A Brush Hollow Tale

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Tucked away in rural southwest Wisconsin, where the west branch of the Kickapoo River crosses Route 82, is an area of the state known locally as Brush Hollow. It was there, after the turn of the century, that McGarry Morley spent much of his vacation time as a youngster, for his grandfather owned a local farm. Young Morley “loved the people, and thoroughly enjoyed all the various happenings.” Much time has passed since then, and Mr. Morley, now a retired advertising-agency executive, “hated to think of all the folklore and history being lost,” so he began writing a series of folk stones he calls Brush Hollow Tales. The one recounted here, adapted from a story first published in the magazine Wisconsin Trails , is based on several events that actually occurred in Brush Hollow about 1912. In the tradition of the folklorist, Mr. Morley has woven them together into an amusing and nostalgic reminiscence.

Whenever I am served a portion of today’s ham or bacon, each bite—no matter how tender and pleasant-tasting—kindles a nostalgic wish for some of these same products as produced in the long, long ago. Back when the pig preselected for the ultimate sacrifice was fed a carefully balanced diet of whey and bran, lavishly backed with bushels of golden corn. When the rites leading to its metamorphosis were performed right on the spot by home-talent votaries. And when the hams and bacon, soaked in brine and then exposed to smoldering corncobs and hickory wood in the smokehouse, absorbed the entrancing aromas that were released to enrich and embellish the flavor when the meat was cooked and eaten.

I recall one butchering, however, that did not produce the usual rich and delicious pork roasts, the tasty chops, the savory sausages, and the hams and bacon redolent of smokehouse fumes that enticed the appetite and enchanted the taste buds. Instead it supplied a completely unexpected dividend—a Model T car.

This remarkable happening had its beginning when a neighbor lad was hired to give temporary aid with the fall work.

Ordinarily the presence at my aunt’s table of a hired man or a hired girl provided a stimulus to the feast of reason and the flow of soul that, ideally, accompany and supplement the satisfaction of more earthy appetites. Instead of the usual steady chomping sounds, interrupted only by “I’ll thank you for the chicken” or “More coffee, please,” the conversation was likely to be spirited and continuous, larded with bits of gossip from the west branch of the Kickapoo, or Sugar Grove Ridge, or Harrison Hollow, depending on the point of origin of the employee.

Such, however, was not the case when the youngest of the five Cosgrove brothers came to help out for a couple of weeks with the autumn chores. He had the unlikely name of Terminal Moraine; before his birth his mother had heard the expression, thought it pretty, and conferred it on her offspring when he arrived.

Terminal’s silence had been too extended to be charged to initial shyness or to taciturnity. Rather, it seemed to stamp him as a man obsessed with some festering sorrow, who had looked upon the promised land and seen only a disaster area. This diagnosis received a degree of confirmation when, at long last, he spoke.

“Paw says cars are dangerous,” he said, not lifting his eyes from his plate and directing his remarks at no one in particular. “Look at Buzz-saw Bates. What about him?”

Everyone of course knew Buzz-saw, so called because he had lost a hand in a sawmill accident. He wore a hook on the stump that made him a man of note in the community. Terminal’s query had obviously been rhetorical, and so no one made any attempt to answer.

Terminal amplified his statement that night at supper as though there had been no break in his lines of communication.

“What about Buzz-saw Bates?” he asked again. “Riding along in a buggy with Hank Shore and telling some big story and waving his arms around. So what happened? He snagged the hook on the rim of the buggy wheel, and it pitched him right out on the side of the road on his head. I suppose that wasn’t dangerous?” Again he left the question floating in the air, obviously not expecting an answer.

Two days later at breakfast he spoke again. “Paw says a car is expensive,” he said bitterly. “Five horses in the barn eating their heads off. All us boys got to have one. You mean to say that doesn’t cost more than gas for a car?”

The bitter brew seething within him was apparently coming to a more violent boil, for he again broke silence that noon.

“Paw says we’re like to get ourselves killed with a car,” he said, not as one contributing to the general conversation but with the air of a fair-minded man reviewing all sides of some moot question. “What about his second cousin that got dragged and killed by a horse? Tangled up in the singletree and drug till his clothes was all tore off.”

He paused, then apparently thought of an additional item that would strengthen his stand.

“Not only that—there is folks right today that claim to have seen that horse go by with Paw’s second cousin, naked as a skinned calf and dead as Judas Caesar, dragging along behind.”