Robert Wilson's Memoirs

Submitted by Howard W. Allen, Robert Wilson's gandson.  Thanks, Howard!


          Robert Wilson (1876-1957) was born in Texas City, Saline County, Illinois and spent most of his adult life in Hamilton County.  His father was Isaac Wilson (1834-1906), a farmer who served as a lst Lt. in the 60th Indiana Infantry during the Civil War, and his mother was Martha Crunk Wilson (1849-1925).  Both are buried in Mt. Oval Church Cemetery in White County.  (See Isaac Wilson Family Photograph in “TheYesterdays of Hamilton County, Illinois.”)

            As Robert describes it in his following memoirs, the region where he was born was still a frontier well after the end of the Civil War.  Robert Wilson attended public school only very briefly and college only one summer session after he was 40, but he was an exceptionally literate, self-educated adult.  He was highly skilled in mathematics and algebra and could quote lengthy excerpts from the Bible and the works of authors such as Sir Walter Scott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier.   He was also an authority on folk songs, most of which he learned from his Mother.  Recordings of many of these songs were recorded and are preserved in the National Archives of the United States.  He taught at various schools in Hamilton County, served as Superintendent of the McLeansboro City Schools, principal of the Broughton and Dahlgren High Schools, and as County Superintendent of Schools in Hamilton County from 1938 to 1946.  (See “Students Hold ‘Bob Wilson Day’ at Dahlgren” and  Dahlgren School 1929-1930.

Robert Wilson's sketch of his log cabin


If you go about a mile and a half west on a gravel road out of the little town of Texas City in Southern Illinois, you will notice a narrow lane running south.  Go down that lane about a quarter of a mile and you will be even with the spot where I was born.  As you face south the little log house which was my first earthly home stood about two hundred yards to your left in what is now an open field.

It has been more than sixty years since we left that spot for good, but the picture in my memory is about as clear and well defined as any I am able to produce.  Let me imagine that I am seven years old and have just stopped at the place mentioned.  There, at my left, are the bars.  Beyond the bars is the Front Lot surrounded on three sides by a rail fence, on the fourth side is a high paling fence, and back of that fence stands the house.  And what a house:  Any seven year old boy, nowadays, would consider it almost a calamity to have to live in such a house.  It was a log house with a big shed-like porch running its full length on the west, with a side-room, or lean-to kitchen on the east.  A log smoke house stood just east of the kitchen, and a stick-and-clay chimney stood at the north end.  The main room of the house was of hewed logs.  These logs had been cut and hewed from big trees and were broad, carefully matched, and fitted together at the ends, making rather neat, straight up and down corners, and leaving small cracks between.  These cracks were chinked and daubed with clay.  The chimney at the north end of the house was built entirely without brick or stone, and consisted of a big wide base—which was just a wooden pen of notched timbers, with an inside lining of clay a foot or two thick, making the fireplace.  The top or throat of the chimney was much smaller than the base and was built on sticks rived, or riven, out of parts of the body of trees, making a tall pen which was lined thickly with clay.  The jambs and hearth of the big fireplace inside were built of clay and were easily damaged by a blow from the big fire poker or by letting a stick of firewood fall against them.  However, while they were easily damaged, they were easily repaired.  All you had to do was get a shovel full of clay, wet it to the consistency of stiff mud and daub up the break.

The roof was of boards rived with a fro.  The ceiling, or loft, was of the same kind.  The floors were of coarse unplanned plank and never had a carpet or rug on them.  South of the yard and the Front Lot was the horse-lot and log stable.  This stable was a sorry sort of shelter for horses or cows in winter.  The cracks between the logs were not chinked and daubed and the poor animals inside must have suffered severely in winter weather.  The chicken house stood just north of the stable and consisted of a rail pen built on posts set in the ground, standing about four feet high.  One can imagine the comfort afforded chickens in such a shelter on a cold night.

Such is a very brief picture of my birthplace.  When I look at this scene in memory many little details come into view.  If it is summer, there are the tall ironweeds in the front lot—the thick woods with their big trees and tangled underbrush just across the narrow lane on the right.  The small fields of my father’s farm which he had cleared from the forest—the tall dark wall of timber surrounding this little farm, the deadening of big trees where the underbrush had been cleared away so that corn could be raised among the dead trees and stumps.  There is the straw shed off to the left there near the old crooked elm tree, and just south of the house the thicket (Goldsmith [1] would call it a copse) of plum sprouts, and near the thicket the old well.

