Meanwhile, Back in Iowa ...

One evening in the early winter of '64 found the neighborhood gathered at the schoolhouse, the occasion being a pie supper. Families from far and near had come by sleigh and cutter, with their offerings of pies. These would be auctioned off as the climax of the evening.

The Mills family was there, from Manning and Ursula, on down to the little boy, Ernest. Lucetta, Myra and Effie were dressed in their best ginghams, starched and spotless. Their brown hair was in ringlets, which bespoke of the time and effort before a mirror. They were nearly young ladies now. ... And the Mills boys, Harlow and Jay, chafing because they were years too young for the army ...

Nat Brian and his family were there, as were Jim Wilsons, Arthur Baers, and others. Candles twinkled merrily on the window sills, winking back at the bright stars flirting with them from the heavens. The pot-bellied stove burned noisily. Gay voices came from the farther end of the school-house where the young folks were playing games. There was a more sober hum from the other end where the adults were visiting.

"Guess you folks have heard about them new fangled oil lamps some folks has took to usin' stead of candles," said Jim Wilson. "Well, I bought one in at the store in Pleasantville last week. You know I've all'ays been one to try nick-nacks," he added apologetically. "Thought I'd bring it along and give a sort of demonstration tonight. Mind you, I don't say t' blow out the candles. A guy ain't never sure of these modern inventions till they've proved their stuff. An' some say these lamps is a passing fancy -- and a mighty dangerous one, at that." Jim had been carefully unpacking the lamp. It consisted of a shiny bowl-shaped container for oil; from the top of this extended a curious looking round wick, this being enclosed by a glass chimney. He placed it carefully on a desk.

"Land sakes!" chimed rotund Mrs. Baer. "Never thought I'd live to see such a contraption. Fred," she turned to a tall bronzed Mr. Baer, who was holding a chubby miniature of himself, "Don't you never bring one of them things home. I just won't run the risk of burning down our house." She stepped back, as did the others, when Jim began searching in his pockets for a match. The youngsters stopped their games to have a look at this queer device.

It was indeed one of the marvels of science, reluctantly the group agreed, as the lamp went into action. It not only lit the immediate vicinity, but sound effects accompanied it -- and as it sputtered away, slowly but surely, the interior of the chimney was coated with a smoky layer.

Now that the lamp was actually in operation, other topics claimed the conversation, though wary eyes kept returning to it. "They say an officer has been searching these parts again, for runaway slaves," offered Fred Whitney. "He won't find any. Nobody around here is fool enough to help them, since Josh Mote got caught with some."

"Poor Josh!" exclaimed Mrs. Wilson. "His family left with no one to carry on the field work except those twins, only 12 years old, and their Ma. And him just sittin' behind bars."

"That's what he gets for helpin' those consarned blacks," drawled Jim Wilson, mischievously eyeing Ursula Mills.

The expected rebuke was not slow in coming. "Now, Jim," chided Ursula, "Can a man help it if his skin is black? Hasn't he got the same feelings as you, and the same love for his family? How'd you like to have your own Jim Jr. dragged from your arms and hear, sold down river to mourn for his loved ones, and work his life away in slavery? No more does a black skinned brother care for such treatment! How can you speak as you do?"

Now Nat Brian realized that it wasn't safe for an abolitionist who carried his convictions so far as to belong to the Underground Railroad to air his views to any great extent publicly. He also knew that to keep altogether quiet on the subject would be inviting suspicion. So he had cautioned his family to say very little on the subject, not express any violent opinions.

Manning and Ursula Mills also realized these things. But the heartrending wails of the blacks had so penetrated their very souls that they felt they should take a stand firmly on the side they felt to be right. ... So on this evening Ursula had taken up the cudgel for a downtrodden people. She and Manning continued to do so, with little help.

The majority of opinion by far weighed on the other side of the scale. It seemed the consensus of opinion that a negro who had escaped from his master should be returned just as a cow or horse would be.

"We ain't got no call to take a man's property and help him escape," argued Jim. He had lived neighbor to the Mills family several years, and they'd become well acquainted. They were the best of friends; and though Jim and his wife suspected their neighbors of having some connection with the Underground Railway, never would they have given their friends away.

"Them blacks were made to do our dirty work," put in Arthur Baer. "They ain't fit for nothin' else. If they were even put on a level with us whites, even the abolitionists would live to regret the day."

"The arch-abolitionists are love and justice," quietly put in Manning.

"Say Ursula," parried Jim, knowing he had struck one subject for which she would have no answer. "You think these niggers are as good as us, and you stick up for them tooth and toenail. How'd you like to have one of your girls, say Lucetta, marry one of 'em?"

But there was no chance for Ursula to give an answer ... For at that moment, the kerosene lamp, as if it could no longer stand the lack of attention it was receiving since the conversation took on an argumentative turn, began to sputter in earnest. Those who were sitting near it drew back. The owner, after hesitating momentarily, lifted the offending article gingerly, carried it to the door and tossed it out into a snowbank. So ended the career of the first lamp in the community.

"Back to your games, children," advised Jim, "Never mind the lamp. And may that be a lesson to you. You'd best stick to the tried and true, and forget new-fangled notions!"

"Spin the platter is the next game," called one of the boys. And, as Jay pounced upon the spinning lid, the tight trousers which he wore, and of which he was so proud because they were certainly in style, did the only the only thing that trousers could be expected to do when the strain becomes too great. They ripped! And it was no half-hearted sort of a job. In fact, it was so thorough a ripping that the crowd was convulsed with laughter. Even Jay, who was a practical joker himself, could see the joke. He laughed at his own predicament, as he backed into a far corner and sat down. ...

"Looks to me like this is a good time to eat pie, since we can all do that job sitting down," laughed the auctioneer. So the pies were auctioned off, and a neighborly evening came to a close. As the cutters and bobsleds pulled out of the school yard, one sleighful started singing "Jingle Bells," and soon the air rang with the merry tune, accompanied by the sleigh bells on the horses.

This story, as told by Ernest Mills, was written by his daughter, Marjorie Mills Vandervelde and transcribed in 1980 by Ursula Mills Johnson. The setting is Clay County, Iowa. Ernest Mills, who refers to himself as "the little boy" in this account, moved to Missouri with his mother and sister Isabelle after his father died in 1868 but returned to Iowa after receiving his medical degree and practiced for more than 40 years in LeGrand.

Links page link
Links to Letters and Diary Entries

Home Page link
Home Page

Comments may be addressed to Larry Pearson,