GrandPapa's Letter part 16
Franklin B. Van Valkenburgh


You can hardly imagine or realize how much of the "store trade" at that time and place was barter, money was very scarce, and it is probable that as much as three fourths of all the goods purchased by farmers, at the stores in Prattsburgh, at that time, was paid for in the products of their own farms. All store keepers were prepared to accept any kind of produce at some price, in exchange for goods, and Cord wood, or potatoes, or wheat, or corn, or wool, or cattle, sheep or hogs were acceptable, if not strictly "Legal tender" for merchandise, and the women brought almost unlimited supplies of stockings, and mittens, and suspenders and gaudily colored comforters to the store, while the eggs and butter, not to mention musk-rat skins or suckers, furnished the younger members of the family with their personnal supplies of "store goods. "

When Father first commenced trading Prattsburgh he had a distillery, and delt in whiskey and other liquors, as all of his neighbors in business did, and so there was an apartment in most stores, where one could if thirsty, obtain a drink; I remember to have heard father say that it was an universal custom for the store keeper to treat his customers to a drink on the completion of every trade, and especially do I remember the gusto with which he used to tell of a certain old lady from "West Hill, " who once called upon him to trade a darning needle for an egg, and then demanded a drink, and insisted upon having a fresh egg to mix with her liquor, and upon being handed the identical egg for which she had just received the needle in exchange, and breaking it, she discovered that it contained a double yolk whereupon she claimed (and received) another needle on the ground that being a double egg it was worth double price???

Upon the occasion of my last visit to Prattsburg I was shown a set of father's old account books, kept in 1820-23, which were very curious, as showing the quality and prices of his goods, but perhaps the most curious items to me were the regular charges made to the then resident clergyman, of a gill of whiskey on every Saturday, and a HOT PUNCH on every Wednesday, for a long period of time, showing that the custom of the Reverend Gentlemen was to fortify himself with a dram in preparation for his arduous services on the Sabbath, as well as at the regular Wednesday evening prayer meeting.

Money was a scarce commodity in those days, and the currency of that period was not the dollars, dimes and nickels of the present day, but such is the fact; All dealings were computed in dollars, quarters, shillings, sixpences and pennies; The Dollar and Quarter were of Spanish or Mexican coinage exclusively, and so for that matter was all the money we saw, except the pennies, which were either the United States cent, which was a copper coin of about the size of the present half dollar, or the english or Canadian half-penny of about the same size, and just as current, or one of the innumerable private "tokens," as they were called, which were metallic advertising coins, of the same size and material as the pennies, Issued by private individuals or political clubs, and which passed freely for and as cents; One of these tokens which I remember, bore for its motto the words "Millions for defence, but not one cent for tribute, " and there were thousand of these in circulation, bearing some motto or advertisement, which passed at the candy store, or went into the contribution box with equal effect.

All prices were computed in shillings and pence. We never heard of anything which cost a dime or a nickel or a dollar or half a dollar, but the cost was always stated as Sixpence, or a Shilling, or Eighteen pence, as the case might be; If half a dollar, it was stated to be "Four shillings, " and if a dollar "Eight Shillings, " the shilling being written thus l/- and Eighteen pence (one shilling and six pence) thus 1/6 and so on. Fifty cents 4/- and fifty five cents-4/5 and so on; In book keeping the amounts were first written as above, and then carried out in dollars and cents. With us a shilling was 12 & 1/2 cents while sixpence meant 6 & l/4th cents and so universal was the custom of counting money in that manner, that the Government Officials used it, as you will see by the letter from my mother to her parents which I have copied, the postage on which is marked upon it thus 1/6, being eighteen and three fourths cents of course that meant, in effect nineteen cents, if cents were used in payment? I have seen ladies figuring very carefully when making purchases in those days, to get the half cent, a thing they would not now "be guilty of ??"

