August 1995

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Robert Beck's Story

A New American Classic

Crooked Lake Historical Society, 1989, Hardcover, 224 pages

reviewed by

Bill Treichler

On January 1st, 1899, Robert Beck sat down to write the story of his life. He recorded the experiences of a boy who came to the land of freedom with his parents and who, with determination and hard work, achieved happiness and prosperity.

His father had dreamed of a better life for his family in America. Robert remembered a gathering of men at his home in Germany when his father was describing America,"…its beauties, inexhaustible resources, and a land flowing with milk and honey. A land of freedom, a land where people can live without being trodden down by the aristocracy and robbed by the tax gatherer,… and where it is possible for every honest and industrious man to acquire a home of his own. A land that produces everything that adds to the happiness of the human race." Robert added, "All that talk about that wonderful land called America made a wonderful impression on my young brain…"

America was the land of opportunity, and of generosity. Early in the book he tells of a day during their first winter in Rochester when he was nine years old and was helping his father earn 35¢ by splitting and piling firewood. In this country his father's trade as a nailsmith and his avocation as a musician brought no regular jobs, so all the members of the Beck family took whatever work they could find. On this bitter cold day, Robert was nearly frozen, when the lady of the house brought him inside, seated him by a stove, and fed him cake and pie and cheese. It was the first time that Robert had seen a fine home and he was filled with admiration.

When the wood was stacked, the husband paid Robert's father the ridiculously low wage he had asked, and then gave them meat to last a week.

In 1851, when Robert was 13 years old, he worked 91/2 hours one day unloading pine lumber from a vessel. "When the captain paid me he asked me if I had a father and a mother." Robert replied that he did and the captain asked Robert if he would like to live and work with him. Robert liked the idea. His father and the captain worked out an oral agreement, and Robert went with Captain Turk and lived with his family for two years. He wrote, "Mrs. Turk…was like a mother to me and I never can forget her kindness…Mr. Turk was more than a father…and I will never forget his good precepts."

At 14 he was apprenticed to a Rochester carpenter. When the man failed in business, Robert decided to go West. His money ran out just beyond Chicago and he walked on across Illinois to reach the Mississippi and Iowa.

He soon made friends and good money as a carpenter in Davenport and in Tama County, but caught by "Kansas fever" went on to Kansas. Robert Beck homesteaded there but lost his stake to another man because he was not yet 21. Never daunted by bad luck he went on to St. Louis and New Orleans.

When he couldn't get work as a carpenter in New Orleans because the demand there was supplied by slave carpenters, a Mississippi riverboat steward gave him a job.

Robert was often befriended and helped by strangers: housewives fed him when he was tramping to Iowa. When the packet boat was disabled in a race and he was again in New Orleans an old tar guided him as a novice sailor when he first went to sea. Soon after the vessel reached Liverpool, Beck was stricken with smallpox. Kind people nursed him back to health and he sailed for Boston and then signed on to a voyage that went to Melbourne and around the world back to New Orleans. He went up the river again and back to his beloved Garnett, Kansas. He arrived broke and weak with malaria, but a couple took him into their primitive one-room log house and cared for him over winter until he was strong again.

Next he went on an extended buffalo hunt 200 miles west into the Indian country. Back from the hunt he enlisted in the Kansas Jayhawkers on the Union side. Beck survived the Civil War battles in Missouri where he saw the incompetence of the officers and the foolishness of the war.

Robert Beck had the pioneer outlook: he believed that he had control of his destiny. He was honest, self-reliant and persevering.

In Corning following his discharge and visiting his brother Leonard he looked for a job to earn money to go back to Garnett: "I called on Mr. Townley twice a day and insisted on his giving me a trial." When another workman asked for a week's vacation, Robert got his chance, "I took hold with a will, determined to do my work well and please Mr. Townley so he would keep me longer than one week…when the week was up he told me I could stay longer, and asked me to come to his house to board…"

Beck met Eleanor Townley, his boss's sister, and when they decided to be married, Beck remembered, "Now we began to form plans for the future. I worked harder and saved all my money…for we were both poor and if we ever got anything we could get it by hard work and strict economy."

He went into the furniture business in Ithaca, tried a stint in Denver, came back to Corning and built a house. Four of their five children were born there, his construction business prospered, but because his work often kept him away from his family and home he bought a furniture business in Hammondsport and moved his family there in 1878. The last 46 years of his life he lived in Hammondsport.

Robert Beck believed in family and responsibility, and he supported his children in their ambitions. He ended his days peacefully, surrounded by family and friends, proud of the part he had played in achieving the growth and beauty of his hometown.

Publishing Robert Beck's Story has been a project of the Crooked Lake Historical Society. Richard Sherer, Steuben County Historian, promoted the idea from the time he first read the account. Mary Jones Godwin, Robert Beck's only remaining granddaughter did the family research, locating church records in Germany and finding the passenger list of the ship that carried the Becks to America. The information she supplied is included in a number of charts in the book. Roger Patterson, a great grandson, lent the original manuscript so that the text might be accurate, and his mother and father sent pictures of Robert and his wife Eleanor, their children, and Robert's parents. Other Beck descendants supplied pictures and recent family birthdates. Lois Janes, Historian for the City of Corning, provided a picture of the house the Beck's built in Corning, and the Tama County Historical Society in Iowa sent a picture of the still standing Butler Hotel that Robert worked on as a young man when he first went to Iowa. There are pictures of his places of business in Hammonsport and two articles he wrote that were printed in the Hammondsport Herald.

Several chapters of Robert Beck's Story are reprinted in the Crooked Lake Review.
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