Let me stop here a moment to tell you something that almost happened to me in connection with this plum sprout thicket.  It seems that my father was taking special care of these plum sprouts, expecting, no doubt, to transplant the best ones so as to have some fresh fruit.  Once, I remember, some kinfolks of ours visited us from back in Indiana where our parents came from.  As I recall, two stalwart young men, my father’s cousins—I think it was Med and Lute Stallings[2].  They evidently were heroic sort of fellows, for one of them related very enthusiastically the story of a fight he had witnessed.  It must have been between one of his friends and another man—but at any rate at a certain place in the story he demonstrated right before us all and the big fireplace how one of the fellows had lunged at the other one with a big knife, and uttering a lot of big swear words proceeded to do him bad.  I don’t remember just how the fight ended but I do recall that the whole thing impressed me immensely.  Next day it was still seething in my mind.  I armed myself with mother’s big butcher knife and went out to find an enemy I could cut down.  The first enemy I saw happened to be those fine plum sprouts.  I distinctly recall how they incited me to fight.  I would get set and then suddenly rush at one of those sprouts, uttering big oaths, and would deliberately hack it to pieces.  My father discovered the havoc I had wrought next day—or perhaps that same day—and as I remember now—my memory suffered a severe lapse—I couldn’t remember seeing anybody about those plum sprouts all day.

Along the south of the smokehouse was a shed, and under the eaves of the shed there usually stood a big trough my father had hewed or dug out of the body of a tree.  It was an enormously big trough, or so it seems to me now, and my mother used to keep her homemade soap in it—so we always called it the soap trough.  When it was empty of soap they set it under the eaves of the smokehouse shed to catch rain water.

          Just south of the house was the well, and near by just inside the horse lot near the fence was the watering trough.  This was a dugout trough like the soap-trough.  I remember one day when I was very small my father and his brother, my Uncle Luther[3], came up to the watering trough with their teams of tired horses.  I remember that I got to wondering what caused a well, and I asked my father how he got the well.   He told me they dug it.  I then asked him how they dug a well—my uncle said “With the hatchet.”

For a long time I wondered how anybody could dig a well with a hatchet.  This and many other similar questionings which bothered my childish mind come up often to remind me, in a small way, of how a little child learns—and how what we consider commonplace and simple is sometimes a great mystery to the child.  I am sure that some of the great blunders I have made in trying to teach children are due to my failure or in-ability to realize that I am dealing with a person whose every experience is a new one, and presents problems as foreign to their understanding as Hebrew and Sanskrit would be to me.  

East of the horse-lot was a small field in which were a few apple trees.  These were very few; I remember only two, the Horse-apple, and the Strawberry.  The strawberries were early apples and they are the only ones, as I recall, that ever got any ways near ripe, we boys would eat them all up long before they could ripen.  Our parents tried to prevent this and laid down certain rules which they hoped would have the desired results.  We were permitted to eat the apples what fell from the trees.  Evidently they could not trust us always to be fair so the rules soon required that all apples be brought to them for inspection before we could eat them.  If the stem end of the apple was brown that was accepted as proof that we had found the apple on the ground and had not pulled it off the tree.  If the stem end was fresh and green it proved that we had pulled the apple.  My brother[4] was resourceful lad and he wasn’t long in concocting a plan to overcome this handicap.  He would slip out, pull off a few apples and hide them behind the smokehouse for a few hours until the stem end turned brown, and then take them in for inspection.  My recollection is that our mother was not long in finding this out.

This incident will help to show some of the hardships of pioneer life. Our home was in a really new country.  Few people for miles around had any fruit trees, and ripe apples, peaches, plums etc., were rare luxuries.  In the big woods could be found wild plums, grapes, haws, crab apples, and berries, but even these things were hard to get at our place, and the delicious canned fruit we enjoy now was unknown.

Life was decidedly of the pioneer type. The descriptions of pioneer life which our children read in school and library books give a true picture of life as I experienced it as a boy.  To be sure, most of the pioneer homes described in books were far superior to my boyhood home.  Many of the early pioneer homes had wide fireplaces built of stone or brick with many added conveniences such as a crane, a built-in oven, or a Dutch oven.  They had fine hand-carved mantel boards, sideboards, staircases, attics, etc.  Our home was crude and rough.  My father built it entirely with his own hands and with very few tools.  He was not a trained workman and, having been used to primitive comforts all his life, seemed never to long for more than the bare necessities.

