The Wisonsin Alumni Magazine
Extract from THE WISCONSIN ALUMNI MAGAZINE, Volume 16, No. 9, June, 1915, p.557-62 Reccollections of Early Days, JOHN MUIR AT THE UNIVERSITY By Charles E. Vroman, '68, John Muir, whose death has recently been announced, was a student at the University of Wisconsin for a period of four years, beginning in the [fall] spring of 1861 . A preparatory department was then attached to the University: this department served the purpose of the modern high school in preparing students for the classes. Muir entered this department, where he remained about a year. My acquaintance with him began in the spring of 1862, when I entered this department at a young age (fourteen years). Because of my youth and inexperience, an anxious father placed me in care of the tutor - then John D. Parkinson - with instructions, I suspect, to put me in a room with a much older student. Anyway, after registration, the tutor took me in charge and led me down to the north dormitory - the dormitory system then prevailed, the north and south halls being used for that purpose. We entered the northeast corner room on the first floor without rap or signal, A young man, of about twenty-two years of age, was there busily at work sawing boards. The room was a strange looking place for the room of a college student. It was my first impression that the tutor was kindly showing me a branch of the college museum. The room was lined with shelves, one above the other, higher than a man could reach. These shelves were filled with retorts, glass tubes, glass jars, botanical and geological specimens and small mechanical contrivances. On the floor, around the sides of the room, were a number of machines of larger size, whose purposes were not apparent at a glance, but which I came to know later. The floor was covered with boards, sawdust and shavings. After looking around a while, the tutor introduced the young man as JOHN MUIR, with the remark: "This is your room and there is your roommate." Thus began my acquaintance with Mr. Muir, which quickly ripened into a close and delightful college friendship. It is not my purpose to tell of his explorations and work in natural history, nor of his many articles and books on these subjects for, as to them, the reader is probably as well informed as I. My purpose is to tell of his college life as I saw it, and of him as I knew him in our close companionship as college chums and roommates, and of the thing's he told me of his life. He was a Scotch boy, born near Dunbar Castle, Scotland, and often told stories and legends of that old ruin, many of them of a spooky sort. While he spoke and wrote English perfectly, he often dropped into a rich Scotch brogue, especially when telling me these stories and reading Burns, which he often did. In fact, I never saw him read anything but his Bible, Burns, and his school books. His father was a very rigid Scotch Presbyterian, who maintained that the Bible is the only book human beings can possibly require throughout all the journey from earth to heaven and who interpreted the Bible literally, and lived his life accordingly. So did the family. Muir left Scotland with the family at an early age and settled on a heavily timbered piece of land near Portage, Wisconsin, where he helped hew out a farm. His life on the farm was hard, very hard, nothing but work, work. Early to bed and early to rise was the daily motto strictly enforced. Little time was left for study or pleasure, summer or winter. He often told me of his hard pleasureless youth, and lack of opportunity for study and improvement. He best expressed it in his "My Boyhood and Youth." He says: "[quotation describing attack of mumps and pneumonia]" But notwithstanding the hard and dreary life of his young days, he was the most cheerful, happy-hearted man I ever knew. Muir's wide reputation rests upon his explorations, his investigations of natural history subjects, principally geology and botany and his published articles on these subjects. It is ntt commonly known that he was a mechanical genius, but he was, as evidenced by the many mechanical devices that cluttered his room. Time and space will not permit a description of all these devices nor their purposes, I will mention some of them. In the room were two wooden clocks, both of which would keep the time of day, day of the month and month of the year. They were made | with saw, jack knife, and chisel. One was a perfect farmer's scythe with two wooden blades; between these blades were placed all the wheels, levers, etc., of a perfect time-keeping clock. The pendulum was a long wooden arrow loaded at the with several copper arrows to give it weight; the escapement was a small and perfect scythe; the escapement points were the handles on the snath, leaving the little blade free to swing back and.forth when the clock was running. Every part of this clock was either a scythe, wheel or arrow and emblematical, as Muir used to say to me, of the cutting away of time. This clock was hung in an oak grub as a farmer hangs his scythe. The other clock was a strange affair and more nearly resembled in its structure, the framework of a saw-mill. It did many wonderful and uncanny things, such as throwing John out of bed in the morning and at a predetermined time; picking a cap off a fluid lamp and lighting it with a match while he was on the floor rubbing his eyes; building the fire In the country schoolhouse where he taught in the winter months. All these things it did without a miss. The bed was built after I came to room with him; it was made of pine boards with three legs, two near the head, on which the bed hung on a pivoting device, and the third In the middle foot; along the foot leg ran an I elbow jointed support on the top of which the foot of the bed rested, A peg in the elbow kept it upright and firm. When the bed was in place for use It was level. When the elbow doubled up as it did when the peg was out, the foot of the bed dropped so that the bed sloped at an angle of 45°. A strong cord was fastened to the peg and led through the door into the other room to an escapement device on the clock; to the end of the cord a heavy stone was fastened. On top of the foot leg, which extended a couple of feet above the bed, was set a fluid lamp surrounded by levers and triggers. Before retiring, the escapement device was adjusted to do its deadly work at a fixed time the next morning, usually five o'clock. Exactly at that time the clock would drop the stone, pull the peg out of the elbow joint and down would come the foot of the bed - and John; this movement would drop other stones attached by cords to nicely adjusted levers surrounding the lamp and light it. This shower of stones and falling bed - and John - made his getting up a very noisy and disorderly affair. Of course, everyone in that part of the building knew when Muir was getting up (or down), I asked him one day why he adopted such a noisy and reckless way of waking up. He replied by describing a plan he formerly had In use. He tied one end of a strong cord to his big toe and hung the other end out of the window for Pat, the janitor, to pull at an agreed time in the morning. The plan