Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
From the Mississippi
to the Sea

Admiral Robert E. Coontz

published by
Dorrance & Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p34  Chapter II

Boyhood Experiences

School Days — National Convention of 1876 — A Deputy Tax Collector at Thirteen — My Father's Newspaper — A Small Town College — A Street Car Conductor — A Shipping Clerk — The "Pie Eaters."

My mother had to coach me in mathematics and in grammar so that I could enter the public school. Finally I was admitted on trial, to "B" seventh grade, in mathematics and grammar. This frightened me so that I began to study hard, and my average standing for the first five months advanced from 82 to 87, to 92 to 95, and at last to 97. For once I reached the head of my class.

Our school building was high on a bluff at the corner of Sixth and North streets, and I could look directly through the window before me, over my desk, some twelve miles across the Mississippi to the Illinois hills, for the land in near‑by Illinois was low. Later, they began to build levees on that side of the river.

I often think of the little opportunity we had for sports. We were in school from nine until twelve in the morning and from one to four in the afternoon. We had recess from 10:30 until 10:45 and from 2:30 until 2:45. There were houses all about and playing baseball was a dangerous pastime because the ball was likely to break neighboring windows. We played "shinny" with a tin can, and the result was many wounds and cuts.

We began to hear of clubs and seven of us formed one. Wishing to select a high sounding name for it, we took a geography, ran over the names of cities and rivers and decided upon the name of "Savannah." Not one of us had ever seen or heard of it before, but it appealed to us, and to this day I doubt if the people of the city of Savannah, or those who live beside its beautiful river,  p35 have ever known how they were honored by seven Missouri youngsters. The club dues were ten cents a month and what disposition to make of the money was always a question with us.

I rarely ever finished a school year, as I was sent to the farm in the spring, returning in time for classes in the fall. We had proficient teachers at this time. Most of them, with the exception of the principal, were young women from New England who had come out to Missouri after the war. When we began to study the history of the United States, we decided to enlarge our club, and following the example of the Constitution, to have a Senate and a House of Representatives. We elected six senators, and those who were not chosen had to be members of the House. We met in the grand jury room of the old Hannibal court house, by permission of my father, and wrote the names of our senators on the wall under the hat holders. The next time the grand jury met the members failed to appreciate the honor of having senators assemble in the room, and we lost our meeting place.

I think these boys settled almost every question that was before the American public. About this time there was much discussion of the notorious "Whiskey Ring," and of the scandals involving men of prominence. My grandfather, Robert D. Brewington, was chosen foreman of the United States grand jury in St. Louis, and was engaged there for several months. The result, of course, is now known to history.​a

My father prospered in business and purchased an attractive home in Bird Street. My particular recollection of it concerns my first visit there while we were moving in. The house was on new ground and the yard had many terraces. I was barefooted and upon going into the cellar I stepped on a snake and was bitten. My father rushed me to a saloon on Broadway, where I had my first drink of whiskey — for that was regarded as the sure antidote. He then took me to my grandmother's home, where the second drink of whiskey made me forget everything  p36 until the next day. For years the scars where the snake's fangs pierced my foot were visible, and I was always proud to show them when barefooted.

When I returned home from the farm in June, 1876, two months earlier than usual, I found great excitement over the Democratic National Convention in St. Louis, and learned that my father was to be one of its officers. He had also been selected as one of the commissioners from Missouri to the Centennial Expedition in Philadelphia, and I had been promised a trip to that city with my mother. The political talk, however, fired me with enthusiasm, and I begged to be allowed to go to St. Louis rather than to Philadelphia. To gratify my wish, my father agreed, and I attended the convention with Oney Carstarphen, Daniel McLeod, Len Y. Bragg, Tom Hawkins, George A. Mahan, Walter D. Anderson and several other democratic wheel horses. The boat on which we went to St. Louis was crowded, and we stayed at the Carleton House, where I slept on a small sofa in a room with six men.

