The Story of My Boyhood and Youth
by John Muir
The World and the University
I told father that I was about to leave home, and inquired whether,
if I should happen to be in need of money, he would send me a little, he
said, "No; depend entirely on yourself." Good advice, I suppose,
but surely needlessly severe for a bashful, home-loving boy who had worked
so hard. I had the gold sovereign that my grandfather had given me when
I left Scotland, and a few dollars, perhaps ten, that I had made by raising
a few bushels of grain on a little patch of sandy abandoned ground. So
when I left home to try the world I had only about fifteen dollars in my
Strange to say, father carefully taught us to consider ourselves very
poor worms of the dust, conceived in sin, etc., and devoutly believed that
quenching every spark of pride and self-confidence was a sacred duty, without
realizing that in so doing he might at the same time be quenching everything
else. Praise he considered most venomous, and tried to assure me that when
I was fairly out in the wicked world making my own way I would soon learn
that although I might have thought him a hard taskmaster at
times, strangers were far harder. On the contrary, I found no lack of kindness
and sympathy. All the baggage I carried was a package made up of the two
clocks and a small thermometer made of a piece of old washboard, all three
tied together, with no covering or case of any sort, the whole looking
like one very complicated machine.
The aching parting from mother and my sisters was, of course, hard to
bear. Father let David drive me down to Pardeeville, a place I had never
before seen, though it was only nine miles south of the Hickory Hill home.
When we arrived at the village tavern, it seemed deserted. Not a single
person was in sight. I set my clock baggage on the rickety platform. David
said good-bye and started for home, leaving me alone in the world. The
grinding noise made by the wagon in turning short brought out the landlord,
and the first thing that caught his eye was my strange bundle. Then he
looked at me and said, "Hello, young man, what's this?"
"Machines," I said, "for keeping time and getting up
in the morning, and so forth."
"Well! Well! That's a mighty queer get-up. You must be a Down-East
Yankee. Where did you get the pattern for such a thing?"
"In my head," I said.
Some one down the street happened to notice the landlord looking intently
at something and came up to see what it was. Three or four people in that
little village formed an attractive crowd, and in fifteen or twenty minutes
the greater part of the population of Pardeeville stood gazing in a circle
around my strange hickory belongings. I kept outside of the circle to avoid
being seen, and had the advantage of hearing the remarks without being
embarrassed. Almost every one as he came up would say, "What's that?
What's it for? Who made it?" The landlord would answer them all alike,
"Why, a young man that lives out in the country somewhere made it,
and he says it's a thing for keeping time, getting up in the morning, and
something that I did n't understand. I don't know what he meant."
"Oh, no!" one of the crowd would say, "that can't be. It's
for something else--something mysterious. Mark my words, you'll see all
about it in the newspapers some of these days." A curious little fellow
came running up the street, joined the crowd, stood on tiptoe to get sight
of the wonder, quickly made up his mind, and shouted in crisp, confident,
cock-crowing style, "I know what that contraption's for. It's a machine
for taking the bones out of fish."
This was in the time of the great popular phrenology craze,
when the fences and barns along the roads throughout the country were plastered
with big skull-bump posters, headed, "Know Thyself," and advising
everybody to attend schoolhouse lectures to have their heads explained
and be told what they were good for and whom they ought to marry. My mechanical
bundle seemed to bring a good deal of this phrenology to mind, for many
of the onlookers would say, "I wish I could see that boy's head, --he
must have a tremendous bump of invention." Others complimented me
by saying, "I wish I had that fellow's head. I'd rather have it than
the best farm in the State."
I stayed overnight at this little tavern, waiting for a train. In the
morning I went to the station, and set my bundle on the platform. Along
came the thundering train, a glorious sight, the first train I had ever
waited for. When the conductor saw my queer baggage, he cried, "Hello!
What have we here?"
"Inventions for keeping time, early rising, and so forth. May I
take them into the car with me? "
"You can take them where you like," he replied, "but
you had better give them to the baggage-master. If you take them into the
car they will draw a crowd and might get broken."
