THE town of Mattoon, Illinois, is a flourishing place of ten thousand inhabitants, surrounded with fertile farm lands, and boasting two railway machine shops, together with other smaller industries. Persons who spend their lives in larger cities will scarcely understand how busy a boy can be in a town of this size. During the fourteen years of my life which were spent in this town, I was never at a loss for something to do, and I was especially busy after I became ten years old. We had a large back-yard at home, where the soil was rich and deep, and in the spring of the year I planted radishes and lettuce and other vegetables, which I later peddled among the neighbors. The fresh garden stuff was always in demand, and I was generally able to earn forty or fifty cents before school in the morning.
In the winter, when there were no vegetables to sell, I supplied my customers with mince-meat, horse-radish and other home-made foods, so that my trade was about the same the whole year round. When I had visited my list of patrons in the morning, I went to school at nine o’clock and remained until three or four in the afternoon. Then, when school was over for the day, I began my duties as janitor and counter assistant in the small public library of the town. The work there was not very agree-able in some respects. The library occupied two good-sized rooms over a store in the principal street, and it required a great deal of work to keep them clean. They required to be swept and dusted three times a week, and in the winter a fire was necessary during the hours when the library was open. The windows, too, were often in need of washing, and the front stairs had to be scrubbed once in every week. My salary as janitor was two dollars a month and I usually felt that I had earned it when the payday came round.
But if the wages were small, I was benefited in other ways by my labors in the library. The companionship of good books is of inestimable value to a boy of twelve or fourteen, and under the helpful training of the librarian I learned to appreciate the best in literature. She objected to my reading some of the books which are so popular with small boys, fearing, no doubt, that I would get some wild ambitions which would do me no good. And I afterward knew that she was right, for things appear very differently in books than when they are actually experienced in real life.
With my trade in vegetables and home-made foods to keep me busy in the mornings, with my schooling through the day and my library work in the evening, I was a very busy boy. I was also very happy. One is always content when every hour is occupied in some useful work, and the money I was able to earn gave me a feeling of independence which was a great satisfaction to me. After I was ten years old I was able to pay for my own wearing apparel, buy my own school-books, and to furnish my own money for the other incidental expenses which come to a boy in a small town. It seemed the natural thing to earn my own money when I desired any particular object, or wanted to attend an entertainment. When the circus came round in summer, I always managed to somehow work my way in to see the show, either by carrying water for the animals or running errands for the managers. On one occasion, when Barnum’s was in town, I worked all day as an extra waiter in a restaurant to earn fifty cents, and in the evening I enjoyed the performance all the more because I had made the effort to see it.
The Sabbath in a Small Town
I was generally fully occupied on Sunday, as well as through the week. I think I used to visit the church on an average of four times on the Sabbath. This doesn’t prove that I was an exceptional boy, or that I particularly desired to go, for in a town like Mattoon there isn’t much that a boy can do on Sunday except go to church. But I usually enjoyed the services. There was Sunday-school and church in the morning, the meeting of the Junior Society of Christian Endeavor at two-thirty in the afternoon, the prayer-meeting of the older Endeavor Society at six in the evening, and after that the regular evening service of the congregation. Sometimes I attended all five of the meetings, and when I skipped any it was the long church service in the morning.
The meeting of the Junior Endeavor meant more to me than all of the other services combined. I was proud of the fact that I was one of the charter members of the society, and usually the superintendent had made sure of my interest by appointing me to some official position. Every one of us, too, was expected to take some active part in the meeting, and some boy or girl presided over us, sitting beside the superintendent on the platform. There was considerable rivalry among us to say something interesting when we rose to speak, and every member desired to please the good superintendent by attending regularly each Sunday afternoon.
My favorite position was that of Chairman of the Missionary Committee. When a very small boy, I delighted to read of the heroes of the mission fields, and at school, geography was the study I liked best of all. Whenever a returned missionary was to visit our town, I urged mother to entertain her in our home, and when the distinguished person arrived I listened open-mouthed to the narrative of strange experiences in far-off lands. So, as Chairman of the Missionary Committee, I thoroughly enjoyed arranging for the monthly missionary meetings of the society, when we learned about the great work carried on in many parts of the world.
