WHEN I told father that I was
about to leave home, and inquired whether, if I should happen to be in need
of money, he would send me a little, he said, "No; depend entirely on
yourself." Good advice, I suppose, but surely needlessly severe for a
bashful, home-loving boy who had worked so hard. I had the gold sovereign
that my grandfather had given me when I left Scotland, and a few dollars,
perhaps ten, that I had made by raising a few bushels of grain on a little
patch of sandy abandoned ground. So when I left home to try the world I had
only about fifteen dollars in my pocket.
Strange to say, father
carefully taught us to consider ourselves very poor worms of the dust,
conceived in sin, etc., and devoutly believed that quenching every spark of
pride and self-confidence was a sacred duty, without realizing that in so
doing he might at the same time be quenching everything else. Praise he
considered most venomous, and tried to assure me that when I was fairly out
in the wicked world making my own way I would soon learn that although I
might have thought him a hard taskmaster at times, strangers were far
harder. On the contrary, I found no lack of kindness and sympathy. All the
baggage I carried was a package made up of the two clocks and a small
thermometer made of a piece of old washboard, all three tied together, with
no covering or case of any sort, the whole looking like one very complicated
The aching parting from
mother and my sisters was, of course, hard to bear. Father let David drive
me down to Pardeeville, a place I had never before seen, though it was only
nine miles south of the Hickory Hill home. When we arrived at the village
tavern, it seemed deserted. Not a single person was in sight. I set my clock
baggage on the rickety platform. David said good-bye and started for home,
leaving me alone in the world. The grinding noise made by the wagon in
turning short brought out the landlord, and the first thing that caught his
eye was my strange bundle. Then he looked at me and said, "Hello, young man,
"Machines," I said, "for
keeping time and getting up in the morning, and so forth."
"Well! Well! That's a mighty
queer get-up. You must be a Down-East Yankee. Where did you get the pattern
for such a thing?"
"In my head," I said.
Some one down the street
happened to notice the landlord looking intently at something and came up to
see what it was. Three or four people in that little village formed an
attractive crowd, and in fifteen or twenty minutes the greater part of the
population of Pardeeville stood gazing in a circle around my strange hickory
belongings. I kept outside of the circle to avoid being seen, and had the
advantage of hearing the remarks without being embarrassed. Almost every one
as he came up would say, "What's that? What's it for? Who made it?" The
landlord would answer them all alike, "Why, a young man that lives out in
the country somewhere made it, and he says it's a thing for keeping time,
getting up in the morning, and something that I didn't understand. I don't
know what he meant." "Oh, no!" one of the crowd would say, "that can't be.
It's for something else — something mysterious. Mark my words, you'll see
all about it in the newspapers some of these days." A curious little fellow
came running up the street, joined the crowd, stood on tiptoe to get sight
of the wonder, quickly made up his mind, and shouted in crisp, confident,
cock-crowing style, "I know what that contraption's for. It's a machine for
taking the bones out of fish."
This was in the time of the
great popular phrenology craze, when the fences and barns along the roads
throughout the country were plastered with big skull-bump posters, headed,
"Know Thyself," and advising everybody to attend schoolhouse lectures to
have their heads explained and be told what they were good for and whom they
ought to marry. My mechanical bundle seemed to bring a good deal of this
phrenology to mind, for many of the onlookers would say, "I wish I could see
that boy's head, — he must have a tremendous bump of invention." Others
complimented me by saying, "I wish I had that fellow's head. I'd rather have
it than the best farm in the State."
I stayed overnight at this
little tavern, waiting for a train. In the morning I went to the station,
and set my bundle on the platform. Along came the thundering train, a
glorious sight, the first train I had ever waited for. When the conductor
saw my queer baggage, he cried, "Hello! What have we here?"
"Inventions for keeping time,
early rising, and so forth. May I take them into the car with me?"
"You can take them where you
like," he replied, "but you had better give them to the baggage-master. If
you take them into the car they will draw a crowd and might get broken."