This method of computation continued until the time of the Civil War, THEN called "The Rebellion?" and I well remember getting into a controversy with a store keeper in Maine, when I went there after your mother, in October 1860, over the change I was entitled to on some purchase I had made for he told me the price of whatever I had purchased, in shillings and pence, and after some controversy, I learned that with him, our shilling, of 12 and 1/2 cents, was called "ninepence," and his shilling meant 24 cents, to wit; an English shilling ??? So my purchase cost me 25 per cent more than I had understood it to be. In addition to his stores, distillaries and potteries (Pot Asheries, ) Father always owned and carried on two or more farms. The one nearest to the village was the one to which I drove the cows on the Sunday morning you have read about, and on a great number of other mornings; There were on that place beside the pasture lot, a large vegetable garden in which we raised the coarser vegetables and in which we boys had to work a good many days when we would much rather have been at play with the other boys; and one large field on which was always raised a crop of corn or oats or wheat, and to which the cows were driven after that crop was garnered. The other farm which I best knew was two or three miles farther up on the "West Hill, " and there a farmer lived. To this we went sometimes, but not frequently Here was kept a flock of sheep, and on one or two occasions I went up there to see the sheep washed, and this was a great treat to me, although it was easy to see that the sheep did not like it so well. "The sheep were caught, one by one and taken into the little dam made in the creek for their benefit, and there doused under the water, and thoroughly washed, notwithstanding their efforts to escape, occasionally one would get the better of his tormentor, and get him under the water, in which the washers stood, up to their middles, and that was always an occasion for shouts and laughter on the part of the on-lookers, and for the saying of his prayers "backward, " as profanity was called by the unlucky one who was ducked. After being thoroughly dried in the sun, the poor bleating, shivering innocents were driven to the barn in the village, and there shorn of their fleeces, which were deftly taken off by professional shearers, with the aid of shears, a couple of feet long, and sharp as razors, and then each fleece was tightly rolled and tied in a compact bundle perhaps a foot square, and piled away for future use.

In the Fall, after Father had purchased all the wool he could, it was all taken to a room back of the store, and sorted out for home consumption, and for the market; That which was to go to market was put up in sacks eight or ten feet in circumference and twelve feet or less in length, some of which I assisted in packing; The sack was hung through a hole just the size of the opening in the top of it, made for the purpose, in the floor of the loft, and hung down, with its mouth wide open, from that floor nearly to the floor of the room beneath it, and I being let down into the sack, the fleeces heavy and greasy, were handed or thrown down to me, to be by me properly placed in the sack, and stamped on until I gradually arose from the stifling sack into the loft. This I thought fun until a couple of the sacks were full, then I changed my mind, and promised myself never again to go into the business of sacking wool. I never did, "in earnest", but one Saturday afternoon Cousin Allis, and Gare induced me to "play" at it, and getting me into the bottom of one of the empty bags, they went below and swung me around until I became terribly ill, and then left me there, with the pleasing remark that they were going in swimming, and would call for me on their way home.

I was only thankful that they did not amuse themselves by sticking pins into my defenceless person, as I knew of other boys doing to a victim whom they had gotten into such a fix, once upon a time, and I was able by the use of my voice to get relief before they returned and to arrange for their condign punishment before they went to bed.

This wool was sent by wagon to Pen Yan, a market town, and there sold, but that reserved for home consumption was taken to a carding mill in the vicinity, and there carded, that is to say It was made into loose rolls, about three feet long, and as large as a man's thumb, and these being returned to the house were spun into yarn by Mother or Lydia; One of the pleasant memories of those days is that of sitting by the side of my Mother, and listening to her stories, or songs, or myself reading to her as she marched backwards and forwards beside her whirring, singing Spinning Wheel; The wheel was a very light one, about five feet in diameter, hung on a small post which leaned back at an angle of about forty five degrees from the frame on to which it was made fast, at a height which made it just clear the floor; and was attached by a thin band to a small wheel a few feet in front of it, through which protruded a spindle or needle, six or eight inches in length which turned with every revolution of the wheel and upon which the yarn was spun.

Mother stood at the left side of the large wheel, with a roll of the carded wool in her hand, and deftly attaching the end of the roll to the spindle, she turned the large wheel with one finger of her right hand, and, walking backwards with just sufficient speed; holding the roll of wool in her left hand, out from the spindle; she so manipulated it, walking a little way back, and as the emergency required, advancing toward or receding from the spindle, and keeping the wheel in motion all the time, that the wool, which left her hand in a loose parcel, without much of form or substance, was wound upon the spindle a fine, solid and compact parcel of yarn,

Mother was as graceful a person as I ever knew, and this operation of spinning with both hands in constant motion, the one rapidly or slowly turning the large wheel, and the other advancing toward or receding from the spindle; now at the altitude of her head and anon lowered several feet, while she herself, with steps a dancing master might envy, literally danced to and fro, was a very interesting and pleasant one to look upon, and when to the constant purring of the wheels and spindle was added the gentle music of her voice, soft and low as becomes a woman, telling the stories I loved to hear, or singing the songs she so dearly loved to sing; you will not be surprised to learn that I often preferred to listen or to read with her when the other boys went fishing or swimming.