Our interest in missions was not expressed solely by our monthly meetings. We managed to accumulate a sum of money each year to be sent to the home and foreign boards of the church, and our methods for securing the cash were often unique. One spring, near Easter time, the superintendent presented each of us with five cents, which we were directed to make grow during the summer, and bring back the original nickel and its earnings at Thanksgiving time. This was a scheme which appealed to us all, and most of the members set to work to make the five cents become a dollar.
My plan was very simple and easily accomplished. I invested the nickel in radish seed, which I planted, and the money I earned by selling the vegetable was kept for the mission fund. One of the girls in the society bought five cents’ worth of pop-corn and made some popcorn balls. As her father was proprietor of the local hotel, she was able to dispose of them like hot cakes. She placed more on sale the following week, and so on through the summer, so that when the day of reckoning came she contributed the greatest amount to the fund. Other members sold home-made candy, and the boys made useful articles out of an original investment of five cents, so that everyone had multiplied his capital in some way, and we all had a good time doing it.
On another occasion the Missionary Committee determined to hold a Chinese Reception. There were several Chinese laundrymen in the town, and as they were members of our Sunday-school, we depended upon them to lend us enough articles to give the reception an excuse for its name. There were two vacant rooms next to the public library, which I cleaned up and prepared for the great event. We scoured the community in search of Chinese parasols, fans, or any article with an Oriental appearance, and managed to secure a sufficient quantity to decorate the bare walls and ceilings. Some of the girls in the society dressed in Chinese costumes, and for refreshments we served tea and wafers at the enormous price of five cents. This was the only charge for attending, and of course we did a thriving business during the afternoon. Everyone thought they received their money’s worth, we juniors had a most exciting good time, and the affair netted something like five dollars to the funds of the Missionary Committee.
Boyish Desires and Ambitions
What spare time I had at home I spent in reading. I was never so happy as when, with a book before me, I sat lost in the far-off countries of which I read. My favorite volumes were the Boy Traveler series, and the various books of Bayard Taylor, and I was interested in any stories which told of life in large cities or amid unusual surroundings. When mother wanted me to do chores about the house she accused me of reading too much, and at times she hid the books from nie in order that I might take more interest in what she wanted me to do. But though the books were gone, I went on dreaming about the great world which appeared so fascinating. Back of our house ran a railroad which was the great artery of traffic between Chicago and the South, and often I leaned over the back fence and gazed upon the crowded trains of passengers speeding toward the Illinois metropolis. What would I not have given to have been of their number ? It seemed to me then that if I could but once reach the great city there would be nothing more to be desired; I would spend my life ‘mid the fascinating crowds and not return home until I had become a successful man of business.
This great desire to go to Chicago was the natural result of some books I had read in the public library. The principal character was usually a country lad, who had left home at an early age and gone to a neighboring city, where, after, many difficulties, he was started on the road to fortune, and ended by becoming both rich and famous. I delighted in tales of this sort, and there was no doubt in my mind but what my experience would be the same, if I could only get to the metropolis of my State.
In the spring of 1896 my life began to appear monotonous and uninteresting. Gardening, and janitoring the library were very well in their way, but I couldn’t go on with such work indefinitely, and I longed to see something of the world outside the town in which I was born and reared. The more I thought of Chicago the more determined I was to try my luck in that great city, and as the end of the school term drew near, I decided that I would start as soon as I was free from my studies.
When I mentioned the plan to mother,she didn’t encourage me to go further. She thought that if I wanted to work during the vacation I should be satisfied with a place in one of the dry-goods shops, and she declared emphatically that I would stand no chance of getting a position in Chicago, where I was without friends or influence of any sort. But I persisted in spite of these objections, and when it was evident that I would be unhappy until I made the effort, mother finally consented that I should go the day after school was out.
No one had an idea that I would be gone more than a week or two at the most, and mother expected that in case I secured work I wouldn’t remain longer than the regular summer vacation of the schools. I had in the bank about fifteen dollars, which I had saved from my earnings at home, and this I knew would be sufficient to pay my expenses for a week or two at least. If my money ran out before I secured anything to do, I would of course return home, and I would at least have had the experience of a few days in Chicago, and the satisfaction of making an effort to accomplish my ambition.