I wouldn’t for anything, intentionally leave the impression that I look back upon my boyhood in that crude and hard environment with vain regrets, or with any feeling that I was deprived of something because of it, to which I was by nature entitled.  It never occurred to me then that I was in any sense unfortunate because of my station in life.  I am not sure that I would have been happier if I had been born in a wealthy home in a modern community surrounded by every advantage and comfort life could afford.  I am not sure that I would have taken any better advantage of my opportunities if my environment had been different.  Life, Fate, or Destiny, or whatever we call it, it seems to me, has a mysterious way of putting it into a person, somehow, someway either to overcome his environment or to be overcome by it.  Somewhere, at some critical point, in every one’s life something happens to him which either makes or breaks him as far as mastering his own circumstance is concerned.  If the education of children we are told that there are three principal outcomes to strive for, (1) knowledge, (2) skills, and (3) attitudes, and of these, attitudes are probably of greatest importance and no doubt the most difficult to attain if true excellence in terms of life’s real values is the aim.  The highest aim in this life is true happiness.  Our happiness is conditioned more by our attitudes than by any other thing.  If we look upon our condition in life with too great a degree of melancholy we cannot be happy no matter how favorable that condition.  If we look upon our condition with a cheerful, optimistic, contented, attitude, we can be extremely happy no matter how unfavorable that condition.

When I was a boy I heard very little complaining around the fireside at home about anything.  The neighbors were always fine folks—the weather was never so bad that it might not have been worse—the strangers who stopped for the night—and my father very seldom turned one away—were never censured.  I never knew but what the home I was bred and born in was the finest best home in the world—and to me it was just that.  I am trying to analyze those events and forces in my early childhood that had the greatest influence in shaping my life. Nothing in my childhood experience—as I can recall—ever induced in me the attitude of self-pity.  I am glad I had parents who left their children in most cases to their own resources.  If I fell down and hurt myself I was told to get up and go ahead—not be a crybaby--.  If I didn’t get just what I wanted when playing with other children I was not led by an over-indulgent parent to feel that I had been mistreated.  I unconsciously learned to abide by my mother’s oft-expressed philosophy that what can’t be cured must be endured.  The tender care and kindly sympathy of loving parents were not denied me when I needed them but they were bestowed in such a way as to lead me gradually to feel and realize that I received them not because and when my selfish fancy demanded them but when I needed and deserved them.  I am happy to believe that such wholesome influences induced in me, on the whole, proper attitudes.  I never assumed the attitude that the world or anybody owed me a living.  I have always felt that I was the debtor, that I had already, at any point in life, received more than my share of the good things, and my job was to do something worthwhile to (as my mother would say) pay for my salt.

It has been said that a child’s education should begin with his grandfather.  That is to say that a child’s education is well begun if he had good parents, and I feel that I had good parents.  Neither one of my parents was a descendant of noted people.  So far as I know none of their ancestors came over in the Mayflower or were related to Pocahontas.  My father’s name was Isaac, and naturally went by the name of Ike.  He was born in Posey County in Southern Indiana.  I have heard him say that he attended a school a total of nine days, three days each to three different teachers.  He often said he could remember only one incident in connection with his school days that was when a wasp flew down from its nest on a rafter of the old log schoolhouse and stung a girl pupil on the finger.  In spite of this lack of schooling my father was a pretty fair scholar.  I remember that the neighbors for miles round our home used to bring their important letters and business papers to our house for father to read and write answers for them.  He was pretty good in arithmetic and could gauge a wagon bed or grain bin, or compute land area.  He was not especially enthusiastic about his children getting more than the rudiments of an education, yet he showed in a very quiet way, the usual parent’s pride in us when we did well in school.  He objected to spending money for the extra books when my teacher wanted me to begin the study of grammar and physiology.  He rather reluctantly bought me an advanced arithmetic, but when I got into a list of difficult problems and the whole school got stuck on one he got so interested that he got up one winter night in the middle of the night, hunted up my slate and pencil and worked an hour or so on that problem.  He thought he had worked out the solution.  He hadn’t.  We finally worked it though.  I forget whether he or I got it first.

