LIFE AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY
IN BARRY COUNTY
Reflections and Recollection
By: S. A. Barnum – 1970
Just as New England had its Rip Van Winkle and The Bayou Swamp in Alabama had its legends of mystic sounds and queer happenings, so too did my home in Stoney Point have its share of fascinating people and unexplainable things.
I consider myself very fortunate to have been born in one of the most intriguing and picturesque counties in the State, in fact, money could not buy back both the pleasant and painful memories I have of life in 1910. I would like to draw a word picture of the rolling countryside, half covered with trees, swamps, criss-crossed with streams, and dotted with lakes and ponds – all having fish, waterfowl and game in abundance.
Our Michigan map lists only one other county that has more lakes than Barry County. Seems like each farm would have a pond and a wood lot of mixed hardwoods where walnut, butternut, hickory and beechnuts would keep the fox and red squirrels fat and frisky.
We lived on an 80-acre farm, rolling on back to our wood lot and "Pumpkinseed Lake," a small, deep, spring-fed lake named from its’ shape, and surrounded by a fair-sized ridge with trees all around. Here the Hilton, Fisher, Coolbaugh and Osborn farms all came together, and each had a little piece of it. It was very deep and the lily pads and bulrushes made it hard to fish unless you used a boat. There were lots of bullheads in it that you could catch right in the daytime.
One day I had a few on a stringer tied by a plank and log I was fishing off of and, as I looked down, a black water moccasin was clamped onto one of them. There were many big Mossback turtles here that my dad used to trap, and he’s sell them over at the Cole Resort Hotel on Thornapple Lake. You would find them on land many times, and some would be as large as a dishpan and weigh 25 to 30 lbs.
I remember one night I was awakened by a scraping and rattling that would go for a while, then stop, and go again. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but I finally got up my courage to get my "22" and crept downstairs, expecting I didn’t know what. We had a big L-shaped, screened-in back porch and my dad had picked up a big turtle on the way coming from the fields. He’d put it under a wash tub with a stone on it on the back porch and was dragging it around down there. Turtles, in spite of their looks, are very good eating, and have several different textures of meat under that shell. My dad showed me how to kill and dress them, but you must be careful, for even after you have turned them on their back and when they run their neck out to turn over, you grab their head and cut it off on their shell, they will still bite off your finger or clamp down on a stick for hours afterward. They you scald them in a bucket of boiling water and cut out the softer belly shell. You skin out the white meat, some of it white like frog legs, and the little, square, pads of tenderloin along each side of the back bone. The legs are a darker meat, more like pork.
Stoney Point got its’ name from a claim that it actually rained stones on some moonlit nights in a certain spot. This was before my time, but I was told that people used to come with their horse and buggies, and line up and down the road by the Warner Cemetery to see them fall. Although I never heard of anyone who was hit by one, Mrs. Messinger claimed a stone landed in her water pail as she was coming from the spring.
Each time we ploughed the fields to plant crops, we would turn up a new batch of stones. We had what we called a "stone boat," a 3’ by 8’ plank-topped sled on 2" by 6" sapling runners turned up in front. We’d roll the stones on this and haul them off to our stony field where we had about 10 stone piles on 10 acres. We didn’t plant this field, but the stone piles made a home for the skunks, rabbits, and, in summer, if you were real quiet, you could sneak up on a 7-foot Blue Racer or two.
We had lots of wild blackberry bushes back in our woods, and my sisters Letha and Hazel came screaming and running down the lane one day. They were picking away and suddenly looked up in the bushes and here was a Blue Racer staring them in the eye. Needless to say, they threw their pails and ran.
One day Clarence Higdon came to visit us from Barryville, over on Highbank Creek south of Morgan and Thornapple Lake. My mother put us up some sandwiches, baked beans and apples. Taking my dad’s binder canvas for a tent, we went back to Pumpkinseed Lake to camp and fish. We stretched a rope to tie our canvas over, then rolled some stones together and put an old stove lid across them for a fire place. We went down and caught a few bullheads (they were small, about 10"). After skinning and cleaning them, we built a fire, scraped the butter off our sandwiches and fried them.
One day while I was fishing by myself, the hogs found my camp. When I heard the Blue Jays screaming and scolding, I ran back up the hill from the lake to see what was going on, but I was too late, they had really messed it up.
We had many log cabins in our end of the county and they were very picturesque, with the big split shaker shingle roofs, the white plaster calking between the logs, and the plain heavy doors with a latch string or a plain pin coming through the door to lift the latch. People seldom locked their houses. Unlike our times today, people were trusted, and there was very little stealing. If one wanted privacy, there was a bar to drop in place inside. The floors were mostly what we call "Punchen floors" either wide plank and pinned together, so sometimes they were small 6" logs cut down level by a hoe-like blade to dress off the notched sections and square the log up. They usually had a fireplace at one end and built up chimney on the outside. It would seem a rough way to keep house, but they would scrub those floors till they looked bleached out. Some had wells which were not very deep that they dug and walled up and used a rope and bucket. Many had springs they could carry water from. Firewood was plentiful and there was always plenty of game and fish easy to catch.
Now that I think back about it, we must have had a pretty modern house. My father built on the west side of a north and south road, about half way between the State Road north and the Center Road south of us. Seven miles west was Hastings; two and a half miles to Morgan and Thornapple Lake southwest of us; Nashville six miles southeast and Woodland about six miles northeast. We had a T-shaped, two-story, ten-room house, level with the road. There was a drive on the south side that ran down to a little lower valley, then up past the granary and corn crib to our 60’ long bank barn with vertical, unpainted, plain 6" boards, all pinned and framed inner beams and supports with pole rafters and Perline plates to hold up the roof.
I remember my dad had iron rings at different heights anchored in each side of the big hay bay, where he would hook the ends of his "slack wire" to practice his juggling act with his diamond-pointed, chrome-plated knives while walking on it. He would put on exhibitions at homecomings, etc., over at Cole’s Resort or go up in a balloon ascension at Coats Grove.
He was quite a character and a good shot with his fancy, hammerless, double-barrel Parker shotgun that we always like to see him oil and clean every time he came home from hunting. He would take the barrels off, which were Damascus steel and were etched with scrolls the full length of them. On the stock, it was engraved with flying ducks, etc. He would take a flannel cloth and oil the whole thing and run some wads of cloth through the barrels.
I remember once we saw a flying squirrel over on the Troutwine woodlot between Mud Creek and Thornapple River. My dad said I could aim the gun and shoot it, so he held the stock in the palm of his hand and I got inside his arm, put my face down and drew a bead on the squirrel. Well, I missed the squirrel, and the lever you open the barrel with shaved the skin off one side of my nose when the gun kicked.
Well, back to the ranch. There was a big pond back of our barnyard and the lily pads and bulrushes grew out from the edges. Wild ducks, Helldivers, Snipes and Cranes used it and in the fall, Canadian wild geese stopped by. There were several muskrat houses on it and it was the handiest skating place in winter. The boys would come and play "Shinney" (hockey), as we called it, with a tin can for the puck and a sled and oil lantern at each end for goals. When the ice got to be a foot thick, we would saw blocks of it and fill the 10’ x 10’ woodshed covering it with sawdust to keep it from melting. How well I remember the way we teased and looked for the time when we could talk mother into cooking a gallon of ice cream. The long half hour of cranking the freezer handle, after pounding up the ice in a gunnysack and salting it so it would melt fast in the freezer, was all part of the fun. Simple things like this were special occasions we really looked forward to.
We were one of a few who had a windmill 10 feet back of the house by the woodshed. The windmill kept the tank full of water and we used to cool the milk and watermelon, etc. in it. Where it ran over and made a big puddle nearby, the fuzzy, fluffy little, new-hatched ducklings like bits of foam, chased flies and bugs and practiced their new found fun, until Old Bob bounced up from the barn and they scrambled under the leaves of a big burdock to hide.
