SUNBONNET DAYS - CHAPTER VIII - IN THE FRONTIER METROPOLIS
When I returned to live in St. Joseph in 1859, the normal business of the city was being stimulated by the building of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, the first railway to extend to western Missouri. Teamsters were at work east of the city grading the roadbed. Real estate values were skyrocketing in anticipation of the prosperity that would come with low freight rates, for in steamboat days the freight on a bushel of corn to St. Louis was forty cents, and the rate upstream from St. Louis ranged from fifty cents to one dollar a hundred pounds. Of course, everything we had to sell was very cheap and what we brought up-river was very dear.
Not only that, but ice locked the river several months each year. In anticipation of winter, the merchants stocked up with enough goods in the fall to last until spring. Even then there was scarcity before the ice broke up.
How glad we were in the spring when wild geese honking northward told us that it was time for the steamboats to be coming! How we listened for the big bass whistle! I recall vividly the coming of the first boat in the spring of 1859. Somebody had heard its whistle while it was yet out of sight, a dozen miles below the bend. He began shouting, "Steamboat! Steamboat!" and soon a thousand men and boys took up the cry, half shouting and half singing, "Steamboat, steamboat!" People raised flags on their houses. Merchants hung out bunting and locked their stores to go to the levee. Blacksmiths fired anvils. An old Spanish cannon, which Doniphan's men had captured in the Mexican War, was wheeled to the river front to fire salutes. Sextons rang church bells. The town band assembled. The mayor hurried home to put on his high silk hat. Women, with slaves as coachmen, rode in handsome carriages to welcome the visitor. The front porch of Uncle Christian's boarding house was near enough to the levee to command a view of all that happened, and from that vantage point Aunt Christine and I witnessed the reception.
As the crowd was assembling, the steamboat came into view, spouting out columns of black smoke made especially black for the occasion by stoking the furnace with pitch knots. Amid the clanging of the boat's bell, tooting of the whistle, yelling from the crowds on land and on deck, the boat neared the shore. A cordelle was cast to a roustabout on the levee and tied to a pier. Then the gangplank banged down, the mayor ran up the plank and, removing his hat with a flourish, grasped the captain's hand.
That night we served whole oranges at the boarding house, for the first steamer to arrive always brought oranges and lemons, a luxury which even the wealthy residents had been denied through the winter.
Now the railroad was coming to put an end to river front activities. Waiting on tables, I overheard the boarders tell how the road was progressing. They were grading the roadbed east of the city; they had reached the city limits; they were building the depot; they were spiking the rails to the ties. At last the train came chugging up with a load of passengers from Hannibal. In celebration we had another gala day with flags fluttering, bells ringing, guns blazing, but after that the gala days declined. In the course of ten years steamboats had almost disappeared from the river.
The railroad put St. Joseph far in the lead of other western cities. In 1860 the census revealed a population of nine thousand white people and two thousand slaves. That was approximately three times the population of Kansas city and six times that of Omaha. Railroad men arrived from the East to discuss the possibilities of building a railroad from St. Joseph to the Pacific Ocean. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, came to St. Joseph for a stagecoach tour of Kansas and ended up by riding all the way to San Francisco. He returned to New York to urge in the Weekly Tribune the building of a Pacific railroad.
Abraham Lincoln, spoken of as a presidential possibility, came over the railroad to St. Joseph and, although he did not pause in our city, he did cross over to Elwood, the ferryboat landing on the Kansas side, to make a speech favoring the admission of Kansas Territory as a free state. The attention the city received caused its editors and merchants to boast that in a few years St. Joseph would outstrip Chicago, and there were some who even believed it would be greater than St. Louis, then the metropolis of interior America.
An immediate result of the completion of the railroad was the institution of the picturesque pony express. Relays of ponies and riders were stationed at intervals across the plains and mountains from St. Joseph to San Francisco. They carried the mail at a gallop, night and day, it requiring only ten days to bear a letter from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. One of the daily sights was the arrival of the mail train from Hannibal, and the start of the pony express rider.
As the train came panting to a stop, the pony express rider would pull up alongside to receive the mail sack on the fly. Away he would flash at breakneck speed, down Frederick Avenue to the landing, to be ferried across the river. At Elwood his horse would leap ashore and speed across the prairie toward the Golden Gate.
With the advent of the railroad St. Joseph became the chief outfitting point for the Denver trade. The previous winter Delaware Indians had found gold in the gravel of Cherry Creek, now the site of Denver, and had brought it to Leavenworth to trade. Instantly the country was thrown into a fever of excitement. People set out in all sorts of conditions to reach the gold fields. They traveled in covered wagons, by ox-team, horseback, and afoot. I saw two men set out with a little cart in which they had packed their provisions and which they pulled by hand. Another man set out pushing his provisions in a baby buggy, and some pushed their belongings in wheelbarrows. All this made St. Joseph a busy town.
