Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My School Days at Byfield, March 31, 1885

The following is an article that appeared in the March 31, 1885 edition of the Daily Evening Herald of Newburyport, Massachusetts. (Full text for the article follows, below it.) The article's author--identified only as "W.C.C."--is presumably William Coombs Codman, a student of Dummer Academy's sixth headmaster, Nehemiah Cleaveland (1821-1840), during the 1830s. Codman came from Dorchester to attend the academy as a boarding student when he was a mere 11 years old. In his article, published some 50 years after he came to Byfield, Codman reminisces about traveling to and attending Dummer Academy.

"It is a little more than fifty years ago since my schoolmate, William Sherburne Withington, and myself asked a space in the Newburyport Herald for our combined efforts at a newspaper paragraph, and the Herald, much to our surprise, published it. I shall never forget how anxiously we watched the arrival of the postman’s chaise on a certain Monday morning, on its return from Newburyport, and how pleased we were to see the product of our brains in print. It was not so easy then to get into the newspapers, though it is not so difficult now-a-days. If we read that article “Review of Hayward’s Gazeteer”) once, we certainly read it a hundred times. It was the proudest day of our young lives. The glory has lasted the writer for half a century. Poor Withington! I wish he could have lived to share with me the pleasant recollection, but he died a few years after. I now ask, for the second time, a space for my reminiscences of my school days at Dummer Academy. All boarding school boys will remember—no matter if they lived to be centenarians—the terrible sense of lonliness which comes over them for the first time when they leave home. Seasickness is short, though terrific; but homesickness is infinitely more horrible. I was about eleven years of age, and my residence was Dorchester. Byfield was forty miles away; the Soudan [sic] seems nearer now. My trunk—my grandfather’s trunk, made of pine and covered with hair—was neatly packed by my mother, and pasted to the lid inside was a list of the contents; but the dear, good mother did not mention in the list, that stowed away between the folds of some jacket or shirt, were cookies and short gingerbread and cocoanut cakes and acidulated drops. They were to be discovered later; and, dear soul as she rightly supposed, they helped to relieve homesickness.

Did I cry when the leave-taking took place? I remember that the large family were well supplied with handkerchiefs; that they were first applied to the eyes, and that when I turned round for a last look the moist linen was waving from a dozen hands as a parting farewell. Yes, I did cry. My father accompanied me to the city, an hour’s ride. The Eastern stage house, from which the Newburyport and Portsmouth stage coaches started, was located on Ann Street, now North Street, Boston. It was besides a rendezvous for Newburyport merchants, and many a bargain was consummated in the building. Some of your older citizens will remember the “Knights of the Whip”—the brothers Annable, Mendum, Forbes and Holland. When the Eastern railroad was completed they all found occupations either as conductors or expressmen.

I think it was the hour of 1 p.m., when we wheeled out of the stable yard into the narrow street, still called North Centre Street. Then came the crack of Forbes’ long whip. It seemed to me that a dozen bunches of fire crackers were being exploded. I had a seat with the driver; my little glazed cap towered a few inches above the high boot. When we were fairly out of the city Mr. Forbes became communicative; he had carried a great many boys to Byfield, and I wondered if he had brought any back. He was so kind and sympathetic that I could not but think that he had been sent off when quite young to a boarding school. Oh! What stories he used to tell of the fun the boys had at Byfield, and the beautiful Parker River, which they could utilize for swimming, rowing and boat sailing on Saturdays, and he so pleasantly whiled away the time that the journey didn’t seem so very long, after all. We had passed Old Rowley and were on the now abandoned turnpike, when Mr. Forbes pointed out the Academy building with the remark, “That’s your prison, youngster.” We soon reached a cross street where a sign board indicated the road to Dummer Academy. Here the stage coach drew up. I jumped off and was received by Deacon Hale. In a few minutes the hair covered trunk and its juvenile owner were on their way to the boarding house, while the stage coach rumbled along on its way to Newburyport enveloped in clouds of dust. It was but a short drive to Deacon Hale’s.

Chilled, forlorn and homesick, I made my debut among the impudent boys, who scanned me from head to foot, while I gazed around, and by the kindly expression of his eye, picked out Joe T., (afterwards candidate for Governor of a neighboring state) as my chum. I expected to be hazed, and my wisdom tooth must have been cut, for I made a most judicious selection. Joe was kind-hearted and muscular. With him as my champion there was nothing to fear. The good deacon introduced me in this way: “B’yes,”—he never said boys—“this is Master William, and he’s going to be one o’ yer.”