So I. gave them to the
baggage-master and made haste to ask the conductor whether I might ride on
the engine. He good-naturedly said: "Yes, it's the right place for you. Run
ahead, and tell the engineer what I say." But the engineer bluntly refused
to let me on, saying: "It don't matter what the conductor told you. I say
you can't ride on my engine."
By this time the conductor,
standing ready to start his train, was watching to see what luck I had, and
when he saw me returning came ahead to meet me.
"The engineer won't let me
on," I reported.
"Won't he?" said the kind
conductor. "Oh! I guess he will. You come down with me." And so he actually
took the time and patience to walk the length of that long train to get me
on to the engine.
"Charlie," said he,
addressing the engineer, "don't you ever take a passenger?"
"Very seldom," he replied.
"Anyhow, I wish you would
take this young man on. He has the strangest machines in the baggage-car I
ever saw in my life. I believe he could make a locomotive. He wants to see
the engine running. Let him on." Then in a low whisper he told me to jump
on, which I did gladly, the engineer offering neither encouragement nor
As soon as the train was
started, the engineer asked what the "strange thing" the conductor spoke of
"Only inventions for keeping
time, getting folk up in the morning, and so forth," I hastily replied, and
before he could ask any more questions I asked permission to go outside of
the cab to see the machinery. This he kindly granted, adding, "Be careful
not to fall off, and when you hear me whistling for a station you come back,
because if it is reported against me to the superintendent that I allow boys
to run all over my engine I might lose my job."
Assuring him that I would
come back promptly, I went out and walked along the foot-board on the side
of the boiler, watching the magnificent machine rushing through the
landscapes as if glorying in its strength like a living creature. While
seated on the cowcatcher platform, I seemed to be fairly flying, and the
wonderful display of power and motion was enchanting. This was the first
time I had ever been on a train, much less a locomotive, since I had left
Scotland. When I got to Madison, I thanked the kind conductor and engineer
for my glorious ride, inquired the way to the Fair, shouldered my
inventions, and walked to the Fair Ground.
When I applied for an
admission ticket at a window by the gate I told the agent that I had
something to exhibit.
"What is it?" he inquired.
"Well, here it is. Look at
When he craned his neck
through the window and got a glimpse of my bundle, he cried excitedly, "Oh!
you don't need a ticket - come right in."
When I inquired of the agent
where such things as mine should be exhibited, he said, "You see that
building up on the hill with a big flag on it? That's the Fine Arts Hall,
and it's just the, place for your wonderful invention."
So I went up to the Fine Arts
Hall and looked in, wondering if they would allow wooden things in so fine a
I was met at the door by a
dignified gentleman, who greeted me kindly and said, "Young man, what have
we got here?"
"Two clocks and a
thermometer," I replied.
"Did you make these? They
look wonderfully beautiful and novel and must, I think, prove the most
interesting feature of the fair."
"Where shall I place them?" I
"Just look around, young man,
and choose the place you like best, whether it is occupied or not. You can
have your pick of all the building, and a carpenter to make the necessary
shelving and assist you every way possible!"
So I quickly had a shelf made
large enough for all of them, went out on the hill and picked up some
glacial boulders of the right size for weights, and in fifteen or twenty
minutes the clocks were running. They seemed to attract more attention than
anything else in the hall. I got lots of praise from the crowd and the
newspaper reporters. The local press reports were copied into the Eastern
papers. It was considered wonderful that a boy on a farm had been able to
invent and make such things, and almost every spectator foretold good
fortune. But I had been so lectured by my father above all things to avoid
praise that I was afraid to read those kind newspaper notices, and never
clipped out or preserved any of them, just glanced at them and turned away
my eyes from beholding vanity. They gave me a prize of ten or fifteen
dollars and a diploma for wonderful things not down in the list of exhibits.
Many years later, after I had
written articles and books, I received a letter from the gentleman who had
charge of the Fine Arts Hall. He proved to be the Professor of English
Literature in the University of Wisconsin at this Fair time, and long
afterward he sent me clippings of reports of his lectures. He had a lecture
on me, discussing style, etcetera, and telling how well he remembered my
arrival at the Hall in my shirt-sleeves with those mechanical wonders on my
shoulder, and so forth, and so forth. These inventions, though of little
importance, opened all doors for me and made marks that have lasted many
years, simply, I suppose, because they were original and promising.
