Back in Philadelphia – Growing Up

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This post is an excerpt from the book, The Life and Times of Warren Webster, by Warren Webster, Jr.

In the latter part of 1876, the Webster family moved back to Philadelphia, occupying a home at 1709 Columbia Avenue. During the next few years Warren Webster attended the George G. Meade Grammar School, at 18th and Oxford Streets, and Central High School, at Broad and Green Streets.

“When I was about sixteen years old,” related my father, “I carried baskets in the market at 20th and Oxford Streets, and averaged $2 an afternoon. I also shoveled snow off pavements. I didn’t think anything of it. To me it was merely being able to get hold of some money—and I was willing to work for it. I made money while others were playing because I liked to do it—and that was how that was managed. Once I worked for a week for David W. Garrigues, painting chairs, for which I received $4—$3 of which I turned over to my mother.

“In the summer of 1878, another boy and I agreed to distribute one thousand folding fans in the Girard Market Place for a fee of 50 cents each. On one side of the fan was a Japanese picture; on the other side was the following advertisement: ‘Dr. VanDyke’s Sulphur Soap—Extract s the Effete Eliminations of the Body and Re-establishes Health-giving and Revitalizing Organisms.’ The day the fans were to be given away was very warm. After giving away about fifty fans, I decided I could sell them. I put a price of 5¢ each on the remainder and sold them all. When we went back to the man who had hired us, I told him we had sold the fans and he need not pay us anything. He was satisfied, but rather surprised that there was such a demand for the fans.

“Around that time,” continued my father, “I worked for six weeks for a Philadelphia dentist at $5.00 a week. I made gas, polished artificial teeth and adjusted the vulcanizer, according to instructions the dentist gave me. It was interesting work—and I liked it.”

When Warren Webster was seventeen, in 1880, after his graduation from Central High School, Philadelphia, he received an appointment as a cadet at the U. S. Naval Academy. With twenty-five other cadets from various states he went to Annapolis to take the entrance examination. On the first day of the examinations, he was disqualified on account of poor eyesight. He couldn’t distinguish colors sufficiently well to pass.

“For the moment,” said he, “I was very much discouraged and didn’t know what to do. However, as I had paid my board in advance and couldn’t get it back, I decided to stay and look around. I walked down to the dock and saw a sailboat tied up there and the idea of hiring it occurred to me. A colored man who was aboard the boat told me where the owner was. Accordingly I went to the owner and spoke to him about hiring the boat provided I could handle it. He said: ‘Well, how do I know that you can handle it?’ I said, ‘You don’t know—I don’t know myself. But I’m used to sailing and I would like to try it.’

“I got the colored man to go with me to handle the halyards. I said to the owner: ‘I will sail across the bay or far enough to see how she handles.’ He let me try it, and when I came back I rounded up right at the dock. ‘You’re all right, boy,’ he said, ‘you can hire the yacht if you want her.’

“I made arrangements to hire the sailboat and then, as it was nearly noon, I went up to the boarding-house where the boys were all at lunch. I took my place and told them that I had been disqualified on account of poor eyesight but that I hoped they would all be successful. I then told them that I had hired the yacht and offered to take them sailing that afternoon for 50¢ each. Twenty or twenty-two went with me that afternoon—and the same number the next day. At the end of the week, after paying the sailboat owner and the colored man, I had a net profit of about $50.

“My brother, Elwood, had lent me $25 to pay my expenses to Annapolis. When I got home I pulled out my wallet and said ‘Here is the $25 expense-money you lent me—thanks.’ He was surprised to see the wad of notes I took out of my wallet, and said: ‘I didn’t expect anything back—but where did you get all that money?’ I told him about taking the boys sailing. He thought that was a clever idea for a fellow as young as I was.

I told him I believed I could handle a similar cruise on Delaware Bay and that I had more nerve now than on the first venture.

“I got in touch with Captain Peter Crozier, who owned a single-masted sloop, berthed at the Poplar Street Wharf, and arranged to hire it from him for ten days for $15.00. My brother was favorably impressed with the idea and wrote an advertisement for me to run in the Public Ledger. It was worded:

‘Independent Yacht Club will make a 10 day cruise down the Delaware. Price, $15. Limited capacity—10. No liquor. References required.’

“I received forty-three replies, and from these applicants picked ten. I was captain, and I hired a cook. All the work was done by the boys in the party. We systematized the work, keeping the decks clean, setting the sails and raising the anchor; we also organized regular watches. Nobody was paid except the cook, who received $8.00.

