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From At the Grass Roots, Comprising “The Christmas of 1883,” and Other Vagrant Sketches, by Elmer House (Dodd Gaston), with Cover Design and Frontispiece by Albert T. Reid, Topeka: Monotyped by Crane & Company, 1905; pp. 30-36.

Black and white sketch by Albert T. Reid, of Elmer House, sitting smoking a cigar at his desk.



We lived in what was known locally as the Doane neighborhood. It took its name from the schoolhouse, which had been built on the Doane farm. The family had moved away several years before, but the name stuck and still sticks, although it must be all of thirty years since the last Doane left the community.

The uplift at Doane rested pretty heavily on a Sunday-school library sent out from Massachusetts some years previous to the time of this chronicle, and the Doane Literary and Debating Society. The neighborhood was famous locally for the literary and debating society, which met in the schoolhouse every Friday night from October to April. In those days pretty nearly every country school district in Kansas had its “literary,” but none round about brought out such a famous array of debaters or such literary talents as gathered at Doane.

31Being a member of the “literary” was optional with those who attended. The membership fee was five cents, but nobody was barred from participation in the debate or literary program. Only members, however, could vote at the election of officers, or on matters affecting the society officially. The first office I ever held was that of treasurer of the Doane “literary,” and occasionally, when the society was flush, I had as much as sixty cents in my possession. The treasurer was also the purchasing agent of the society, and during my term of office I bought all the kerosene used and the lamp chimneys necessary to replace those broken at the meetings. Afterward I worked up to the position of secretary, and was editor of the paper one term when I was fourteen. In fact, the first editorial work I ever did was on the Doane Pulverizer, a local newspaper printed on foolscap and issued every two weeks. It was considered too great a 32 mental strain on the editor to issue the paper every week.

At the meetings of the society the literary program was always given before the debate. Between the two there was a recess of fifteen minutes, presumably to give the audience opportunity to get over the former. The literary program was made up of music, recitations, which were called declamations then, select readings, and an occasional essay. There was only one encyclopedia in the neighborhood, and as the owner loaned the volumes grudgingly, it was pretty hard to write an essay. Usually there were more select readings on the program than anything else, because it was a great deal easier to read a piece than it was to commit one to memory. When one did go to the trouble of committing something to memory he worked it pretty hard. Used to recite “Barbara Frietchie” an average of three times every winter, working it in alternate shifts 33 With “Darius Green” and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” When one was on the program and had failed to prepare anything, the polite form of getting out of it was to arise in his seat, make a bow to the president and say “Not prepared” in a soothing tone of voice.

During the recess the secretary made out the program for the next meeting, and it was read immediately preceding the debate. When the debate came on, the older men had their innings. The questions discussed were mostly of national import, and we often settled things at Doane before Congress had a chance at them. Once a month an easy subject was selected and the boys were given a chance at it. My first debating was done on the question as to whether art is more beautiful to the eye than nature. I had the negative and lost, all three of the judges being against me. I have found in later years that the judges were right: 34 a good many things in nature are greatly improved by the application of a little art. The art and nature question was a standard subject for discussion. They always started beginners on it, and allowed them to work gradually up to the tariff and woman suffrage.

The judges of the debate were usually chosen from among the men in the neighborhood who were not smart enough to be debaters. John Hance was nearly always a judge, although Johns’ knowledge of things with which the world was concerned began and ended with his ability to “top out” a wheat-stack so that it would shed the rain. Occasionally, distinguished visitors came from town to attend the “literary”: that is to say, men who expected to be candidates for county office at the next election. Such visitors were always treated with rare consideration. They were invited to debate, and permitted to choose the side of the question upon which they desired to 35 talk. If they did not care to debate they were solicited to act as judges. The Doane idea of hospitality and consideration was to invite visitors to take part in the “literary.”

Th ppaer was always made the last number on the program. The crowd was never much interested in the debate, and as the paper, which was always extremely personal, and which dealt chiefly with the love affairs of the young people of the neighborhood, was the most interesting feature, it was kept until the last in order that the talkers might not be embarrassed by having the audience melt away at an inopportune moment. Editing the paper was hard work. It consisted principally in finding rhymes which would bring the name of every young man in the neighborhood in close juxtaposition with that of some girl.

The time covered in this chronicle was of a date written much more frequently twenty years ago than at any subsequent 36 time. But reading the local paper not so long ago I noticed that a literary society to meet on Friday nights during the winter had been organized at the Doane schoolhouse.

Cover Design by Albert T. Reid, Green with Black Title and Illustration of Trees, Clouds and a Distant Old One-Story Farmhouse, with a Chimney. It has been cropped for the online text as a tailpiece for each page.

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