Project Canterbury

Mahlon Norris Gilbert: Bishop Coadjutor of Minnesota 1886-1900.

By Francis Leseure Palmer
with an Introduction by Daniel Sylvester Tuttle, Presiding Bishop of the American Church.

Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1912.
London: Mowbray, 1912.

Chapter II. Boyhood on the Farm

NORRIS GILBERT and Lucy Todd, whose ancestral lines have been traced in the previous chapter, were married on the eighth of June, 1835, and made their home on a pleasant farm in the town of Laurens, four miles or more east of Morris. The old red house is still standing, a plain frame building, large in size but only "a story and a half" in height. Here were born three sons, their only children. The eldest of these, named Hobart Henry, in honor of the great Bishop Hobart, was born in 1842 but lived only two years. Frederick, who was born in 1845, received a business education. He is still living in Lo Lo, Montana, whither the pioneer blood in his veins led the way.

Mahlon Norris Gilbert was born on March 23, 1848, and was baptized on May 20, 1849, by the Rev. Amos Billings Beach, rector of Zion Church, Butternuts. When Mahlon was eight years old his father bought a better farm, in the little town of New Lisbon, five miles north of Morris, or Butternuts. It is still remembered that "Norris Gilbert was well-to-do, and bought the farm outright and had money to spare."

The new home, which is still standing, is an eight-roomed frame house, with an ell at the rear. There is a porch across the front, and there are chimneys at both ends. The house stands facing the east, on a gentle sloping hillside, far back from the country road. Behind the house the hill rises more steeply to a considerable height, and bears a "sugar-bush," or grove of hard maples, yielding every spring an abundance of sap and sugar. South of the house stand two large pines; and in the yard are many fruit trees and shade trees. In front the ground slopes down, first to the road, and then on across the fields to the winding creek, old Butternuts, which makes its way through the valley among trees and bushes, giving charm to all the land.

It was a happy valley for boys to grow up in, with neighbors enough for sociability and with the varied life of the farm, and the changing work and sport as the seasons changed, year by year. The home was marked by simplicity and refinement. Both father and mother are remembered as "of lovely character, plain and unassuming, very quiet in their ways, and leading always most exemplary lives." The mother, Lucy Todd, was slight and frail from her childhood, but she outlived nine younger brothers and sisters, Russell, the clergyman, alone surviving her. For several years she played the organ in Zion Church, and in her own parlor there stood a pipe organ which was the wonder of the neighborhood. The father was a man of considerable wealth and of position in the community. He was warden of Zion Church for many years, and in the absence of the rector was accustomed to read service and conduct Sunday school. In this home, as in the homes of their forefathers, the Christian faith was very dear and very real.

Since early days, Harmony Church in the parish of Butternuts had grown and prospered. In 1818 the stone church was erected, which still stands on the hill, near the business center of the village. At the time of its consecration by Bishop Hobart, in the fall of the same year, the name of the church was changed from Harmony to Zion.

The church consisted of the part known now as the nave, with the hall and vestibules. The pulpit was in the middle of the east end of the church with a large sounding hoard over it. On the left, winding stairs led up to it from behind a reading desk, and on the right was the white marble-top altar. The altar rail went straight across, ending where three pews were placed in opposite corners. The little white marble font stood just outside the altar rail at the end of the middle aisle. There were galleries on three sides, and the organ and choir were in the gallery opposite the pulpit. The robing-room was in the vestibule at the left of the front door, and during the sermon hymn the clergyman passed down through the congregation and changed his white surplice for the black gown in which to preach. [Katharine M. Sanderson, History of Zion Church Parish, pp. 8, 9.]

Frederick Gilbert's recollections of the time when he and his brother Mahlon worked and played and went to school and to church together help to make those early days vivid and real.

"Ours had always been Church people. I cannot recall a Sunday, no matter how severe the weather, in which we failed to go to church, a distance of five miles. The morning service was at ten o'clock, with Sunday school at noon, followed by afternoon service, and we remained to all."

Frederick continues:

"My school-days began at six, as all children were started to school at that age. Mahlon, who was only three, would walk with me as far as the front gate, when I started each morning for school. I can see his face now, peering through the fence after he had said goodbye. As soon as he was old enough he accompanied me to the little district school, about half a mile away.

"One of Mahlon's greatest trials while a small boy at home was washing his face in the morning. Getting up and dressing in a cold room was nothing in comparison. 'Now,' he would say, 'this is the worst of all!'"

Another memory of boyhood days which Mr. Frederick Gilbert has written down is of the fireside tales of old days in New England. "Often have we listened to the stories told us by our grandmother (Lois Ward Gilbert) of Revolutionary times. On the day the British under Arnold attacked New London, she was at church with her father Ambrose Ward when the sound of the cannon from the ships reached their ears. The men started at once for the scene of action, leaving the women and children to return to their homes. On their way home, Lois, who told the story, was so alarmed by the noise of the guns that she lay down for a time under a fence."

Another story that was often told, was the coming to the valley of Elijah and Lois Ward Gilbert. This was early in the last century, and it was they who "built at Laurens, a large substantial house, painting it red." This is the house, already referred to as the birthplace of Frederick and Mahlon.

The origin of the Bishop's love for fishing is thus told by his brother. "A trout stream ran through our farm, and there his love for the sport began, growing as the years increased. He was never happier than when, far removed from the worries and toils of life, by the side of some stream in the mountains of Montana or at some lake or brook in Minnesota, he could cast his hook and feel the thrill of the bite."

There was also good fishing in the Butternuts Creek and good hunting for small game along its banks or on the hillsides. Wild flowers of great variety and trees and shrubs of many kinds also gave beauty and interest to the valley; and the coming and going of the birds in spring and fall made Nature not a formal "study" but a kindly companion and friend.

The work of the farm was a constant education. Those who have grown up in the country appreciate its meaning as others cannot--the hard routine of rising before light in the cold winter to milk the cows; the daily "chores" about the place; the following the plow and the harrow; the battling constantly against weeds and insects; the working in the hot hayfield, and hotter haymow; the husking corn in late autumn, with fingers numb and sore--these are some of the hardships of life upon the farm. But there is another side--the joy of fresh air and open meadow; the charm of the changing seasons; the beauty of the growing grain or of the new-mown field; the excitement of racing with a thunderstorm to get the hay under cover before the rain falls; the satisfaction of great bays filled nearly to the roof with hay or grain; the delight of gathering the harvest, and the honest reward of the cellar stored with homely vegetables and fragrant fruit--these are some of the things that make up for the work and the worry of the farmer's life. In our modern "return to the country" there is often honest endeavor to restore the healthful conditions of rural life, but we cannot bring back again the simplicity of life in the country as it was sixty years ago in Butternuts Valley.

Project Canterbury