“The trip worked out beautifully. We cruised down the Delaware to Maurice River and back, fishing and enjoying the beach facilities en route. I believe I made about $85.00 clear.

“That same summer of 1880,” Warren Webster continued, “five other boys and I bought an old sloop for $60.00—and started on another cruise down the Delaware. One of the boys began to drink. We let him drink all he wanted and then took him off the sloop to a hotel at Bombay Hook, arranging with the proprietor to keep him overnight and send him back to Philadelphia next morning. We then set sail across the Bay for Sea Breeze.

“When we were about one-third of a mile from Cohansey Light, a squall came up and the rowboat that was being towed behind the sloop filled with water and had to be cut loose. Then the topinlift broke, causing the boom to drop overboard and the sloop to fill with water. As we were carrying about a ton of stone ballast, the sloop soon sank.

“Fortunately, we were seen by the lighthouse-keeper at Cohansey Light and he turned on the light early to guide us in the approaching darkness as we swam through the heavy seas towards shore. Four of us finally reached the marshes where it was shallow enough to stand, but the other boy had to be pulled in and revived. But we still had to reach Cohansey Light, which necessitated our swimming Cohansey Creek and struggling a considerable distance with the water up to our armpits over a bottom so soft that our feet sank deep with each step. It was pitch dark. When at last we got to Cohansey Light, a white-haired old lady welcomed us with hot food, dry clothes and tubs in which to wash both ourselves and our clothing; later she gave us a room with two great beds.

“The next day was fair and clear. The problem now was how to get home? Fortunately, a Captain Schenckle, a retired meat merchant, stopped by to ask for information regarding the sloop he had seen in trouble the night before. When he found that we boys were the crew and that we were, by good luck, safe and sound, he offered to take us back to Philadelphia in his yacht. As a result of this strenuous adventure I lost fifteen pounds.”

Captain Schenckle took a great liking to Warren Webster and soon after the Cohansey Light affair invited him to go on a yachting trip down Delaware Bay, promising to instruct him in the finer points of sailing and navigation. Here is the story of the trip as Warren Webster related it:

“The first night we anchored at low tide at the mouth of Murder Kill Creek. When the tide rose five or six feet, the cable was too short and the anchor did not hold, so we were driven out to the ocean. Asleep in the cabin we knew nothing of this until I was awakened by thumps on the deck. Looking out the port, I found the wind had driven us right alongside a barkentine, the crew of which was throwing lumps of coal on our deck to awaken us. I shook the Captain by the leg and awoke him. He went out on deck and began to laugh, saying: ‘Well, you just didn’t put enough cable out last night so we were blown out here in the ocean.’ We sailed in and anchored in Murder Kill Creek.

“The next day we were cruising about two miles off shore, when Captain Schenckle, wearing heavy boots, went out on the end of the boom to reef the sail. In some way, he slipped and fell into the water. Tying the sheet-rope under my arms so that it couldn’t slip, I jumped into the water and swam out to the Captain. The rope was slack, but when it became taut we were able to haul ourselves back to the yacht. The Captain’s heavy boots made it difficult for him to reach the deck, so I made a rope cradle for him to step in and then it was easy. Strange to say, until this trip Captain Schenckle had always gone out alone and this was his first accident. This happened in 1880 when I was seventeen years old.”

“At that time,” continued Warren Webster, “I attended a Sunday-school Class in Philadelphia, taught by the late Mr. John Wanamaker. In his talk to the boys, Mr. Wanamaker said: ‘You are just starting out in life. You may be looking for easy roads to travel, but you won’t find them. You have to work hard to accomplish anything worthwhile. You will encounter troubles, but don’t become discouraged. Trouble is like a snowball. When a snowball starts at the top of a hill, it rolls and gathers more snow. But when the snowball of trouble gets down to the bottom of the hill, don’t be found under it—be found on top.’

“One day, forty-five years later, I was with Mr. Wanamaker at Pass-a-Grille, Florida. It was just at sunset. Mr. Wanamaker stood watching the sun in silence as it seemed to dip into the Gulf of Mexico. When at last every ray had disappeared, he turned to me and said: ‘The sunset is always sacred to me. I make it a rule never to be disturbed by anybody or anything while the sun is setting.’

“I then told Mr. Wanamaker how impressed I had been with his snowball story in the Philadelphia Sunday-school years before.

‘It is a beautiful story, Mr. Wanamaker,’ I said, ‘I have always kept it in mind and passed it along to others.’ ‘That was a great many years ago,’ said Mr. Wanamaker. ‘It does me a lot of good to hear you say that. I am glad to know that you thought that advice worth following.’ .”


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