Golden Wedding -
The reader whose eye is arrested by my title will doubtless anticipate a
romance on that ever-old, ever-new theme of a certain god with a torch
leading two souls bound together by iron concealed in flower-wreaths,
until, alas! life seems ordinary enough to be symbolized by tin,—of
the tin-wedding entering into the refiner's fire, and, by sure
transmutation, rising from the baser metal to the paler, but purer
silver,—of the subtile alchemy of years, which, in human life's great
"Transmute, so potent are the spells they know
Into pure gold the silver of to-day."
Perhaps, reader, you are not altogether to be disappointed; and yet, for
the present, it is only a glass of sparkling wine I wish you to take
with me. You will please read on that delicate strip of paper around the
bottle's neck the name in gilt,—"Golden Wedding." At once you
grow transcendental, and suppose that some German vine-dresser in
Catawba-land—by the way, Gerritt Smith's gardener is a nephew of
Schiller!—was dreaming of the marriage of the Sun with the Vine, his
darling plant, in whose juice linger and sparkle the light and joy of
many faded days. But no, it was named from a real Golden Wedding.
Let me take you—as the clairvoyants say—to a large, sooty, toiling
city in the West. From street to street you shall go, and see but little
to excite your admiration, unless you are a constant believer that work
is worship. But here, in the centre of the city, is a noble old mansion
with its beautiful park around it, which a traveller who saw it once
compared to a pearl on the breast of a blacksmith. Here it was that the
Golden Wedding took place.
Who that was there can ever forget it? In my own memory that throng of
the worthy, the beautiful, the gay of a great city will stand as the one
fulfilment which Fate has given me of many Oriental promissory dreams,
most of which she has failed to honor. In that great company you might
have traced all the circles of that city's growth, as you may trace a
tree's history in its rings. That lady there was the first white baby
born here, where now over two hundred thousand human beings reside. Here
are the pioneers who filled the first log-huts on the city's site,
until they overflowed through the roofs. And here is an inner circle of
children, and an outer one of grandchildren, about the two who are the
heart of this beautiful celebration. Can that lovely, erect, blooming
lady be a bride of fifty years? Looking at her, one would say it is a
great and unnecessary mistake of ours to grow old. But more closely must
we look at that quaint old man by her side. Lately he has passed away;
but every day of his long life left a trace worthy to be noted well. His
eighty years and twenty-five days of life comprise an epitome of the
history and growth of a great community. Not so would you at first
interpret that plain old man; though, to a knowing eye, that eye, clear
with looking at the duty that lies nearest, that mouth, telling of
patient, unimpulsive energy, that broadness about the brow, would be
guaranties of a marked life.
And now for my story, which you must let me tell in a rambling way; for
any systematic biography of that man would be like putting one of his
own Catawba-vines into your herbarium.
I introduce you to a fair-haired, handsome youth, on the deck of a small
steamboat, which is bearing him to his fortune in the great West. He is
penniless. His father was wealthy; but in the war he was a Tory, and, in
the confiscation of his property, his sin was visited upon his son. But
he was not the boy to repine, with youth and the great West before him.
And now as from the steamer's deck he sees a fine landscape with a few
log-houses on it, he believes that it is one day to be a great city, and
concludes to stop there. So he is put ashore with his trunk.
He has already determined to study law. He goes to the one judge
who resides there, and is taken as a student into his office. More
log-houses are built; a court-house is erected; and presently that
institution at sight of which the shipwrecked Englishman fell on his
knees and thanked God he was in a Christian land—the gallows—made its
appearance. So the young man had a fair practice.
The records of the West, if they are ever written, will testify how
often whimsical Fortune thrusts her favors on men against their will.
This very judge with whom our youth studied law became environed with
pecuniary difficulties, and wished once to satisfy a claim of a few
hundred dollars by deeding away a sheep-pasture of a few acres, which
was of no sort of use to him. But when he went to get his wife's
signature to the conveyance, she burst into tears; she knew, she said,
that the pasture was worthless; but she had in her childhood heard there
the tinkling of the bells of her father's sheep; it was very foolish,
she knew, but now that they had all passed away, the bells over in the
pasture tinkled on in her memory, and she hated to give it up. The kind
husband would not insist, but went sadly to his work. It was not long
before the sheep-pasture was worth a million dollars! Sentiment, you
see, is not always an unproductive article.
