Friday, 1 January 2016


How the years go flying, especially after one has passed the threescore mark; but it is only a step, and there you are, fourscore. It is not much a long, long way to Tipperary after all. This old Muser has passed the fourscore mark, last Wednesday being the anniversary of his advent into this bright and happy world. It has truly been a bright and happy world to me, barring some of the crosses that now and then come to all, but nothing of a serious nature. I have thought that this would be a good time for me to blow my own horn a little; I have been the musical director for scores of old-time Hamiltonians during the fifteen or sixteen years that I have been writing these Saturday Musings.  To begin with, I entered this life on the eleventh day of November, 1834, in an underground fort on the banks of the St. Lawrence river, in the old town of Coteau du Lac. The intention was to have me born in Ballyholly, Ireland, where my father was born. But a soldier’s life is not in his own keeping, and the regiment to which my father belonged, the Twenty-Fourth Foot, was ordered to Canada from Ireland some two or three months too soon to carry out the program. I was reared in a military barracks till eight years of age, when my dear father passed to the other world, leaving my mother with four children to care for, I being the oldest. Substantially about all the schooling I got was in a barracks school, where the course of study was confined to the three R’s, with a smattering of grammar and geography sandwiched in. My school days ended at the mature age of ten years, when I had to begin the battle of life to help pay the expenses of the family. Not being particular as to what I worked at, I was fortunate in never being out of a job; and the same kind fortune has followed me for seventy years, during which time I have been always in employment. At the age of twelve, I got a job in the Montreal Herald office to learn the printing business, and being the latest apprentice, I was handed the broom by the boy who preceded me and duly installed as office sweeper and sorter of pi and carrier of a route on that paper. I held on to the job for quite a while, the stipend of one dollar a week being an incentive to duty, but when the time came for me to be advanced to the high and responsible office of ‘devil’ I had to resign, not being strong enough to handle the roller. But I persevered in my ambition to become a printer, and when our family moved to London, I got a job in the Free Press office as roller boy under Charles Kidner, one of the kindest instructors a boy ever had. I worked in London for two years on the Free Press and on the Prototype, then I turned the toes of my yarn stockings, as Colonel Robert Ingersoll once remarked, toward the rising sun and came to Hamilton in the summer of 1850. That was in the days before the streets of Hamilton were lighted with gas, and the Great Western railway was beginning to loom up through the cut half way down to the bay, and waterworks were only a dream. I arrived in Hamilton by the old stage line in the evening, and the next morning, I got work in the Journal and Express office at the princely sum of $2.50 per week, when the editor was in funds. In those days, four printer boys boarded with ‘Dick’ Donnelly’s aunt, paying her $1.50 per week. It was a small price, and the kind-hearted woman made nothing out of it, furnishing good, healthy food to four hungry fellows. I was fortunate in getting a more desirable job in the Christian Advocate office, but the weekly stipend was not advanced. In the fall of 1852, another Advocate apprentice and myself decided to go to the United States, and we landed in Rochester late one night with only fifteen cents between us. Hungry and tired after our trip on the cars, we put up a bold face and stopped at one of the large hotels near the depot. The next morning, we told the landlord of our impoverished condition, said we were printers from Canada looking for work, and the first money we earned he should be paid. He was a kind-hearted man, believed our story, and told us to go into breakfast, and he would talk to us afterwards. He invited us to stay at the hotel till we got work, and gave us a deal of fatherly advice. That morning I got work in the first printing office I went into, and I was cheered by meeting Jack Cliff, an old Hamilton printer. The first work I made more than enough to settle my bill at the hotel, for the landlord put the rate down very low, and then I bade him goodbye and got board in a private house. Board was very cheap in those days, and the food was of the best, charge being only $1 a week.




          I remained in Rochester a couple of years and joined the first printers’ society organized in that city. The scale of wages was twenty cents a thousand for solid bourgeois, which the ordinary hands set, the local, commercial and advertisements being departments given to the older men. At the first meeting of the society the question of a scale of wages was discussed, and twenty-five cents was the price demanded. The proprietors objected to such a heavy raise, and they offered a compromise, but the younger fellows held out for the demand. Finally the younger element was outvoted, and the scale fixed at twenty-three cents. I was getting the wanderlust, so I decided to quit and go and see the great city of New York. When I arrived there, I found scores of printers like myself hunting for work, times being bad; and finally I took a job at Peekskill at $7 a week as foreman of an office in which there was only one boy myself to boss. I remained in Peekskill for about a year and then got homesick and returned to Hamilton. The Banner was then about to start and I was just in time to get a job. The Banner was first started as a semi-weekly, and in time it became a daily. At the head of the office were two first-class printers, and the third member of the firm was ‘Billy’ Brown, whose father was the angel who furnished the cash. The Great Western railway company was then organizing its departments in Hamilton, and through the influence of Issac Buchanan, who then was a leading man with the heads of the departments, the Banner was fortunate in getting a large share of the job printing., which was profitable work at that time. The Banner was the organ of the Great Western, and Mr. Buchanan wrote the leading editorial in its interests. With all its financial backing, the Banner did not make headway, and after three or four years, it was sold to a syndicate, with Tom Gray as the business manager. The Spectator had the leading position as a daily, until the death in 1858, of Robert Smiley, the original proprietor and editor, and then the Times took the lead for a time while Hugh B. Willson was the managing editor. But, we’re not writing newspaper history.