So I gave them to the baggage-master and made haste to ask the conductor
whether I might ride on the engine. He good-naturedly said: "Yes,
it's the right place for you. Run ahead, and tell the engineer what I say."
But the engineer bluntly refused to let me on, saying: "It don't matter
what the conductor told you. I say you can't ride on my engine."
By this time the conductor, standing ready to start his train, was watching
to see what luck I had, and when he saw me returning came ahead to meet
"The engineer won't let me on," I reported.
"Won't he?" said the kind conductor. "Oh! I guess he
will. you come down with me." And so he actually took the time and
patience to walk the length of that long train to get me on to the engine.
"Charlie," said he, addressing the engineer, "don't you
ever take a passenger?"
"Very seldom," he replied.
"Anyhow, I wish you would take this young man on. He has the strangest
machines in the baggage-car I ever saw in my life. I believe he could make
a locomotive. He wants to see the engine running. Let him on." Then
in a low whisper he told me to jump on, which I did gladly, the engineer
offering neither encouragement nor objection.
As soon as the train was started, the engineer asked what the "strange
thing" the conductor spoke of really was.
"Only inventions for keeping time, getting folk up in the morning,
and so forth," I hastily replied, and before he could ask any more
questions I asked permission to go outside of the cab to see the machinery.
This he kindly granted, adding, "Be careful not to fall off, and when
you hear me whistling for a station you come back, because if it is reported
against me to the superintendent that I allow boys to run all over my engine
I might lose my job."
Assuring him that I would come back promptly, I went out and walked
along the foot-board on the side of the boiler, watching the magnificent
machine rushing through the landscapes as if glorying in its strength like
a living creature. While seated on the cow-catcher platform I seemed to
be fairly flying, and the wonderful display of power and motion was enchanting.
This was the first time I had ever been on a train, much less a locomotive,
since I had left Scotland. When I got to Madison, I thanked the kind conductor
and engineer for my glorious ride, inquired the way to the Fair, shouldered
my inventions, and walked to the Fair Ground.
When I applied for an admission ticket at a window by the
gate I told the agent that I had something to exhibit.
"What is it?" he inquired.
"Well, here it is. Look at it."
When he craned his neck through the window and got a glimpse of my bundle,
he cried excitedly, "Oh! you don't need a ticket--come right in."
When I inquired of the agent where such things as mine should be exhibited,
he said, "You see that building up on the hill with a big flag on
it? That's the Fine Arts Hall, and it's just the place for your wonderful
So I went up to the Fine Arts Hall and looked in, wondering if they
would allow wooden things in so fine a place.
I was met at the door by a dignified gentleman, who greeted me kindly
and said, "Young man, what have we got here?"
"Two clocks and a thermometer," I replied.
"Did you make these? They look wonderfully beautiful and novel
and must, I think, prove the most interesting feature of the fair."
"Where shall I place them?" I inquired.
"Just look around, young man, and choose the place you like best,
whether it is occupied or not. you can have your pick of all the building,
and a carpenter to make the necessary shelving and assist you every way
So I quickly had a shelf made large enough for all of them, went out
on the hill and picked up some glacial boulders of the right size for weights,
and in fifteen or twenty minutes the clocks were running. They seemed to
attract more attention than anything else in the hall. I got lots of praise
from the crowd and the newspaper reporters. The local press reports were
copied into the Eastern papers. It was considered wonderful that a boy
on a farm had been able to invent and make such things, and almost every
spectator foretold good fortune. But I had been so lectured by my father
above all things to avoid praise that I was afraid to read those kind newspaper
notices, and never clipped out or preserved any of them, just glanced at
them and turned away my eyes from beholding vanity. They gave me a prize
of ten or fifteen dollars and a diploma for wonderful things not down in
the list of exhibits.
Many years later, after I had written articles and books, I received
a letter from the gentleman who had charge of the Fine Arts Hall. He proved
to be the Professor of English Literature in the University of Wisconsin
Fair time, and long afterward he sent me clippings of reports of his
lectures. He had a lecture on me, discussing style, etcetera, and telling
how well he remembered my arrival at the Hall in my shirt-sleeves
with those mechanical wonders on my shoulder, and so forth, and so forth.
