Note: Here is a man anyone would have thought an unfortunate soul with no hope and no chance — yet he succeeded despite everything.
From a 1922 issue of The American Magazine:
A Story That Makes You Take a New Grip on Yourself
If Sylvanus Bowser, with less than four months of schooling in his whole life, and with sickness, poverty, and hardship to contend with, could build up a business which girdles the earth, what decent excuse can the rest of us give for failure?
by John Kidder Rhodes
The teacher of a little country Sunday-school in Indiana, in the early sixties, offered a Bible as a prize for the pupil who was able to commit to memory the largest number of verses from the Scriptures within a given time. One of the pupils was a thirteen-year-old boy, timid and awkward, who lived with his parents in the neighborhood.
He never had been to school. . . . He did not know how to read. . . . He knew only the letters of the alphabet. . . . But he determined to win that Bible!
His parents were so poor that the boy had to work along with his father and brothers at whatever manual labor they could find to do. Mainly they chopped wood. It was because they were so poor and had to work so hard that the lad never had gone to school.
There were few idle minutes in his day. But usually he had a little time to himself in the mornings, before daylight, while his mother was getting breakfast. He used to sit down then with his book. By the light of the fire he laboriously pieced together the letters of the words, one by one, striving by the sounds to divine their meaning and pronunciation.
Sometimes he was able to devote a few extra minutes to his study at other mealtimes, or in the evening by the light of a tallow candle. In these hasty minutes, snatched from busy days, he learned a few words at each sitting; and while he was at work, swinging his ax, he kept repeating over and over to himself what he had learned.
By the first Sunday he had memorized one verse. The second Sunday he was able to repeat two.
He continued to add to the number of verses he could repeat. And when the time came to select the winner in the Sunday-school contest, that boy had learned six hundred and fifty-four verses!
He won the Bible.
The boy’s name was Sylvanus F. Bowser. He has been doing things ever since in the same spirit of invincible determination that carried him doggedly through the unfamiliar words of the Scriptures; and he has done this in spite of the fact that he has had almost every handicap — except one. The one handicap he did not have was the faculty of becoming discouraged.
Bowser was thirteen years old when he went to school for the first time and started his formal education with the first reader. He was able to stay in school at this time just three weeks. Yet he made such progress in that brief period, that the teacher told him to bring the second reader when he came back.
But Bowser’s second experience in school was also his last. He attended for three months that time. Then he could be spared no longer from the wood chopping. So he did not even finish the second reader.
His mind was too active, however, not to be busily engaged upon something, and he became interested in a “Lightning Calculator,” which his father had been induced to buy from a street hawker.
Nobody had been able to make head or tail of this Calculator. An elder brother had taken it to school with him, on one of the rare occasions when any of the Bowser boys attended; but neither he nor the teacher could fathom its mysteries. Sylvanus himself knew nothing at all about figures, but he said to himself:
“If there is anything to this book, I ought to be able to dig it out.”
By hard plugging, and by using his odd minutes, he managed to work through the lessons as far as square root, mastering everything as he went. He never did get beyond square root.
That was the way he learned arithmetic. In school he had mastered reading. And thus he had acquired two of the “three R’s” supposed to be essential to an education. Writing, the third essential, he partly acquired before he had to give up school the second time; that is, he learned to make all except the last five capital letters. But he asked a printer friend to write out these five letters for him, and he practiced them over and over until he had mastered them.
This lack of opportunity for an education was Bowser s first great handicap. But he did not let it discourage him. On the contrary, he made all the better use of his facilities because they were limited.
When he was seventeen years old, the family moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, about eight miles south of where Bowser had been born. For two seasons he delivered ice from the rear of an ice wagon. He spent one summer on a railroad work train, hauling gravel, wood, and lumber. Finally, he spent three years in a wholesale paper house.
Bowser’s duties in the paper house were to prepare orders for shipment. The company bought a great many rags, which were later resold, and it was part of Bowser’s job to put them into five-hundred-pound bales.
Although his education had been of the rudest, and all his life he had been engaged in the roughest, heaviest work, Bowser had developed a rigid sense of what was right and what was wrong. His employers instructed him, in putting up the bales of rags, to mix in a goodly supply of paper. Rags were worth something like three and one-quarter cents a pound, and paper was worth only a little more than one cent a pound.