The prosperity of St. Joseph was reflected in Aunt Christine's boarding house. Patronage grew until twenty and finally thirty men boarded there. Aunt Christine set an excellent table and put everything on it where hungry men could help themselves as their appetites dictated. Her well-fed boarders spread the word that the best place to eat was at the Dubach's. The quantity and variety Aunt Christine served was remarkable. At every meal she had at least two kinds of meat. Even for breakfast she had either beefsteak and sausage or pork steak, and on Fridays she served fish for breakfast in addition to the two kinds of meat. Pancakes, doughnuts, fried mush, fried potatoes, and fruit and coffee completed the menu. In serving fruit or other food we did not serve it in little side dishes, but put it on the table in a big dish where each man could help himself as often as he liked. There was always plenty. Dinner and supper were proportionately greater than breakfast.
The house became so popular that Uncle Christian often set chairs together in the dining room to provide extra beds. Our boarders were mostly regular patrons, but occasionally, when the transient hotels were overcrowded, we accommodated travelers. I recall one night a prospector returned from Cherry Creek and poured out two tablespoonfuls of gold nuggets on the tablecloth for me to see. The largest nugget was the size of a bean but rough and jagged. A great deal of gold dust was brought back from Colorado to be spent in St. Joseph. That had a tendency to fill the city with a rough element, but we served none of the rough customers at the boarding house. We neither served liquor nor permitted anyone who was even slightly intoxicated to enter our house. This enhanced our reputation and brought us only sober men.
Our no-liquor rule resulted on one occasion in providing me the means of distinguishing myself before the boarders. One night at supper time - we called it supper, not dinner - a man came lurching into the boarding house and demanded food. He was very drunk. He was a big man; and since I was little more than five feet tall, I had to throw my head back to look up at him. For a moment he towered menacingly above me and dared me to try to put him out. Heedless of his loud voice and threatening manner, I held open the door and declared:
"That place was made by the carpenter for you to get out."
He stood glaring down on me for a few seconds, and I looked back at him. Then, swaying as he went, he passed through the door.
I suppose that the thirty men at the table would all have come to my defense had the drunkard attempted to strike me. Nevertheless, the men praised me loudly.
One who approved me on that occasions was Christian H. Isely. He was a nephew of my stepmother's first husband, but until that time, aside from saying "Good morning," or "Please, give me a second cup of coffee" he had never noticed me, nor I him. But on this occasion he came to me after supper and said:
"You are surely a brave girl," and there was an especial fervor in his tone.
The frontier always has a preponderance of men, and St. Joseph was no exception. Most of the thirty men, perhaps all of them, who came to our table were bachelors. So great was the shortage of women in the West that many men of middle age were without wives. Girls of eighteen and twenty had their pick of suitors.
When I was a mere girl of fifteen, living on my father's claim, a man old enough to be my father called on us one evening, presumably to sample my cooking. In those days no man began to court a girl until she could pass muster as a cook. Apparently he approved of my cooking, for he sat through the evening and talked to my father and looked at me until the hour grew late. On the frontier we were invariably hospitable, and so Father suggested that the man put up his horse and remain all night. This was really a polite hint that it was time to go home. The man, however, promptly accepted, declaring that he liked my cooking and would like to stay for breakfast. But I did not wish to encourage him. Calling my father aside, I whispered to him to get breakfast, and I skipped across the prairie to spend the night with Sarah Boston and to eat breakfast there.
It was inevitable that of the many men at Aunt Christine's some of the boarders should pay attention to me, but I spurned them all, that is all until C. H. Isely came upon the scene.
Like myself Christian Isely was of Swiss birth, but he did not remember the land of his nativity, for his parents had migrated to America when he was only three years old. Their migration had been with a group of neighbors led by their children's school teacher, Niklaus Joss. The story of their migration from Switzerland to America illustrates the resourcefulness of the people of that time. Their migration took place in 1831, which was twenty-four years before I made the journey. At that time there were no railroads from Switzerland to the sea, and travel had to be by wagon. In preparation for their travels the men built wagons and the women wove checkered wagon covers of flax. They drove to Havre, France, sold their horses, leased a ship and crew, loaded their wagons aboard, sailed to New York, transferred their wagons to Hudson River steamboats, ascended the Hudson to Albany, transferred their wagons to canal boats, traversed the Erie Canal, took steamer on Lake Erie to Cleveland, boated on the Cleveland Canal to Lockport, then bought American horses and drove to Holmes County in Central Ohio, arriving in the fall of 1831. There they cleared the forest and built houses.
