- Historic Sites
A Pennsylvania Boyhood
An affectionate memoir of rural life a century ago
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
Many and wonderful were the ways in which fruits, —blackberries, huckleberries, gooseberries, plums, peaches, pears, grapes, and apples—were preserved for winter use. Sometimes I would be allowed to go down to the cellar and view the goodly storeroom where the winter supplies were kept; there were hanging shelves, whereon stood crocks in solemn array, looking as though they were conscious of their juicy contents. There were bins for potatoes, apples, turnips, and the fragrant onion; barrels of pickled beef, and rounds of carefully dried beef. There were hams, pork shoulders and flitches, which had been sugar-cured and then smoked with hickory wood, and corn cobs, hung in rows on hooks set in the sills of the floor overhead.
While the people in the valley were hard workers, they had their recreation. In the spring, summer, and fall there was little time for amusement, but in the winter season the young folks had sleighing parties; meeting in neighbors’ houses for games and occasionally for dances; corn-huskingparties on the barn floor, the happy finder of a red ear of corn being given the right to kiss the girl of his choice. The elderly women had their quilting parties, which furnished an admirable opportunity for social gossip. There were apple-butter boilings, where neighbors took turns stirring the fragrant apple juice, and in the early spring we tapped the sugar maples and boiled down the precious syrup.
The men had their raising bees, when the heavy timbers of houses and barns were put in place; the muster days, when the militia met for instruction and drill and just to have a good time generally. Road making and bridgebuilding were community work, and in mountain country brought the farmers together often.
The elderly people, I thought, had some queer notions. One was that boys should be kept busy to keep them out of mischief. My father displayed great ingenuity in his plans to keep me from idleness, such as picking up stones turned by the plow, or watching the sheep as they nibbled the grass on the commons along the foot of the mountain: sheep have no sense of location or direction; they were continually getting lost, and a lost sheep never finds the way home alone.
In the valley the farmers had two ways of thrashing out their small grain: the century-old way, treading it out by oxen and horses, or beating it out with the flail. When I reached the useful age, five years, I was set astride a quiet horse, the sheaves of grain were spread on the barn floor, and round and round the old horse walked, treading out the grain. Father stood by with a large wooden fork to shake up the straw at times. When I reached the age of eight, I was old enough to use the flail. You can get more exercise and less satisfaction out of half an hour’s work with a flail than out of any other utensil invented by the ingenuity and skill of man.
In 1848 my father purchased a small threshing machine, the first in our section of the country. It was called a beater, I suppose because it beat the grain. The motive power was supplied by four horses. I remember standing off at a safe distance watching the thing start, and as I saw it going I realized that my occupation as a rider of the old horse that trod out the grain, and as an expert wielder of the romantic flail, was ended.
One of the early memories of my boyhood was the Mexican War. A young man, a near neighbor who often spent the evening'.at our home, enlisted early and was sent to Mexico. His death in Mexico was a matter of some importance to all of us at home.
I recall an incident in this connection. One evening my father came into the kitchen. A fire was burning in the wide chimney, and the weather was frosty. We young folks were gathered about the kitchen hearth, cracking nuts and scrapping as usual by the light of the fire, when Father came in and called to Mother, saying: “There must have been a big battle in Mexico today, as the sky in the southwest is so red.”
I ran out of the house to look at the sky. The sun was going down, and lo, across the southwestern end of the valley the sun had hung great clouds, streamers of crimson with edgings of blue and gold. And as I looked at the startling sight, I wondered what a battle was like that could so color the heavens.
Then my father added that old people said that in the war of the Revolution, whenever a battle was fought, the sky was red over where the battle took place.
During my rest hours (and it seemed to me that I had so few rest hours) I was set to study the shorter catechism. I had a very dim notion of what it was all about—I am not sure that I know yet—but my mother wanted me to learn it, and that was enough, so I kept on until I could repeat it without a miss.
After a lapse of fourscore years, I can still visualize the scene: An old-time kitchen, a wide fireplace and slumbering fire, a tallow dip for the light, a small, drowsy boy perched on a high stool by the kitchen table droning the words, a patient mother with book in hand helping him over the hard words.
I have witnessed many great scenes and pageants and memorable events in the course of a long life, yet most of them are but faint shadows on the canvas of memory, blurred by the years; but this lowly scene in all its original beauty abides in unchanging freshness.