Old River Days – American Travel

LATER we motored to the town of Clarksville, some miles down the river—a town which huddles along the bank, as St. Louis must have in her early days. Being a small, straggling village which has not, if one may judge from appearances, progressed or even changed in fifty years, Clarksville out-Hannibals Hannibal. Or, perhaps, it is to-day the kind of town that Hannibal was when Mark Twain was a boy. In its decay it is theatrically perfect.

Our motor stopped before the bank, and we were introduced to the editor of the local paper, which is called “The Piker.”

The bank is, in appearance, contemporary with the town. The fittings are of the period of the Civil War—walnut, as I recall them. And there are red glass signs over the little window grilles bearing the legends “Cashier” and “President.”

In the back room we met the president, Mr. John O. Roberts, a gentleman over eighty years of age, who can sit back, with his feet upon his desk, smoke cigars, and, from a cloud of smoke, exude the most delightful stories of old days on the Mississippi. For Mr. Roberts was clerk on river boats more than sixty years ago, in the golden days of the great stream. There, too, we had the good fortune to meet Professor M. S. Goodman, who was born in Missouri in 1837, and founded the Clarksville High School in 1865. The professor has written the history of Pike County—but that is a big story all by itself.

In the old days Pike County embraced many of the other present counties, and, running all the way from the Mississippi to the Missouri River, was as large as a good-sized State. Pike has colonized more Western country than any other county in Missouri; or, as Professor Goodman put it, “The west used to be full of Pike County men who had pushed out there with their guns and bottles.”

“Yes,” added Mr. Roberts in his dry, crackling tone, “and wherever they went they always wanted office.”

I asked Mr. Roberts about the famous poker games on the river boats.

“I antedate poker,” he said. “The old river card game was called `Brag.’ It was out of brag that the game of poker developed. A steward on one of the boats once told me that he and the other boys had picked up more than a hundred dollars from the floor of a room in which Henry Clay and some friends had been playing brag.

Golden days indeed !—and for every one. The steam-boat companies made fabulous returns on their investments.

“In ’54 and ’55,” said Mr. Roberts, “I worked for the St. Louis & Keokuk Packet Company, a line owning three boats, which were n’t worth over $75,000. That company cleaned up as much as $150,000 clear profit in one season. And, of course, a season was n’t an entire year, either. It would open about March first and end in December or, in a mild winter, January.

“But I tell you we used to drive those boats. We’d shoot up to the docks and land our passengers and mail and freight without so much as tying up or even stopping. We ‘d just scrape along the dock and then be off again.

“The highest fare ever charged between St. Louis and Keokuk was $4 for the 200 miles. That included a berth, wine, and the finest old Southern cooking a man ever tasted. The best cooks I’ve ever seen in my life were those old steamboat cooks. And we gave ‘em good stuff to cook, too. We bought the best of everything. You ought to see the steaks we had for breakfast ! The officers used to sit at the ladies’ end of the table and serve out of big chafing dishes. I tell you those were meals!

“There was lots going on all the time on the river. I remember one trip I made in ’52 in the old `Di Vernon’—all the boats in the line were named for characters in Scott’s novels. We were coming from New Orleans with 350 German immigrants on deck and 100 Californians in the cabin. The Californians were sports and they had a big game going all the time. We had two gamblers on board, too—John McKenzie and his partner, a man named Wilburn. They used to come on to the boats at different places, and make out to be farmers, and not acquainted with each other, and there was always something doing when they got into the game.

“Well, this time cholera broke out among the immigrants on the deck. They began dying on us. But we had a deckload of lumber, so we were well fixed to handle ‘em. We took the lumber and built coffins for ‘em, and when they’d die we ‘d put ‘em in the coffins and save ‘em until we got enough to make it worth stopping to bury ‘em. Then we ‘d tie up by some woodyard and be loading up with wood for the furnaces while the burying was going on. Some twenty-five or thirty of ‘em died on that trip, and we planted ‘em at various points along the way. And all the while, up there in the cabin, the big game was going on—each fellow trying to cheat the other.

“After we got to St. Louis there was a report that we ‘d buried a man with $3,500 sewed into his clothes. Of course we did n’t know which was which or where we ‘d buried this man. Well, sir, that started the greatest bunch of mining operations along the river bank between New Orleans and St. Louis that anybody ever saw! Every one was digging for that German. Far as I heard, though, they never found a dollar of him.”

Some one in Clarksville (in my notes I neglected to set down the origin of this particular item) told me that the term “stateroom” originated on the Mississippi boats, where the various rooms were named after the States of the Union, a legend which, if true, is worth preserving.

Another interesting item relates to the origin of the slang term “piker,” which, whatever it may have meant originally, is used today to designate a timid, close-fisted gambler, a “tightwad” or “short sport.”

When one inquires as to the origin of this term, Pike County, Missouri, begins to remember that there is another Pike County—Pike County, Illinois, just across the river, which, incidentally, is I think, the “Pike” referred to in John Hay’s poem.

A gentleman in Clarksville explained the origin of the term “piker” to me thus :

“In the early days men from Pike County, Missouri, and Pike County, Illinois, went all through the West. They were all good men. In fact, they were such a fine lot that when any crooks would want to represent themselves as honest men they would say they were from Pike. As a result of this all the bad men in the West claimed to be from our section, and in that way Pike got a bad name. So when the westerners suspected a-man of being crooked, they ‘d say: `Look out for him; he ‘s a Piker.’ ”

In St. Louis I was given another version. There I was told that long ago men would come down from Pike to gamble. They loved cards, but oftentimes had n’t enough money to play a big game. So, it was said, the term “Piker” came to indicate more or less the type it indicates to-day.

No bit of character and color which we met upon our travels remains in my mind more pleasantly than the talk we had with those fine old men around the stove in the back room of the bank of Mr. John O. Roberts, there at Clarksville. Mr. Roberts is a wonder—nothing less. There ‘s a book in him, and I hope that some-body will write it, for I should like to read that book.

As we were leaving the bank another gentleman came in. We were introduced to him. His name proved also to be John O. Roberts—for he was the banker’s son.

“Yes,” the elder Mr. Roberts explained to me, “and there ‘s another John O. Roberts, too—my grandson. We ‘re all John O. Robertses in this family. We perpetuate the name because it’s an honest name. No John O. Roberts ever went to the penitentiary—or to the legislature.”