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Chapter 2: preparation for college; Monmouth and Yarmouth Academies

During the interval between father's death and the marriage of my mother, I had been much leaned upon and trusted as the eldest. To harness and control a horse attached to a carriage, or to drive one or two yoke of oxen, were no uncommon tasks. Of course, the praise for this precociousness set me up not a little. The new home changed all this. My stepfather was very kind always and humored my whims; but his youngest son, two years my senior, by his criticisms and odd speeches soon made me feel that I was not yet a man. He evidently meant “to take the conceit out of Otis.” This discipline while I was learning and participating in all the farm work, which a lad ten years of age could do, was really needed and wholesome. But the new conditions and neighborhood associations made my watchful mother very anxious for a change.

The first autumn before I was eleven in November, she sent me away to a high school at Wayne Village. Improvement in all elementary instruction came with these two months. I learned, too, how to live away from home without too much homesickness.

Soon followed another advantage. My mother's brother, Hon. John Otis, living in Hallowell, offered me a place in his family, if I would do the chores for [18] my board. I was to take care of his horse and cow and perform such tasks as the situation might demand. The object was to give me the privilege of Mr. Burnham's High School. These privileges overshadowed everything and hindered criticism.

At Mr. Burnham's I joined a class of six lads of about my age. This class was just beginning Latin, but the class did not give itself exclusively to this study, keeping abreast of others in the books essential to a high school graduation. Before the close of the two years at Hallowell the teacher had added the elements of Greek. The class made considerable progress not only in the Latin but in the Greek grammar. It was my uncle's wish and my mother's delight that I should begin a preparation for college and we had Bowdoin College in view.

At thirteen my health was perfect and Mr. Burnham chose me with my ruddy cheeks to illustrate his talks, as a specimen of a healthful New England boy.

The home instruction under my Aunt Frances, usually given to her son William and daughter Maria and myself, embraced everything that was best. She read to us by the hour. She saw that we prepared our lessons for the Sabbath school at the Old South church, and she sympathized with us in our youthful troubles that often seemed so hard to bear. Surely I was treated by her and by my uncle as a son.

Again, as always, the outside schooling cannot be ignored. I met in the village, and, in fact, at the school, a conclave of boys who insisted that I had too much pride and it must be taken down. One would insist that I did not properly pronounce words which ended in ow, such as now and cow, and that I could not [19] properly pronounce such words as round and found. I declared that I did pronounce them properly, when a sharp contest would often ensue.

One day I was caught by the arms and legs and hurried forward to be bumped against a brick wall. I cleared myself and fought till one opponent had fallen and another been bruised, but one of my eyes was swollen and closed. In this plight my aunt was not very proud of me and discouraged my strong inclination to resist every intrusion. The youngsters, not being satisfied with their own efforts to humble me and bring me into a proper frame of mind, had a sudden accession to their company of a boy called Joe Marshall. He was fourteen or fifteen years old and had been to sea in some training ship long enough to teach him the skillful use of his arms and fists. On one Saturday afternoon as I was working in the garden a troop of boys came along the street with “Joe” at the head. A flat-topped stone wall separated me from them. Being near the wall myself I did not wait for an attack, but knocked off his cap. With fierce anger he sprang over the separating fence and began his assault upon me. Understanding the disadvantage of fencing with a trained lad, I sprang upon him, lifted him in any arms and put him down between a tree and the wall and believed that I had gained a victory, but Marshall so punched and pulled my nose that it bled profusely. As I disengaged myself from this brutal fight I set out for the house and saw my uncle and aunt on the porch looking at me, and I felt ashamed. Some of the boys called out, “Coward” but I resisted every inclination to turn back to the fight and went to the house. My aunt gently chided me for my impulsiveness, but my good uncle said, “I glory in your [20] spunk.” After that all the boys were on my side and I was not further molested.

Who can say but that this training in a little community, which represents the great world, may not have been essential to the subsequent work which necessitated not only intellectual development but a hardy spirit.

My good mother, however, always leaned to the idea that kindness, shown even to enemies, would win in time. It may, if not misunderstood, but how often kindness is imputed to want of courage.

