Dwellers Of The Catskills

By Clifton Johnson, From "New England And It's Neighbors" 1902

September had arrived, and the Catskill farmers were cutting their corn, digging their potatoes, and getting in their late millet. As for the summer people, they had nearly all returned to the cities, and the heights and valleys had taken on a touch of loneliness, and the hotels and vacation cottages looked dismally empty. The chill of autumn was in the air, but there had been no frosts of any severity. The fields were still noisy with the drone of insects, and the chestnut burs were as yet prickly green balls with no hint of cracking, though the nuts within were mature enough to be toothsome to the ever hungry small boy. That the youngsters had begun to knock off the burs from the lower branches, and pound them open with stones, was plainly evidenced by the broken twigs and other litter under the roadside trees.

My first long walk in the Catskills was up a half-wild glen that wound back among the mountains from one of the larger valleys for a distance of five or six miles. Snyder Hollow, as this glen was called, was hemmed narrowly in by wooded ridges, and sometimes the trees crept down and took full possession of all save the tiny ribbon of the highway. But more commonly the road was bordered by diminutive meadow-levels and strips of cultivated hillside, and there would be an occasional small dwelling. Most of the houses were of weatherworn gray and had never been painted. Others, either as a result of a streak of prosperity with which fortune had favored their owners, or in response to the influence of summer boarders, had been furbished up and enlarged. But however commendable their furbishing in augmenting the general tidiness and comfort of the homes, those that were unimproved had a picturesque charm their more favored neighbors could not rival. One such that attracted my attention particularly on my way up the glen was a little red house perched on a slope high above the road. In the depths of the ravine below was a hurrying trout stream, and this chanced to be spanned just there by a bridge. I concluded to sit down on the bridge to rest and see more of the little house up the hill. Across its front extended a rude piazza with a board roof. The piazza served as a shelter for the family tubs, and on the floor near the tubs some tomatoes were spread to ripen. A woman in a calico sunbonnet was the only person I saw about the place. She came out from the kitchen door and descended a steep path to the barn, near the stream. Shortly afterward, as she was returning with a pall in either hand, a buckboard driven by a young man came along the road and stopped.

Old Fashioned Churning

Old Fashioned Churning

"Hello, Jane! " the occupant of the buckboard called out to the woman with the palls.

"Hello, Bill! " she responded.

"How are you ? " he continued.

"First rate ; how's yourself ?"

"Oh, jus' so, so."

"Ain't your sprained ankle gettin' along ?

"It's better, but it's purty weak yit. Any word from Johnny?"

"Yes, we had a letter day 'fore yisterday, and he'll be here by noon to-day, if I ain't mistaken."

"Well, you tell him I'm comin' round to see him." And the man drove on, while the woman tolled up the hill with her two palls and entered the kitchen.

Halfway between the house and the barn was a tall butternut tree with a grindstone, a sawhorse, and a meagre woodpile under it. The woman presently paid a visit to the woodpile and carried off an armful of sticks for her fire.

Next she came forth with a basket, retraced her steps to the tree, and picked up a peck or so of the butternuts. These she spread to dry on a thin slab of stone laid over the top of a barrel. Meanwhile the hens had gathered around her, hopeful of a feed, and she shooed them away with her apron.

Digging Potatoes In A Woody Field

Digging Potatoes In A Woody Field

Beside the stoop at the back door was set a waterpall into which an iron pipe discharged a copious jet of spring water. The sight of this water direct from the unsullied hills with its suggestion of coolness and purity made me thirsty, and I at length decided to ask for a drink. By the time I had climbed the hill to the house, the woman had returned to the kitchen, and I found her starting to make butter in a great upright wooden churn. She had a poor opinion of butter made in a churn turned by a crank, and declared she couldn't abide the taste of it. The only right way to get the best butter was to paddle the cream up and down in one of these old-fashioned barrel contrivances.

In response to my request for water she got a tumbler from the cupboard and accompanied me outside to fill it. While I drank she took tip her broom and swept off the threshold, and then stood gazing down the valley. The outlook. over the woodland glen, with its flanking of green ridges and the silvery stream twinkling into view here and there, was very beautiful, and I fancied she was admiring the scenery. But when I ventured the opinion that she must enjoy having a home in such a situation, she said that she was so used to the scenery round about that she never thought whether it was pretty or not, and she would much rather live in a village. She was watching the road for her son. He had been working in Massachusetts, but he was coming home to stay now. "It's a terrible place for malaria, Massachusetts is," she informed me, " and he couldn't stand it there."