Although I had already become a baseball player, I had never seen a big league game. My father placed me on a street car bound for the ball park. I arrived there all right and saw the St. Louis team defeat the Mutuals, now the Giants, of New York, seven to one. Returning from the ball park, however, I boarded a wrong car and rode until the conductor, observing my anxiety, told me I was twenty-eight blocks from the Carleton! I walked all the way back to the hotel, arriving late, but before an alarm was sent out for me.

That night my father took me to the Tammany headquarters. The forty-five delegates wore frock coats and "plug" hats. I was introduced to Leader John Kelly, August Belmont and Augustus Schell, and to John Morrissey, the pugilist, who was the only representative of the County Democracy.

While in St. Louis I had another interesting experience. We took our meals at the St. James restaurant,  p37 and on the morning of the big day at the convention I went there early with my father and the Hannibal delegation. I told the waiter to bring "beefsteak, fried potatoes, corn bread and milk." After I had started to eat I noticed that the price of the steak alone, which filled the plate, was a dollar and a quarter. Ten cents seemed a large amount to me at the age of twelve years, and I was worried, but I attempted to do my duty by that steak and get my money's worth. The delegation began to get restless, and finally my father's attention was directed toward me.

"Hurry up," he said, "what's the matter?"

"Father," I replied, "the price of this steak is a dollar and a quarter, and I knew you did not know it, so I feel that I have just got to eat all of it."

We hurried to the convention, where I saw Samuel J. Tilden, of New York, nominated for president and Thomas A. Hendricks, of Indiana, named for vice-president. It was fifty‑two years before I attended another Democratic national convention.

Appropriations for the public schools in Hannibal became exhausted — a condition difficult to understand at the present time. We reviewed our books for a time while waiting for money, but the situation became hopeless and we had to go to private schools. I attended one conducted by a minister named Cummings, and about the only thing I recall of the school is that he made long prayers and tried to teach us too much Latin. One morning during prayers two young men, Hearne and Carstarphen, became engaged in a fist fight, much to the horror of the minister and teacher. Hearne and Carstarphen are still living, the one in California and the other in Colorado.

When my uncle was made collector of Adair County he offered me a position as his deputy. I pleaded with my father until he consented to allow me to accept it, and on April 1, 1878, I started out for myself.

 p38  I found a singular condition of affairs in Adair County. It appeared that the county election had been held to be invalid by the State Supreme Court, and that it became necessary for the governor to appoint several county officials, including the collector. Adair County was republican, but the governor was a democrat and he appointed democrats to the several offices in dispute, my uncle being one of those chosen to serve. My uncle's office and the offices of the republicans who claimed the election were in the same building at Kirksville, the county seat, and it was feared that the latter would attempt to seize the tax books. Consequently, my uncle took extreme precautions. He placed double locks on the doors, installed safes, and had a solid counter built all the way across the office. On my arrival there for the first time I was given two loaded six‑shooters, and told, under no circumstances, to permit anyone to get possession of the tax books. A bed was placed in the office for me, and I slept there for the next six months, rarely leaving the place.

It was necessary for my uncle to be absent from the office much of the time, in order to run his farm, ten miles away, and I often think of the confidence he placed in a thirteen-year‑old boy. Fortunately, I was not disturbed, and later on a legal election was held.

Our office was on the third floor of the Masonic building. Kirksville was the seat of the State Normal School, which turned out thousands of teachers, and one general of the armies of the United States, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.John J. Pershing. Pershing, however, was a big boy and I was only thirteen, so we did not know each other. Cadets were received at the Naval Academy younger than at the Military Academy, and in consequence I entered Annapolis, in 1881, one year before John Pershing entered West Point.

I boarded in Kirksville for three dollars a week and had good food. My uncle decided that my pay should be four dollars a week. I had need for but little money,  p39 as my expenses were small. My principal job was to collect back taxes, and to work up the data for tax sales, of which, unfortunately, there were many in the country.

A branch railroad from Quincy, Illinois, called the Quincy, Omaha & Pacific, was completed through Kirksville about this time and the town began to prosper. It is now an up‑to‑date little city. My uncle, George R. Brewington, well up in his eighties, still lives there.

