Winter 1999

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Robert Beck's Story

Sailing to Port Ontario and
Tramping to Iowa


Robert Beck

Sailing to Port Ontario

Well, as time went on matters began to look a little brighter to us and it was not so much of a struggle against poverty. About 1850 my father bought two acres of land just a little below the Curyer place and on the west side of Clinton Street. He bought it for three hundred dollars to be paid in installments. In 1851 he sold one half acre of it for three hundred dollars. He also bought the little house where we lived and had it moved on his place where it was enlarged and finished in fairly good shape so I can say my parents never lived in but one house while in America as they owned it the rest of their lives.

As we children grew up we were all put to work. My oldest brother Leonard was apprenticed out to learn the cabinet maker's trade and my sisters worked as house servants and I did all kinds of odd jobs. One winter I worked in a drug store on Exchange Street and in the summer I sold fruit and flowers which I carried in a basket.

My schooling which was just a few months at a time ended in 1851, so far as my German education was concerned. That year I was confirmed and my education was considered complete.

[In] the summer of 1851 at what used to be called the upper landing, just below Rochester on the Genesee River, there was considerable lake shipping and I helped to unload vessels that were loaded with pine lumber, tan bark and other light cargoes, for which I was well paid. I helped to unload a vessel loaded with pine lumber. I worked 91/2 hours for which [I] received one dollar and fifteen cents which was quite a sum of money for a boy to earn in one day.

When the captain paid me he asked me if I had a father and mother. I told him I did. He also asked me how I would like to live with him as he wanted a boy to live at his home which was at Texas, Oswego Co., N. Y. I rather liked the looks of the man and I told him I thought I would like it first rate. He then told me to ask my father and if he was willing that I should go, to have him come on board the schooner the next morning and he would talk it over with him. Well, I went home a happy boy that night. When I arrived home I gave my father the money I had earned that day and told him what the captain had said to me.

He told me he would go and see the man in the morning and see what could be done. Well, in the morning we both went down to the landing and found the captain on board and without further preliminaries they proceeded to the business for which they met.

I was called to witness the bargain, which was that I should live with Mr. Turk, for that was the captain's name. I was to work at anything he set me at, and work faithful[ly] and obey all orders. And he was to send me to school in the winter, board and clothe me, and in a general way treat me as his own boy. I was also to be whipped whenever in his judgment I needed it, and at the end of two years I was to be sent home. This was just a verbal contract but Mr. Turk carried out every word of it, but the whippings I never got.

I was then in my thirteenth year of age and very small and never had been away from home over night so I hardly realized what it all meant. I did not even know where Texas, Oswego Co., was or where I was going to be taken to, but took my chances as I liked the looks of the man and felt sure that he would not harm me.

We were to start that evening. We went back home and reported to my mother and the other children what had been done. My mother packed up what old clothes I had in an old carpet bag. The best thing I had was a new pair [of] boots that I earned by picking cherries. That evening I bid good-bye to my father, mother, brother, and little sisters, left home which was never to be my home again [f]or [I] never returned to it as a home, only as a visitor.

I went on board the schooner that evening a proud and happy boy, for the future began to look brighter to me and how the air castles did loom up in my young mind. And as we floated down the river to the lake I strutted up and down the deck of the ship, for the little two-masted schooner looked like a great ship to me.

I was eager to get out in the deep and broad lake and be rocked by the great waves and show the captain my good sea qualities. The next morning we got under way and struck out for Oswego under close-reef[ed] mainsail, for it was blowing a good stiff breeze and the lake was up quite rough.

We had not been out on the rolling billows very long when I began to feel squeamish but tried to conceal it from the captain who asked me if I felt sick. But the more I tried to conceal it the sicker I got and began to throw up everything inside of me even to my boots which I surely thought would come up also. Well, I was seasick in good earnest. Not only seasick but all my beautiful air castles vanished and I wanted to die or to be set ashore again.

Dear Reader, were you ever seasick? If so, a further description of my feelings is not necessary.

However, I survived it all and after a passage of one day we landed at Oswego, N. Y., where the following day we started for Port Ontario where the good ship was made fast and myself and Mr. Turk walked to Texas, Oswego Co., N. Y., which was to be my home for two and a half years.

Mr. Turk's home was a small farm of 15 acres of land. His family consisted of his wife and three daughters and one son. Two of the daughters and the daughter-in-law were at home, as the son was also a sailor on the lakes. And the oldest daughter was married. Mrs. Turk was a very fine lady as she was like a mother to me and I never can forget her kindness to me. And Mr. Turk was more than a father, for he did everything to make me a good boy and I will never forget his good precepts.

