University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Boyhood Days at Moreton Farm, My Father's Story

Volume XXXV   • 1982
Boyhood Days at Moreton Farm: My Father's Story

Mrs Reynolds wrote these reminiscences in 1940 when her father, Edward Harris, was alive and told her of his boyhood experiences on the farm of his uncle, Joseph Harris.


In 1850, the ship London set sail for New York from Liverpool, England, carrying among her other passengers a well-to-do English farmer named Henry Harris and part of his numerous family. Only his wife, two sons, and five daughters accompanied him on this voyage. One of his sons, Joseph, was already in America. A fourth son was left behind in England; calling on his girl in the town of Berkenhead, he was so beguiled he missed the ship and remained behind forever.

The voyage across the Atlantic was rough, but although members of the family were very seasick, they ate all the provisions that they brought on board and were forced to take food offered them by some of the other passengers.

It is certain that many longing, backward thoughts went out to the shady lanes, to the neatly hedged and ditched fields, and to the well-built and commodious red-brick farmhouse at Shawbury in Shropshire, which had been their home before they set forth.

The staunchest member of the family was Edward, my grandfather, the youngest son, the one who recorded the trip in his journal. He seems to have derived much interest and satisfaction from the whole experience. Perhaps even then he avoided the consequences of a rough sea by eating walnuts, a practice he recommended all his life as a sure cure for seasickness.

One thought they must have held before them during their long days at sea: Joseph would meet them in America!

Henry Harris decided to leave England because the new Corn Laws, which permitted the importation of tax-free corn, threatened to ruin the English farmer. His first idea was to settle in New Zealand, but, on further consideration, the distance seemed too great. He ended by sending his son Joseph and nephew James to look for a farm in the United States, preferably in the state of Delaware.

Joseph and James, on arriving in New York, went to a boardinghouse and it was there that a chance conversation with a fellow boarder made them change their plans. They never went to Delaware as they had intended, for they heard the fertility and beauty of the land near the Genesee River in the vicinity of Rochester, New York, so praised that they decided to go there. They bought a farm in the town of Gates on the west side of the river.

When the Harris family finally arrived in the United States, they took a train to Rochester. There Joseph met them at the New York Central station with two hayricks, and the family, with all their paraphernalia, were driven out the Buffalo Road toward the new farm. Where the New York Central tracks cross the highway, the wagon in which young Edward was riding missed by inches being struck by a train -- a violent portent of his later close association with the New York Central!

The farm in Gates proved to be a place of ill omen. The well seems to have been contaminated, for within three months after their arrival two of the children sickened and died. What is known of the circumstances seems to bear out this conclusion.

The father never adapted himself to the new country; he was too old to be successfully transplanted. The story goes that, after he had been here only about two months, he was one day standing by the edge of an unfenced field watching a farmer plow when he saw the plow strike a stone. The farmer simply deflected the plow and, passing around the stone, continued on his way. At the sight of such shiftlessness, Henry gave up all hope; his spirit died within him. He took to his bed, and a few weeks later his body was consigned to the alien land.

At this point, the family sold the farm and went to Rochester to live. Edward walked the streets looking for a job as errand boy in a store. His efforts were unsuccessful and it was quite by chance that he procured his first employment. This is how it came about. Every night he worked industriously, digging up the ground to make a garden in back of their lodging. A neighbor who observed the determination and zeal the boy put into his digging remarked, "That boy will make a success of his life," and recommended him to a friend, one Henry Ives, who gave Edward a job as an errand boy at a dollar a week in his law office. From this slender springboard of opportunity Edward launched himself into a lawyer's career that eventually included the position of local counsel for the New York Central Railroad, president of the Security Trust Company, counsel, attorney, trustee, and dominant power in the Rochester Savings Bank, and provider for a large family of children and many relations.

Edward Harris married Emma Hall, whom he met at a social gathering at the Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, and their youngest son, Edward (Ned), was my father. It is Father's recollections of his boyhood days at his Uncle Joseph's farm that I wish to set down.

