Growing up fast on Burrows Street

Childhood isn’t always the carefree time it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes things happen that force kids to grow up quickly. On a warm, drowsy June day in 1848, one knock on a schoolhouse door propelled 9-year-old Daniel Burrows into adulthood.

Daniel was gazing out the classroom window daydreaming about being someplace else when his teacher, Mr. Avery, came over to him and said, very kindly and very gently, that he was excused for the day. Daniel was puzzled but pleased, until he stepped outside and was told by the neighbor who’d come for him that his little brother, Rhodes, not yet 2 years old, had had a convulsion and died.

Just that very morning, Rhodes had tried to follow him to school; Daniel had taken the toddler back to their house on Burrows Street in Mystic and told him to stay there. Now he wished he’d been nicer and less annoyed with his baby brother. Daniel must have felt like crying, but that isn’t what a big boy should do. With Father away on business, he had to be strong for his stepmother and three little step-sisters.

Daniel never forgot how scared he felt that dreadful day. There probably wasn’t much he could do to help, but it felt like the end of childhood.

Daniel’s mother had died when he was an infant. His father, Capt. Rhodes Burrows, remarried quickly and started a second family. Father had a fish drying business that often took him all the way to Cuba for extended periods. This time, his anticipated return date had passed; it was hard to quell the fear that there’d been an accident at sea and that Father might never come home again.

Two months later, Capt. Rhodes did come home, and family events sound relatively normal until the start of the Civil War.

Capt. Rhodes was a blockade runner during the Civil War and suffered as a POW in a Confederate prison. Several years ago, I wrote a column about his dramatic story, but I didn’t consider the impact this father’s absence would have on his family.

By this time, Daniel was in his early 20s, with six siblings. Now, not knowing whether or not Father would ever return, Daniel took on the financial support of the family. He worked in a boiler factory, tended the farm, and studied at night to further his education. Sometimes when his stepmother was ill, he cooked the family breakfasts. According to his step-sisters, he was bossy about insisting that they eat his concoctions. The girls deplored his pancakes, which were over an inch thick and tasted disgusting, but years later, they recalled with affection and respect their brother’s diligence and dedication to the family.

When Capt. Rhodes was released from prison, he was so emaciated that his eyes glittered eagerly at the sight of food. His family had to gently restrain him from eating too much too soon. When his father’s health improved sufficiently, Daniel was able to begin leading his own life. He got a job in Washington, D.C., married a woman from Baltimore, and started a family of his own.

Perhaps you’re wondering where I found some of these personal details. The answer is that a friend lent me a book, “An Account of My Life” by Helen May Clarke, published by the Mystic River Historical Society and available through the society's website. Clarke started keeping a journal when she was 10 years old and recorded not only her own experiences but family stories passed down by her grandmother, one of Daniel’s sisters. Helen’s diary provides a charming view of early 20th-century Mystic through the eyes of a precocious child, and it preserves the story of a very young man who met tough challenges with a stalwart heart.

Sources: “An Account of My Life” by Helen May Clarke, The Mystic River Historical Society, 1997, and "Robert Burrows and descendants, 1630-1974” by Burrows, R. Earl, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1975.

 

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