These inventions, though of little importance, opened all doors for me
and made marks that have lasted many years, simply, I suppose, because
they were original and promising.
I was looking around in the mean time to find out where I should go
to seek my fortune. An inventor at the Fair, by the name of Wiard, was
exhibiting an iceboat he had invented to run on the upper Mississippi from
Prairie du Chien to St. Paul during the winter months, explaining how useful
it would be thus to make a highway of the river while it was closed to
ordinary navigation by ice. After he saw my inventions he offered me a
place in his foundry and machine-shop in Prairie du Chien and promised
to assist me all he could. So I made up my mind to accept his offer and
rode with him to Prairie du Chien in his iceboat, which was mounted on
a flat car. I soon found, however, that he was seldom at home and that
I was not likely to learn much at his small shop. I found a place where
I could work for my board and devote my spare hours to mechanical drawing,
geometry, and physics, making but little headway, however, although the
Pelton family, for whom I worked, were very kind. I made up
my mind after a few months' stay in Prairie du Chien to return to Madison,
hoping that in some way I might be able to gain an education.
At Madison I raised a few dollars by making and selling a few of those
bedsteads that set the sleepers on their feet in the morning,--inserting
in the footboard the works of an ordinary clock that could be bought for
a dollar. I also made a few dollars addressing circulars in an insurance
office, while at the same time I was paying my board by taking care of
a pair of horses and going errands. This is of no great interest except
that I was thus winning my bread while hoping that something would turn
up that might enable me to make money enough to enter the State University.
This was my ambition, and it never wavered no matter what I was doing.
No University, it seemed to me, could be more admirably situated, and as
I sauntered about it, charmed with its fine lawns and trees and beautiful
lakes, and saw the students going and coming with their books, and occasionally
practicing with a theodolite in measuring distances, I thought that if
I could only join them it would be the greatest joy of life. I was desperately
hungry and thirsty for knowledge and willing to endure anything to get
One day I chanced to meet a student who had noticed my inventions at
the Fair and now recognized me. And when I said, "You are fortunate
fellows to be allowed to study in this beautiful place. I wish I could
join you." "Well, why don't you?" he asked. "I have
n't money enough," I said. "Oh, as to money," he reassuringly
explained, "very little is required. I presume you're able to enter
the Freshman class, and you can board yourself as quite a number of us
do at a cost of about a dollar a week. The baker and milkman come every
day. you can live on bread and milk." Well, I thought, maybe I have
money enough for at least one beginning term. Anyhow I could n't help trying.
With fear and trembling, overladen with ignorance, I called on Professor
Stirling, the Dean of the Faculty, who was then Acting President, presented
my case, and told him how far I had got on with my studies at home, and
that I had n't been to school since leaving Scotland at the age of eleven
years, excepting one short term of a couple of months at a district school,
because I could not be spared from the farm work. After hearing my story,
the kind professor welcomed me to the glorious University--next, it seemed
to me, to the Kingdom of Heaven. After a few weeks in the preparatory
department I entered the Freshman class. In Latin I found that one of
the books in use I had already studied in Scotland. So, after an interruption
of a dozen years, I began my Latin over again where I had left off; and,
strange to say, most of it came back to me, especially the grammar which
I had committed to memory at the Dunbar Grammar School.
During the four years that I was in the University, I earned enough
in the harvest-fields during the long summer vacations to carry me through
the balance of each year, working very hard, cutting with a cradle four
acres of wheat a day, and helping to put it in the shock. But, having to
buy books and paying, I think, thirty-two dollars a year for instruction,
and occasionally buying acids and retorts, glass tubing, bell-glasses,
flasks, etc., I had to cut down expenses for board now and then to half
a dollar a week.
