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Transcribed by Crist Middaugh

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John Nelson Norwood Alfred U Photo 2 of 3

The west side of Alfred's Main Street much as it looked in 1895. The balcony above the sidewalk was added later. The smallest building was moved and is the present Box of Books. The building next for (to the left) was replace by Rosebush Block. The road in foreground led to the livery stable.

John Nelson Norwood Alfred U Photo 1 of 3

Greene Hall as it looked in an 1898 photo. Note the town pump and the sprinkling can at the base of the gas lamp in the middle of the street.

John Nelson Norwood Alfred U Photo 3 of 3

 

The present Kanakadea Hall as it looked when Dr. Norwood attending high school classes there.

 

Norwood papers include his own story of 1895 voyage to Alfred

Editor’s Note: As autobiographical manuscript which has recently come to light depicts the early life in England of Alfred University’s seventh president, John Nelson Norwood. The manuscript, begun during Norwood’s retirement in the 1950’s, was never completed. It details the impecunious years of a religiously devout family in Nottinghamshire, England; the death of Norwood’s father, a Methodist farmer-preacher; and Norwood’s decision to immigrate to America to join his mother’s brother, Thomas Ellis, a harness maker, on the latter’s farm in Alfred.  Norwood, who would later earn degrees from Alfred University (1906) and the University of Michigan, and a doctorate from Cornell (1915), taught history and political science at Alfred from 1910 until 1933 and simultaneously served as dean of the University from 1923 to 1933, when he became president of the University in 1945 and served in that position until his retirement in 1945. He died at Bethesda Hospital in nearby Hornell in 1965. The following excerpt from the autobiographical fragment found among his papers describes Norwood’s last lingering look at his homeland and his voyage in 1895 from Liverpool, England, to the Ellis farm in Alfred.

The ocean fare in the steerage could not have been over $20, and the rail fares to Liverpool, and from New York to Alfred were not high, but the total was to us a lot of money. How mother got it together, I know not, but get it she did.

I closed my connection with the Grimes farm three or four days before the sailing date, and won on long hikes among my old haunts - the river, the cliffs, the marshes, and to my old home at Laneham (his birth place). I inspected the work on the new Methodist Church at Newton and on the new railway a mile and a half away. I said my good-byes to relatives and friends, young and old, in whose eyes I found I was somewhat of a marked person-going to America!

I talked little then, and little on the train trip to Liverpool. “Is this the city of Warrenton?” Inquired Mr. Fox (a friend of Norwood’s family who was accompanying him on the voyage) of a porter on the platform as we pulled into that Central England community. “This sir,” corrected the porter courteously, “is the town of Warrentown!” Relatively few places in England are called cities.

At Liverpool a tender took us to the S.S. Umbria of the Cunard line during at anchor out in the River Mersey. The relatively plutocratic Fox went to the second cabin. I to the lowly steerage. From the bunk room I could look out through the porthole at the rushing waters as the ship pushed out to sea. Right there I made an important decision: Whether I liked the new country or not, I would stay there two years at least. If I did not like it by that time, I would return home.

The steerage almost turned my stomach. It was crudely finished and furnished. Anything like a table cloth was taboo. Table ware was of tin. The food though clean and fairly cooked was dumped on the table in the most unappetizing fashion. Piles of potatoes still in their skins appeared - a sight I had never seen before unless they were baked, or steamed wholesale for stock.

Most of the fellow passengers were Irish emigrants. While by no means a bad lot, they were crude and uncouth, some grabbing potatoes off the pile in their fists. The double-deck bunks were separated from each other by only six-inch boards, the occupants crawling in from the foot. Before the seven-day voyage was ended we had shaken down to general, mutual tolerance and in a few cases to not unpleasant acquaintanceship. Hearing some distinctly Yankee talk someone would sigh. “Well, I suppose we shall soon have to learn this fantastic language.” I was seasick but soon recovered after having a few times relieved myself in favor of the fishes. The disinfectant used on board had a very distinctive odor, and if to this day I catch that smell, it causes a spasm in my “sawdust.” I ate very little by day dreamed of some Sunday dinners I had had at home - thin sliced beef in red gravy, potatoes, green beans, and bread pudding with raisins in it and thin custard poured over it on the plate.

Occasionally Mr. Fox would drop from the second class heaven and smuggle me an orange. I was not consciously homesick. I was too far away for that. But I did not feel talkative yet. Mr. Fox tried unsuccessfully to breach that curtain of reserve, shyness, or preoccupation. He must have concluded that I was dumb in more senses than one.

