Fifty years ago, this man used to sell vegetables and fruit from door to door in the streets of Rochester, N. Y. He had a small farm a few miles out of town, upon which he raised the produce which he thus disposed of. An anecdote is related of a fine lady who had recently come to Rochester as the wife of one of its most distinguished clergymen. She ran up into her husband’s study one morning, and said to him: –
„Why, Doctor, I’ve just seen the only gentleman I have yet met with in Rochester, and he was at our basement door selling vegetables. How wonderful! Who is it? Who can it be?”
„It must be Myron Holley,” said her husband.
Another of his lady customers used to say that he sold early peas and potatoes in the morning with as much grace as he lectured before the Lyceum in the evening. Nor was it the ladies alone who admired him. The principal newspaper of the city, in recording his death in 1841, spoke of him as „an eminent citizen, an accomplished scholar, and noble man, who carried with him to the grave the love of all who knew him.”
In reflecting upon the character of this truly remarkable person, I am reminded of a Newfoundland dog that I once had the honor of knowing near the spot on the shore of Lake Ontario where Myron Holley hoed his cabbages and picked his strawberries. It was the largest and most beautiful dog I have ever seen, of a fine shade of yellow in color, and of proportions so extraordinary that few persons could pass him without stopping to admire. He had the strength and calm courage of a lion, with the playfulness of a kitten, and an intelligence that seemed sometimes quite human. One thing this dog lacked. He was so destitute of the evil spirit that he would not defend himself against the attacks of other dogs. He seemed to have forgotten how to bite. He has been known to let a smaller dog draw blood from him without making the least attempt to use his own teeth in retaliation. He appeared to have lost the instinct of self-assertion, and walked abroad protected solely, but sufficiently, by his vast size and imposing appearance.
Myron Holley, I say, reminds me of this superb and noble creature. He was a man of the finest proportions both of body and of mind, beautiful in face, majestic in stature, fearless, gifted with various talents, an orator, a natural leader of men. With all this, he was destitute of the personal ambition which lifts the strong man into publicity, and gives him commonplace success. If he had been only half as good as he was, he might have been ten times as famous.
He was born at Salisbury, Conn., in 1779, the son of a farmer who had several sons that became notable men. The father, too, illustrated some of the best traits of human nature, being one of the men who make the strength of a country without asking much from the country in return. He used to say to his sons that the height of human felicity was „to be able to converse with the wise, to instruct the ignorant, to pity and despise the intriguing villain, and to assist the unfortunate.” His son Myron enjoyed this felicity all the days of his life.
After graduating at Williams, and studying law at New Haven, he set his face toward western New York, then more remote from New England than Oregon now is. He made an exquisite choice of a place of residence, the village of Canandaigua, then only a hamlet of log huts along the border of one of the lakes for which that part of the State is famous. The first step taken by the young lawyer after his arrival fixed his destiny. He was assigned by the court to defend a man charged with murder – a capital chance for winning distinction in a frontier town. Myron Holley, however, instead of confining himself to his brief and his precedents, began by visiting the jail and interviewing the prisoner. He became satisfied of his guilt. The next morning he came into court, resigned the case, and never after made any attempt to practice his profession.
He was, in fact, constitutionally disqualified for the practice of such a calling. Having a little property, he bought out a bookseller of the village, laid out a garden, married, was soon elected county clerk, and spent the rest of his life in doing the kind of public service which yields the maximum of good to the country with the minimum of gain to the individual doing it.
The war of 1812 filled all that region with distress and want. It was he who took the lead in organizing relief, and appealed to the city of New York for aid with great success. As soon as the war was over, the old scheme of connecting Lake Erie with the Hudson by a canal was revived. It was an immense undertaking for that day, and a great majority of the prudent farmers of the State opposed the enterprise as something beyond their strength. It was Myron Holley who went to the legislature year after year, and argued it through. His winning demeanor, his persuasive eloquence, his intimate knowledge of the facts involved, his entire conviction of the wisdom of the scheme, his tact, good temper, and, above all, his untiring persistence, prevailed at length, and the canal was begun.
He was appointed one of the commissioners to superintend the construction of the canal at a salary of twenty-five hundred dollars a year. The commissioners appointed him their treasurer, which threw upon him for eight years an inconceivable amount of labor, much of which had to be done in situations which were extremely unhealthy. At one time, in 1820, he had a thousand laborers on his hands sick with malaria. He was a ministering angel to them, friend, physician, and sometimes nurse. He was obliged on several occasions to raise money for the State on his personal credit, and frequently he had to expend money in circumstances which made it impossible for him to secure the legal evidence of his having done so.
In 1825 the work was done. A procession of boats floated from Lake Erie to New York Harbor, where they were received by a vast fleet of steamboats and other vessels, all dressed with flags and crowded with people. In the midst of this triumph, Myron Holley, who had managed the expenditures with the most scrupulous economy, was unable to furnish the requisite vouchers for a small part of the money which had passed through his hands. He at once gave up his small estate, and appealed to the legislature for relief. He was completely vindicated; his estate was restored to him; but he received no compensation either for his services or his losses.
He returned to his garden, however, a happy man, and during the greater part of the rest of his life he earned a modest subsistence by the beautiful industry which has since given celebrity and wealth to all that fertile region. He remained, however, to the end of his days, one of those brave and unselfish public servants who take the laboring oar in reforms which are very difficult or very odious. After the abduction of Morgan, he devoted some years to anti-masonry, and he founded what was called the Liberty Party, which supported Mr. Birney, of Kentucky, for the presidency.
One of his fellow-workers, the Hon. Elizur Wright, of Boston, has recently published an interesting memoir of him, which reveals to us a cast of character beautiful and rare in men; a character in which the moral qualities ruled with an easy and absolute sway, and from which the baser traits appeared to be eliminated. He was like that great, splendid, yellow king of dogs which escaped perfection by not having just a spice of evil in his composition.
Let me add, however, that he was as far as possible from being a „spoony.” Mr. Wright says: –
„He had the strength of a giant, and did not abstain from using it in a combative sense on a fit occasion. When his eldest daughter was living in a house not far from his own, with her first child in her arms, he became aware that she was in danger from a stout, unprincipled tramp who had called on her as a beggar and found her alone. Hastening to the house, without saying a word he grasped the fellow around body and both arms, and carried him, bellowing for mercy, through the yard and into the middle of the street, where he set him down. Greatly relieved, the miserable wretch ran as if he had escaped from a lion.”
Mr. Wright adds another trait: „Once in Lyons (N. Y.) when there was great excitement about the ‚sin of dancing,’ the ministers all preaching and praying against it, Myron Holley quietly said: ‚It is as natural for young people to like to dance as for the apple trees to blossom in the spring.'”