UNIQUE CHARACTERS AND MEETINGS.
I mentioned the fact that Waverly had some unique characters in its pioneer days. Dr. Oscar Burbank was the wag and joker among them. A superior doctor and devoted to his profession. My recollection is he was the first doctor to locate in Waverly and he spent more than a half century there in active practice. For years a baby couldn’t well be born unless Doc was present and started it in life. He never had a case that was so desperate he would not tell a story or crack a joke some time in his treatment of the patient. He once said, “People say I am frivolous and heartless in my profession. Nothing is further from the truth than that, but I learned early that jollity is good medicine for most everybody and I carry a lot of it in one end of my pill bags.” In later years I have reached the conclusion that his philosophy was sound and his practice rational.
Among the early settlers in the town was Hiram Holbrook, a blacksmith, whose shop was located on the south side of Bremer avenue, near the east end of the bridge. He lived in the shop, it was his palace. Never married, so far as anyone knew, and devoted to his work. He wore the same suit of clothes from the time they were new until worn out so that they would not hand on him any longer. From his color, it was hard to tell whether he was a black or a white man. In the town was John Gothard, a mulatto, a good citizen, and the proprietor of an addition to Waverly. To tease Holbrook, some of the mischievious young fellows would drop around to his shop and in a confidential way inquire of him whether or not he was related to Mr. Gothard. Before doing so, however, they would edge about so as to be near the door and to know the coast was clear, for about that time the air would be so full of horse shoes or any other piece of iron accessible for quick use. For some several days the fellow who had ventured to stir old Hiram up would keep away from his shop.
Doc Burbank was very fond of teasing him, and because they both came from Maine, he presumed sometimes to go too far, and Hiram would order him out of the shop and forbid his return. But time would soften the old man’s temper and Doc would venture to visit him again. Doc kept a human skeleton in a secret room at his home, and when Hiram learned this fact he cut Doc’s company all that he could. The teasers soon found out there was a break between them, and Hi gave it out that he believe Doc was waiting for the time to come when he would dissect his (Hiram’s) bones, and from that time he was irreconcilable toward the doctor, and would not let him enter the shop. To stir the old man to high pitch, the boys would guardedly mention the skeleton to him, which was certain to draw out from him a lecture upon the brutality of doctors in general and of Burbank in particular.
The younger generation about town also loved to tease him. He had a habit of whistling, without tune, but in time with the blows on the iron as he fashioned it into the required shape. The boys soon became adept at mimicing him. They would get as nearly in front of the shop door as safety would allow and commence whistling, then take to their heels as the hammer or anything that he happened to have in his hands would be thrown at them with all the strength and accuracy he could command.
But for all his peculiarities and quick temper, he was a good smith and was very accommodating to those who sought his services. Many is the meal he missed that he might help some one who had a break-down in harvest or threshing time. He could always be depended on in emergencies.
In the early part of the year 1857, C.T. Smeed arrived in town and purchased the Republican from H. A. Miles. Smeed was total stranger, so far as I know, to all the people of Bremer county. He was a highly educated man and of a pronounced literary turn of mind. His writings were scholarly, his style courteous, polite, always logical and often deeply philosophical. He was dogmatic and persistent in his opinions and manner; strictly partisan in his politics, and decidedly heterodox in his religious expressions. He was a man of broad visions and, as I now believe, about a half a century in advance of the times in which he lived.
No sooner had he taken charge of the only paper in the town, or the county at that time, than it was apparent it would be run on different lines than it had been from its advent. Instead of being a strictly local paper, and the organ of the republican party, it became the personal expression of the editor’s opinions. Local matters were only incidents with Smeed; the chief mission of the paper was to promulgate his individual opinions. In those days there was no news service at all, only one little stub of railroad in the state, which was from Davenport to Muscatine. No telegraph news at all, and only a weekly mail came to Waverly by a Jim Crow stage line, which bad roads or bad weather was liable to delay from hours to days. No “patent insides” or power presses, nothing beyond the old Washington hand press. The type was all set by the printer, and the matter furnished by the editor. Not much news from the outside world reached us then. Society news was unknown in those days. This situation gave Smeed the opportunity to furnish editorials, from a stickful to two columns in length and most of them were as dry as sawdust. While the long and ponderous articles were not particularly interesting to the average readers, they were instructive and helped many a young man to start out on higher grades with the ambition to conquer larger fields.