Across the drive south of the chicken house, we had a big orchard. We had two kinds of pear trees, a plum tree, mulberry tree, two northern spy apple trees, two now apple trees, a russet, a greening, a sweet apple, two walnut trees, and the first ones to get ripe were red Astricans or harvest apples. In our front yard was a big wild cherry tree like an elm (99 years old and still there) where we had a big swing from a limb 15’ up. There was a robin that always returned every year to nest in it. It was always a mystery to me to see how they would fly down, walk around the lawn so alert and spry, watching and listening, and first thing you know make a quick dive to pull a worm out of the ground. They sure must have sharp ears.
Our house had a 12-foot porch on the front, with a hole in the ceiling where they blasted it with a shotgun when they were celebrating dad and mothers wedding. They called it giving them a "Shiv-er-ree." We had three bedrooms down and two upstairs, with an 8 x 8 hall at the top of the stairway, and a long unfinished attic running over the living room and my folk’s bedroom. The chimney ran up through this and was the only place to put your back against to get warm. It was a room full of spinning wheels, reels for winding yarn, the old weaving loom that we sometimes sat up in the parlor to weave the rag carpets of all colors from the rags we had made by tearing up old clothes, sheets, etc. We would take the 1" wide strips and fold the ends over and over on our fingers, stitching them together ‘till we would have a callous on the finger we folded them on. Then we rolled them up in balls like cabbage heads until we got a few bushels to dye and wind off on shuttles to put in the loom.
Downstairs there was the parlor on the northeast corner, with double doors south to the living room, a door out to the front porch, and a door in the northwest corner to a bedroom. Then the living room, 12’ square, had a door east to the front porch, two windows, a door in the southeast corner to mother and dads bedroom, a door in the southwest corner to the kitchen and dining room, a door in the northwest corner to another bedroom and between that and the double parlor doors, a door to upstairs. The dining room was the length of mothers’ bedroom with a door to that, and one to the south porch which was L-shaped and ran along the west side, also with a door opposite the living room door. The kitchen was not divided from the dining room, but had a door in the northwest corner into the pantry, which was 8’ x 12’, with butterfly doors in the floor going down to the basement. We had an iron sink and pitcher pump from the cistern outside and it also had a door to the back porch and one to the middle bedroom. Our Home cooking range was on the west side of the kitchen, between the west door and door to the pantry. Cupboards were built in the whole north end of the kitchen. The floor was bare in this room and all the screen doors had flapping fringes cut from flour sacks tacked across the top to scare the flies away, along with some tied like a duster to shoo them away when you opened the door. Sprays were not so common, but Tanglefoot Flypaper was in big demand.
The whole house was carpeted with woven variegated rag strips in 3" wide strips sewn together and tacked down. We had a big "Isen Glass" hard coal stove in the living room that was a pretty sight to see with the blue and red flames warming up the whole room, usually with mittens and leggin's hung by it to dry. Almost always a pan of buckwheat starter mix, with its yeasty smell, was back of the stove, for we would eat 5 or 6 pancakes apiece for breakfast all winter long, with homemade farm sausage, and maple syrup from our own trees. A couple of kittens were usually around playing cat and mouse with empty spools and hiding under the chairs.
In the kitchen mother would have a big kettle of cabbage, potato and ham soup bubbling away and the aroma drifting all through the house. We had a family of eight to feed: grandmother, dad and mother, Hazel, Letha, myself, Gladys and Floyd, and to cook and sew for that gang was a dawn to bedtime job. Mother would buy overall cloth, gingham, etc., over at Atkins’ General Store at Morgan to make shirts and big overalls with patch pockets for us boys, and we went to school "proud as punch." Often you could still smell the Lenox Soap on them from the scrubbing mother gave them in an old half moon ribbed rocker washing machine and instead of presoaking with "Ajax" they got hand scrubbed on a ribbed scrub board.
Sometimes a one-horse grocery wagon would come through the country and it was a big treat to get a couple of loaves of "Bakers Bread" or a piece of fresh meat. We really could get by all year except for medicine, and even then everyone had "herb cures" and different fads to ward off colds etc.; such as, the kids coming to school with an onion poultice plastered to their chest or an asfedia bag hung on a string around their necks.
Tooth pulling was sometimes done by tying a string to a doorknob and slamming the door or to one of those old cast iron flat irons we used to heat on the wood range and dropping it.
We all hated a trip to the woodshed for a "licking," and of the two, I dreaded mothers most. She raised a current bush out back of the house that had nubs on it like a caveman’s war club, and she raised some nice welts on our legs and behind. If she caught us stealing, cheating or using a swear word, it was washed out our mouths with soap suds. My dad had a long blacksnake bull whip that looked worse than it was, and for minor misdemeanors he would pinch the lobs of our ears with his nails.
Speaking of whippings, I guess the worst one I ever got was when I was teasing my sisters at Christmastime and accidentally cracked a doll of Hazels. She took me down and beat me with a belt buckle pretty good.
Religion in our family was a part of every day. We had a chapter read from the bible every morning after breakfast and a prayer. Church every Sunday ran from 10:00 to 1:30, Sunday school and then the meeting, which went on and on. Some of those Free Methodist preachers could have filibustered in the Senate. Then bringing the Reverend along home to dinner and send him home with a spare chicken and some "root-a-bagges," etc, - with about 15 to 20 for a congregation, he got little salary.
Sometimes we would go to church over at Morgan which was just up over the Michigan Central Railroad tracks and when they would hear the train coming, everyone would have to rush out and hold on to their horses until it passed. One day, when cars first came out, I saw a near fatal accident. The little old car chugged up the steep grade and stalled, right on the crossing. The man jumped out and just pushed it back in time.
My dad was very good to all the stock. He made pets of everything it seemed. The horses were always nuzzling him for apples and he would see that many of mother’s eggs went down them to make their hair glossy. If he went out where the pigs were they all came around to rub against him and with a little scratching on each one he’s soon have three or four laying down grunting contentedly. He had some Berkshire hogs once. They were black, with a short, turned-up nose, like a bulldog. This one big hog had such a crooked nose she couldn’t get her snout down in the swill pail, so he taught her to pick it up in her mouth by the brim and drink like you would out of a glass.
Once he bought me a nanny goat and harness and we hitched it to a little wagon and had all kinds of fun. Dad got it so it would climb a slanting ladder about 10 feet up in the air and turn around on the bottom of a wooden candy pail. Naturally we had a little trouble with her, for one day when we had her shut in on the barn floor, she developed a taste for leather and ate all the patent leather fenders off a nice double buggy with fringe around the top. With a few goats like her, you wouldn’t need a garbage disposal.
We children didn’t lack for things to do, as there was always pigweed to pull in the garden, thistles to cut out of the grain, hoeing of all the plants and two or three times a week, we had to "bug" the potatoes. We would take an old Sweet Burley Tobacco tin about 2" high and the size of a plate, put a little kerosene in it and go down the rows with a whisk broom and knock the stripped bugs off in the pan and then spray them with "Paris Green" poison. Our big garden was a pretty sight with the dark soil, and clean rows of lettuce, radishes, onions, cabbage, celery and tomatoes, and, of course, cucumbers (oh how we hated to pick them) and pumpkin vines. But the one we watched with avid interest was the watermelons. We would measure them all the time and thump them, wondering if they were ripe yet. Sometimes we would hear of some bad boys who sneaked out to some farmers melon patch and stole (cooned) some. Sometimes the farmer might have had the melons (doped) up with Crotin Oil (a laxative) that would give them the "runs" until they wished they had left them alone.
Each of the four seasons of the year have their special interesting appeal and are welcome when they come. We would have a change of pace, and different types of work and play to do, but for me, the unbelievable surge and awaking of all nature, for the sun and sky, with the ponds full to the brim – can you envision any sight as beautiful as the graceful sweep of a Redwing Blackbird, with the sun from a blue cloud flecked sky shining on the almost iridescent black of his feathers as he planes in with that peculiar shrill call of his to perch among the nodding cat tails and waving bulrushes. As you roll up the pant legs of your overalls and wade barefoot out to a clump of pussy-willows bursting forth and, breaking a sprig, draw it across the back of your hand, and your cheek, to sense the velvety texture and tickling sensation, you marvel at nature’s craftsmanship to bring forth such a lovely thing. You listen to the chorus of "ker-chug" from the frogs who have fought their way up out of the mud to a summer of fun sitting on lily pads, catching flies, and harmonizing all day; or looking down, watch their polliwog children wriggle by trying hard as they can to shake off their clumsy tails and be frogs like mom and dad.