When Bowser refused to be a party to this deception, he was given his choice of mixing the paper with the rags, or of losing his job. He lost the job.
Thereupon, he decided to go into business for himself. He started in a very small way by driving a horse and wagon from store to store in Fort Wayne, selling wrapping paper. He did not have enough money to buy his stock outright, but he did have enough to pay his fare to a neighboring city where there was a wrapping-paper factory. He explained to the manufacturer what he intended to do, and asked if he might have some paper on credit, and pay for it when it was sold.
The manufacturer looked into the young man’s eyes and what he saw there pleased him.
“I’d rather,” he said, “sell to an honest man without any money, than to a dishonest man with plenty.
He shipped young Bowser a carload of paper. And in due time he got his money for it.
This venture was a good deal of an achievement for Bowser. For one thing, he had so little money and experience; for another, he was excessively timid. He regarded even the little storekeepers whom he met from day to day as a superior set of beings. He approached them with a feeling of extraordinary shyness; and this made his work just that much harder.
The wrapping paper business occupied him only two days a week. The other days he drove out into the country, buying butter and eggs and other produce, which he sold in town. In this way, he managed to make a meager living for the family, the care of which had by now fallen on him.
His elder brothers had married. His father had become too feeble to work. So Sylvanus, with a younger brother, was left to look after a family of seven. The burden was a very heavy one, but it did not occur to him to shirk it.
In the meantime, his mother died and he himself married. The horse and wagon business did not earn as much as he needed, and Bowser abandoned it for a position as traveling salesman with a wholesale paper house of Chicago. The terms of this new position required him to work on a commission basis, and to make good the accounts of any of his customers who failed to pay. Quite a lot of the customers did fail to pay! And, with his home expenses and this additional burden, he had a hard time. But he stuck by the job.
Finally, his years of working early and late began to tell on his health. He would forget to eat and sleep regularly; and in spite of his rugged constitution he began to get nervous spells, which unfitted him for work for three or four days at a time.
At first these spells came two or three months apart, but the rest of the time he worked all the harder to make up for lost time. As a result, the attacks became more frequent, and at last he was forced to give up his position in order to regain his health.
When he came to settle up with the paper house, and also with the owner of a woolen mill, with whom he had the same kind of arrangement, he found himself in debt, all told, nearly two thousand dollars.
The family home had been given to him upon his father’s death, not long before. And in order to meet part of his debt, he deeded his house to the woolen mill. But he then had no money with which to pay the paper firm, to which he owed six hundred dollars. The head of this firm, however, proved to be a real friend.
“Let it go,” he said. “If you ever find you can pay me, all right. If not — well, that’s all right, too.”
That man wrote the debt off his books. But Bowser kept books with his honor, and he resolved in his heart that, come what might, if he lived, he would pay.
This was in the spring of 1884; and at that time his family burdens were somewhat lighter than they had been, for his brothers and sisters were looking after themselves. He and his own immediate family moved into a house near the depot, where they obtained three rooms for ten dollars a month; and Bowser engaged with a friend, who was in the wholesale tinware and wrapping paper business, to sell goods for him on the road, working at such times as he could.
And so, at the age of thirty-one, this man, who had been in school for only about three months in his whole life, who had worked at every kind of hard labor that he could find to do, found himself at perhaps the lowest ebb in his fortunes up to that time.
He might then have been called a failure. He had neither achieved nor accumulated.
It was one day in the early spring of 1885 when his big idea came to him. Let him tell the story of it himself.
“I was going out on the five-o’clock train one morning in pursuit of my business,” he says, “so I got up about four o’clock to get ready. Among other things, I wanted to leave my wife a good supply of water for the day. The well from which we got our water was about seventy feet deep and our means of getting it somewhat primitive.
“Over the well was built a little house, with a big, grooved swivel wheel, over which the long well rope passed, so that a bucket could be tied to each end of it. The little house over the well was unusually high. It was not enclosed at the sides, and the well being deep and the night very still and cold, the moisture that came out of the well froze on the rope where it was exposed. This ice-covered rope had to pass through my hands — but I got the water, anyway.
