REMEMBRANCES OF SCHOOL-DAYS AND THE OLD KENTUCKY HOMES
I found my surroundings so different on arriving at my grandfather's house, from any I had ever known, that for a time I could not fully comprehend the change. From Frankfort to Lexington and on to Cynthiana seemed like one beautiful park. Fields of hundreds and thousands of acres covered with a growth of most verdant blue-grass, with here and there scattered clumps of hickory, beech and sugar maple and other trees of magnificent proportions. Over these fields roamed herds of thoroughbred horses and cattle.
The houses were solidly built either of brick or stone, which to me appeared veritable palaces. The fences, instead of being built of "split rails," were all of limestone. You could ride all day between those stone fences, built to last a thousand years. The roads were all turnpikes, that is a road thrown up round and then covered thickly with broken rock. Such roads would last with little repairs for hundreds of years. At this time they were all toll roads, that is, people who had money would join together and procure from the court a franchise to build and maintain a road between certain points for a number of years. In consideration of keeping such roads in repair, they were permitted to erect toll gates at certain distances apart and to collect toll in the amount fixed by the court. You could not travel in any direction without coming to one of these gates, where you had to pay before it was opened. Foot passengers went free, horseback five cents, single buggy ten cents and double buggy or two-horse wagon twenty-five cents, and so on. However, it was pleasant to travel on such beautiful roads. But there have been no toll gates there for years. The roads were gradually bought by the county, the gates taken down and the care for repairs became a county tax.
Looking backward it seems to me that the old blue-grass country was in every way the most beautiful in the world, and I have never since been so impressed by any other land. I would be glad to have the reader see it as it appeared to me. But any language I have seems so inadequate to express my feelings that I could not do it justice. I have preserved a copy of a poem, which I read at the time, and which appears to me to so perfectly describe many homes that I knew, that it seems not inappropriate to introduce it here.
I know a house, its open doors
Wide set to catch the scented breeze;
While dimpling all the oaken floors,
Faint shadows of the swaying trees
Pass in and out, like spectral things
Dim creatures born of summer light;
Till through the deepening twilight springs
A paler radiance of light.
Then softly in those silent hours
Fair faces grow upon the gloom,
And whisper'd words of unseen powers
Breathe inward with the garden bloom
Of roses clinging to the walls,
And lawns smooth mown with punctual shears,
While over roof and threshold falls
The peace of many a hundred years.
Unfolding slow their ivory fringe,
The lilies lie upon the pond;
The firs have caught the sunset tinge,
And murmur elfin-like beyond.
I think whoever sought that grove
To dream an hour of love or heaven
Might, wrapt in some strange mystery, rove
And find his years had grown to seven.
Great elms, a glorious altar veil
Screen off the yellow evening skies,
'Mid those thick branches blue and pale,
The Genii smoke doth curling rise,
And, wavering in the waveless air,
A certain tender touch impart
To what where else too calmly fair,
Like memory in some heaven-taught heart.
Across the broad unbroken glade
Which girds this house on either hand,
The beech clumps sprinkle showers of shade,
These outposts of the forests stand
And guard the kingdom of the deer;
The stillness of their charmed domain,
Where Spring chimes Matins every year,
And Autumn leaves fall like rain.
For miles those beeches rise and fall,
And ripple like some inland sea;
From bough to bough the wild birds call
And squirrels nest on every tree;
Blue depths of distance melt away
As far as vision may discern,
And all the open slopes are gay
With fox glove and the tangled fern.
Such are some of my remembrances of an old Kentucky home. To me it was an entire change of environment, and it seems to me that it was only a short time before I was able to adapt myself to the change. Instead of rising with the approach of light, clothing myself in homespun and working hard all day, with only such stray moments as I could snatch for study, and only the good but backwoods young people for associates, I found myself suddenly clothed in comfortable, well-made, if plain, garments. I did not have to arise until the sun was up, and I could sit and study in my room as late as I pleased.
Cynthiana is among the oldest settlements in Kentucky. The older people, if not highly educated, were well-bred and cultured. Really poor people were almost unknown. All were natives of the United States, mostly of old Virginia, Maryland or Carolina stock. At that time I only remember one person of foreign birth, a little son of Abraham, who owned a clothing store.
It was strenuously cultivated into the minds of old and young to be courteous and never to give offense, but they were quick to resent even the appearance of an affront, hence the people were always on guard, and a more polite, hospitable people it has never been my pleasure to meet. The boys and girls were in many ways superior to those I had before known and when I started to the academy, I was treated with the greatest consideration by nearly everyone. Though I felt like a backward boy, I was soon placed at my ease, and it was but a short time until I felt like one of them.
I was somewhat of an athlete along certain lines and attained a good standing among those of my own age. I believe on the hundred-yard dash and in the standing and running broad jump I held the record in the academy.
I soon found it paid to be courteous and also that I might have to fight to retain the respect of my companions. In my class there was a young man, who befriended me in various ways, who kept me out of trouble, stood by me on all occasions and gave me his open friendship.
There was another young fellow about a year older than I, the son of a distiller, who was one of the few dissipated young men I remember. He was also a bully. From the first he seemed to dislike me, and never let an opportunity pass to be offensive. My friend took me aside one day and said: "That young man will destroy your good standing in the class if let alone. The next time he uses insulting language I am going to give him a thrashing." I told him I appreciated his friendship, and that I was satisfied he was right, but that I had decided from the start to fight my own battles. He called my attention to the fact that the fellow was older, larger and stronger than I—at the same time advised me to go ahead.
The very next time he used insulting language I struck him in the face with my open hand. The boys gathered around and, as fighting was not allowed on the school grounds, it was arranged that we should meet in a certain grove the next Saturday and fight it out. I am free to acknowledge that I was nearly scared to death, but fully realized that my future in the school depended on my standing by my guns. One thing encouraged me very much. Nearly all the boys were my friends and I knew I would have fair play. Several of the boys took me in hand and gave me some elementary lessons in boxing. On Saturday we met. When the argument began I soon found that I was his superior in activity, and if I could keep away from a clinch I had a chance. But somehow he got hold of me, threw me and began to pummel me in good shape. I knew I was "all in" and bawled enough, and they separated us. By this time I was good and mad, and told him among other things that I would fight him every Saturday as long as I lived. The next Saturday's story was about the same. I was whipped again.
In the meantime my instructors were busy in giving me lessons in the manly art of self-defense, and the third Saturday I was full of confidence. I kept the bully off beautifully, in the meantime battering his ribs until he was very tired, and at last, somehow, I reached the point of his chin and he was down and out for good. He was so long in recovering consciousness that I was scared worse than ever.
I had established my reputation for grit, and I never had the least trouble as long as I remained in Kentucky. If they had only known how repugnant the whole thing was to me and that only my pride kept me up to the mark, I should never have had the reputation I enjoyed, but did not deserve.
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