- Historic Sites
A Pennsylvania Boyhood
An affectionate memoir of rural life a century ago
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
The kitchen was a very important part of the house. Ours was a large room with a porch on the west and east sides. The north end of the room was taken up by a wide chimney, in which hung a crane for pots and kettles; a wide stone hearth lay in front of the fireplace. Much of the cooking was done in what were called Dutch ovens. A shovel of redhot coals was raked out from the fireplace onto the hearth, the oven was set on the coals, the food was put in the oven, the heavy iron lid was set on top, a shovel of hot coals put on the lid, and the baking process began.
Bread and pies were baked in an oven out of doors. A rough base about four feet square and three and a half feet high was built of stone and mortar. On top of this a circular dome was built, of smaller stones and mortar, three feet in diameter and eighteen inches high, with walls eight inches thick; on one side there was an opening a foot square. When the oven was needed for cooking, it was filled with wood and chips, which were set on fire and left burning until the fuel was consumed. Then the bread, pies, and cakes were put in, the oven door was securely fastened, and the baking began.
There was some folklore among the people, and a good deal of superstition. Very few had the hardihood to pass through the graveyard on a moonless night, lest they meet a ghost. Some believed that on very dark and stormy nights “graveyards did yawn and ghosts did stalk forth.” Rarely would a mother dare trim her baby’s nails before he was a year old, for fear the child would become a thief.
One old woman in our neighborhood, of preternatural ugliness, was accused of bewitching the neighbors’ cattle with two dread diseases, “hollow-horn” and “wolf-in-the-tail.” In a nearby lonely cove in the mountain there was an old tumble-down house where years agone a man hanged himself; rumor said that the wretch’s ghost was often seen at night sneaking about the ruined house with a rope in his hand.
Our section of the valley boasted a church building, the only one in the valley. It was built of logs, weatherboarded on the outside and plastered within, unpainted, without a particle of adornment. The windows had outside blinds, but I never saw them open; there was a center aisle; the men sat on the left side, the women on the right side. The preaching was of that virile type which left the sinner no loophole for escape. It was simply: Believe what I am telling you or be damned. There was reverence, seriousness, and sincerity. “Thus saith the Lord” was not lost on the hearers; it enabled men and women to smile at hardships, to do and endure. It was the preaching needed for that age.
I liked to go to church. There was in the quiet of the place, in the subdued manner of the people, a gentleness not apparent on weekdays, a toning down of the rough exterior. Everyone was in his best clothes and on his best behavior. The stress and haste of life were left outside for a time. The mind shared in the physical reaction and relief, and there fell on our souls a comforting sense of the reality and presence of the Infinite.
The church was also a public clearinghouse for information. Important news found easy circulation; it was a time and place for friendly intercourse, neighborhood gossip, and social reunions, where the cares and drudgery of the past week were forgotten.
The schoolhouse was a small affair, eighteen by twenty-four feet, built of logs and very roughly finished; at each end of the room there was a small window with six panes of glass. In the center of the room was a large, long stove. At one end of the room was the teacher’s desk on which lay several good-sized rods of tough wood. These rods were for use, not ornament. The school directors went on the theory “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Seats for the scholars were arranged around the other three sides of the room. These seats were simply benches without backs, and were easily tipped over, which sometimes caused confusion. Our writing desks were long, wide boards fastened to the wall, extending round three sides of the room. The course of study was the three R’s, administered in small doses. We were required to bring with us a copybook, a spelling book, a small arithmetic, and a copy of the New Testament—our school reader. Arithmetic was our terror; we never got beyond common fractions. The close of the school term of three months found most of us floundering in a bogmire of fractions.
There were many places of interest in the valley. The first of these was, in my mind, the old eagle’s tree, as we called it. In an abandoned field at the foot of the mountain there was left standing a big tree, long since dead, which an old eagle had selected as his roosting place. Sometimes we boys would pay a visit to the field to catch a view of the eagle, but we were very careful not to venture beyond the fence that surrounded the field; we had been warned that eagles sometimes carried off small boys.
Another favorite spot was at the ford, where the road crossed the creek. A big log, flattened on one side for the use of foot passengers, was placed across the creek by the roadside. I remember this log very well. One day I was crossing the creek on the log when my dog ran by me and upset me into the water.