worked all right until the students discovered the cord and nearly pulled him out of the window. In building a fire in the country school-house, the clock, by means of the escapement device, upset a tube of sulphuric acid Into a mixture of chlorate of potash and sugar placed under the wood and kindlings the night before. Chemical action caused instant combustion. The study table was another curious and amusing device which Muir made for his own use. [sketch] It had little resemblance to a table; the legs were wooden compasses and imitation wooden books. The top was slanting and made of a series of cog wheels, the center wheel being solid and about fourteen inches in diameter. This wheel was cut through the middle into two equal halves and the parts so hung on pivot pegs that the two halves would flop up leaving an ooen space between them of about two inches. Underneath this wheel and on tracks was a car fitted with stalls. Muir would place his school books in the stalls in the order in which he wished to study them, lock the car and put the key where it was difficult to get, attach the clock to the machinery of the desk, climb on a high stool and await results. The clock would move the car to place and by a knocker arrangement underneath push a book up through the open space between the halves of the solid cog wheel, close down the halves and open out the book. Muir would study that book until time was up, when the halves of the wheel would flop up and drop the book in its stall. The car would then move to the next stall and repeat to the end of the list of books. Muir prearranged with the clock as to the time he should have to study each book, which arrangement was carried out to the letter. It was amusing to watch John sitting at that desk as if chained, working like a beaver against the clock and desk. The desk was built, he said, to make him more orderly and regular in his studies. He had a thermometer made of parts of an old, broken washboard, which was so sensitive that if one stood near it the index hand would quiver and move on the dial; also a miniature sawmill with a self-setting log carriage - ingenious but not practical; also a little device for measuring the growth of plants, so delicate that when attached to a plant, one could see the hand move across the dial, measuring the growth from hour to hour; also other devices as ingenious and curious in construction and purpose as the ones described. Muir's manner of life at the University was very simple. He boarded himself, as many of the students did in those days. His diet consisted chiefly of bread and molasses, graham mush and a baked potato now and then. Being in the good graces of Pat, he obtained a key to the basement 'where the old-fashioned wood furnaces were. Here he baked his potatoes in the hot ashes and boiled his mush on the hot coals. Muir was very poor at that time. He taught in the country schools in the winter months, keeping up with his college classes in the meantime, and worked on farms in the summer to procure necessary funds to carry him along in college. For exercise he played wicket, walked, and swam, wicket was the only game then played at the University. It is much like cricket, except that the bails are six feet long, placed fifty feet apart on pegs about eight inches high. Four played the game, two at the ball and two at the bat. The ball was about the size of a modern foot-ball, but perfectly round arid made of wound yarn covered with leather. The game furnished good exercise and was not so prolific of surgeon's bills and obituary notices as the modern game of football, Muir was absolutely without self-consciousness. This was well illustrated on an occasion when we were invited to a reception at the apartment of Professor Sterling, the Vice Chancellor. Quite a party of ladies and gentlemen were present. Muir became very much interested in a large square piano, which had been contributing to the entertainment. He managed to get the top up and then climbed on to the wires; when I first noticed him he was reaching into the back part of the instrument to discover what caused the music. After satisfying himself, he climbed down and mingled with the company. The host and guests smiled, but were not at all disturbed by the event, because it was John Muir and almost anything was allowable to him. Mulr's course of study, while irregular, corresponded closely to the then modern classical. He was a hard working student and very apt, and absorbed knowledge rapidly and accurately. The last two years of his course were devoted largely to chemistry and geology. He was acknowledged by common consent to be the most proficient chemical student in college. There were no laboratory facilities in the University at that time so Muir built a chemical laboratory in the room. With the multitude of things already there, the chemical laboratory capped the climax. It would require a vivid imagination to picture conditions in that room after the laboratory was constructed and in full operation. Muir left college with the intention of becoming a physician, but he almost immediately landed in a machine shop in Indianapolis, where he remained for some time, and then started on his grand botanical tour through the southern states and Cuba, bringing up finally in the Yosemite Valley, where he built a shack and lived several years studying botany, geology - especially glacial action - and laying the foundation for the nation-wide reputation that came to him in later years. He was of a most gentle and loving disposition, a high-minded Christian gentleman, clean in thought and action. While he was not a very regular attendant at church, he read his Bible and said his prayers morning and evening of every day and he led the kind of life that all this imports. It must not be inferred, however, that he was austere and without any sense of humor, fun or frolic; far from it; he was as keen to a college prank as any of us, and always ready to "put one over" on Pat, the janitor, who came to the University about that time with an exalted opinion of himself and his position. Pat conceived it to be among his duties to report the students to the faculty. This was not the students' point of view; they insisted that it was his duty to report the faculty to the students. The issue was sharply drawn. Pat was obdurate, argument was useless, so a "persuasive course" of instruction was outlined for Pat. Muir was one of his most active instructors, what Pat suffered while taking his course he alone knows. Suffice it to say, that he came through all right, saw the students' point of view, and. thereafter was peace and harmony. Muir was not ambitious for wealth. 'That came to him of material prosperity was a mere incident of his life. It was his firm unchanging religious faith, his all-absorbing love of man and beast and of nature generally that characterized the man and his life. One gets his spirit from his own words: "Climb the mountain and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."
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Vroman, Charles E., "Reminiscence of John Muir by Vroman, Charles E." (1915). Reminiscences about John Muir. 34.