- Historic Sites
A Pennsylvania Boyhood
An affectionate memoir of rural life a century ago
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
I was born August 22, 1841, in Amberson Valley, Franklin County, Pennsylvania. My ancestors migrated from Scotland to the north of Ireland soon after 1600 and emigrated from thence to America in 1712, settling in Chester, Pennsylvania. In 1729 they removed to what is now Franklin and named their settlement Culbertson’s Row. They called themselves Scotch-Irish, a domineering race, aggressive, fearless, and tireless.
Amberson Valley, my birthland, lies snuggled between the Kittatinny and Tuscarora mountains: it is about four miles long and one mile wide, well watered, and originally was heavily wooded with oak, chestnut, hickory, sugar maple, and other trees. By the time I arrived on the scene, much of the timber had been cut away by the early settlers, some for building purposes, some for fencing and fuel. Much of it was wantonly destroyed. There was no market for timber at that date—every farmer had timber to burn, and the land was needed for farms.
The inhabitants of the valley were largely self-supporting. There was a sawmill that supplied all the lumber needed; a tannery that furnished an abundance of the best quality of leather for shoes, harnesses, and saddles; and there was a fuller in the valley who washed and whitened wool for weaving and spinning. The family looms wove quantities of cloth, called “linsey-woolsey.” Maple sugar was in plenty; barley and rye were parched and used as a substitute for coffee. Almost every farmer cultivated a small patch of flax, in addition to corn, wheat, rye, and oats, and kept a few sheep; every housewife had her hackle for preparing flax for weaving, and a spinning wheel for transforming the beautiful fleecy wool into hanks of yarn. Many of the larger homes had looms on which the coarser fabrics called homespuns were woven. Among the first pictures in my mind is one of a couple of old ladies, sisters, bearing the quaint names of Leah and Diana, who lived in a little log cabin of two rooms, set in the stoniest part of the valley, and eked out a scanty living by weaving rugs and rag carpets for the neighbors. Often as a boy I sat by their loom and watched these skilled workers toss the shuttle back and forth with a peculiar jerk of the wrist. “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle.”
In those days newspapers had limited circulation in rural districts, and as our valley was not on the line of general travel, news was at a premium. So when, in the early spring, the peddler with his pack would appear bringing news from the outside world and racy neighborhood gossip, which he would enlarge and decorate to suit his hearers’ taste, his arrival was warmly greeted. In the fall he would come again, and at his heels would trail the cobbler, bearing his bag of awls, shoe lasts, and leather, together with his assortment of uncanny tales, folklore and ghost stories, the more improbable, the more readily believed.
The brook which flowed down the center of the valley furnished many quiet pools where good-sized fish lurked and, what was far better, “swimmin’ holes,” the joy of any boy.
In the mountains round the valley there was an abundance of game: deer, wild turkeys, squirrels, and rabbits. Foxes were too numerous for the safety of the barnyard fowl. There were birds galore. As the shadows of evening fell over the land, the melancholy whippoorwill set up his doleful cry, and in the spring great flocks of singing blackbirds would arrive.
The soil was very poor. Nature in one of her upheavals had covered the original limestone with several feet of gravel and rock, and the farmer had a weary task wringing support from the reluctant earth. The life of the housewife was extremely laborious and trying. In addition to such household cares as cooking, sweeping, scrubbing, washing, and ironing, she made the soap, milked the cows, fed the pigs and calves, cared for the chickens, ducks, turkeys, guinea hens, and geese; with the feathers of the last she filled her downy pillows and mattresses. Ofttimes I watched my mother, who, with a set look on her face, held the flapping, squawking goose with one hand and with her other hand plucked the soft white feathers. She made frocks for the girls, pants and coats for the boys, spun the yarn, and knit the socks and mittens for her family. Many times I was lulled to sleep by the soft hum of her spinning wheel or the click of her knitting needles. Most of my mother’s sewing was done at night by the feeble light of a tallow dip. The tallow dip was for family use; the tallow candle was for use when “quality” called in after supper, or on some extra occasion.
The day began at 5 A.M. with breakfast. Prepared, precooked, predigested breakfast foods were not yet invented; bread, meat, potatoes, fruits, and coffee began the day. There was no end to the calls on the mother’s time, strength, and ingenuity.
On Sunday afternoons Mother would read to us stories from the Bible, stories that never grew old. Part of an unseen yet real world, they were woven into the fabric of my life, and back of all was the word God, a word to be seriously spoken. Who was He? Where was He? My mother’s answers were very discreet: “God is everywhere and always doing good.” In my boyish mind I thought of God as grave and reverent, who sat by the side of a great opening at the roof of the sky and watched the world. He held in His hand a rod, with which He pointed out the places which His messengers should visit. With this vision I would fall to sleep in peace.