The boys were gathered around an immense fireplace, and the peat, which was cut into blocks and piled one on top of the other, like the blocks composing the ice palace at Montreal, emitted some heat, but it was unlike the cheery cannel coal fire in the parlor grate at home! After a ravenous appetite had been satisfied, good Madam Hale put a tallow dip in my hand, and escorted me to my chamber where Joe and myself in once bed, and two boys in another, were to sleep. At five o’clock the next morning, Joe awoke me to prepare for “study hour,” (from six to seven). When our toilets were partially completed, Joe led the way to the wash room (no hot or cold water faucets then). Two or three huge, coarse crash towels were suspended from cleets—everything was tidy about the premises which Mrs. Hale presided over. No doubt the towels were immaculate in the very early morning, but what could be expected when the last of a dozen boys had done with them. I took my turn at the japanned tin basin, for if I remember right there were only two for all of us, and undoubtedly I added my quota to the dirt spots on the towel. Study hour over, a rush was made for the breakfast. The boys played their knives and forks vigorously. People are now complaining of hard times. O! so much harder than they used to be. If they would only realize how much it cost, fifty years ago, to board, clothe, and educate a boy! Our fathers had to pay one dollar per week for our board, and twenty-six dollars per annum, for tuition. I am safe in saying, that everything included, the expense for each lad, per annum did not exceed one hundred dollars. Fortunately, my father never failed in business, or I should have felt that my extravagance was the cause! I may be going out of the way a little, but my fancy leads me to describe our landlord. Deacon, alias Esquire Hale, was small of stature, dignified for his inches, intellectual looking enough for a Trustee of the Academy, and hard on the boys where they stole his pears and apples; yet on the whole a good natured man. Nothing could be more fitting than the toast given by Arthur Delavan Gilman at one of our reunions, “Old Squire Hale, for forty-five years he took the boys to board, and for forty-five years the boys unflinchingly bored him.” On Sundays a wonderful transition took place; the Squire was no longer of the world-wordly, but the most solemn looking man in all Byfield. I don’t think he smiled once from sunrise to sunset—I am sure he never laughed—he had complete control over his visible muscles. Lapse of time prevents my giving an accurate account of his unique costume. I can only refer the reader to the fashion plates of the period. I think he must have watched the sun going down with as much pleasure as the Mussulman during the Ramazan. Sunday was supposed to commence early Saturday evening, and end (for the boys) a trifle earlier on the following day. In the evening Mr. Moody, the chorister of the church (I beg pardon—meeting house) all the boys of course, and the neighbors, would assemble in the large “sitting room.” The deacon would give out the hymns, and start the tune with the aid of a horse shoe shaped instrument called a “tuning fork,” which he would strike vigorously on the edge of the table—then raise it to ear, and before the sound died away he had secured the pitch. When we had got fairly underway on some old tune, the rock we called Dublin, and all the adjacent hills, would seem to echo back, “Handel’s nobody—Haydn ain’t much—Bully for the Deacon.” But the 34th Psalm tune was a special favorite with Deacon Hale, as sung to the words:

“Through all the changing scenes of life

In trouble or in joy

The praises of my God shall still

My heart and tongue employ.”

