SCHOOL TEACHING AND GOOD TIMES ON THE MERAMEC RIVER
I found the school, about a mile from my father's house, without a teacher. The trustees offered me the position, which I accepted, immediately went to Steeleville, the County Seat, and took the examination from the County Superintendent of Schools, passing it successfully, and in two weeks from the time I arrived at home I was installed in the school, being only a few months over seventeen years old.
I will anticipate to say here that I taught this school successfully for three terms of three months each, there being three terms in a year.
I found our new home a very comfortable one, a frame house rather superior to any in that portion of the country. It was built by a pioneer of the West in 1824. The lumber was all "whip sawed," that is, sawed by hand. It was said to have been the first frame house built in all that part of the country. One of my sons recently visited the old home and he reports the house still standing and in a good state of preservation.
The farm of some four hundred acres was situated on the Meramec River, one of the most beautiful streams I have ever seen anywhere. Its head waters were only forty miles above, and it came from the earth, not a little rivulet, but one immense spring covering more than an acre, from which the stream flowed to the depth of three feet and more than fifty yards wide. Where we lived it had been increased by numerous smaller streams flowing into it to a hundred yards wide and a depth in many places of fifteen to twenty feet, while every few miles there were riffles where it could be forded on horseback or in wagon at low or even ordinary stage of water. Except after heavy rains, the stream was perfectly clear, and one could see the bottom almost anywhere. One of the favorite amusements was fishing with a long-handled spear from a dug-out or canoe.
I had not been teaching long before I caught the canoe fever badly, and (I had an expert to work at once) a magnificent ash was felled and a piece sawed off twenty feet long. This was hewn off on the side intended for the bottom until there was a flat surface of two and one-half feet. The opposite side was then dug out, leaving walls and bottom of about two inches in thickness. When finished the canoe was twenty feet long, two and a half feet broad, and sixteen inches high. The bow, was rounded off in such a manner as to insure the least resistance to the water. The stern was shaped with a seat for the person who used the single paddle with which it was propelled. Such a canoe was very strong and very light, when without a load almost sitting on the water, and with from four to six persons in it floating in four inches, and with its broad bottom it could hardly be overturned. I soon became an ex-pert oarsman, and during the summer spent most of my idle time on the river. On a Saturday I would paddle miles up the rapid current, often resting by the way, then I would lie down, with my head on the seat, and let the canoe float down while I would dream dreams, beautiful and bright dreams that alas ! never came entirely true in this world. Sometimes I would work my way above certain rapids, where years before, a kind of dam had been made across the stream for a fish trap. Here the current was very swift, and jagged rocks showed their heads through the spray, and it was glorious fun to steer the canoe at racing speed through the rocks and foam into the calm water below. Again I would stand in the bow of the boat, with spear in hand, ready to strike at any fish I could see passing in the waters below. Some varieties of fish are very easily speared, being slow in their movements, while others, like the black bass, are almost impossible to take this way. When the winter came on the water was much clearer, and when it was very cold the fish would gather in the deepest holes until they covered the bottom of the river.
I remember one cold day when the thermometer was almost zero, that one of my big school boys and I floated down to the deepest place in the river, where the water was nearly twenty feet deep, and loaded the canoe with all we wanted of great big ten to twenty-pound fish, all in a few hours. It was so cold that every time we let the spear with its long handle down, when it was pulled up the water would freeze, and it would soon become so unwieldy that we would have to stop and knock the ice off before we could continue.
The Meramec River, coming from springs, and having a very strong current, never froze over, though ice often formed in eddies and along the banks. The country around the Meramec is the most picturesque of any that I remember. It is largely a mineral-producing country, large amounts of lead ore was produced for many miles around, and some very rich iron mines were in the vicinity. The country is almost mountainous, the river in many places being buttressed by frowning cliffs many hundred feet high. Along the river and its tributaries are very rich alluvial bottoms on which corn and all kinds of farm and garden products grow in abundance. The lands back from these consist first of bench lands, which are fairly productive, and back of these is the "forest primeval," extending for miles over a hilly, almost mountainous, country. I remember one round hill near where I taught, overlooking all the surrounding country. It was heavily timbered half way up, and then for half a mile to the summit not a sign of vegetation. Nothing but loose red earth in which one would sink over their shoe tops, making climbing very difficult. On my last visit an iron furnace had been erected, and this loose red earth was being shoveled up and made into the finest iron. It was simply iron ore which had been oxidized by exposure to the atmosphere for ages. Under it was a solid mountain of iron.
I finished the school year of nine months in March, and could have stayed longer but I had saved enough money from my princely salary of twenty-five dollars a month to return to my studies and complete my academic course. The only incident of the winter that comes vividly to my mind is that my father, sometime in the fall, being in St. Louis, bought himself a beautiful fur cap, the finest I had ever seen, the softest fur and a large band of the same material around it, that could be turned down at will, sheltering the ears and throat. I wanted that cap very much, would have given him an advance on its original cost, five dollars, but he would not talk about it; I kept up my importunity and finally he said as he had a good deal of fencing to do, if I would split out one thousand rails at the usual price of fifty cents per hundred, I could have the cap. I have no doubt he intended to bluff me, as one hundred rails was a good day's work for a man used to the work. However, I called his bluff, and the next morning with ax, maul and iron wedges I started at daylight. There was a piece of fine oak timber on the road to the school house, and every morning I worked until school time and after school until dark, and all day Saturday. In less time than one would think, my task was completed and I sported that fur cap for a good many winters afterwards. My ! though it was a task. The first hour I .blistered my hands and all the time I was at it the snow was from six inches to a foot deep, but I want my descendants to know that Lincoln was not the only rail splitter.
BACK TO TABLE OF CONTENTS
AHEAD TO CHAPTER EIGHT