Charles Fillmore's Early Years
"Youth and the Dawn of Life"
Charles fillmore was born into this present itinerary on August 22, 1854, at 4 a.m., on an Indian reservation just outside the little town of St. Cloud, Minnesota, in a log cabin that his father Henry had built by a ford over the Sauk River. He was christened Charles Sherlock Fillmore. He never used his middle name. Charles Fillmore once wrote about one of his ancestors, John Fillmore: "As a boy of thirteen he was kidnapped on the coast of England by pirates. He was on the pirate ship for eighteen years. Finally he and a companion tied the pirates while they were under the influence of liquor and sailed the ship into Boston harbor, where the pirates were executed. This little incident in my family history has often reminded me of what a lecturer on heraldry once said about his family tree: that he was somewhat timid about looking it up because he might find something hanging to it. A facetious member of the audience queried, 'By the neck or the tail?'"
Millard Fillmore, thirteenth President of the United States, was Henry Fillmore's second cousin. An uncle of Henry's, Glezen Fillmore, was the first ordained Methodist Episcopal Minister in New York State and established the first Methodist Episcopal Church in Buffalo, New York.
Charles's father Henry was born and reared in Buffalo. After receiving a common school education, he left the city for the wilderness of Minnesota. In Minnesota, he became a trader with the Chippewa Indians and settled on a small reservation located just north of St. Cloud.
Young Fillmore, the Indian trader, had been in Minnesota only a few months when he met and married Mary Georgiana Stone, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a millwright. Born in Nova Scotia of Welsh and English ancestry, she had been brought West by her father when she was a child.
Charles Fillmore was born in a log cabin where the only protection against the forty-degree-below-zero cold of the Minnesota winters was the huge fireplace, which devoured logs at a rate that kept Charles and his younger brother Norton busy throughout the winter.
When Charles was seven, his father Henry left home. He had managed to acquire some land about ten miles north of the cabin where the boys lived with their mother and there he built another cabin for himself. From then on, the boys spent part of their time with their mother and part with their father.
As Charles Fillmore later wrote, his childhood was "romantic but crude and unprofitable." It was a kind of Huckleberry Finn existence. Hunters and trappers came and went, roving bands of Chippewa and Sioux Indians passed by the cabin. Charles spent a great deal of time wandering in and out of the Indian lodges and tepees as freely as did the Indian children. In this way, he and his mother learned some words of the Chippewa tongue, and years later Grandma Fillmore taught these to Rickert and Lowell. When a member of that tribe visited Unity School long afterward, one of the boys was able to repeat a few words in the Chippewa language, which the Indian seemed to understand.
The Indians were nearly always on the warpath, not only with one another but sometimes with the whites. When
Charles was less than two years old and he and his mother were alone in their cabin, a band of painted Sioux rushed up. The leader, a towering medicine man fantastically painted and decked in the full regalia of his profession, strode into the cabin, tore little Charles out of his mother's arms, and rode away with him. It was evening before the warriors brought him back to his distracted mother. Where they had taken him and what they had done with him, Charles could not remember, but he always had a feeling that they had used him in some mystical ceremony.
Charles attended a log-cabin school where there was one schoolmaster for all the students and the school term was only for the three mid-winter months of the year. He went to this school for only a few years, so he did not have much formal education. Neither did he have many opportunities to go to church.
Though the family was not rich, there was never any dire lack of food in the house. Food in Minnesota in the 1850's was easy to obtain. Wild game and berries of all kinds were plentiful. Many times in the winter and early spring, Charles and his brother would go down to a nearby creek or pond and break the ice to find cranberries frozen under it, or perhaps to fish. In the fall, there was an abundance of wild rice and Charles would go out in a canoe, just as the Indians did, and bending the rice blades into his canoe, he would beat off the grain with a stick and bring it home to dry and store.
It was the mother, Mary Georgiana Fillmore, who was to be the chief force in shaping Charles's destiny. Life had never been easy for Mary Fillmore — or "Grandma Fillmore," as she came to be known to the Unity workers — but she had never asked for ease. Like her son Charles, she was one of those persons who have a rich zest for life. She
was not afraid to live. Neither the natural wilderness in which she was reared nor the economic wilderness in which she found herself by the necessity of having to raise a family singlehanded ever daunted her.
Mary Fillmore was a strong character. She wrapped herself in an imperious manner and developed a tenacity of will with which she could press forward through poverty or inharmony, or whatever obstacle she faced, until her goal was reached.
