Address of Mrs. Delia A. Aldrich at the Old Settler’s Picnic, July 30, 1896.
Originally Published in the Kendall County Record, August 12, 1896.
Edited and Compiled by Elmer Dickson.
Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Some three weeks ago I received a letter from Honorable John R. Marshall, editor of the best local newspaper I ever saw, and President of this Old Settlers’ Association, inviting me to give a few minutes talk at this meeting on the early days on Fox River, or pioneer days.
Fifteen or twenty minutes are a short time even for a woman to say a great deal, but there are so many speakers, only a few minutes can be allotted to each. Perhaps I cannot do better than to give some of my own observations with a chapter from my experience in those early days, and I trust the friends will not consider me egotistic in speaking so much of myself, as experience is what is expected of old settlers, or pioneers at these meetings instead of speculation and theory.
When I came to the Fox River Valley fifty-eight years ago, I was a mere child, and that time has carried me from childhood to old age. I am not sorry for it, neither am I ashamed of it, and although I am one of the oldest inhabitants, I shall endeavor not to draw on the imagination.
Grown girls or young ladies who came here from the east at the time of which I am speaking, were well educated and had enjoyed the refining influences of good society. But not so with the younger children whose advantages of all kinds were meager and school houses few and far between.
Now in nearly every house there is a good musical instrument, but in those early days there was nothing of the kind in any home that I knew of except the violin which figured largely at balls and cotillion parties, until Emily Beaubien married Robert LeBeau and came to live in Newark, bringing the piano with her that her father, Mark Beaubien, had purchases in New York City and set up in his hotel, the “Sauganash.” As the story goes that was the first piano brought to Chicago, and is now owned by the Chicago Historical Society. With the piano, and parlor window curtains that cost a thousand dollars, and furniture to correspond, “old Mark Beaubien,” as we familiarly called him, conducted a stylish hotel in Chicago way back in the early 1830’s. In my eastern home I had seen and heard a piano, but the “natives,” of children born here would not have known one from a washing machine, never having seen either, and to them, Mrs. LeBeau’s piano was a curiosity.
A little later a family moved in, and one of the girls brought an accordion, one of the first, if not the very first in all these parts. The young lady extorted a good many remarkable sounds from that broken down, wheezy old accordion which, I suppose, were called music, but to me the most striking thing about it was the way she kept time with one foot. There were few carpets in those days, and the toe of that shoe, which was broad, came down on the bare floor with as much noise as was made by the accordion, and it was done with so much energy that it created a gentle breeze almost sufficient to fan out all the lights in the room. There were only one or two lights in the room, and they were tallow candles.
Pioneer life has its compensations as well as privations, and in those days there was not the least danger of the young people stagnating, as they were kept pretty busy those long winter evenings with an occasional dancing party and weekly singing schools and spelling schools. I was not a good speller in a general way and am not now, but I knew “Webster’s Elementary Spelling book” from one cover to the other and on one occasion “spelled down” the best representatives from six different schools. The definition table laid a good many low, and the rest were most ingloriously brought down by the “any table.” The match occurred in a little schoolhouse with quite a sprinkling of old folks as spectators. Maybe I was as proud of the victory as any young lady of the present day who comes off victorious in a “scorcher” if that is what you call it in a race on her bicycle.
My father and mother were well educated, and as I have said at previous meetings, I lost my father in my childhood. As I grew to young womanhood my mother was always anxious to give me a better opportunity at school that I had previously enjoyed, although I had always been in school of some kind. It is said that nowadays school children are crowded or “crammed,” but it is doubted if they have any mental food more difficult to digest than Daboll’s arithmetic, Kirkman’s grammar and Olney’s geography, which I studied when eight years old. Many of the lessons were beyond a child’s comprehension, unless more intelligently taught than they were by most district school teachers of that time.
While mother was considering where to send me, the wife of a Congregational minister who was preaching to a Presbyterian congregation in Aurora, started a school dignified by the name of Aurora Female Seminary, as no boy or young man was permitted to invade the precincts sacred to the gentler sex. As soon as mother learned of the school it was decided in a family conclave that I should become a pupil of the Aurora Seminary. It was on a lively Monday morning early in October 1848, that my step-father, who was drawing wheat to Chicago that fall, loaded his double wagon with two rows, one upon the other, of sacks, which brought them fully even with the top of the box, if not a trifle higher, and then put on an extra sack to serve as a seat. Having decided to go to Chicago by way of Aurora and take me to the Female Seminary, as of course you know we had no railroads at that time, and when mounted on the load it was quite an elevated perch. But it had its advantages, as it commanded a fine view of the surrounding country. We stopped for dinner in Bristol. The landlady was very kind and pleasant and said that as it was washing day, and she was not expecting any or many except their own family, they were going to have a picked-up dinner. I well remember that we had hash for dinner with onions in it.