“I went that morning to Decatur, where I got a team of horses and a sleigh, drove to Pleasant Mills, and then to Willshire, Ohio. It was on this drive from Pleasant Mills to Willshire that my mind turned to the unpleasantness of drawing water out of that deep well on a cold morning. In trying to devise some better way, I hit on the idea of having a pump cylinder at the bottom of the well sufficiently large to hold a pail of water; the cylinder, I thought, could have a discharge pipe and a pump rod, and be so arranged that with one full stroke it would discharge a bucketful of water.
“This looked good to me. And I thought that if it was good, and practical, maybe I could work up a little business by manufacturing it for the market. Upon my return home I took it up with my brother, who was an engineer on the Pennsylvania Railroad and lived the second door from me, drawing water from the same well.
“My brother was acquainted with a patent model maker who lived near us; so we laid the matter before him. He showed us that a great pressure would be necessary to raise the water from so deep a well and convinced us at once that it was absolutely impractical.
“This settled it, for the moment at least, with all of us. But later, when I was alone, and was thinking the matter over, it came to me in almost audible words:
“‘Why wouldn’t it do for oil?’
“As this went through my mind, I could see, in my imagination, an oil tank sitting in the corner of a grocery, and I could see another oil tank in the corresponding corner of the basement of the grocery. As basements are never very deep, I felt sure that my pump would work satisfactorily in a case like that.
“I took it up with my brother and he agreed with me, although he suggested that everybody that needed oil tanks had them already. But as my business was selling goods, I did not see it that way. So I said:
“‘I’m going out in the morning and will be home the day after. I am going to tell some of my customers who handle oil about my idea and see if they are interested.'”
Bowser did leave the following morning; and he laid the matter before prospective customers in an earnest, enthusiastic manner, just as if he were going right ahead to manufacture the pumps; and in those two days Bowser took five orders for a product which did not yet exist, even on paper!
That was the beginning of a business that to-day girdles the whole earth. But it was a very hopeless sort of beginning, for Bowser had no facilities with which to manufacture the tanks he had contracted to supply. He had almost no money to buy materials or to hire help. He even had no place to build them, except the cow barn.
Above the ground floor, where they kept the cow, was a crude carpenter shop. The only machine of any kind was a lathe, and that was operated by hand power. A wagon wheel, fitted with a three-inch tire, served as the power pulley. Bowser’s brother turned the wagon wheel, while his nephew turned plungers on the lathe.
This equipment, in the light of Bowser’s optimism, served fairly well for tanks of one-barrel capacity. But when a five-barrel order was received, it meant either that the order had to be refused, or that the cow had to be moved to pasture.
The cow was moved.
When, after three months, the first tanks were finished, Bowser’s ready money was nearly exhausted. Then he borrowed a few pennies from a butcher with whom he had credit, added them to what little money he had, and bought a ticket to the first town. There he uncrated the tank he had shipped and installed it in first-class working order, to the delight of the customer. Then Bowser said:
“I sold you this tank with the understanding that you were to have a certain length of time to pay for it. But I am here without one penny in my pocket. I am not asking you to give me anything. But I will throw off five per cent if you will pay me now, in cash.
He got the cash.
That provided him with enough money to go on to the next town, where he again discounted the bill for cash. When he returned to Fort Wayne, he had enough to pay some of his living expenses and to start building more tanks.
As soon as the invention was perfected and tested, Bowser began to go out on the road for a week at a time. He always came home with orders. He tried to get other salesmen to take orders for him, but none of them did so with any success, for a long time. Between selling trips, Bowser worked with his brother, his nephew, and a tinner, making up the tanks for which he had orders. As soon as they were finished, he repeated his rounds, installing the tanks and collecting for them. Out of one hundred and fifty-eight sales, he only once missed getting the cash on delivery. He never did collect for this one that he missed.
The whole burden of the business fell on him. He was the salesman and the bookkeeper; he wrote letters — all in longhand; he installed the tanks; and he helped to make them. But after about a year of struggling along in this way, the strain began to tell on him. One day in Elkhart, Indiana, while standing on the street waiting for a car, he was overtaken by one of the old nervous spells. He managed to carry his grips into a neighboring store, and threw them under the counter.