In the fall of that year my parents decided that I should return to school. So, about the first of September, I drew my back pay, sold a fine little mare I had for fifty dollars, and returned to Hannibal. At this time my father owned a half interest in the Clipper-Herald, and also a Sunday paper, so I was kept busy in the newspaper office for several weeks. Years later I was surprised to read that I had made my livelihood by selling and delivering newspapers in my youth.

It became necessary to look for a suitable school for me, and my father decided on Ingleside College, at Palmyra, Mo., conducted by a remarkably able woman, Mrs. Pamela A. Baird, a sister of General William Dudley. She was assisted by her husband, sons, daughters, and a son-in‑law. Thoroughness was characteristic of the instruction at Ingleside College. Mrs. Baird herself specialized in history and in arithmetic and, while she was an admirable character and a good teacher, she was not a good financier, for the tuition for the entire school year was only fifty‑two dollars and fifty cents and she boarded pupils for an additional charge of two dollars a week. Two boys from Hannibal, George S. Green and Charles K. Winslow, went to Ingleside with me. I boarded in the private home of Mrs. Salley McLeod, whose husband was sheriff of the county, and whose brother was a Representative in Congress from the adjoining district. I paid the highest board known in Palmyra at that time, three dollars and fifty cents a week; and we had very good meals. My roommates were Wallace H. Rowe, of Hannibal, later of Pittsburgh  p40 steel fame, and Paul Alexander, of Paris, Mo., whose father was a member of Congress.

Rowe and I had passes on the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad, and could go home Friday night or Saturday morning and return to school on Sunday. When I went to Palmyra I had never smoked, nor had I ever taken a drink of liquor (except the two for the snake bite), and I had never seen a playing card or been to a theater. My mother was reared very strictly. The odor of a cigar made her ill, and fortunately neither my father nor my grandfather smoked. I had no opportunity to learn to use tobacco, and even to this day cigar smoke in a hot ward room on a rolling sea is about the only thing that will make me seasick. To her dying day my mother never touched a playing card, nor tasted liquor, nor went to a theater. The result was that when I was turned loose at fourteen with boys several years older than myself I soon learned to play casino and euchre. At the Ingleside school my room-mates and I, after a short time, took in a fourth student and we sometimes played euchre until two o'clock in the morning. His name was Flowerree, and he was a fine fellow. He came from Montana.

The winter of 1878‑79 was a hard one with a great amount of snow. We would cover the bottom of a sleigh with hay, take plenty of warm robes and go on sleigh riding parties in the country around Palmyra. There were many hospitable southerners in that section and I remember especially the Hollymans and Deerings. They gave us apples and cider and nuts, and sometimes pies.

There was a west-bound train from Hannibal on the Hannibal & St. Joseph road that arrived at Palmyra about eleven o'clock at night, and about fifty miles farther on passed an east-bound train for Hannibal and St. Louis. One winter's night my friend Rowe and I decided we would use our passes and ride to Macon, where we would change cars and return to Palmyra. We got aboard and I was casually walking through the train, boy‑like,  p41 to let the people know I was there, when I suddenly encountered an outstretched arm. Looking down I saw my father, who had unexpectedly been called to Kansas City on business. He inquired why I was on the train, but made no further comment on the subject. Instead he called the conductor and asked him to stop the train. It came to a halt on the bleak prairies east of Monroe City, and my father informed me that I could walk back to Palmyra — which I did. Tramping through the snow was difficult, but I followed the railroad tracks and about five o'clock in the morning reached my boarding house, slipped in and quietly went to bed. My father made no mention of the incident afterwards, but when the time came to renew the pass it read, "From Hannibal to Palmyra and return."

Palmyra was an aristocratic old town with charming people and particularly lovely women. I recall the Metcalfs, Andersons, Kelleys, Lipscombs, Jacksons, Harts, Lees, Pryors, Hatchers, Bates, Russells, McCabes, Lanes, Winchells and many others. I looked from afar, but admiringly at Sally James, Birdie Russell and Minnie Kelly, all older than I was.

