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The Beginnings of Beloit

Published in Semi-Centennial Anniversary Beloit College 1897


     By the favor of our honored President I am permitted to tell you something of the beginnings of Beloit and of Beloit College, most of which I saw and part of which I was. Yesterday you heard of the day of small things. I shall tell you of the day of smaller things. Through the kindness of my early playmate and infant school mate, Hon. Ellery B. Crane, now a member of the state senate of Massachusetts and a resident of the city of Worcester, I have been enabled to examine an old account book, hitherto unpublished, much of which is in my father's handwriting and the rest in his father's hand-writing. This book contains the business transactions of the New England Emigrating Co., which was formed in Colebrook, New Hampshire, my native place, in October, 1836, and of which Dr. Horace White, my father, was the agent. Much has been published about this company and a good many guesses have been made as to the exact number and identity of the members. The book of which I speak, and which Mr. Crane has rescued from the tooth of time, sets at rest all disputes on these two subjects. It shows that the company consisted of fourteen members and that their names were Cyrus Eames, 0. P. Bicknell, John W. Bicknell, Asahel B. Howe, Leonard Hatch, David J. Bundy, Ira Young, L. C. Beech, S. G. Colley, G. W. Bicknell, R. P. Crane, Horace Hobart, Horace White and Alfred Field. The book shows to a cent how much each man contributed to the funds of the enterprise, the whole amount being $7,067.27, and how the lands and other property were distributed, how much and what kind of work each one did and what credits he received for the work done. These fourteen names and no others appear and reappear as copartners in the enterprise, although others are found in other relations to it. These men were not speculators. They did not belong to the roving class. They had no thought of taking up claims on public land and selling out to somebody else at a higher price. They intended to create an agricultural community like the New England village from which they sprang, and new homes like the old ones which they still loved. They were the kind of stuff that enduring communities are made of, as this fair city today attests.

     It was the principal duty of the Company's agent to select and purchase a site for the new homes of the Emigrating company. In pursuance of his duties as such agent, my father left Colebrook in the winter of 1836-7 on his westward journey. He was then in his 27th year. The book says that he was to receive $100 per month and all of his expenses, and that the Company was to furnish him a horse and cutter. With this, conveyance he set forth as soon as there was a good fall of snow and drove through Canada, taking that route for the reason that the sleighing was better on the north than on the south side of the lakes. He arrived at Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the 25th day of January, 1837, where he found Mr. R. P. Crane, the father of Mr. Ellery Crane, who was a member of the Company, and who had started westward somewhat earlier. Mr. Crane had arrived at Detroit by steamer from Buffalo in company with Otis P. Bicknell and they had set out to make the rest of the journey on foot, not knowing exactly where it might lead them, but keeping in the track of the general emigration of the period. Arriving at Ann Arbor Mr. Crane found his funds exhausted and took a job of finishing a partly-built house at that place for which be received the sum of $100. It was here that my father overtook and passed him, taking Mr. Bicknell in his cutter as far as Calumet, Illinois. Mr. Crane was one of those benefactors of the human race who "keep a diary" and it is fortunate for us that the historical spirit has descended to his son. From this diary his son gives me the following extract:

     "On reaching Rockford, March 3, 1837, Dr. White was there, stopping with Harvey Bundy, who was employed as clerk by George Goodhue, who was proprietor of a small store or trading post. The doctor had been up to the Turtle but had not purchased yet. Had already been to Des Moines, Ia., and Quincy, Ill., but did not like it there. The doctor wanted Otis and myself to see the location at the Turtle before deciding, although he thought well of it. We (Otis and I) arrived at the Turtle Thursday, March 9, and Dr. White came up the week following and we three went out three miles northeast to see the landscape. We liked it so well that we (Otis and I) encouraged the doctor to secure an interest here if he could."

     This was on the 13th day of March. The only person here at the time who could be called a settler was Caleb Blodgett who had arrived the previous year and had bought for $200 a claim from a Frenchman named Thibault who was living with one or more squaw wives in a construction of logs near the junction of Turtle creek and Rock river. A bargain was struck with Blodgett on the following day (March 14) for one-third of his claim. In those days claims to public land were rather indefinite. That of Blodgett was as far-reaching as those which excited the ire of the elder Gracchus in old Roman days. His own idea was that it embraced about 7,000 acres. Purchasers of claims took their chances of being able to hold what they had bargained for. What was paid for in such a case was the chance that the government land office would eventually recognize the claim as valid under the pre-emption laws, and give a patent for it, on receiving the price of $1.25 per acre. A bargain was struck with Blodgett for one-third of his claim for the sum of $2,500, and patents were issued in my father's name which are now in my possession. This included 100 acres of land already under the plow and ready for a crop, this fact being a moving consideration in the purchase. Blodgett retained one-third of the claim for himself and sold the remaining third to Messrs. Goodhue, Jones and Johnson. The name of Goodhue is an honored one in the history of Beloit. Mr. Goodhue came from Canada. He erected the first saw mill in the place. He was living at that time in Rockford but the mill was already under construction and it began to deliver boards on the 15th of April, 1837.

