|Beautiful Belmont, Part 09 -- School Day Diversions.|
by John Salisbury Cochran.
See previous entry: Beautiful Belmont, Part 08 -- The Log Schoolhouse.
I cannot say when I first began to love Minerva Patterson. In fact, it seemed it had always been so. It came so naturally. We were children together, and were about the same age. We were always in the same class at school, although she was bright beyond her years. We seemed to be made for each other -- and both of us seemed to know it.
Minerva was the daughter of a physician who lived near the tavern. She was always tall for her age, and as she matured, she became a beautiful woman. Her complexion was clear and her features were classical. Her hair framed her beauty. Her deep, soft-blue eyes revealed both force of character and a gentle temperament. She had a lovable personality, and had many interests while, at the same time, she was very practical. She was firm and unyielding in what she knew to be correct, though at all times polite and calm. She loved to be right for the sake of it, however, and despised a wrong at all times.
She was a true and faithful friend, and knew no such action as deceit. It would have been impossible for her to have practiced it, or to have told a falsehood. She was careful and fair in her consideration of others and always charitable. She always had a kind word for and about others.
She was generally at the head of her classes, and I can well remember how it hurt my pride when she beat me in spelling class. She always did it, though, with such a lovely smile, that I felt half glad for both of us.
She subsequently became one of the most cultured members of the Mountain View Literary Society, held at the Blackford schoolhouse on Pinch Ridge, which became noted in its time. I now have in my possession the minute book of that society, which I cherish and preserve. As I sometimes turn over the leaves of that book and read, I relive fond memories for the departed members of that society.
The most natural and direct route from school to home was down the little draw back of the schoolhouse to Buckeye Run, and from there to our place. The route I usually took, however, was by far the longest. It was down old State Road as far as grandfather's, and then down across the fields to Buckeye Run -- and from there home. The State Road happened to be the course Minerva and other young ladies -- and I -- took.
Sometimes, when our walks down State Road were quite leisurely, I came home driving the cows as an excuse for being much later than my other brothers and sisters. Sometimes my "lateness" was caused by closing a hole in the fence, which kept our hogs out of the grain field -- or some other "attentive" contribution to the well-being of our farm.
However, my interest in these young ladies did not escape the notice of my brother, Crowner. He was younger than me, but many the sly look he gave me when I turned to go home by the old State Road, instead of going with other children that also lived in the vicinity of Buckeye Run. Crowner was a great teaser, and always loved a good joke at someone else's expense. When opportunity presented itself, he usually pressed it home. However, Crowner seemed to respect my preference for these young ladies, for they were held in high estimation by the whole school.
Crowner was a bright student. When a mere child he became the champion speller of the school, and the teacher and students of our district used to carry him on their shoulders, when the snow was deep, to the other schoolhouses in our area when spelling contests were being held. He almost always brought home the honors, spelling down the teachers and other students of both his own and the other competing school. On one occasion, after he and the teacher of our school, Milton Lee, had "spelled down" the teacher and students of the other school as well as all the other students of our own, the contest between these two remaining spellers became intense and spirited. As the good-natured rivalry continued, the suspense and excitement grew, for Lee was a well-educated teacher and an infallible speller while Crowner was still a young child.
The announcer gave out the words more and more quickly which was matched by the two contestants. All former contestants and visitors were on tiptoe, waiting for the climax. A word was given to Lee. He seemed for a moment perplexed, but only for a moment. He began to spell it quickly, but when he had said a letter in the word, which was wrong, the word was instantly spelled by my brother and spelled correctly, almost before Lee had gotten to the end of it himself. The effect was magical. The whole house clapped and stamped and Milton Lee caught my brother up in his arms, gave him a hug and then carried him around the room in a kind of electioneering triumph. Whether Lee misspelled the word on purpose or not -- for the hour was getting late -- he had great admiration for his "little towheaded speller," as he called him. Lee was a good and popular teacher, and his influence in the school and community was refining and elevating.
Public presentations took the place of school commencements in those days. Some of the performances at these public affairs were pretty primitive and rough. I still remember the one held at the Pinch Ridge school the first year I entered. Everyone from the countryside for miles around was in attendance. At this I recited a poem titled "You'd Scarce Expect One of My Age...." Although I still did not know all the alphabet, my mother had taught me the words and helped me memorize it.