While, as I said in a previous paragraph, my father was not a trained workman, there were some things he could do well.  I have heard his neighbors say he was one of the best wheat cradlers in the neighborhood, and he could play the old time tunes on the fiddle better than any other person I ever heard.  His father’s name was David. [5]

He was born in Posey County, Indiana, in 1800 and died in October 1876, about a month before I was born.  Grandfather David Wilson was a pretty well educated man considering the times and opportunities offered a poor man’s son then.  He taught school and was a country lawyer, serving several years as justice of the peace. I remember when I was a small boy I had his justice-of-the peace court docket to play with, and not realize what a rare relic I would have considered it could I have it now, I tore it up and destroyed it.  I remember yet the quaint writing and its faded and yellowed pages.  Without doubt the writing in it was done with a home made quill pen and with homemade ink. 

My father’s grandfather’s name was Lewis.  He emigrated from Ireland probably about 1760, and settled in Pennsylvania.  We have never been able to learning anything about his family in Ireland but it is pretty certain that he came to America when he was about 12 years old as a stow-away.[6]  Father’s mother came to Posey County Indiana from North Carolina with her parents probably about the year 1815.  She was then 12 years old.  Her maiden name was Stallings.  Stallings were Scotch Irish people who settled in the mountainous western parts of Virginia and the Carolinas, later crossing the mountain into Kentucky and Tennessee then into Southern Indiana, and Illinois along with Daniel Boone, George Rogers Clark, and other hardy pioneers.  The Stallings brought a number of slaves with them from North Carolina.  These, of course, became free when their owners brought them north of the Ohio River.  I’ve often heard my father speak of these old Negroes, who, lived along with their old owners.  One old Negro, especially, whose name was Hawk, taught my father to play many of the old time fiddle tunes he knew.  Some of these tunes evidently had originated among the French settlers along the lower Mississippi.  Most of them, however, where from the old Irish, Scotch, or, English.

I never knew much about my mother’s people or their ancestry.  Her maiden name was Crunk. Her father was a singing teacher of the old school.  He taught note reading in the old Southern Harmony system of shaped notes and conducted singing classes.  I am sure he did not depend on this as a means of livelihood, but as a means of social enjoyment and advancement.  My mother’s family were honorable respected citizens of more than average intelligence and culture in the neighborhoods where they lived.  None of them acquired much wealth but none of them was extremely poor.  They owned farms or comfortable homes and lived quite well.  I suppose I am justified in saying I believe my mother was a remarkable person in many respects.  I believe she had a really fine singing voice, and while I have no means of knowing for sure, it is my opinion that few women anywhere or any time could reach higher notes than she could.  Her voice was sweet and very musical yet very strong and powerful.  Many times I remember near sundown she would be caring for the milk cows and calves at the bars in the Front Lot and invariably singing some of the many songs she knew by heart.  She could sing from memory every line of scores of old time songs—folk songs, religious songs, almost any kind.  The poet says: “Of all the beautiful pictures//That Hang on memory’s walls ….”[words missing] with me the one of my mother going about her evening chores on a clear still evening about sundown and singing in her fine clear strong voice which, I am sure, could be heard a mile or more “seemeth the best of all.”

My mother was strong and active.  She was a very good horseback rider and many a ride have I taken on the old sorrel mare behind her, holding on to her with both hands while she went at a brisk trot or gallop.  I have heard her tell of the many races she had with the neighboring boys and girls when she was young and everybody went to church or neighborhood parties on horseback.  She always rode with the old time sidesaddle.

As I have said before, the whole region round about where I lived as a child was covered with dense forest. The soil was rich black bottom and the trees were of many kinds and sizes; some of them of great size and height.  One kind which I remember especially they called the Turkey Oak.  It was a tall straight bodied tree and sometimes grew very large.  It was prized very highly by the old timers because of its quality of being easily split into rails or boards.  Another tree of much value was the sweet gum.  Aside from its value as a lumber tree and for firewood, it was prized by us children as a source of chewing gum.  The sap from the sweet gum would flow from a wound made by an ax and collect in masses.  We children would gather this wax and chew it the same as children (and other folks) nowadays chew spearmint or Wrigley’s.  Most of the space between the big trees was occupied with small shrubs and dense undergrowth.  In some places hazel bushes grew thickly and we could gather great quantities of these delicacies in the fall.  Big scaly-bark hickories were plentiful and the big nuts could be gathered by the wagon loads along the creeks.  Dogwoods were plentiful and the woodsmen used the wood of these small trees to make wedges or gluts, as [words missing] …. while green and the gluts were shaped with a sharp ax and laid away to season.  After seasoning these gluts of dogwood were almost as hard as iron and would stand a log of mauling before splitting.