I went on presently and continued as far as " Larkin's," the last house, at the extreme end of the valley. The rhythmic beat of flails sounded from Larkin's barn and enticed me to make a call. The farmer, a grizzled, elderly man, and his soil were threshing buckwheat on the barn floor. They dealt with about a dozen of the brown bundles at a time, standing them on end in regular order three feet or so apart, and giving the tops of each in turn a few judicious raps with the flails that set the dark kernels flying in all directions. As soon as a bundle that the threshers were belaboring toppled over, the blows became more energetic, and it was well cudgelled from end to end. To do the job thoroughly the bundles were turned and rethreshed once or twice, and then the straw was pitched out into the barn-yard to rot for fertilizer. Every Catskill farmer has his buckwheat fields, and these he plans shall yield enough to make sure of a year's supply of buckwheat cakes and some additional grain for spring cattle feed.

A Home On The Mountain Side

A Home On The Mountain Side

Larkin's cows were feeding in the home lot, and from time to time he looked forth from the barn door to see what they were about. They showed an inclination to visit the orchard, and when he discovered them getting too near he trees he sent his dog to drive them back.

"We ain't keepin' only four cows now," he said. "We did have twelve or fifteen, but my wife 'n' me are gittin' old, and it was more'n she ought to do takin' care of the milk 'n' makin' the butter from so many, 'n' I told her we'd go into sheep. You c'n see part o' my flock up there on the side o' the mountain. I always intend to have a bell on one o' my sheep, but I don't hear nawthin' of it today, 'n' I guess it's got lost off. A bell's quite a help in finding your sheep, and, besides, it keeps 'em together They don't never stray away very far from the bell sheep, 'n' if you don't have no bell, they git scattered and can't find each other."

Larkin's farming was rather crude and so was that of all the Snyder Hollowites. I wanted to see something that smacked less of the wilderness, and after I finished my wanderings in the glen I took a train and went west into the dairy country on the farther Catskill borders. The sun had set, and it was growing dark when I alighted at a little valley town and looked about me at the big hills mounding on every side.

"Where are the best farms here?" I asked a young fellow loitering on the station platform.

"Wal," he responded, " the best farms around here are up at Shacksville."

"How large a place is Shacksville, and how do I get there ? " I questioned.

"It ain't no place at all," was the reply. " It's just farms. It's 'bout three miles that by the road; but you c'n cut off a good deal by goin' cross-lots."

"How about lodging? "

"No trouble about that. Jase Bascom'll keep you. Do you see that signal light right up the track thar ? A lane goes up the hill whar that light is, and it ain't more'n a mile 'n' a half to Jase's by it."

The Buckwheat Thresher - Fair Weather Or Foul?

The Buckwheat Thresher - Fair Weather Or Foul?

"Could I find my way ? " I inquired doubtfully.

"Oh, yes ! They drawed wood down that last winter, 'n' they put chains on their sled runners for brakes, 'n' that tore up things consid'rable, so't the track's plain enough. It takes you straight up to the hill road, and then you turn to the left, and Jase's is the fust house. You'll know the house when you git to it by its settin' up on kind of a terrace, and havin' two barns across the road." 

Thus directed, I walked up the track to the signal light, crawled through a pair of bars, and found a rutted, unfenced trail leading up a great pasture hillside. At first it was easily followed, for much of the earth that had been torn up by the chain brakes had washed away from the steep incline and left a waste of stones. 'I tolled on for a half-hour, and reached the top of the rise. The darkness had been increasing, and when at this point the ruts and stones merged into unbroken turf, I could not descry whither the track led. A faint new moon shining in the hazy sky helped some in revealing the lay of the land, but everything was strange to me, and my bearings were a good deal in doubt. Presently I came to a patch of woodland, which, so far as I could discover, was perfectly pathless. I did not care to stumble about at random in its dense shadows, and I kept along its borders until it was passed.

Now I began crossing open, stone-walled fields. The walls were a nuisance. Their sturdy barriers networked the whole upland, and I was constantly brought to a standstill by them and had to put my toes into their niches and scramble over. After a while I clinibed into a broad cow lane. Surely, that would take me to some habitation, and I stepped along briskly. Yes, at the end of the lane I came to a group of farm buildings -a barn looming against the sky close at hand, and a house and sheds among the trees just down the hill. But no light shone from the house windows, and the weedy barn-yard showed that the place was deserted.