Mary Fillmore needed her tenacity of purpose to raise her family in the wilderness. At twenty-five, she found herself alone with two children to feed and care for; the oldest, seven; the youngest, five. She lived in a crude cabin four miles outside the nearest town, surrounded by half-savage Indians and half-civilized whites, mostly French traders and trappers who spoke a foreign tongue. The people were hospitable, however, and she managed to make enough money as a dressmaker to keep the three of them clothed and fed. The food was simple, but with the magic known only to those who have to do it, Mary Fillmore had learned how to take a small bag of beans and a soup bone and turn them into a week's meals for three.
After five years of this struggle, one of the members of the little family, Norton, ran away from home and never returned to live with them. He disappeared into the West and out of the life of Charles Fillmore except for occasional contacts.
It was a short time after his brother left that Charles Fillmore met with the accident that was probably the determining incident of his life. His hip was dislocated in a skating accident. A doctor decided that rheumatism had set in and treated the boy for that. There was no improvement; instead the leg grew steadily worse. A succession of
doctors produced a succession of diagnoses, but no improvement in the patient. In the words of Charles Fillmore, himself, "I was bled, leached, cupped, lanced, seasoned, blistered, and roweled. Six running sores were artificially produced on my leg to draw out the diseased condition that was presumed to be within. Physicians of different schools were employed, and the last one always wondered how I ever pulled through alive under the treatment of the 'quack' that preceded him; and as I look back at it now it's a miracle to me how I ever got away from them all with the little bundle of bones and sinews that I found in my possession after they had finished their experiments."
By that time, the hip socket had been destroyed, the leg had stopped growing, and could not be moved. For more than two years, the disease ran its course in the leg, sometimes seeming to disappear only to return with increased violence. Many times during the course of the sickness, Charles did not believe that he was going to come through. Often he must have wondered why he was making the struggle. It was a titanic struggle. But there was a titan in the little body, and the struggle was made. Whenever he could be, he would be up and about on a pair of handmade crutches, hopping around the cabin, doing what he could to help. When the disease would bring his body down again, it did not bring him down in spirit. He never gave up.
This boy did not know what it meant to give up — to sickness, to poverty, to discouragement. Probably the spirit of the mother, by this time a veteran of hardship, helped him more than anything else, for she fired the son with her courage, which, if it had no power to stop the infection in the leg, did have power to stop the infection from spreading to the boy's spirit. The spirit remained whole, and as is very often the case under such conditions, even grew stronger.
Qualities of the heart and mind are like physical qualities, they are developed by exercise. Often we make no effort to acquire them unless life forces demands for them upon us; but once we have them, they are ours to use. For two years, merely to keep the thin flame of life flickering in his body, Charles Fillmore had to call on all the energy he could command; he had to build the will to live, or die. He had to build courage. He had to build resourcefulness. When the struggle ended in victory, these qualities remained and were his to put to other purposes.
When after two years the disease had run its course, it left a withered leg. But it left something else, too — a spirit that would not give up, a spirit that was not daunted by pain, a vital, determined, courageous spirit. It was this robust spirit that was to shape the life of the man.
Youth is the time of life when men engage most actively in physical pursuits, but this activity was denied Charles Fillmore. Here were an alert, swift, vital mind and a bold, self-reliant, enterprising spirit lodged in a body incapable of much physical activity. This mind and this spirit had to find an outlet for their energy. Charles Fillmore did not have less energy than others; he had more. The two-year struggle he had made against disease had released tremendous quantities of energy within him. Now he had to put this energy to use.
He started back to the one-room schoolhouse, but his difficulty in getting about made it hard for him to go to school; moreover, in a short time he had to go to work to help his mother.
His first job was as a printer's devil in St. Cloud. Here he learned some of the printer's trade that was to be of use to him thirty years later when he came to publish the magazine Unity. After that, he worked in a grocery store and in a bank.
Charles worked hard in the grocery store and the bank, but his work could not begin to absorb his energies. He had a mind that demanded more vigorous use than he could put it to in his work.
At this time, an army officer named Edgar Taylor happened to be stationed in St. Cloud. His wife Caroline had gone through college, a rare attainment for women of that time. This woman had a genuine love for classical literature. Also she had a son, Edgar, a boy of Charles's age, to whom she was devoted and she was determined that this boy should amount to something. At the time when young Charles met her and was drawn to her, she happened to be busy teaching her son, much against his will, the classical literature that she herself loved so much.
