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Chapter 4: his father ruined—removal to Vermont.

  • New Hampshire before the era of manufactures
  • -- causes of his father's failure -- rum in the olden time -- an execution in the house -- flight of the father -- Horace and the rum jug -- Compromise with the creditors -- removal to another farm -- final ruin -- removal to Vermont -- the winter journey -- poverty of the family -- scene at their New home -- cheerfulness in misfortune.

But while thus Horace was growing up to meet his destiny, pressing forward on the rural road to learning, and secreting character in that secluded home, a cloud, undiscerned by him, had come over his father's prospects. It began to gather when the boy was little more than six years old. In his seventh year it broke, and drove the family, for a time, from house and land. In his tenth, it had completed its work—his father was a ruined man, an exile, a fugitive from his native State.

In those days, before the great manufacturing towns which now afford the farmer a market for his produce had sprung into existence along the shores of the Merrimac, before a net-work of railroads regulated the price of grain in the barns of New Hampshire by the standard of Mark Lane, a farmer of New Hampshire was not, in his best estate, very far from ruin. Some articles which forty years ago, were quite destitute of pecuniary value, now afford an ample profit. Fire-wood, for example, when Horace Greeley was a boy, could seldom be sold at any price. It was usually burned up on the land on which it grew, as a worthless incumbrance. Fire-wood now, in the city of Manchester, sells for six dollars a cord, and at any point within ten miles of Manchester for four dollars. Forty years ago, farmers had little surplus produce, and that little had to be carried far, and it brought little money home. In short, before the manufacturing system was introduced into New Hampshire, affording employment to her daughters in the factory, to her sons on the land, New Hampshire was a poverty-stricken State. [53]

It is one of the wonders of party infatuation, that the two States which if they have not gained most, have certainly most to gain from the ‘American system,’ should have always been, and should still be its most rooted opponents. But man the partisan, like man the sectarian, is, always was, and will ever be, a poor creature.

The way to thrive in New Hampshire was to work very hard, keep the store-bill small, stick to the farm, and be no man's security. Of these four things, Horace's father did only one—he worked hard. He was good workman, methodical, skillful, and persevering. But he speculated in lumber, and lost money by it. He was “bound,” as they say in the country, for another man, and had to pay the money which that other man failed to pay. He had a free and generous nature, lived well, treated the men whom he employed liberally, and in various ways swelled his account with the storekeeper.

Those, too, were the jolly, bad days, when everybody drank strong drinks, and no one supposed that the affairs of life could possibly be transacted without its agency, any more than a machine could go without the lubricating oil. A field could not be “logged,” hay could not be got in, a harvest could not be gathered, unless the jug of liquor stood by the spring, and unless the spring was visited many times in the day by all hands. No visitor could be sent unmoistened away. No holiday could be celebrated without drinking-booths. At weddings, at christenings, at funerals, rum seemed to be the inducement that brought, and the tie that bound, the company together. It was rum that cemented friendship, and rum that clinched bargains; rum that kept out the cold of winter, and rum that moderated the summer's heat. Men drank it, women drank it, children drank it. There were families in which the first duty of every morning was to serve around to all its members, even to the youngest child, a certain portion of alcoholic liquor. Rum had to be bought with money, and money was hard to get in New Hampshire. Zaccheus Greeley was not the man to stint his workmen. At his house and on his farm the jug was never empty. In his cellar the cider never, was dry. And so, by losses which he could not help, by practices which had not yet been discovered to be unnecessary, his affairs became disordered, and he began to descend the easy steep that leads to the abyss of bankruptcy. He [54] arrived—lingered a few years on the edge—was pushed in—and scrambled out on the other side.

It was on a Monday morning. There had been a long, fierce rain, and the clouds still hung heavy and dark over the hills. Horace, then only seven years old, on coning down stairs in the morning, saw several men about the house; neighbors, some of them; others were strangers; others he had seen in the village. He was too young to know the nature of an Execution, and by what right the sheriff and a party of men laid hands upon his father's property. His father had walked quietly off into the woods; for, at that period, a man's person was not exempt from seizure. Horace had a vague idea that the men had come to rob them of all they possessed; and wild stories are afloat in the neighborhood, of the boy's conduct on the occasion. Some say, that he seized a hatchet, ran to the neighboring field, and began furiously to cut down a favorite pear-tree, saying, ‘They shall not have that, anyhow.’ But his mother called him off, and the pear-tree still stands. Another story is, that he went to one of his mother's closets, and taking as many of her dresses as he could grasp in his arms, ran away with them into the woods, hid them behind a rock, and then came back to the house for more. Others assert, that the article carried off by the indignant boy was not dresses, but a gallon of rum. But whatever the boy did, or left undone, the reader may imagine that it was to all the family a day of confusion, anguish, and horror. Both of Horace's parents were persons of incorruptible honesty; they had striven hard to place such a calamity as this far from their house; they had never experienced themselves, nor witnessed at their earlier homes, a similar scene; the blow was unexpected; and mingled with their sense of shame at being publicly degraded, was a feeling of honest rage at the supposed injustice of so summary a proceeding. It was a dark day; but it passed, as the darkest day will.