Moreton Farm, named after the farm at Moreton Corbet that the Harrises rented before they moved to Shawbury, was purchased by Uncle Joseph Harris when the ill-omened farm near Gates was abandoned. The new farm, situated near Coldwater and very near the original site of the family settlement, is a place of as happy recollection as the other was of sad. It stands today prosperous and famous as a great seed-exporting industry, its name known and respected throughout the four corners of the nation and in foreign lands.

It was about 1882, when my father was seven years old, that he could begin to remember clearly the impressions that were so vivid and happy to him of his weekend visits to his Uncle Joseph's and Aunt Sarah's farm, where he played with his young cousins, Mary, Selah, Margaret, and Julia.

Father claimed his arrival in the world was unplanned and unwanted. He heard as a little child that his father, on learning that a seventh child was expected, had remarked as he picked up his gold pen and started to work on a legal document, "Well, one more chicken to scratch for." His mother, who was far from strong at the time of his birth, was reduced to tears at the prospect of another baby and was comforted by her mother, who said, "Emma, this child may prove to be the joy and comfort of your life."

From his earliest days, the country always appealed to Father more than the city and so he looked forward to his weekends at Moreton Farm with eager pleasure. At three o'clock Friday afternoons the local train, warmed by its coal-burning stove, puffed out of the Rochester station and arrived at its first stop of Coldwater at three-thirty. Always, he descended the train steps to find his Cousin Julia waiting for him in the four-wheeled cart, pulled by Joe, the fat farm pony. Mungo, the big black Newfoundland, sat expectantly by the pony's head, his intelligent eyes watching for little Ned's arrival.

There is a picture of Father taken about this time. He is sitting on a papier-mâché rock, his feet neatly encased in buttoned boots, a smart straw sailor hat with short ribbons, held in his hand. If he was compelled to travel in any such costume, I am sure, knowing Father, the hat was thrown into the back of the cart and the button boots discarded as soon as possible.

One time when Cousin Julia was driving the fat pony, the reins broke and Joe started for home, at a sensible trot. Cousin Julia, acting with what she thought was great presence of mind, in the absence of reins, grabbed the pony's tail and, bracing her feet on the dashboard, pulled with all her might . Joe, who up to then had been behaving perfectly reasonably, was outraged at having his tail pulled. His trot became a canter and as Cousin Julia persisted in pulling, the canter became a gallop and soon the cart overturned and Cousin Julia landed on a soft grassy bank. I believe Father, this time, was not in the cart, but only a witness to the final episode.

The usual procedure, however, was a quiet jog home from the station to the white clapboard farmhouse; then an afternoon on the farm, and in the seedhouse, where Father helped his cousins wrap seed catalogues for mailing, which made him feel very important. It was fun to play in the seedhouse, in the grain elevator that carried big bags to the second floor. There was a wonderful smell of dusty grain and burlap bag.

Uncle Joseph smoked his long, clay church-warden pipe filled with his favorite tobacco, "Fruits and Flowers." When the pipe needed a good freshening, he put it in the seedhouse stove to burn out the bowl.

Friday nights Uncle Joseph told stories after supper in front of the fire. These stories were about the adventures of Jimmie Brown. There is one tale that Father remembered clearly; it was filled with the most acute suspense.

"Jimmie Brown, it seems, was walking beside a marsh when he noticed a flock of wild geese. There was a boathouse with open doors nearby, and suddenly Jimmie had a great inspiration. Why not try to capture the wild geese by shutting them in the boathouse? Then he could kill them and salt them down to provide food for his family against the winter. Jimmie quietly went to a corncrib and provided himself with ears of dried corn. These he husked and laid the kernels in a trail from the edge of the marsh to, and on into, the boathouse. Then he hid himself and watched and waited.

"The geese spy the corn at the water's edge and begin to pick it up. Slowly, they follow the trail to the boathouse. Now, something alarms them! And they fly away, only to return and resume their slow peck, pecking progress to the boathouse.

"They become suspicious! They run back! Then they return to the corn! They crane their necks forward to peer into the boathouse-become suspicious and retreat a few steps!