My duties the first summer were to plough, sow, and reap the harvest, cut wood, milk cows, and make myself useful in a general way. And in the winter I went to the district school.

The second summer I went with Mr. Turk on the lake as cook and an all-round man on shipboard which I enjoyed very much, as the trips were short and allowed me to visit home once during the 21/2 years' stay. My work was steady but not hard as he was not a hard master, and I liked going to school in the two winters I was with them which was about all the English education I ever received. But Mr. and Mrs. Turk taught me a great many good and useful lessons which I have never forgotten and I have the best of recollections of that period as being the happiest of my boyhood days, thanks to the good people of that community and Mr. and Mrs. Turk.

When my time of service was up with Mr. Turk he gave me a new suit of clothes and paid my passage home. I must say I left Mr. Turk with regrets, but my father wanted me to learn a trade.

After a short visit at home my father secured a place for me as an apprentice to the carpenter and joiner's trade with a man at Rochester by the name of J. B. Souls, who lived on Wells Street. I was bound out for three years and was to have 25 cents a week for the first year, 2 dollars the second, and 3 dollars the third year, and he was to board me. I was to furnish 25 dollars worth of tools during the three years and I had to clothe myself. So you will see that I had no spending money as my father gave me none. I was with Mr. Souls until the spring of 1855 when he gave up the carpenter business and as he was not worth anything I could not hold him to the contract so I had to shift for myself. Now commences my period of what is sometimes called sowing wild oats. But for the lack of funds, as it was still a struggle for a living, my oat sowing period was of a tame nature as it taxed all my skill how to feed and clothe myself in a decent way, as I was yet unskilled in the art of money making.

Tramping to Iowa

When my master informed me that he intended to give up the carpenter business and that I would have to hunt up another place to work, my first thought was to go west as west going was very popular at that time. It did not take me long to make up my mind, and west I did go.

I sold my little kit of tools, bought me a new pair of shoes and a new cap and one new shirt, stowed my old clothes in an old carpet bag, bought a ticket for Chicago as that was about as far as my cash would carry me on the cars. But my mind was set on not stopping east of the Mississippi River and nothing short of that would satisfy me. On arriving at Chicago I had about 50 cents left. I bought me a cheap breakfast which cost I think 20 cents, so reduced my cash to 30 cents, a small sum to pay my expenses on a journey of 200 miles, but it had to be done and so I started after I had refreshed myself on that 20 cent breakfast.

Well at the railroad station I learned that I could buy a ticket to a station about 8 miles out on the C. & R. I. R. R. which was in the direction I wanted to go, so I handed over my last cash and went on board the train. But just before the train arrived at the station where my ticket said I should get off, I fell asleep, and when the conductor came around to collect tickets he had to wake me up and informed me that we were past the station where I was to get off and the only thing I could do was to stay on the train to the next station and wait for the next train to take me back. I thanked him for his kindness, but when we got to the next station I had not the cheek to stay on any longer and of course got off, but did not go back as the conductor advised me to. Now this was about 4 o'clock pm. I learned that the next little town was about 6 miles farther on so concluded to walk there. And now I became a full-fledged tramp and one of the first of that order in America, but since then the order of tramps has grown to a great army.

I arrived in the little town in the evening, went to a hotel, and called for supper, lodging and breakfast. I never enjoyed my supper better in my life as I was very hungry. After supper I asked to be shown to my room and to bed as I was tired and needed sleep as I had not slept well for several nights.

In the morning the landlord called me to breakfast. I felt quite refreshed after my good night's sleep and I informed the landlord that I was ready for breakfast and felt like eating but was sorry to inform him that I had no money to pay him for his kindness but if he had any little odd job he wished to have done I would gladly do it in payment for the favors.

I told him that I was going to Davenport, Iowa. He told me to have some breakfast and after breakfast his neighbor was going with a horse and wagon to the next town and I could ride with him, which invitation I accepted cheerfully.

On arriving at the next town there was a freight train about to pull out so I tried my luck at stealing a ride, but it was a failure as I sat on the bumper next to the tender with my carpet bag in front of me. A spark from the engine set fire to my pants and burned a hole in them as big as my hand and as I had all I could do to hold on, I nearly burned up. At the next station I dismounted and concluded to walk the rest of the way.

That was my first and last experience at stealing a ride on a railroad car.