     Dr. White returned to Colebrook immediately after the purchase was made from Blodgett, to report progress and to dispose of his own property, leaving Crane and Bicknell in charge. Blodgett had built a double log house on the river bank near the foot of Broad street. In putting the logs in place he had been assisted by a band of Indians who were encamped on the west side of the river under charge of army officers. Until the saw mill was completed, so that boards could be obtained, the ground served as the floor of this house. My earliest recollections of Beloit, or of anything, are associated with this old log house, in which Dr. White's family was installed and where they lived until better accommodations could be provided. This was a double house with a door in the center and was generally occupied by two families or more. The south end, which we occupied, consisted of one square room which served as kitchen, dining-room, bed-room, sitting-room and doctor's office. The joints in this establishment had not been very carefully closed and hence it was not unusual in the winter time for my parents to find themselves in the morning under an extra counter-pane of snow which had sifted through the crevices during the night. There were no streets in the place, only Indian trails through the woods and one road leading from Rockford and following the general line of Rock river from south to north.

     I have a letter written by my father dated Colebrook, May 10, 1837, to my mother, who was then in Bedford, N. H., in which he says that he found the Emigrating Company in good spirits. "I had requested them," he says, "to raise fourteen hundred dollars on my return and it was done." He then gives the names of a number of persons who would start westward within a few weeks, some being members of the company and some not. He said that James Cass and wife would go out in his employ. This fact explains some of the entries in the old account book where Dr. White receives credit for labor performed by Cass for the company's benefit. Many of these entries possess an economical interest showing how society may get on without money in case of need. Thus we read under date of November 7, 1837:

"Otis P. Bicknell, Cr.
"By 1 day getting flour and assisting in butchering ox."

     As a sequence, two days later we find Horace Hobart credited with "one half day salting beef" and Horace White credited with the services of Cass in hauling beef and also "some pumpkins." A. L. Field is credited with three-fourths of a day "at business of different kinds for Co." There are several entries in November, 1837, where Horace White is credited with "1 day each for Crosby, Cass and Grimes on bridge over Turtle." The explanation is that Crosby and Grimes were indebted to Dr. White and that they worked out the debt in the company's service for which he received credit in the final settlement. The current rate of interest is shown in an entry in December, 1837, where Horace White is credited with $15 cash paid to B. J. Tenney for the company, "interest 12 per cent." The usual rate of interest when I became old enough to understand such things was 12 per cent., and I think that it was not less than 10 per cent. at any time when I lived here.

     One more entry in this old account book deserves notice. Among the crops produced on the land broken up by Blodgett and included in the company's purchase, was 200 bushels of oats. This was divided among the members of the company in exact proportion to their interest in it, the name of each one being set down opposite his share of the crop in bushels and pounds.

     It should be added that there is no indication in the book or in any letter or memorandum, so far as I have been able to discover, that there ever was any dispute or disagreement among the members of the company touching money matters or the eventual settlement of the joint enterprise. Each one had entire confidence in the good faith of the others and in the correctness of the bookkeeping.

     The hardships of this early period can be little understood by those of the present day. We read in the early records that during the first year our pioneers were often in want of food, and that the arrival of Alfred Field in July, 1837, with a team of four oxen and a load of four barrels of flour relieved them from severe distress. Also that on another occasion when the stock of provisions had run low they heard of a whole barrel of pork for sale at Rockford and sent one of their number down there to buy it. The streams furnished a plentiful supply of fish and when Goodhue's mill was completed the flume was converted into a kind of trap by means of which the water could be drained off and the fish picked up on the bottom, but the fish could not be rendered palatable without some accessories, and these were frequently wanting. The hardships of travel in those days were almost beyond conception. Some of these are within my own recollection. It was customary for the stage drivers to carry rails with which to pry the coaches out of the mud when the horses could no longer draw their loads. In this exercise the passengers were expected to take part under pain of stopping for an indefinite time in some unfathomed bog. When a man driving his team alone was stuck fast in this way he must either wait till somebody else came along to pull him through, or take out his load by piecemeal and carry it on his back to dry land so that his horses might draw out the empty wagon. I have witnessed many cases of both kinds and have participated in some.

