“It Can’t Happen Here Again”

as told by Frank Bailey


A boy growing up in Columbia County – the story of Dr. William Cady Bailey, physician,

of Chatham, N.Y. and his youngest son Frank Bailey.


In Three Parts



This story about the life of Dr. William Cady Bailey as told by his son Frank Bailey was submitted by Jane Wood, a descendant and frequent submitter to this website.  Enjoy reading about the life of a country doctor in Chatham, Columbia County, New York!



This early training worked itself deeply into his character and gave him the stability to overcome handicaps of ill health, shyness, poverty, and long stretches of loneliness.

As he grew older he had an increasing share of the jobs to be done about the house.  He and his brother sawed and split wood and carried it into the house for the insatiable stoves; in the summer he had the care of the garden, spading, cultivating, and weeding.  His father once told him in a gentle sardonic tone, which was as far as he ever went by way of reproof, that he had never known anyone who could weed a garden quite so fast.  There were indoor chores as well, helping his mother with the dishes in the evening, frying the buckwheat cakes or the corn-meal mush before he left for school in the morning.

Some of his duties involved more fun than toil.  In berry picking time he and his playmates would range the fields beyond the limits of the village in search of wild strawberries.  Then came the season of blackcaps, followed by wild red raspberries, and later still the plumb blackberries that dissolved on the tongue.  In a well ordered society, Frank Bailey believes, everyone should have his fill of wild strawberry and blackcap shortcake, made as his mother used to bake it, with plenty of shortening, berries, and butter.  Between times they would scour the countryside for wintergreen leaves, sassafras, and sweet flag, which took the place of candy and chewing gum for the country children of that era.  The neighborhood was full of streams and ponds, and after a hot day under the broiling sun what could be better than plunging into the cool fresh water?  One of the ponds near by actually had an island in the middle of it, a natural hide out for lurking redskins, and one of the few spots around about where blueberries grew.  One of Frank’s most cherished sports as a boy was to build a raft of old railroad ties and pole it over to the island.  This adventure had only one drawback; if the raft broke in two, as frequently happened, because of faulty or hasty construction, he would come home soaking wet, and in no great hurry either, for he was bound to get a whipping.  Swimming in the creek in a shady pool posed dangers quite as great, for there the bigger boys were sure to play pranks on the littler ones; wetting their shirts and tying them into knots, and shouting; “Chaw raw beef!” as the blubbering lads tried to disentangle the stiff wet knots with their water soaked fingers.  There was always a town bully or two around whom it was wisest to avoid.  Then home again for supper, to run out later to the fields to play lay-low-sheep and snap-the-whip in the long twilight hours.

In the fall there were nuts to be gathered, hickory nuts, chestnuts, and butternuts.  It was good to start off of a brisk afternoon with a bag on your shoulder, knowing how much more quickly the bag could be filled than a pail with berries.  When the time came to extract the meat from the butternuts, however, Frank was always sure to pound his fingers until they were blue.

Apart from the berries and nuts gathered for his mother, every year Frank made a special trip to pick wild cherries for his father. Wild cherry wine, fortified with iron, was much favored by Dr. Bailey as a tonic, so as soon as the fruit was ripe, Frank and his brother took the horse and wagon to bring home a supply.  In the barn a press was kept to squeeze out the juice, together with a more or less fine “bittering” from the broken pits, under the current misconception that a medicine only does you good if it is revolting to the taste.  Since Frank was sickly he was forced to absorb large quantities of this tonic, but only under threat of the direst punishment, for he hated the disagreeable stuff.

The boy also learned to make pills.  His father had a favorite medicine for kidney complaint put up in pills and called “seven balsam.”  Among the seven were balsam pine, balsam of Peru, and five other balsams since forgotten.  This chore Frank bore with more fortitude than the making of the cherry and iron tonic, because in order to keep the pills from sticking, there were no capsules in those days, they were covered with powdered licorice, to which he helped himself liberally while working.