"Jimmie fears they will never go in. Now they face about and a bold one steps forward-another step-another slow, hesitating step, another. He's inside! Will the others follow? One more chances it, then another one, and another one. All are in! Jimmie closes the door. He has them!"

The suspense had been almost unbearable. It was necessary for the children to refresh themselves with a drink of cold cider before going up to bed. The cider barrels were kept in a corner of the cellar. It was dark and spooky as they descended the cellar stairs. They lighted their steps with a candle and went down cautiously until their feet touched the damp earth floor. Groping their way in the dancing shadows, they straddled the cider barrels and sucked the tart cider from the bung holes with straws. When they came up, they toasted themselves thoroughly in front of the fire before going to their cold bedrooms.

Often at night, tramps came and asked to sleep in the hay mow in the barn. Uncle Joseph would let them, but first he searched their pockets for matches. Every farmer fears fire in hay and straw.

In the autumn, Ned was allowed to follow along when Uncle Joseph and Cousin Selah took Dash, the pointer, and went hunting for partridge and woodcock down in the willows and in the adjoining woods. When a bird was shot, Ned was allowed to carry the game. Sometimes his short legs became tired pushing through the high, stiff weeds that to his small person were proportionately almost as tall as trees. There was a certain kind of weed whose dry pods made a terrifying, popping noise and Ned would struggle manfully to keep his uncle's legs in sight in these threatening thickets of noise and clinging twigs.

Saturday night, well fed and tired, the family gathered around the fire to hear the next chapter of one of Dickens's novels read aloud by Aunt Sarah. These regular Saturday night readings continued from week to week and were anticipated with much enthusiasm.

Another pleasant feature of the autumn was the coming of the spare little seamstress, Miss Burke. She sat in the cozy sewing room, her head with its smooth hair parted in the middle bent over her task of refurbishing the family clothes. Ned watched her swift fingers plying the thread, while Julia read aloud from one of the Castleman books: trashy thrillers full of incredible adventures.

On Thanksgiving, Ned came out with his whole family for Thanksgiving dinner. The Rochester Harrises, knowing full well the feast that would be spread for them at Moreton Farm, and determined to bring to the collation an appetite worthy of the occasion, would run beside the family surrey as the horses trotted out the Buffalo Road toward Coldwater.

And how necessary it was to have a roaring appetite, for the traditional fare was oyster soup, boiled turkey, roast turkey, chicken pie, ham, roast duck, vegetables of various sorts, hot biscuits, apple pie, mince pie, pumpkin pie, and ice cream. To summon Selah to this and every other meal, his sister Margaret would stand beside the house and call "See-la" and the peacocks on the lawn would spread their tails and screech in reply.

The Country Harrises and the Town Harrises met regularly on Sundays as well as Thanksgiving, for the Moreton Farm Harrises drove into Rochester to church in the "Ark," a commodious conveyance swung on leather straps. When going along the road, it had a strange up-and-down motion like the pitching of a ship. Ned came into Rochester with them and was returned to his family after church.

The wintertime was made cheerful by the sound of sleighs passing the farm, their bells ringing and jingling as they passed by. Mungo could always tell the sound of the bells on the Moreton Farm sleighs and would rise up and run to the door, long before anyone else could know that someone who belonged on the farm was coming home.

There were evening sleigh ride parties when the children snuggled into deep straw and under Buffalo robes, their feet kept warm by hot soapstones. After the moonlight ride was over, the whole crowd returned for a hot oyster stew in the warmth of the seedhouse.

One dark, snowy winter evening, Father and Cousin Julia had said good night and had started for the stairs. As they passed a porch window they saw a face-a mad, wild face-peering in the window at them. Without a word they returned to the fire and sat down on the fender, much shaken but saying not a word. After sitting pale and silent for some time, they finally confessed what they had seen. It transpired that a poor creature had escaped from the Asylum. Uncle Joseph hitched up a sleigh and drove her back that night, but always for Father that window had an eerie quality; it had once on a cold night framed a face with mad eyes.