Being from a German-speaking commune, these people founded a German Reformed church and brought up their children to speak and read German in a parochial school. Since the children could read the Bible in German, their elders saw no necessity for an English school. In the course of time, however, English-speaking people entered the community and founded a public school which was conducted three months of each year. Christian Isely wished to attend but his father sternly forbade him. He feared his son might be contaminated by the Americans, many of whom did not belong to church. The lad, however, begged and wept bitterly and to such good effect that one December day his father yielded. Christian was doing chores around the barn when his older sister came out to tell him the good news that he might go to the public school. He broke the ice at the horse trough, washed away his tears, and hurried off to school without even waiting for his mother to put up a lunch, for he feared that his father might change his mind. For a time he had no books, but one Saturday he picked chestnuts, sold them in town, and for twenty-five cents bought a McGuffey's Second Reader in which he delved for two successive winters. That ended his formal education.
His association with English-speaking children determined him to leave the Swiss community as soon as he should become of age. He felt that he could not become a real American if he remained at home. He therefore went West in 1849, labored in the Wisconsin pine forests, rafted logs from Wisconsin down the Mississippi to the sawmills at St. Louis, worked as a carpenter at the government agencies in Indian Territory, and taught a backwoods school east of St. Joseph.
His teaching experience lasted but one winter. At the close of the first winter, one of the directors, wishing to test the schoolmaster's ability before employing him for a second time, inquired:
"And what fer name do you call that 'ere river packet," referring to a boat then in St. Joseph.
"Rube Oglesby," answered the schoolmaster, putting the accent on the first syllable.
"Wrong!" shouted the director. "You hain't fitten to learn this here school. Hit's Oglesby!" putting the accent on the second syllable. The other directors insisted that the teacher was right, and anyway what was one little mistake? They voted for a re-election. Isely, however, refused to accept without unanimous approval.
Another venture was equally unsuccessful. With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, he led a party of Ohio friends to settle in Richardson County, Nebraska, on Four Mile and Isely Creeks. He thought that his colonists would be congenial neighbors, for, like himself, they were free-state Democrats and members of the German Reformed Church. It happened, however, that they were sons of the same Swiss colonists in Ohio who had opposed English schools, and patterning after their forbears, the majority sought to exclude English-speaking settlers from their Nebraska community. Isely favored English-speaking neighbors; and because the other opposed him, he decided to relinquish his claim after he had lived there for almost two years.
Before bringing out his colony to Nebraska, Isely had spent a great deal of time exploring the Kansas and Nebraska prairies in quest of the richest soil possible. On one of his lonely exploring ventures he had been held up and robbed by a Sac Indian. He had endured much hardship, had slept on the prairie in rainy or fair weather, and told time at night by the position of the Big Dipper, and had kept his direction on cloudy days through observance of the shape of trees as affected by the prevailing winds. All this he had done in the hope of founding a home among congenial neighbors. When he voluntarily withdrew from the colony, he lost the time and money he had invested in his claim. They even changed the name of the creek he had discovered; but this was done inadvertently, due to the fact that the Swiss pronounce the "I" as "E." In the course of time Isely Creek became known as Easily Creek and today it is spelled that way on the Nebraska maps.
After leaving Nebraska, Isely returned to St. Joseph where he became a contracting carpenter. He was industrious, a great reader, a church-going man. He neither smoked nor drank. When he proposed marriage I accepted. In preparation for our marriage he built a cottage on Frederick Avenue and around it planted twenty-four fruit trees. He made most of the furniture, and I bought dishes and other things for the home where I was to be the happy mistress.
Before our marriage Uncle Christian had sold the boarding house and wagon shop to move to a farm in Kansas. We, therefore, were married at the parsonage of the Sixth Street Presbyterian Church by the pastor, John G. Fackler. A group of our friends and relatives were present.
I wore a wool and silk dress with black and wine-colored checks, trimmed with a lace collar. The skirt was worn over hoops which were the fashion then as decreed by Godey's Lady's Book. My bonnet was of white Leghorn faced with ruching. It had a bow at the crown, flowers on either side, and wide plaid ribbons which were tied in a bow under my chin. I wore no gloves and carried no flowers.
It was Friday, May 31, 1861, when I became Mrs. C. H. Isely. I lacked three weeks of being nineteen, and my husband had just celebrated his thirty-third birthday. Our wedding was set for Friday, because the bridegroom wished to prove to his mother that Friday was as good a day as any on which to begin a new venture.