I searched about in the gloom and found another lane that apparently afforded egress, and I followed it over the gray hills for a mile. Then it joined a highway, and my spirits rose. Not far distant was a house' on a terrace, and two barns stood opposite, across the road. It must be Jase Bascom's, I thought. A dog began barking warningly and came down into the roadway and confronted me ; but a sniff or two seemed to reassure him, and he ceased his clamor. I went up the terrace steps, rapped at the door, and when it was opened asked for Mr. Bascom.

He had gone to bed, I was informed; but that did not prevent my arranging to stay for a few days. No one else had retired, and the rest of the family were sitting about the kitchen, except for the hired man, who was snoozing on the lounge. Supper had been eaten an hour or two previously, and the dishes had been washed and replaced on the long table. But now Mrs. Bascom and her two daughters hastened to remove the blue fly-netting that covered the table, and clear a space for me. They granted my request for a bowl of bread and milk, and added cookies and cake, and a square of delicious honey in the honeycomb. I had rye bread, as well as wheat, and enjoyed its moist, nutty sweetness. This pleased Mother Bascom, who said, " Jason and me always uses rye, but the young folks think they can't eat nothin' but wheat."

By the young folks she meant the three grown-up children who remained on the farm -Sarah, Ollie, and Eb.

The kitchen was neatly papered, and the rough, warped floor was still bright with its annual spring coating of yellow paint. All around the walls were frequent nails, from which hung towels, hats, coats, etc. A big wooden clock stood on a shelf near the cellar stairway, and on a longer shelf back of the stove were a row of lamps, a match-box, and a stout hand-bell used to call the men to their meals. Behind the stove on the floor was a wood-box, close beside which, hanging on a nail, was a home-made bootjack. This was the especial property of Mr. Bascom, who continued to wear stout leather boots in winter and in wet weather. But what impressed me most in the furnishings of the room was its five cushioned rockingchairs -just enough to go around the family and leave the lounge for the hired man. The father's chair was in a warm corner next the stove, and on the window-casing near at hand hung his favorite musical instrument - a jews' harp.

The evening was cool, and presently Ollie went to the wood-box to replenish the fire. " Don't put in but one stick," directed her mother. " You know we got those apples drying in that there back oven, and if you make it too hot, they'll cook instead o' dryin'."

A Morning Wash At The Back Door

A Morning Wash At The Back Door

"We had ought to have a new stove," declared Ollie. " The top o' this one is all warped and cracked with the fires we make in the winter."

The stovepipe ran up through the ceiling, and I learned later that all the pipes in the house were arranged likewise. The house was built fifty years ago, and in those days when stoves had recently superseded fireplaces it was thought quite sufficient to have the chimneys begin either in the garret or near the ceiling in the chambers. If it was the latter alternative, a narrow cupboard was usually constructed beneath.

"Can you keep a fire in the kitchen stove over night?" I inquired.

"No," replied Mrs. Bascom, " but we can in the settin'-room stove. We got a big sheet-iron stove in there, and all we have to do is to put in chunks and shut the dampers tight."

"I must git me a half pound o' powder next time I'm down to the: village," remarked Eb after a pause. I might want to go huntin' some lowery day."

"What do you hunt?" I asked.

"Oh, mostly squirrels and pa'tridges just now. A little later we'll be on the lookout for foxes. We got a good hound to trail 'em, and last winter we shot seven. Their skins was worth a dollar 'n' a half to two dollars. Coons is good game, too. We git as many as eighteen or twenty some years, and then ag'in not more 'n three or four. They fetch about a dollar. I s'pose we make more money out o' skunks as a rule than anything else. One year me 'n' another feller got seventy-eight. Part of 'em we trapped, but the most we got by diggin'. Every thaw in the winter they'd come out, and we'd track 'em to their holes. The snow was deep, and not much frost in the ground, and it wa'n't as hard diggin' as you might think. There was one hole we found twelve in. You know they don't make their own holes, but use those the woodchucks have dug. Sometimes we'd find woodchucks in the same hole with the skunks. They wouldn't live right alongside o' the skunks, though, but I n a branch passage. Skunk skins fetched from thirty-five cents to a dollar 'n' a quarter that year, 'n' we averaged sixty or seventy cents, I'll warrant ye."