You know, we justly pride ourselves on the strides we have made in science and technology. It is so sad the one thing we have trouble doing is to be more forgiving, and look at the other fellow’s side too. Did you ever notice that with all our bragging of our accomplishments, still, when we want to credit someone, we say, "Boy, he swims like a fish," or, "he flies like a bird," or, "he’s strong as a bull," "he’s quick as a cat." So you see, we subconsciously feel that the only perfect things are "God created," in fact – Nature. Who can measure the power of a tornado, the voltage of a lightening bolt, the fire of a volcano, etc?
So you begin to see what a rich heritage we all have for free, if we only take time out to sense and enjoy it.
The two most important days in spring for me were the last day of school in May, and my birthday on April 29. For weeks before this I have been teasing my folks to let me go barefoot, can’t you just see me peeling off my shoes and stockings for the first summer day , and with my new overalls, a new brass lined pocket knife in them, racing off down the road to Owen Varney's, raising little puffs of dust in the deep dust inside the wagon wheel tracks where the horses steel shoes have ground the dirt up so fine, my feet so light that Old Bob could just about stay even with me. Of course, there were hazards to going barefoot, but soon my soles would become calloused, and we learned to look where we stepped; for rusty nails in old boards, snakes in the weeks and a busted toe if we kicked a stone. Think of the fun to wade for frogs, or play in the mud, swim and fish, etc. and just rinse them off. Now there is nothing – I mean nothing – that will furnish a boy with more fun, limited only by his imagination, than a brass lined jack knife – a survival kit, a constant companion to be whipped out at a moments notice to sharpen a whip-like stick, stab fallen apples on the ground and cast them off like a Roman catapult, or make a stick and string throwing dart by tying a knot in an 18" strong string fastened to a foot long stick and then take a 4" wide shingle and make like an arrow with a slanting notch half way up the shaft like you find on a spool of thread and drive a nail in the pointed end for balance. Holding the stick and sting in my left hand and the dart in my right, I’d give her a swish with both hands and away she goes, or I might make a bow from a hickory limb or a kite.
One day, when my dad had gone to town and the hoeing was done, I sat on the back steps, watching the ducks puddle around and from the field I could hear the quail calling "Bob!, Bob White." This is usually a sign of rain coming. It was clouding up in the west and taking a potato fork from the woodshed I grabbed an old tin can and went down by the gooseberry bushes. After turning over a few forks of dirt I had some good scrappy worms. Letting mother know what I was up to, I took some carpet cord and a fish hook and started across the orchard for Mud Creek to go fishing. As I came to our Red Astrican apple tree, a couple of stones and finally a stick brought down a big shiny one from the very top. As I climbed up on the rail fence to eat it, I watched a red-headed Woodpecker rat-a-tat-tat like a battering ram, listen a minute, and then furiously drilling away to get at a grub he could hear gnawing inside. How they know where to drill, I’ll never know, but they do (like our radar, I guess). I looked to the west to the clouds rolling up. I could smell the sweet clover laden breeze as it tickled the fine hair on my arms and legs and as the shadows chased each other on across the golden waving wheat field, I felt the urgency to get on down to that creek, for fish bits like mad just before a shower. As I stopped up on the knoll by Bolton’s’ log cabin at the bend in the road and just a few rods up from Mud Creek, I wanted a drink, so I began pumping the groaning old wooden pump (10" x 4" boxed in sides and trough-like spout) which ran water into a whiskey barrel wooden tub. There was a shallow hole stamped in front of it where the horses stood to drink from it. As I stopped pumping, I heard a shirring noise and turned around to where some morning glory vines were running up to the kitchen window. I saw the mysterious, unbelievable spectacle of a hummingbird, flying till his wings were just a blur and still staying in one spit, poking his long bill down in the deep bells of the flowers. As I started past the door, I could smell ginger molasses cookies and when I stopped to ask if Warren Bolton (my age) was home, Grandma Bolton shoved a couple of warm cookies out to me. Seems like in those days there wasn’t any place you weren’t welcome. Well, I took down the poles back of the house and went down through the barnyard to their foot bridge across the creek, and though I could see a Pickerel down among the waving moss, I couldn’t seem to interest him, so I tramped on down the bank and fought my way through the goldenrod and nettles and, afraid of snakes all the time, I came to a bank where the bushes and a drift log made an eddy in the current. I got out my brass lined jack knife and cut me an 8" willow limb, tied on my carpet cord and hook and choose a worm with a come-hither twitch to his tail. I was a natural-born fly caster. Imagine the excitement as the line would float and sink down and when I saw it take a quick dart, with a jerk on the pole ‘till it bent like a bow as a Bluegill turned sideways to hang to the water, you had all the excitement a nine year old could stand. Finally, I’d whip him out and way back over on the bank so he wouldn’t flop loose. Then with my knife, I cut a crotched branch and slipped it through his gills for No. 1. In short order I had 12 or 15 Bluegills and Sunfish on my stringer and ran home to proudly show my dad.
Sometimes I could take our row boat which we kept tied up at the foot of the hill by Bolton’s and then, if I was in the good graces of my dad, I could take his cane pole with the bright red and white bobber and row on down to Thornapple Lake past the old Indian grounds at Chief Sunday-go Landing. If it was bright and sunny, you would have a pair of gauzy-winged dragonflies on the bow for figureheads, and between slapping mosquitoes and watching not to run aground on some of the old dead head logs left sticking in the bottom from logging days when they used to float them down to the sawmill. Rounding a bend, I flushed four or five ducks who took off in a rattling flash of wings and spray and nearly scared the wits out of me for a minute.
Up ahead you would see rows of small turtles lined up like buttons on logs and they would plop off one after another like sheep following the leader. Often, Mud Creek being a slower flowing stream, I could catch some nice Bigmouth Bass (4 to 5 pounds) who would hang around in the shadow of the logs and driftwood. When I got down to the lake, it was only a half mile across the neck to Morgan Landing and I would tie up and walk the quarter mile to Atkins Store and maybe see the train come in.
The strip of land between Mud Creek and Thornapple River which runs down through Nashville and empties into Thornapple Lake about 20 rods south of where Mud Creek came in, was a sandy strip of woods and fields that was a favorite campsite for Indians. Here, one year when my dad plowed a field on shares for Claude Troutwine, we found lots of stone arrow, spear and tomahawk heads. We didn’t think too much about it at the time, but I’ll be we had several cigar boxes full of them around home at a time.
A quarter mile west of Bolton’s corner on the Center Road, a cross road runs south across Mud Creek and a few fields and a raised causeway, on across Thornapple River, and then turns west to Morgan was a most intriguing little settlement for all of us to visit. Remember, with no radio, TV, etc., no cars yet, a visit here was a treasure experience, for here, a quarter mile south up from Thornapple Lake, was Atkins’ two-story General Store, the Railroad Depot and the Saw and Feed Mill, powered by the water pouring over damned up High Bank Creek before it wound its way on down to Morgan park and Muskellunge Point.
One day in the spring when high water came way up over the flats and causeway, my dad needed feed for the stock, and we hitched the team to what we called a dump box on our wagon. This dump box was made with 1’ high side and end boards and 6" wide floor boards that we used to haul dirt, or potatoes, etc., in. You could pry up the end boards when you got where you were going and it would come apart like a puzzle and dump the dirt on the road. Well, to make a long story short, this time the water was so high I was afraid, as it came way up to the wagon box and the neck yoke on the horses. I remember seeing some big German Carp swimming along by the road. We finally made it through and when we got over to the Feed Mill, it was real fun. It was always fascinating to hear the roar and watch the tawny foaming water plunge over the dam and hope to see a fish get caught and go smashing down to the spillway below. Then to go inside where the big water wheel turned the 4" wide leather belts that ran over shafts and turned gears and the big grinding wheels that crushed the grain and everything including the Miller with his cap and overalls were covered with flour dust. The grainy smell, as the plump kernels burst, made you already almost able to taste the Jonnie-cake patties mother would be able to make, or the crisp fried blue gills and perch, rolled in butter and cornmeal.
