My father possessed a boundless intellectual curiosity, and because he could neither read nor write he took advantage of every possible opportunity to listen to what teacher, preacher, lawyers, doctors, peddlers, and politicians had to say. His opportunities were limited largely to the occasional rural schoolhouse preacher. Most of these preachers were crude, ignorant, and superstitious. They invariably prescribed drastic doses of "hell fire". Father did not take kindly to this form of religious doctrine.
Whenever he heard that a temperance or political orator was going to hold forth at the village of Spencer, New York four miles from his home, he would gladly walk this distance in order to gratify his hunger for inspiration and information. If pleased, he would for days, sometimes weeks, discuss the salient points in the address. His discussions aroused my curiosity and as a consequence I begged the privilege of accompanying him whenever the walking distance was not too far. I recall that when I was nine or ten years of age he permitted me to walk with him seven miles to Van Etten, New York, to attend a Fourth of July celebration where David B. Hill, a young lawyer, of Elmira was to give an address. I recall nothing whatever of Hill's speech. I know that father was generous in his praise. This was partly due to the fact that father was an ardent Democrat and so was Hill. David Hill became Governor of the State, and later United States Senator.
Accompanying my father to hear public speakers became a passion of mine. When I attended the Spencer, the Candor, and the Oswego [sic Owego] Academies, the Oswego Normal and Training School, and the University of Michigan, I made all kinds of personal sacrifices in order to hear great orators.
Before I was twenty-one, I had heard James Chaplin Beecher, Thomas L. Beecher, and Henry Ward Beecher preach in their own pulpits. I had also heard Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the sister of Henry Ward Beecher read from her own writings. At Oswego, New York, I heard that matchless temperance orator, John B. Cough, and political orators of the highest rank, Roscoe Conklin [sic], Frederick Douglass, S. S. Cox, and Stewart L. Woodford.
At the University of Michigan I heard Andrew D. White, president of Cornell University, James Burrill Angell, President of Michigan University, Richard Proctor, the British Astronomer, George MacDonald the Scotch preacher and novelist, J. G. Holland, American novelist and essayist, Professor Edward S. Morse (on Evolution), Victoria Woodhull, and others of lesser rank.
After leaving Michigan University and before I was thirty years of age, I had heard, Theodore Tilton, Susan B. Anthony, Robert G. Ingersoll and the Reverend Robert Collyer.
I have always been fond of the drama. I heard Booth and Barrett play together in "Othello"; Joseph Jefferson in "Rip Van Winkle", and Henry Irving. I could mention others but the reader will readily recognize that my father had no small part in arousing my interest in platform work.
As a lad I longed for the day to come when I might be able to speak to great audiences. Through inheritance and early training I had no right to hope for success as a speaker. When I was a pupil in the old country school I was required to "speak a piece" every two weeks. This task was the horror of my boyhood days. In no instance, during those early years, did I ever succeed in reciting a selection of poetry or prose. Stage fright made it impossible for me to succeed.
At the Oswego Normal and Training School I was one of the original organizers of the Adelphi Society. At first only men were admitted. The members of this society held weekly meetings and the program involved little besides a hotly contested debate. My first efforts were humiliating failures. I never whimpered or wavered. At the end of two and a half years I was an ordinary speaker. In recent years I have said that I owed more to this debating society than to all of the formal work in grammar and rhetoric required at the Normal.
For fifty years I have been doing a great deal of public speaking. Prior to May, 1884, when I came to Big Rapids, Michigan, most of my addresses were of an educational character.
In the fall the Blaine-Cleveland campaign was on. Out of pure sympathy for the few Democrats in Mecosta County I discussed the political issues of the day in the villages and the rural school houses of the county.
In 1890 I began giving a lecture under the title of "Making the World Better". This was the real beginning of my lecture work. This lecture which is nothing more than a homely [sic homey] fireside talk, displayed in its delivery no signs of what is commonly called oratory. The subject matter and my sincerity did command enough attention to secure its delivery for more than a thousand times. My compensation for this lecture was from five to ten dollars to the maximum of twenty-five dollars.
My second lecture was entitled "Success". Later lectures The Courage that Conquers, Sanity in Education, Mental and Physical Health, Aptitudes, The Dynamics of Human Conduct, and Restoration of the American Home followed.
I never write a lecture. I do my reading and thinking with enthusiasm and thoroughness. Then I make a brief or outline of what I plan to say. These outlines after experimenting undergo important changes. I make very little use of funny stories. I do make large use of incidents growing out of my personal experience and reading. I owe much to my extensive reading of biography, psychology, and philosophy. I am accused of indulging freely in humor. If this accusation is true, my humor is spontaneous and never studied. All of my addresses are delivered with tremendous enthusiasm and force. I have doubtless acquired some skill in the political arena, having gone through one congressional campaign and five statewide campaigns.