September brought the County Fair, the greatest event of the season not only for the village folk but also for the farmers of the surrounding countryside.  The success of the fair depended wholly upon the weather.  Attendance, of course, fell off sharply if it rained, a tragic circumstance, for then old friends from far away would not turn up and the excitement of jostling crowds of strangers would be lacking.  The fair lasted for three days, and in order to attract larger numbers, the tickets for the three days were reduced by twenty-five cents.

There was something to everyone’s taste in the county fairs of the seventies; exhibits of cattle, poultry, and vegetables, handwork and preserves, side-shows, and the old fashioned high sulky trotting races, in which local horsed competed.  The Bailey family was principally interested in the home exhibits, Dr. Bailey serving as judge of the oil and watercolor paintings submitted by local talent.  One year Mrs. Bailey took first prize for a silk patchwork quilt, a marvelous composition, and on another occasion Frank won two dollars and a blue ribbon for a fantastic object, it could hardly be described by any other name, he had made with a jig-saw.

When the echoes of the fair, its triumphs and disappointments, had died down, there might be a month or so of brilliant sharp autumn weather, interspersed with a few soft days of Indian summer, then the winter closed in.  Seventy years ago in a small New York State village the winter was by far the liveliest season, much more social and communal in its activities than at present, when everyone seeks passive amusement in a movie theater or beside his radio.  Skating and sledding were the commonest sports, but since Frank caught cold every winter, such pleasures were over for him soon after they had begun.  One of his favorite diversions during the early freezes was what is called a bendio, a typically fiendish exploit of youth specially devised to give mothers nightmares, which makes one marvel that any little boys survive their childhood at all.  To practice a bendio the pond needed to be frozen in a very special way, that is, with certain areas frozen solid, like islands in the midst of thin sheets of ice.  The hardy adventurer would then fare forth from one island of ice to another, bending the thin stretches as he scurried across to safety.  The idea was to see how far you could get before the ice broke.  Once Frank fell into the water, and that was often, it meant a long siege in bed for him, but this did not prevent him from trying his skill again at the earliest opportunity.

The greatest thrill in sledding came when a heavy fall of snow covered the stone walls and fences, followed by a light rain, which left a crust strong enough to support a sled.  A ride of over a mile, starting at the top of a high hill and gathering up enough speed to vault fences and climb slight grades without slowing down appreciably, was something to remember.  Because special weather conditions were needed, this could be done only once or twice a year, and had its own hazards, for if somewhere along the route there was a slight thaw, a sled speeding along at fifty miles an hour would cut through the crust with extremely unpleasant results.

As he grew older, Frank joined the other young people of the village on long sleigh rides over the snow covered roads, excursions that always ended with a molasses candy pull at some girl’s house and square dances if someone could be found to furnish the music.  In the winter too there were singing schools, and writing schools where you could learn the Spencerian system of handwriting and art of making little figures.

Another annual event was the Dominie’s Donation Party, when all the parishioners came to call on the minister, bearing gifts and food.  Since the food was largely consumed by the visitors, and the gifts were more of a liability than an asset, two such parties a year would have ruined the minister and caused him to hear a “louder call” to some other parish.

Once or twice during the summer the walls of the church would shake with the thunder of a revivalist meeting, and even more frequently a temperance lecturer would make his appearance, preceded by some innocent entertainment such as the Swiss bell ringers or a performer on the musical glasses rendering “Father, dear Father, come home to me now.” All the church members took the pledge each time, no matter how many times they had taken it before.  They had a tendency to forget, when swearing to abstain from intoxicants, that occasionally the sweet cider in their cellars turned hard and could make a man as tipsy as he wanted to be.  Most of the rest of the male citizenry put no limits to their drinking. The town contained one saloon for about every fifty people and boasted of many grand old drunks.

