Long-standing lore, such as reading the clouds to predict the weather or using a divining rod to find water, enriches the traditions and culture of simple living. Author Jerry Mack Johnson offers a definitive guide of these whimsical teachings as well as practical advice for modern homesteaders in Old-Time Country Wisdom and Lore (Voyageur Press, 2011). Learn how to can fruits and vegetables, make a hammock, find the best fishing spots and more in this homespun encyclopedia of classic country know-how. Learn about the different country events that brought the rural community together in this excerpt from chapter 20, “Country Pastimes.”
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When the faded red of barns and the windows of small-town emporiums were enlivened by brightly colored posters announcing the coming of Chautauqua, the pulse of the countryside quickened. Anticipation of this yearly occurrence was savored as much as the actual event.
Men and boys lingered about the local railroad station, awaiting the arrival of the traveling tent company. Country lads, eager for a summer job providing excitement as well as remuneration, labored to set up the great brown tent, acted as ticket takers, or strove to protect audiences and performers from inclement weather. Armed with long poles, they gingerly elevated sagging canvas, dangerously heavy with collected rain, in an attempt to drain away the water. Failure would oftentimes result in a drenching as rents developed, but the enthusiasm of both troupers and viewers was never diluted.
Circuit Chautauqua arose independently of the Chautauqua Institution which germinated in southwestern New York State, a stationary center providing cultural nourishment for those who came from far and wide to attend. Adopting the name and idea from this source, traveling Chautauquas carried lectures, drama, and music to well over nine thousand towns throughout the country, their sojourn in any one community lasting from five days to a week or more.
When Chautauqua was in its prime, radio had not yet become common. So it was the Chautauqua circuit that satisfied the hankering of rural townsfolk for enlightenment and diversion.
From the darkness of a summer night, one stepped into the blazing interior of the huge brown tent. Golden straw, its satiny polish glinting under the bright illumination from naked bulbs strung between tent poles, softened the continual tread of new arrivals and deliciously scented the atmosphere. Seats were usually folding wooden chairs of questionable comfort. Sometimes benches were improvised from planks supported on nail kegs. Children were generally assigned to these, for their restless wriggling during “cultural features” too often set the folding chairs to creaking. After what seemed an interminable but pleasurably tantalizing wait, the tent was darkened, and coughing, chattering, fanning, and fidgeting magically stopped as if on cue. The hushed audience strained to glimpse the first performer to appear on stage, his rouged cheeks and heavily penciled brows dramatically accentuated by the footlights’ glare.
Participants in scheduled programs were a varied lot, ranging from explorers to elecutionists; monologists to magicians; pianists to politicians; singers to scientists; teachers to preachers; xylophonists to yodelers—naming but a few. The diversified offerings included lectures on a wide range of subjects by the prominent and not so prominent, Punch and Judy shows, banjo players in blackface, bell ringers, and the barbershop quartet, said to be an innovation of circuit Chautauqua. As early prejudice against theatrical productions dwindled, plays and operas gradually came to lead in popularity. Shakespearean plays were enacted, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas performed, and operatic arias rendered by renowned singers. As time passed, however, fewer cultural events were presented, and Chautauqua became synonymous simply with entertainment.
Many an old-timer relishes his memories of the magical moments of Chautauqua season—vivid moments that enriched his youth and flavor his latter years with pleasant nostalgia.
Country Events: Harness Racing
Harness racing became a country pastime after originating in the town. Early in the 1700s, trotting in harness was a customary mode of travel. Roads suitable for wheels were limited to the towns. Occasionally, as four-wheeled vehicles passed each other in the street, impromptu races came about. Street matches of this kind were known as “brushing,” and their popularity spread throughout the country. Eventually such racing was permitted on tracks.
In states controlled by puritanical principles, thoroughbred racing was regarded with disfavor. Horse racing was defined as a contest of horses at their fastest speed. Because a horse runs faster than he trots, harness racing was accepted by the morally righteous as a harmless diversion.
At the beginning of the 1800s, the two-wheeled sulky was invented for harness racing. The body of this awkward vehicle hung on springs from enormous wheels, densely spoked with fine rods.