There was much talk of politics, and even that great old paper, The Palmyra Spectator, was in existence. It was the oracle and adviser of the democratic party in northeast Missouri. For nearly one hundred years it has been in the hands of the Sosey family. We often gathered at Palmyra Spring, famed in song and story, to discuss political questions.

The school had from sixty to eighty pupils and I can recall the names of most of them to this day. On a recent trip west I found only three surviving in northeast Missouri. I stayed at the same hotel my mother took me to in 1865, when Palmyra was threatened by the guerrillas.

Our games were baseball and "shinny," and once or twice each year we played football against St. Paul's  p42 College, but we were always beaten. Our team was too light.

We had a prejudice against eastern strangers. At school there was a young man who did not understand Missouri methods, and it became necessary to give him a few lessons. After consultation, it was decided to take him sniping. Accordingly, we began to talk about going sniping and he gradually overheard our conversation. One day we let him in at a time when we were discussing the best way to whistle for snipe. We tried out each boy in the crowd, and the judges, Buffum, Schofield and Reynolds, decided that the young man in question was the best whistler. One dark night soon afterwards, we got our gear together, borrowed eight horses, and rode eight miles out to North River. There, in a long low field, we took down a farmer's fence and for a quarter of a mile to the edge of the woods we laid two lines of rails, so that they gradually converged to a point. Then we opened a large canvas bag, gave the young man a candle, and instructed him to light it after a lapse of 15 minutes and begin to whistle while we went through the woods to drive the snipe down between the rails, for once headed they would not jump the rails. We left him, hastened across the field to our horses, rode home and went to bed.

How long the boy whistled and held the bag with the lighted candle, we never inquired. We learned, however, that a farmer en route to early market in Palmyra, took pity on the lad and gave him a ride into town. He was not squelched by the trick, so one afternoon in the early spring we determined to give him one more lesson. We organized a crowd and started for a swim in a pond on a farm a few miles out on the road to Quincy, and not far from the railroad tracks. On the way, we told the young man that the swimming hole was owned by a fierce Dutchman and that we would have to exercise extreme caution to prevent him from seeing us. We arrived at the pool, took off our clothing and plunged in. After a time, one  p43 by one we sneaked back up on the bank and dressed behind the bushes, leaving only the victim in the water.

Suddenly there was a big noise and much swearing and shouting down the road. In chorus we sang out, "The Dutchman! The Dutchman!" and started to run. Some one came up on the bank and ostensibly began to shoot at our comrade who was still in the pond. He hastened to the shore, but in attempting to don his clothing found it had been tied in hard knots. The firing continued and he picked up his garments and started for Palmyra entirely nude. As he passed the Poor House Farm, one of the inmates, believing him to be a crazy man, went out and captured him. Unfortunately, Frank Smith, the boy who carried the pistol and did the shooting, laughed so heartily that he became careless and shot off the end of his right forefinger which compelled him to remain away from school for several weeks. We never dared to confess the prank for fear that the boy, who had become greatly angered, would shoot us. Soon afterwards he left Missouri, and forty years later he called on me in Washington.

While at work for my uncle I had saved all of my six months' wages, and kept the money in a small medicine closet in my bedroom. When I returned to Hannibal, after the commencement exercises at Ingleside, I found that I had little cash left. I had used it for tuition and other expenses, and had not called upon my father for much assistance; so I resolved to seek a new job. My father and uncle owned a half interest in the Hannibal Street Railway Company, and I was offered a position as relief driver, that is, one who drives while the regular drivers take their hour off to eat.

The motive power of the Hannibal cars was the faithful Missouri mule. With my experience in handling horses and mules in Adair County, where I had ridden without saddle or bridle, I felt fully competent to drive. The regular drivers had their breakfast before starting  p44 to work at six o'clock in the morning, and I relieved each one in turn for an hour between eleven and two, and also between five and eight. Their pay for sixteen hours of labor was one dollar a day, and I received twenty dollars a month as a relief driver. Since I lived at home my meals cost me nothing. I had to arise early, feed the horses, milk the cow and get my breakfast. After working a month as driver I was given the added job of conductor in off hours, and my pay was increased to twenty-five dollars a month. I wore a silver badge on my cap with the word "Conductor" on it. It was the envy of my boy companions.

