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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Prairie Town

By Edgar Watson Howe (1853–1937)

[Born in the present town of Treaty, Wabash Co., Ind., 1853. Died near Atchison, Ks., 1937. The Story of a Country Town. 1882.—Revised Edition. 1884.]

IN Twin Mounds the citizens spent their idle time in religious discussions, and although I lived there a great many years I do not remember that any of the questions in dispute were ever settled. They never discussed politics with any animation, and read but little, except, in the Bible to find points to dispute; but of religion they never tired, and many of them could quote the sacred word by the page. No two of them ever exactly agreed in their ideas, for men who thought alike on baptism violently quarrelled when the resurrection was mentioned, and two of them who engaged a hell-redemptionist one night would in all probability fail to agree themselves the next, on the atonement. The merchants neglected their customers, when they had them, to discuss points in the Bible which I used to think were not of the slightest consequence, and in many instances the men who argued the most were those who chased deer with hounds on Sunday, and ran horse-races, for they did not seem to discuss the subject so much on account of its importance as because of its fitness as a topic to quarrel about.

There was always a number of famous discussions going on, as between the lawyer and the storekeeper, or the blacksmith and the druggist, or the doctor and the carpenter, and whenever I saw a crowd gathering hurriedly in the evening I knew that two of the disputants had got together again to renew their old difficulty, which they kept up until a late hour, in the presence of half the town.

There was a certain man who kept a drug-store, who was always in nervous excitement from something a fat blacksmith had said to him in their discussions, and who had a habit of coming in on him suddenly in the middle of the day; and whenever I went into the place of business of either one of them I heard them telling those present how they had triumphed the night before, or intended to triumph on a future occasion. Some of the greatest oaths I have ever heard were uttered by these men while discussing religion, and frequently the little and nervous drug-store keeper had to be forcibly prevented from jumping at his burly opponent and striking him. The drug-store was not far away from the office where I worked, and whenever loud and boisterous talking was heard in that direction a smile went round, for we knew the blacksmith had suddenly come upon his enemy, and attacked him with something he had thought up while at his work. I never knew exactly what the trouble between them was, though I heard enough of it; but I remember that it had some reference to a literal resurrection and a new body; and I often thought it queer that each one was able to take the Bible and establish his position so clearly. Whenever I heard the blacksmith talk I was sure that the druggist was wrong, but when the druggist called upon the blacksmith to stop right there, and began his argument, I became convinced that, after all, there were two sides to the question.

Those two men, as well as most of the others, were members of a church known then as the Campbellite, for I do not remember that there was an infidel or unbeliever in the place. There were a great many backsliders, but none of them ever questioned religion itself, though they could never agree on doctrine. It has occurred to me since that if one of them had thought to dispute the inspiration of the Bible, and argued about that, the people would have been entirely happy, for the old discussions in time became very tiresome.

The people regarded religion as a struggle between the Campbellite church and the Devil, and a sensation was developed one evening when my father remarked to the druggist, in the presence of the usual crowd—he happened to be in the place on an errand, as he never engaged in the amusement of the town—that sprinkling answered every purpose of baptism. The druggist became very much excited immediately and prepared for a discussion, but my father only laughed at him and walked away. The next Sunday, however, he preached a sermon on the subject in the court-house, and attacked the town’s religion with so much vigor that the excitement was very intense.

Most of the citizens of Twin Mounds came from the surrounding country, and a favorite way of increasing the population was to elect the county officers from the country, but after their terms expired a new set moved in, for it was thought they became so corrupt by a two years’ residence that they could not be trusted to a reëlection. The town increased in size a little in this manner, for none of these men ever went back to their farms again, though they speedily lost standing after they retired from their positions. Many others who left their farms to move to the town said in excuse that the school advantages were better, and seemed very anxious for a time that their children should be educated, but once they were established in Twin Mounds they abused the school a great deal, and said it was not satisfactory, and allowed their children to remain away if they were so inclined.

There was the usual number of merchants, professional men, mechanics, etc., who got along well enough, but I never knew how at least one half the inhabitants lived. Some of them owned teams, and farmed in the immediate vicinity; others “hauled,” and others did whatever offered, but they were all poor, and were constantly changing from one house to another. These men usually had great families of boys, who grew up in the same indifferent fashion, and drifted off in time nobody knew where, coming back occasionally, after a long absence, well-dressed, and with money to rattle in their pockets. But none of them ever came back who had business of sufficient importance elsewhere to call them away again, for they usually remained until their good clothes wore out, the delusion of their respectability was broken, and they became town loafers again, or engaged in the hard pursuits of their fathers. The only resident of Twin Mounds who ever distinguished himself ran away with a circus and never came back, for although he was never heard of, it was generally believed that he must have become famous in some way to induce him to forego the pleasure of returning home in good clothes and swaggering up and down the street to allow the people to shake his hand.

This class of men never paid their debts, and to get credit for an amount was equal to earning it, to their way of thinking, and a new merchant who came in did a great business until he found them out. I have said they never paid; they did sometimes, but if they paid a dollar on account they bought three or four times that amount to go on the books.

They always seemed to me to be boys yet, surprised at being their own masters, and only worked when they had to, as boys do. They engaged in boys’ amusements, too, for most of them owned packs of dogs, and short-distance race-horses, and it was one of their greatest accomplishments to drive a quarter-horse to a wood-wagon to some out-of-the-way neighborhood, match it against a farmer’s horse threatened with speed, and come back with all the money owned in that direction. I suppose they came West to grow up with the country, like the rest of us, but they were idle where they came from, and did not improve in the West, because work was necessary, whereupon the thought no doubt occurred to them that they could have grown rich in that way anywhere.