In many ways the voyage was pleasant and interesting. The ship was a smaller but older cousin of the then leading luxury greyhounds- the Campania and the Lucania. Her engines, what I could see of them, the huge stacks, the deck machinery, the “crows nest,” the foghorn, the cycle of the day notched by the half-hour strokes up to eight bells, the bridge, the coming-and-going of the uniformed officers, appealed to my curiosity.

Saturday nigh or early Sunday morning the Umbria docked. I don’t recall any special curiosity about the (New York) City “skyline,” or the bronze Lady on Bedloes Island. I had experienced no sense of oppression to stir my emotions on the symbolism of the Goddess of Liberty. I did vaguely hope for new opportunity, and less noticeable class barriers.

At the customs I was brought to tears by our temporary inability to find my box which contained my only reminders of mother and home. Composure was quickly restored when the missing baggage was found with Mr. Fox’s. At Ellis Island I walked in line past an inspector who looked at my eyes. What else I did there, I don’t recall. We got our money changed and went to a hotel. With all costs paid it looked as if I might have about $6 left. The nickle being larger than the time but worth only half as much puzzled me a bit. When Fox sent me out asking me to mail, not post, a letter, I got an early touch of Americanization, I suppose.

We took the Erie train in the evening. The size of the rolling stock impressed me and I liked the airy roominess of the coaches open from end to end. I sat up, while my “moneyed mentor” took a sleeper. As I watched the scenery in the morning, the countryside gave me am impression of lack of finish with the wooden structures and the board fences contrasted with the brick buildings and living hedgerows of central England. There seemed to be much scrubby and uncultivated land which appeared untidy. I liked the neat white-painted houses, lively and bright.

A trainman shouted “Alfred, Alfred” and we soon stoped by the station. The building had burned down and a superannuated passenger car had been drafted into services as a substitute. Mr. Fox got off the train with me and called the attention of Mr. Pettibone, the station ages to the “new citizen” he had brought with him. Soon the train coughed away up the steep grade taking Fox off toward his Wisconsin home, and I was certainly alone - a stranger among strangers. Many, many years later Mr. Fox confided to me his estimate of the “timid boy” whom he left that morning. “What will he be doing forty years from now?” He had mused, as his train had gone on. “My Guess is that he will be working his uncle’s farm!”

It was a hot day. Throwing my light overcoat over my arm, I struck out to follow uncle’s directions and find his home. The macadam road to Alfred was under construction and women were busy on it. That overcoat, so welcome on the Atlantic, didn’t seem quite so appropriate on that July forenoon, and I was duly “kidded” about it as I passed the men. Town month those expressing themselves, strange to say, later became my lifelong friends- J.W. Crofoot and Will M. Davis.

By the old cheese factory, I stopped to look at a garden. Corn I did not recognize and I was puzzled by plants which looked like potatoes but were not. Others were more familiar like peas and beans. Near the present (1949) home of Dr. Russell I asked a workman if he knew Thomas Ellis. He shook his head saying he didn’t believe any such man lived here. “My, what a queer name!” I thought as I saw “Bennehoff” over one of the stores. Up South Main Street I plodded half a mile or more “past the second bridge,” said my instructions, “up a rising ground; turn right up a private road to a white house and red barn some distance from the highway.” That brought me to the front door of the house which I trusted was my destination- the end of my 3500 mile trek.

Cousin Will’s wife, Belle, answered my knock. “Does Thomas Ellis-but undoubtedly, I said “Hellis” - live here?” “Yes, is this Nelson?” “Yes.” Welcomed inside, I met Aunt Louisa, a saint if I ever met one in appearance and in fact. “Thomas,” she said in a greeting which I learned was almost automatic with her, “is feeling a little better today.” And soon he came in, a tall, straight, gray-haired, eagle-eyed, acquiline-nosed gentlemen, quick of action and quite nervous, probably from his chronic stomach disorder. I was favorably impressed. What he thought of me he let on later: “Small for your age, beautiful eyes, but an awfully homely mouth!” I felt he had been a bit disappointed.

In the afternoon uncle and I went with the double team and democrat wagon to get my “box.” I was assigned a little second floor bedroom in the northwest corner. Thus I was installed, the new member of uncle’s household.

The Selected Papers of John Nelson Norwood, edited by Leonard Palmer Adams and Elizabeth Selkirk Adams, bout AU ’28, are available in Herrick Memorial Library and the College of Ceramics Library. 

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