It was at church, too, that Frank Bailey could witness the evolution of an economic cycle often repeated in the Eastern agricultural states.  The valley from Chatham to Kinderhook was known as the Klinekill Valley.  In Frank’s earliest remembrance, this valley was peopled by comfortable farmers of Dutch and English ancestry, who drove their sleek horses and freshly painted wagons in to church every Sunday morning.  The main produce of the region was rye, raised not only for the grain but also for the straw, which was sold to the many paper mills in the neighborhood.  The busy streams were dammed up at regular intervals to furnish power for the mills, so that the whole countryside was dotted with ponds and full of the noise of the spillways.  But little by little the vogue for this sturdy and lasting paper went out as the forests of the world began to be plundered for pulp, and the Klinekill Valley underwent a gradual decline.  The sleek horses began to undergo a change, their coats became rough and coarse, while the paint flaked from the gay wagons and the farmers seemed shabbier with every passing year.  As the depression became acute, the sons and grandsons of the old settlers were driven elsewhere to earn a living, and church attendance from the outlying districts fell off.  It was only after many years that dairy farming took the place of rye farming, and a new stock from another part of Europe came to work the rich land, but by that time Frank Bailey was no longer in Chatham.

In his boyhood he could also witness the decay of a small local industry within the village limits.  Like many other places in the general region at that time, Chatham had a blast furnace.  The location of the plant had not been determined by natural resources; the iron ore was brought from Amenia, while the charcoal for the furnace came down from Stephentown in tall railroad freight cars, accompanied by the burners, who were notorious rowdies and criminal types.  The roar and fire of the furnace, as well as the evil reputation of the workers, were mysterious and delightful to the small boys of the village, who would hover about the heaps of fresh slag in the late afternoon, waiting for a chance to plunge a long wire into the hot vitreous mass so that they could parade through the streets with a glass cane.

Even before Frank Bailey left Chatham, this business was declining because of the more economical manufacturing methods of larger iron and steel combinations farther west, but in the meantime the owner’s family was the richest and socially the most prominent in the village.  His wife once gave a children’s party to which Frank was invited.  The propriety of the assembled children was a far cry from the tough, noisy, dirty blast furnace that provided the wherewithal for such an elegant gathering.  Frank Bailey felt lost and miserable in his best clothes on a weekday. Awkward, shy, self-conscious, he had nothing to say to the chattering girls and the confident boys who seemed so much at their ease.  A glass of lemonade was his undoing; he took it in his trembling hand and spilled it on the dress of the little girl beside him.  The unhappiness of that moment was something never to be forgotten.

Social distinctions, however, played no part in still another periodic burst of feeling in the community.  Even more memorable than a revivalist meeting or the County Fair was election time, when partisanship reached the heights of infatuation.  Ever since before the Civil War the village had been staunchly Republican, but the mere idea of a Democrat running for office used to send the passions fever high.  Those were the days of torchlight processions, led by a band dressed in red, white, and blue oilcloth uniforms.  Every marcher carried a torch, and those residents who favored the cause illuminated their houses and cheered the parade till they were hoarse, their opponents meanwhile keeping their homes dark and jeering feebly at the celebrants.

Lacking monuments or institutions that could be pointed to with pride, the villagers plumed themselves on their volunteer fire department, which was equipped with a single hand pumped engine called Ocean 1 and a supplementary hose cart.  Every four or five years the engine companies of the neighboring villages were invited to attend a firemen’s parade at Chatham and to take part in a contest to determine which engine could squirt the longest stream of water.

The parade itself was the equal of any circus.  Heading each engine company was a foreman, decked in a handsome red and blue uniform with brass buttons as big as walnuts and carrying a large silver colored trumpet on which he never blew, since it was filled with flowers.  The engines, painted a dazzling red with gold trimmings, were also laden with flowers, like the carriages at Mardi Gras in Nice.  When the procession was over, the contest for long distance squirting followed, the whole occasion being punctuated by frequent visits to the saloon on the part of the contestants and enlivened by boisterous outbursts and good-natured teasing.

In the country districts of America a fire has always been a lot of fun for everyone except the person whose house burns down.  One of the greatest thrills of Frank Bailey’s boyhood was being allowed to pump the engine of the Ocean 1 when a fire broke out in the village newspaper office.  He wasn’t strong enough to pump for a long time, but he did pump with a will and it made him very proud.