I was looking around in the
mean time to find out where I should go to seek my fortune. An inventor at
the Fair, by the name of Wiard, was exhibiting an iceboat he had invented to
run on the upper Mississippi from Prairie du Chien to St. Paul during the
winter months, explaining how useful it would be thus to make a highway of
the river while it was closed to ordinary navigation by ice. After he saw my
inventions he offered me a place in his foundry and machine-shop in Prairie
du Chien and promised to assist me all he could. So I made up my mind to
accept his offer and rode with him to Prairie du Chien in his iceboat, which
was mounted on a flat car. I soon found, however, that he was seldom at home
and that I was not likely to learn much at his small shop. I found a place
where I could work for my board and devote my spare hours to mechanical
drawing, geometry, and physics, making but little headway, however, although
the Pelton family, for whom I worked, were very kind. I made up my mind
after a few months' stay in Prairie du Chien to return to Madison, hoping
that in some way I might be able to gain an education.
At Madison I raised a few
dollars by making and selling a few of those bedsteads that set the sleepers
on their feet in the morning, inserting in the footboard the works of an
ordinary clock that could be bought for a dollar. I also made a few dollars
addressing circulars in an insurance office, while at the same time I was
paying my board by taking care of a pair of horses and going errands. This
is of no great interest except that I was thus winning my bread while hoping
that something would turn up that might enable me to make money enough to
enter the State University. This was my ambition, and it never wavered no
matter what I was doing. No University, it seemed to me, could be more
admirably situated, and as I sauntered about it, charmed with its fine lawns
and trees and beautiful lakes, and saw the students going and coming with
their books, and occasionally practicing with a theodolite in measuring
distances, I thought that if I could only join them it would be the greatest
joy of life. I was desperately hungry and thirsty for knowledge and willing
to endure anything to get it.
One day I chanced to meet a
student who had noticed my inventions at the Fair and now recognized me. And
when I said, "You are fortunate fellows to be allowed to study in this
beautiful place. I wish I could join you." "Well, why don't you?" he asked.
"I haven't money enough," I said. "Oh, as to money," he reassuringly
explained, "very little is required. I presume you're able to enter the
Freshman class, and you can board yourself as quite a number of us do at a
cost of about a dollar a week. The baker and milkman come every day. You can
live on bread and milk." Well, I thought, maybe I have money enough for at
least one beginning term. Anyhow I couldn't help trying.
With fear and trembling,
overladen with ignorance, I called on Professor Stirling, the Dean of the
Faculty, who was then Acting President, presented my case, and told him how
far I had got on with my studies at home, and that I hadn't been to school
since leaving Scotland at the age of eleven years, excepting one short term
of a couple of months at a district school, because I could not be spared
from the farm work. After hearing my story, the kind professor welcomed me
to the glorious University — next, it seemed to me, to the Kingdom of
Heaven. After a few weeks in the preparatory department I entered the
Freshman class. In Latin I found that one of the books in use I had already
studied in Scotland. So, after an interruption of a dozen years, I began my
Latin over again where I had left off; and, strange to say, most of it came
back to me, especially the grammar which I had committed to memory at the
Dunbar Grammar School.
During the four years that I
was in the University, I earned enough in the harvest-fields during the long
summer vacations to carry me through the balance of each year, working very
hard, cutting with a cradle four acres of wheat a day, and helping to put it
in the shock. But, having to buy books and paying, I think, thirty-two
dollars a year for instruction, and occasionally buying acids and retorts,
glass tubing, bell-glasses, flasks, etc., I had to cut down expenses for
board now and then to half a dollar a week.
