From Lamplighter to Master Surveyor -- Solomon Moss

By Esther M. Smith

White County Historical Society 1962-63 White County Heritage

"The School of Experience has been a good teacher," said the 94-year-old retired surveyor, Solomon David Moss of Kensett, Arkansas. Just three years after the close of the Civil War, on November 3, 1868, Mr. Moss was born near the mouth of Little Red River, about 10 miles from Kensett, at a place now known as the "Nimo Place."

Reconstruction days in Arkansas brought bitter hardships, and Mr. and Mrs. G. L Moss, Solomon's parents, decided that in Missouri life might be a little less difficult. So in 1872, they loaded all their possessions and the family into the covered tarpole wagon, hitched to it their team of huge, long-horned oxen and started the trip into Missouri.

The first night out they pitched their camp at Whitney's Lane, a Civil War battleground located about a mile northeast of Kensett. Although he was just a small child, Mr. Moss remembers seeing his first locomotive there. He recalls that it was an old wood-burning engine that had been abandoned after the savage encounter seven or eight years previously, and that it was his first glimpse of a powered machine. "But," he quickly added as an afterthought, "of course, those old steamboats used to pass our home occasionally."

The next night the family stopped at the home of an uncle, who lived about three miles west of Searcy. Here, for one reason or another, they remained for about a month. In the meantime, the father decided that the trip to Missouri was far too difficult, tiresome and hazardous for the family to undertake at the present time. He searched around and found an unimproved farm in the southwestern part of the county that he thought would make a good farm. It was located in what is now known as the Gravel Hill community.

>With the help of the uncle, the elder Moss quickly erected a very substantial and comfortable log cabin and moved his family into its new home. Nearby he set up a sawmill, using an old engine he had salvaged from a sunken steamboat. He repaired the engine and rigged it with a nine-foot drive wheel.

During those early days in Arkansas, every member of the family had to work, even the very young. And young Sol was put to work chopping out the underbrush and helping to pile the brush as the trees were cleared from the farmlands. With the coming of spring this small boy was assigned the task of hitching up the huge, ferocious oxen and helping to break the newly cleared ground. With the help of his mother he planted the cotton, corn, potatoes and other vegetables needed by the family for its food and clothing supply. This youngster was out of bed, breakfasted, and in the fields ready for work at the very first streaks of light in the morning and he continued to work there in the evenings as long as there was light enough to see to do the work.
About this time his father and the neighbors in the community pooled their resources, erected a little log schoolhouse and hired a teacher to come in and teach their children. Three months out of each year the children attended the school. Solomon made rapid progress and soon he had completed four of the McGuffey Readers. He was among the very best in cyphering.
"What a promotion!" Sol thought when his father told the 12-year old lad that he thought he was old enough to help him at the sawmill. Here his first job was to stack the lumber as it came off the saw. He was soon promoted to the job of setting the head blocks. When he had learned these jobs to the satisfaction of his father, he was put to firing the boiler and running the engine.

"The s-c-h-u-g-g s-c-h-u-g-g of that old long-stroke engine was the sweetest music to my ears," Mr. Moss mused, closing his eyes and leaning back in his chair. It was not long before the slender youth had mastered every phase of the sawmill work, and throughout his life, he found that the days spent toiling and learning the sawmill business were very profitable for their lessons in mechanics, economy and even in cyphering.

In 1883, G. R. Moss decided that it was time for his children to get the advantages of public school, so he moved to Searcy. Sol, with his brothers and sisters, entered the Searcy Public School that fall, to learn that only three of the 250 pupils in the two-room, three-teacher school were ahead of him in cyphering and the McGuffey Readers. He continued his studies during the six-month term of school. (This was all the public school held each year at this time.) In the evenings and on Saturdays he helped in the gristmill and sawmill his father founded in Searcy.

The next summer, the energetic young Moss took a job delivering water from the White Sulphur Springs just south of the village to the seven business establishments that made up the business district of the town of Searcy. For this he was paid a nickel per pail. Before the summer was over, he learned that the first village lamplighter had resigned, and he applied for and became Searcy 's second lamplighter. Each evening he would take his stepladder and a torch, climb up to each of the kerosene lamps and light it. Each morning he would again take the ladder, climb up and extinguish each of the 15 street lamps.
Captain D. W. Lear, father of the late Mrs. Joseph T. Robinson, was seeking a reliable young man to help him make some surveys in the county. This was a challenge to Sol. He asked for the job and got it. Under Captain Lear's thorough instructions and by his own application, he soon mastered surveying and became one of the outstanding surveyors in the State of Arkansas.
Odus Smith relates that his father hired Mr. Moss to do some surveying for him about 1906. The lands were pretty much of a wilderness. But Mr. Moss set up his instruments, studied his notes briefly, and then told the youthful helper to measure 250 feet to the southwest. There he would find large red oak tree. "Chop into the south side of the tree, about three feet above the ground," Moss instructed, "and there you will find the bench marks."

Doing as he was directed, Smith was very much astonished and impressed when he cut into the tree, and about three inches beneath the bark of the tree, he found the huge letters "B H."

For many years Mr. Moss served White County as surveyor, and even today, after several years of retirement, he is often sought out in problems of property boundaries and markings. His thorough knowledge of surveying, of White County and its properties are still a very valuable asset to the county. His more than 60 field books are on file in the County Clerk's office and will keep his work and influence alive for many years to come.

As he reflected on his very full and useful life, his eyes twinkled as he said again, "Yes, the School of Experience is a very good teacher."