There was another proverb that affected me: “Be sure you are right and then go ahead.”

While at Hallowell, first my beloved grandfather, Captain Seth Howard, passed away at the age of eighty-four; and a little later my grandfather, Oliver Otis, the noble man for whom I was named. A few days before his death I went in to see him. He was still able to be dressed and sit in his armchair. He called me to him and said, while my right hand rested in his, “Otis, always be kind to your employees.” I did not know then precisely what he meant, because I hardly realized the possibility that Otis would ever have men under his charge and subject to his will, but the message he gave me then has been with me to influence my conduct toward the thousands whom I have been called upon to command. There has been with me a steady purpose to be kind to any and all of those who looked to me for direction.

My grandmother, Elizabeth Stanchfield Otis, was a very devout Christian and never neglected an opportunity to say something to me that she thought would help me to a right purpose in all my undertakings.

The spring and summer of 1844, when the political [21] excitement which preceded the Mexican War was upon us and so much interested my stepfather, Colonel Gilmore, that he would never miss reading his weekly journal, and, of course, needing some time for this, I was kept at home. After my return I soon found myself among the working “boys” on his farm. His three sons with myself, besides often hired men, were admirably led by Colonel Gilmore, who directed all from the seed sowing to the harvest. Here follows a suggestive schedule which long ago I made of things done:

Spring plowing, harrowing, sowing, bushing, rolling-this for the grain fields. Dressing, furrowing, manuring in the hill, planting the corn and the potatoes. Stones are to be picked up and drawn off, year by year; fields are to be cleared,lowlands to be drained, fences to be made and kept in repair. There is a hoeing time when the farmer fights against weeds, thistles, and grasses; the haying time, mowing, spreading, raking, loading, stowing on the cart and in the barn. The harvest season closely follows with all its various labors. The sheep, the cattle, the pigs, and the fowls all demand constant care. The orchards and the garden cannot be neglected. From the March snows to the October frosts the New England farmers keep up their unceasing work with only Sundays and a few holidays to rest.

I fell into line and adjusted myself to all this till September 1st. It was during that summer when my strength for a time became overtasked and I felt jaded. The trouble was on account of a foolish ambition. In plowing I must hold the plow; in haying swing the scythe; and in loading pitch the hay. I wanted before being fully grown and properly developed in sinews [22] and muscles to do a grown man's part. After trials and some suffering the true lesson was learned, to try and do the boy's part well. It was better than to do the man's part poorly.

My good mother went with me to the vicinity of Monmouth Academy the day before the beginning of the term. My boarding place was already secured at the house of Captain Wilcox, a retired sea captain. My room was chosen, some pictures put on the wall and little changes made by my mother to make the chamber tidy and cheerful. My mother's injunction as she parted with me and set out for home was a message often repeated in her letters through all my school and college life, “Do the best you can, Otis, with your studies, and try hard to do right, ever seeking God's help.” Surely with such a mother one ought not to go astray.

I pursued my preparation for college diligently. My Greek as I went on became more and more difficult to me; and the principal of the academy, Mr. True, began to doubt whether I would have the capacity to master the preparatory course in that study. A schoolmate older than I and of excellent ability and strong character, showed me why I was losing ground. It was because I sought too much help from translations and did not get a sufficient vocabulary in my mind, nor trust enough to my memory in the class room, but interlined my book so as to make a fair showing at the academy. On his advice I acted at once and so persevered that by the close of the term my Greek was abreast of my Latin, which had never been a hard subject to me.

Here I formed some associations which proved to be for life. I had the usual experiences of a very ardent [23] nature with strong attachments and a few antipathies, and some quarrels not at all to my credit.

The Monmouth term, however, I can now see carried me along so that at its close I was far ahead of my Hallowell class.

The following winter there was an excellent teacher, Stephen H. Dean, at what we called the brick schoolhouse, two miles and a half from our home; so, with my mother's strong approval, I went there. During this season I boarded part of the time on the north road with a Mr. Henry Foster, always returning home for Saturday and Sunday.