"Wal," said Eb, with a yawn at the conclusion of these particulars, "I guess it's bedtime. We don't stay up very late here, for father's callin' us to git up about the middle o' the night."

On The Way To The Barn To Help Milk

On The Way To The Barn To Help Milk

By the time I was out the next morning Mrs. Bascom and Ollie were coming in from milking. 

Their outer skirts were tucked up, and they wore big aprons and sunbonnets. These two never failed to help the men milk, but the other daughter stayed indoors getting the breakfast. Practically all the women in the region milked, though the young girls were beginning to question its being one of their duties. For instance, at the next house up the road was a maiden who had " learnt to play on the pianner, and she won't go near the barn any more."

The Bascoms had about four hundred acres, one-third of it cultivated, and the rest pasturage and woodland. They kept a sleek herd of Jerseys, numbering not far from fifty, and sold the milk to a creamery. The women before they returned to the house had assisted in unloosing the cows from their stanchions, and then Mr. Bascom, staff in hand, conducted the herd to " pastur'." He did all the driving by shouting. The cows strung along the road for a long distance, but they understood the farmer's voice, and he had no trouble in making them turn in at the proper barway.

When he came back, he and Eb and the hired man gathered -at a long wooden trough of flowing water just outside the back door and washed their hands and faces.

"We don't keep it as tidy as we might out back thar," said Mr. Bascom, apologetically, to me as the family were sitting down at the breakfast table; "but we ain't got time to tend to things the way they do round city houses."

"Aunt Jessie ought to be here," remarked Sarah, and they all laughed.

"She's a town woman Aunt Jessie is," explained Mrs. Bascom, " and she's bound to have everythin' just so. Well, she was stayin' here last summer, and one day she took the butcher knife and went out and cut all the weeds growin' round the back door. Then she come in complainin' how dretfully her back ached. But nobody didn't ask her to cut the weeds. She might 'a' let 'em alone. They wa'n't hurtin' nothin'."

After we had eaten breakfast Eb hitched a pair of horses into the market wagon and drove down to the village creamery three miles distant with the great cans of milk. This was a daily task of his the year through. Mr. Bascom before going out to work sat down in his rocking-chair and smoked a pipe of tobacco. " Eb's got to git his off horse shod," said he, " and he won't be home afore noon, I bet four cents." Apparently the others concurred in his opinion, for no one accepted this wager.

Making Soft Soap

Making Soft Soap

"This kettle looks like a very old one" I suggested.

"We've had it ever sin' I c'n remember," responded Mrs. Bascom. "It's an old residenter. We use it mostly to boll swill in, but it comes handy in a good many ways. Years ago we boiled led down sap in it ; but smoke and ashes and everything would get into the sap while 'twas boilin' and the sugar would be black as the kittle. It tasted all right, though."

"Isn't it rather early in the fall to make soap ? said I.

"Yes it is, and I've got plenty left from my spring makin', but I was afraid it might be cold weather by the next new moon."

"Does the moon affect it?" I asked.

 "Oh, yes; if you make it in the old of the moon, you've got to boil and boil. Seems as though you'd never git through. They say the best time to make is the full moon in May, but I ain't particular about the month myself."

Another thing which Mrs. Bascom declared must be done with proper regard for the moon was hog-killing. " Kill a hog in the old of the moon, and it all goes to grease," she said. "The meat fries up and there ain't much left. I've heard sayings, too, about planting in the new of the moon, but the only thing we're careful about puttin' in then is cucumbers."

Binding Indian Corn

Binding Indian Corn

From all that I heard in the Catskills I was impressed that old sayings were still accepted there among the farm folk with childlike faith. Another manifestation of their power in Mother Bascom's case had to do with a thrifty specimen of that odd plant known as hens-and-chickens, which she had growing in a pall beside the front door. She said she picked off the buds as fast as they formed, because if they were to blossom and go to seed there would be a death in the family.

The prevalence of rustic superstition was again emphasized when the hired man mentioned that the beech trees were unusually well loaded with nuts and quoted " they say " as an authority for this being prophetic of a hard winter.

"Do you think that is so?" I questioned.

"Wal, I believe thar is a little into it," he replied.

We were on the borders of the buckwheat field, and he was just preparing to return to the house for dinner. Below us in the hollow was an old farm-house and a number of ruinous sheds. I asked about their owner.