One winter I taught school
ten miles north of Madison, earning much-needed money at the rate of twenty
dollars a month, "boarding round," and keeping up my University work by
studying at night. As I was not then well enough off to own a watch, I used
one of my hickory clocks, not only for keeping time, but for starting the
school fire in the cold mornings, and regulating class-times. I carried it
out on my shoulder to the old log schoolhouse, and set it to work on a
little shelf nailed to one of the knotty, bulging logs. The winter was very
cold, and I had to go to the schoolhouse and start the fire about eight
o'clock to warm it before the arrival of the scholars. This was a rather
trying job, and one that my clocks might easily be made to do. Therefore,
after supper one evening I told the head of the family with whom I was
boarding that if he would give me a candle I would go back to the
schoolhouse and make arrangements for lighting the fire at eight o'clock,
without my having to be present until time to open the school at nine. He
said, "Oh, young man, you have some curious things in the school-room, but I
don't think you can do that." I said, "Oh, yes! It's easy," and in hardly
more than an hour the simple job was completed. I had only to place a
teaspoonful of powdered chlorate of potash and sugar on the stove-hearth
near a few shavings and kindling, and at the required time make the clock,
through a simple arrangement, touch the inflammable mixture with a drop of
sulphuric acid. Every evening after school was dismissed, I shoveled out
what was left of the fire into the snow, put in a little kindling, filled up
the big box stove with heavy oak wood, placed the lighting arrangement on
the hearth, and set the Block to drop the acid at the hour of eight; all
this requiring only a few minutes.
The first morning after I had
made this simple arrangement I invited the doubting farmer to watch the old
squat schoolhouse from a window that overlooked it, to see if a good smoke
did not rise from the stovepipe. Sure enough, on the minute, he saw a tall
column curling gracefully up through the frosty air, but instead of
congratulating me on my success he solemnly shook his head and said in a
hollow, lugubrious voice, "Young man, you will be setting fire to the
schoolhouse." All winter long that faithful clock fire never failed, and by
the time I got to the schoolhouse the stove was usually red-hot.
At the beginning of the long
summer vacations I returned to the Hickory Hill farm to earn the means in
the harvest-fields to continue my University course, walking all the way to
save railroad fares. And although I cradled four acres of wheat a day, I
made the long, hard, sweaty day's work still longer and harder by keeping up
my study of plants. At the noon hour I collected a large handful, put them
in water to keep them fresh, and after supper got to work on them and sat up
till after midnight, analyzing and classifying, thus leaving only four hours
for sleep; and by the end of the first year, after taking up botany, I knew
the principal flowering plants of the region.
I received my first lesson in
botany from a student by the name of Griswold, who is now County Judge of
the County of Waukesha, Wisconsin. In the University he was often laughed at
on account of his anxiety to instruct others, and his frequently saying with
fine emphasis, "Imparting instruction is my greatest enjoyment." One
memorable day in June, when I was standing on the stone steps of the north
dormitory, Mr. Griswold joined me and at once began to teach. He reached up,
plucked a flower from an overspreading branch of a locust tree, and, handing
it to me, said, "Muir, do you know what family this tree belongs to? "
"No," I said, "I don't know
anything about botany."
"Well, no matter," said he,
"what is it like?"
"It's like a pea flower," I
"That's right. You're right,"
he said, "it belongs to the Pea Family."
"But how can that be," I
objected, "when the pea is a weak, clinging, straggling herb, and the locust
a big, thorny hardwood tree?"
"Yes, that is true," he
replied, "as to the difference in size, but it is also true that in all
their essential characters they are alike, and therefore they must belong to
one and the same family. Just look at the peculiar form of the locust
flower; you see that the upper petal, called the banner, is broad and erect,
and so is the upper petal of the pea flower; the two lower petals, called
the wings, are outspread and wing-shaped; so are those of the pea; and the
two petals below the wings are united on their edges, curve upward, and form
what is called the keel, and so you see are the corresponding petals of the
pea flower. And now look at the stamens and pistils. You see that nine of
the ten stamens have their filaments united into a sheath around the pistil,
but the tenth stamen has its filament free. These are very marked
characters, are they not? And, strange to say, you will find them the same
in the tree and in the vine. Now look at the ovules or seeds of the locust,
and you will see that they are arranged in a pod or legume like those of the
pea. And look at the leaves. You see the leaf of the locust is made up of
several leaflets, and so also is the leaf of the pea. Now taste the locust
I did so and found that it
tasted like the leaf of the pea. Nature has used the same seasoning for
both, though one is a straggling vine, the other a big tree.
