Rehearsing his speech, he said he'd be 'f'ee in Knocked-Down.'  'How's that, Willie?  Three in October - can't you remember that?'  we asked.  'Knocked down same as knocked over,'  he answered, with an injured air.

"I was hard pressed sometimes, when the babies were little, to get my work done and look after them too, especially if they were fretful with teething.  All my children cut their teeth on one of the Mexican dollars Dan'l brought back from New Orleans.  But Gussie's gums were tough, and his four upper teeth wouldn't come through.  So I just took my penknife, would it with thread all but the point (so that, if my hand slipped, I couldn't cut him), and then, while he slept one day, took him on my knee and lanced his gums.

"I found that to keep a baby quiet feathers were great playthings; feathers, or a basket of poppies from the garden that would make them drowsy.  Willie was afraid at first of a feather from the bed that floated around the room.  But afterward a feather that clung to a drop of honey on his finger amused him for hours.  Once when Gus had been very quiet for a long time I found, to my dismay, that he had been picking some little white buttons off their card.  He had calmly swallowed the whole dozen, - there was the stripped card as evidence, - but we got them again and Gus was none the worse."

Although Ames Township rather boasts of having led Athens County in the matter of establishing libraries and schools, the educational advantages of the community in the early fifties were not such as to have greatly impressed Grandmother Brown's small sons when they reached school age.  "When Charlie came home from his first day at school,"  said she,  "I asked him what he thought of it.  'I like it,'  he answered,  'but I wouldn't be a teacher for anything.'  'Why not?'  'My temper'd fly up and I'd kill some of them, and then I'd have to be hung,'  he answered."

His sympathy with the teacher did not, however, prevent him from resenting the way he himself was treated.

"Father asked me how many pupils there were,"  said Charlie.  "'I don't know.'  'Well, why don't you count them?'  asked Father.  "The next day I stood up and was counting noses, when the teacher jerked me up by the arm and paddled me good and strong.  Then a girl drew a picture on her slate, and the teacher scolded her for that and made her cry.  It was the foolishest thing I ever saw.  Some of the girls in the school were grown women, eighteen or twenty years old.  All of them wore linsey-woolsey dresses and pantalets to match their dresses.  All of them learned the three R's.  Some of the older pupils studied also grammar and geography."

"Did Charlie tell you about the little boy at that school whose neck was dirty?"  asked Grandmother Brown.  "No?  Well, when the teacher reproached him the child whimpered that he couldn't help it, because Marm wouldn't let him go in swimming last summer!  Oh, dear, dear!  how funny things are!"  laughed Grandmother.

The Harvard influence, so strong in the Ames schools of early days, - praised by Judge Cutler for their "elevated character," - seems to have waned a bit by this time.  Also, the customs of the people would seem to have become somewhat less decorous during their half century of struggle with the wilderness.  According to Judge Cutler, the early settlers had "entered into an agreement not to use ardent spirits at elections, or the fourth of July, at social parties, raisings, logging bees, or any public occasion, and to this engagement they strictly adhered for many years."  But by the time Daniel and Maria Brown took up their residence in Amesville, this self-denying ordinance against "ardent spirits" had been forgotten.  Whiskey was freely dispensed in every village store.  According to Walker, even the clergy were active in transporting it - indeed, in profiting by it.  The lower settlement in Ames Township enjoyed, indeed, the services of a circuit-riding Free-Will Baptist, one Elder Asa Stearns, who preached to the people once a month and received in pay three barrels of whiskey.

In the meantime, Maria Brown was attending to her home and family, and the firm of Brown and Dickey was pursuing industriously the difficult and delicate art of merchandising.

"When Father went into business with Austin Dickey at Ames," said Will,  "they dealt in all kinds of food and grain, dry goods and hardware.  Their store occupied the lower floor of a corner on Amesville's one street.  Gradually they built on additions until finally it covered a whole block.  Their most important addition was a big smokehouse.  Raising hogs proved profitable.  While hogs, unlike horses and cattle, couldn't be driven a long distance to market, they could be fattened at home on soaked wheat, and sold as pork and bacon to the Southern plantations.  Then Father had lofts and barns where wool and hides could be stored, so he used by buy sheep, shear them, pack the wool into sacks, tan the hides, and hang them up in his barns, feeding the carcasses to the hogs.

