It is true that Fortune is a fickle jade. But, in her treatment of
Orison Swett Marden, from his seventh to his twenty-first year, she had
been quite consistent, having hurled into his life all the "slings and
arrows" she could lay hold on.
Then she began to make amends; and, for a number of years after
leaving college, the one-time "bound-out" orphan boy stood in the front
rank of successful and popular hotel men.
As owner of the Hotel Manisses, Block Island; as proprietor of the
Palmer House, Grand Island, Nebraska, and the Midway Hotel, Kearney,
Nebraska; and, previously, as manager of the Ocean View Hotel, Block
Island, and, later, of several other houses in various parts of the
country — at one time he had four hotels in three different states under
his control — he had already made considerable money. But, being a
thoughtful and enterprising businessman, he believed that he saw an
opportunity which would not only enable him to increase his fortune, but
would also give him more time for writing.
The latter consideration was what he had most at heart when, in the
midst of his rapidly increasing prosperity, he decided to move West. It
was the great Kearney boom in the early nineties that directed his
steps to Nebraska.
He became proprietor of the leading Inn at Kearney, the Midway, of
which he had recently bought the lease and furniture. When he took up
his residence there and threw in his lot with the West, all indications
pointed toward permanent and widespread prosperity. But so much is
dependent upon the success of the crops in the agricultural states, that
even the most judicious and farsighted businessmen are often deceived
by appearances. One bad season may wipe out the most promising "boom."
When Marden arrived in Kearney, he was delighted with the prospects,
no less than with the place itself. It was a beautiful little city with a
population of about twelve thousand, and growing rapidly, real estate
sales in its vicinity amounting to something like a million dollars a
Business was booming, the Midway Hotel became popular, and its
proprietor, who in a short time had become a leading citizen - Marden
was elected president of the Board of Trade. In fact, during the first
year of his residence in Kearney, his business judgment and his hopes
were abundantly justified. Fortune smiled on all his undertakings.
In his second year, there came a change. A prolonged and widespread
drought destroyed the crops of almost the entire state. They were so
burned up by the hot winds that the vast prairies looked as if a fire
had swept over them. Business immediately dropped. Doctor Marden, like
many others, had invested heavily in real estate at inflated prices;
but, when the blow came, they all hoped that the good crops of the
ensuing year would redeem the situation.
Nature, however, seemed to be in a sour mood, and business was
afforded no chance to recover. Instead of reaping a bounteous crop the
following year, the people had no crop to reap. There was a repetition
of the terrible drought of the previous year, and it came again the
third year. After three successive years of drought and consequent crop
failure, the disaster was complete.
Business was wiped out and the boom utterly collapsed. The crowds,
which it had been drawn to Kearney, made a grand rush for the East.
Those who had a dollar left, or who could by any means borrow or find
enough money to pay their fare back, departed silently from the
drought-stricken region, not to return.
The whole section was reduced to a pitiful condition. In Kearney,
every bank but one had failed. Almost every business man had gone to the
wall. No one had any money, and everyone was discouraged.
Unfortunately for Marden, similar conditions prevailed in Grand
Island, which was equally affected by the drought. As proprietor of the
Palmer House, his fortunes had thus received a double blow in Nebraska.
The luck had turned on "Lucky Marden" with a vengeance — and he
was only at the beginning of the change. Fortune was in a vicious mood,
and her former favorite became the object of her special fury.
In the midst of the crumbling Kearney boom, the Midway Hotel was
burned to the ground. Its proprietor had gone East on a business trip,
and on his return from Boston late at night, the house happening to be
full, he found his own room occupied and was obliged to take a small one
on the fourth floor. Early in the morning he awoke to find the room
filled with smoke, which was pouring in under the door. He realized at
once that the house was on fire. Jumping up, he saw that the flames had
already made such headway that he must flee for his life without even
waiting to get his clothes.
In the corridor the smoke was so dense that he was forced to get down
on the floor. Keeping his face close to it, in order to avoid being
suffocated, he managed to crawl along on his hands and knees to the
stairway. Just as he reached it and was rising to his feet to descend, a
part of the roof crashed in. A blow from a falling timber hastened his
descent, hurling him down the steps to the bottom. He had what seemed an
almost miraculous escape from a broken back or some other serious if
not fatal injury. As it was, the worst he suffered was a sharp pain in
his back and shock to his nervous system.