One of the events of the weekend that Father particularly enjoyed was the trip to the Coldwater railroad post office for the mail. Cousin Julia drove Joe in the four-wheeled cart and Ned was allowed to go along. It was on one of these jaunts that the cart hit a bad bump on the road, and Ned, who was sitting in back, was bounced right out of it. He was very young when this disaster occurred, but he long remembered his feeling of desolation as the cart disappeared down the road with Cousin Julia, completely unmindful of the fact that she had lost her passenger.

A regular event that made this trip to get the mail particularly interesting was Mungo, the black Newfoundland's, way of dealing with the blacksmith's mastiff who lived on the way to the post office and who for some reason was his enemy. Father said that Mungo was smart enough to realize that he would lose in a pitched battle and his defense therefore was attack. He would hurl himself like a catapult at the mastiff and bowl him right over. Before the mastiff could regain his feet, Mungo would be well along down the road and too far away to catch. No matter how many times Mungo did this, the mastiff never became wiser and it fascinated Father to see how, each time, Mungo succeeded in the same maneuver.

When the red-wing blackbirds were heard in the locust trees outside his window in the early morning, Father always realized with a lift of his spirits that spring had come.

On moonlight evenings in the spring, Father liked to stand with his older cousin Selah, to whom he was devoted, at the edge of the south lot and watch the snipe and listen to their circular drumming flight. Mist hung above the cooling wet ground and nature spoke to him comfortingly and mysteriously as it did so often all his life.

He slept in the Green Room, the name for the spare bedroom, whose windows looked out over the broad lawn, shaded by locust trees, to the Buffalo Road. The bed was very large and poor little Ned was small and scared. Selah was persuaded by Aunt Sarah to sleep with him in the big bed. This filled up some of the empty spaces and made Ned feel safe and cozy.

In summer, Father sometimes was wakened during the night by the farm ducks who marched round and round the house in the moonlight, quacking noisily. They seemed to have some sort of moonlight ritual procession that only they understood. In general, however, Father must have slept well, for he can remember waking one summer morning and finding the soles of his feet, which he had kicked out of the covers, a mass of mosquito bites. The hordes of mosquitoes that came in through the screenless windows had not wakened him.

A splendid pastime in the summer was shooting rats in the red horse barn across the road opposite the house. Father and Cousin Selah would crouch in a stall and fire as one showed itself in the opposite stall and ran across the floor of the barn. Once the hay was caught on fire by a bit of flaming wadding from the gun. The terrified boys put it out with difficulty.

One of the barns was struck by lightning one August afternoon. Father was standing on the front porch with Cousin Selah and the crash left him numb and dazed. But this time too, by a miracle, the barn did not burn.

A hired man on the farm gave Uncle Joseph a great deal of trouble. The man was sent to Rochester every Saturday afternoon for supplies and often the evening wore on with no sign of his return. As he had taken one of the farm teams, Cousin Selah could easily locate his whereabouts The team was invariably tied to the hitching post of the last saloon on the Buffalo Road, all the others having been visited first. Cousin Selah would find the hired man inside, completely dead to the world. He would lug the inert form to the farm wagon, dump it in, and drive the team home himself.

It is evident that Uncle Joseph had many small problems on the farm as well as the big one of making a go of it financially, although there was never a scarcity of fun for the children, nor scrimping of good, wholesome food. Uncle Joseph was a scientific and theoretical farmer but his practical handling of matters left something to be desired. His knowledge and ability had been recognized by Cornell University, which made him the first professor of agriculture at that institution. Still, Moreton Farm lost money and one day there was to be an auction of farm property to pay the bills.

Father and Cousin Margaret stood hand in hand in the one-storied office of the seedhouse as the auctioneer knocked down the farm tools and equipment. It was a very dreary moment in the children's lives. But one person bid in everything. Edward Harris, Sr., set his brother back on his feet again.

Moreton Farm was off to a fresh start. Cousin Selah was old enough now to take over to some extent, and his wise and businesslike guidance, and that of his sister Margaret and later her husband, made a brilliant success of the Joseph Harris Company.

Father's roots went very deep in the soil of Moreton Farm. I fancy that as he attended director's meetings of the Joseph Harris Company, sometimes he saw his boyhood self coming around the corner of the old house with Selah, on the way to the barn, to shoot rats.


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