The spinning finished, the yarn was ready for knitting, and while most of that work was done of winter evenings, Mother always had a pair of stockings or of mittens, or a tippet or comforter for some one of the boys necks in hand, and never sat down without something of the kind in hand. So constant was she at that work that it was no uncommon sight to see her hands conducting her knitting needles through the meshes of her work when her eyes were closed, and tired natures sweet restorer had her senses all in charge.

Reeling the yarn was an operation in which we sometimes took part; The reel was a wooden wheel, made to close up like a fan when not in service, but presenting a surface about a foot in width when in use, upon which the yarn was reeled from the spinning wheel. When the spindle was full the end of the yarn on the spindle and of that on the reel were spun together, and then, working the reel with the right hand, and holding the yarn loosely with the left, so as to allow it to pass through the fingers, and on to the reel, the contents of the spindle were very rapidly transferred to the reel; when enough was wound thereupon to make a "hank" (supposed to be one pound of yarn) the reel collapsed and the yarn was taken off and being held between the two hands, extended to its full length it was twisted in the middle, and one end being thrust through the other, it was in merchantible shape.

In this shape, to wit; in hanks, quantities of wool of all colors was brought to the village and bartered for store goods. On one occasion when Father was a member of the Legislature, he made a speech in the course of which he stated the fact that the coat, vest and pantaloons he then wore were made from wool raised on his farm and spun by his wife, and (after the cloth was woven, ) cut and made by his own family and in his own house; How many law makers of the present day could truthfully or would willingly make that assertion?

In those days the wheat, hay and other crops were all cut by hand, generally with scythes and cradles, the cradles with which wheat, barley, rye and oats were cut were scythes about four feet long, which were attached to wooden frames bent to the shape of the scythes, each having five or six fingers of wood, about as large as your little finger and as long as the scythe itself, all so attached to the frame that they stood out firmly, parallel to the scythe and about five inches apart, and when the scythe cut the grain off at about two inches above the ground, it fell back in perfectly straight lines upon the fingers of the cradle, and lay there like a quiet baby, until thrown out in a bunch on the ground.

Cradling grain was quite an art, and the motions of the cradlers were of necessity very graceful; It was a common sight to see half a dozen or more men each with his cradle in hand, following one another around the field, bowing and turning gracefully, and in perfect time and harmony, as they must do to avoid cutting each others heels, wading into a field of bright yellow grain, as high as their shoulders,and leaving the same behind them, in rows of bunches a.e straight and perfect as one could make with a pencil and ruler.

Following close upon the heels of the cradlers came those who bound the grain into sheaves, and this was work which I sometimes did; The grain lay as I have said, in straight swathes, with the heads all in one direction, and it was the duty of the binder to gather together with his rake as much as he could conveniently hold in his arms, and then to make a band of straw and with it bind the straw so taken up into a solid and compact bundle; This band was made by taking a bunch of the straw as big as your arm, and dividing it into two equal parcels and lapping the heads of the two upon each other, and twisting them together so making a band nearly twice as long as the separate straws; this band was then put around the center of the bundle of straw, which was till then held in the binder's arms, and drawn together as tightly as possible, and then the other end of the band were placed under each other, so that when the work was properly done you had a bundle, or sheaf as it was called, of grain bound very tightly in the center and bulging out at either end, which might be tossed about a good deal without falling apart and which would stand alone if placed on end.

Binding grain was pretty hard work to do, and it required some experience to enable one to make the sheaths of Just the right size, and to tie them properly and firmly, and whosoever did that, and kept up with a cradler did a full man's work.

After the grain was made into sheaves it was allowed to lie on the ground for a day or two, before being gathered together and a wheat field covered with these sheaves of grain, spread all over it with the utmost regularity, was a very pretty sight to behold; When perfectly dry the sheaves were gathered into shocks, consisting of a dozen or sixteen sheaves set on end, with the heads up, in two rows so close together that the heads touched each other, and if to be left in the field for any length of time one or more of the bundles were opened at the bottom and spread over the tops of the sheaves in such a way as to shed the rain if any fell, without wetting any more of the grain than was absolutely unavoidably exposed. This gathering of the grain into shocks was considered great fun and often half a dozen or more of us would compete to see who could make the greatest number of shocks, while the experts who set them up were equally interested in seeing who could make the most compact and best looking ones.

Next came the gathering of the grain into the barn, or the stacking of it in the fields. From the lower farm the grain was always brought to the home barn, and placed in the hay mow, There was a long, steep hill between that farm and the barn, and so it was that when one got onto the wagon to load the grain, and was driven from shock to shock, and the sheaves were pitched at him, with frequent injunctions to "be careful, " it was somewhat ticklish job to so place the sheaves that you could get on a full load, and be sure of not losing any of it before the barn was reached.

First it was necessary to fill the wagon box up to the level of the sides of the flaring rack, which reached out above and beyond the wheels, and then you must lay a double row of sheaves, with their heads together, they laying cross-ways of the wagon and extending the whole length of the wagon, and then another like row, on top of these, with the butts a little further out and so on, constantly increasing the width of the load, until, when the load was half on, it reached quite outside of the rack on both sides, as well as at the front and rear, then you must begin to draw each row in, toward the center, so that when you reached the top, the heads of the sheaves again met, and overlapped.

Then for a finish you laid a couple of rows along the center as in the beginning, and on top of all was placed the binder, a long slim hickory tree, bereft of its branches, which was first firmly bound down to the front of the wagon, and then the other end was pulled down, with the combined strength of all hands, and so fastened at the rear end of the wagon as to bind the whole load securely in its place: If properly bound it was hardly possible for the load to slip off the wagon, but it might turn over and take the wagon with it, as I once saw it do when going down the hill; It was great fun to ride down to the barn on one of the loads of hay or wheat, and the risk of the hill, or of having one's head bumped when we entered the barn with a great jolt, only added zest to the performance; once inside the barn the crop must be put in its place in the mow, and mowing it away was not always so pleasant, in fact that was about the worst place I ever found on a farm;

At first, while the hay mow was light and airy it was not so bad, but when it was filled up close to the roof, and the sun was shining hot thereupon, and the dust became very thick and it was apparent that there was more wheat than room, and you must stow it away in the corners where you could not stand upright, and it came as fast as a big ugly man could throw it, it became awfully discouraging; I have been "snowed under'l more than once on such occasions, and compelled to give it up, and call for aid.

The wheat being all gathered and in the barn it became necessary to get it threshed and out of the way so that the room could be had for the hay, and threshing day was a great day, the machine was set up in the barn, and four or six horses attached to the long levers, which were in and occupied most of the street, and then the dust began to fly in earnest; There were men who went the rounds of the country with threshing machines of their own, but not with men enough to do all the work and so we were called upon to assist.

To sit in the center of the power, and drive the horses was a nice easy job, but there was always some lazy man who did not believe a boy could do that, and so we commonly did something else, sometimes it was in the mow, to throw down sheaves as fast as required, and at others to stand beside the machine with a sharp knife, and cut the straw bands and hand the sheaves to the man who fed them into the jaws of the rapacious monster, neither of these was a pleasant place, but I have served in both.

A more agreeable task here, as well as in the fields, was the bringing of water, or Ginger Beer to the workmen, the Beer was a home made beverage, composed of water, cider or vinegar and ginger, properly proportioned, and the amount of it that a thirsty crowd of a dozen or more men would consume in a day sufficed to keep a couple of boys on the jump to furnish, especially when we had to carry it far afield.

Luncheon time during the haying and harvesting and threshing seasons was a pleasure to us boys, but made lots of work in the house, where, notwithstanding the fact that all was made ready beforehand so far as possible, the people were quite as hard worked as in the field or barn.

The wheat duly threshed, enough for the home supply and for seed was stored in the granary, or sent to the grist mill just south of the village, and the remainder, together with that which was taken in at the store, was sent to market; When Father began to purchase grain he took it to a landing on the Conhocton River by wagon, and shipped it thence to Baltimore in "arks" which were built in such a way as to serve to carry the grain to that city, and then as it was impossible to take them up the river they were taken to pieces and sold in the lumber market. When I remember, however the market for our grain was on the Erie Canal.