Of professional entertainment there was very little in Chatham, but once in a long while a company of traveling players came to town and put on a show.  At one time posters appeared in the village to announce the coming performance of that hardy perennial, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Frank’s parents promised him that he might go to see it.  Unfortunately at that period he had conceived a passion for different colored inks, and the day before the play was to be given he broke a bottle of green ink in his trousers pocket.  The trousers were ruined beyond repair, and by way of punishment his mother forbade him to go to the play.

 With school, church, and chores at home Frank Bailey was a fairly busy boy, but there were additional several extracurricular activities, so to speak, that also contributed to his education.  He was a boy, albeit frail, and he could hardly grow up in an American town at whatever period without trial by fisticuffs.  As the doctor’s son he stood a bit on his dignity, which to the community of boys was infuriating.  In those days, at the sign of a fight starting, all the other boys would gather round and form a ring to cheer the contestants on.  On one occasion an Irish lad, much smaller than he, but wiry and fast, challenged him because of some fancied insult and licked him.  “It did me good,” says Bailey in speaking of it now.  “It punctured my self-importance.”  Another time the roles were reversed.  He had been taunted unmercifully by a schoolmate over many weeks, but a sense of his own physical weakness and a dread that he might be licked again checked any idea of reprisal.  At length, however, he came to the limit of his endurance, and as the ring formed about them he tore off his coat and proceeded to beat his tormentor easily, as much to his own surprise as anyone’s.  Since he had always thought of himself as sickly, it had never occurred to him that he could triumph in a fistfight.

There were other mysteries to be investigated, notably tobacco.  When he was ten years old he and a friend found a piece of chewing tobacco.  They bit off a piece, began chewing, spat with more or less accuracy, and then bethought themselves of showing off their new accomplishment to some appreciative person.  There was no one Frank wished to impress more than his mother, so he and his friend made their way to her kitchen and presented themselves before her.

Mrs. Bailey never turned a hair.  She stopped her work and sat down.  “Have a seat,” she said kindly.  Then she proceeded to entertain them very effectually.  Every time they tried to escape she pressed them to stay, and since the boys did not dare spit in her clean kitchen, they were very soon reduced to desperate silence.  Everything Frank had ever eaten rose in his throat, his stomach heaved convulsively, his eyes started from his head.  When at length his mother permitted them to go they were cured to the tobacco chewing habit forever.

A few years later Frank made another discovery that enlivened his stern routine.  In his father’s house the reading of novels was strictly taboo.  The only library in town was attached to the Sunday school and contained no other literature than the edifying publications of the American Tract Society.  These had at least one virtue; they could be used as decoys for copies of The Boys of New York.

The Boys of New York was a five- cent magazine published weekly by Street and Smith, containing stories and serials that set the imagination of a country boy on fire.  How to obtain the sum of five cents a week was a great, almost an insuperable problem, but by many shifts and artful devices Frank succeeded in mastering it and thereby entered the realms of romance.

The serial that made the deepest impression on him was entitled Frank Reade and his Steam Man of the Plains, a tale in which an inventive American boy builds a steam engine in the form of a gigantic man to carry him across the Western plains in search of gold and Indians.  In one chapter the Indians are riding fast in pursuit of Frank Reade when his Steam Man stops dead for lack of water.  It was agonizing to wait a whole week for the next installment.  During this period Frank developed a rare interest in nature study, especially Sunday afternoons.  Unable to read The Boys of New York at home because of parental disapproval, he would wander out in the fields with a pamphlet of the American Tract Society prominently displayed in his hand, and the Boys of New York concealed about his person, so that his mother could not witness his intellectual uplift.

The following year some new people came to town and broadened the scope of his reading by lending him the Rollo books and Paul du Chaillu’s volumes on African exploration.  No daily papers were obtainable in the village, but the family took the weekly edition of the Tribune, and read the pronouncements of Horace Greeley and Henry Ward Beecher with great attention.  When Frank was fourteen he earned a little money and subscribed to the Youth’s Companion.  With its namby-pamby stories of virtuous lads in commonplace situations it was an insipid dish compared with the Boys of New York, but it was livelier than the literature put out by the American Tract Society, and besides he was not required to read it in stealth.

