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Some Dayton Saints and Prophets
Maria Boyd



      IF you lived on West First Street any time prior to 1879, you might have seen almost any day, in any weather, a little old woman with a scoop bonnet and a brown covered basket, pegging down the middle of the street on an errand of mercy.  This was Maria Boyd--"Aunty" Boyd, as she was called by neighbors, friends, and fellow Presbyterians. In appearance frail and bent, she might have stood as an artist type of old age.  Her back was rounded like the outer edge of the new moon; her profile, between nose and chin, hollowed like the inner edge.  Her eyes were black, sharp, and kindly, and they smiled on children.  Her age? Well, she kept that pretty successfully shrouded in the mist of uncertainty, with which maiden ladies love to veil the past.  Luckily, it is not necessary for our story.

      She was born in Philadelphia, (probably about the time the century was,) and went to school there, acquiring rather more of education than the average pioneer.  When I knew her she lived for many years at the foot of West Third Street, near the Boulevard.  My recollection of some of the old people of that time is that they liked to sit in rocking-chairs, knit, and tell stories, but Aunty Boyd was always on the jump.  Then, as now, there were only twenty-four hours in a day; far too few for all she had to accomplish.  If there had been forty hours in a day, and forty weeks in a month, she could have made many more garments for poor people, and carried them many more good dinners, but being limited by the stringency of the almanac, she had to work doubly hard to get in all the good deeds her conscience called for.  Therefore, although she was a good neighbor, and never neglected her friends, either in sickness or in health, she had no time to spend gossiping, but flew in with a "How d'ye do," and out again with a "Well, I must go," and left a little blessing behind her.  Her talk was mainly of some work she had on hand for the poor, and when she talked she grew animated; her little sharp voice went up on a treble key, her little thin hands waved at you, and her chair hitched nearer and nearer, herself bolt upright on the edge of it, never touching the back.  One marked characteristic was a little trick of turning her head a trifle to one side and peering at you like a small inquisitive bird.

      She would rattle on about a poor family of ten children out by the Fair Grounds and exhibit a soft little knit shirt for the last arrival that had crowded in its foothold amongst so many; or tell how some friend had just given her a pair of shoes for the boy that was starting for school.  Then she would pick up her basket and fly off on a dog trot down the street (a gait described by Doctor McDermont as a "cross between a walk and a, racking-pace"), and people vaguely wished it was as easy for them to be good as it seemed for Aunty Boyd.  A child who knew her well once said, with better judgment than English: "Aunty Boyd is the goodest person I know!" and he was right; the superlative of the adjective fitted her exactly.  I do not believe she had a single fault or a bad propensity; at any rate none worse than standing talking at the door, and letting the cold in, after she had started to leave, for which we will all gladly forgive her now.  For fifty years she was a well-known personality upon our streets (none more so, except perhaps John Van Cleve) ; and once seeing, you could never forget her.  Her errands about town took her into stores and offices where they gave for charity whatever she asked.  They knew better than to refuse, and thus to become the object of Miss Boyd's scorn and prayers.

      If I could give you an idea of how frail she was, how tiny, like a little, brown, dry leaf, that might blow away, you would be better able to appreciate her energy and purpose.  Nowadays charity is a vast machine, with well-oiled wheels. It should be so, for the varying conditions of life make the old-time personal giving more impossible every day.  Her charity was a practical sharing of her own possessions with the less fortunate; of flannel, if she had enough for two petticoats; of apples if her tree bore more than she could use.  I dare say the paying of one's membership dues in the "Associated Charities," and letting it go at that, would have seemed to her a cold and heartless proceeding.

      Her district visiting was not confined to any precinct but measured the length and breadth of Dayton, and was carried on as faithfully in the snow and mud of winter as in the heat and dust of summer.

      I have been told that it was not at all an unusual thing to meet Miss Boyd in some remote part of town as late as two o'clock in the morning.  Waking in the night, her mind upon some sick poor person who might be in need of help, the thought only was enough to drive her out on a ministering errand.   Some one asked her if she was not afraid to be in the street so late at night.  "No," she said, "the Lord is as much in one place as another."  It must be remembered how very different Dayton streets are now as compared to fifty years ago, when there were no policemen, few street lamps, and long lonely reaches of vacant lots.  But this is not all concerning her nocturnal charity, and the best of it is almost unbelievable.  Some of these night visitations took place during that dreadful cholera year of 1833, when those who were considered strong and brave faced contagion with undisguised terror, and the town went nearly mad.  People packed up their belongings and moved away; those who stayed kept to their own homes as far as possible, and trade was at a standstill.  But Aunty Boyd, frail, delicate little creature, would rise from her bed while the family slept, steal out of the house with the inevitable basket, and walk right into death's dominions.  If there was yet life, she nursed it; if death had come she straightened the poor body and dressed it for the grave.  After this frightful, weary vigil she returned to her bed for a short rest before the day began.  For this service to God and humanity, I claim for Aunty Boyd a niche in the shrine of the special saints.  There she should stand with Grace Darling, Clara, Barton, Moll Pitcher, Florence Nightingale, the heroines of history.

      Miss Boyd's family consisted, beside herself, of two nephews, whom she brought up from babyhood with a mother's love and care; a niece, and at different times several young girls, who made their home with her while they went to school.  One nephew, Jesse Christopher, was an auctioneer here for years, and will be remembered by many Dayton people.  He sleeps in Woodland by Miss Boyd's side. Soon after the boy's mother died, some children were probing the wound, as children will, and his reply to their thoughtless question was, "Well, if I haven't any mother, I've a good aunt, anyway."  This wag the flaming torch which lighted the way for her.  "I will be a good aunt to you," she said, and the years proved it.