Smeed lacked the social qualities that a country editor must have to be a popular leader. To be a good mixer is worth a good deal, and often does more to help the fellow along in the race of life than does polished equipment. Smeed was not a mixer, he was always serious, and rarely ever could see the point to a joke or a ludicrous situation. The following circumstance illustrates his matter-of-fact make-up:
When he took over the Republican, at the head stood the letters, “C.Tarbox Smeed, Editor and Proprietor.” The gang of mischievous teasers measured him up and were very anxious to have some sport at his expense. They inquired cautiously how it happened that he had the queer name of C. Tarbox. He was reticent and unsatisfactory in explaining, but his sincerity was plain. So they agreed to invite him to make an address, and then explain what he had hinted to be an interesting part of his naming. He consented. The old stone school house located northeast of the court house was the Mecca for all sorts of meetings, from the divine service down to debates. To it all classes of the people went at some time or other. It was the place of wisdom, worship, political caucuses, polemics, and mischief. It was the mass hall of the town. The meeting was called and the room was crowded on that evening to hear his address, and more especially to hear how it happened he bore the odd and singular name of C. Tarbox.
When the audience assembled in the school house to hear Mr. Smeed, Dave Clark was elected chairman. This was eminently proper, because he, more than any other person, was responsible for the unique meeting. It was a mixed assemblage. Quite a number of the best people in town were there in high glee, and ready to get all the sport out of the occasion as possible. Even W. P. Harmon was there. His presence was not for the fun of the gang expected, but for the purpose of measuring Mr. Smeed, who was much of an enigma that Mr. Harmon was anxious to size him up.
The room was crowded; but perfectly orderly. Smeed seemed the least concerned person present. It was his opportunity, as well as the sporty fellows’, he was prepared to make the most capital for himself while he pleased the “gang.”
Clark, knowing he was to be chairman, was ready with a most polite and courteous speech of acceptance of the honor of being called upon to preside at such a meeting of respectable citizines of the future “Lowell of the West.” He really made a fine speech and set everyone at perfect ease.
Dave’s introduction of the speaker of the evening was a masterpiece for a frontier town, in matter and in form, and was received with rapturous applause. The reception of the speaker was no less hearty and cordial.
Smeed was a peculiar looking man. His manner was easy and calm. He knew he was on trial before a jury whose friendship he wanted to win. He thanked them for the invitation to address them and then launched out into a discussion of the high privileges accorded to young men in this country to be of great value in building up a high standard of manhood and citizenship. He strenuously urged that the true philosophy of life was to be in earnest. He pursued this line of thought to some length and some of his deductions were keen as rapier cuts, but well concealed by his vein of candor and earnestness. His address was quite lengthy, so much so that uneasiness was manifest on the back seats, where the “gang” were grouped. A suspicion stole upon them that Smeed had out-generaled them, and they were likely to be the victims of the well-planned scheme to have a lot of sport at his expense. But he played fair, and finally reached the pitch of the meeting, which ended up in about this way: He recited the anxiety of his friends to know it happened that he bore such a queer name. As near as I recollect he put it this way: “In the year 1829, in the state of New York, a male child was born, who was given the name of Caesar, in memory of the man who conquered the world. The child grew into healthy boyhood, until he reached the age of six years, when, to distinguish him from his namesake, the boy added the more euphonius one of Tarbox, since which time he has been satisified to treat the name bestowed upon him by his parents as a pseudonym, and to be known as C. Tarbox Smeed. When he concluded the explanation, the “meeting was out,” and the boys realized they had the information they sought, but nothing more on Smeed. It was a clear case of failure to trap or embarrass the new editor.