Immediately before the roof fell in, there occurred one of those
extraordinary incidents which seem to figure in all great calamities.
They make an interesting study in psychology, — the baffling
complexities of the human mind. The occurrence made a vivid impression
on him at the time, and as it transpired the result flowing from it
caused him no little trouble.
"The moment before I was struck," he said, "I noticed a man standing
not far from me in the doorway of his room. I called to him that, if he
did not hurry, he might not be able to get downstairs. He answered that
he must go back and get his bag. This he did; and, in the meantime, he
was cut off from both the stairs and the fire escape. He then got out of
his window and held on to the window sill with both hands, trusting
that the crowd below would be able to send him relief.
"Never, never, never, never give up."
- Winston Churchill
The wind was blowing a strong gale and the fire approached him
rapidly, but he held on until his hands were very badly burned. Then the
people shouted to him to drop upon the awning beneath, hoping that this
would save him. But it didn't. He went through it as if it had been a
piece of paper and was crushed to death on the sidewalk.
"The bag for which the unfortunate man risked his life must have
contained something very valuable. But, of course, he had no sooner
recovered it than he was obliged to let go of it again, or throw it out
of the window; and, as he neglected to do the latter, no one ever
learned what its contents were. The secret was swallowed in the flames.
"The Midway Hotel was a large building, and, by an unfortunate
combination of circumstances, the fire department was absolutely
crippled. It was not used to fighting fires of such magnitude, its
captain was disabled, and the wind was blowing so furiously that the men
found it impossible to check the flames. They spread so rapidly that
practically nothing in the hotel was saved."
The building was only partly insured, and Marden was a very heavy
loser. Apart from his financial interest in the business he lost all of
his personal effects, his clothing, and some valuable works of art and
knick-knacks which he had brought from Europe. But that which he
accounted the heaviest loss of all was the destruction of thousands of
pages of his book manuscripts and scores of notebooks containing
invaluable material for other books.
"Someone told me," he said, "that my manuscripts had been saved, but I
found, to my utter horror, that they were all lost and that I did not
have even a scratch of a pen to show for all my years of hard work."
Over five thousand pages of manuscripts — the fruit of all the spare
time he had been able to snatch from nearly fifteen crowded years of
business life — had gone up in smoke. But like Carlyle, when his
completed manuscript of "The History of the French Revolution" met with a
similar fate at the hands of a servant maid, who mistook it for waste
paper, Marden spent no time in bemoaning his loss. With a spirit as
indomitable as that of the grim Scottish philosopher, he began at once
to reconstruct his work.
"No young man starting in life could have better capital than plenty of
friends. They will strengthen his credit, support him in every great
effort, and make him what, unaided, he could never be. Friends of the
right sort will help him more - to be happy and successful - than much
- Orison Swett Marden
Orison Swett Marden Chapter XV , continued...
Having nothing but his nightshirt on when he escaped from the fire,
he went down the street to provide himself with necessary clothing. As
soon as this had been attended to, he bought a twenty-five-cent
notebook, and, while the ruins of the hotel were still smoking, began to
rewrite from memory the manuscript of his dream book.
It was an appalling task. One gets some idea of its magnitude when it
is recalled the later printed volume contains over four hundred pages,
and that the author had not a single note left with which to jog his
Almost penniless, he established himself in a little room over a
livery stable owned by a friend. There he lived, ate, worked, and slept,
boarding himself for about a dollar a week, and planning, meanwhile, to
leave Kearney as soon as he could straighten out his affairs and get
sufficient funds to go East.
But the Fates willed otherwise. Kearney was not willing to see him
go. Thus, by the way, the people of that once promising western city
displayed some of the finest attributes of human heads and hearts.
The Board of Trade, of which he was president, called a public
meeting at the Opera House. All the members and the other leading
townspeople attended and it was unanimously resolved that, if by any
means Marden could be persuaded to remain in Kearney, they would not let
him go. They proceeded at once to make good their words; and, in spite
of the impoverished condition of the city after its long period of
business depression, they succeeded in making up a purse of six thousand
Every local bank contributed, some of them giving as much as five
hundred dollars, and none less than two hundred and fifty. Even the bank
to which Doctor Marden owed eighty-two hundred dollars — without
endorsement — sent its check for five hundred dollars with its
compliments. Finally, the purse was increased from six thousand to eight
thousand dollars by contributions from business men in Omaha.