I think my eyes were as large as saucers when the curtain was raised and I saw all the people in front of me. I was trembling noticeably as I was ushered to the stage. There I stood in a kilt skirt. I can still remember the sound of my bare knees knocking together. My fingers seemed to stand out stiff and straight and every hair on my head assumed a degree of imprtance I had never attached to it before. I wanted to cry, and yet I was afraid the other children would call me "baby." I wanted to be someplace else; I wanted to quit the whole affair as a bunch of foolishness; I wanted to run behind the curtain and hide. Then I saw my mother with her beaming, smiling face -- so proud of me, and I knew I would embarrass her and break her heart if I failed to say my speech.
I also remembered how she told me I someday might be president if I would only learn to speak in public. Just then, however, I would have exchanged a cart load of votes to be sitting in the woods next to Buckeye Run. I think I could have leaped the whole audience in one bound toward home. But I had to please my mother, whose determined effort to teach me the poem and confidence in me could not be misplaced.
Miraculously, my courage returned and I fired my speech at the audience with all the vigor I could command. I yelled it out at the top of my voice to keep my spirits up. I blundered through somehow, and the audience applauded. I did not know then what the applause meant until mother told me afterward. Judging from the way an old maid hugged and kissed me as I left the stage -- in full view of the audience -- the speech must have been a success. She was the homeliest woman in the neighborhood, and had a large wart on her nose, but I always had a warm affection for her afterwards. I sat through the rest of the program wondering where she got that wart. How some of the old bachelors must have envied me that night!
William Tell and the apple was performed, and I still recall how Albert was to shake the apple off his head after the arrow was fired, which he did. The apple rolled behind the side curtain, which another student retrieved and returned to Albert -- with the arrow run through the apple halfway up the shaft. Albert took one look at the arrow through the apple, and Tell's fainting fit after this fearful and accurate shot was imitated better than we ever could have expected.
Tom Seals had committed an amusing speech to memory and stepped assuredly out on the stage to deliver it. He made a profound bow with his head more than halfway to the floor -- and threw up. The audience howled with laughter. Tom recovered, and after delivering his oration, left the stage feeling he had made a great hit.
A piece about FitzJames and Rhoderick Dhu was performed; Rhoderick squirted the imitation of blood from the bladder concealed under his left arm, full in the face of FitzJames, as he stood over Rhoderick's fallen form. The other performances were equally entertaining, and everybody went home satisfied.
Spelling contests had their beneficial purpose, though harmony was sometimes broken by zealous contestants. Furthermore, there was one lawless character in the neighborhood who embraced these opportunities to display his bad breeding and physical prowess. In the latter case, it is gratifying to report that neighborhood sentiment strongly favored law and order, and that the individual generally went home quickly -- a wiser man than he came.
These spelling contests sometimes consisted of the students and other residents, old and young alike, of a single district. Sometimes a challenge was sent by one school district to another, which was almost always accepted. The resulting contest between the two districts would usually take place at the schoolhouse in the district challenged. They were invariably held in the evening.
The spelling was carried on in various ways. When one school was contending with another, each school selected a captain, ordinarily the teacher. The two groups of contestants were then arrayed in a standing position along the opposite sides of the schoolhouse. The announcer, who was some disinterested, educated person, gave out the words alternately to the sides. On each side, participants spelled the word as his turn came, starting with the captain and continuing to the last participant in line. When a word was misspelled the speller took his seat, and this was continued until all the spellers on one side were seated. Of course, the side with one or more unseated contestants was declared the victor. Alternatively, sometimes a "tally-man" was selected who kept a count of the words misspelled on each side, and the side missing the greater number was considered defeated.
Another method was to select the best speller from each side, and place those persons last in their opponent's line. They were to work their way to the top of the opponent's line. The opponents would be given a word. If the person first in line couldn't spell it, the next in line had a chance, on down to the contestant from the other side. If the speller from the other side spelled it correctly -- after all the opponents had failed to do so -- the last opponent sat down, moving the contestant from the other side one step closer to the head of the opponent's line.
When a single district was having a contest between its own students, two captains, ordinarily the two best spellers, were selected. These captains would take their positions at the head of the room on opposite sides and call alternately the names of the spellers present whom they wanted on their sides. They cast lots to determine who would have first choice, as one good speller sometimes decided the whole issue. When the evening was about half over, a break of fifteen minutes or half hour was taken for socializing and refreshments. This was the opportunity for a young men to ask a young lady for permission to walk her home that evening. The gathering of the entire community for these events was an important social occasion for everyone, and was an effective way to refresh and enhance the spelling abilities of everyone in the community.