After another month I became a regular driver and worked from six o'clock in the morning until ten at night for a dollar a day. Subsequently, I was made superintendent of the road which I thought was a fairly good achievement for a lad of fifteen years.

The cars ran twenty minutes apart, and met at a "Y" at the corner of Main street and Broadway, where they transferred passengers. Circus days were big money days for the road, for when a show came to Hannibal it was an event. The City Fathers always received free tickets for themselves and their families, for the license fee was much less than it is now. I remember that on one circus day the receipts on my car amounted to forty-four dollars and fifty cents, which was regarded as remarkable. Farmers and their families used to come into Hannibal from a distance of thirty or forty miles when a big show like Barnum's came to town. They brought their food, and many of them their tents, if they did not have relatives in Hannibal. Many of the boys played "hookey" on circus day in order to see the animals and the crowd. I remember how I looked for one certain animal after having read the bill board advertisement of it as, "The Great Behemoth of Holy Writ. It sweats blood." In the picture one could see what appeared to be blood oozing from the animal's side.

Ingleside College failed financially, but my parents  p45 decided that I must have one year more at school. Accordingly, in October, I gave up the street car business and entered the newly founded Hannibal College where the students were mostly girls. About ten o'clock one morning, after I had been there a short time, a buggy drove up to the school and my father called me out. He told me that he had to send me to Jefferson City with the sheriff who was taking some prisoners to the state penitentiary, and it was too late for him to get any other reliable person. I rushed back into the classroom, told the head teacher that I had to go to Jefferson City and left without giving him a chance to refuse to excuse me.

It was a great experience — travelling with prisoners. We went on the M. K. & T. to Sedalia, and there transferred to the Missouri Pacific for Jefferson City. Repeatedly the prisoners sought to induce me to lend them a knife, but young as I was I knew better than to do so. We arrived in Jefferson City at four o'clock the next morning and delivered our charges to the warden of the penitentiary. I was nearly exhausted from loss of sleep, but after four hours of rest at the old Mansion House, we returned to the jail to look it over. Word had been passed around that we were from Marion County, and at least twenty inmates stopped us, declared that they knew us and begged for assistance in getting pardons. We also visited the State Capitol, recently replaced by as handsome an edifice of that kind as there is in any state, and then went on to St. Louis.

The Veiled Prophets, famous at that time, were at their best then, and were conducted in connection with the St. Louis Fair. Naturally, I was very weary, but I was determined to see the Veiled Prophets. After supper the sheriff got a chair for me in front of Tony Faust's saloon. I fell asleep several times while the procession was passing, but whenever an especially interesting float came along the sheriff would awaken me.

It was a warm night and at frequent intervals the sheriff would leave me and enter the saloon. I hope he  p46 had soda water, for I know he must have taken twenty drinks within two hours! When the parade was over we went to the Planters' Hotel and I awakened just in time to catch the boat for Hannibal the next morning. Aboard the steamer was one of my schoolmates, Miss Valley of Virginia Stevens, who had run away from school to see the Fair and the Prophets. She was wondering what would happen to her upon her return. This young lady's father so loved the Valley of Virginia that he named his daughter for it.

The next morning the principal of the college announced that any scholar who stayed away from school again to visit a fair need not return to the classroom. We were duly humbled, but we remained at the college for the remainder of the year.

One Sunday afternoon several of the boys of our club walked out to an old tree just beyond the city limits of Hannibal and near where the present Country Club is located, and there beneath its spreading branches vowed that ever afterwards on March 23rd, we would meet again on the same spot. Fifty years have gone by and only two of those boys survive — Mr. Harry Carstarphen, of the Denver Post, and myself. Every year on the twenty-third of March we write to each other, but Harry has not been back to the tree since 1881.