But this case was scarcely so curious as that which presently thrust a
goodly capital on the hands of our young law-student. His first case in
the court was that of a horse-thief, whom he induced a jury to acquit.
When he came to his client for a fee, the scapegrace whispered that
he had nothing on earth wherewith to pay the fee except two old
whiskey-stills and—a horse. When he heard this last word, the
lawyer's conscience gave him a twinge. After a moment's reflection, he
said,—"You will need the horse; and you had best make him take you as
far as possible from this region of country. I must be satisfied with
the whiskey-stills." It was not for a long time that he thought even to
inquire about the stills. When he did so, he found them in possession
of a man who implored him not to take them away, and promised to pay
something for them. Finding that he could not do this, he begged our
hero to accept as payment for them a few acres of barren land, which,
with great reluctance, he agreed to do. Erelong the tide of emigration
set westward, and this land is to-day worth two million dollars!
But his subsequent life showed that the man's fortune was not luck; for
by economy, not by hoarding,—by foresight, and a generous trust to all
laborers who wished to lease lands, his wealth grew to nearly fifteen
When he found that he had enough to live comfortably upon, he retired
from the bar, and devoted himself to horticulture. He found that the
region in which he lived was adapted to the growth of the vine, and
began his experiments, which, during his life, extended to the culture
of more than forty varieties. He laid before the community, from time to
time, a report of his successes, he called on all to come and taste the
wines he made, until the tidings went over the earth, and from Germany,
France, Italy, came vine-dressers and wine-makers, who covered every
hill-side for miles around him with vintages.
Those who came from afar to inquire into this new branch of industry,
for which he had opened the way, were surprised to meet the
millionnaire, the Catawba-Prince, in his plain garb and with his humble
How many stories I could tell you of this unintentional, odd homeliness
of manner and life, from which he never departed, and which those around
him found it impossible to depart from, even in respect to the style of
the coffin in which he was laid, and the procession which followed him
to the beautiful cemetery! His dress was always that of a man of the
humblest fortunes; and Dame Gossip says that he was so fond of his old
coat, that, when a change became absolutely necessary, his daughters
were obliged to prepare the new one, and substitute it for the old
whilst he was asleep, so that in the morning he should put it on
unconsciously, or, if he discovered the change; must wear the new or
none. The same dame has it that a youth, who afterward became his
son-in-law, having caught sight somewhere of one of the old man's
daughters, desired to know her, and that, in the park, which was open to
all, he met the old gentleman, whom he supposed to be the gardener, and
offered him a bribe, if he would bring the lady out among the roses. The
old man accepted the bribe, and returned with the lady, whom, with a
sly twinkle of the eye, he introduced as "my daughter" to the blushing
youth. And again it is told, that once, on a very warm day, the old man,
having to wait for a friend, sat down on a stone just outside of his own
gate, took off his hat, and, closing his eyes, dozed a little. When he
got up, he found a silver quarter in his hat. Whether it was put there
by some one who really thought he was an object of charity, or by a wag,
the old man appreciated the joke, and, with a smile, put it into the
pocket out of which had to come forty thousand dollars for annual taxes.
These stories may or may not be true; but in some sense such stories
have a certain truth, whether invented or not. They can live and
circulate only in a community where they are characteristic of the
person of whom they are told. Generous men are not pursued by stories of
parsimony; mean men never hear even untrue stories of their generosity.
And this last remark leads me to speak of the relation in which the
wealthiest man of the West stood to the throngs of the poor and the
suffering who surrounded him.
If, in the city, you had gone to the President of the Boorioboola-Gha
Sewing-Circle, or to the Tract-Society Rooms, or to the clergy, and
inquired whether the city's richest man was charitable, you would have
received an ominous shrug in reply. Vainly have they gone to him for any
such charities. Vainly did they go to him for some "poor, but worthy and
"I will give nothing," he replied; "there are enough who will give to
her; what I have to give shall go to the unworthy poor, whom none
will help,—the Devil's poor, Sir,—those whom Christians leave to the
Many a minister has been sorely puzzled by the receipt of a fifty-dollar
bill "for the relief of the depraved." His office was constantly
thronged with outcasts, who were generally relieved by small sums. In
his relations with these people, his simplicity and eccentricity were
noted by all who knew him. Among many stories which I know to be true, I
select the following.
Some six or eight years ago the winter was very cold; the river was
frozen, and all the "wharf-rats" were thrown out of work. A near
relative of the old gentleman came to the city, and passed the night at
his house. After tea he sauntered to the office to take a quiet cigar.