"In the fall, Father and his partner used to go into the tall timber, about a mile from the store, cut down logs, and have the carpenters build them in Federal Creek a scow or flatboat.  This they stored with grain, bacon, wool, tobacco, dried fruits.  They'd have oxen to load the boat, pulling their goods through the mire.  They they waited for the spring freshets to raise the Creek and float them into the Hocking River.  Sometimes the waters would come with a rush before Father was ready to go, before the boat was fully outfitted.  I can remember the tense excitement of such days."

Dan'l could never sleep when he was waiting for the spring flood,"  commented Grandmother Brown.  "In the meantime, Kate and I would be making biscuits and donuts all night long, expecting any moment to hear the rush of waters."

"Since the timbers have been cut, that old creek doesn't rise any more at all,"  continued Will.  "But in those days it was a thrilling thing to see the boat swing off down the creek, knowing it would be carried into the stream of the Hocking, next into the flow of the Ohio, and finally into the channel of the Mississippi.  Propelled by oars and poles, swinging and turning, it swept on its way, irresistibly, to far-away New Orleans.

"At points along the way, Father and his partner stopped to trade off their wares.  At Cincinnati they got rid of some grain and tobacco.  At plantations along the lower Mississippi they exchanged bacon for molasses.  The head niggers used to come to their boat to barter with them.  At New Orleans they exchanged that plantation molasses for refined sugar."

"That New Orleans sugar,"  Grandmother interrupted her eldest,  "was shipped in hogsheads up to the mouth of the Hocking River.  Dan'l then hauled it sixteen miles to the store.  It was white and in sugar-loaf form, covered first with white paper and then with purple.  We'd save the purple paper for coloring.  I remember that I dyed white silk gloves with it."

"At New Orleans,"  continued Will,  "Father always sold the boar, took the cash returns of the enterprise in the form of Mexican silver, put the money into axe-head boxes, packed those into a small, black, horse-hair trunk, - one doesn't see such trunks any more, - and brought the trunk into the stateroom of the steamboat on which he took passage for home.  They always tired to act as though the trunk was light; and one person always lay around the stateroom guarding the truck when the other wandered about the boat.

"The profits of this venture were usually about $2000.  With this money in their possession, they would go to Pittsburgh to invest in hardware or push on to Philadelphia to buy general merchandise, - dry goods and household furniture and farming implements, - all of which was later brought over the mountains to them by freighters.  This was the long and laborious process by which the products of the Northern soil were collected and bartered through the South for money which was spent in the East for merchandise needed by the farmers of the Northwest Territory.  The merchandising of goods was complicated thing in those days.  Most of it done directly without the help of the banker.

"I remember how exciting it used to be when the freighters drove in with their big wagons of goods,"  Grandmother Brown continued.  "'Pennsylvania schooners' we called them - immense wagons, each with six horses, each with a canvas top hooped and drawn in with ropes.  The driver used to ride on the horse at the right, next to the wagon.  He carried a long whip, and with a whirl of it could hit the front horse.  They didn't undertake to move fast, but it was an exciting business just the same - seeing things opened at the store when the boxes of muslins and delaines were brought in.  At the end of the first year we had lost a food deal of money, but Dan'l borrowed some more and went ahead, and after that 'the gilt began to stick to our fingers,' as he use to say.

"We lived in Amesville eleven years,"  said Grandmother Brown.  "Then we sold out and joined the Western migration.  We bought a farm in Iowa and moved there in the summer of 1856.

"Dan'l had got the Western fever, and I was willing to go to any place where I thought we might better our fortunes.  A cousin of Dan'l's who had been in California, going out by land and returning around the Horn, visited us in '55 and told interesting tales of his experience.  Dan'l himself had made two trips to the West, looking for land.  He thought of settling in Geneseo, Illinois, where cousins had located.  But he went on into Iowa, where another cousin named Oliver Brown was living, and came back saying he had bought a farm across the road from Oliver's.

"Brown and Dickey sold their business for $10,000, each getting $5000 in cash.  The price of our Iowa farm was $3500 in gold.  The rest of our money went to buy a fine team of mares, a new wagon, and a new carriage, which had taken prizes at the county fair.  We sold the bulk of our household goods, but I managed to have the cherry dresser packed for transportation and also a big roll of Brussels carpet.