"Now, surely you cannot
imagine that all these similar characters are mere coincidences. Do they not
rather go to show that the Creator in making the pea vine and locust tree
had the same idea in mind, and that plants are not classified arbitrarily?
Man has nothing to do with their classification. Nature has attended to all
that, giving essential unity with boundless variety, so that the botanist
has only to examine plants to learn the harmony of their relations."
This fine lesson charmed me
and sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm. Like
everybody else I was always fond of flowers, attracted by their external
beauty and purity. Now my eyes were opened to their inner beauty, all alike
revealing glorious traces of the thoughts of God, and leading on and on into
the infinite cosmos. I wandered away at every opportunity, making long
excursions round the lakes, gathering specimens and keeping them fresh in a
bucket in my room to study at night after my regular class tasks were
learned; for my eyes never closed on the plant glory I had seen.
Nevertheless, I still
indulged my love of mechanical inventions. I invented a desk in which the
books I had to study were arranged in order at the beginning of each term. I
also made a bed which set me on my feet every morning at the hour determined
on, and in dark winter mornings just as the bed set me on the floor it
lighted a lamp. Then, after the minutes allowed for dressing had elapsed, a
click was heard and the first book to be studied was pushed up from a rack
below the top of the desk, thrown open, and allowed to remain there the
number of minutes required. Then the machinery closed the book and allowed
it to drop back into its stall, then moved the rack forward and threw up the
next in order, and so on, all the day being divided according to the times
of recitation, and time required and allotted to each study. Besides this, I
thought it would be a fine thing in the summer-time when the sun rose early,
to dispense with the clock-controlled bed machinery, and make use of
sunbeams instead. This I did simply by taking a lens out of my small
spy-glass, fixing it on a frame on the sill of my bedroom window, and
pointing it to the sunrise; the sunbeams focused on a thread burned it
through, allowing the bed machinery to put me on my feet. When I wished to
arise at any given time after sunrise, I had only to turn the pivoted frame
that held the lens the requisite number of degrees or minutes. Thus I took
Emerson's advice and hitched my dumping-wagon bed to a star.
I also invented a machine to
make visible the growth of plants and the action of the sunlight, a very
delicate contrivance, enclosed in glass. Besides this I invented a barometer
and a lot of novel scientific apparatus. My room was regarded as a sort of
show place by the professors, who oftentimes brought visitors to it on
Saturdays and holidays. And when, some eighteen years after I had left the
University, I was sauntering over the campus in time of vacation, and spoke
to a man who seemed to be taking some charge of the grounds, he informed me
that he was the janitor; and when I inquired what had become of Pat, the
janitor in my time, and a favorite with the students, he replied that Pat
was still alive and well, but now too old to do much work. And when I
pointed to the dormitory room that I long ago occupied, he said: "Oh! then I
know who you are," and mentioned my name. "How comes it that you know my
name?" I inquired. He explained that "Pat always pointed out that room to
newcomers and told long stories about the wonders that used to be in it." So
long had the memory of my little inventions survived.
Although I was four years at
the University, I did not take the regular course of studies, but instead
picked out what I thought would be most useful to me, particularly
chemistry, which opened a new world, and mathematics and physics, a little
Greek and Latin, botany and geology. I was far from satisfied with what I
had learned, and should have stayed longer. Anyhow I wandered away on a
glorious botanical and geological excursion, which has lasted nearly fifty
years and is not yet completed, always happy and free, poor and rich,
without thought of a diploma or of making a name, urged on and on through
endless, inspiring, Godful beauty.
From the top of a hill on the
north side of Lake Mendota I gained a last wistful, lingering view of the
beautiful University grounds and buildings where I had spent so many hungry
and happy and hopeful days. There with streaming eyes I bade my blessed Alma
Mater farewell. But I was only leaving one University for another, the
Wisconsin University for the University of the Wilderness.