The second night I fetched up in a small town. There was no hotel there but a cheap boarding house filled with a lot of railroad track hands. The landlady gave me some supper and a place to sleep on the floor as I told her beforehand that I had no money. Of course I did not get the best in the house but she used me well as she offered to mend my pants for me as it looked bad where the fire had burned a great hole in them. But I told her if she would give me a piece of cloth and thread I would mend them myself which I did. In the morning I bid good-bye to the dear old Irish lady and went my way rejoicing.

As the weather was fine and I was in good walking trim I made good headway that day but tramped all day without any dinner, and that evening I stopped at a hotel, ordered my supper, lodging and breakfast. I never had such an appetite as I did that night, for it looked as if I was hollow clear through and as the supper was good I ate until I nearly burst.

In the morning after breakfast I informed the landlord that I was dead busted and had no money, [and] that I was on my way to Iowa. He gave me one of those withering looks and began to swear, and proceeded to inform me that he would fix me. I began to tremble with fright for I began to think I would have to serve a term in the state prison. I told him I was willing to work for him until he was satisfied and more than compensated for my supper, lodging, and breakfast. But it was no use as I was dead beat, he would punish me. So he took me by the coat collar and led under the shed where there stood a grindstone and told me to turn the crank. Of course I expected he would bring on some tools to be ground but not a tool did he or anyone else bring to be ground. But I had to keep turning just the same. I did not mind turning [the] grindstone but those sitters that usually hang around country hotels would come and look at me, then snicker and go off, and others would come and do the same. That was the worst punishment I ever received. After keeping me turning about 1/2 hour, he came around and told me to get and I got.

The morning was a little foggy but not cold. I still walked on the railroad track as that part of the country was not very densely populated. About 10 am I struck a fortune. I found two dead prairie chickens lying on the track. They evidently had not been killed long as they were still warm and there were no wounds to be found on them and they were in good flesh, and how they came there or what killed them was a mystery to me unless they had flown against the telegraph wire or a moving train of cars. However, it struck me that I could turn them to good use as they were perfectly fresh and in good order and clean.

I struck a little town about noon where I offered my chickens for sale and was not long in finding a customer at a grocery store kept by a German. I showed him my chicks. He looked them over and then called his wife from the back part of the store. She also looked them over carefully and felt of their ribs and pronounced them O.K. The next step was to agree on a price, but I told them as it was the last pair I had I would not be hard on them and they could have the pair for 40 cents, but the old lady held up her hand in horror and declared that the price was too much and 30 cents plenty. Well, I told them they could have that pair for that but I would never sell them any more for that price. So they gave me the 30 cents which was a great deal of money to me and made me feel quite rich. I bought 10 cents worth of crackers and cheese and tramped my way rejoicing and with a light heart and step.

Well, nothing of any particular interest occurred the following two or three days except my feet began to get sore but I was bound not to stop east of the Mississsippi. So after a tramp of about 10 days on a bright sunny afternoon I came in sight of that grand and noble Father of all Rivers. Oh, how happy I was to know my journey was about over and how good the high bluffs on [the] west side of the Mississippi looked to me.

Well, I tramped through the city of Rock Island to the ferry. As there is, or was, not at that time, a bridge across the river to Davenport, there was no other way, only to cross on the ferry. But now my game was blocked for it cost 10 cents fare on the ferry and [I] had no 10 cents. Now this was a puzzle; how to get across. I sat down on the bank of the river and watched the ferry making her trips from shore to shore. I soon discovered that the charge for a two-horse or two-ox team and wagon including a whole family that ride in the wagon was 50 cents.

Now it occurred to me if I could scrape up an acquaintance with some emigrant family, as there were plenty of them travelling west in wagons, I would crawl in the wagon with them and the ferry boat captain would not know the difference. I did not wait long when there came a covered wagon drawn by oxen. As the ferry had just left for the other side they had some time to wait. Now this family consisted of father, mother, and eight or nine children, some of them were good-sized boys who were on foot, and when the wagon stopped they crawled under the wagon to rest and get out of the sun.

Now this was my opportunity. I also crawled under the wagon with the boys and struck up a chat with them. I soon found they were inclined to be social and romp with me. But just as we had gotten a little acquainted the father of the family gave the order for all to get in the wagon. The boys scampered from under and began to get inside and I followed suit and also scampered in. The old man drove the oxen and wagon on the ferry. He paid the 50 cents. I was inside and mixed in with the kids. On landing on the other side the old Hoosier, for he was from Indiana, drove ashore. I dismounted on the western side, bid my new acquaintances good-bye, thanked my good luck and was happy for I was across the Mississippi.

About April 20th, 1855, I found myself in Davenport, Iowa, after my first and rther unpleasant expeience of tramping, which taught me never to undertake a journey without a well-filled purse.

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