To his surprise, he found it filled with a crowd—more than fifty—of
brawny, beastly-looking men. The presence of the childlike old man, his
face beaming with shrewdness and kindly humor, seemed alone to keep them
from being a mob. His manner to them said,—"You poor wretches, I know
how reckless you are; yet I am not sure but I should be as bad, had I
been exposed to the same bad influences." These houseless vagrants had
been coming every night, while the river was frozen, to get a dime for a
The young man had been forced by the unpleasantness of the crowd to go
and enjoy his cigar outside. As he sat there, the ugly crowd filed out
quietly, each with his dime, (the clerk distributing,) till the last
man. He seemed to feel very ill-used, and was scarcely clear of the
door-way before he gave vent to his indignation:—"I'll be d——d, if I
don't let Old —— know that I won't be put off with a five-cent piece
and a three-cent piece! Let me ketch him out, and I'll mash his," etc.,
Glowing with righteous indignation, and glad of the opportunity, the
young relative rushed in and exclaimed,—
"Mr. ——! I have had many occasions to remonstrate with you on your
indiscriminate charities, your encouragement of beggary and vice. The
wretch who went out last is breathing threats of personal violence
against you, because he has been put off with a five-cent piece and a
How was the indignant remonstrant mortified, when the old man simply
turned his head to the clerk and said,—
"Mark, why did you not give that man his dime?"
"I had given out all the dimes, Sir, and I gave him all I had left."
"See that he gets his extra two cents the next time he comes. I have no
doubt I should have been mad, if I had been in his place."
A forlorn-looking man once came and asked for help.
"I am afraid to give you money. I think I know how you will spend it."
Of course the man protested that strong drink was an abomination unto
him,—that what his nature most craved was "pure, fresh milk."
The old man, with a look in which it would be hard to say whether
shrewdness or credulity predominated, at once hastened to the
milk-cellar and returned with a glass of milk; the fellow swallowed the
dose with an eager reluctance quite comical to behold, but which excited
no movement in the muscles of the old gentleman's face.
On a raw, wet winter's day, a loafer applied for a pair of shoes. He had
on an old, shambling pair, out at both toes. The old Wine-Prince was
sitting with a pair of slippers on, and had his own shoes warming at the
"Well," said he to the applicant, "you do look rather badly off, for
such a cold, wet day; here, see if these shoes will fit you," handing
The fellow tried them on and pronounced them a complete fit, and went on
his way rejoicing. The clerk was amused, half an hour after, to see the
old gentleman searching for his shoes and wondering what had become of
them. He was reminded that he had given them to the beggar. On further
inquiry, he found that he had no other pair in the house.
The following significant story was told me by the son of the old man. I
present it in nearly his own words.
"Adjoining me in the country lives an old German who nearly seventy
years ago was sold in New York for his passage. A confectioner of
Baltimore bought him for seven years' service, and he went with his
master to fulfil his obligation. When his time was out, he turned his
face towards the setting sun, and started to seek his fortune. On
arriving in Pittsburg, having no money, he engaged to 'work his way'
down the river on a flat-boat. He stopped at the little village, as our
city then was, and opened a shop. He was skilful, and succeeded. He came
to my father, and bought, on ten years' credit, a place in the country,
where, in course of time, he built a house, and, with my father's
assistance, planted a vineyard. He then gave up all other business but
that of the vine-dresser.
"One day, in the autumn, a few years ago, I overtook the old man on
horseback, on his way to town. After wishing me a cheery good-morning,
"'I am on my way to town, to sell your father my wine.'
"'He will be glad to get it; he is buying wine, and yours is made so
carefully that he will be glad to have it.'
"'I mean to sell it to him for fifty cents a gallon.'
"'Oh,' said I, 'don't offer it at that. I know he is paying double that
"'Nevertheless, I mean to sell it to him for half a dollar.'
"I looked inquiringly.
"'Well, Sir, I was but a boy when I left Germany; but I was old
enough to remember that a man, after a hard day's work, could go to a
wine-house, and for two cents could get a tumblerful. It did him good,
and he went home to his family fresher and brighter for his wine. He
was never drunk, and never wasted his earnings to appease a diseased
appetite. I want to see that state of things brought about here. Our
poor people drink whiskey. I want them to have cheap wine in its place.
