A PIONEER TALK Page 2 Return to Page 1
Those were close times when rabbit skins and ginseng roots and wolf scalps and whiskey were currency. "We often take down from the top shelf in the library a homely old leathercovered account book of our grandfather's and father's, and look over the items of trade. In the way of a deal, our dear old ancestors once obtained a barrel of the currency of those times, whiskey, which he used to deal out, we presume, to the best advantage. This was over sixty years ago. One page in a clear, bold, graceful style of penmanship runs thus:
Keeping the past alive
Dr. John Smith, dr.
Aug. 1, to five quarts of whiskey $0.50.
"3, to two quarts of whiskey .25.
"5, to one bottleful of whiskey lent.
Sept. 1, to one quart of whiskey lent, .07.
Sept. 26, to two quarts of whiskey .25.
Oct. 2, to three bushels of rye at 5 eta. per bushel .15.
Nov. 4, by one quart of whiskey .12.
And then the mother and wife came, a palefaced sad woman and her tears stopped the flow of currency. And our heart is glad when we look the old book over and follow the track of that barrel of whiskey, peddled out and discover that not the man who sold it nor one of those who bought it are represented today by one bloated face or pussy form, or red nose, or blear eye. We thank God for that signal favor.
This is a page from an account book that belonged to Rosella’s grandfather, Ebenezer Rice, although it is not the specific one she talks about here. Money was scarce on the Ohio frontier, so many farm products were used for barter, including whiskey.
If ever our dead grandfather helped to foster the love of strong drink in any one whose tainted blood was inherited today by a weak son or grandson, we'd root out and wash out the foul curse, with our prayers and our tears. The John Smith referred to has three sons, elderly men, and because of the father's bad example, and the mother's tender watchfulness, her careful early training and early teaching, every man of them is a strictly moral man, advocating total abstinence. So we sit down and look the old book over as calmly as we would turn through Watt's hymns; but if he'd had a distillery and one of our beautiful springs hidden in a green gush in a hillside had been perverted to such a base use, its sweet gushing waters made accursed and instrumental to the degredation of his fellowmen, our poor shamed face would have been bowed today with marks of Cain on the forehead.
There always was a charm to us in the relation of the incidents of pioneer life. It is so good to hear about those who have passed away, and are passing away —people, just like ourselves in all their loves and hates, their hopes and fears, their aims and aspirations. How often we hear these people say: "we never were so happy as when we lived in the cabin. I can't make such corn bread as I used to make, and oh how I would like to taste of the nice corn cake I used to bake, on a clean shingle, tilted up before the fire with a flat-iron back of it. What a sweet crisp cake it was and how nutty the fine flavor."
No elegant parlor can have that air of cosiness that had the one room in the cabin home. How high the beds did puff up. How neat the pile of bed clothes looked heaped upon an old arm chair, or box, or something between the windows folded just as evenly as possible. The little mirror was the one nice thing in the house. Across its top wound a string of the shells of bird eggs, and a spray of asparagus drooped over like dainty mist. Under the glass hung a snow-white towel ironed in the most perplexing and abstruse folds and checks and diamonds and octagons. A very precise pin cushion hung over the white towel so as to show to the best advantage; sometimes the bullet pouch hung inside of it. The dresses and skirts turned best side out hung on pegs around the walls. The old bureau if there was one had a cloth netting and fringe around it, and the bandbox containing the Sunday bonnet held its place of honor on the top of it. The gun lay in hooks upon a joist over head. If there was a fiddle in the family it dozed in a green baize bag from a nail beside the window. The dresser stood in one corner with a scant supply of delf; one whole shelf devoted to the cups and saucers which were ranged in a row, every cup standing on the bottom of a saucer. The ladder stood in the other corner, and a wide fire place filled almost one end of the cabin. Overhead hung bags of seeds and hops and roots, and the poles suspended by leather thongs above the heads of the family, had socks hanging on them, and dried pumpkins and choice seed corn and wallets of dried plums and dried cherries.
Sometimes a knotty branch of a hickory was cut off and hung up and strung full of tallow dips. But you all remember these old time things. Some of you women will recall the satisfied feeling you had at night, after a hard day's work, when you sat with the baby on your lap, swaying in the easy old chair that creaked out a weake-wock-weake-wock. and you sat and sang little aimless odds and ends of camp meeting songs, your thoughts far away and as you looked up and surveyed the little stores, you felt gratified that everything was in order, kept with an eye to economy and neatness. Oh, not riches nor fine clothing, nor grand furniture, nor any of these things can bring back that sweet sense of enjoyment that was yours in your humble little home.
On a birthday occasion, an old pioneer dined with us a few years ago. We were telling what roused our anger soonest, and with a gurgling musical laugh, the old man said, "nothing ever made me madder than when I used to plow out in the clearings. My shins were all bundled up with bits of sheep skins so I could endure the blows of the little roots that spring up with such vengeful force when cut off by the plow share, and yet many and many a time I swore in spite of me. I was called a good Methodist and the Lord knows I tried to be a Christian and a good man. I had a great deal of very substantial praying to do for myself."
On the same pleasant occasion, another old pioneer related a funny incident on himself. He was a young farmer who held the position of drum major in the militia. He didn't know every thing. The crows were very troublesome, pulling up his corn. One day when he was plowing it, he "shooed" at them and waved his hat, and threw clods, and finally a master idea entered his mind: he could get his drum and drum them away. He could sling it over his shoulder and carry it with him, and how much nicer that would be, and so genteel, too, and such a patriotic way of protecting his crop. When opportunity offered he turned his back to the old horse and struck up the strain of Yankee Doodle, just as if he were at general muster. The result was that the horse didn't concur with this new departure, and kicking up its heels it ran off and broke the plow and the harness and helped to scare away more crows than did the man with the new idea.