"Jim Gamp lives thar," said my companion, "but he rents the place from Andrew Fuller. Andrew Fuller is the big gun of this town and has got farms and mortgages all around. He's rather of an old hog, though, and when he gits a chance to skin a man he does it. Jim's been wantin' him to fix up the buildings, but the old whelp won't do a thing. Jim's had to patch the barn roof with boards, but it~ leaks in spite of him. The barn's too small, anyway. There ain't room in it for his crops, and he has to stack a good share of his hay outdoors. I expect, though, he's kind o' shiftless, or he'd git along better. Do you see those oats just beyond the house ? He got 'em into bundles and left 'em in the field. I'll bet ye they've stood there two months. They ain't good for much now -- oats or straw, either."

I spoke of the numerous lines of stone wall that crisscrossed Jim Gamp's land, and the hired man said that he had calculated there were miles of walls on every fair-sized farm in the neighborhood, and if the labor of building these walls was estimated at a reasonable rate I it would often exceed what the entire farms would sell for to-dav.

"I notice you have a good deal of hawkweed in this buckwheat," I said as we started homeward.

"Yes, it's gettin' in everywhar through the fields and pastur's. Its leaves spread out flat and cover the ground, so 't where it grows the grass is all killed out. It's the worst darn stuff you ever see in haying. There's a little fuzz or something about it that's enough to make you cough yourself to death."

We had left the buckwheat field now and passed through a gap in the fence and were on the highway.

"Doesn't the snow drift on these roads ?" I asked.

"It would if the farmers didn't cut the brush along the sides. They're obliged to do that by law, and usually they cut it in the summer after hay 'and it lies then till spring when they burn it; but we hain't given this road along here no attention so far this year."

It was not much travelled, and occasional strips of grass grew between the wheel tracks, while on either hand the briers, weeds, and bushes ran riot - raspberries and blackberries, milkweeds hung full of pods, jungles of tansy, elecampane, life-everlasting, Jacob's ladder, fireweed, etc. In a ravine where we crossed a brook, were several clumps of skunk-cabbage which the hired man said had spread from Bill Hastings's meadow, up above.

"Thar never none growed around here," he continued, "until Bill fetched some of it or had it sent from his relatives in New Jersey. He set it out thar by the rear of his house and he uses the root for a medicine he takes. He offered to fix me some when I was feelin' a little off the hooks a while ago, and I told -him if it was a question between dyin' an' skunk-cabbage I was ready to take t he stuff; - but bein' as wa'n't that at bad off yet I wouldn't trouble him. Bill's the greatest feller for swallerin' medicines ever I knowed- makes 'em himself out of weeds and things. He was stewin' up some leaves o' this here elecampane t'other day when I was to his house. Goin' to try it for his liver, I believe. It must be pretty bitter, for I never saw nawthin' would eat elecampane leaves till the grasshopper s was so blame thick this summer. They trimmed it up some. They e't tansy, too -- e't it bare to the stalks. We're always havin' some pest nowadays. Have you noticed how many dead trees there are scattered through the woods ? They'll give ye an idee o' what the forest worms done here last year. They stripped the woods so't there wa'n't hardly a leaf left."

Just then the hired man stopped and pointed to a slender sapling growing out of the roadside wall. It was loaded with tiny scarlet fruit. " I'm goin' to have a few o' them thar pin-cherries," said he, and he pushed through an intervening clump of sumachs and pulled off a handful. " That's robbin' the pa'tridges o' their winter provender," he remarked as he shared his spoils with me, " but I guess they'll stan' it." And we plodded on, nibbling at the sour little globules until we reached the house.





Such walks as this along the upland roadways were a constant pleasure during my stay at the Bascoms'. There was only one thing I enjoyed better, and that was to sit in the lee of a stone wafl in lazy contemplation of the landscape. We were having genuine autumn weather -chill air and a blustering wind, sailing clouds and bursts of sunshine. Tinges of red and gold were beginning to appear in the trees, and nearly everything in the plant world had gone to seed. Yet the fields were still alive with strident insects, the flies and bees buzzed cheerfully, and in the quiet of my loitering places I was sure to be visited by certain investigating ants and spiders. The country I overlooked was one to fall in love with-great rounded hills, their summits wooded, and their slopes and the valleys laid off endlessly in green fields and pastures. How beautiful it all was, and how grateful the shelter of those brown, lichened walls!

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