CUSTER AS HIS BROTHER REMEMBERS HIM
source: newspaper article from Topeka, Kansas, date of June 1910, Monroe Library
In a big white farm house fronting the historic river Raisin, three miles north of Monroe, Mich., lives Nevin Custer, a typical Western farmer. He is up at daybreak to rattle down the hard coal burner and do the chores at the barn and of evenings he sits beside the kerosene lamp in the rag carpeted sitting room and reads the Democrat and the poultry journals to his wife and son. Not in years has the even flow of his life been interrupted. He lives today as he has lived since boyhood- quietly, unpretentiously, avoiding prominence, shunning public honors.
But above the old cherry desk in the sitting room, in a handsome gilted frame, hangs the picture of his brother, a black slouch hat pulled over his eyes, and around his mouth the set, determined .. bespeak a soldier and under the picture is inscribed:
"General George A. Custer. Died at the Little Big Horn, June 25, 1883".
In honor of this man in the picture, Custer the famous Indian fighter and soldier, President Taft and prominent men from all over the United States will assist in the dedication of an equestrian statue in front of the Monroe Courthouse on June 4, the little city of 3,000 population has been on tiptoe over the event for weeks. It will be the biggest celebration the town has ever experienced; officials and business men are scurrying to put the place in gala dress, but out on the farm Nevin Custer sits on his back veranda in his black satin shirt and overalls, and gazes out over the orchards and fields that he and George bought back in "63. Of the four Custer brothers, he alone survives.
The fresh spring breezes set the apple trees a-nodding. The rambling white house with its two chimneys, backed by its big red barns, speaks of prosperity and contentment. It seems a far cry back to the days when the placid river rang with Indian yells and only a little way down the stream the population of Monroe was massacred by the redskins.
Stooped a little from his labor about the farm, Nevin Custer is still robust bearing his 68 years as lightly as though little more than half their burden rested on his shoulders, only instead of his onetime activity, he likes to sit on the steps now while his son oversees the men, and he pulls the ends of his scraggy mustache, the mustache that has characterized all of the Custer brothers, as he recalls the days and years that have flown.
"It doesn't seem natural, some way, their doin' all this for George," he said to a friend who called on him recently. "Of course we all knew he deserved it, but when you think of him and me a hoein' corn together and how pap used to put us fifty yards apart so we couldn't loaf and talk, why it don't seem as though he had grown up to be a general, and had died, and was being honored by the President of the United States. Seems as though he's the same fellow that used to get lectured for carrying a book with him into the fields."
"Twasn't more than yesterday, was it, that George and Tom and Boston and me were all down on the old farm near New Rumley, Ohio, going to school in the district school house, with the pine slabs for seats and old Foster layin' for us up in front with the birch?"
"Lawsey, how that man could whip! But George never got licked, somehow. It was always some of the rest of us. Maybe that was because George kept his geography on top of his paper backed novels. He used to read 'em all the time in school, but Foster never caught him, for he was bright as a dollar and never missed a recitation. Foster'd come along and pat George on the head, and then yank up the rest of us, and make us stand on our toes on one crack and our fingers touching another while he lashed us over the backs."
"I got it for whispering about a spelling lesson; and Tom, he was always getting licked. Tom chewed tobacco, same as most of the boys did, but of course 'twasn't allowed in school. However, Tom couldn't let it alone, so he bored a hole in the school room floor with an auger to give him a place to spit. He tried to keep it covered with his foot, but of course after while Foster found it and Tom got licked.
"No teachers like them nowadays."
"It was unusual for the schoolmaster to treat the pupils at every holiday vacation, but old Foster wouldn't treat, so we locked him out of the schoolhouse and when he tried to come in through the window we kept him out with the coal shovel that we heated in the stove. I guess we all got licked for that, except George. George wasn't in it. He was home studying. Always studying.
The old man scratched the crown of this nearly bald head. "I can't remember things in order," he said. "They just come piecemeal, sort by scattering."
"I can remember about the days on the farm and how 'fraid George was of the girls and bashful. Why he'd blush as red as a tablecloth whenever a girl came his way. An yah know he didn't like the water much either. We used to go swimmmin' and boatin' and all that, but George never would. He always wanted to stay home and read.
"Yuh see father was pretty strict: stricter than most fathers nowadays are, I guess. He made us ride to church a-horseback every Sunday morning, and mother and Margaret came in the cart, and we had to sit there and never so much as smile."
"He worked the farm just the same way. Everybody had his work cut out an' he had to do it without whimpering and do it promptly; sort of religious duty, yuh know, only I remember George hated to get his clothes smelly; and he and I made a dicker so that I did all the work at the barns, while he split the wood and carried it in. I hated splitting wood and it was all done with a wedge in those days."
"Us younger boys always expected to grow up on the farm, but George didn't. He wanted to teach school right off and he got one over at Hopedale, Ohio after he had been up to Monroe there for a while going to Stebbins academy and boarding with this sister-in-law. Hopedale was fifteen miles from the farm and George used to walk it every other week and get home about midnight and wake us all up."
"Even when he was a little kid, George used to go down and drill with the Rumley Invincibles with a little wooden gun they made him. They thought he was a pretty good mascot, I guess. After he'd been teaching school awhile, he decided he wanted to go to West Point, so he up and asks Congressman John A. Bingham to appoint him."