Fifty cents a gallon will pay me well this year for my capital and
labor, and next year I think I can sell it for forty cents.'
"'But, my friend, see how this will work. You will sell your wine to Mr.
—— for fifty cents; and he will send it to his wine-cellar, and they
will bottle it and sell it for all they can get.'
"'That's their lookout,' said the Teuton; 'I shall have done my duty.'
"It was rather hard to get an advantage of my father, but I thought now
I had him. On reaching the city, I sought him out, and told the story
with all its circumstances.
"'Now, Sir, in presence of the example of this old German,—sold in New
York for his passage, faithfully fulfilling the years of his servitude,
working his way to a small competency by savings and industry,—will you
dare to let the world hear of you, a rich man, making a profit on wine?'
"The old man's eye dropped an instant, then he said,—
"'My son, Heaven knows I do not wish to make money out of wine. I have
given much time and much money for the last fifty years to make this
doubtful experiment successful. I have paid high prices for wine, and
used all other means in my power to make it remunerative,—to induce
others to plant vineyards. If I should now take your suggestion and
bring wine down to a low price, I should ruin the enterprise. But let
the extended cultivation of the grape be once firmly established, and
then competition will bring it low enough.'
"'Well,' said I, 'that may be good worldly wisdom; but I like the spirit
of the old Dutchman better, after all.'
"'There I agree with you; for once, you are right.'"
A most careful accountant has shown that his contributions to
grape-culture amounted to one-fourth of his whole fortune: a clear loss
to him, but not to the public.
Though the lips of Christendom repeat, Sunday after Sunday, the warning
that the left hand should not know what the right hand doeth, yet it is
very apt to judge of a man's liberality by the paragraphs concerning him
in the newspapers. The old gentleman once gave his city several acres of
land for an observatory which was to be erected; and there is no doubt
that he had reason to conclude, as have others, that it was the worst,
as it was the most public, charity of his life. That his private
charities were numerous and without self-crediting, the present writer
happens to know. Once, after going through the great wine-cellar where
millions were coined, I went through the barracks in the upper portion
of the same building, where a wretched tenantry of the Devil's poor
lived in squalor. Each of these families was required to pay room-rent
to the millionnaire. As I passed along, I found one man and woman in
wrathful distress. They must pay their rent, or be turned out of their
rooms. The rent was two or three dollars. I said,—
"The old gentleman will not turn you out."
"You do not know him; he will be sure to, if we do not pay him every
I determined to search him out and represent the case. I could not find
him; but before I concluded my search, I found that the poor people had
been compelled to sell a table and some chairs to pay the rent. The next
day I saw them again, and found them heartily abusing the old man as
"a stingy brute," who would "sell the chairs from under them." Yet I
observed that they had a new table and three new chairs. When I asked
them how they came by them, they said they had been sent by an unknown
hand, which they supposed to be mine. A thought struck me, and after
some trouble I ferreted out the fact, that, although the rich old man
had, for reasons connected with the good order of the barracks,
always exacted every cent of the rent from each tenant, whatever the
consequences, he had many times, as in this case, secretly returned more
than it had cost them to pay it. They were left to believe him a hard
man, and often attributed his benefits to societies and persons whose
charity would have been stifled by the whiskey-stench of their rooms.
Thus, then, went on his life, until the day when the Golden Wedding
was to be celebrated. That year, the sons, with the vine-dressers, the
bottlers, corkers, and all, gathered together and said,—
"Come, now! let us this year make a wine that shall be like the nectar
for a true man's soul!"
So, with one accord, they gathered the richest grapes, and selected from
them; then they made the wine-press clean and sweet, and cast the grapes
therein. One great hiss,—a spurt of gold flushed with rubies,—and all
that is acrid is left, all that is rich and sweet is borne away, to be
labelled "GOLDEN WEDDING."
And now, as I taste it, it seems to me flavored beyond all earthly wine,
as if it were the expression of an humble and faithful man, who had a
legitimate object, which he obtained by steadfastness. The wine-makers
maintain, that wine, though long confined in bottles, sympathizes still
with the vines from which it was pressed; and when the season of the
flowering of vines comes, it is always agitated anew. Surely the Catawba
must ever sparkle afresh, when in it, as now, we pledge the memory of
the brave and wise pioneer whose life climbed to its maturity along with
the purple clusters which so had garnered the frost and sunshine of a
life as well as of the seasons.