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Friday, May 6, 2016

The Middlinville Chronicles: The Sylvester Mapleton Story

Monday, February 21, 2005

This is the first of a two-part installment in the Middlinville Chronicles published on consecutive Fridays.

By this time, there were forty-three children living in and around the immediate vicinity of Middlinville. It was plainly apparent that some form of organized educational system was necessity for the growing community.

Although most of the children received their education from their parents, who would teach them the basics 3 "R's" to the best of their ability, education was still pretty much of a hit or miss thing. It was difficult teaching somebody to read when many of the adults were half illiterate themselves.

More than one father, suffering the frustrations of trying to drill 5 times 5 is twenty-five into their daydreaming offspring's noggin, would throw his McGuffey Reader down in disgust and loudly lament:

"We need a schoolmarm!"

A school house was built on a parcel of land donated by Cyrus Peavine and a collection was taken among the citizens of the Ford to purchase supplies for the new institution.

Middlinville was now in possession of a fully stocked school...All it needed was a teacher..

Classified ads were placed in papers back East with very little hope of enticing a likely candidate for the position. After all, why would anyone with any education want to come half-way across the country to the raw, half-civilized edge of nowhere? The best that even the most optimistic parent could hope for was to entice someone with at least some level of marginal competency.

As the days and weeks dragged on with no response to the pleas, Middlinville's educational chores had been overseen by Amanda Peavine, whose own education ended somewhere in the vicinity of "seven times five is forty-seven."

The blossoms were just beginning to bud on the plum thickets when a train of freight wagons arrived in Middlinville with a load of supplies for Pierson's store.

They also delivered a most remarkable young man...

His name was Sylvester Mapleton, late of Rockland, Massachusetts. He was barely 21 and a recent graduate of Boston's Academy of Education. In his pocket was a certificate stating that the bearer was qualified to teach mathematics, physical sciences, the liberal arts, French, Latin, and croquet.

Mapleton was of slight stature, standing only around 5' 7" or so and barely tipped the scales at 140 pounds dripping wet. What really made him stand out was his clothing...He was dressed in the latest "Back East" fashion from his button-up-the-front shoes to his four-in-hand tie...not to mention his shiny bowler hat. Although covered with several hundred miles of trail dust, he really stuck out in a crowd where buckskin, homespun, and gingham were the dress of the day.

As one teamster put it: "That feller sure shines!"

Making inquiries, the stranger was seen entering Pierson's Mercantile. After he'd introduced himself to Homer Pierson, the Chairman of Middlinville's Board of Education, he was led to a back room where an interview was immediately conducted.

During this interview, the young man's story unfolded...

The youngest of seven children and the son of a horse veterinarian of some local renown back home, Sylvester grew up in the small village of Birch Falls, Mass. Two older brothers had preceded him into their father's practice where they had accumulated a lucrative living and a desirable reputation at treating thoroughbred horses, privately and at various race tracks up and down the coast of New England.

However, peering down the throat or any other orifice of some horse was not Sylvester's cup of tea, so to speak. Staid and steady Yankee genes had somehow gone awry in his makeup and had left a streak for thirst of adventure in his soul. This rebellious quirk kept the Mapleton family stirred up for several years.

When he was but thirteen, Sylvester tried to run away to sea and was apprehended only minutes before the Yankee clipper he'd signed on as ship's boy was ready to weigh anchor in Boston Harbor.

Mr. Mapleton finally gave up trying to bend his youngest son to his will and instead, made a pact: If Sylvester would attend the school of his parents' choice and diligently apply himself to his books, he would be free to pursue his own avenue of study. When he graduated, he would be allowed to follow it where he so desired, accompanied by his father's blessings.

Sylvester quickly agreed and Mr. Mapleton gave a sigh of relief. At least he'd seen to it that his youngest son would not be eaten by cannibals on some South Sea island or end up destitute on some poor farm somewhere. Besides, he might come to his senses and abandon his wild dreams, taking his place in the family's growing practice.

While attending the academy, Sylvester discovered a love for books..and with this soon came the desire to teach others what knowledge that lay between the bound covers.

In due time, Sylvester graduated with honors. On his Matriculation Day, he happened to open a Boston newspaper and immediately spotted the Middlinville plea for a teacher. He knew that his destiny was leading him west.

Sylvester went home, packed several boxes with books, one valise with clothing, and donning his graduation suit, stuck an umbrella under his arm.

Sylvester was prepared to sally forth to do battle with the forces of ignorance and illiteracy out on the American Frontier.

He made his good-byes to his family and boarded a western-bound train. His parents waved after him until the locomotive rolled out of sight then sadly returned home knowing that this would probably be the last time they ever saw their youngest son. No doubt he would be massacred by the first redskins he had the misfortune to encounter.

For his part, Sylvester was having the time of his life. He took the train as far as the Mississippi River, which at the time, was the railroad's western terminus. He rode a stagecoach for two days and finally completed his journey by freight wagon, enjoying every jolting mile of his journey across better than half the nation before his arrival in Middlinville.

Sylvester Mapleton's credentials were impeccable beyond the Middlinville Board of Education's wildest dreams. Homer hired the young man on the spot.

It was only after the newly hired school teacher, in all of his elegant turnout, had left the store to seek lodgings that Homer Pierson began to have second thoughts. It was obvious that a thus attired dandy with Sylvester Mapleton's bearing had a life expectancy in Middlinville roughly equitable to that of a bottle of rot-gut whisky on skid row. Homer made a mental note to himself to replace the advertisement the next morning.

The trail dust had coated Sylvester's tongue, leaving it glued to the roof of his mouth. Spying the Stone Creek Tavern's inviting bat- wing doors, he made that establishment his first stop.

Sylvester's entrance into the tavern had the comparable effect of a bucket of cold water on a bed of glowing embers. Conversation came to an abrupt halt and every eyeball in the place snapped around to gaze at the rather prepossessing figure of Sylvester Mapleton.

The new school teacher's entrance into Middlinville society was talked about for months and afterwards. The next minutes became imbedded in the local legend and details of the story were bandied back and forth for years.

Sylvester, oblivious to the stir his arrival had created, immersed his nose in a cold schooner of beer. As the icy brew cut through the layer of dust coating his throat, Sylvester's toes curled with delight, totally unaware of the silence that emanated in waves around him.

Continued next week.