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His mother, whose maiden name was Jane M. Lyman, was one of the Lymans of Goshen. The experts in New England genealogies will not need to be told that on both sides, he came of a good stock -such as, by a combination of enterprise, intelligence, and high principle, has made New England great. The mother could, indeed, bestow upon her son nothing more than the legacy of inherited character, for she died a few weeks after his birth. But her place was supplied by the second marriage of bis father, three years later, to Miss Marcia Coffing, whose affection bestowed freely upon her stepson through twenty years, was as freely returned by him. Their correspondence, some of which has been preserved, shows that their personal intercourse was intimate, and that this excellent lady, though burdened with the cares of a large and hospitable household, never forgot to be a true mother to this son of her adoption, as well as to the children born of her. No doubt he was much indebted for noble impulses and principles to the influence of this devoted woman.
For two or three years of his early boyhood, he attended the district school near his father's house, and was then advanced to the Academy, to which he walked, a little more than a mile and a half every day, winter and summer. In later life, he was accustomed to allude to this regular exercise as having laid the foundation of the fine constitution which enabled him for so many years to work so hard and yet so easily.
From the Academy in Salisbury, he went to another under the care of Mr. Simeon Hart, at Farmington, Conn., and after a year or more, to Williams Academy, then directed by Mr. E. W. B. Canning, at Stockbridge, Mass. From Stockbridge he went to Bridgeport, Conn., to prepare for Yale College, under Rev. Henry Jones. According to the dates and internal evidence of his boyish letters, the above order is not strictly correct. I find him at Stockbridge in 1846 and 1847, at Farmington in 1848, at Bridgeport in 1849, and back at Stockbridge in 1850. For our present purpose, the question is not important, except as it shows an early trait in his character--a restlessness, born of versatility and genius, which under less judicious training might have wasted his life.
Ample and interesting materials tempt me to more detailed description of his boy hood. But I must be content to mention, and briefly illustrate, its leading characteristics. First among these must be named the normal, healthy physical activity and the overflow of mirth and high spirits which made him a leader in boyish sports
and adventures. Where the others climbed with ostentatious courage up to the belfrey of the academy, he, at the first trial, mounted above it and stood on the gilded ball, which no foot had pressed before. He hangs over precipices, takes long foot-journeys, and revels in the mere consciousness of life and strength. Strikingly handsome as well as athletic, he is naturally a leader among his comrades. In all sorts of home amusements, too, his merry ingenuity makes him invaluable. Many of these, such as charades and rhyming games, were intellectual; others were mere pranks—such as the match between him and a friend,“ who could eat the most pancakes,” of which the kitchen was the scene, the cook being coaxed into complicity, while the dog, wagging his tail behind the combatants, received from each as many segments as could be surreptitiously bestowed without the knowledge of the other; or the occasion when, having constructed a rustic bridge over the brook, Holley forced the entire family to march over it in solemn procession, while he sat by, fantastically dressed as a troubadour, and played the guitar.
Let no one despise this light-hearted gayety. It was the early form of that courage which carried him afterwards through many struggles and even defeats, with an air of victory that was in itself the promise of victory to come.
To this quality must be added a keen observation and an inborn talent for drawing. These were specially, but not wholly, directed toward machinery, in which he took the liveliest interest. His father having established the well-known knife-manufactory at Lakeville, the boy made himself familiar with all the machinery, and during his youth' made innumerable proposals of improvement --some of which, being really good, were adopted, while othersno doubt the greater number--were crude and impracticable. When but nine years old, he accompanied his father as far as Niagara, where he was left for a few days with an uncle who was connected with works employing machinery. During the father's absence, Alexander was repeatedly missed by his uncle, who always found him on such occasions in some place where there was a steam-engine, and who long preserved, as a memento of the visit, a little bundle of papers on which the boy' of nine had made drawings of the different machines he had thus studied. In a letter written at about the age of fourteen, he describes an excursion with his school-mates to the old Bristol copper mine, six miles from Farmington, and says:
“The steam-engine attracted considerable of my attention, of course. It was splendidly made and fitted, and went so still that one would hardly know that it was in the room. Power, twentyhorse. Mr. S. Hart [his teacher] told the gentleman that showed
. us around that he would have me draw a plan of the engine from memory, which I have done, and which Mr. H. is much pleased with. He says he is going to send it to the aforesaid gentleman at Bristol."
His letters overflow with revelations of his passionate interest in machinery, and particularly in locomotives. In one of them, written after returning to school from vacation, he indulges in some of the truly good sentiments with which boys are wont to please parents, but which are in this case redeemed from platitude by this pictur
esque touch :
“ It seems as if I should dive and dig and plow, and if that did not succeed, back out and plow again, in my studies, as faithfully as the locomotive, old 'Connecticut' did, this morning in the drifts, with seven long cars, all alone."