To illustrate what boys will do on a dare, I recall that on another Sunday afternoon, when we were discussing where we would walk, we decided to go to Salt River, a distance of seven miles. It was then two o'clock and the read trip involved a walk of fourteen miles. Only three of us made it. We dipped our fingers in the water and then started back home. It was seven o'clock when I reached there, dripping with perspiration. I was late for supper, of course, and said nothing about the adventure. My mother, however, suspected something wrong and I had to tell her the story. Fortunately, she had the good judgment to place me in a hot bath for a half hour and then to see that I had a good rub. The other boys failed  p47 to get this sort of treatment and as a result were obliged to remain in bed for several days with stiff legs and sore feet.

At the time my father purchased the Hannibal Printing Company, in 1880, it was said to be the largest establishment of its kind doing printing and lithographing west of the Mississippi. As soon as I was out of school I was given a job as shipping clerk at seven dollars a week and my board. I had also to milk the cow and care for two horses, one the buggy horse and the other the horse used to make deliveries for the company. It was hard work. In those times the schedule was ten hours a day — from seven until twelve and from one until six o'clock. I had to arise early in order to perform these tasks, get my breakfast and drive my father to his office before seven in the morning.

My job was to call the roll of the employees and to handle all freight and express for Missouri and neighboring states. It was strenuous, but it proved to be a wonderful experience for me, as I learned geography and the railroad and express routes throughout the section. Even now I can name every county in Missouri, its county seat, and the best way to ship goods there.

By this time the boys with whom I associated were old enough to have a little money of their own, and we decided to buy a skiff for use on the river.

The old rule still prevailed that walking was to be the only Sunday exercise, but being sixteen I and several others thought we might break it. Accordingly one Sunday we hired a skiff and rowed up the river to Bayou de Charles. I was at the oars in a narrow part of the Bayou when we encountered a water moccasin that reared its head within two feet of us. With my hands on the oars I was helpless, but Harry Carstarphen drew his revolver and shot off the head of the snake. I did not row any more on that trip. After thinking over the incident I concluded it was an act of Providence and a warning to obey my parents. In Hannibal I never went on another  p48 similar trip and it was many years before I again rode in any skiff, or went to a Sunday baseball game.

My mother, however, finally yielded to my entreaties and permitted me to go to a theater. When Maggie Mitchell came to Hannibal I was allowed to go and see her and later on Joe Jefferson when he played Rip Van Winkle. These two actors made a lasting impression upon me.

At about this time the boys formed an organization known as the Invincible Club and to arouse the curiosity of the lads who were not members we called ourselves the T. I. C.'s. For a while we met at the homes of the different boys, and then we rented a school in Center street where we held club meetings once a week. Later we leased a room in the old Brittingham House, a relic of 1828. The use of these quarters cost us two dollars a month. At a meeting one summer evening, some of the boys who bore us ill will because their applications for member­ship had been denied, appeared at the window with eggs and fired a volley at us. We had been advised of their purpose, however, through the kindness of a storekeeper, named Henry Hagan. He had got together a still larger group of boys, so that when we started for the eggmen, his crowd closed in from the outside and we encircled the aggressors. The licking they got that night was sufficient for all time. At our next meeting we passed resolutions thanking Mr. Hagan and his fellows. Our poor mothers, to whom a vote of thanks should really have gone, had to remove the stains from our clothing.

At these meetings problems of great moment were discussed, and after adjournment we had refreshments. Once some spies looking in at the window saw us eating pies and ever after that we were known as the "Pie Eaters," and there are stories told in Hannibal to this day of our prowess in devouring such pastries. Lemonade was our favorite libation, and one night, in our foolish way, we had a competition to determine who could drink  p49 the most. In the course of the contest one boy, George Hatch, drank fourteen pints and I recall how badly I felt because my maximum was only eleven, and I had to be content with another piece of pie as a second prize! The Lord was good and in some manner we survived.

Thayer's Note:

a By now, the scandal (see a quick summary in the Encyclopaedia Britannica) is forgotten except by students of history; yet it had the potential to bring down Grant's presidency, and contributed to its reputation for corruption.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 1 Aug 18