George Taylor 1803 - 1891
George Taylor, the son of a shepherd, was born in 1803 in the Scottish Borders and in 1855, when he was a market gardener in Kelso, he decided to join his brothers in Kalamazoo, Michigan. There, he had a successful life as a nurseryman and when he was in his eighties, having handed the business on to his son, he wrote the story of his life. I wonder if he ever daydreamed, as he sat with his pen and ink, that one day the pages he wrote would be published as a book?
We are lucky to be able to read his memories because, on their way to America, he and his pregnant wife and children almost drowned. They had sailed from Liverpool on the ‘John Bright’ and the following day, off Ireland, the ship ran aground. George, who was a devout Christian, simply prayed and he says that he knew that all would be well even though there was over seven feet of water in the hold. The cargo of iron bars and the casks of water were thrown overboard. The passengers and crew manned the pumps and they returned safely to Liverpool. A week later, they set off again on a voyage which took thirty-six days.
However this experience did not put him off sea journeys because he returned to Scotland twice to visit his family and old haunts. On these voyages, there were both storms and days of being becalmed. On one voyage, he was delayed leaving because the ship had been holed by an iceberg and on another crossing, in a steamship, the coal in the hold caught fire. Such were the hazards of travel in those days.
When he began to write in 1885, he recorded his experiences of growing up in the Borders, including the working conditions of farm workers. In those days, there were more workers than jobs and employers could do as they pleased. George’s father and eight other farm workers gave a penny each to buy ‘The Scotsman’, which they shared. On a neighbouring farm, the farmer heard about this and told his employees that they would not be re-hired if they bought the newspaper for fear that it was stirring up dissent.
Although George only had a primary school education, he had a love of reading and when he lived at Eckford, near Kelso, he walked the fifty miles to Edinburgh, saving the coach fare of ten shillings to spend the money on books. He set out at two o’clock in the morning and walked by moonlight, with a gingerbread cake in his pocket and drinking from roadside streams, until he reached Edinburgh at four o’clock in the afternoon. It was a frosty night and he says his feet were blue with the cold.
In the winter of 1836/37, the River Teviot froze over and people had fun skating on the ice. One day, a young man called James Ord thought he would walk over the frozen river instead of paying to cross the nearby toll bridge at Kalemouth. Not realising there had been a thaw, he fell through the ice and it was George Taylor and others who trawled the river for hours, in the dark, until they found the body. He says they were bountifully supplied with whisky to keep themselves warm!
As well as his five Atlantic crossings, he made several by train journeys. He records his first journey when he went to Ayr and on his travels there he met an old lady who was the widow of a man called Thomas Goldie who was, she said, the original Tam O’Shanter. He took a train trip to London, even though it meant travelling on the Sabbath, because he wanted to see the Great Exhibition. The Crystal Palace was closed because it was a Sunday but perhaps his disappointment was not too great because in Kelso, George and fellow churchgoers had petitioned to have the post office closed and to stop the trains running on the Sabbath! He travelled round America too, where he visited the Niagara Falls and saw the burning embers of Chicago after the Great Fire in 1871.
George was thirty-four and working as a gardener when he married for the first time. Their first baby died and both his wife and her second baby died in childbirth. He married again and had six children, the family he took to America, where his wife died after fifteen years of marriage. In his sixtieth year, he visited Scotland and returned to Kalamazoo with a cousin whom he married in January 1883, his nineteen-year-old son drowned in a lake in August and in the autumn, his wife died in childbirth along with the baby, who was, he says, ‘strangled at life’s porch’.
Seven years later, he married an American lady but he was widowed again. He also lost a sickly daughter who had moved to California to live in a better climate.
In spite of these tragedies in his life, George had his moments of wry humour. He pitied Roman Catholics because they were not of his faith and on a holiday in Ireland, he happened to visit a church where a burial was taking place. He was accidentally sprinkled with holy water and he remarks that the experience made him feel neither better nor worse!
Travelling back to America during the American Civil War, a fellow passenger who supported the South told George that he hoped the Confederate warship, the ‘Alabama’, would capture their ship because on board were ‘50,000 stand of arms’ intended for the North. George promptly replied that he hoped they would not be captured, because he had precious boxes of plants in the hold for his nursery in Kalamazoo!
He was a deeply religious man and was opposed to slavery, yet he records that on his visit home, he had met British people who were in favour of it.
In 1874, aged seventy-one, he visited Scotland for the last time. He and his wife returned home safely, but he noted that it was cheaper to travel alone; after all those years in America, George was still a Scotsman at heart!
He is remembered in America as George ‘Celery’ Taylor because he introduced commercial celery growing and there is a memorial plaque to him in Kalamazoo, Michigan where he died in 1891. He had lived in every decade of the nineteenth century, through the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, cholera epidemic, potato blight and the coming of the railways and steamships.
The SWRI played a part in the publication of his memoirs because in 1967, the ladies of Eckford WRI wrote the history of Eckford and as a millennium project, it was typed up and posted on the web. It was read by Gerald Reynolds II, the great-great-grandson of George’s daughter Isabella who had married a Californian gentleman called Romulo E. Bangs. It was Gerald who sent the manuscript, full of so many memories, recording nineteenth century life in Scotland and America and George Taylor’s journey from Kelso to Kalamazoo.