It was at this school that I made a very fair review of all the studies, excepting the foreign languages, essential for a Bowdoin examination. Arithmetic and algebra were always easy of attainment and a pleasure, and I began to comprehend better and better all that pertained to English grammar.

We did not have the athletics of to-day, but the young men of that school, several older than myself, engaged in many a contest. Wrestling at arm's length and in close hug were favorite sports. Running, jumping, snowballing, and ball playing, as soon as practicable, added to the health and strength of our boys quite as much, I think, as the sports of to-day.

Warren Lothrop, who distinguished himself in Mexico and who became a colonel afterwards during the Civil War, was then a fellow student. He was about twenty years of age and of gigantic frame. Henry Mitchell. was always his contestant in the sports. The latter was light of weight, slight of figure, and not so tall as Warren. In wrestling they would contend again and again for the mastery, but at last by his skill and quickness Henry would lay Warren [24] prostrate at every contest. Then they would both laugh, Warren the loudest, though he was defeated.

In such sports I always bore my part and sometimes gained the victory. Henry could always throw me at arm's length, and on our long walks together from the Lothrop home through the storms and snows, Warren took a special delight in catching me in his strong arms and tossing me into a snow bank. I fought hard, and it was not easy for me to keep my temper under restraint in defeat. These stout and athletic companions, however, in spite of my resistance, often forced a wholesome lesson of patience and self-control upon me.

My stepfather had a large flock of sheep and there was plenty of wool, which in due time was taken to Wayne Mills to be worked up into handsome gray cloth. By the help of a good tailoress, who periodically spent several happy and busy days at our house, mother made up for me a suit of gray that fitted me well. I remember the trousers flaring a little at the bottom, the vest and the coat each having its proper braided trimmings. With warm underclothing, a pair of roomy boots and home-knitted socks, and with a bright comforter around my neck, I did not need an overcoat.

My stepfather took me, thus newly attired, in his pung from Leeds to North Yarmouth. He used the pung so as to transport my small trunk which contained books and other equipments, such as my mother had stowed in it for my use and comfort.

The long ride with Colonel Gilmore, my stepfather, early in March, 1845, was a pleasant and profitable journey. The weather was rather cold and blustering and the snow still of considerable depth. My stepfather [25] was reminiscent and revealed to me much of his past experience in his early life in Massachusetts. He made me feel the force of a New England character, always upright, industrious, frugal, and usually successful in what he undertook. He was a partisan in politics, first a Whig and later a Republican, but always extremely patriotic and devoted to what he believed to be the best interests of his country. He strengthened me in my budding convictions of political duty, hardly yet blossoming out. I never questioned the rightness of the views which he so graphically revealed on that ride to a lad of fourteen.

On arriving at North Yarmouth he took me to the house of Allan H. Weld, the head of the Classical Department, who with marvelous brevity assigned me to a room in what was called the Commons Building. In that building were the classical students and the recitations for those who were taking the classical course, with a few other students who attended the English academy near by. The latter was under the supervision of Professor Woods, who a little later became the president of the Western University of Pennsylvania, located at Pittsburg and Allegheny. He developed that institution from small beginnings, attained a national reputation in educational circles and was, as long as he lived, my warm personal friend.

The next morning after my arrival I sat with a class of twelve bright-looking young men facing Mr. Weld in a room filled with writing desks. He had become famous for fitting boys for college. Only one of the class, John Bullfinch, of Kennebunk, was younger than myself.

Mr. Weld gave me a searching examination after the class had been dismissed, and told me that if I was [26] diligent enough I might possibly enter college in 1846. His very manner aroused my ambition and made me determine to do everything in my power to accomplish that result.