The floors were worn smooth from dragging bags of grain across them and the wooden chutes, where they fastened the bags on to catch the flour, etc., would be polished smooth from years of use.
If farmers need boards for building a goat or pig sty, they would bring a few logs over and we would stand way back out of the way as they took a cant hook and placed a log on the carriage, clamped it fast, and, pulling back on a lever, see it start toward the big 5’ silver saw, spinning with a whistling sign, until with a screech it began to tear a stream of spicy sawdust from the log as it sliced a clean slab cut off the side. Then when the boards were neatly piled up, so new and clean looking, we would think what a big help machinery was, for at home to cut wood, my dad and I would have to work for days – one of us on each end of a 6’ crosscut saw cutting off big 15" blocks, then splitting them up for wood for the kitchen range.
After leaving the mill which was right back of the railroad depot, I’d go over to the hitching post and raised platform across the front of Atkins’ General Store and on inside the store. When I say General Store, I mean General Store, for here like a trading post, which it mostly was, farmers traded eggs, chickens, potatoes, etc., for the things needed to live on. I can see the walls and counters and sense the many smells that hit you as you walked in off the dock, where a bunch of bananas would be hanging and bushels of peaches and cranberries, etc., lined the front. Inside you would come first on the left to a cigar and candy case, with two boxes of cigars, a 5-cent and 10-cent size, small sacks of Bull Durham to roll cigarettes and Prince Albert Smoking Tobacco. There would be Horseshoe Scrap and Spearhead Plug chewing tobacco and 2" by 10" tin cans of Sweet Burley Chewing Tobacco and, of course, snuff. On top of the case, jars of pink and green peppermint and wintergreen button-size candies and there would be black sticks of licorice and horehound, and thimble-sized gum drops. Usually up front would be the big, red-wheeled coffee grinder, with rows of Monarch (with a lions head) sacks of coffee behind it. On lower shelves would be stacks of 1-lb Lenox or Fels Naptha unwrapped laundry soap at 8 for $1. There would be the usual run of standard groceries, and patent medicines. A row of cookie boxes with glass tops set at an angle along the front of one counter, and under this, tilting bins of dry beans, rice, sugar, flour, etc. Back by the pot-bellied stove would be a big cracker barrel and a big wheel of cheese on the counter, everyone felt free to test the crispness of the crackers and would want a small sliver of cheese to test its sharpness before buying it. There would be a checker board set up on a nail keg and sitting on a couple of wooden candy pails turned over, gossip and affairs of State were always in session. Sometimes it was so long between moves the fire would go out, but let the coming train whistle and we’d all rush over to the depot and stand looking down the tracks for the first sign of smoke. Mr. Akins, who was the telegraph operator and stationmaster, after putting on the stationmaster cap, would come out with a funny shaped kind of a holder, like a bent buggy whip, with the engineers orders fastened to it, and he’d hold it up so the engineer could run his arm through the loop to pick up the message if it was a freight train.
With no airplanes, or autos, a train was an awesome monster, and the ground trembles and the rattle of the big driving wheels, with the hiss of steam spurting out each time the big arms pump out and in the pistons, the clanging of the bell and the sulphuric acid smell of the smoke billowing out of the stack as they pull in and the big wheels screech to a stop by the water tower. The engineer pulled down the big 10" waterspout and filled the tank. The conductor dropped down his little step and sang out "Board, for Coles Resort, Quimby, Hastings, Middleville, Caledonia and Grand Rapids" and the people looking out the windows return to their watching the boy across the aisle pestering his mother, and climbing the seat making faces at the woman behind and his mother threatening him with a licking (and getting no place) if he didn’t straighten up, or asking the traveling man in the seat ahead to pull down the curtain as the sun shining on his bald head hits her right in the eye.
Now, back to the store and the checker game. On the right side of the store is a big round glass cabinet of Coats spools of thread about 2’ high, a long counter and on the shelves back of it, bolts and bolts of yard goods; ginghams, percales, overall cloth, oilcloth, mosquito netting, canvas, lace, etc., along with a catalogue of patterns in envelopes with tissue papers notched and cut out sections for dressmaking. There were skeins of yarn, for knitting mufflers and mittens to keep us kids warm on that two mile wade through deep snow to the Martin 1st through 8th grade school.
In the back of the store you can smell a 30-gallon crock of sauerkraut, a barrel of pickles and the tarry smell of the bales of manila hemp and trip rope. Hanging from the ceiling were oil lanterns, perfection oil heaters, single hill corn planters, horse collars and felt pads, and a wooden cradle for cutting wheat in corners and around trees where the binder can’t get up close, a bundle of cane bamboo fish poles, canvas globes, hip boots and the warm, Ball Brand, felt boots needed in winter.
In the right rear corner is a penned-in section with pigeon holes, for Mr. Atkins is also the Postmaster. Now that did is all loaded up at the mill, we start for home.
As we drive back across the creek the river and come up alongside the Bert Troutwine Farm, a 40-acre farm that runs south from the Center Road back to Mud Creek, we stop to gab and visit with Bert, who is working the field next to the road. Bert is a very good, hard working farmer and he and Elma keep the house and everything shipshape. I worked for him one summer for a couple of weeks for 50-cents a day.
Now adjoining Bert’s farm and the same size on the west was his brother Claude Troutwine’s farm and if you ever saw two brothers who were entirely different in all respects, they were it. Claude was a very brilliant man in many ways – I can only compare him to Michelangelo in his total disregard to everything around him except his insatiable drive to study and learn more and more. He neglected his stock, his farm and his house, had no respect for his health and appearance. I have seen him in the fall with his old felt hat, with the crown worn through in notches like the turret on a castle tower, his old mackinaw with torn pockets flapping, buttons gone, fastened together with a big, 4" long horse blanket safety pin, his floppy old rubbers wrapped in burlap and tied on with baggage twine, digging beans out of the snow on that field my dad put in for him on the flats between Mud Creek and Thornapple River. I saw him when I was 16 years old and used to walk the two and a half miles to Morgan and take the train six miles to Nashville where I went to High School. Sometimes he would stop over at our house and stay and visit all the evening. He was a beautiful penman, and could write like the fellows who used to sit on the sidewalks and make name cards and invitations for people. I never heard of any schooling, but like Abe Lincoln, he was self-educated. He would break off a flake of peeling paint, chew a little on it, smell of it, and would tell you what kind of minerals or bugs had been ground up to make it and what country and place they came from. He never married as far as I know.
Jim and Louise Varney, with their daughter Nettie and son Owen, who was my age, had a 10-acre farm just north of us. They were good neighbors and Louise was a little, almost midget-size woman, who was a hard, energetic worker and a wonderful cook, and all the kids in our Martin school liked to trade sandwiches and cake if they could with Owen and Nettie. Jim was no farmer and seldom worked his 10 acres. He was the only one around, however, who had pocket money. He was like a Gypsy horse trader who would take old horses farmers didn’t have the heart to kill themselves and put split lemons up their nostrils if they had the heaves, tone up their spirit by feeding small shots of arsenic, and driving two on his buggy, leading two behind and sometimes one on each side of the ones he was driving, he’d start off across the county. He was a super dealer at trading horses. Not the kind of operation you would find very often.
Across the road from them lived Charley Meade, who had a club foot, and he was the local barber – 25-cents was the going price. His wife Hattie was a good natured large woman who was my Sunday school teacher. Ed Meade, the son (I guess) was a year older than Owen and I and was sort of the "Pecks Bad Boy," and the instigator of most squabbles, but a big hearted fellow everyone liked.
Although it was the same distance, we usually took the Center Road to Hastings. It was up hill and down and, of course, there was only one set of tracks and not much of any gravel in these times so when meeting someone on the road, both had to pull out to pass.
