Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mason, IL: James Newton Matthews: The Prairie Poet

If you are from Effingham County, Illinois and you don't know who James Newton Matthews (1852-1910) was, shame, shame. Born near Mason, IL, Matthews was the very first student to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when it opened in 1868. Matthews studied literature and medicine before graduating with honors in 1872. Matthews worked as a country doctor and published multiple volumes of poetry for which he became known as the "Poet of the Prairie." In 1910, Matthews died of a heart attack after walking more than five miles through a snowstorm to treat a patient. Today there is a scholarship in his name at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In his "Lute of Life", published posthumously in 1911, Matthews follows the style of fellow Midwestern poet, James Whitcomb Riley in his prose. Most notably, Matthews wrote "The Old Country Road".

The Old Country Road

Where did it come from, where did it go?
That was the question that puzzled us so,
As we waded the dust of the highway that flowed,
By the farm, like a river-the old country road.

We stood with the hair sticking up through the crown,
Of our hats, as the people went up and went down,
And we wished in our hearts, as our eyes fairly glowed,
We could find where it came from - the old country road.

We remember the peddler who came with his pack,
Adown the old highway, and never went back.
And we wondered what things he had seen as he strode
From some fabulous place up the old country road.

We remember the stage-driver's look of delight,
And the crack of his whip as he whirred into sight,
And we thought we could read in each glance he bestowed,
A tale of strange life up the old country road.

The movers came by like a ship in full sail,
With a rudder behind in the shape of a pail -
With a rollicking crew, and a cow that was towed
With a rope on her horns, down the old country road.

And the gypsies - how well we remember the week,
They camped by the old covered bridge on the creek -
How the neighbors quit work, and the crops were unhoed,
Till the wagons drove off down the old country road.

Oh, the top of the hill was the end of the world,
And the dust of the summer that over it curled,
Was the curtain that hid from our sight the abode
Of the fairies that lived up the old country road.

The old country road! I can see it still flow
Down the hill of my dreams, as it did long ago,
And I wish even now I could lay off my load,
And rest by the side of the old country road.

A little bit of lore surrounds Dr. Matthews that some may find interesting. While it is well documented that Matthews was good friends with James Whitcomb Riley (Indiana author and writer of the Riley Reader - a competitor to the famous McCuffey Reader that found its way into every one room schoolhouse in America) Matthews was also an acquaintance of Mark Twain. While I have never seen it, there is purported to be a photo of Twain in Mason at the "wishing well" downtown.

My interest in Dr. Matthews reaches back into my youth. My grandmother was born in 1908 and was delivered by Dr. Matthews in Mason, IL. Sadly, his dilapidating home, just north of Mason, was demolished two years ago with only the property owners mourning the loss. They had tried to find someone interested in saving the home, to no avail. Another bit of history lost to the ages.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I'm the great grand daughter of James Newton Matthews. I wish I would have known about the tearing down of the Matthews home, maybe I could have helped save it.