One winter I taught school ten miles north of Madison, earning much-needed
money at the rate of twenty dollars a month, "boarding round,"
and keeping up my University work by studying at night. As I was not then
well enough off to own a watch, I used one of my hickory clocks, not only
for keeping time, but for starting the school fire in the cold mornings,
and regulating class-times. I carried it out on my shoulder
to the old log schoolhouse, and set it to work on a little shelf nailed
to one of the knotty, bulging logs. The winter was very cold, and I had
to go to the schoolhouse and start the fire about eight o'clock to warm
it before the arrival of the scholars. This was a rather trying job, and
one that my clock might easily be made to do. Therefore, after supper one
evening I told the head of the family with whom I was boarding that if
he would give me a candle I would go back to the schoolhouse and make arrangements
for lighting the fire at eight o'clock, without my having to be present
until time to open the school at nine. He said, "Oh, young man, you
have some curious things in the school-room, but I don't think you can
do that." I said, "Oh, yes! It's easy," and in hardly more
than an hour the simple job was completed. I had only to place a teaspoonful
of powdered chlorate of potash and sugar on the stove-hearth near a few
shavings and kindling, and at the required time make the clock, through
a simple arrangement, touch the inflammable mixture with a drop of sulphuric
acid. Every evening after school was dismissed, I shoveled out what was
left of the fire into the snow, put in a little kindling, filled up the
big box stove with heavy oak wood, placed the lighting arrangement
on the hearth, and set the clock to drop the acid at the hour of eight;
all this requiring only a few minutes.
The first morning after I had made this simple arrangement I invited
the doubting farmer to watch the old squat schoolhouse from a window that
overlooked it, to see if a good smoke did not rise from the stovepipe.
Sure enough, on the minute, he saw a tall column curling gracefully up
through the frosty air, but instead of congratulating me on my success
he solemnly shook his head and said in a hollow, lugubrious voice, "Young
man, you will be setting fire to the schoolhouse." All winter long
that faithful clock fire never failed, and by the time I got to the schoolhouse
the stove was usually red-hot.
At the beginning of the long summer vacations I returned to the Hickory
Hill farm to earn the means in the harvest-fields to continue my University
course, walking all the way to save railroad fares. And although I cradled
four acres of wheat a day, I made the long, hard, sweaty day's work still
longer and harder by keeping up my study of plants. At the noon hour I
collected a large handful, put them in water to keep them fresh, and after
supper got to work on them and sat up till after midnight, analyzing
and classifying, thus leaving only four hours for sleep; and
by the end of the last year, after taking up botany, I knew the principal
flowering plants of the region.
I received my first lesson in botany from a student by the name of Griswold,
who is now County Judge of the County of Waukesha, Wisconsin. In the University
he was often laughed at on account of his anxiety to instruct others, and
his frequently saying with fine emphasis, "Imparting instruction is
my greatest enjoyment." One memorable day in June, when I was standing
on the stone steps of the north dormitory, Mr. Griswold joined me and at
once began to teach. He reached up, plucked a flower from an overspreading
branch of a locust tree, and, handing it to me, said, "Muir, do you
know what family this tree belongs to?"
"No," I said, "I don't know anything about botany."
"Well, no matter," said he, "what is it like?"
"It's like a pea flower," I replied.
"That's right. You're right," he said, "it belongs to
the Pea Family."
"But how can that be," I objected, "when the pea is a
weak, clinging, straggling herb, and the locust a big, thorny hardwood
"Yes, that is true," he replied, "as to the difference
in size, but it is also true that in all their essential characters they
are alike, and therefore they must belong to one and the same
family. Just look at the peculiar form of the locust flower; you see that
the upper petal, called the banner, is broad and erect, and so is the upper
petal of the pea flower; the two lower petals, called the wings, are outspread
and wing-shaped; so are those of the pea; and the two petals below the
wings are united on their edges, curve upward, and form what is called
the keel, and so you see are the corresponding petals of the pea flower.
And now look at the stamens and pistils. You see that nine of the ten stamens
have their filaments united into a sheath around the pistil, but the tenth
stamen has its filament free. These are very marked characters, are they
not? And, strange to say, you will find them the same in the tree and in
the vine. Now look at the ovules or seeds of the locust, and you will see
that they are arranged in a pod or legume like those of the pea. And look
at the leaves. You see the leaf of the locust is made up of several leaflets,
and so also is the leaf of the pea. Now taste the locust leaf."
