Saturday, February 5, 2011

Tales of Frontier Times

            The country was young, and still expanding, when, in 1883, the Dakota Territory was home to a young lad named Hiram Evan Simpson, known to later narrative as Evan. 
His daily routine was much like that of other boys in those westerly reaches of  a growing nation:  a round of chores, and recreations, and some basic schooling in a one-room structure  out by the sycamore grove  some distance past the edge of town.  There was little enough to remark on, in these rural rounds:   until, one day towards the end of term, Evan’s fortunes took a tragic turn.  For, following upon some trifling infraction – historians are divided as to whether it concerned  tardiness in attendance, or lateness with an assignment – young Evan was required to write on the blackboard

“Procrastination is the Thief of Time”

(a homespun saying that will be familiar to those acquainted with McGuffey’s Reader), -- not ten, not a hundred, but -- fourteen million times… The era was noted for its severity; still, this excessive pensum lay well outside  both local and historical norms.

            He set to the work with a will, pausing only to partake in the lessons of the remainder of that year and the next, working doggedly through the summer vacation.  For this  he was obliged to take up residence in the schoolhouse,  a family servant (whose name is not recorded) bringing him meals  in a covered dish. 
            At the end of the next year he duly graduated from the sixth grade, which was as far as education reached in those parts at that time:  the assignment still unfinished.  Still he remained at his task. 
            The schoolmaster retired and moved away, and the schoolhouse itself was decommissioned before the nineteenth century was fairly out.  The Territory achieved statehood and entered the union, --  young Evan still busily writing, methodically erasing each blackboard after it had been filled.  Roosevelt took office, and left it; America entered the Great War.  The nation enjoyed a brief run of relative prosperity before sinking again into the Great Depression. 
            It was in the course of this, one day in late November, the sun just edging across the tops of the sycamores  and descending to brush the horizon, that Evan Simpson finally finished the task.

            “There,” he said; and put down the chalk.
            The rest of his narrative is lost.

[For further enlightenment  regarding ancestral childcare:  ]


  1. I read somewhere that to count to one million would take 12 days if I counted one number per second, 24 hours a day, seven days a week without stopping. Therefore, to write it fourteen million times within fifty years is conceivable.
    I once shared with a class of 12 year olds, in an attempt to give them a concept of large numbers, that to count a trillion would take them-counting 1 number a second, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day- 300 centuries. They didn't believe me.

  2. Good thing poor Evan didn't have to write it down a *trillion* times, then -- he'd still be at it.
    BTW...this little fable is based on an actual incident: my mother was obliged to write that phrase two hundred times. But the kicker is, she wasn't in fifth grade -- she was in college! At Smith! -- Different times...