Shortly after dinner we started on at a plodding pace as horses must walk when drawing a heavy load, and just before night we pulled into Aurora. There was a not very substantial wooden bridge from each side of the river to the island. In the middle of the island there was a low place filled with mud and water, and as we could not go around we must go through it. For some time our horses pulled and struggled in that soft, slippery ground. As there was about as much chance for holding on to that load as there is for holding on to the side of a house, I apprehended that we might furnish a sensational item to the Aurora Beacon, which had recently started as a weekly paper, and the only newspaper then published in Aurora.
At that time, if my memory is not at fault, there was nothing on the island except Stolp’s woolen factory and a sash and door factory, and that mud hole. Finally we reached our destination, the home of my cousin, Mrs. William Leonard, with who I was to board, and whose house was on the ground now occupied by the Congregational Church near the park. The next morning I started in at school, which was held in the meeting-house, where Mr. Parson preached. The house was on the lot next to the residence of Samuel McCarthy. Some forty or fifty young ladies were seated around in the church, according to convenience or pleasure, and nearly all, like me, from the rural districts. The church was warmed by two small box-stoves near the front doors. Did I say the church was warmed? Well, it wasn’t, it was decidedly cool. The wood was green, and either by mistake or carelessness, or for economy, was cut too long, so that the stove doors nearly always stood open and hence no draft. Meanwhile a little fire simmered in the back of the stove and sap spewed out of the ends of the sticks and fell on the floor. When our fingers were almost too cold and numb to hold a pen or pencil we were told of a young man who was such an excellent student that he would go into a cold room in the coldest weather and study until the great drops of perspiration would roll right off from him. I don’t think that any of the pupils in that Female Seminary ever studied themselves into perspiration. At least I know I never did. I am not blaming the teachers; they suffered with us and did the best they could under the circumstances.
We had a callisthenic class; you know calisthenics are designed to promote grace of motion and strength of body. We went pacing up and down the aisles in fine style until one of the young ladies said the steps were the same she had learned at dancing school and the music was the same, or rather, the tunes were as sang by the pupils, and then there was an ominous shaking of older heads and members of calisthenics class became beautifully less.
Besides our other studies, which were well taught and thoroughly learned, we had a class one-half hour of three days in each week in Miss Catherine Beecher’s “Domestic Economy,” Miss Beecher, as you know, was a sister of Henry Ward and Mrs. Stowe, and in her younger days had her little romance and remained single. The work gave explicit as well as elaborate instruction in the matter of furnishing a house, care of a family, preparing meals, etc., and struck me as being just the thing for rich simpletons but of little use to poor folks with good common sense; especially in a new country where log cabins and poverty were the rule. Our teachers were educated, cultured Christian ladies, and my six months at the Aurora Female Seminary, still is a help to me in many respects.
By now my time must be nearly exhausted, and I cannot even mention the two years that I shook with the ague. I also intended to tell a story, and give the sisters the old lady’s recipe for telling good indigo from poor, but all must be omitted, as I wish to speak a few minutes of those old settlers’ reunions which, were it not for the cheerful phase we try to give them, would be much like a funeral. Each year as we gather here we miss the kindly eye now forever closed on this world, and we miss too, the warm and loving clasp of hands now folded above a pulse less heart; but it is nature’s plan and we must submit.
Well do many who are here today remember the first of these meetings which occurred, I think, twenty-six years ago this fall, on these grounds. Most of the originators of the plan have passed on to the unknown. Well do we recollect the interest taken in the proceeding and speeches made by those hardy pioneers and worthy citizens, West Matlock, John Litsey, Smith Minkler, John Newell, George Steward, Martin Boomer, Reverend Andrew W. Chapman, and a host of others, good and true, who are now beckoning from the other shore, where they are holding a glorious reunion in a never ending session. Yet many remain who today greet the friends of Auld Lang Syne, and others are prisoners in their homes from the infirmities of old age.
Mr. and Mrs. John S. Armstrong of Sheridan used to meet with us, and Mr. Armstrong usually made a short speech, but now they seldom go from home. “Lew” Steward is not detained at home by old age, but by a lingering illness. “Lew” made a stirring talk on living questions whenever he spoke. Richard Greenfield was always on hand with a kindly word for all. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Finnie used to enjoy these meetings, but it is not probable they will come again. Mr. Finnie still looks after a herd of fine porkers, while Mrs. Finnie cares for a collection of choice plants and flowers. Both enjoy their home and the society of many friends.
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