     A sadder case is one for the details of which I am indebted to my friend, Mr. Crane. It is that of an emigrating party from Colebrook who left the steamboat at Detroit and started to cross the state of Michigan with a team of four horses. The roads were so bad that one of the horses died of fatigue before they had made half of the distance. Soon afterward another horse was so exhausted that he could not pull. It was necessary to lead him by a rope. Then they came to the sand hills at the southern bend of Lake Michigan and it became necessary to lighten the load in every possible way, for there was danger that the other horses would fail, or perhaps die in the road. Delicate women were obliged to get out and walk in the sand carrying infant children on their backs. It was impossible to stop on the road. Houses were ten to twenty miles apart. Shelter and food for man and beast must be found every night. While these toilers were trudging through the sand darkness overtook them, accompanied by rain. There was nothing to do but push on. Continuous movement was the price of life. With eyes straining to see a light they toiled on fainting with hunger and fatigue and drenched with rain. About 9 o'clock their hearts were gladdened by a distant twinkling light. They hastened to reach it. They found it a short distance from the road. It was an Indian wigwam. The occupants were very civil. They invited these foot-sore travelers to the shelter of their lodge, but it was so filthy that the pilgrims, weary as they were, could not bring themselves to enter it. So they turned back to the lonely road and resumed their journey, for near three hours longer. Midnight brought them to a house in a condition of mind and body that can be better imagined than described. One of these women, whose trembling limbs had at last borne her to a door, was Mrs. Crane, and the babe whom she carried was my friend Ellery Crane, who has given me these facts. They reached their journey's end in August, 1837. I would fain believe that these hardships have been exaggerated by the distortions of time and the imperfections of memory, but as they were written down at, or very near, the date of their occurrence, they must be accepted as a round unvarnished tale. Mrs. Crane never recovered from the effects of that terrible journey. Her health was undermined by it. She lingered a few years and died at the age of 33.

     There was another branch of the early emigration to Beloit to which I think that Dr. Horace White must have given the impulse. It came from Bedford, a town in the extreme southern part of New Hampshire, Colebrook being in the extreme northern part. Among the families represented in this emigration were those of Colley, Riddle, Dole, Atwood, Houston and Gordon. My mother was a native of Bedford. As the movement originated in Colebrook and as our family was the only connecting link between the two towns, which were separated from each other by the whole length of the state, I conclude that the Bedford people took the Beloit fever from us and that S. G. Colley was enrolled as an original member of the New England Emigrating Company at my father's instance, and that the others were similarly induced to come later. However that may be, it is certain that my mother with her two sons, aged 3 and 1 respectively, came hither from Bedford, in company with Mr. Colley and his family, and Mrs. Atwood and her daughter, in the summer of 1838, arriving here on the 25th of June of that year. My father had returned to Beloit in November, 1837, but did not bring his family because there was then no place to put them. There were only three log houses in the town in 1837 and those were all occupied by the male workers who were preparing the ground for their wives and children. In 1837 Caleb Blodgett erected a house of boards, the product of Goodhue's mill. This was the beginning of the Rock River House, situated where the Goodwin House now stands. The fact of immediate interest to the White family was that when Blodgett moved out of the old log house they were enabled to move in.

     Such were the beginnings of Beloit as a home of civilized men and women. How it became a center of educational work in the West is an oft-told tale. It has been related by others better than I can tell it. Yet I must not omit my share of it on this memorable day. The first application made by this infant community to the legislative power for any purpose whatever was a petition for a charter for a seminary of learning. On the 11th of November, 1837, Major Charles Johnson and Cyrus Eames started to Burlington Iowa, the then seat of the territorial government of the country now embraced in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, to obtain such a charter. They were successful, and the return to Beloit on December 5 of the same year. It is needless to say that Beloit Seminary did not spring into immediate activity. Divers and sundry schools, both public and private, preceded it. According to the best information obtainable the first school of any kind in Beloit was opened in the kitchen of Caleb Blodgett's house in the year 1838, the teacher being John Burroughs, a native of Orange county, N. Y. In the following year a school house was built by private subscription at the northeast corner of School and Prospect streets and here the first public school was opened, under the charge of Hazen Cheney who taught daring the school year 1839-40. He was followed by Hiram Hersey, Alfred Walker, Henry Brown and Samuel Clary in succession. In 1843 or 1844 a school was started in the basement of the Congregational Church. This building had been erected in 1842 mainly by my father's efforts. As the Rev. Lucien D. Mears has said, "It was built with unpaid doctor's bills," which means that some people hereabout could not pay for Dr. White's services with money but could pay with stone, timber, sand, lime and the labor of their hands and teams. That Dr. White was eventually paid by the other members of the congregation there can be no doubt, since these men were not in the habit of getting anything of value for nothing, least of all their church privileges, the most valuable of all things to them. One of the early services held in this church was my father's funeral. He died December 23, 1843. The hardships of a country doctor's life in a thinly settled region, where he was compelled to drive long distances by day and night in a rigorous climate, with little protection against the cold, cut him off at the age of 33. He was native of Bethlehem, N.H., a graduate of the medical department of Dartmouth College, a man of intellectual power and heroic mould. He shrank from no duties and I am sure that no man ever performed greater services and sacrifices for Beloit than be.

