Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1104
Born in 1866, Hugh McVey grew up in a small Missouri town as the motherless child of a drunken father. Spending his days lounging and dreaming on the banks of the Mississippi River, Hugh had no formal education, learned few manners, and became very lazy. The railroad comes to town in 1880 when Hugh is fourteen years old, and he gets a job as a factotum at the station, loading baggage and sweeping the platform. Hugh receives little pay but gets to live with his boss, Henry Shepard, and his wife, Sarah. The childless couple treat Hugh as their own son, providing him with shelter, food, new clothes, and affection. Soon Sarah begins to educate him. Sarah, who is from New England, always preserves her memory of quiet Eastern villages and large industrial cities. Determined to educate Hugh, she lavishes on him the discipline and affection she would have given her own child.
The situation is difficult, at first, for both of them, but Sarah Shepard is a determined woman. She teaches Hugh to read, to write, and to wonder about the world beyond the little town. She instills within him the belief that his family had been of no account, and he grows to have a revulsion toward the poor white farmers and workers. Sarah always holds out before him the promise of the East, the progress and growth of that region. Gradually, Hugh begins to win his fight against natural indolence and to adjust himself to his new way of life. When the Shepards leave town, Hugh, then nineteen years old, is appointed station agent for the railroad.
Hugh keeps the job for a year. During that time, the dream of Eastern cities grew more and more vivid for Hugh. When his father dies, Hugh gives up his job and travels east, working wherever he can. Always lonely, always apart from people, he feels an impenetrable wall between himself and the rest of the world. He keeps on the journey, through Illinois, Indiana, and then Ohio.
Hugh is twenty-three years old when he settles down in Ohio. By accident, he gets the job of telegraph operator, just a mile from the town of Bidwell. There he lives alone, a familiar and puzzling figure to the people of the town. The rumor begins to spread that he is an inventor working on a new device. Others suggest that he is looking over the town for a possible factory site. Hugh is doing neither as yet. Then, during his walks around the farmlands, he becomes fascinated by the motions of the farmers planting their seeds and their crops. Slowly there grows in his mind an idea for a crop-setting machine that would save the labor of the farmers and their families.
Steve Hunter, who has just come back from school in Buffalo, is another dreamer. He dreams of being a manufacturer, the wealthiest in Bidwell. He succeeds in convincing the town’s important people that Hugh is his man, and that he is working on an invention that will make them both rich. He persuades them to invest in a new company that would build a factory and promote Hugh’s invention. Steve goes to see Hugh, who has completed the blueprint for a plant-setting machine. The two young men come to an agreement.
A skilled woodworker makes models of the machine, and the machine itself is finally constructed in an old building carefully guarded from the curious. When the machine fails to work, Hugh invents another, his mind more and more preoccupied with the planning of devices and machines. A factory is then built, and many workers are hired. Bidwell’s industrialization begins.
What is happening in Bidwell is the same growth of industrialism that is changing the entire structure of the United States. It is a period of transition. Bidwell, being a small town, feels the effects of the new development keenly. Workers become part of the community, in which there had been only farmers and merchants.
Joe Wainsworth, the harness maker, loses his life savings to Hugh’s invention. An independent man, a craftsman, he comes to resent the factory, the very idea of the machine. People come into his shop less often. They are buying the machine-made harness. Joe becomes a broken man. His employee, Jim Gibson, a spiritual bully, really runs the business, and Joe submits meekly.
Meanwhile, Clara Butterworth, daughter of a wealthy farmer, returns to Bidwell after three years at the university in Columbus. She, too, is lonely and unhappy. She sees that the old Bidwell is gone, that her father, Tom Butterworth, is wealthier than before, and that the growth of the town is primarily the result of the efforts of one person, Hugh McVey. A week after she meets Hugh, he walks up to the farm and asks her to marry him. They elope and are married that night. The marriage is not consummated for several days, however, because Hugh, fearing he is not good enough for Clara, cannot bring himself to approach her.
For four years, they live together in a strange, strained relationship. During those four years, Joe’s fury against Steve, against the new age of industry that had taken his savings, increases. One day, he hears Jim Gibson brag about his stocking factory-made harnesses in the shop. That night, Joe kills Jim Gibson. Fleeing from the scene, he meets Steve and shoots him, but not fatally.
Clara, Hugh, and Tom are returning from a drive in the family’s first automobile when they learn what had happened. Two men have captured Joe, and when they try to put him into the automobile to take him back to town, Joe jumps toward Hugh and sinks his fingers into his neck. It is Clara who breaks his grip upon her husband. Somehow the incident brings Hugh and Clara closer together.
Hugh’s career as an inventor no longer satisfies him. Joe’s attack has unnerved him and made him doubt the worth of his work. It does not matter so much that someone in Iowa invented a machine exactly like his, and he does not intend to dispute the rights of the Iowan.
Clara is pregnant. She tells him of the child one night as they stand listening to the noises of the farm and the snoring of the hired hand. As they walk into the house side by side, the factory whistles blow in the night. Hugh hardly hears them. The dark midwestern nights, men and women, the land itself—the full, deep life current will go on in spite of factories and machines.
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