The big woods abounded in wild game, as coons, foxes, mink, weasels, squirrels, etc.  A few wild turkeys still lived deep in the woods along the creek, and occasionally a flock of them could be seen in the cornfields late in the fall or early winter where they had come out in search of food.  One morning in the dead of winter after a heavy snowfall, a big turkey gobbler came out of the woods near our house, and ran across our field to the woods on the other side.  He had to cross three high fences which he did with apparent ease—hopping on top of each one and down on the other side with little effort.  My older brother and I went out to look at his tracks in the snow.  We tried to step in them and found we could not jump from one of his tracks to the other.  One evening near sundown a big wild turkey was discovered in our garden.  The fence round the garden was of tall palings and the turkey was unable to get out.  My father took our dog, Cricket, into the garden and together they caught the turkey, which had been shot by a hunter and had a wing injured so it couldn’t fly.  My mother was preparing to heat water for dressing the turkey when two hunters came up on hunt of their pretty, which, it turned out, they had shot and broke its wing.  The turkey was in the top of a tall tree not far away and had sailed down from the tree, landing in our garden where father caught it.  On several occasions we had wild turkey meat for dinner.             

The big woods always induced in me a sense of awe and mystery.  I remember going with my brother to the edge of the woods not far from our house.  I must have been not more than four, and, while the distance to the woods was not more than a few rods it seemed a long way to me.  We had our dog with us and, as I remember, the day was dark, rather cold and windy.  Our dog treed a rabbit in a brush pile, and my brother climbed upon the brush to run the rabbit out.   Pretty soon out came old rabbit with the dog yelping after him and my brother following and yelling.  I was frightened.  I was left alone by the big woods with the wind roaring in the tall tree tops.  The loneliness was oppressive.  The big world, the big woods, the unknown mysteries all but overcame me.  It made a lasting impression which I have never completely lost.  Was it Byron who said, “There is a pleasure in the pathless woods; There is rapture on the lonely shore; There is society where none intrudes, By the deep sea, and music in its roar.”[7]  I always like to listen to the sounds of the woods.  I have listened to the squirrels barking, the laughing and hooting of the owls.  I have heard the peculiar sounds made by minks as they would prowl round our house on a winter night.  I knew the tracks of the coons, the possums, the squirrels, the foxes.

My earliest experience with books and reading was with little ABC picture books.  These were usually of linen and had ABC rhymes and appropriate pictures.  The pictures were wonderful things to me.  I can still feel some of the thrill I got from enjoying them, especially fascinating to me were the bright colors.  Sometimes in my experience as a teacher I would try to draw on my childhood experience to help me better to understand the little children under my care, and better provide for their development and training—and my recollection of how the bright colored pictures in those crude ABC books of my childhood thrilled me—and I would—I believe—better appreciate some of the little child’s way of interpreting life. My first reading lessons were from those books.  I learned to recognize letters and a few words.                                                                                                

  I started to school when I was almost seven years old.  The schoolhouse was built of logs and had two doors, one in the east and one in the west.  These doors were both left open in warm weather but the east door was kept shut in winter and over it was hung the blackboard.  This was made of smooth boards nailed on battens, like a barn door, and the smooth side painted black.  Several incidents in my school experience are still clear in my memory, one especially, is about my hat.  My hat was evidently one my brother had worn almost out and left to me.  It had no brim but tapered from the lower edge to the top.  At the top was a hole—I don’t remember how the hole got there, but I do remember that the boy sitting behind me would often pull my hair which stuck through that hole.