     The school in the basement of this church, situated at the corner of Broad and Prospect streets, was opened under the auspices of the Rev. Lewis H. Loss. This was the Beloit Seminary for which Johnson and Eames obtained the charter in 1837. I was one of Mr. Loss's pupils.

     My earliest recollections of school days, however, are not these. They cluster about an infant school on Race street near the corner of State, kept by Miss Jane Moore, my mother's sister. She was "Aunt Jane Moore" to all the young people in the town. From this I was transferred to the public school before mentioned and in due time to the tutelage of Mr. Loss. The latter bad for an assistant Mr. D. Carley. Mr. Loss was succeeded in 1846 by my dear friend Sereno T. Merrill who is with us still, after more than fifty years of continuous activity and usefulness in Beloit.

     Before the College proper began there were various teachers here, both male and female, whose names deserve respectful mention although I do not remember exactly where all of them taught, viz: Sarah T. Crane, Frances Burchard, Emeline Fisher, Philomela Atwood, Eliza Field, M. F. Cutting, Alexander Stone, Daniel Pitikham, Leonard Humphrey, Mrs. Saxby, Mrs. Dearborn, Mrs. Carr, Cornelia Bradley, Miss Adaline Merrill, Jonathan Moore, Ackland Jones and Horatio C. Burchard. The last named has since been a member of congress and director of the mint of the United States. Miss Bradley become the wife of Judge Hopkins, of Madison, Wis., and Miss Merrill the wife of Dr. Browne of Hartford, Conn. After the death of Mary Kimball Merrill, the able principal of the young ladies' department of Beloit Seminary, Miss Jane Blodgett, (now Mrs. S. T. Merrill) and Miss Clarinda Hall had charge of a young ladies' school on Broad street, in a building which was afterward moved to State street and became the book store of Wright & Merrill; Miss Chapin (now the wife of Prof. Porter) taught in, this school in 1853.

     Mr. Humphrey was the son of the first rector of the Episcopal church in Beloit, and succeeded his father in that capacity. Miss Fisher, a woman of great energy and executive talent, became the housekeeper of the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York. All, so far as I know, whether rich or poor, high or humble, were honest, earnest men and women, doing good and not evil in their day and generation. Happy shall we be if the same can be said of us when our fleeting hour is past.

     Under Mr. Merrill's tuition I began the study of algebra and of Latin and Greek. In 1845 my mother married Mr. Samuel Hinman, of Waukesha, Wis., one of the best men that ever lived, and we went to his farm near that village where we remained a year or two. His election as superintendent of the first building erected for Beloit College brought us back here in the spring of 1847. This was the year in which the first freshman class was formed, the year in which the corner stone of Middle College was laid, and whose fiftieth anniversary we now celebrate. How this infant college was conceived and established, how it was prayed over and labored for, I could not tell you in the brief time allotted to me; nor is it needful that I should since it is told in Professor Bushnell's address at the twenty-fifth anniversary and in the discourses you heard yesterday. Some few reminiscences of my own must suffice for this occasion.

     I remember the time when the five young men constituting the first freshman class studied alongside of us younger ones in the old basement, under Mr. Merrill, who was acting president and professor of all departments in Beloit College until the advent of Professors Bushnell and Emerson in the month of May, 1848. I remember the coming of those two seers of Israel and the laying of the corner stone aforesaid. The college building was in course of construction a long time and the five freshmen (grown to be sophomores) recited their lessons in a room of Lucius G. Fisher's house down on the river bank. It was a severe struggle on all hands to get that college building under a roof. We children, (that is, the Hinman children and the White children), had these troubles served up to us daily because Deacon Hinman had charge of the work, for which he received a salary of $5OO per year; and this was all that a family of ten had to live on. We thought we lived pretty well, however.