Here was a woman who had read and thought; her mind was full of knowledge. She was familiar with many books, most of which probably the young son of an Indian trader had never even heard of. But Charles had a curious and avid mind, a spirit ready for books and learning, and however Edgar reacted to literature, Charles was happy to make its acquaintance. Shakespeare, Tennyson, Emerson, Lowell, and we do not know how many others, were poured one after another into the active ferment of his imagination. Edgar Taylor might have preferred to be out running around with other boys, but Charles, who was unable to do this, reveled in the books that Mrs. Taylor introduced him to. He learned to love the beautiful language and exalted ideas of Shakespeare and Tennyson. They made such a deep impression on the boy's mind that all his life his writings were embellished with quotations from their works. So much did the American writers, James Russell Lowell and Ralph
Waldo Emerson, come to mean to him that later when he was married he and his wife Myrtle, who was also a great admirer of the writers, gave each of their first two sons Lowell Page and Waldo Rickert, the name of one of those two great New England transcendentalists. Later Charles Fillmore was to write an article on the metaphysics of Shakespeare; and numerous quotations by Emerson were to appear in the pages of Unity.
Not only did Mrs. Taylor teach him to read great literature, but she also taught him the rules of grammar and gave him writing exercises to perform. Many an evening when he came home from the grocery store or the bank, he and she together would pore over something he had written while she pointed out mistakes and assisted him with his rhetoric. Besides her interest in literary matters, she was interested in the new ideas that, seeping out of New England, were making people here and there question the concepts of orthodox theology, and she helped to stimulate an interest in those new ideas in the young man who had turned to her for learning.
Above all, however, by teaching him grammar and acquainting him with the beautiful phrasing and noble ideas of the great English and American poets and essayists, she was helping him to prepare himself to express ideas of his own when at last they should come to him. When, three decades later, he felt the urge to express the new thoughts that were unfolding in his mind, the small amount of formal schooling he had obtained would have equipped him but poorly for the task that was his; but thanks to Mrs. Taylor, when at last he found something to say, he had the skill with which to say it so that people would stop and pay attention to it.
Meanwhile St. Cloud was growing up. By 1870 it had a population of 3,000. Had Charles Fillmore stayed there, he might have become in time a prosperous merchant or a banker, for he was to prove later that he had a shrewd business sense; but such a prospect could never have held much allure for a man as imaginative of mind and adventurous of spirit as Charles Fillmore. Among the books he read there were many about the West. Out West, there were marvelous opportunities. There fortunes were being made, mines being discovered, cities being built. It was a young land exploited by young men and it beckoned to the young with hands dripping gold and adventure.
Charles Fillmore had a cousin who lived in the little town of Caddo, located just north of the Texas border in the Indian Territory that is now Oklahoma. One day in the spring of 1874, when Charles was nineteen years old, he packed his clothes, went down to the railroad station in St. Cloud, bought a one-way ticket to Caddo and got on the train.
Caddo was located in what was probably the wildest district in the United States, and Charles Fillmore did not stay there long. He went on to the end of the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad, which had its terminus twenty miles south, across the Red River, in Denison, Texas. In Denison, he managed to make a friend of the chief clerk in the freight office and was hired to check cars in the yard. With a sheet of paper and a pencil, he would go out each day to write down the numbers of all freight cars that were in the vicinity of Denison. All his spare time, he spent in the freight office helping his friend the clerk do his work. His other friends laughed at him for this diligence, but it proved ultimately not to be without profit, for one day the clerk became ill and Charles was the only person who knew how to perform his duties. For the next five years, Charles Fillmore worked as chief clerk in the freight office of the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad in Denison.
As soon as he was able, he sent for his mother. Charles and his mother were unusually close all their life. She had reared him and supported him. When he had been sick, she had inspired him to live. Later when he and his wife Myrtle were busy founding Unity, she was to take care of the family, cooking the meals, keeping house, making and mending clothes, washing, feeding, and tending the three boys through illness and health, getting them off to school and welcoming them home again; and stretching the few dollars that the founders of Unity were able to provide into food and clothing enough for all. All her life, with doting eyes and loving heart, she was to stand by and look after the needs of the one she called "my boy Charles." Now when he sent for her, she was quick to come to Denison to make a home for him. To help support the home, she once more went to work as a dressmaker.
Among all American pioneers were many of education and refinement. Denison had no small number of these. It was inevitable that they should gravitate together to discuss the literary and philosophic matters that interested them. Charles attached himself to such a group. They were young people who met at one another's homes in the evening, often to read poetry, or if the urge should strike them, to write a few lines.
We know that Charles joined this group, because it was as a member of it in 1876 that he met a red-haired schoolteacher who had come down from Clinton, Missouri, two years before to teach in a private school. The name of this teacher was Myrtle Page.