I had for a roommate John Pettengill, whom I had known at the Leeds brick schoolhouse. He belonged to the English Department and had studies entirely different from mine. He was kind and companionable, always ready to perform his part in the care of the room. The room was small and the Commons a building poorly furnished from bottom to top. In the basement were the kitchen and the dining room. At the first meal I found myself at a long table, serving a “mess” of some fifteen to twenty young men. One was the president of the Commons. With a businesslike manner he asked a blessing while the students were yet standing, then all sat down. Sitting on rough benches instead of chairs, we saw before us but little table furniture. There were on the board bottles of molasses, which was used every day, except Sunday, for butter. Loaves of bread were scattered at irregular intervals interspersed with some thin slices of cold meat. We had water for drink and no tea or coffee; these with meats were not allowed at every meal.

This was my first experience at such a table, and it was indeed the most economic of any that ever befell me. Soldiers would have complained if they had had such short rations; yet the young men were healthful and fairly well contented. It was their own choice to be thus frugal. Our mess bill never exceeded $1 per week, and sometimes was as low as eighty cents. We always had both meat and butter on Sundays.

My attention was very soon called to the most popular and the most singular of our young men.. His [27] reputation as a student was such that I took an early fancy not only to know him, but to see how he made such rapid progress. He took very little exercise out of doors and that by rapid walking or running by himself. He had a standing desk where he stood when not in recitation or at his meals. He could so prolong his studies as to do with but five hours sleep in the twenty-four.

As I was so anxious to keep up with the advanced class which I had entered, I imitated Spencer Wells for a part of the time. I took more exercise, but I kept myself many hours at the standing desk and I tried hard to shorten my sleep. At times I succeeded in getting along with only five or six hours by a rigid persistency, and it is a wonder that I did not impair my health.

Toward the latter part of the course the students of my class, with two or three exceptions, were inclined to dissipation. They had all their preparation quite complete and to them the review to put on the final touches was easy. To me much of it was in advance.

During the last term I roomed with Arthur McArthur. He was a splendid specimen of a youth, having a perfect physique, with mental talents above the ordinary, that is, in the outset, when I first knew him. Fearful headaches and depression followed his frequent indulgences, and I did my best to care for him. His example, with that of the more dissipated of the young men, was a constant warning to me and I think deterred me from giving way in those days to temptation.

The time finally came to take the preparatory examinations before entering college on September 1st. We had no railways then. There was a stage line, [28] wearisome to boys, between Yarmouth and Brunswick. McArthur proposed to me to hire a chaise and take the ride comfortably, remain in Brunswick till after the examinations at Bowdoin, and then return to Yarmouth to take our final leave of that institution. There was a tavern at the halfway house, in front of which was a half hogshead, which was full and running over with fresh water. Arthur sprang out to let down the check rein that the horse might drink. He had been meditating upon getting a drink of whisky at this tavern and had reasoned with me about it. His reasons for urging me to join him were the common ones: “Howard, you are ambitious, you would like to make something of yourself in the future; you do not expect to do it without ever taking a glass of liquor, do youth” I answered that I did not see what the taking of a glass of liquor had to do with the subject. Then he gave me the names of several public men of distinction, both State and national; he said they all drank and in his judgment drink helped them to their greatness. I answered that I did not care to be great and that I was already on a pledge to my mother and would not drink. I recall this instance only to show how I felt with regard to strong drink at that period of my life.

Before we graduated from Bowdoin Arthur McArthur had so suffered from drink that he had hard work to secure his diploma. The eminence and worthiness of his father, who had graduated years before from Bowdoin, pleaded strongly for him.

The entrance examination was held in what was then the medical college building, where Professor Cleveland gave his lectures on chemistry, mineralogy, and astronomy.

Professor Boody, who taught composition and elocution [29] and sometimes Latin in the college, met us young men at the hall door and took us into a grewsome sort of room where there were a few chairs and every sort of article from specimen boxes and chemical retorts to articulated skeletons. Here we were examined in everything required. I succeeded very well in my reading and translations and in my mathematics, but was conditioned upon scanning. That I had never studied, so I could not scan at all from Virgil or the Odyssey. I think, too, that I was a little weak in the line of Greek roots, still my heart was filled with intense satisfaction when I found that I was to enter with the class. I have passed through many ordeals since then, but I do not think that any of them impressed me more than that preliminary examination. I was fifteen years old at that time.

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