     We produced our own vegetables, and poultry, our own pork, and milk and butter. The cows grazed freely on the open prairie round about, and were lured homeward by an enticement of bran at the close of each day. We had a wood lot which supplied our fuel and I cut down the trees. Tea and coffee were unknown luxuries to us, but we were as well off in this respect as Croesus was. Sugar was scarce but we had more of it than Julius Ceasar had. There was abundance of fish in the streams, and of game in the woods and fields. Prairie chickens, wild pigeons, wild ducks and wild geese were to be had in the greatest profusion during their season, together with an occasional deer and an occasional bear. During my senior year in college (1853) it was not an uncommon occurrence to find a flock of quails in our door yard picking up crumbs in competition with the chickens. Blackberries, strawberries, wild plums, wild grapes, hickory nuts, hazel nuts and black walnuts were to be had for the trouble of gathering them, and as for wild flowers I cannot begin to tell you how the prairies, the woods and the river banks glowed with them. The habitat of many of these flowers extended to the base of the Rocky Mountains on the west and to the head waters of the Saskatchewan on the north, as I discovered a few years since while making a journey to the Pacific coast by the Canadian Pacific Railway.

     So you see that a salary of $500 for a family of ten, plus the bounties of nature and our own industry was not a niggardly allowance. Yet I fancy that the salaries offered to Professors Bushnell and Emerson of $600 per year, coupled with the proviso, "if we can raise it," did not constitute the moving consideration with them. Ah, those noble minded, high principled men! What can I say in their praise? What can I not say, of them and of those who came a little later, President Chapin, Professor Lathrop, Professor Porter? These five constituted the faculty during my under-graduate course. Two of them still live, thank God, to see the fiftieth anniversary of the institution to which they gave their lives. Professor Porter, according to my recollection, came hither a victim of consumption, and was not expected to live more than three years. If Beloit were as good for all invalids as it has been for him, it would be the most popular health resort in the United States.

     To the high qualities of President Chapin I paid my feeble tribute on the occasion of his memorial exercises four years ago. I, and the class of five to which I belonged, were brought more closely in contact with Professors Bushnell and Emerson than with any others – Professor Porter did not arrive here until my junior year. These two men were the chief part of the college to me; and more especially Professor Emerson since Professor Bushnell was charged with duties regarding the financial affairs of the institution that consumed much of his time when be was not actually in the class-room. Nevertheless his presence was an inspiration in the fact that he combined first-rate mathematical instruction with first-rate business training. He was the scholar, and the man of affairs, and the genial Christian gentleman, all at once. Really I do not see how Beloit College could have struggled along without him during the first quarter century of its existence.

     I would not venture to say in the presence of Professor Emerson all that I feel of reverence and affection for him. One incident, however, I will recall which no doubt he has forgotten. One day, when we both had some leisure, (perhaps it was during a vacation), I had taken my place on the Rock River dam for an afternoon's fishing, and the professor was out for a walk. He spied me in my retreat, approached and took a seat by my side apparently taking an interest in the fish. We fell into a conversation, a kind of Socratic dialogue, in which he did most of the talking. Gradually I found myself becoming very much interested. The theme of the discourse was the supreme importance of character in all the affairs of life, but it did not come to me in a didactic way. It was no new theme to me. I had heard it in sermons and had read it in books ever since I was old enough to understand anything. Yet somehow it seemed as though I had never heard it before. It took possession of me in an unpremeditated way. It held me fast for an hour or more. It has held me fast ever since. At the end of the hour my fishing pole and line had disappeared and I had never missed them.

     This incident, my friends, is typical of the college life that I knew. It was a life in which students and professors were thrown together not merely as instructors and learners but as friends and companions. Such association is only possible in those institutions where the proportion of students to professors is relatively small. Of course we all desire that Beloit College shall grow in numbers. We rejoice at such growth in recent years, yet there is much to be said for the small college, the kind that I knew. I do not think that I should have received so good an education at Yale as I did at Beloit, for two reasons. I should not have been personally drilled in my studies there as I was here. Time and numbers would not have permitted. I should not have had the daily uplifting personal intercourse with the professors there that I had here. Crowding would have prevented that also. So you see, the place for the small college exists. I should rather say that the necessity for it exists and increases with the country's growth. Many, very many, young, men, and I am glad to say young women also, get an education in the small colleges that they could never obtain in any other way. If the college were not close at hand they could never find it. If it were not cheap in a pecuniary sense it would be beyond their means. Beloit has never been cheap in any other sense. Her standards of scholarship and of manliness have always been of the highest and her influence has been felt in all lands. So it must have been when we think of the men who laid its foundation fifty years ago. So it must continue to be when we think of those who guide its destinies today.