I went about bravely making my preparations to leave home, but toward the last my heart began to fail me a little. My desire to go was still strong through the day, but at night I doubted whether it was a wise step to take, after all. If mother had talked with me at night, and asked me not to go, I would readily have promised to remain; but she had evidently decided that I had better try my wings, and she made no effort to discourage me after she had once given her consent.
Breaking Home Ties
It would be impossible to forget that morning when I left the house where I had spent the fifteen years of my life. I tried not to cry, and thought of the stories I learned at school about the Spartan youth, but the tears came in spite of me. I was glad when the train pulled out of the station, and I had taken my last look at the red barn as we passed out of the town.
I was full of confidence when we reached Chicago. The sight of the endless rows of buildings acted as a tonic, and I was thrilled with the sense of the immensity of the city. I hunted a boarding-house when I left the railway station, and after the evening meal I walked out and feasted on the thousand and one new sights and sounds. It was exhilarating merely to watch the cable cars.
After breakfast the next morning I purchased a newspaper, and started out to answer the advertisements of ” boys wanted.” I made a weary round of dozens of offices, only to be told in each place that a boy had been already hired. It finally dawned upon me that I must have started out too late in the morning, and I gave up the effort for that, day. The next morning I was out much earlier, and at the first place I visited I found about forty boys waiting in the hallway to be examined. They were taken into the office one by one, and when it came my turn to go I found myself before a spectacled gentleman who asked me all sorts of questions. He said he liked my appearance and that my handwriting was sufficiently good, and then he asked me if I lived with parents. Of course I answered No. “Then with whom do you live? ” he asked. ” I live with myself,” I replied. ” Do you mean to tell me? ” he continued, ” that you are alone in Chicago, among strangers ? ” When I answered in the affirmative, he told me I wouldn’t do at all. ” We never hire boys of your age who are living alone in a city like this. They are too apt to form bad habits and bad companions and be of no use whatever in the office.” I showed him a letter of recommendation which I had brought from the pastor of our church at home. ” I think you can trust me,” I said, ” and I would like to come again and see if you have found anyone more suitable.” ” Very well,” said the spectacled gentleman, ” you may come tomorrow and I’ll talk with you again.”
When I called the next morning he hadn’t decided upon a boy, and he asked me to come the following day. I did so, and when he wasn’t yet prepared to make a decision, I went the next day, and so on until I had been to see him five times. Finally he said he would give me the place, and he explained after a few weeks that he had hired me not so much because he thought I was suitable, but because he thought that was the only way to get rid of my calling every morning to ask for a position. So, evidently it was perseverance rather than ability which won.
My First Position
The gentleman was in charge of a real estate office and my work there was that of an office-boy. My wages were only fifteen dollars a month, and I saw at once that it wouldn’t be easy to make ends meet in Chicago upon any such sum of money as that. I realized that it would be impossible for me to remain at the boarding-house where I had gone to live, and in fact the only way for me to live was to do light-housekeeping in some cheap lodging. I had brought with me from home a small coffee-pot, and I purchased a skillet and an alcohol lamp, and with a few other dishes and utensils I knew I would be able to cook my own breakfast in my room. I found a good room within walking distance of the office, so that I didn’t have car-fare to pay, and in this room I began my solitary life in a great city.
I wasn’t very successful with my cooking in the beginning, but that was because I tried some difficult dishes. In a short time I learned to be content with coffee and rolls, and an egg or piece of bacon for breakfast, and for lunch I put up a couple of sandwiches, with some fruit and cake. I arranged to take my dinners in the evening at a cheap boarding-house, where I was allowed six for a dollar, with a deduction of sixteen and two-thirds cents for each time I was absent. I regularly washed my own underwear, handkerchiefs and socks, and by economizing in every possible way, and by getting as many invitations as possible out to dinner, I managed to come out even at the end of each week. So long as I did that, I was happy. I had accomplished my ambition to live in a great city, I was earning my own living, and so far the life in Chicago was every bit as fascinating as I had expected it would be. In the weeks to come I was to have some experiences which would change my impressions, but in the beginning my letters home were filled with glowing accounts of the interesting life I led.