Dr. Bailey owned a large collection of medical and scientific works, but except for Goldsmith’s Animated Nature Frank found these too forbidding to be worth investigation until he reached the age of puberty.  Then to his great delight he found that the medical books contained the answers to a host of unspoken questions.  But this was only the original impulse to read more widely, and from that time on he explored the rest of his father’s library in search of all kinds of information.  Along with the physical stirrings of an adolescent boy, vague, half-formed ambitions were beginning to quicken his intelligence.  He hardly knew where these might lead him, but that they would point away from Chatham, away from Columbia County, he had no doubt.

Many years later, when he attended the meetings of the Columbia County Historical Association, Frank Bailey would scoff at those of his contemporaries who spoke of the good old days.  “Good old days!” he would snort contemptuously.  “I too owed my success to the fact that I was born in Columbia County.  I remember the slime in the swimming hole, the chilblains and the slush and mud of winter and spring, the schoolhouse with the toilets where everything could be caught but housemaid’s knee!  In fact when I got away from Columbia County I worked like hell for fear I’d have to go back!”

For himself, even when in his later years he could have retired and settled anywhere in the country, he never dreamed of returning there.  And yet his childhood and boyhood were not unhappy; they could hardly have been so, with such affectionate and understanding parents as he had.  His disappointments and frustrations were not of the grinding sort that often breaks a boy’s spirit before he starts out.  He never knew the destitution of a coal-miner’s child or of a boy brought up on a Kansas farm in the same period.  He never went hungry, his clothes were adequate, even though they were hand-me-downs for the most part, and he never faced the terror of being thrown out on the street because the rent had not been paid.

And yet he had a strong consciousness of poverty from the time he first began to think about such matters.  The wants of very little children are so few that they are easily satisfied, even in the neediest households.  It is only when a boy finds that his playmates and friends have toys or amusements that are denied to him that he sees the gulf between poverty and riches.  Frank Bailey knew that in natural endowments, education, ancestry, manners, and capacity for hard work his parents were equal if not superior to most of their townsfolk, and despite all this they did not even own the house they lived in.  They were never able to amass the small sum needed to provide for the education of their children.  Frank had uncles and cousins who, though far from rich, and with character and ability no better than his parent’s, had nevertheless achieved a degree of comfort and security quite foreign to the Spartan home he knew.  On rare visits to his more prosperous relatives he would feel the contrast keenly, and at the same time he would ask himself what they had that he had not, except for money.

Ambition feeds on hope, and Frank’s hopes were cultivated assiduously by his mother.  She had no need to remind him that she herself was condemned to a life of endless toil, with no promise of respite, he could see that for himself, but she urged him constantly to remember the bold and enterprising race from which he sprang and the still boundless possibilities of the country they had helped to establish.  All over America men were up and doing, planning, building, working to carve out a better life for themselves. Most of them never rose above a modest competence, but some were making fortunes greater than the world had ever seen.

Frank did not know whether he could ever make a fortune, but before he left school he was resolved to get out of the common rut.

 The End


Note: From the Courier, November 10, 1988

“Mr. Bailey’s life was truly a rags-to-riches saga.  His father was a country doctor in the town of Austerlitz, and Chatham, like many physicians of his day, supported his family on barter received from patients rather than cash.  Dr. Bailey died when Frank was a student at the Spencertown Academy.  When it came time for Frank to go to college, Mrs. Bailey took him to a number of Ivy League schools, including Princeton, Yale, and Harvard.  She even drove the family team of horses to Williamstown to speak with Williams College officials, but none would accept him because of their family’s lack of finances.

Mrs. Bailey took young Frank to Schenectady where he was accepted at Union in the fall of 1881.  Following graduation Bailey became a shrewd dealer in Manhattan real estate and by the time he was 50 he was a multi-millionaire.”

The former summer estate of Mr. And Mrs. Frank Bailey called Munnysunk, a 42 acre arboretum is now owned by Nassau County. It has an impressive collection of plants and trees from all parts of the country and world.  It seems Frank developed his father’s love of trees and plants.