GrandPapa's Letter part 18
Sometime before my arrival on this sublunary world, I think about 1824 or 1825, there was a temperance crusade started in New York, which swept the state and country like a forest fire, and at that time Father became a convert to the cause of Temperance and did what lay in his power to stop the manufacture, sale and use of intoxicants.
At the time of his conversion he owned one, and I believe two distilleries, at all events, I know that a large portion of his means was invested in the business of making and selling spirituous liquors, and one of the immediate results of his change of opinion in relation to those matters, was that his distilleries were converted into POT Asheries, and that the sale of liquors in his store, and the use of it in his house were forever abolished.
One of his pot asheries which I remember well, stood near the creek, and some half a mile west of our old home. It was surrounded when I knew it, by piles of bleached ashes, quite as high as the buildings themselves, which seemed to me to be like mountains, and one which we used to slide to the creek in the winter time. I remember going up there in the evening once, and seeing the men, in very scant attire, heaping great logs of wood into the furnaces, under the kettles in which the pot ashes were made, and thinking it was a fair representation of the HELL about which we heard so much then, and so little now.
Pot Ashes; POTASH (?) was made of wood ashes, and tin peddlers scoured the country to collect the ashes made in the country stoves and fire places, trading their wares for them, and sending out wagons or sleighs to pick them up and bring them to the ashery, where they brought a price of some kind. Potash, and Pearlash were very familiar names and substances to me in those days, although I presume you never heard of them, and now I can not tell you what they were, or the uses to which they were put. BUT I BELIEVE they were used in cooking, as saleratus or baking powders now are, and the lye was used in making soap.
Soap making was also an art in which every good housewife was presumed to be an expert; for all the soap used in the laundry and most of the toilet soap used was then home-made, and a lye barrel was to be seen in every farmers yard. The lye barrel was set up in some retired spot and filled with alternate layers of straw and ashes which were kept saturated with water which leached through, and escaping through holes in the bottom, arranged for that purpose was caught in a pail at the bottom, sometimes the same water was passed through the ashes more than once,
Soap making was a somewhat formidable occasion, for the great kettles, cauldrons, were set up in the back yard, and very dry wood prepared for the boiling, and then, all the soap grease which had been carefully accumulated during the year, was cooked in the lye, and thereby converted into SOAP: You might safely rely upon finding a barrel or more of soft soap, for washing clothes, and a pile of Bar soap, for toilet purposes, in every house where a New England woman presided.
I have said that we had no Theatre in P. As a matter of fact the Theatre was not considered respectable at that time in P. or for that matter in any of the country towns thereabouts, but we were not without literary or social amusements by any means; There was for instance THE LYCEUM, an institution supported by the ACADEMY as well as by the villagers, in which on stated occasions the literary lights of the village discussed all the moving questions of the day, and often decided the fate of measures in an evening, which it took Congress or the Legislature months, and perhaps years to settle.
The Lyceum also provided many lectures, and occasional concerts for the community, and occasionally a dramatic performance "Highly moral instructive and entertaining, " and then there were the annual "Exhibitions, " by the scholars of the Academy, and of the other schools. Some of those were great occasions, and the Church would be crowded during the afternoon and evening to hear the declamations and compositions of the graduating classes, and once or twice within my memory a stage was built in the church, and a PLAY given?? Highly dramatic and improving, and moral they had to be, of course: I remember seeing a play entitled "Ten Nights in a Bar Room" there, once, and the downward course of the victim of his appetite for strong drinks, who began his course in the parlor of a clergyman by drinking sweet cider, and finished in the gutter, on a diet of Aqua Fortis, was all that could be desired by the most ardent temperance lecturer of the day.
Temperance meetings, and Anti-Slavery meetings were frequent, and speakers from abroad were often with us to deliver themselves, and take up collections for the good of the cause.
MAPLE SUGAR did you say? Well, if I ever do go back to those old hills, I hope it may be in the "sugar season, " which is in the early Spring: The town was full of Sugar Bushes, as the Maple Woods which were kept for sugar bearing were called, and many a happy day we spent in looking on, and participating in the production of that most luscious commodity, there were boys, (so I have been informed, ) who ran away at times to drink the sap as it came from the trees, but the true and lawful sport was to go with a crowd of boys and girls, upon invitation, to one of these bushes, when the work was well in hand, and eat the fresh made sugar; or, better still, the fresh made WAX, which was and is the best candy ever made for or sucked by mortal man???