In another letter, he speaks of a locomotive which has been wrecked on the Housatonic road ; calls it by name, as an acquaintance; says he has walked twice (a number of miles) to the place where it lies at the bottom of a steep embankment; introduces a pen-and-ink sketch of the scene, locomotive and all, to show how difficult will be the return of the engine to the track ; and concludes, “I guess the H. R. R. Co. will not make money by this operation.”
He frequently declares his determination to master the science of machinery, and I find one sentence, in a letter written at fifteen, which seems to be an unconscious prophecy. He writes : “I have seen, in a newspaper, an account of a man in England
I wish I could learn the art of making steel."
In another letter, written from Stockbridge, he says:
“I have been devoting all my leisure time, for nearly two weeks, in making sectional and perspective views of the internal works, machinery, steam-works, etc., of the most improved locomotive engines, showing how the steam is made, applied, and cut off at halfstroke or not (a recent improvement); how the engine is worked
every way, in some seventeen different pictures, with explanations filling some eight or ten pages. Mr. Canning is to have them framed and hung up in the Academy. I have explained them in
I such a manner that any one can understand them, and I really hope that people will look at them, for there is more ignorance among scientific and educated men on this point than on any other. People who pretend to “know the ropes' can not explain the simplest form of a steam-engine, even with a model. Of mechanics and chemistry, I intend to get the most thorough knowledge, if I have the opportunity (and, in fact, I intend to get it any way), both practical and theoretical. These are the studies I have always liked, and I am bound to investigate and become master of them."
One other characteristic deserves special mention-his talent for debate and literary composition, and his consequent love for them. Let it be said here that his was not an instance of dropsical precocity. His early efforts were not mature, or even surprisingly early. At fourteen he joined, I believe, his first debating society. I have found, in his handwriting, a constitution and by-laws of the Societas, Literarum (symbolized by a Greek Sigma), which bear date about this time, and in their simplicity and brevity are worthy of imitation. The constitution runs thus :
“1. It shall be the duty of each member to try to sustain the society.
“2. Each member shall pledge his word of honor to keep all the proceedings a secret.
“3. The business of this society shall be debating and composition reading “4. This society shall support a semi-monthly paper, called the
.” [Name omitted.] And the following are the by-laws : “1. The officers of the society shall be a Secretary and President. “2. There shall be as many as eight menibers in the society. “3. It shall be unlawful to use vulgar or profane language."
It was not long, however, before, in this congenial sphere, he developed extraordinary activity. I cannot forbear to introduce, at this point, the letter which appeared in the American Machinist of March 18th, 1882, from Mr. Canning:
“The universal sorrow in the inventive and mechanical world over the recent decease of A. L. Holley prompts me to jot down a. few particulars of his earlier school experiences, which go to prove the truth of the proverb, 'the boy is father of the man.'
“Mr. Holley entered Williams Academy at Stockbridge, Mass., in the fall of 1848,* then under my charge. He is still remembered as a fair, fresh-cheeked, blue-eyed, wide-awake boy of sixteen, who pursued studies preparatory to a college course. His geniality, generosity, and overflowing good humor made him popular with his school-mates, and soon gave him the lead, both in and out of school. He excelled in every branch of study; but his chief interest centred in Natural Philosophy and Mechanics. He was a prominent member of a literary society of the institution called the ‘Philologian,' in which he manifested talent unusual for his years for debate and free discussion ; while his fun-loving propensities found vent in conducting mock trials and in humorous essays and declamations. He established and mainly conducted a periodical entitled The Gun Cotton, issued fortnightly on a large sheet in manuscript, which was read by myself from the desk, and afforded great interest and amusement by the variety and spice of its contents. This he edited during his stay at the Academy.
“Though excelling in all the branches of study required of him, his penchant for mechanics and invention developed itself markedly when he attacked Natural Philosophy and Physics. Dissatisfied with the meagre description in the text-books of the steam-engine, with which he seemed to be better acquainted than the author of the treatise, he at my request made drawings in detail of a stationary engine and of a locomotive, with an accuracy and skill that would have done credit to a professional engineer or draftsman. These I used in demonstration, in preference to the imperfect model among the school apparatus. During one of his vacations, he came up from his Salisbury home expressly to show me a miniature engine of his own building. It was complete in all respects, and of skilful workmanship; and, on being fired up, ran with admirable success.
Thus he foreshadowed the devotion to the mechanic arts which so eminently characterized his manhood. One number of his Gun Cotton, I remember, was devoted to the description of an aërial voyage made by a machine of his own devising, whose practical workings were related with as much interest as the details of the wonders of sightseeing it enabled its inventor to describe. This, he prophesied, would be substantially the vehicle of locomotion in A. D. 1950.
* Mr. Canning forgets his first sojourn at the school. He was certainly there in 1846 also.