The first three lines went along smoothly enough, but all the musical science, all the force the deacon possessed, was to be expended on the word heart in the last line. Some gave the word four turns, thus har-ar-ar-ar-ar-art, but he would often add another, to the consternation of our musical party. I must now return to thing secular. After breakfast I heard the first ding-dong of the Academy bell. All the boys had green baize satchels, similar to those now carried by lawyers in our city streets. With boys the satchel has become obsolete, and the leather strap is much more convenient. I joined the procession to the Academy. A feeling of mortal terror came over me when I reached the threshold, but summoning up all the courage with which eleven long years had inspired me, opened the door, and was ushered into the august presence of the principal—Nehemiah Cleaveland, A.M. “Come up to the desk, young man,” was has salutation. I felt immensely flattered by being called a young man. I had only been called “whipper-snapper” before. On a platform raised about three feet above the school room floor Mr. Cleaveland was to receive the new pupil. After carefully wiping his gold-bowed spectacles, the critical moment for him to speak arrived. “Take your hands out of your breeches pockets, and hold your head up,” he said in a tone which was not assuring. After going through a sort of catechism as to my birthplace, age, etc., I was assigned a desk by Almory Holbrook, the monitor, but not until I had caught a glimpse of a ferrule on the Preceptor’s desk. I did not like its ugly look, and hoped I should never become familiar with it, but within the term, justly or unjustly, my acquaintance was to be revived. As soon as the edict had gone forth, I remembered that one of my Dorchester schoolmates had told that that if I would take two eye lashes, and place them crosswise in the palm of my hand, that a ferrule, even in made of lignumvitae, would, after one or two blows, break into infinitesimally small atoms. I had only time to get the eye lashes into position before the first clap. The prescribed dose was usually three, but mine being an aggravated case, it was extended to six. My curiosity was intense. I thought that the ferrule was weakening, and manfully held out my hand for a second, a third, and a fourth. At the fifth, I imagined the ferrule seemed cracking and would certainly collapse on the last blow, but I was disappointed, and returned to my desk with a very sore hand, and with the consciousness that I had been fooled. Years after, when I had thoughtfully reviewed the suggestion of my old schoolmate, I reached the conclusion that I had done him injustice. The inference I drew, was, that in such a case as mine, curiosity would be on the quivive, and that faith in the non-conducting and general smash-up qualities in those two little hairs, would be uppermost in the culprit’s mind and sustain him to the end. I had several whippings afterward, and will swear that they inflicted more pain, than the once I then received while expecting the ferrule to go to pieces like the “one horse shay.” I soon became accustomed to the school. I could handle an oar as well as any of my seniors—could remain under water, till somebody done for me expecting to bring up a corpse—dipped my hands in brine at night, so that I could punish any presumptuous boy if necessary. But it won’t do to brag. Perhaps Tom is living, and will tell how he made every bone in my little body ache, and kept me housed for two days at my boarding house. On one or more days in the week, all the boys were formed into a class, a spelling battalion, a regiment it seemed to me then. To vary the monotony, Mr. Cleaveland announced that each boy could select what seemed the most difficult word in the dictionary. When my turn came, I gave out escaloped. It passed perhaps a dozen boys before it was correctly spelt [sic], and so it went on until Taylor was reached, for we were arranged alphabetically. Taylor was a man, at least twenty-five. He could give us all points in mowing, planting potatoes, and general agriculture. He farmed it in summer, and attended the academy in winter, Taylor gave out the word “Mardamwazzle.” I give it as he gave it, and the sequel will show how nearly I am correct in the pronunciation. The head of the class commenced with mardamwazl, next mardamworzle, next mardamwazle, and so on to the end of the class. Taylor was in high glee. It was now Mr. Cleaveland’s turn. Taylor was jubilant; the boys were all excited. “Boys,” said the preceptor, “I have taught at this school for twenty-five years, and never have I been obliged to confess my ignorance before my scholars. I never met with the word before. Taylor, are you sure you found it in your dictionary? Bring it to me.” Taylor rapidly turned over the leaves, and then triumphantly pointed to the word. “There it is, sir,” said he. The master smiled; nay, more, he laughed outright—a very undignified thing for him to do, we thought, but excused him afterward when he said: “Boys, the word which has puzzled us all is ‘Mademoiselle’.” We never called that man Taylor again, he was only known as “Wazzle.” Byfield was not without its original characters. On the turnpike lived a Mr. Boynton, who in old stage coach times kept a tavern. One of his sons was born while Boynton was making an addition to his house; he was called “Adding.” A few years later another son was born. At that time Mr. Boynton was tearing down a part of the old tavern, and the youngster was named “Tearing.” So the young gentlemen were known in after years as the Messrs. Adding and Tearing Boynton.

I hold a schoolmate—now one of the most prominent lawyers in Essex County—responsible for the following: In the parish, near the meeting house, there lived a couple whose lives were varied with occasional spats, in which usually the wife came out first best. Mrs. S. had occasion one afternoon to visit Newburyport, and had told her husband that if she did not return by ten o’clock she need not be expected until the next day. Unfortunately for her, she did not reach home until nearly eleven. Mr. S. had bolted doors and windows and retired. All her rappings and shrieks were unavailing. The man slept soundly, and his wife had to stay outside the rest of the night. The following day she gave a neighbor an account of her adventure, winding up with “I declare, I don’t know what I should have done, had I not been sustained by those beautiful lines of Isaac Watts:

“Goosey goosey gander

Why did I wander?”

Among other originals at Byfield were “Old Kent” and “Dumb Fudger.” Possibly I may have occasion to refer to them again." – (signed) W.C.C.