Charles H Bower Sr.: A ‘traveling man’ and a poet


Archie Hayden graciously shares this 1930 photo from his collection, of children in the ‘swimming hole’ in Bear Creek, near the old covered bridge. The bridge was located on the old New London Road, south of Market Street.

MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

During the era before automobiles, there was a proud profession known as the “traveling man.” Men, with their sales kits in tow, would board a train at their home station, and ride the rails to each small town along the route, taking orders from customers along the way.

These salesmen built up relationships – and clientele – for miles around, learning the names of the local merchants’ children and their children’s children, and doing business on the basis of a smile and a handshake.

A traveling man by profession, Charles H. Bower Sr., was born in pre-Civil War Hannibal - in 1859 - the son of Joseph C. and Lizzie Bower. The Bower family history intertwines with the history of Hannibal itself, dating back to 1850 and before, the era which Sam Clemens immortalized.

Bower family

In 1850, Joseph C. Bower, 30, was proprietor of – and living at - the City Hotel in Hannibal, located on the west side of North Main Street, between Bird and Hill, about where the hotel that would become the Planters was located. He and his wife, Mary Ann, had one son, Gustavus W. Bower. Presumably Mary Ann died, and in January 1858, Joseph married Elizabeth A. Bourne, daughter of long-time elected clerk of the Hannibal Court of Common Pleas, Charles D. Bourne.

Bourne’s son-in-law, Joseph C. Bower, was named Hannibal’s postmaster on March 3, 1859.

Together with Elizabeth, Joseph C. Bower had two more sons, Charles H. Bower, born Jan. 9, 1859, and Robert C. Bower, born circa 1861.

Charles H. Bower

As an adult, Charles Bower Sr., was a “traveling man.” A newspaper article published in the Moberly, Mo., Democrat on Feb. 22, 1920, described Bower as the “Poet Laureate of the Knights of the Grip of Missouri.”

Why? The proper name for the traveling man’s association was “United Commercial Travelers of America.” The commonly used nickname, “Knights of the Grip,” most likely made reference to the satchels carried by the traveling salesmen.

Bower was dubbed “Poet Laureate” of the organization, because he wrote poetry throughout his lifetime.

In 1920, he was putting together a book of his poetry, which would be distributed nationwide. Proceeds from the sale of the books were earmarked for the organization’s widows and orphans fund.

The poetry

Luckily – as far as posterity is concerned – one of the poems was published in the aforementioned article in the Moberly Democrat. Titled “Old Swimmin’ Hole,” Bower put ink to paper, describing the experiences that he and his friend, Tom, had swimming near the old covered bridge across Bear Creek on New London Road between Hannibal and New London during their boyhood. In 1920, the bridge was still standing – one of the few remaining covered bridges in the state.

Who was Tom?

In Bower’s poem, Tom refers to a childhood pal, William Thomas Henson. Henson was born at Santa Fe, Mo., but grew up in Hannibal. Henson became Rev. Henson, and in 1920 he was pastor of Moberly’s Christian Church. The two men remained friends throughout their lives.

Life altering event

In 1920, Charles and Nanny Bowers lived at 609 Olive St., Hannibal. Both of their boys – Charles and Robert – served during World War I, returning home safely.

After the war, the eldest, Charles, first took a journalism job in Harrisburg, Pa., and then went to work for the Washington Times, Washington, D.C. Robert worked in St. Louis. They each made frequent trips home to visit their parents, as detailed in local newspapers.

In May 1921, Charles and Nanny received a letter from Charles Jr., telling of his plans to go back to Harrisburg to visit friends for the weekend.

That was the last they heard from Charles Jr., who drowned at Tuscarora, Pa. on June 2, 1921, at the age of 30.

When Charles Bower Sr., died in 1927, his death notice stated that this “traveling man” had suffered from a nervous breakdown some years before, and never completely recovered.

Old Covered Bridge

By Charles H. Bower Sr.

(1859-1927)

On the highway to New London and just a little way

Beyond the city limits is a spot that look today

Just like it did long years ago when Tom and I were boys

With troubles few and far between and many, many joys.

When you leave the end of Market street, and climb a little ridge

You can see it from the highway, it’s an ancient covered bridge

That spans a stream called Bear Creek where we often used to play

Along the bank in summer time in childhood’s happy day.

We leaned toward adventure, and many plans were laid,

As we sat beneath the covered bridge in cool, refreshing shade.

We fancied we were heroes who performed the bravest deeds.

And hunted bears and Indians, while hid out in the weeds.

I would fall into the water, and give a piercing scream.

And Tom would come and rescue me by diving in the stream.

We called the bridge a castle, and ourselves the warriors bold.

That defended it from enemies, like armored knights of old.

And now Tom is a preacher, and one that I admire,

Then he rescued men from water now he saves them from the fire.

But he still performs aquatic feats, for it is his desire

To put them under water to protect them from the fire.

I’m just a common traveling man, and always on the go,

And when I pass that covered bridge while riding to and fro,

I think about the happy hours so full of childish joys

I spent within its cooling shade when Tom and I were boys.

Note: Tilden R. Selmes was also a resident of the City Hotel in Hannibal at the time of the 1850 census. He owned Hannibal’s largest retail business, across Main Street to the east, a block from the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens.

In 1885, Standard Printing Co., was located on the upper floors of this building, located at 312 Center. On the bottom floor was Branham and Hayward, plumbers, gas and steam fitting. Charles H. Bower Sr., was a “traveling man” for Standard Printing Co., for some 40 years. The date of this photo is unknown. Steve Chou collection

Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com

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