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
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
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
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
"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?
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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,