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A Fine “how Do Ye Do?”

May 2024
1min read

My brush with history came by way of Henry Thoreau, whom I thank for connecting me with my great-great-grandfather. Ebenezer Grover was a blacksmith in 1820 Ashtabula, Ohio. He kept his business records in a sturdy ledger that survived four generations, the vicissitudes of cross-country moves, and careless progeny to fall into my grateful hands.

It’s a big book, eight by twelve and a half inches, with aging leather covers. Each customer had his own account page, with every transaction neatly recorded. Debit and contra columns show that customers paid by direct barter: “to mending whippletree—0.25,” paid for “by one pail”; “to mending pitchfork—0.12½,” paid for “by seven # of Fish.”

I find some pages especially interesting. For instance, this account for Mills Case, anno 1820: From August 29, when Ebenezer Grover sharpened Mills’s plowshare for twenty-five cents and mended his wagon for twelve and a half cents, up to December 1, when he shoed two horses, Case brought work to the smith on twenty-six occasions. During that autumn and early winter, Eb pounded out red-hot iron spikes, bolts, and nails for him, mended an ox yoke and a spade, repaired broken wagon wheels and plowshares. The biggest job was in mid-October, when he fashioned a gristmill chain for the Case farm and charged $1.75. Over three months the work he turned out for Mills Case added up in the debit column to a total of $13.37½.

What intrigues me about this page, however, appears in the contra column. Case made one regular payment on October 20, “by one hog … 1.00.” Then comes the punch line, one final payment: “by peeking thow his fingers and looking at mee … 00.1.” (In defense of Grover spelling, note that this seems to have been written by a different, more flowing hand. Mills Case himself?)

Before Mr. Thoreau led me to the likely explanation for this little scene of frontier hilarity, I suspected that Mills had been sampling Eb’s eighteen-centsper-quart whiskey, which he traded to some of his other customers (duly recorded in the ledger). I smiled at the image of Mills Case peeking through his fingers at Ebenezer Grover and tucked the curious scene away in the recesses of my memory.

Then one day I reread Civil Disobedience and exclaimed aloud over a passage. Thoreau was recalling his night in the Concord jail: “It was formerly the custom in our village, when a poor debtor came out of jail, for his acquaintances to salute him, looking through their fingers, which were crossed to represent the grating of a jail window, ” ‘How do ye do?’ ”

“How do ye do?” indeed! The early settlers on the Ohio Western Reserve, families like the Grovers and the Cases, were transplanted New Englanders. I believe Mills was signaling with an antique gesture both men understood: “Go ahead and send me to jail for a pauper if you want to, but I’m not about to pay anything on my bill.”

The way it looks to me, at least until I have a chance to examine the old account book further, the Cases may still owe my family $12.36½—allowing $1 for the hog and a penny for the peek. Plus, of course, 171 years’ worth of interest.

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