A mile west of Bolton corner was the Bolster home. Their father was a mason and bricklayer who put up chimneys and fireplaces. Their sons, Herbert the oldest, and, Charley, who had red hair and wore long, shoulder-length curls all the way through the 8th grade, also attended Martin School, a mile north of them. Part way on down the road, we always watched for the Sponable Farm, for they had a 15’ high, fenced in orchard with a deer in it. At that time, there were not a lot of deer down this way as there are now.
A couple of miles out of Hastings, the road follows along Thornapple River. One place a big flowing spring flowed out of the river bank and down by the river were two slaughter houses with a small barn and stockyard where the Bessmerk and Sponable meat markets butchered the pigs, steers, etc. that we would see hung up by halves and quarters on the side racks and hooks with deep sawdust on the floor in the market uptown. The river here was quite swift and flows down past the Table Company Furniture Factory that Velma’s father was superintendent of, with its big water tank that was pumped full with water from the river, then on down by a dam by the Hanover Bridge, the river curved down through town past the Bookcase Factory and fair grounds.
The town and Main Street, which runs east and west, is 4 or 5 blocks long and is two blocks up on higher ground, with a gentle slope down west to the fair grounds and down grade east to the C K & S railroad tracks. The Michigan Central Railroad is one block north of Main, between that and the river. East of the bank corner on the north side of Main, was a drug store, then a bakery, Goodyear Hardware, a meat market, and a garage. Across Main, Feldspauch Market and Grocery, Frandsens Department Store, Dr. McIntyre’s office, etc. Further east was a livery stable, and they would always have a hack at the depot to haul the traveling salesman and his sample cases around, or you could rent a spirited driving horse and brightly striped and painted buggy to take your date to the Box Social.
Down at the west end of Main Street, across from the fair grounds, lived one of the town characters, Bill Stanley. He was a tall, gaunt, 6’7" giant from Tennessee, who ambled around sort of stoop shouldered, with hands like hams that seemed to hang down almost to his knees. He lived in a little two-room shack about 45 feet from the river bank. He had a one-horse dray, a cow, and a watch dog and horse in a pen back of his house, a cherry tree about 10 feet from his back porch and a Michigan type dirt wall cellar under his house with a small basement window in front and back. This was handy for keeping potatoes, fruit, etc. cool that people gave him as pay for hauling trash, plowing gardens and doing odd jobs around town. He was a bachelor and never was involved in any trouble. He was very slow to talk and reputed to be the strongest man in town in spite of his gaunt looks. They tell the story of three fellows who were trying to find a way to pry up a steel safe so they could put a plank under it to move it in and Bill came ambling along and seeing the hard work they were making of it, says, "Stand back boys, I think I can life that, get your plank ready," so he backed up to it, hunched down, took a hold, shut his eyes and after a grunt or two straightened up and said, "Slide ‘er under boys," and when no one answered, he opened his eyes and they were standing their with their eyes hanging out like tea cups, for instead of picking up the safe, he had pushed his feet right down in the ground.
At this time, there were hitching posts along the street with board sidewalks all over town that the rabbits and rats could hide and run along under. In front of the hitching posts was a sort of gutter or lower spot filled with cobble stones where the horses would stand and stomp flies. At each end of town, in fact all towns, you would find a 6-foot long, 2-foot high wooden plank water tank for watering horses as they came into town, with a water pipe running over the brim into it and a step at one end so the dogs could reach a drink too.
Hastings at this time was about 2,500 people. The main business corner had banks on diagonal opposite corners. The Fox Brothers Barber Shop was in the basement of one of the banks. The iron railings around the stairway of both banks were spike studded so Saturday night farmers chewing the fat would be comfortable sitting on them and chewing tobacco and spitting copiously to lay the dust. A block south was Spagnolios candy and fruit store, two blocks south Dr. Mixer’s cancer cure factory where Velma worked, a block west the Hastings Banner, west of that the city hall and the jail of the county seat. On the north side of Main was the fire barn and one block east of that, the Parker Hotel. A block north of the hotel, the depot and express station stood. A monument sits in the center of West Main and Broadway, which runs down north to cross a wooden plank bridge on the road out to Leach, Middle and Carter Lakes.
We had another character, called Monk, a 5’3" roly-poly fellow who wasn’t too bright, but you would always find him down to meet the trains, help carry a bag or do simple jobs. I don’t think he ever went to school and he often slept in the hay at the livery stable. He was kidded a bit now and then, but in a small town people were more tolerant of misfortunate's like this.
Of course, with only horses, wagons, etc., we had street cleaners (dustmen) to clean up, but instead of gas fumes, horns blowing and engine noises, what you heard was the clip clop of the horses pulling the grocery delivery wagons down the cobblestone streets. These wagons had tapered wooden, basketlike boxes, about 2’ long, 1’ wide and 10" deep and were used to deliver the orders that were put up, along with milk, which was measured out of a can at your door into your own pitcher.
A block north of the bank corner was another blacksmith shop run by my father’s uncle. He made a whole set of ball-peen hammers of different sizes for my dad and a nice seven-tined spear that my dad used to spear a 33-lb. Muskellunge in Thornapple Lake one night while spearing with Willard Hilton. Dad said Willard’s eyes bugged out like big marbles and it was so big they had to put it lengthwise in the boat. I remember when they got it home in the morning, my dad split the big fish down the middle & Willard went home with it hanging over his shoulder down his back.
My dad had some artistic ability & he would write our names with a flourish & draw pen pictures of all the birds & animals. He enjoyed the outdoors & nature so much I had a big strawberry birthmark on his nose & when I was real small, I asked him if he was part Indian.
One day I took a trip down High Bank Creek which starts a few miles up in the steep hills & valleys beyond Barryville & my boyfriend Clarence Higdorn farm; goes through different moods of sun shadows & grows stronger as it flows on down thru Morgan & into Thornapple Lake. But of a barefoot boy, with a burn on his toe from hoeing weeds in the garden at home, a sloppy straw hat on his head, as he follows down the Merry little brook, whistling, Yankee Doodle and taking a cut with a stick at tall thistles left on the bank by the grazing cows or rat-a-tat-ting it along a fence when he came to one, picking up a stone to throw at some crows watching for a chance to rob the cornfield, or skipping a flat pebble across the water. While across on the other bank at a notch in the bank where the cows and sheep come down to drink, a little school of minnows no longer than my finger almost run over each other to dart away as I toss a stone in to stir them up. Now the brook cuts around a sharp bank and runs down a stony little rapids, and as the sun shines on a thousand little riffles, they glitter like diamonds in a jeweler’s window. You can hear the pleasant, musical murmur, as it rushes around the pebbles and rocks on its way downstream.
Now a more wooded area comes down by the south bank and if it were night time, you might see a raccoon coming down to run out on half submerged logs, feeling along the sides of the log with their handy monkeylike front paws for frogs. With their richly marked bars and fox-like faces, they are fun as pets. We had one in a big cage at home that we would catch frogs for. He wouldn’t eat anything until he doused it in an angel-food bake pan with the steeple in the middle that mother loaned us full of water, and we laughed and laughed to see how handy he was at washing everything – a cube of sugar was the most fun, because by the time he thought it was clean, it was gone.
Just before you came down to Higdon’s barnyard and their garden, there was a big 4’ deep pool with 5 or 6 silver poplar trees on one side and a big weeping willow with a tree house the Higdon’s had built in it on the opposite bank. They had what we used to call a slide-for-life-wire stretched from it across the pool and up the hill. This was out of sight of the road and we would peel down and have a high time swimming in it. I can hear the murmuring sign as the breeze would sweep the long willow branches out in a fluid swish like a Spanish dancer’s full skirt and, as a fresh gust of wind hits the poplars, the half dollar size leaves would turn bottom-side up, twinkling like sequins on an opera singers gown. If you kept quiet and out of sight up in the tree house, you might see a rabbit bound down from the lettuce and cabbage in the garden to stop at the waters edge, turning his ears back and forth like antennas and look all around before wetting his whiskers in the brook.
