Thursday, October 6, 2011

Riding the Oswego Stage with Aaron Kirk

(From the Auburn Semi-Weekly Journal, Oct. 25, 1912)
   Aaron Kirk Tells Interesting Tales of
   Stage Days - Thirty of Years Services
   Drove Between Auburn and Oswego in '49

 Tuesday, Oct. 22. -  The number of men in Auburn who have held the same job for 30 years is small, but there is a veteran stage driver, still active as a horseman, who can brag some in his line.
This man did the same kind of work in the open, exposed to all kinds of weather for 30 years. Moreover, he was on the move all the time, for it was in the old stagecoach days, and he, during this span of a generation, sat on the box seat of the Pullman's predecessor, urging his panting horses through the dust or the muck and mire of Cayuga highways, at that time little more than trails.
 This picturesque old man of 79 years held down that 30-year job and he is a living proof of the value of an outdoor life. He is Aaron Kirk, and he lives with his daughter, Miss Ada Kirk, in a comfortable little home on Park avenue near Nelson street. When an Advertiser man et Mr. Kirk an evening or two ago, he had just returned from driving a carriage in a funeral cortege.
 Yes," said he, "I can't keep away from the horses. When I when I am on the box seat with a pair of spankers before me, I am in my element. It's like a locomotive engineer, he can't keep away from the roundhouse, or a sailor who can't keep away from the docks. You see I was driving years before I got out of knee breeches. I don't know of anybody who started in diving stage as young as I did. I was in July, 1849, when I was just turned 16, that I was promoted to the box seat of the stagecoach running from Auburn to Oswego, by way of Port Byron, Victory, Conquest and Serling Center, a distance of 40 miles. I succeeded in getting the job - a responsible one for a little shaver like me - because my brother John had the contract for carrying the mail over this route. 
The contract lasted for four years. he first contract let was to John Gilpin, who carried the mail from Auburn to Sterling three times  week on horseback. Charles Comstock, I remember, succeeded Gilpin, still on horseback. At the end of his contract the stage was put on, with my brother as the first driver. Our starting place here was at the Western Exchange, a hotel located at the present corner of Exchange and Genesee streets, the site of which is now occupied by Smith & Pearson's Hardware store.
 "I well remember," went on Mr. Kirk, with a humorous flash in his keen eye, "that year 1849, when I proudly took the lines in my hands. It was the year of the California fever. I remember that among a few others, Robert Patty went from here. Patty's father at that time kept a tannery on Market street where Sperr's wholesale house now stands. Young Patty did not become a Stanford or a Crocker on the coast for he came back here, two or three yeas later, with about as much as he brought out, and that was not a great deal."
"Say, I was proud those days, for I used to drive that stage through Sterling Center in full view of the old log cabin I was born in on July 17, 1833. I kept on this route from Auburn to Oswego for eight years. We changed horses at Victory, which was just about half way. Talk about roads!  There were no county or state roads in those days at least in Cayuga or Wayne counties. In the rainy season those roads were simply bogs through which the horses floundered, mud up to their bellies. In winter we frequently could not get through because of the snowdrifts and then we would go to the nearest farmhouse and wait till the storm ended.
"Yes there was a railroad here when I was driving - the New York Central under a different name. The mainline through Port Byron was not built until several years later. After driving four years on the Oswego route, I drove between Auburn and Moravia, 20 miles, for a year. I don't believe Oswego is any larger today than it was back in the early '50s, but Moravia is a great deal larger. My next route was from Cortland to Borodino, about eight miles south of Skaneateles.  I held this job down for about a year. 
"Then I took up the route from Auburn to Ithaca, a distance of 40 mile. I drove on this route for 12 years. No we did not follow the route now taken by the Lehigh Valley railroad, which was not built at that time, but went by way of Poplar Ridge. Afterwards I drove a stage from Auburn to Meridian, a distance of 20 miles. I was four years on this run. Next, I drove from Red Creek, which is near Lake Ontario, to Port Byron, 20 miles out and back every day. I held that route for four years also. Port Byron was then larger than it is today. It had an extensive milling business, which practically died out when the canal was diverted." 
"No, I never figured in any holdups like those the Wells-Fargo stages in the far West encountered. During the 30 years I was driving stage I never even carried a gun. We did not carry any large sums of money which might tempt desperate men to rival Black Bart or Jesse James, but merely small remittances from merchants along the route to be deposited in banks here. With the coming of the railroads the stagecoach business petered out, and I tell you, we old fellows who were happier on the box seat of the rumbling old vehicles than anywhere else, watched with the keenest regret, the iron horse gradually supplanting the patient, loyal animals we drove.
"But talking of muddy roads in Cayuga county. I went out to visit my brother's family in Illinois - I suppose it is 50 years ago now. I went by way of Chicago, at that time nearly as large as Auburn is today. Well, talk about mud. I remember riding to the hotel in the old-fashioned stagecoach. The mud was so deep the horse could hardly pull through it and when they reached the old-time hostelry, long since torn down I guess, they were flecked with foam and panting with exhaustion. It was certainly cruelty to animals to drive horses with loads through those so-called streets, which were worse than any road in York state I eve saw. It seemed a mystery to me why people should found a city in such a swamp as Chicago was in those old days. I am told that things are different there now, that instead of morasses there are wide, and beautiful boulevards and avenues and parkways second to none in the world. Wonder what time and money and energy will do."
But with the passing of the stagecoach Mr. Kirk did not by any means retire from driving. For many years after he drove for the Tallmans, J.H., Humphrey and S.C. Tallman. The latter sold out his business last year. Every Auburnian recollects the Tallman stables and carriage repository on Dill street. They are there no longer, the site being occupied by the Warner hotel conducted by Mr. and Mrs. James Wells. Up to his very day, this veteran of the lines, who until four years ago never knew a sick day, drives for various undertakers. Whenever they are short a driver they call up "Dad" at his comfortable Park avenue home, and he never fails them. He also drove for the Newkirk livery.
 There is not a man in Auburn who at the age of 79 - or 60 at that - retains the use of his faculties and limbs as well as "Dad." You don't have to shout at him when you talk.  His hearing is as acute as it was 30 years ago. So is his eyesight. His appetite, as is daughter confirmed, does not need condiments to give it zest. He eats what he wants and he smokes some. In addition to his active outdoor life, no doubt heredity has much to to with the old driver's splendid physical and mental condition. He comes - on his mother's side at least - of a long lived family. His mother was 81 summers. His brother John died at Leland, Ill., last year at the age of 91. Another brother, Isaiah, died some years ago in Louisiana aged 86. His sister, Sarah, died at Paw Paw, Ill., in her 80th year. Another sister, who died 18 years ago in this city, was 82 years old. Had she lived until this year she wold have seen a century. He has a brother William, who lives at Jewell Junction, Iowa, who is 85. Another brother, Robert Irving At Shell Rock, Iowa, is 83. Mr. Kirk's wife died on July 7, 1890. 
Asked how he regarded automobiles, the old gentleman said he likes them, bit he draws the line at air ships.*
* He died March 25, 1924 - Cayuga Chief, Weedsport, March 28, 1924.

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