Smeed had very little care for society, and as I recollect, had few, if any, close friends; and yet he was friendly with everybody. He was indifferent to his personal appearance or dress, but was a student of books and theories, a dreamer devoted to philosophies of politics, religion and science. In politics he was a radical abolitionist and affiliated with the republicans; in religion a theosophist, and a scientist who adjusted the principles to sustain his theories.
In 1858, when the Cedar river was higher than ever before known, the water flooded East Water street so it filled the basement of the brick building on the south side of Bremer avenue, known then as the Foster store and later as the Barker & Bacon store. On one occasion Smeed came from his office over the Curtis hardware store, with his pantaloons rolled up to his knees, bare-footed and bare-legged, and waded about in the water like a boy. Behind his ear was stuck a quill pen. When laughed at, he declared in all sincerity that he was hunting for an “item.” Many little things such as the above revealed the characteristics of Mr. Smeed.
Another case of a different sort illustrated his good nature and lack of temper. As has been said, he was radical in his political opinions and he unhesitatingly recorded them in his paper. The democrats became incensed at him and decided their party should have an organ. Accordingly Col. Wm. Pattee was importuned to establish a paper, which he did, and called it the Bremer County Argus. It was pronouncedly straight democratic in politics and was inclined to be belligerent toward Republican. Col. Pattee was a gentleman of the old school, stately in manner and imperious in his utterances upon political questions . It was not long until the papers clashed and the battle was on between them. The Colonel landed with the intention, as he said, of squelching Smeed. Finally, in answer to one of the Colonel’s broadsides, Tarbox came back at him by a string of ridicule and sarcastic logic that stung the pompous old Colonel to the quick, and he declared that he would ignore Smeed in his Argus, but if her persisted, he would use his cane on him.
Smeed was informed of the threat and cautioned to be on his guard, to all of which he seemed to be totally indifferent, and pursued his usual course of passing about taking observations of what was going on. The office of the Argus was on the north side of Bremer avenue, well up to where the Great Western depot is now located. As Smeed approached the office on his way to the Court House one morning, he discovered the colonel standing in the door of his office, with his ever-present cane in his hand. Instead of dodging or swerving from his course, Smeed kept on and when near the angry old Colonel, Smeed saluted him saying, “Good morning, Colonel, fine day; I hope you are well.” At this cool and taunting salutation, Pattee replied, “Don’t you speak to me, you whining cur!” Smeed stopped, and looking at the angry Colonel, answered, “Why, Colonel, I believe you are angry; I am sorry you have such a temper this beautiful June morning. We should be glad and rejoice that we live in such a health-giving climate and among such good people.” The Colonel was nonplussed, and responded, “Go ahead, you don’t know enough to be insulted.” Smeed smiled and with seeming innocence inquired, “Did you mean to insult ne?” “No, no, go ahead,” said Pattee. For some time Pattee would grow furious when he was nagged about the interview, as was done every day by some of his best friends. After a while he, too, would laugh over the affair. Doc Burbank’s office was near the Argus office, and he was a witness of the scene, and it lost none of its dramatic qualities by his relation of the story.
Smeed was restless and wanted to get back east, so he placed the Republican on the market and sold it to J. K. L. Maynard, who arrived in Waverly in 1861. Smeed went to Washington, but what he did or how he was employed I think none of his friends ever knew. But the sequel of his life closed by his filling his pockets with stones and leaping from the Long Bridge into the Potomac river. He was a man of good meaning, kindhearted, gentle in manner and temper. That he was a sort of monomaniac in theosophical religion is quite certain, and as he grew older he became partially insane. He did much for Waverly in attracting the attention of railroad men to the Cedar Valley in general and to Waverly in particular. He wrote scores of long editorials upon the future of the valley, and predicted what has come true. As I have said before, Caesar Tarbox Smeed lived a half century ahead of his time. His vision was clear and accurate, but his contemporaries called him “cracked in the head,” when in fact he was a prophet.
Last updated 4/18/14
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