“I may as well die here as anywhere!” he told himself, for he did not expect to live. But after he had rested a while, he felt better, so he picked up his grips and boarded the first train he could get for Benton Harbor, Michigan. There he sold one tank. In St. Joe he sold two more. In Niles he sold nine.
He returned home with thirteen orders; his most successful trip! And when he reached the office he found that a salesman, whom he had induced to try to sell the tanks, had broken the previous salesmen’s hoodoo and sent in orders for seventeen more!
This was really the starting point of the growth of the business. Bowser quit the road. He took on two more salesmen, who were fairly successful, and he devoted all his own time to the growing tasks at home.
But it was not a sound business yet, although it had promise. For years the need for money, and more money, was forever present.
The business had no sooner accumulated a little surplus that could be spared, however, than Bowser went to the bank and drew out fifty twenty-dollar gold pieces. He placed them in a new bag that he had bought for the purpose, and he went to Chicago to call on the man who had refused to press him for his six hundred-dollar debt when Bowser had been sick and penniless.
“Here,’ he said, “is what I owe you.”
One day, after the business had got a fair start, the treasurer came to Bowser and said, “We’ve got to have two thousand dollars to-day.”
“Very well,” Bowser replied.
He appeared confident; but he had not the slightest idea where the money was to come from. He had done everything he could do. He had no further resources that he could call on. But as he sat there, wondering where help was to come from, the telephone rang. The call was from a lawyer whom Bowser scarcely knew. But the lawyer knew Bowser! He had watched him and he had faith in him.
“Could you,” the lawyer asked, “use two thousand dollars for a year?”
That was one instance. There was another time when the treasurer reported that it was absolutely necessary to have one thousand dollars before night. The door had scarcely closed behind him after this announcement, when another friend of Bowser’s walked in and asked:
“Could you use a thousand dollars for six months?”
And there was a third instance of the same kind. Bowser’s banker called him up during the lunch hour.
“Your account,” said the banker, ‘”is overdrawn twenty-two hundred dollars. It will have to be fixed up to-day.”
Bowser wiped the sweat from his brow, and said, “All right.”
He went around to the bank after the day’s checks had been deposited. “Those checks,” the banker told him, “just about balance your withdrawals since I called you up. The rest of the account must be fixed up to-day.”
The banker reached for a pad of blank note forms, filled out one for twenty-two hundred dollars, and handed it to Bowser.
“Sign that,” he said curtly, “and get somebody else to sign it with you.”
“But,” Bowser objected, “it’s after business hours now. It would not look well, going around so late in the day on a thing of this kind. It would appear that we were about to go under.”
“The account,” said the banker again, “must be fixed up to-day.”
Bowser thought a moment.
“I might,” he said, “persuade So-and-so to sign with me.”
“Very well,” replied the banker.
Bowser went off to find this man. He called at his house, but the man had just left for Chicago. Bowser returned to the bank with the news, thinking this would settle the matter for the day.
“The account,” the banker still insisted, “must be fixed up to-day!”
Bowser suggested another man who might sign with him.
“Very well,” the banker replied. “He is not very good, but he is better than nobody.”
Bowser went to see the second man. But this man had just left for lndianapolis!
By this time it was getting dark. When Bowser returned to the bank with this latest news, lights were burning in the banker’s office. There were visitors. When Bowser entered the banker did not want to be interrupted, and he said that the matter might rest till morning.
The next day, almost as soon as Bowser’s office opened, a friend came in with twenty-eight hundred and sixty-five dollars which he wished to place on interest. Bowser proudly deposited the amount and cleared up his standing at the bank.
These things are astonishing enough to be called coincidences. But similar experiences have been too frequent in Bowser’s life for him to be willing to believe that they are only that.
“Things are simply bound to come out right,” he insists, “if a man puts everything he has into making them come out right. When he has exhausted every resource of his own, a door will open! Of course he must be sure, first, that he has done everything; that he has left nothing untried.”
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Original page images (final two are composites), click to enlarge: