Autobiography of W. E. Smith.

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Autobiography of William Edward Smith

Chapter 1

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It was some time in the early part of the 17th century, we are told by historians, that one day a rather small bark landed on our southeastern shore and splashed the waters of the Atlantic up on our dear old American soil. Amongst those mariners was a grand old man named John Smith, in whose character was imbedded the elements of fearlessness, stubbornness, courage, etc. This man, to the best of our knowledge, was the first Smith to make his presence felt in our grand old country, America. He was a good, wise man, and we are told he made friends with those wild Indians, and he certainly must have had a keen sense of humor and humanity to make himself understood by those wild, uneducated savages. I have often felt a blood relationship with this John Smith, and as I understand his character, I can see the same characteristics he had in the offspring of my own body, to say nothing of my own.2
2. The following appeared in the handwritten draft and first typed draft, but he crossed it out before doing his third draft: I offer a few illustrations of some of my forebears and to those of you who may follow me, I would direct your attention to the facial expressions and features and draw on just a bit of your imagination what grand forefathers and mothers you came from.
I agree it may not be wise to go too far back into the Smith Family Tree. I very well recollect my grandfather on my father's side, and as I recall him I cannot reconcile him with my father. My grandfather was a cantankerous, bitter old fellow with whom I associated, as a young child, those bitter pills he used to roll in quinine for us against that day when colds and running noses were common things for youngsters, and some oldsters too. He had a warm spot in his heart for me and just as cold and bitter a one for my brother and sister. As I recall, my mother loved him as he loved my brother and sister (SHE DIDN'T). I can reconcile my father with his mother, a fine, sweet, quiet, easygoing, lovable, patient little woman with every virtue and sense of humor as had my father. Born on the first day of May 1847 in a small village in Wales, England, he had a sister Sarah, younger than he. This John Needham Smith family of four embarked on a freighter, leaving the shores of England for America in the year of 1851.

Those schooners were built along lines far different than our present day luxury liners. Grandpa tells this story of Grandma. When their schooner stopped at Havana, Cuba, they took on a cargo of bananas. Grandma did not know what they were, never having seen such things before, and proceeded to eat them skins and all. She soon found out her mistake and subsequently came to like them.

They landed in New Orleans, Louisiana. After a short stay, they ventured further up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, crossing the state of Ohio, jumping the Niagara Falls and floating down the St. Lawrence to Toronto, Canada. Their adventure would make good material for a drama in itself. Canada was not a large enough country for this John Smith family, beautiful and all as it is, so they migrated again down the Mississippi to good old St. Louis, "Mo." Here my father grew up with his father and learned his trade of grainer and painter, in which he became expert, especially in the art of graining.

Pop met a very fine German girl in St. Louis and to this day I am most grateful to my Creator for this union which was formed between Pop and Mom.

Retrieving just a bit to take a retrospect of this grand old mother's forebears. Her mother, "Grossmutter Blech," joined her ancestors when Mom was but a young girl about ten years of age. Mom had two sisters and four brothers younger than herself. She was called upon to mother this flock. Her father was one of those Dutch whose principle of life was, "First comes me, then my dog, then me again and then the rest of you." Consequently Mom did not have a whole lot of support and backing, but still she held the reins of control over that family.

One brother (a black sheep), whose father could not manage him, was immune to his father's floggings, which I am told were administered most unmercifully, but held a certain respect for Mom and her methods of correction in that he would not break the piece of thread with which she had tied him to the bed post.

Mom used to tell us of her early training which from a literary standpoint did not amount to very much, but from the school of experience and hard knocks her wisdom and character may be compared with Martha and Socrates, two of the finest and best examples of wisdom and character, to the best of my knowledge. And so this fine young woman came to the point in her life, just like my granddaughters are doing today, when she felt the urge to be thinking about her own future and security, and doing what her forebears did for their posterity and what my grandchildren will be doing for theirs.

And in the most natural way, I can very well imagine her falling in love with that most docile, good-looking, serious, affectionate, tender, kind, patient, meek, obedient, passionate, (X marks the missing virtues) man. And here and now I prescribe these manly virtues for all my granddaughters and great, to size up the man with before ever even falling in love with him. This prescription may not suit my grandsons very well, but when I tell them to sort of follow the same pattern, just stop and think of what that old great-grandfather accomplished even weighted down by the aforementioned virtues; true enough some allowance must be made for the human side of it.

In due time and in the very face of the hazards, disappointments and hardships of life, this couple brought forth, in the period between 1870 and 1890, a family of four girls and two boys, in order, viz.: Emma, Sarah (Sadie), Willie, George, Jennie, and Rowena. Emma went to her reward at the early age of three, Sadie still survives, and of course I am still alive. George passed on into the vast future at the age of 69. Jennie is still in our midst and Rowena, a sweet, beautiful character and well-beloved by all who knew her, went to her reward at the age of twenty-one via childbirth.

And so with this picture of a family the type of which I would heartily recommend to my posterity, I am about ready to record something I feel I know something about.

It was a bright beautiful sunny April 20th, 1875 -- it must have been, as I notice April 20th is nearly always a fine day. At 7:10 a.m. or thereabouts I think it was, that long-legged bird with wide-spreading wings, made a deposit in the John Smith, Jr. home, upstairs in the rear of a beer garden on Market Street in St. Louis, Missouri. That was a momentous moment, as the world as we see it today would not look as it does had it not been for that advent. They named him Willie, which name stuck until some of his fellowmen could stand it no longer and they, through brotherly love, nicked it into "Bill," "W.E.," "Will," but never "Buck." Generally speaking there is not much significance in a name, and unfortunately our dearly beloved parents do not consult their offspring in this matter and arrive at a solution of this important question by a sort of process of elimination of great-uncles or aunts or grandparents or some other notable never heard of, or some type of character or characteristic their child may bear to a forebear of some previous century or so. I hope one of my literary-minded grandchildren, in their literary pursuits, may some day find time to write a thesis on the problem of scientifically naming our children. To all of my children and grandchildren may I say here, "Don't complain about your name; your proud parents did the best they could." This child they named Willie must have been born to have a destiny. In my judgment some do and some do not; I must have.

As I look back over the long, long trail I can witness many escapes from the "Grim Reaper," especially in view of the many "reapings" in present days. My recollection of the first signs of my intelligence was the desire for the wanderlust. I can now see that old beer garden and saloon with its tanbark walks, green tables and dimly lighted lamps owned by my "Grosspapa" Blech. It was the most respectable garden of its kind in those days in St. Louis. Strange as it may seem, scarcely ever have we made mention of this "Garden." Of course, many drunks were kicked out of it and it was from the language of its patrons that I learned how to swear. In conversing with my mamma one day, in my childish talk, I happened to make use of some of my newly acquired vocabulary. Mamma was flabbergasted, I was lambasted, and to make the reprimand more lasting she gave me a good dose of cayenne pepper. This I shall always remember and do not recommend the treatment, effective as it was. Saloon gardens of this type had their merit in those days for those German folks, just as ice cream parlors have their place today.

I was about three years young and I think it was in reaction to that paternal conflict that I was seized with the wanderlust and the desire to forsake all my family and guardians. So I manfully took up the matter with Mamma and she immediately said, "Sure, just the thing," and proceeded to pack up a few diapers and other things in a bundle, kissed me and bade me goodbye. I can now see myself trudging down that sidewalk into the vast unknown. It was some little time afterwards, and I think by prearrangement, a policeman picked me up and returned me to Mamma, for which I was mighty glad and never tried to run away again. I know it is a common thing for children even today to run away, but unfortunately they do not all have the wise mother I had.

I must have been a headstrong, lusty little customer with a constitution which the most deadly diseases of the day seemed to lay hold of. Diphtheria, scarlet fever, whooping cough, measles, mumps and finally polio, all took hold of me, and after I licked polio it left me with a curved spine, on one end of which was a crippled leg and a knob on the other end commonly known as the head. With this sort of a background I found myself at the age of three a somewhat handicapped "man."

Pop and Mom soon found out a German beer garden was no place in which to rear a family of even just average intellect, and so they moved us to a wilder section of St. Louis, west of Grand Avenue, where the deer and the buffalo used to roam. It is a fact I slept on a buffalo robe (skin) on my bed for many years and I can see that old buffalo today, as I did in my dreams of early childhood, with the hair worn almost off to the hide. Moral: don't let your children sleep on buffalo hides.

I must describe this home, as I have no recollection of myself or anyone else having done so before. It was on a street known as such by a mere wagon trail. The house faced a wide open space, in the upper right hand corner of which was an old cemetery in which were buried natives and St. Louis citizens of several centuries ago. Our pathway to the "car line" to town led through this cemetery and I must leave it to your imagination the things we saw and really handled from this old burying ground. It is too gruesome a subject to follow further.

Our house was a small brick affair, with living quarters in the rear of the cellar with a good solid stairway leading upstairs. The front part of the cellar was used for storing potatoes, apples, turnips, sauerkraut, pickles, preserves, jellies of all sorts and five-gallon stone jars of apple butter and plum jam, in one of which we once found a mouse that had lost its life.

Mom was an excellent provider and seamstress, and as a remodeler of uncles' and aunties' castoffs she had no equal. Well I remember how proud I felt when they had my picture taken in one of my uncle's made overs.

Our basement had a back door of the sash door variety, panes of glass above with wooden panels below. My older sister Sadie and I were getting ready for Sunday School one fine Sunday morning and in our haste she followed me down those steps, pushing on one of the panes of glass instead of the wood, and cut a deep gash in her arm. Pop was still in bed but rushed down, picked her up, and ran for the doctor with her hanging over his shoulder, leaving a trail behind. The wound healed and her life was saved.

We were forbidden having both butter and sugar on our bread at the same time. Mom was returning one of her social obligations one day and that was a fine opportunity for bread, butter, and sugar. The trouble was Mom came home too soon and in our haste to remove the evidence, tell-tale tracks were left behind. I never could fool my mother. The cowhide came into action.