"It was a considerable undertaking, in those days, to move one's family from Ohio to Iowa.  There were no railroads to carry us across country and we had to go by steamboat down the Hocking River to the Ohio, down the Ohio to St. Louis, and then up the Mississippi River to Keokuk, and overland the rest of the way by carriage.  We were twenty days on the journey.  But compared with what our grandparents had had to overcome in moving from Massachusetts to New York and Vermont, and from those places to Ohio, it was nothing.  And then I never thought about its being hard.  I was used to things being hard.

"I was very busy, those last days in Amesville, getting myself and children ready for the journey.  You may be sure that I fixed my children up so they looked nice.  Will and Charlie were nine and seven years old by this time, Lizzie past four, and Gus two.  Gus was old enough to be weaned, but knowing that we were likely to move I had kept on nursing him, anxious not to change his food before we got to our journey's end.  So they were all rosy and in fine condition.  Will and Charlie had such pretty little suits - long trousers with little roundabout coats and hats with visors.  I made them ruffled linen collars that were very becoming with their suits, and i did those collars up on the boat, so that the boys looked fresh and clean all the way.

"Whenever I stopped to think, my heart was heavy at the thought of leaving Ohio and going to such a far, strange country.  But I didn't have much time for thinking.  And one thing made it easier.  My mother was going along.  Mr. Hatch had died not long after he came home from the Mexican War, and my mother was going West to visit Brother John, who had settled in Minnesota, where his father-in-law was a land agent for the Government.  Dan'l's father, Grandpa Brown also joined us, and a cousin, Will Foster, so that we were a company of nine people when gathered at the mouth of the Hacking, looking for a steamboat to carry us towards our new home in the West.

"Our journey West began with three days of tedious waiting at the mouth of the Hocking River,"  said Grandmother Brown, continuing her tale of the family migration.  "One boat after another refused to carry us, because we were too many in numbers or our freight too bulky for accommodation.  But the Lord was watching over us, because one of those steamers that refused us was wrecked soon after it left us, and all lives on board were lost.

"We spent those three days at the Hoyt Williams House.  What interested our children most at that place was two parrots.  One of them could only say, 'Oh, Hoyt!' but the other was quite conversational.  This parrot ate at the second table with the children, pecking away at a plate of things very politely.  One morning after breakfast, coming out on the porch with Gus in my arms and the other children following along, I found that this smart parrot was very sick.  He was vomiting at the railing, and kept screaming, 'Polly drank too much!'  Willie regarded him with considerable awe.  'Seems to me, Mother,'  he said,  'a bird that can talk like that just ought to have a soul.'

"Finally we were off.  The boats of those days were interesting places, carrying all kinds of human beings, black and white.  The rough work was done by colored roustabouts.  Some of the passengers were quite fashionable.  There was dancing every night to music furnished by a band made up of colored waiters.  There was card playing, too.  Indeed, the boat was infested with blackleg gamblers.  Every evening after dinner the card tables were set out.  There was a bar, too, where you could get anything you'd a mind to pay for.

"Our boat was a side-wheeler,"  continued Grandmother Brown,  "and was loaded to the guards with freight.  It moved very slowly.  I got so tired before the journey was ended.  I had my children's clothes to wash and iron everyday, but I didn't have much anxiety about the children themselves.  All of them kept well.  I felt so sorry for a lady who had a baby about the age of Gus.  She had weaned him, and said it was such a mistake.  The baby cried and she walked the deck with him night after night.  Will and Charlie were obedient little boys and never wandered far from my sight.  Naturally, they were all eyes."

"I never saw a railroad train until we came near Cairo, Illinois," said Charlie.  "To most of the passengers it was a curiosity.  The people rushed to that side of the boat to watch it go by.  Look at the difference now, seventy years after.  I've heard Father tell about some of those first railroads in the East that they were just stone abutments with timbers laid on top and spiked down.  Travel over them had a tendency to loosen the timbers, and sometimes the ends actually ran up into the car and endangered the people there.  What an advance has been made in railroad travel!  Just look now at the smooth performances of the Santa Fe!"