Now our brook, fed by side streams and springs flows down by some sharp steep banks and flows into the mill pond, backed up by a 10’ dam south of the Michigan Central Railroad tracks at Morgan. Here a new force takes over. To look at the quiet surface of the pond with sweet smelling white water lilies around the edge, ducks swimming to and fro chasing water bugs, a fish jumping up here and there, one would never suspect that a terrific force had been built up here by our little brook, that when released by a big draw gate into the mill race with a surge of power that would spin the big water wheel, which, in turn, would bring to humming life the big flour and feed mill, or run the saw mill. You could feel the throb of power as you went inside and the odor of bees wax and tallow dressing on the flashing ribbons of wide leather belts, with an occasional slap, slap, or a muted thump as the lacing ran over the wooden pulleys and shafts in the ceiling, feared down to turn the big grinding stones and, as the miller and farmer dragged the sacks of grain across the creaking polished diagonal laid floor boards and the tangy smell of crushed grain drifted through the place, you stopped to think what a marvelous important link even one little brook had become, and remembered all the nice things it had done for everyone – the animals, fish, plants, flowers and man. Truly, like the blood in our veins, the brook was the lifeline of nature. How happy and thankful we should all be, for it is always there to be enjoyed, if we only take a minute to really listen with all our senses. If we stop to think how much we would miss it if one of our senses like our sight, or hearing, were lost to us, no amount of money or material things could make up for it, for you see, even the priceless art treasures never change and though they are enjoyed and marveled at by all of us, nature, the master painter, furnishes a panoramic tapestry of sight, sound and smell that changes constantly, and is a new sensation anytime we stop and look.
I can remember on a hot summer night during harvest time, when our upstairs bedroom under the roof was suffocating, going out in the front yard by the big wild cherry tree and lying with my hands under my head looking up at the stars so big and bright winking at me through the velvety bluish black sky which mysteriously seemed both so far away and yet near at hand. Did you ever try to listen with all your might and pick out all the different sounds that came to you at night? The singing of the crickets and katydids, the croaking of the frogs, with now and then a deep-throated bull frog calling to his mate (you can hear on of the big ones a quarter of a mile,) you can hear the horses stomp and shuffle down at the barn and the call of a Loon on the pond, the squeaking of the windmill or barking of a dog from far away, and watching to see where a firefly will show up or looking up to see a falling star shoot like a rocket. If a gentle night breeze comes up, you can smell the sweet spicy smell of cut and curing hay wafting like incense from the field, and from the garden you can smell tomato plants and cucumbers or catnip, as well as peppermint from the roadside, or you may be surprised to have had Old Bob sneak up on you and lay his nose on your bare foot, banging his tail on the ground and hoping you won’t send him away.
With Mother Nature hypnotizing us with such subtle charm, who needs LSD or a trip to a bar to forget our troubles. Like the old tune in the Pentecostal Hymnal, "Revive Us Again," we would have nothing but the absolute belief that if we thing for ourselves, believe in ourselves, are not afraid to have ones we think are our friends call us "chicken," if it goes against our conscience and our sense of rightness, you will find peace of mind, pride in having made a decision you can live with, for money most anybody can make in one way or another, but no honor anyone can heap on you will be as important as your own self respect. All one should ask of anyone, the richest or the poorest person you know is to set his own standards. In this they can be equal. Be sure the ones you set are the right ones, and you will have peace of mind all your life. Guess I’d better throw in a couple of "Amens" about there for I’m sure preaching.
It was about this time that a report came out in the Hastings Banner that in the hill out northwest of town, Sam Haskins was out by a swamp on the back of his farm looking over his sheep and the new crop of lambs, and he was puzzled by one ewe who wouldn’t stay with the flock, and seemed to have lost her lamb. Well, Sam was beating around in the tall weeds and grass and heard a big thrashing in the brush. He came upon a big snake that he said looked 15 feet long, trying to swallow the lamb. Well, it scared the daylights out of him, and re ran back to the house for his shotgun, but when he got back to the swamp, the snake was gone. Needless to say, the farmers were pretty shook up about this, and any time pigs or stock came up missing, or they saw a wide, crooked track across a plowed field, it would be reported when the farmers came in town Saturday nights to gossip on the bank corners. It got so bad they were afraid to let the children go back to drive up the cows alone at night. Finally they took the "bull by the horns" so to speak, and several of the townspeople, after bolstering their courage with a case of beer and armed with ball bats and guns, formed a posse to go beat the bushes wherever the snake was last reported. This went on for part of the summer and old copies of the Hastings Banner had pictures of the gang starting out. I don’t know who picked the name of "Carter Snake" unless it was the first one to report it, but before the summer was over, they had named a lake west of Leach Lake, Carter Lake. Well to the best of my knowledge, I never heard of it being caught. The town never forgot it though, and no later than 1962, the Pontiac dealer in Hastings ran a "Carter Snake special Sale" on his cars.
One of the lovable ladies, called Aunt Sarah Williams, a spry, energetic widow of 35, who lost her husband when after lapping up the wine one night down at the tavern, bedded down on the railroad bank and when the whistle woke him up, he started to run, and being on a siding, crashed into the big car stopping post and died of a concussion. Sarah had a nice little truck and chicken farm north across the Broadway River Bridge, a half-mile west and three-quarter-mile north of Carter Lake. She was a friendly outgoing woman who never missed the social events. She had put in a busy week, pulling weeds and picking strawberries on her hands and knees in the garden. With pleasant thoughts on her mind as she planned how best to cut out and sew up a stunning, sexy dress out of some gingham she had seen on the shelf at Chidesters Store, for she planned to move in on Ike Beasley, a bachelor who had bought a patch of land south of town. She had a date to meet him at the Saturday night dance at the Odd Fellows Hall. Well, it was a bright, cherry day, and she decided to take some berries and a case of eggs down to rush’s Grocery and after selling them, go buy the gingham. After putting the eggs and berries in the back of her open spring wagon and hitching her spirited Morgan mare to it, she started down the road in the merriest of moods. The little mare arched her neck and stepped it off like she was on parade, nearly pulling the wagon with the lines. She had driven down to a low spot with a swamp on each side of the road, when all at once the mare let out a squeal and reared up in fright. Looking down, Sarah saw what looked like a log across the road, but as she cut the mare with the whip and bounced over it, she felt the wagon lurch sideways and the berries and eggs were all over the floor. Well now she had to fight to hold the horse and as she thundered across the wooden cross planks of the Broadway bridge, Monk and a traveling man, who had stopped to watch Mr. Rush hanging a bunch of bananas up outside his grocery store heard the noise of the runaway horse, and around the monument corner by the fire barn came Sarah on two wheels, half standing up to hold her balance. Well, the men got out in the street and managed to grab the horse, who was lathered with sweat and snorting like a locomotive. Sarah was white as a sheet, and could hardly tell them what had happened. It was believed now that there really was a big snake, probably a Boa Constrictor that had escaped from the Hagenback Wallace circus that had been down at the fairgrounds that summer.
Well, nothing more was heard about it for quite a while, until one morning, just as it was starting to turn light in the east, Bill Stanley, who you remember lived down by the river, across from the fair grounds, was started out of sleep by his dog barking like mad by the basement window back of the house. As Bill pulled the curtain back and looked out, he saw the darndest sight you ever saw in your life. You see Bill had as many did at that time, set low pans of milk so the cream would raise and be skimmed off down on the bank in what we called a Michigan basement, where instead of a wall, they left the dirt bank extend a couple of feet inside the sill of the house, so it would be cool. The window was open and this snake coming up from the river had tried to swallow a pan of milk and couldn’t get the pan down and didn’t know enough to spit it out. When the dog began to bark, he got scared and tried to back out, but his head, with the pan in it, wouldn’t go through the basement window, so he had reached out feeling with his tail until he felt the cherry tree and taking a turn around that began to pull. Bill, having no gun, knew he had to have help and you should have seen his 6’ 7" frame, with his long arms flapping and his number 13 shoes hitting the ground about every eight feet as he loped off up to the fire barn like a roadrunner. Well, to make a long story short, by the time the men got back down to the shack, the big snake was tugging and pulling until they were afraid he would pull the house off the foundation, so they all pushed against the house and as they felt some branches brush their backs and looked over their shoulders, they could see that the snake had bowed the tree in until the top nearly touched the ground, and he had squeezed the trunk so hard that the sap started up the trunk and it was leaved out and buds were starting to form. With them holding the house, and with a final yank, the snake tore the window casing out, and as the tree snapped back like a bow, it threw the snake, window sash and all the 40’ into the river. Well, he was so confused that he took off up the river instead of back to Carter Lake, and as he tore up toward the Table Company, he threw up such a tidal wave on the bank that a cat asleep on one of those little A-type hen and chicken coops on the bank was drowned, and as he tore upstream, he hit the dam by the Hanover bridge and knocked out such a big section that the water in the mill pond went out with a big swoosh. The suction on the Table Company water tower collapsed it, with such a boom that a flock of crows flying over were scared so they turned snow white and when they were rejected by their flock, took up residence in the Court House belfry. If you go by there now and should hear what looks like a dove "caw, caw" like a crow, you’ll know this is anything but a true story.
