by Reub Williams
"A song for the early times out West
And our green old forest home
Where pleasant memories freshly yet
Across the bosom come."
I closed my last sketch with a brief allusion to a circus at Leesburg, and the manner in which a number of Indians present so thoroughly enjoyed the performance, and hence, I might as well add something in this one as to the amusements of pioneer days. As there were no railroads in the country--the nearest approach to the cars in speed being the canal boat, with horse or mule for the motors--this region of country was not visited, as it is now, by traveling dramatic troupes, or theaters on wheels, to any great extent, although once in a while there were such things as an entertainment given for pay by people unknown to this region. As a consequence, the amusements were mostly of a local character, involving, of course, home talent.
The singing school was a popular source of amusement and every neighborhood, during the winter season, wherever there was a sufficiency of young people to form a school, had one. In my boyhood days the "buckwheat notes" --called so because they were three-cornered and shaped like a grain of buckwheat-- consisted of "fa, so, la, me," were just giving way to the present plan of eight notes, spoken as "do, ra, mi, fa, so, la, si, do," and an improved scale, but being too ignorant of music, I cannot explain the difference. In every neighborhood there was always some one who could sing better than the others--or, more likely still, one who had the energy and pluck to form a class-to lead off, and as a consequence, singing schools were plentiful, and, of course, enjoyed.
Then, there was the spelling school, a feature of education, that to the mind of the writer has been too severely ignored and let alone, and the bad spelling of the present generation will go far to prove this to be so. Every section of the county had its spelling schools, and these were not only a form of amusement, but were vastly beneficial as well. The old plan of "standing up to be spelled down" was in use everywhere, and the rivalry between schools of different localities was great, indeed; and after the two months' school in the fall opened, these schools had spelling contests between different districts that grew in interest so deeply that they drew all the parents to them, and proud, indeed, was the old pioneer father or mother whose son or daughter stood up to the very last--in fact, were not spelled down at all! In the last winter that I went regularly to school, I remember a contest of this kind. The late Joseph A. Funk was the teacher of the school in this place, and it was given out that the late Col. J. B. Dodge, also of this city, but who, that winter taught in the school house located on the southwest end of the "hogback," a range of hills about half-way to Palestine, and in what was known then as the Frush district, the late Washington Hastings taught in the school-house about a mile and a quarter west of town, and known as the Losure school-house. I cannot remember the names of all the schools that were present on the night the contest was held at the "hogback," but representative spellers of seven different schools were on hand, and it was a combat of the "giant spellers of those days."
At about 7 o'clock in the evening, the thermometer registering below zero, the "choosing up of sides" was finished, and the contest begun. It never took long to dispose of the poor spellers. They went down like soldiers in a battle before volleys of musketry at close range. Intuitively the writer was a good speller, and took first prize in a school "back in yander," when he was but seven years old. The contest of that night soon developed into the country against the town, and as the hours went by the only representatives of the town school was the late John Fisk, a cousin of Mr. Funk, and the writer of this sketch.
On went the tug of war, and at about 4 o'clock in the morning the last one of the six contesting schools was knocked out, leaving us two as victors. During the long contest, the teachers having taken turns in "giving out the words," had gone clear through the old elementary spelling book, and then had resorted to the hardest spelling lessons indiscriminately. Before the representatives of one of the out-of-town schools were knocked out it was decided to change from the spelling book to the dictionary, for it was admitted that having gone through the "speller," something, more difficult would have to be resorted to. When this was done the representatives of Dodge's school went down in about ten minutes after the change to the dictionary, leaving Fisk and myself standing at 4 o'clock in the morning! The excitement among the parents on this occasion was great; but it can readily be perceived that there were good spellers in those days.
I have said that an occasional dramatic troupe reached Warsaw and gave entertainments. I remember on one occasion that Yankee Robinson and his wife gave an entertainment in the dining-room of the old original Wright House. This consisted of dancing by Mrs. Robinson; some tricks at legerdemain, and recitations by Mr. Robinson. I particularly remember that he recited "Marco Bozarris" commencing with the lines--
"Twas midnight; in his guarded tent
The Turk was dreaming of the hour."
The piece was in several readers and books on elocution, and in those days every scholar "knew them by heart," and there were several present in the room who, under Mr. Funk's tuition, could have excelled "Yankee." Besides spelling schools, it became quite the thing on the closing days of school-sometimes requiring two days to get rid of the smaller scholars and to clear up the closing work in making preparations for the last night, in which the "big scholars" were to distinguish themselves. In fact, the giving of school exhibitions was in vogue up to the beginning of the civil war, and many of them were indeed, well worth attending, so elaborately were many of them gotten up. The writer never had but two years' schooling altogether, and the last exhibition in which I was engaged as one given by the late Mrs. Jane Cowen, as the commencement exercises of her seminary, and was held in the old court house. Of those participating on that last night, Mrs. Enud Webb, Mrs. S. Long, Wm. B. Funk and A. C Funk are still living here. Thomas Woods, although not connected with the seminary, assisted in the quartet that furnished the music also, and will no doubt remember the occasion.
Of troupes that came here from abroad, I remember in those early days, one called the Teets Brothers' Minstrels. They remained for a week--probably because they did not take in enough money to get out of town. They showed on the ground-floor of A. J. Bair's printing-house building, that stood on the ground now occupied by the State Bank, and can now be found near Beyer Brothers' frame barn, where it was removed when the Boss Block was erected. This troupe created a feeling against shows to some extent by their conduct while in Warsaw, which was loud, disagreeable, and entirely of too affectionate a character for strangers in a strange place.
On another occasion a company came here from Detroit. They had played an engagement in Goshen, and then came to Warsaw in wagons. In this company there were really some good actors. The building, occupied for a number of years past by Boyston's cigar factory, was then a new one, the first floor filled with dry goods and a general stock of merchandise of which the late William Williams was the proprietor. The upper floor was then unoccupied and this was secured for the show and I remember that along towards the close of the third night's entertainment it was emptied of its audience in a twinkling, the news having just been communicated to one of his sons, then in the room. that his father, Gabriel Swihart, had fallen dead at his home, in the house on the corner just west of Hitzler's furniture store, but now destroyed.
Some one in the crowd overheard the message and repeated it, and in an instant the audience found itself on the streets. The town was small, and the proprietors of the troupe wisely decided that the death of so prominent a man would put an end to all amusements, and the late Hiram F. Berst, then a young man, took the troupe from here to Elkhart, if we mistake not.
In addition to the kinds of amusements to which I have referred, the young men of that period took largely to athletic sports, and foot-racing, wrestling, jumping, etc., was sure to be indulged in wherever a few of them were gathered. The favorite method of jumping was what is known as the "hop-step-and-jump," and some of the men of those days became exceedingly expert. The late Judge James S. Frazer was known and recognized as such, and at times was known to make his first hop over twenty-one feet. There were few in all the country who could excel him on the hop, but there were those who could beat him in the combined distance. Then there were corn-husking, log-rollings and raisings, where work was combined with pleasure, the evening of such days often ending with having a party at night, to which all the girls in the country--there were no classes in those days--were invited, and many a match was made at such evening parties, after a hard day's work on the part of the groom.
There is one disagreeable thing in writing sketches of this character, and that is the frequency which the personality of the writer necessarily has to appear, much as he attempts to avoid it. I can only ask the indulgence of the ready of these sketches, and promise to use the pronoun I, as little as possible. Then, too, they are hastily written, no plan of procedure mapped out, and the author writing whatever comes to his mind, when taking his "pen in hand."
Warsaw Daily Times August 24, 1901
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