"Bingham was a Republican and pap was a Democrat and we didn't think George would ever get anything. He did, though, after a while. Bingham appointed him in spite of politics- men was honester then than they are now- and if you ever saw a crazy youngster it was George."
"After that he was away from home a good deal, and nothing much happened on the farm except that I got to know Ann North pretty well- her father's farm ran close to ours- and I married her when I was 20." Mr. Custer grinned. "Folks married younger then, yuh know" he added, half apologetically.
"Before George could graduate from West Point the war broke out and he was sent south as a lieutenant to fight in the battle of Bull Run. We didn't get the war spirit so fast, back on the farm, but it came, straight enough, and I enlisted. Yep, though I'd have to go along and fight with George, yuh know. Thought maybe we could fight together same as we'd hoed corn and picked berries together in the fields."
"I went through all right till it came to the state camp at Columbus, and there," Mr. Custer's voice dropped to a disgusted drawl, "an there I got thrown out for rheumatism."
"Mad? Why, I was the maddest boy you ever saw in your life. I went back to the farm and Tom and Boston and I declared war against the whole United States, North, South and in between. And then the next thing I knew, Tom came home and said he'd enlisted. He was almost 17 then, which was under age. I laughed at him and told him I guessed he'd get as far as the state line maybe, but plagued if he didn't put it through, and off he marched with the Twenty-First Ohio."
"It was a dead old time on the farm during the war. Boston and I did the chores and spent our spare time looking for news from the front. Course we read how George was tearing things up and how he'd been made captain and put on General McClellan's staff. He was a great boy to write letters home and I tell yuh we certainly read 'em, those days. When he'd come home on furlough and we'd hear about Fair Oaks or Harrison's Landing or something new about Eliza, the old Negro mammy he picked up near Bull Run. She followed him clear through the war, was at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., when he was brought home from Little Big Horn, and she's living yet, somewhere down in Ohio. Maybe she'll be up for the dedication, I don't know."
"Let's see, what was I telling you about? Oh yes- he used to come home on furlough occasionally, and one of 'em he made up to Miss Elizabeth Bacon. Little Lizzie Bacon, we used to call her, daughter of Judge Bacon, president of the bank and a big man in Monroe. She was swinging on the gate one day when George went by to school and all of a sudden she yells: 'Hello, you Custer boy,' and that just won George right over."
Mr. Custer leaned back against the white pillar of the porch and passed his horny hand across his forehead.
"Things are pretty much jumbled in my mind after that. George and Elizabeth were married and George went south and sent back some fine fast horses. Frogtown, one of 'em was, and Don Juan another, and Blackhawk. But before that he and I came up here to Monroe and bought this farm. 110 acres, and father and mother moved to Monroe.
"Then came the Indian campaign out West, and the cholera epidemic here, and Judge Bacon died of it, and Elizabeth went to live with her mother at the old Bacon homestead. George got to be quite a hunter, and I always wandered at it because he wasn't much for handling a gun around home. That elk's head over there is one he killed."
"Relics? Yes, we've got a few. This little mortar was made from bullets picked up by the soldiers around Fort Hell, and the desk was one George had with him through the war. All of his swords and guns are down to the armory, I guess, except what his wife has with her in New York."
"It's no use tellin' yuh about his Indian fights, is it?" asked Mr. Custer. "Yuh got all those in history. Things went on about as usual here at the farm. Don't seem as if anything much ever happened here. But we kept hearing news of Indian uprisings and battle and finally come the word about the Little Big Horn and that George and Thomas and Boston all were killed. Tom and Boston had gone back with him after his last visit home, just to see the country and be along with him as leader of the expedition."
"I remember I had been down in Ohio to see about some land and was driving back to Monroe. I pulled into Hastings, Ohio for the night, and when the mail came in there was the news of the battle. I didn't believe it at first, but I drove on home as fast as the team could travel and there I found Monroe all draped in mourning."
Suddenly the old man's hands clenched tightly at his side.
"I didn't intend to say it, an' I won't say much, but I'll tell yuh this, if it hadn't been for U.S. Grant, George Custer would a been alive today."
The little blue eyes flashed like the gleam of steel unconsciously the old man's head went back with the same fighting spirit that Custer showed in the Indian infested valley of the Big Horn.
"I won't tell you all about what Grant did to George. You can find out easy enough. It was the Belknap investigation, you know. Oh, I won't say any more. It makes my blood boil, and I'm liable to say something that I hadn't ought. But we don't like Grant around here."
His eyes fixed themselves sternly on the distant winding river; and slowly the fires within their depths died away; the contracted brow relaxed.
"After all we didn't see much of each other, George and I. He was away making a name for himself, taking an active part in things. And I stayed home and tended the farm. George liked the soldiering and the public honors; I never could have been satisfied that way. Why, pap wanted me to be a preacher and named me Johnson after a Presbyterian man who said he'd educate me into the clergy, but pshaw, I couldn't do it. Too conspicuous for me."
"We've had some pretty rough times, we Custers. Name sort of stands for fight. And this old river has seen its bloody times too, though you never would guess it today. I'm the only one left of the brothers now, and though its nice, of course, to gave George honored as he deserved, still the war is over, and the Indians are gone, and now that times are peaceful again, I can't imagine George as a fighting man half so well as I see him hoeing corn down in Ohio. I guess that's because I'm a farmer."