My earliest experiences at school were a curious mixture of loneliness, fear, and pleasure.  I was of very timid nature, afraid of strangers, even of the large pupils.  I remember one day, it must have been near Christmas, a large boy had a toy pistol at school with which he frightened me.  I ran down the lane from the school to get away from him, and when I thought he was gone and I was coming back, he jumped out from a fence corner and snapped the toy pistol at me, giving me a great fright.  I remember one day my brother was kept at home for something and I was sent to school by myself.  I felt so lonely before I got to school it seemed I couldn’t bear to go on alone.  I started back home but was afraid to go home for fear my mother would punish me.  She was no person to trifle with when she decided one of her offspring ought to do something.  I stopped as close to the house as I thought safe and sat down on a bridge across a ditch.  I could look through the crack in the fence and see our house.  I got so homesick I began to cry.  My mother heard me and at once decided what the trouble was.  I was brought to the house without ceremony or sympathy.  I escaped a spanking but was set at hulling walnuts.  If you never had to hull walnuts when you were about seven, you can’t imagine my predicament.  I wished a thousand times that day I had gone on to school. 

My first school was in Clary District in Saline County. When I was about eight or nine we moved into Hamilton County and I started to school in Pleasant Grove District, sometimes called Douglass, and also The Shed.  The reason for this last name, I presume, was the fact that a large shed which was used as a place of worship stood not far from the school in a cleared place in the woods.  

At this second school I soon began to like to go to school and began to like the lessons and to enjoy reading the few books we had.  At about this time I became afflicted with an ailment the doctor called curvature of the spine, which rendered me almost helpless most of the time, and, of course, prevented me from going to school.  My ailment caused me to suffer much pain at times, often keeping me awake all night.  I remember on one occasion my parents became so alarmed that the relatives and neighbors were called in.  I must have been delirious or unconscious, for I remember that it seemed to me I suddenly awoke to find a lot of people standing round my bed and hear some one say “he has come to.  

During all this time that I couldn’t go to school my mother taught me to read and write.  Someone gave me a book of fairy tales which I read over and over.  The first schoolbooks we had in our home were McGuff’s [McGuffey] Readers, Watson’s Speller, and White’s Intermediate Arithmetic.

At Douglass or Pleasant Grove or The Shed I was very fortunate in my teachers for what time I did get to go to school.  My first teacher in this school was a Mr. Anderson Porter, knowing the neighborhood as “Little Anderson.”  Then there was Mr. Z.W. Young, Warren Young.  This teacher was a very fine man and an excellent school teacher.  He inspired me with a great desire to get an education.  I remember distinctly how he taught us the multiplication table. He would take three units of a table—say the sevens—and would go over these backward and forward over and over until we had learned them. Then he would say something like this—“Now, it seems that you know these, but by tomorrow or next week, if you were to [words missing] … would go on to urge us to go over them again and again while we were at home going about our chores or sitting around the fire.  I doubt if Mr. Young ever read a book on psychology and yet he was using some very important psychological principles in teaching.  And besides his scientific teaching he was inspiring us to go ahead on our own and do our learning without help.

            During the winter of 1889 my father bought a farm four miles east of the village of Broughton and we moved to a new home.  I left Mr. Young for good but his influence on me was never lost. 

But while losing the presence of Mr. Young, I gained much by the move for my new school teacher proved to be a man of rare strength of character, ability, and personality.  His name was Arthur Dawes and he was to yield a greater influence in my life than probably any other person I ever knew.  He became my hero in every way.  Even his bodily defects seemed to me to be marks of superiority, and I unconsciously tried to imitate them.  He aroused in me a love for the best literature and all other branches of learning.  He was not a finished scholar, but was a clear thinker and a thorough teacher.  I believe he was one of the best teachers of reading I ever knew.  He refused to pass by a single thought in a lesson until it was thoroughly understood by every pupil if possible. I often recall that Lincoln said, “All I am or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.” While I feel that I owe much, very much for any thing of true worth which I am to my mother, I must say that whatever I have accomplished in my chosen life’s work, which is nearing completion, I owe to the inspiration of my teachers, and most especially to Arthur Dawes.  

So much of my life has been occupied with school teaching that I am constrained to say a few things in connection with my experiences along that line.  I can hardly remember when I wasn’t fired with a great desire to learn—to get an education.  I had no definite plans or ideas about it for a long time but from my earliest recollections about such things books and stories in books—information to be derived from books had a peculiar attraction for me.  When I finally got able to go to school, which was after I was thirteen or fourteen, I was not a star pupil particularly, in fact, I think I was just a very ordinary pupil.  But some where about that age I somehow got it definitely in my mind that I wanted to be a school teacher.  I had one teacher—in a summer school—I being considered a sort of cripple was allowed to go to school while my older brother, who was strong, had to help with the farm work.  Well, this teacher talked to me about what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I remember saying to him one evening as we walked along the road on the way home after school that if I thought I could ever learn enough and could get education enough I would like to be a school teacher.  This teacher told me he thought it would be an easy matter for me to be able to get a certificate to teach as soon as I was old enough to be admitted to the examination.  I thought a lot about what he said and wondered if it could be possible.