Hay making was not as hard work as harvesting, although it was our duty to spread and turn the hay with wooden forks, made by cutting a sapling of small size, which had a crotch where the limbs began to grow, so as to leave a very perfect fork there; The spreading and turning consisted of first spreading the hay very evenly over the ground where it had fallen from the scythe in regular swathes or rows and quite closely together, so that it would not dry, and then, when it had become fairly dry on the top, in turning it over, so as to expose the under side to the sun and air.

Sometimes it would rain so provokingly that we were compelled to turn the hay several times before it was "cured," and fitted for the stack, or mow. You can believe it if half a dozen or so of ordinarily active boys got at this work, there was some throwing of hay at each other, and that occasionally it would happen that one of us was covered up with the green and odorous grass; and you may be very sure that we got all the fun we could out of the work. When the hay was finally in the mow, in the barn, that was a very pleasant place in which to play, read, or study, for the barn doors were usually kept wide open, and so it was light and airy and the smell of the new made hay, of a warm afternoon was conductive to quiet meditation if not to slumber and pleasant dreams???

I know I used to think that the happiest lot which could befall a man would be to have a good book and be able to sit in a hay mow and read or sleep as the spirit moved him, listening to the drowzy hum of the bumble bees, who were always there in numbers, and watching the coming and going of the innumerable bright winged butterflies and of the swift flying swallows who had their mud nests under the overhanging eaves, or to the lowing of the cattle and the cackling of the hens; And that is a pleasure I now sometimes indulge in, shutting my eyes, and wandering back through the fifty intervening years to the days of which I write. If I knew this SHORT letter would bring to any of my dear ones a tithe of the happy hours it has returned to me in its writing, I should be very well satisfied.

There were two ways of harvesting corn in which I took part; One was to pass thro' the corn fields with great baskets, and pick off the ears, without removing the SHUCK or natural envelope in which the ear of corn, always is carefully and tightly enveloped, and throwing the ear of corn into the basket, remove that from the field, leaving the corn stalk standing unhurt, and with the husk on it, for the cattle, which were turned into the field after the corn was all gone, to eat or trample into the ground all that was left. The other, and more approved method was to cut the corn stalk off a few inches above the ground, with a heavy curved sickle or corn knife, and gathering together a good large armful of the stalks to bind them together with one strong stalk.

The sheaves so formed were often higher than a man's head, as they stood in the field, and were collected together and stood up in bunches of a dozen or more, which bunches of stalks were called "STOOTS," and when the weather was good and cold some day and the wind blew almost strong enough to take one off his feet, and all the "other boys" were going sliding or skating, we were invited to collect these stoots together in some especially windy spot, and shuc (shuck) the corn, that is, to remove the husks, and although we were allowed to try and see who could do the most, and get the largest pile of corn of an afternoon, it surely was not what you could wish for a picnic, to sit hour after hour, with only a sharpened stick to assist you, and tear the strong covering off the ears, but this we did, sticking the point of the stick in at the top of the shuck, and running it well down to the bottom of the ear, as you run a paper knife through the envelope of a letter, and then tearing the shuck off and throwing them in a pile in one direction, and the yellow or red ears of corn in another.

Soon after this was done we drove through the field and gathered the corn into the barn, and later on "shelled" it, sitting astride an old barn shovel, the sharp end of which rested at about the center of a "half-bushel, " which was a round wooden box about a foot deep, and holding half a bushel. To shell the corn, you take a cob in both hands, one hand at each end, and draw it across the blade of the shovel from end to end, thus removing the kernels of corn from the cob on and into which they grew. Shelling and Shucking corn were both "very hard on the hands," but, without corn we could have no fat hens or tender "Johnny Cake, " and Johnny-Cake and lasses were not easily done without.

The Husks of the corn, when carefully cleaned and shredded made the best of filling for bed ticks, and a corn husk mattress was counted one of "Sweet sleep, natures sweet restorers," best aids, and the stalks commonly called "corn fodder, " were fed to the cows in the winter time, together with hay straw and "punkins," which were always grown between the rows of corn, and of which we always had ample store, even after the boys had used all they cared for in making Jack-o-lanterns, and the girls had used what they cared for in concocting PIES,

Of course we had chickens by the hundreds, and ducks and geese enough to furnish an occasional egg or roast, and we considered it great fun to hunt for, and greater fun to find the nests and gobble up their contents.

back          contents           next