You must remember in these times, one of the most important stores in town was the apothecary shop. Unlike our drug stores today, where thousands of drugs are packaged like groceries in a supermarket, a good pharmacist could be the difference between life and death. Doctors, instead of prescribing so many pills of some patent medicine, wrote prescriptions for tinctures of many kinds, or salves and ointments and powders, all to be ground first in a mortar and pestle, then mixed with petrolatum on a mixing plate. Nearby would be a barrel of sawdust, used to clean off the spatula and mixing plate when the pharmacist was finished. All along one wall would be 6" x 6" wooden drawers, with pull knobs and names of different herbs, etc. on the front, and rows of standard acids and liquids from which they made some of the vilest medicine you ever tasted. Just the threat of having to take a dose of it would often cure the usual boy’s plea of being too sick to go to school.
Toilet goods consisted of rice face powder and rouge. There would be ivory hairbrushes and mirrors and folding handle curling irons heated by hanging them down a kerosene lamp chimney and smoking it up. For the men, the druggist put up 8-ounce bottles of Bay Rum or Witch Hazel for after shave lotion and bottles of glycerin and rosewater for chapped hands. There would be Hostettler’s Bitters, Beef, Iron and wine tonic, Lydia Pinkham, Castoria, etc. on the shelves. Hastings was very fortunate to have a special man for the job. Mr. Holloway was a fairly short, rotund, jovial man, bald on top, with a fringe of white hair and a wealth of knowledge of drugs and their uses. Money was scarce in these times and everyone saved anyway they could. I’m reminded of a trick Mr. Holloway had for wrapping packages. I can see him now holding a bottle up to the paper roll to measure off a piece just the length of the bottle. Then, after tying a string around the neck so it wouldn’t slip off, take a pair of scissors out of his vest pocket which he had edged with leather where it would wear, and cut the string off right up as close to the knot as he could get it.
One item that has never lost interest for us, down through the years, is an "Auction Sale." The irresistible urge we all have to rummage through old houses and attics to see what old utensils and secrets we may turn up, carries over to the chance of finding a bargain, or treasure at the auction sale, when someone has to sell out. As you know with no movies or radio, an auction was a "double barreled spectacular" of gossip, bargain hunting, social get together, especially when called by the best known man in the county "Big Bill Couch" at the top of an auction poster had the crowd appeal of a movie star, and his "deep bull voice’ delivered in a clipped Staccato rhythm, commanded instant attention and carried to the last man in the yard.
I can see him now coming up Main Street, sitting in the middle of the spring seat on his light wagon, driving a span of light sorrel trotting horses, with his light brown topcoat open showing his round belly (he weighed 275 lbs.), his 7-button vest with three cigars in his left pocket and one stuck in the corner of his mouth just below his clipped mustache and a forepiece cape on his head. When he drove out to a farm and got up on a hayrack wagon to take charge of the auctions, he was like Charles Laughton giving orders to Mr. Christian on the Bounty.
For an hour or more, the farmers had been all over the place, feeling the horse’s legs and looking at their teeth; pinching the steers and cows to see how fat they were, or checking for moldy hay, etc. Meanwhile, the women had sorted through the articles, and were now gathered in two’s and three’s on how they had better than this at home or sarcastically saying, "No wonder they need an auction to get rid of the stuff."
It was a big day for us kids, for no auction was held that they didn’t furnish one and all with a candy sack, with a cinnamon roll and a 4" piece of bologna in it. Then it was fun to get up on the porch and watch the people bid, and trying to out-bid some neighbor, pay more than they intended to, and the cheap look on their face when Bill slammed down the hammer with "Sold, to the lady with the buck teeth over there."
Across the alley back of Holloway’s Drug Store, Bill Rich had his Harness Shop, which was as necessary as our service stations today. Harness sewing was a very strenuous job. While mother and dad were shopping, I liked to go over and watch Bill set on a wooden, saddle-like bench, with two 18" high clamping jaws, operated by a foot pedal that he would clamp a tug ½" thick in to hold it. Then, after making a hole with a sharp awl, he would use real heavy bee’s waxed sewing cord and two needles, putting one through from each way, and drawing them tight with a sharp snap, then make another hole. This made for very strong arm muscles.
Bill was a rangy, six-footer, with a handlebar mustache and a wide-brimmed felt hat almost always on his head. I’m sure he worked very hard, for it is reported that it took a pint bottle of Beef, Iron and Wine tonic every day to keep up his strength. The smell of leather, the brass and silver-studded harness hung up around was an interest catcher any boy would hate to miss.
Down by the mill pond and the CK&S Railroad was a copper shop, for before steel drums, everything liquid was put in big wooden barrels and the special tools, frames and tanks they used to steam and shape the staves and shrink on the bands, is a trade we never see anymore.
One of the best known fellows around town was a gruff looking, well built man, who was our catcher, on the baseball team that played around central Michigan at this time. He was lovingly called "Bump" Robleski by everyone, a native of Poland who had a heart as big as an ox. You could tell he had caught a lot of thrown pitches, for he had one cheek bone caved in by a deflected foul ball and the fingers on his right hand were so knarled and driven out of shape by being hit, they looked like branches off a grape vine. He lived on West Court Street right next to the fairgrounds where they played ball, and when Raymond and Velma, his son and daughter were children, they would stay at the game till he hit a home run, then they’d take their sack of peanuts and head for home.
He was an expert cabinet maker and was foreman of the cabinet room at the Table Company. The ball players had many good times at his house and he went on several of the Carter Snake hunts. He often made the boast that he controlled the entire Polish vote for the city (being the only Polish person there at the table). He was a hard worker and bugged his mother-in-law, who lived across the street, by having a bottle of beer now and then.
Barbara, his wife, was a wonderful cook, and they were both generous in helping out with the church chicken dinners and card games, etc. Like all people from the old country, they seemed to have a knack of making things grow, and he raised more vegetables on that little spot back of his house than most would raise on an acre.
A pretty sight in those days was to see the "man about town" coming down the street in his fancy striped-up buggy; the shiny black patent leather dashboard with a hand hold in each side, whip socket and whip on the right, a stirrup-like iron step on each side, the top laid back and driving a spirited trotting horse with its’ mane in little braids and tied up with small ribbon bows and the tail braided and folded back up so it was bout 15" long. His girl alongside him was corseted up in high fashion with a big "Gloria Swanson" hat, high button shoes, a high-cut flowered dress and a kerchief wafting clouds of sachet power perfume his way, to offset the smell of his high rubber stiff collar and bow tie, his long silk sleeves held up by russet colored arm bands and a straw sailor hat on his head.
With their bloomers in summer, long johns in winter, steel-ribbed corsets, cotton hose and high-button shoes and long hat pins, the women took no chances. If they were around today, muggers and purse snatchers would have slim pickin’s.
My father showed us how to make a cross bow, figure "4" traps, whistles, etc. I kept a hoot owl I caught in the barn down in our basement for a while and, as they only eat live game, I made a little box trap, tripped by a figure four trigger and caught mice for him to eat.