During the winter of 1889, a week or two before Christmas, we moved to a new place and I started to school to a new teacher, the Mr. Dawes I mentioned before. This teacher took a special interest in me, as he did in all his pupils, and he soon aroused in me a greater desire to learn and to be a teacher.  He used to come to our house to spend the night and would sit by the big open fireplace and exchange stories and experiences with my parents.  He would read to us children from choice literature.  I remember it was through such associations with Mr. Dawes that I became acquainted with Snow Bound, Evangeline, and many other selections from the best literature.  During the winter of 1893-1894 Mr. Dawes was elected tax collector in our township and he asked me if I would assist him in collecting the taxes.  

Of course, I gladly accepted and went to live at his house, went to school at the village school where he was principal and worked for him after school and evenings helping collect the taxes.  In the evenings, when such work was done for the day, Mr. Dawes would sit with me by the fire and read from some good book or poem, always from the…. [lines missing].   

During the summer of 1894 I attended a review school for advanced pupils and teachers in the local village.  The teacher was Mr. M. L. Clark, and the students included some of the county’s leading schoolteachers.  In addition to the common branches included in the requirements for second grade certificate I studied algebra.  The school continued for six weeks and I derived a lot of good in learning and inspiration.  

On March 9, 1895, I entered the county examination for second grade certificate, passed with good grades and received a second grade certificate, qualifying me as a teacher.  I don’t know what finally became of that first certificate of mine, but I often told folks I wore it out showing it to people.  I failed to get a school to teach the first year, and as teachers were required to take an examination each year as long as they held only a second grade certificate, I entered the county examination again in 1896.  This time I was employed to teach at Hickory Corner school in my home district.  

There are a few things in my experience as a schoolteacher, which, as they seem to me, stand out clear in their contribution to whatever success I have attained.  And while I know anything or everything I have accomplished in my chosen work is very small and insignificant when compared with what I might have done—or with what some other person might have done, yet I hardly know whether or not I could do better under the circumstances if it were possible for me to start over.   

Occasionally I get a chance to talk about different phases of life and its problems and sometimes I say that I believe I have been a very fortunate person.  In all my life I have been motivated by two great desires and I can truthfully say that in a great measure I have attained both.  One of these desires was to be a good teacher.  Just how good a teacher I was is probably not for me to say, but it is a source of gratification to me that I have succeeded in reaching some of the better positions open to schoolteachers in my county.  I have … [words missing] the fact that I hold no college degree and did not even attend college until after I was almost forty years old.  I realize it is difficult for me to say this without leaving the feeling that I am boasting about it, but truly, nothing is quite so mortifying to me as to have to admit that I never even attended high school.  

I began teaching at Hickory Corner in September 1896.  From the start I believe I was fully aware of the immense responsibilities heaped upon a school teacher.  I tried from the very start to make careful preparation of every lesson.  I remember that I often wrote down the questions that I expected to use in the third reader lesson.  I had the best lesson helps available at that time, the School News, a journal for teachers, published at Taylorville, Illinois.  In this school journal were published articles on the different subjects taught in the grade schools, written usually, by teachers in the different state normal school.  I was a subscriber to this journal for twelve years and had every number for the entire dozen years.   

My experience as a teacher covers a period of almost fifty years.  Counting the time I have served as County Superintendent of Schools it amounts to more than fifty years.  I did not teach continuously all that time.  I worked at other jobs about seven years, leaving something less than fifty years as teacher.  A few selections of literature I studied stands out prominently as having exerted a great influence on my life and work as a teacher.  Years ago I read the biography of Edmund Burke, the great Irish leader in the English Parliament.[8]  Burke was a poor boy with apparently little chance of ever becoming a great man.  He got a job, as I remember, as janitor for a noted law firm in London.  It is said that in a few years the lawyers discovered that the young janitor knew more about the law and the law cases handled by the firm than many of the lawyers.  It developed that Burke had a passion for learning everything about all the things that entered into his experience that it was possible for him to learn.  When I read that I pondered—“Why shouldn’t I try to learn everything possible about the work I am trying to do?”   