      Miss Boyd always wore a black dress, rather short in the skirt, with a little shoulder cape and a bonnet that was a bonnet!  You must not associate feathers or flowers with Aunty Boyd in any way.  Her bonnet was no frivolous thing perched on top of the head, leaving one's features exposed to the elements in the present giddy style.  Her face was well protected by roof and eaves, and a plaited cape of silk hung over her neck behind.  To this were added curious bunches and bows and ridges, making it like nothing else in the heavens above or the earth beneath, and when it was tied on with a quick jerk of the strings you felt something was going to be done immediately.  Something always was done! Miss Eliza Holt is said to have said to a friend: "I must confess I do not covet the bonnet Miss Boyd wears on earth, but I should be very glad to wear her crown in heaven!"  When I remember the astonishing construction of this article of attire, I can scarcely credit the statement offered by some of the older people who say that in the prime of life Miss Boyd followed the trade of millinery.  How she could have satisfied the demands of fashion, even in those primitive days, is a mystery.  Possibly she confined her labors chiefly to that species of headgear which consisted of reeds "run through thin material to stiffen it into a shape like a large nutmeg melon, and which collapsed into flatness, like an accordion, when the tension was removed.  I believe they called them "calashes," and they appear now and then at Old Folks' concerts or fancy dress parties.  This is a surmise merely--born of the fact that the imagination refuses to grasp the idea of Miss Boyd following the fashions.  Her little store was in a one-story frame house, built by Thomas Morrison, on Main Street, where the Baptist Church now stands.  Either she failed in punctuality, as so many later and better milliners have done, or else she had a vast custom, for they do say that the young ladies of that day had frequently to wait in the little parlor while she put the finishing touches on what was expected to be the finishing touch to the peace of mind of our grandfathers.  There was nothing to look at or amuse one's self with but Dick's "On the Mental Illumination and Moral Development of Mankind," which, if it was not enthralling, perhaps served as an antidote to the vanity engendered by the bonnets.  Then, as later, Miss Boyd was devoted to two things--friends and her church.  Her affectionate care of her neighbors' affairs is best illustrated by the following incident which is still afloat in the annals of West First Street.  One of the families in that neighborhood was in the habit of leaving a side door unlocked, which gave Aunty Boyd much concern.  So greatly did she fear that this faith in human nature would be taken advantage of by some thievish person that she rigged up a brass bell with a wire attached which she herself fastened to the door.  Whenever a visitor entered the house a reverberating clang rent the air, reminding one of a corner bakery, but the family allowed the bell to remain and Aunty Boyd slept well at night in consequence.

      It will not be found surprising that some small superstitions and economies claimed allegiance from the subject of our sketch.  An Irish potato was always carried in her pocket to ward off rheumatism.  Some may claim as a proof of its potency that Miss Boyd enjoyed not only remarkable health, but a wiry vigor until her last sickness, to all of which we have nothing to say. Give the potato its due.  Our end-of-the-century materialism has robbed us of the security that faith in potatoes might bring, and we may envy, but we must not pity her.  She was fond of begging cotton twine of the neighbors who reminded themselves of Aunty Boyd when they undid packages from the stores.  All this contributed string she wound into balls to give to poor people to darn their stockings with.  The string was a small gift, but the lesson in thrift a great one.

      I have spoken of her piety and her interest in all the affairs of the church.  No bad weather ever kept her away from prayer-meeting, where she sat in rapt devotion and lifted her quavering voice to the tune of "China" or "Dundee."  Once she aroused just a little hard feeling by remonstrating with a friend on her absence from the house of worship and the bad example it set to the rest of the flock.  The friend, who was Mrs. Obadiah Conover, was past 75 years old, and, as she had been a shining light in the congregation for two generations, was beginning to feel that absolute regularity in church attendance was no longer exacted of her.  But this was no excuse in Miss Boyd's eyes, who, up to her eightieth year never missed a service in the dear old First Presbyterian Church.  Her attitude and bearing during worship were a rebuke to light-minded chatterers--so meek and reverent and devout--she walked with hands folded upon her breast to her pew, and sat with an entranced look of religious fervor upon her face, which none that saw will ever forget.  The very air she breathed seemed to exercise a spell of divinity over her, and kept her bowed and rapt with ecstasy.  Once outside the church porch she broke into enthusiasm over the power of the service and the help it had been to her.

      It was a privilege to hear Aunty Boyd discuss a sermon.  No point of doctrine or presentation of scriptural truth escaped her.  She seized upon each argument and assimilated it, and woe to the preacher who left a loophole in his wall of logic.  Young, callow ministers felt this fidelity to be somewhat discouraging at times.  "He did pretty well," she would say, "that is, as well as you could expect of him. By my! my! he didn't give any 'meat. Now I like something to take home."   Then she would edge closer, crowding you almost onto the curbstone, and raise both hands with, "Now Dr. Thomas, he always gives us something that lasts all the week through," and her bonnet and voice and hands all helped in vehement expounding of her admiration.

      Coming home from prayer meeting one night, her face illumined with the interest of the service, and talking fervidly on some doctrinal point to a friend, she walked closer than she realized to the edge of the sidewalk, and a mis-step caused a fall which broke her leg.  She was propped up against a tree -while some one went for help, and in this situation said that if it was the Lord's will that she should die in the street, she was satisfied. But her faith was not to receive this test.

            Mr. Darrow helped carry her to her bed, from which she never rose again.  A painful time of suffering followed, which was borne with Christian fortitude. It was her expressed desire that the doxology should be sung at her funeral.  So one April morning in 1879, the birds in Woodland Cemetery heard that unusual burial hymn started by tremulous voices.  As the coffin was lowered to its resting-place, the mourners robbed death of its sting and the grave of its victory by starting the well-beloved lines, "Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow."

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