Just as all boys do, we played at farming like our dads did and we made small wooden, spike-tooth drags, by linking several pickets, with holes and pegs in them, tied together and would drag this back and forth in the garden. Once we had a big Bloodhound dog who was lazy as could be, but I made a leather harness for him and used him for a horse to drag small limbs up from the swamp and haul the wagon and things around, but if he ran across the scent of a rabbit track, you had a runaway horse on your hands. Often the dog would track them to brush piles or holes in the stone piles, and then we had a ferret we carried in a wooden box like a shoe box. When you put him in a rabbit hole, the rabbit would shoot out of the hole like a rocket. If you could creep up on a covey of Quail, you would find they set down in a circle with their heads all pointing out so they can take off in a blur of wings if you scare them.
My dad was always kind to our big black team of horses. There were no tractors and plowing was a slow, one furrow at a time, process around the field. I enjoyed following my dad behind the plow, watching the fascinating ribbon of sod furl off the plow shares and the earthy smell, as the cool soil made a cushion for my bare foot prints. If it was a hot day, he would let them rest on the corners and at night, he’d curry them down and wash the big leather collars with soap and water so their shoulders wouldn’t get sore.
Along about the 4th of July, the golden wheat would have to be cut before the heavy laden kernels were blown down flat by a rain or heavy wind storm. The big " binder" was a heavy machine that took three horses to pull it and cut an 8’ swatch around the field. As the bundles of grain were tied and kicked out the side, we would follow and lean them together in shocks of 10 bundles each, to dry out before hauling them up to be neatly piled in rows and tiers way up to the roof of the barn for thrashing.
Thrashing was the big event of the harvest season for us kids. We kept track of where the big steam engine and separators were thrashing and could hardly wait until it was our turn. When we saw it coming so slowly up the dirt road, spouting big clouds of smoke and hauling the big separator behind it and behind that the water wagon like half of a big wooden cylinder with a long-handled pump and 3" hose for filling it out of the pond or river, we would rush down the road to meet it and follow behind, marveling at the big 2’ wide tracks it made in the road and dig our toes into the ruts made by the big cleats.
It was quite a job to set up, and the big engine backed and snorted to and fro bucking the separator up the grade backwards into the barn, then they’d back it off about 50 feet where dad had dumped a pile of soft coal. Then the 10" wide belt would be put over the big wheel, crossed half way over, and then over the small pulley on the big steel-spiked barrel size drum that would whistle like a siren as it tore the straw bundles thrown down from the bays in the barn on a shelf-like table each side of the feeding shuts, where my dad, with a sharp knife, would cut the bands and with a twisting motion, feed the grain to the cylinder. This was a dusty, noisy operation and you had to shout to be heard. The "bagger" man had his hands full hooking grain sacks on the divided tube as the kernels poured in bushel lots. Out back in the barnyard, the straw stacker, with his goggles and red bandana over his face, would push the straw out in a circle as big as he thought the stack should be, where, by next winter, the cows would have eaten and scrubbed against it to scratch their hides until it looked like a mushroom, and the sparrows would make holes in the sides like swallows in a clay bank.
We kids would hang around eating harvest apples, enjoying the smell of steam and smoke as the engine governors whirling on top of the steam chest would open the throttle for more power, as an extra big bundle went through. We thought it great fun to climb up to play in the wheat bin in the granary as the men brought the bags and dumped them in the bins. We would plow around in the smooth, clean kernels, filling our shirts and overalls full, or beg the water wagon man to let us ride behind his mule team down to the creek to pump the wagon full.
When it was dinnertime, the women who had come to help and visit would ring the bell and, one and all, the men hurried up to a wash tub full of water and three or four towels and soap, yanking off their bandanas and whipping the dust off as best they could with their hats. Everyone washed in the same water (very few ever died from pollution) and if you have ever heard anyone say that he eats like a thrasher, you’ll know what appetites they have. The women would really out-do themselves and I’ve seen some small jobs thrashed that would hardly pay for what they ate. The men work from dawn to dark and carry a blanket and pillow in a grain sack and sleep in the haymow. Many times if it’s a long haul, they may move at night, pulling off down the road, the old engine sending out a shower of sparks when the engineer, winding that big flat iron steering wheel, opens the throttle a bit.
After the harvesting is over, we will have a big day when my father loads up many sacks of wheat and we take an all day trip to Hastings to get it ground into flour and while this is going on, I can walk up to Sherd Sparks Blacksmith Shop. I’m sure no boy could pass up a chance to watch Sherd, a tall, rangy 6’ 2" rawhide-type of man, with a handlebar mustache and wide felt hat, as he makes the anvil ring and sparks fly as he so cleverly shapes and sharpens a horse shoe. We think him as the strongest man in town, as taking a hot shoe, he holds up one hoof of the horse and the acid, sulpher smell as he burns the imprint of the hot shoe on the hoof, and taking his hammer nails it on. Then with it laid across his leather apron, clinches and cuts off the nails and rasps the hoof down even to the shoe. Sometimes he would let me pump the big bellows while he would be making a fish spear and when the shade of red was just right, temper it by dousing it in the big wooden cooling tub.
By now dad would come by and take me up to Bessemer’s Meat Market to buy a link of bologna and some cimmamon rolls at the bakery for a lunch. Then we would jounce home, me asleep on the sacks of flour, to be stored in stacks upstairs for the home baked bread and cakes for the coming year.
In the fall, when the air is clean and cool, like wine, our senses sharpen to the magic of (almost overnight) frost. Mother natures master painter turns our forest into a tapestry of color and beauty that, like raising a curtain on another world, stops us in our tracks, and, unlike a modern painting, needs no expert to explain its meaning. The colorful leaves floating down a rippling brook, dappled by the sun shining through the branches; the clouds of birds flitting from tree to tree organizing their trip south; at night, the honking of big flocks of Canadian wild geese flying in "V" formation heading south.
Or to lay awake on a moonlit night and hear the big walnuts drop "kerplunk" one at a time on the leaves outside your window as a little breeze wafts by. Soon, after a "killer black frost" hits, we hitch up the team and go back in the woods for a whole wagon full of walnuts that we kids will knock the shucks off by driving them through a big hole in a plank or run them through a corn sheller. Then our hands looking like Indians, spread the nuts out on the woodshed roof to dry and when the deep snows come and the wind howls outside, the girls will pop a dishpan full of corn, and we will crack a cake tin full of walnuts and salt them, dig some Northern Spy apples out of the pit and sit and watch the blue flames dance in our hard-coal burner, play checkers or Authors until its time to climb the stairs to that unheated bedroom and burrow into that foot high straw tick and hug ourselves to keep warm.
If we are hit by a heavy sleet storm, this is great fun, for we have no autos to skid and slide, but with a spring runner sled or bobs, you could go for a quarter mile all over our rolling fields.
Much to my mothers disgust, my dad, through some hook or crook, got it in his head that he must have a southern-trained coon hound, so he sent down to Kentucky, someplace, for a Blue Tick trained coon dog. Well, in a couple of weeks, he got a call from the Nashville express office that they had his dog. So he drove over and picked it up. That was the most pitiful, woebegone, worn out dog you ever saw. I guess it was part bloodhound. Its ribs stuck out, its ears were so long he’d almost step on them and it looked like he had hide enough for two dogs. It looked like he’d never make it, but dad brought it home and, in time, it came to life and spruced up a bit. One cold morning, after a light snow, my dad came and shook me awake and said, "Come on, I want you to go back to Hilton wood and help me get a coon out of a tree that the dog had tracked down." You see, he was afraid if he didn’t get the coon out, it would spoil the dog for hunting. We took some pole climbers and a trip rope and we threw the rope over a limb about 20’ up by this hole in the tree. Dad put on the climbers and I took up the slack by taking a half hitch around a rail fence by the tree. Well, to make a long story short, the coon must have left and my dad, fingers cold from climbing, says, "I’ll swing off in the air and you let me down with the rope." Well you know he got to coming too fast and I snubbed up the rope and he stopped with a jerk that nearly cut him in two. But the dog was a female, and before he got done, he had sold her puppies for $200.00.
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