A few of them were away most of the time—I never knew where, but so far away that they seldom came home—and their families supported themselves as best they could, but were always expecting the husbands and fathers to return and take them away to homes of luxury. Occasionally news came that they were killed by Indians, and occasionally this was contradicted by the certainty that they were locked up for disreputable transactions, or hanged. Whenever a Twin Mounds man died away from home otherwise than honorably, it was always said that he had been killed by the Indians….

There was one thing I noticed of Twin Mounds which is probably true of every other country town—it was constantly threatened either with great prosperity or great danger, but whether the event threatening the prosperity or the danger came to pass, the town progressed about the same. There was no perceptible effect from any of the events the people were certain would prove either very disastrous or of great benefit, from which I am led to believe that no one is familiar with the art of town-building, although I have never known a man who did not profess to know all there is worth knowing about the science. Towns seem to be the natural accretion of years, and although the people in Twin Mounds often related how desperate were their struggles with adversity, the facts probably are that the place would have been fully as large as it was three years after Jo’s marriage without the great number of public meetings for public purposes and the endless worry of individuals with reference to it.

There was a very general impression that manufactories were needed, and this was talked about so much, and so many inducements were offered, that the people became discouraged, believing that the average manufacturer had a wicked heart and a hollow head to thus wrong Twin Mounds in the face of his own interest; therefore we were very much surprised to learn once, after all hope had been abandoned, that a quiet man was building a woollen-mill down the river, which he completed and afterwards operated without the help of the committees which had been appointed to aid in such matters of public weal. The trouble was that the man lived in Twin Mounds, whereas we had been expecting a man and money to come from a distant point for that purpose, and had never thought of looking about home, but spent a great deal of money in sending committees away to make arrangements for a woollen-mill. This circumstance, although humiliating, proved a good thing, for it taught the people that, if the town were to be built up at all, it must be by its own citizens, which knowledge was afterwards used to good advantage.

The people were always miserable by reason of predictions that, unless impossible amounts of money were given to certain enterprises, the town would be ruined, and although they always gave, no sooner was one fund exhausted than it became necessary to raise another. It was said during the collection of each amount that it would never be necessary again to give to this sort of charity (as the enterprise then in hand would insure the future of Twin Mounds), but there was never an end to the ridiculous business, and we were always in a state of dreariness on this account, as the men demanding the charity for insignificant enterprises loudly threatened to go to the rival towns and permit the grass to grow in our streets. In thinking of the matter since, I have thought that Twin Mounds would have been a much better town but for the fact that it was always expecting improbable disaster, but which never came, for the people were thus prevented from exercising their energy, if they had any.

I never formed a good opinion of a man there that I was not finally told something to his discredit by another citizen, causing me to regard him with great suspicion, and if I said a good word for any of them, it was proved beyond question immediately that he was a very unscrupulous, a very ridiculous, a very weak, and a very worthless man. There were no friendships among them, and they all hated each other in secret, there being much quiet satisfaction when one of them failed. There seemed to be no regular aristocracy, either, for I heard so frequently how ignorant and awkward the prominent citizens were when they first came, that I finally found them all out. If Dr. Medicine told me what an unpromising lout the present magnificent Honorable Legal was when he first arrived, and how much difficulty he had in getting him introduced into respectable society, I was certain to meet Honorable Legal soon after, and hear him recite a similar experience with reference to Dr. Medicine. One of the stories, and I found afterwards that it was true, was that a man of ordinary worth, who seemed to be prosperous, had collected his money of a railroad company in the country he had moved from, because of an injury to his first wife, and that his second was enabled to go elegantly dressed because of the misfortune of the first. Thus it went on until I was familiar with the poor origin of all of them, and perhaps this was one reason why we did not respect one another more.

It was a popular expression that every one favorably mentioned was the “worst overrated man in America,” and the only real ability any of them ever displayed was in looking up the previous history of each other, which they carried on with great vigor, and frequently with alarming results. I began to believe in course of time that it was fortunate that the discreditable part of my history was well known, for it was the sooner forgotten, because it was not necessary to look up old records to find it out, and thus was not made worse than it really was.

Very few of the Twin Mounds men had positive opinions of their own, as they seemed to have got them second-handed from some source, and none of them was original or natural in his methods of conducting business, or in his habits. Two or three times a year most of them visited a city a good many miles away, where they spent a great deal of money they could not afford, to create an impression that they were accustomed to what they supposed was good society, and where they met men who filled their ideas of greatness. These they mimicked, each one choosing a different example; so it happened that the men of Twin Mounds were very ridiculous. There was a lawyer, I remember, who had met somewhere a distinguished member of his profession, who shook hands (Ho! ho!) with everybody, and (Ha! ha!) patronizingly wanted to know how they were getting along. It was not his natural way, and as he only adopted it because he believed it would make him popular, it became him very poorly. Perhaps it was very effective with the man the habit had been copied from, but it was very absurd with our citizen, whose pretence was that every man he shook hands with (and he shook hands cordially with everybody) was not getting along as well as he in his great compassion desired.

Another one, who carried on a business which one busy day would have exhausted, had heard of a man who achieved commercial greatness by finding fault (I am sure the man was mistaken, for no one ever made money in such a ridiculous way), and I never heard of anything that suited him. This he regarded as business shrewdness, and he finally became very sour in disposition because he was generally regarded as a fool instead of a prophet. Still another, naturally full of fool’s gab, carried on a bank in awful silence because he had heard that still water runs deep, though I have seen ponds of perfectly still water which were very shallow.

As I grew older, and began to notice more, I thought that every man in Twin Mounds had reason to feel humiliated that he had not accomplished more, but most of them were as conceited as though there was nothing left in the world worthy of their attention. Their small business affairs, their quarrels over the Bible, and an occasional term in the town council, or a mention for the legislature or a county office, satisfied them, and they were as content as men who really amounted to something.