Maple Wax is made by dropping the boiling sap into the snow, just at the proper time, It is somewhat like molasses candy in texture, of a beautiful rich brown complexion, and tastes like ??? Well, like Maple Wax. Just you get some, and then, and only then you may know how it tastes, for it is beyond the power of words to describe it. Candy?? Yes, we had a candy store in the village, it was on our side of the Square a couple of doors south of our house, and was kept by SAMUEL HAYES: We used to go there when a penny was left out of the contribution box, and it was a great occasion and treat to do so. There were tall glass jars, in which stood on end the different kinds of stick candy, well known to us by their different stripes and colors, and we studied long before making our purchases to determine which kind would most promote our happiness, generally agreeing at last on a few "Bulls Eyes," which were round chunks of candy, the size and consistency of marbles, and a little harder, and then determine about the sticks, each for himself. Upon careful scrutiny of the various jars, for it was rumored that some one in the store, not only sucked the Bulls eyes, but bit off the ends of the sticks before selling them, and while we must take the round pieces as they came, we might seek for the longest sticks.
I have told you of one holiday, but there were others?? One notable one was "General Training Day, " This came in the Fall, during the vacations of the schools, and was probably the most generally observed of any by the country folk. The Square which is now covered with beautiful trees some forty or more years of age, and with grass upon which you are politely invited, in Black and White not to trespass, was an open common, where cattle and hogs roamed at will, and feasted at leisure, and was traversed in every direction by foot paths and road ways innumerable.
On the morning of this great day we awakened to find the south end of the square pretty fully occupied with Booths and Tents and farmers wagons, which were in their turn occupied by the itinerant vendors of such commodities as the free born American citizen of that day and generation was accustomed to indulge in on festive occasions of the general training day order. Chief among these were the tents, made by stretching a sheet or two over the end of a wagon, in which Sweet Cider and Trainer's Ginger Bread were dispensed to the hungry and thirsty warriors and their friends and relatives.
The two TAVERNS were, I am sorry to say allowed to sell whiskey, and other drinks of that nature, but many if not the majority of the farmers were tee-totallers, and consequently sober: It was a sight to see and remember when the swains with their lady friends, each with a sheet as it was called, of the gingerbread under his and her arm, and another which made frequent excursions to his mouth, in his hand, meandered from place to place, happy as larks, and utterly unconscious of any thing in the world outside themselves and their cakes: This gingerbread was made in parallelograms about six inches by ten, and half an inch thick, marked off into squares about the size of a BIG MOUTH, and was black and glossy with molasses and shone like a newly blacked boot; It was very toothsome as I remember, and was never seen except on training day, so far as I remember.
Other booths were occupied by the dealers in what we now call "Yankee Notions, " they had combs and brushes of every kind, caps, suspenders &C. &C. and of course the ubiquitous TIN PEDDLER was there. He seemed to be every where, with his cart full of brilliant and enticing bargains for the women folk; and many wagons stood around full of Water Melons and Musk Melons, or apples and pears, and sometimes a load or two of peaches appeared; In fact that end of the Square very much resembled the vegetable and fruit stands at a County Fair today.
But all of this constituted but an insignificant prelude to the great event of the day for soon the bone and sinew of the county came upon the stage in all the gorgeous panoply of war, with their drums beating and fifes squealing and the glorious old Flag with its adornment of stars and stripes floating in the breeze; Father was Brigadier General of the Militia at the time of which I write and was in command of all the assembled hosts.
There were a good many of them, say six or eight companies of an hundred each, and they made a great showing in the little Square or Park, as they marched and counter marched, filed left and filed right, and went through the various evolutions which they were brought together to learn, and it goes without saying, that when THE GENERAL arrived on the field with his full staff all mounted on restive steeds just taken from their ploughs to serve their country in the Battle Field, arrayed in the most gorgeous uniforms you can imagine, and the Band played "See the conquering heroes come" and the boys shouted and the horses jumped and wheeled about, we thought there never was so fine a spectacle seen before.