When the purse was presented to him, not as a charity, as the donors
said, but as an inducement to him to remain in Kearney and help them to
rebuild its fortunes, he felt that he could not refuse them anything
they asked. He was quite overcome by their great-hearted generosity.
They promised that, if he would stay with them, they would rebuild his
hotel; saying that it was to their own interest to do so, for he had
given them their first good, clean hotel.
Following this came even more touching gifts, — forty dollars from
the High School students, which, they said, they had raised among
themselves as an expression of their gratitude for what he had done for
the young people of the city, and a check from the leading women, with a
letter conveying their appreciation of "a man of such fine character."
Such expressions of genuine love and sympathy from all classes of
people in a city in which he had resided but a few years were
remarkable. No man evokes such a wave of good feeling even in time of
trouble, without having in some way deeply touched the hearts of his
fellow men,— without, in some special way, having won their love and
gratitude. As a rule, whatever we send out comes back to us in kind.
There was no doubt of the truth of this in his case. He had taken the
deepest interest in the welfare of the people of Kearney. He had tried
to be a real neighbor to all of them, a neighbor of the Samaritan type,
especially to the poor. It had been his custom on Thanksgiving Day, for
example, to throw open the hotel to all who were not able to provide
themselves with a regular Thanksgiving dinner at home. He even sent
carriages for those who lived at a distance or were not able to get to
the hotel in any other way; gave them all an excellent dinner, — turkey
and "fixins," furnished music, and, in fact, turned the hotel, with all
its facilities for entertainment, over to them for the day.
Even the Thanksgiving following the burning of the hotel, when he had
nothing with which to help himself, he contrived to secure
contributions and make it a real Thanksgiving Day for his poor friends.
He began his preparations several days ahead. Going first to the
Mayor, he asked for the use of the City Hall. The Hall — a beautiful new
building which had been completed the previous year, — was cheerfully
donated for the day. He then secured the cooperation of the newspapers,
and asked public contributions of food and clothing. The poor, as
always, had suffered most during those lean years when, through the
severity of Nature, Kearney had been almost wiped off the map.
But on this Thanksgiving some three hundred of them had at least one
joyful day. Attention had also been called to their pressing needs, and
there is no doubt that the public spirit of the organizer of the
Thanksgiving dinner, together with the generosity of his more
comfortably circumstanced fellow citizens, did much to improve their
condition for the entire winter.
The editor of the Kearney Daily Hub, M. A. Brown, recalling those
early days when he and Marden were the staunchest of friends, says, "My
recollection of Doctor Marden is that he was the most perfect gentleman I
have ever known.
"All who have accomplished great things have had a great aim, have fixed
their gaze on a goal which was high, one which sometimes seemed
"Having risen to a definite position among the philosophers of the
ages, Doctor Marden might have founded a new school of science, or a new
religion, but he found that, in his day, what the world needed most was
not more conflicting creeds, but a welding of all creeds into a law of
daily action — a rule of conduct — a definite schedule of living that
could be as accurately applied to everyday problems as the law of
"So, he took philosophy, science, religion, psychology, physics,
metaphysics, psychiatrics, and all the 'isms' of the ages, and worked
out for the human race a practicable, verifiable, positive law of living
that when correctly used, could not fail. This he gave to the world,
free and untransformed, uncontrolled by theological doctrines or church
organization, unallied with any school of science."
I knew him well during all of his Kearney days. Between us there
appeared to be a current of understanding and mutual appreciation. The
outstanding characteristic that marked him, in those rather
unconventional days, in the bright and breezy metropolis of this
'midway' frontier where East and West had met, and the metropolitan and
cosmopolitan were interchangeable and transmutable, was his undeviating
courtesy to all men. To him there was no distinguishing mark for prince
or pauper. A man was a man who measured to the part.
"In that truly terrible furnace the manuscript of his first book, the
transcription of a vision into visible language, was reduced to ashes.
The hotel and its furnishings were utterly destroyed. But there was no
complaint, no change in his outward manner, no playing for sympathy.
It was then that we learned casually of the loss of the manuscript of
the book to be, 'Pushing To The Front’; and, so far as his friends
could judge, this loss was real, — so vital, indeed, that other losses
did not matter, for they were as the 'trash' that might have been stolen
from his generous and open purse."
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