An ‘arrangement’ was made with the creditors. Mr. Greeley gave up his own farm, temporarily, and removed to another in the adjoining town of Bedford, which he cultivated on shares, and devoted principally to the raising of hops. Misfortune still pursued him. His two years experience of hop-growing was not satisfactory. The hop-market was depressed. His own farm in Amherst [55] was either ill managed or else the seasons were unfavorable. He gave up the hop-farm, poorer than ever. He removed back to his old home in Amherst. A little legal manoeuvring or rascality on the part of a creditor, gave the finishing blow to his fortunes; and, in the winter of 1821, he gave up the effort to recover himself, became a bankrupt, was sold out of house, land, and household goods by the sheriff, and fled from the State to avoid arrest, leaving his family behind. Horace was nearly ten years old. Some of the debts then left unpaid, he discharged in part thirty years after.

Mr. Greeley had to begin the world anew, and the world was all before him, where to choose, excepting only that portion of it which is included within the boundaries of New Hampshire. He made his way, after some wandering, to the town of Westhaven, in Rutland county, Vermont, about a hundred and twenty miles northwest of his former residence. There he found a large landed proprietor, who had made one fortune in Boston as a merchant, and married another in Westhaven, the latter consisting of an extensive tract of land. He had now retired from business, had set up for a country gentleman, was clearing his lands, and when they were cleared he rented them out in farms. This attempt to ‘found an estate,’ in the European style, signally failed. The ‘mansion house’ has been disseminated over the neighborhood, one wing here, another wing there; the ‘lawn’ is untrimmed; the attempt at a park-gate has lost enough of the paint that made it tawdry once, to look shabby now. But this gentleman was useful to Zaccheus Greeley in the day of his poverty. He gave him work, rented him a small house nearly opposite the park-gate just mentioned, and thus enabled him in a few weeks to transport his family to a new home.

It was in the depth of winter when they made the journey. The teamster that drove them still lives to tell how “old Zac Greeley came to him, and wanted he should take his sleigh and horses and go over with him to New Hampshire State, and bring his family back;” and how, when they had got a few miles on the way, he said to Zac, said he, that he (Zac) was a stranger to him, and he did n't feel like going so far without enough to secure him; and so Zac gave him enough to secure him, and away they drove to New Hampshire State. One sleigh was sufficient to convey all the little property the law had left the family, and the load could not have [56] been a heavy one, for the distance was accomplished in a little more than two days. The sleighing, however, was good, and the Connecticut river was crossed on the ice. The teamster remembers well the intelligent white-headed boy who was so pressing with his questions, as they rode along over the snow, and who soon exhausted the man's knowledge of the geography of the region in which he had lived all his days. ‘He asked me,’ says he, ‘a great dea. about Lake Champlain, and how far it was from Plattsburgh to this, that, and ta other place; but, Lord! he told me a d——d sight more than I could tell him.’ The passengers in the sleigh were Horace, his parents, his brother, and two sisters, and all arrived safely at the little house in Westhaven,—safely, but very, very poor. They possessed the clothes they wore on their journey, a bed or two, a few —very few—domestic utensils, an antique chest, and one or two other small relics of their former state; and they possessed nothing more.

A lady, who was then a little girl, and, as little girls in the country will, used to run in and out of the neighbors' houses at all hour; without ceremony, tells me that, many times, during that winter, she saw the newly-arrived family taking sustenance in the follow ing manner:—A five-quart milk-pan filled with bean porridge—an hereditary dish among the Scotch-Irish—was placed upon the floor, the children clustering around it. Each child was provided with a spoon, and dipped into the porridge, the spoon going directly from the common dish to the particular mouth, without an intermediate landing upon a plate, the meal consisting of porridge, and porridge only. The parents sat at a table, and enjoyed the dignity of a separate dish. This was a homely way of dining; but, adds my kind informant, ‘they seemed so happy over their meal, that many a time, as I looked upon the group, I wished our mother would let us eat in that way—it seemed so much better than sitting at a table and using knives, and forks, and plates.’ There was no repining in the family over their altered circumstances, nor any attempt to conceal the scantiness of their furniture. To what the world calls ‘appearances’ they seemed constitutionally insensible.

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