Monday, May 26, 2008

Drumming Long Ago



Tales of the Times When Canalboats Were Best Means of Transportation — Nothing the Wonderful Growth of Many Western Cities.

"I believe I was the first drummer who went west from New England,” said John B. Curtis of the firm of Curtis & Son, and I am very sure that I was one of the first. I made my first long western trip 44 years ago, and I've just returned from a trip that took me to the Pacific coast.

"I sometimes wonder, when I meet the busy, pushing drummers of today, the men who are used to rapid traveling, the best of hotels and good living generally, I sometimes wonder what they would if they were suddenly put back and made to do as we had to 50 years ago or a little less. Some of the poorest of them would give up their job, but I think that the rest would stick to it and make a success of the business, just as we did in those days.

"Nearly 50 years ago, when the business of selling goods by samples was in its infancy and when the drummer had but just been discovered, we were compelled to make slow trips and of course not many of them in a year. Then it took about three weeks to go from Portland to Chicago, and dealers ordered goods enough to last six months. Then the drummer had to endure many privations, but we were a hardy set and were content with a little — that is, if we could get plenty of orders. The villages were miles and miles apart then, and yet we in some way felt the coming commercial importance of many of them and knew that we must keep in with the men who were trying to build up a trade under what seemed many times to be disheartening circumstances.

"I have passed hundreds of nights camping out when on long trips, with only a blanket for a covering and the ground for a bed. We, who drummed trade in the west then in behalf of eastern houses, didn't mind that, but we did object to the rattlesnake sometimes. It did not pay to have then get too familiar. We were happy when we could travel by canalboat or by steamboat, but the dreadful western stages were what tried our patience.

"Time and time again, but for the fact that my samples and baggage had to be carried, I should have preferred to walk and could have beaten the stages under ordinary circumstances. Many times I did walk, but it was beside the stage, with a rail on my shoulder, ready to help pry the stage itself out of the mud.

"In those days canals were the best. The canalboats would make from two to three miles an hour, but if the time was long the stories told by the captain and passengers were commonly good. The beds were bunks, but they fed us well — that is, as things went then.

"Of course the ordinary everyday meal of the drummer of today, the meal he's inclined to grumble at, would have seemed a Thanksgiving feast to us. We expected little, and commonly got it. Still, as I said, we were content, and even happy, if only business was good.

"The drummers of today won't see the startling changes we have seen who began back nearly 50 years ago. Of course the old time drummers who traveled in New England saw less of the rough and tumble of life than we who went west, and who struck out boldly for trading posts that we were destined in many cases to see grow to be great cities. Still I never went through any of the thrilling experiences people tell of as a part of the life then, and I am inclined to think that adventures come to those who seek for them.

"We made long trips in those days, longer than most drummers would think of taking now, for then one man had to do all he could and cover as much ground as possible. Forty-three years ago I went from Portland to New York, then by canal to Philadelphia, from there to Pittsburg by canal, from there to St. Louis by boat, down the Ohio and up the Mississippi, and from St. Louis to St. Paul by boat.

"In those days St. Paul was but a trading post. There were a few business houses, but I saw a sight then that no man will ever see there again. It seemed to me that there were at least 1,000 Indians at the post trading their furs. They brought them in curiously constructed ox carts, made without the use of a scrap of iron, the wheels a section of a tree, and drawn by one ox lashed to the poles. They were a drunken crowd, all but a few, who seemed to be a committee appointed to keep sober and to see to it that others were not cheated. Sometimes the crowd would give a yell that fairly seemed to take the roof off.

"I went to the falls of St. Anthony and looked at the surroundings. Where Minneapolis now stands there was not a single building. When I was there last, I went to the falls, and as I looked at the great cities I wondered if it was possible that I could have been there before they were built. It seems strange and almost beyond comprehension that my business career could have antedated those cities and even the commercial importance of Chicago itself, but so it is, and I am still a vigorous man."

"You spoke of having visited Chicago 44 years ago, Mr. Curtis. What sort of a place was it then?"

"Then there was but one railroad, a small local affair, rather contemptuously called the milk route. I went there from Buffalo by boat and was five days on the way. I tried to do a little business every time we stopped to wood up on the way, and, in fact, we drummers had that system on the route from St. Louis to St. Paul and along the canals," replied Mr. Curtis.

"I reached Chicago Saturday night and put up at a wooden hotel on Lake street, near where the Tremont house now stands.

"In those days Chicago had but few brick buildings, and the wooden ones were seldom more than two stories high. In fact, I am unable to recall a single building more than two stories high. There was not a sidewalk, except on Lake street, and that was of wood, and the water came up through with almost every step. Steamboats and stages brought people there, and about the most interesting sight was old Fort Dearborn, with doors and log sides pierced with balls. There was not a foot of paved street in all Chicago when I first struck the place, and yet even then — and it was the time of small things — there was that same belief in Chicago and the same dash and push that you see now in that great city.

"The drummers of today are bright fellows, but I can't help thinking if we had slower trade we had better times in the days when we thought three miles an hour by canalboat good time and were content to trudge along behind a stagecoach and not say a word if only our samples were taken through in safety." — Boston Globe.

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