          I worked only a few months in the Banner office, when I returned to the Advocate, where I remained until the spring of 1859, holding for a time the position of assistant foeman. In 1857 came the great panic that paralyzed the industries of Canada and the United States. At that time, Hamilton was not much of a manufacturing town, there being only a few local industries. Any one of the large factories in the city today employ more men than did all of the workshops in 1857. The printing business suffered in the panic, and it was only in the two daily offices that part of a full force was employed. In the Advocate office there were ten journeymen, and a number of boys employed, and the time came that the force would have to be reduced. The men, among themselves, agreed to work half-time, and this being satisfactory to the managers, we went to work at seven in the morning and quit at noon. The boys were kept on full-time, but their wages were small, and they boarded with the manager; it did not pay to reduce their time. Notwithstanding the hard times of ’57, I mustered up courage to get married, and for months we had to get along on the very small wages I earned. My wife was a good manager. We stood it as long as we could, it being hard work to leave the old home and go out into the world to pastures new. Finally, the break came, and one day in a fit of desperation, I threw up my job, sold our furniture for $50 that had cost us over $300, and away we went to Cincinnati, Ohio. It was the turning point for me, for the morning I got to Cincinnati I got work, and never was a day idle of necessity till I sold out my own printing office, having saved enough to keep my wife and myself the remainder of our days. When the civil war in the United States broke out, I got what we might call in those days the war lust, and as President Lincoln called for 75,000 men for three months, we thought the war would be of short duration. I enlisted in a company of printers, and when the three months were up, I concluded that I had done my share, and was ready to quit. I then bought a broken-down printing at Oxford, Ohio, and went out there to make my fortune Oxford was a college town, there being a university for young men, and three colleges for young  women. The presidents of the colleges were kind to me, and gave me the catalogues and other printing to do. Fortunately, I had learned the printer’s trade from the roller up, and then it was that my education in that line stood to my advantage. I had only about $1.26 when I bought the office, but the man who owned it had taken it for a debt, and knew nothing about the printing business, he gladly sold it to me without any money down. It took me about a year and a half to get out of debt and pay off the mortgage, ad the war fever running high, every young man in Oxford having gone into the army, I and the boys that were working for me, enlisted in a company that was then being organized in Oxford, and the office was closed until the cruel war was over. After the war, I took up my work where I had laid it down to carry a musket and stand up to be a target to be shot at for $16 a month in greenbacks, which was about thirty-three cents in gold on the dollar part at the time, that being the pay of a corporal.



          In the year 1870, I sold my paper in Oxford, and bought another in Oberlin, Ohio, where I remained for a couple of years, and then sold out to buy another paper, The Public, in Clinton, Illinois, where I spent twenty-five years. For nine of the years in Clinton, I had the honor of being postmaster, which paid me about $1500 a year, which I foolishly spent in politics. The Public was a prosperous investment, but I never had the faculty of saving money till a few years before retiring from business. My first saving was in buying $1,000 worth of stock in the De Witt County National bank, for which I had to borrow the money, and it was wonderful to me how quick I paid it off. Here let me say that the best thing a young man can do is to go into debt for something of value, and then pay it out as quickly as possible. It is the hardest proposition to save the first thousand dollars, but while you are saving it you are gaining a valuable lesson in economy. For sixteen years, I had the honor of being a director and the vice-president in the bank, but as neither directors nor the vice-president got any salary, it was purely an honorary position.




          Nineteen years ago, I retired from the printing business and have been like a fish out of water ever since. It doesn’t pay to give up your life work till you get so old and helpless that you cannot stand up to the rack any longer. There is nothing like an active life to keep one young and vigorous. Seventeen years ago I came back to Hamilton after forty years’ absence, though making occasional visits during that time. As a mental recreation, I have endeavored in the Saturday Musings to interest the present day generation with the ancient Hamiltonians of fifty and sixty years ago. How far I have succeeded it is for the readers of the Musings to say. Last Wednesday I reached my wightieth birthday, and as I have written of other ancient Hamiltonians, the question suggested itself to me, why not tell your own story before the undertaker calls for you? Let me say, in conclusion, that to me life has been one sweet song with only an occasional discordant note. I never used liquor, even for medicinal purposes, and have never been out of a job since I began to work at ten years of age.


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