Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center, Part 163 – The Art Bug

Part 163: The Art Bug

Thomas G. Moses wrote, “The “Art Bug” began to develop in me quite early. It was at this time that I should have had an opportunity to see if I was qualified to become a real artist, or a good cobbler.” By the age of twelve he was awarded a prize at he county fair for his pencil drawing of the 2nd Ward school house. Of this time Moses commented, “I was then considered Sterling’s Artist, and a brilliant future was seen for me in the Art World by many.”

That year he had the opportunity to take a few art lessons. Mrs. Worthington, an elderly lady in Sterling, instructed Moses in landscape painting. This gave him a slight foundation that pointed him in the right direction. Moses recalled, “Being twelve years of age and quite young to determine what I wanted to do in life, my County Fair prize picture had brought to me the serious question, which was easily answered – Painting.” He remained something of a “dreamer” as he examined small circulars advertising touring productions such as “The Black Crook.” Moses wrote, “The gaudy illustrations of the different scenes were the most artistic things I had ever seen. How I longed to see wonderful painting. Would I ever be able to paint pictures framed in heavy gold frames, my name on the corner, and hanging in an Art gallery? If I couldn’t do that, could I paint ornamental signs on glass? Or fancy scroll work and landscapes on the side of an omnibus? Or flowers on rocking chairs? It was paint, paint and nothing else.” He wasn’t discerning at all about the type of genre, completing a number of small pictures and dreaming of a life as an artist. Moses remembered that all he hungered for was paint.

As in many cases, the dreams of a young child did not mesh with the expectations of his parents. Lucius Moses saw a great future for his son in the tannery. He used the example of the great General U.S. Grant who had started life as a tanner and ended up as President of the United States. Regardless, no argument could have compelled Moses to change his mind after he became determined to paint. For Moses, his work at the tannery was simply “irksome.” As he only owned one suit of clothes, the smell of the tannery lingered wherever he went, especially at school. It must have been difficult to impress his school mates when “that awful odor from the tannery” would saturate his clothes.

A view of employees at a Tannery in 1870. This was from the same time when Thomas G. Moses was working in his father’s tannery at Sterling, Illinois.

It was at the age of thirteen that Moses first ran away from home, escaping to a nearby town. Traveling by rail with very little money in his pocket, he sought employment outside of the tannery. In Ambrose he visited a car shop for a job in their paint shop. There he was told to return and ask again the following day. After sleeping on a park bench that night and waking to heavy frost, he returned to the paint shop without breakfast. A constable met him at the door and dutifully escorted the young man home as his father had sent a telegram while he slept. Moses remembered his return writing, “There was no fatted calf cooked for this prodigal son, but there was a short interview in the wood shed.”

Four years later, he travelled to Chicago. This time with his father’s permission as he wanted to see the destruction left by the 1871 fire.

A photograph depicting blocks of devastation in Chicago after the fire in 1871.
The ruins after the 1871 fire in Chicago, Illinois.
A map depicting the “Burnt District” in Chicago after the 1871 great fire.

He went with a family friend named William Bigelow, the conductor on the Sterling freight train. Moses recalled that Chicago immediately appealed to him, writing in 1872 that “There must be a chance in such a big place for me and I made up my mind to go. All summer I pleaded with Father to allow me to go. He refused. If I wanted to paint, I could get a job at the wagon works at home.”

For the next year, Moses studied hard at school, published articles in the local paper and followed all of the rules. He wrote, “I was given a little more freedom this Winter and I went out a good deal to parties and sleigh rides. Father had relented and gave me some money so I could pay my way. It was harder for me to make up my mind to go to Chicago, but I felt I must get started.”

That spring during April of 1873, his “wild career as an Artist” began. Since his father declined to assist him with his with any artistic aspirations, Moses waited for the right moment and left for Chicago with ten cents in his pocket, a new pair of boots, warm clothes and “a lot of pluck.” He hitched a ride early in the morning with his conductor friend Bigelow, arriving in Chicago late that day. He sought out a family friend who was a Master Painter for the C. & N. W. Rail Road in Clinton, Iowa.

A map depicting the railroad lines in Illinois.

Mr. Michaels wrote a letter to Lucius Moses asking him to let his son give the art world a try and promising to look after him. The next morning, Mr. Michael helped Moses secure a position at the P. M. Almini Company for four dollars a week. The day after, he received his trunk from home, and with it a diary. Within four days of arriving in Chicago, Moses was making a living painting for a decorating studio.

To be continued…

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