"Why, yes," interposed Grandmother Brown, "when first I heard people talking about railroads I thought they meant roads made of fence rails laid across the mud to keep the wheels from sinking into the soft ground!  Well, to continue:  When we got to St. Louis there was a half mile of boats headed in at the wharf, and we had to wait a long time before we could land.  We stopped in St. Louis long enough to buy some dishes and a cookstove.  It was a good stove - there never was a better.  Made by Bridge, Beech and Company, and called the 'Golden Era.'  Those were the years of the California good excitement, and every door of the stove had the picture of a gold piece on it.

"Finally we reached Keokuk, 'the head of navigation' in those days.  We couldn't go above the rapids in the river, there being no canal as yet.  So we landed at Keokuk, and Ma and i with baby and Lizzie were put into our fine new carriage with Grandma Brown and Cousin Will Foster to drive us to our farm.  That was eight miles from Fort Madison and twelve miles from Burlington, which were towns of considerable size.  Dan'l stayed behind in Keokuk with the little boys to look after the landing of our goods.

"After several hours' driving we arrive at Oliver Brown's house.  We were welcomed with great excitement, for Oliver had begun to be awfully uneasy, fearing that Dan'l had been robbed and murdered for his money.  The care of that money had been our main concern all through the trip.  Dan'l had the paper money in a belt around his waist - see, I have that old belt yet, that and Dan'l's tuning fork (it's a C), here in this box.  The gold for the farm was left with me.  The gold pieces were wrapped separately in paper and put in a sack of linen bird's-eye which had been woven by Dan'l's mother.  (I gave that little sack to Lizzie not long ago, thinking that she might like to have a piece of her Grandmother Brown's weaving.)  This sack of gold I kept in a carpet bag where I had the children's soiled clothes.  We did not, of course, want to give the impression that we had any quantity of money with us.  I felt deeply the responsibility of looking after it.

"As we were leaving Keokuk, Dan'l brought the carpet bag and, depositing in at my feet, said cheerfully:  "There, Mother!  There's your farm!"  Then off we drove.

"There were so many of us that we could not all be accommodated, that first night, at Oliver Brown's.  Ma and i went up the road with the little ones to sleep at the home of a cousin named Tom Stephenson.  'Where shall I leave the carpet bag?'  I asked Oliver Brown's wife.  'Why, put it in the room where Oliver and Will will sleep.  Put it behind the door,' she said.  And so I went peacefully to bed.

"But the next morning, when I looked for my gold in the carpet bag, it was gone.  Oh, I shall never forget the horror of the next few hours.  I thought I should lose my mind.  The gold simply wasn't there.  Oliver and Cousin Will had risen early and started with a wagon and team back to Keokuk to help Dan'l move our things.  Of course we thought that they might have moved the gold, which was, in fact, what they had done, having taken it out of the carpet bag and locked it in Oliver's desk before they set out that morning.  But they neglected to tell anyone that they had moved it.  I kept remembering how Dan'l had called out at Keokuk, when he put the gold at my feet:  'There mother!  There's your farm.'  And I imagined that some thief hanging about had overheard, followed us, and robbed us in the night.  Tom Stephenson got out his horse and rode off in haste to meet the party coming from Keokuk to announce to them the misfortune that had befallen us.  In the meantime I walked the floor.  The fruits of ten years' work and saving entrusted to my care and lost in a single night!  Oh, why had I, at the vary last, let that carpet bag from my sight?  My hair turned gray early; I think it must have started to turn that day when I thought that our farm had been lost, and lost through me."

"In the meantime," said her son Will, taking up the story, we folks coming up the road from Keokuk were having a little excitement of our own.  Oliver Brown and Cousin Will Foster had joined us with a team of farm horses, but one of the horses took a notion to balk.  We couldn't move him.  There we stuck.  And then, just in the nick of time, came Tom Stephenson pounding down the road, his horse all lathered, waving his arms and shouting, 'The gold's gone.'  But Oliver Brown and Will Foster knew where the gold was, and naturally couldn't be excited about it.  'Oh, the gold's safe,' was all they said.  'It's in Oliver's desk.  Get off your horse, Tom.'  And they took Tom's horse, all covered with foam as it was, put him in harness in place of the balky one, and we all moved forward again.  It seemed very exciting and dramatic to us small boys, but we should have called it a drama of 'The Balky Horse,'  I suppose, whereas to Mother it was a tragedy of 'The Lost Gold.'"


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