I did so and found that it tasted like the leaf of the pea. Nature has
used the same seasoning for both, though one is a straggling One, the other
a big tree.
"Now, surely you cannot imagine that all these similar
characters are mere coincidences. Do they not rather go to show that the
Creator in making the pea vine and locust tree had the same idea in mind,
and that plants are not classified arbitrarily? Man has nothing to do with
their classification. Nature has attended to all that, giving essential
unity with boundless variety, so that the botanist has only to examine
plants to learn the harmony of their relations."
This fine lesson charmed me and sent me flying to the woods and meadows
in wild enthusiasm. Like everybody else I was always fond of flowers, attracted
by their external beauty and purity. Now my eyes were opened to their inner
beauty, all alike revealing glorious traces of the thoughts of God, and
leading on and on into the infinite cosmos. I wandered away at every
making long excursions round the lakes, gathering specimens and keeping
them fresh in a bucket in my room to study at night after my regular class
tasks were learned; for my eyes never closed on the plant glory I had seen.
Nevertheless, I still indulged my love of mechanical inventions. I invented
a desk in which the books I had to study were arranged in order at the
beginning of each term. I also made a bed which set me on my feet every
morning at the hour determined on, and in dark winter mornings just
as the bed set me on the floor it lighted a lamp. Then, after the minutes
allowed for dressing had elapsed, a click was heard and the first book
to be studied was pushed up from a rack below the top of the desk, thrown
open, and allowed to remain there the number of minutes required. Then
the machinery closed the book and allowed it to drop back into its stall,
then moved the rack forward and threw up the next in order, and so on,
all the day being divided according to the times of recitation, and time
required and allotted to each study. Besides this, I thought it would be
a fine thing in the summertime when the sun rose early, to dispense with
the clock-controlled bed machinery, and make use of sunbeams instead. This
I did simply by taking a lens out of my small spy-glass, fixing it on a
frame on the sill of my bedroom window and pointing it to the sunrise;
the sunbeams focused on a thread burned it through, allowing the bed machinery
to put me on my feet. When I wished to arise at any given time after sunrise,
I had only to turn the pivoted frame that held the lens the requisite number
of degrees or minutes. Thus I took Emerson's advice and hitched my dumping-wagon
bed to a star.
Made and used at the Wisconsin
COMBINED THERMOMETER, HYGROMETER, BAROMETER, AND PYROMETER
Invented by the author in his boyhood
I also invented a machine to make visible the growth of plants and the
action of the sunlight, a very delicate contrivance, enclosed in glass.
Besides this I invented a barometer and a lot of novel scientific apparatus.
My room was regarded as a sort of show place by the professors, who oftentimes
brought visitors to it on Saturdays and holidays. And when, some eighteen
years after I had left the University, I was sauntering over the campus
in time of vacation, and spoke to a man who seemed to be taking some charge
of the grounds, he informed me that he was the janitor; and when I inquired
what had become of Pat, the janitor in my time, and a favorite with the
students, he replied that Pat was still alive and well, but now too old
to do much work. And when I pointed to the dormitory room that I long ago
occupied, he said: "Oh! then I know who you are," and mentioned
my name. "How comes it that you know my name?" I inquired. He
explained that "Pat always pointed out that room to newcomers and
told long stories about the wonders that used to be in it." So long
had the memory of my little inventions survived.
Although I was four years at the University, I did not take the regular
course of studies, but instead picked out what I thought would
be most useful to me, particularly chemistry, which opened a new world,
and mathematics and physics, a little Greek and Latin, botany and geology.
I was far from satisfied with what I had learned, and should have stayed
longer. Anyhow I wandered away on a glorious botanical and geological excursion,
which has lasted nearly fifty years and is not yet completed, always happy
and free, poor and rich, without thought of a diploma or of making a name,
urged on and on through endless, inspiring, Godful beauty.
From the top of a hill on the north side of Lake Mendota I gained a
last wistful, lingering view of the beautiful University grounds and buildings
where I had spent so many hungry and happy and hopeful days. There with
streaming eyes I bade my blessed Alma Mater farewell. But I was only leaving
one University for another, the Wisconsin University for the University
of the Wilderness.
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