The narrative of this incident was never drusick, but once, and then he was out on the creek in a canoe with his friends and fell overboard. The splash in the water roused him a little and he felt a touch of shame and humiliation and tried to take his own part, when they dragged him back in the canoe. He fumbled around and found one of his suspender buttons was gone. "There," said he, "ding it all, how could a fellow help fallin' in right backwards, when his gallus give way suddent?"
We used to visit at his home a good deal. Such boisterous boys and girls we never saw to play blackmail, and ball, and shinny, and silly bang, and poison, and steal partner. The mother would let us all turn summersaults on her bed, and the father would let us slide all in a row down the sides of the straw stacks, no matter if the straw all scooted down to the ground. And they would let us boil chestnuts in the tea kettle, and roast potatoes in the ashes, after night, and have all the nice butter we wanted to eat with them. And in improvising plays and theatricals they allowed us the use of all the wearing apparel the house afforded. The old mare was free for any four of us to ride at one time, out on the race course, which was round and round the house. How we longed to exchange mothers with the jolly little ones of this favored family. She scolded frequently to be sure, and declared that the terrible racket would kill her, but her husband, the drum major, assurrcd us in homely language that "her bark was wuss nor her bite."
How the little mother would scold sometimes. She'd say: "Andre Jackson you and Thomas Jefferson and Jonathan Edwards git right down off o' that table! or Peter Cartright you're swingin' on that trammel again; first thing you know down it'll come and hurt Martha Washington or Molly Stark, or John Wesley; or Mary Magdelene. that's not the first time I kitchece you eatin' crout by the handful right out'n the bar'l."
When the little woman died a dozen years ago, we were glad the old drummer didn't ask us to write an obituary. No language could have expressed our thoughts. We loved her dearly. We are indebted to her.
A few days ago the men who were working with plow and scraper removing the gravelly little knoll on the bank of the creek at the edge of our village, brought to surface some human bones. There was the sturdy thigh bone, the arm, the ribs and finally the bold square jaw of the resolute old red man, the teeth worn down as though for a century he had eaten his tough venison seasoned with sand. And then came a shelly bit of a woman's skull, and her jaw tight and more delicately fashioned by far than was that of the old slumberer who had shared her dreamless couch for so many, many years.
This incident impressed us forcibly. The fine quality of gravel in which lay for so long the bones of these unknown savages, was discovered to be just the thing needed on the principal streets in our village. No doubt the old chieftain selected that breezy knoll, on the banks of the then beautiful and freely flowing stream under the magnificent trees that crowned its summit, for at that time the fertile valley had not been trodden by the foot of the bold pioneer. Whoever selected that spot had an eye for the beautiful in nature, and had the same thought that comes to us when we meditate on the last sad and closing scenes. Who knows! may be the poor old chieftain loved that pretty knoll as we did in our early years, and he may have dreamed there in saddened mood of the tide of civilization that was slowly coming nearer and nearer to crowd aside his people even as they had obliterated the mound builders, and in turn possess their vast hunting grounds.
Bryant must have had such a picture as this in his mind when he coined into song the painful thought of the Indian:
I hear the tread of pioneers,
Of nations yet to be,
So the little knoll is profitable and according to one of nature's immutable laws, the Indian's grave and its mouldering contents will live anew in a highway to be trodden under foot of man and hereafter whoever drives down main street, may grind his carriage wheels upon bones that are turning to dust. And the old chieftain's yellow teeth way be picked up any day and find a lodgment in the pocket of the little Arab's ragged jacket.
It is related that an apple tree planted on the grave of Roger Williams, the founder of the state of Rhode Island, who died in 1683, that the roots of the tree struck down and spread out into the shape and figure of the man, following his arms and legs and trunk. So that learned men familiar with the mysteries of nature and her strange metamorphoses, declare that Roger Williams passed into an apple tree, and lives again on this earth in another form, that of redcheeked juicy apples.
The statue of Sir Robert Peel, a very eminent British statesman, was melted over to make one for Lord Palmerston. We need not shudder at these things, for nature set the first example. With her there is no death, no decay, nothing repulsive. Where Hamlet spoke of turning the clay of Alexander into the bung of a beer barrel, he spoke the naked truth. The heathen gods, even vaguely, penetrated this great mystery, as those familiar with mythology will remember. But at first when the old mound was opened and its sacred treasures brought to the surface by plow and scraper, 'we' almost rebelled. We woke in the morning after, and walked out under the pines and looked down that lovely sweep of picturesque valley below us and we sighed as the words of the old Quaker poet Whittier came, as though borne to us on the breath of the serene summer's dawn.
And city lots are staked for sale.
The words followed us about our work; they seemed so sad; they expressed so much. We thought of the poor old pioneers who had beheld this vast wilderness, its grandeur of woods and waters, until now it blooms like unto the gardens of the gods. How beautiful the labor of their hands! How much we owed them! But the olden time, with its white crowned patriarchial heads is passing away. The glory of one age is dimmed in the golden glory of the age succeeding it. Change stamps its seal upon all things. The trail of the redman will soon be lost in the net work of the railroad, that like great arteries stretch themselves among our beautiful hills and smiling valleys. The green graves mulitply. The old graves dimple the quietest corners of our cemeteries. And still the words, full of prophecy that makes us sadder, abide with us, and burn with our thoughts:
And city lots are staked for sale,
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