So I set out to learn everything I could about every school subject I tried to teach.  If it was American History, I secured high school and college textbooks and studied them in connection with the lessons as I came to them in my daily work.  I followed the same course in geography, arithmetic and the other studies.  This led me into Ancient, Medieval, and Modern World history; into algebra, geometry, and trigonometry; into physical geography and astronomy.  Later when I had an opportunity to go to college some I really astonished myself at the amount of work I was able to do. 

In my work as superintendent of schools the most distressing thing I meet is the apparent lack of earnest hard individual study among our school teachers.  It seems many of them have acquired the notion that they can not engage in prolonged hard study without attending school, and having their work assigned to them by a teacher.  I believe the attitude of our normal schools, colleges, and universities is largely responsible for a great deal of this attitude of mind among school teachers.  Teachers have learned that only that part of their education and training acquired under the direct supervision of some institution of higher learning ever amounts to anything as far as securing for them recognition.  A teacher’s ability to teach, it seems, is measured almost entirely by the number of semester hours of work he or she has had in certain required subjects.  The worst effects of such a policy is to induce in teachers minds the attitude that any hard earnest study they do at home or in their own study rooms is so much time wasted.  

Teaching school, I believe, was harder for me than for many people.  I was rather timid by nature, and the work of organizing a large group of young people of various ages was very trying on me at times.  Country schools of fifty years ago, that is, in the late [18]90’s, were crowded with thirty-five to fifty boys and girls. There were few high schools in our county, in fact, only one, and the older boys and girls continued in the grades until they become twenty-one years old, or more, until they dropped out of school.

In many communities the standards of conduct among young people was not very high and a school teacher was very apt to have trouble some where in his experience if he tried to maintain order and discipline among his pupils.  And quite often a teacher would finds that the folks in his district, instead of landing him their sympathy and aid, seemed to take a fierce delight in his troubles and even sometimes encouraged the big boys to give trouble.  In meeting such conditions I was always at more or less a handicap.  I did have one quality that sustained me at all times.  I had a dogged determination to see a task through no matter how hard the going out.  Many bits of literature that stuck to me like beggar ticks helped me.  I remember one or two—“our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall,” and “Hard times kill little people; they make big people.  

There’s too much to this story of my experiences as a teacher to try to tell it all here.  One or two other things I should like to mention however as contributing to what little success I have had.  I always had, or soon acquired, an intense love of the theory of teaching.  The principles underlying child growth and development.  The influences that worked for the development of the best, most genuine personality became the most interesting phase of study I could find.  I have gradually, through my years of study, come to the belief that what we call regeneration is the result of education—genuine education.  The scriptures say “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.”  He will not depart from it if his education has been of the right sort.  He has become a different person—different from what the kind of person who acts in a certain way—the right way.  He doesn’t do things that seem always expedient—but what he feels and knows are right.  That conviction and belief thoroughly grounded in me, I feel, has been a great factor in my success as a teacher.

[1] Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774), Anglo-Irish author and playwright.
[2] Isaac Wilson’s mother was Sabrina Stallings (1803-?); the cousins mentioned here were probably her Grandsons from the New Harmony, Indiana area.
[3] Luther Wilson (1840-1899), Isaac’s brother, also served in the 60th Indiana Infantry during the Civil War.  He is buried at Mt. Oval Church Cemetery in White County.
[4] Probably Allie Jesse Wilson (1874-?), Robert’s older brother.
[5] David Wilson (1800-1876) was born in Butler County, Pennsylvania and moved to the New Harmony, Indiana area with his father, Lewis Wilson (1760?-1850) sometime between 1810 and 1820.

[6] Lewis Wilson appears in the U.S. Census of 1800 in Butler County, Pennsylvania.  At that time he was married with seven children.  He was between the ages 26 and 45, which suggests that Robert was approximately correct in placing Lewis’ birth date at 1760.  Lewis was still alive in Posey County in 1845 when he purchased 40 acres from the federal government.
[7] George Byron (1788-1824).  English writer and poet.
[8] Edmund Burke (1729-1797).  Author and member of English Parliament.

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