Other School Day Memories
Our school days and years came and went, and finally the old log school building was replaced by a new structure of modern construction and appearance. This new building, unfortunately, was destroyed by the tornado of 15 April 1887. [It was later rebuilt and continued to be used well into the twentieth century.]
I spent many happy hours with my schoolmates, and especially with Minerva. Year by year, she had grown more lovely in my eyes, and I experienced a feeling of contentment when in her company that I did not feel with anyone else. There was something more, however. I began to experience a strange, indefinable fluttering in my heart when I was with her. This fluttering was new, and at times startling, and I could not explain it.
Now, in those days, no way of life developed principles and honesty in a child better than farm life. A family on a farm was a world of its own. Its governing principles were love, respect, and cooperation. Farm life resulted in close bonds. Brothers and sisters raised on the farm always had a warmer affection for each other, and a stronger devotion to their parents, than those raised in the city. These affections engendered truthfulness toward each other, which in later years was extended and practiced in their dealings with the outside world. A farm boy would assume all others were as honest and genuine as himself. He knew nothing of the superficial polish and dealings of city life. He went at everything with a straightforward simplicity of purpose. This is the way I began loving Minerva. I did not know it was love until many years later. I knew there was something that attached me to her, but I was too young then to know this was love.
Her conduct toward me seemed more guarded and considerate than to others, and I even imagined it was at all times more tender. As I grew older, the fear sometimes came over me that this was my imagination and not the reality. Then I would try to recall all the many kind things she had said and done to me, in order to reassure myself. I would allow no rival. I watched with critical vigilance her behavior toward the other boys. This began when we were quite young. An imagined preference by her for anyone else always cut me to the quick, and I was not able to conceal it at times. Then I imagined that this fact was why she was so kind and considerate toward me, and that it really wasn't affection for me -- but concern for me feelings -- that she was careful not to show her affections for other schoolmates.
I wanted to tell Minerva how I "liked" her, in order to keep her from "liking" other boys. One boy in particular gave me much concern. He was bright, maybe better looking, and shared the same respect of the other students. He was from one of the best families in the district, had lived in a city home with his parents most of his life, but was now living with his family on their large farm. I knew I was not as "polished" as the other boy, and at times had misgivings on this point, but was determined the other should not know it.
The other boy always assumed a dignified relationship with me, tinged by a degree of superiority. He did not fail to convey to me the high standing of his family and the importance of his ancestors. He did not permit me to surpass him in or out of classes. He would have studied his eyes out first. There was one exception, however.
I was a better speller than the other boy, and never permitted myself to lose this advantage. I took profound delight in defeating my rival in the spelling class and it caused the other boy great mortification, although he was careful not to show it. Every time I defeated the other boy in a spelling contest, I always glanced at Minerva for a look of approval. She never showed it. Every time he was defeated by me in a spelling contest, the other boy always glanced at Minerva for an expression of -- of some kind. She never responded. To all appearances she was totally impartial toward us.
My parents were Democrats; the other boy's parents were Whigs. The Whig party was dying -- the Democratic party was at the height of greatness. I discovered I could cause the other boy discomfort -- although the other boy tried not to show it -- by telling him the Whig party was dead. The other responded by saying the Democrats were slaveholders and brutes. I don't think either of us knew then what we were talking about. The truth is, the Whig party was quite as much in favor of slavery as the Democratic party. The abolition of slavery was being advanced, but this was confined to the Abolition party at the time. The Republican party had not then been formed.
See next entry: Beautiful Belmont, Part 10 -- The Wheeling Farm Market.
For the table of contents and first entry in this series, see: Beautiful Belmont, Part 01 -- Table of Contents and Brief Introduction.
This entry is adapted from Bonnie Belmont: A Historical Romance of the Days of Slavery and the Civil War, by John Salisbury Cochran, which was published originally in 1907. The book has been reedited extensively for inclusion in the Pierian Press Fulltext eBooks database, and is included on the Stratton House Inn Web site by special permission. This special edition of Beautiful Belmont is licensed for use ONLY on this Web site. It may not be copied or downloaded, but may be used for educational purposes and personal pleasure under fair-use provisions via this Web site. Please note that this Stratton House Inn iteration of the book does NOT include the subject headings assigned each chapter for use in the Fulltext eBooks database.
CO-AUTHOR: Wall, C. Edward. (Editor)
DATABASE: Fulltext eBooks: Copyright (c) 2000 The Pierian Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved
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