The bedrooms and parlor were upstairs. We never missed a bathroom. We didn't know what kind of a room that was as very few homes were equipped with bathrooms. You know that little square building in the back yard, everyone had one of those annexes. They were approached on a narrow board walk, at least ours was, and in the winter time with the snow knee deep and the thermometer down to zero we'd light the lantern and several of us would keep each other company, etc. Of course there was tucked under the bed of each room a vessel, handy in case of emergency. One night I remember stubbing my toe in my haste on one of those emergencies and Mom came to my rescue. Good old Mom. Time was in after years, when circumstances in my own family found the bathroom a missing feature, that I became a firm believer in bathroom-equipped homes.

We had a cistern at our back door which was fed by the rain water that ran off the roof. That was nice soft water but the trouble was in keeping the birds' nests out of the cistern as the birds seemed to think they should build in the gutters of the house, not knowing their homes were subject to being washed down into the cistern when it rained. Many featherless fledglings lost their lives thusly. And the tadpoles also, which we invariably pumped up, gave one the impression of "bugs in the well."

I shall never forget Christmas time and Santa Claus in that home. I do not believe there is an adult but who has fond memories of Christmas and Santa Claus in their childhood. Mine is unique in that of our landlady, a buxom, robust, rough, uncouth, corpulent person, impersonating the good ole St. Nick. She liked particularly to pick on my modest Pop and how she did carry on, much to Pop's delight and chagrin, a mixture of each making an indelible impression on a young fellow's mind.

Mom and Pop thought a family of our size could support a cow. Pop accordingly bought one, a nice little jersey, fresh with first calf, but she was not "broken in" to live in a 2 x 4 back yard. One day Mollie nearly broke her neck trying to get out under the gate instead of through it, and Pop had to wreck the gate to release her. She was also very ticklish and particular in those days of her first motherhood, and Pop, being an inexperienced milker, ran into further trouble trying to persuade Mollie to relax, limber up, forget herself and her dignity, and let him have his own way. My advice to new beginners in the art of milking a new beginner mamma cow, old or young, is to divide the chore fifty-fifty, baby calf on left side facing forward and you on the other. In that way it is rather confusing to the mamma, as it is impossible to tell who is getting what. Also, get very familiar with her and be gentle, too, in order to get best results. I may have more to record concerning cows later on as my experience with them broadened.

And then Pop bought a horse which he used in his painting business. Yes, mane and tail feathers might make good paint brushes, but Pop never made his own brushes. Billie was a gentle old fellow and well satisfied with his stall, which many a horse would have kicked to pieces if he had ever been fooled into entering it. But Billie was a trustworthy old horse until one Sunday morning when Pop was grooming him to take the family for a Sunday afternoon ride in Forest Park, which was a popular sport for rich and poor. Pop discovered a saddle sore on Bill's back and remembered turpentine was a good disinfectant and healer of open sores but forgot that, when covered by a woolen pad and in a place where there is more or less friction, it became a vicious irritant. We should not have taken Billie out that Sunday afternoon. He got hot under the saddle pad, and the turpentine really went to work. Poor Billie thought he was burning up. They all had to walk back home leaving Pop and Uncle to lead Bill, as he positively refused to work under those conditions. They bundled me up in the back of the "park" wagon.

Many interesting episodes happened in that, our first real home. My recollection is that George was born in that house. Jennie was brought into daylight in Judlins House and Rowena first saw light in the Stone Front one.

And here is where I fell into a Dream or Trance.

And as I lay a dreaming, there came a dream to me,
    I dreamed of Old St. Louie beside the Mississippi;
Its streets were paved with wooden blox, granite and asphaltum too,
    And ran from the Mississippi to Old Grand Avenue.
Its roads and trails beyond were marked with buffalo hoofs and hides,
    I'm mindful now of one that brought comfort and warmth to my bed besides.

The Indian Mounds at Mound City, Illinois,
    Bore proof of their progenitorship,
But the yen for the tomahawk and their other toys,
    Has long since been given the slip.

That Old Grand Avenue boundary line,
    Marked the line of Civilization
And Franklin, Locust, Olive and Pine,
    Found there their destination.

Sportsman's Park is where they played Base Ball,
    From Spring time through Summer and into Fall.
In winter time the rain and ice and snow were cold,
    In Summer the rays of Old Sol were hotter than can be told.
In between seasons cyclones, lightning, thunder and rain,
    I hope never to see the likes of them again.

My Dream foretold I was to receive my vaccination from the
    Board of Education at the time of my Graduation.
The old school house was built of brick and stone,
    A two story affair with tower and bell,
The beauty of which can be compared to none,
    And that voice from that tower put the stop to our Yell.

My first boy companion was Ralph Wiggin,
    The very best chum I had from the very beginnin',
The son of the Old School Marm.
    And the guy who always gave the alarm.
I am wondering "What has become of this Wiggin?"
One day as a lunch guest at our home
    He ordered his meat served raw on the bone;
Some kid, in those days of the late eighties,
    He must be by now big muscle man in his seventies.
Oh! Oh! The wind must have been blowing over me for I am now awake again.
    Bye folks for now, you may hear from me again.

[Next: Chapter 2]

Created and maintained by Matthew Weathers. Last updated Apr 20, 2006.