Enthusiasm for trotting became so great in many parts of America that local horses could not satisfy the need. Outstanding thoroughbreds began touring in exhibition matches. Fine trotters were developed by farmers who bred their mares to stallions of prominent lines.
The start of country fairs germinated in the early 1800s when a farmer in Massachusetts tethered some imported Merino sheep to a tree and charged people a small sum to view them. A new custom was established which spread rapidly. All types of animals and produce were exhibited and judged, including harness horses. A fair in Philadelphia was the first to include harness racing in its program. From that time on, such races were the star attraction at country fairs, greatly influencing attendance rates. Soon the smallest, most remote villages had their races, which became part of rural tradition.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the ball bearing and the pneumatic tire were developed. The two were combined in the bicycle. When wheels of this revolutionary design were put on the sulky, the vehicle’s appearance was ridiculed by old-timers. But the new sulky
was considerably lighter, and the seat lower for less wind resistance. The reinsman was now situated close to his horse. To prevent the tail from whipping its face, it was braided with an extension, which was placed on the sulky’s seat.
People enjoyed a day in the country watching the grace of trotters and pacers in action. Trotters with their long-striding, high knee-action trot, heads rhythmically swaying from side to side, were magnificent in their harness. The pacers, too, stepped with precision in synchronized strides, both pairs of side legs moving in unison.
Harness racing was considered a proper event for ladies to witness as well as gentlemen. However, when it became a gambling medium, every sort of criminal was drawn into the sport. Consequently, the social tone deteriorated with the moral tone. After a reform group restored its respectability, ladies could once again attend the affair with impunity.
In recent years, after a period of lagging interest, harness racing has been fast regaining its former popularity.
That typically American rustic diversion known as the square dance is believed to have developed in the 1600s in England. Many of the square-dance tunes were brought to America by English, Scottish, and Irish settlers. From the Eastern Seaboard they spread westward with the pioneers.
The square dance, known also as a barn dance or “hoedown,” was regarded with approval or disapproval according to the moral outlook of each community. In some locales it was considered a wholesome social pastime; in others, where dancing and music-making were associated with the Devil, it was frowned upon.
When word of a barn dance got about, people from miles around arrived on horseback. Unfortunately, some brought their own refreshment in the form of hard liquor, and disturbances often resulted. But on the whole, a barn dance meant a night of conviviality and rhythmic movement to the tune of a fiddle.
The chief personage at a barn dance was the caller. To qualify, he had to have a strong, clear voice, a sense of rhythm, and a knack for concocting impromptu rhymes when necessary. His role was to call out directions for the movements of the dancing couples. Four couples composed a set. Besides a good many basic calls, there were songs which indicated action to follow. Some square-dance tunes were without words, and the caller would improvise as he went along.
A hoedown was a simple and satisfying social event, participated in by young and old alike. Those beyond the age of “dosi-doing” could always engage in a little toe-tapping to the tempo of the fiddle’s music.
Country Events: Husking Bee
In times past, a farm chore too big to be managed by one family was turned into a social event. So it was with the husking bee.
Before the onset of winter, farmers gathered in the cornstalks, storing them in the barn. Neighbors from miles around showed up with helping hands and expectations of a high old time.
Seated on stools around the pyramid of stalks, bushel baskets beside them, they spiritedly
worked by lantern light. The crisp autumn air was alive with animated chatter, the rustle of cornhusks, and the snap as ears were wrenched from them. The labor was spiced with excitement by the commonly observed custom concerning the red ear of corn. The fellow who unsheathed one was permitted to kiss the woman of his choice. Some young rascals attended husking bees forearmed, concealing red ears in their clothing to reveal when the time was ripe.
With the last of the stalks stripped of corn, short work was made of refreshments: platters of steaming pork and beans, hot pumpkin pie, doughnuts, and cider.
There was always a fiddler in the group to stir up some dancing. If the cider was hard, the evening was topped off with some pretty lively stepping.
Maple-sugaring time meant a combination of hard work and fun. In late winter with snow still carpeting the ground, country people set off for the woods equipped with freshly washed buckets, tapping irons, and sap spouts.
Choosing the right time and weather was vital. A bright, sunshiny morning with a west wind blowing, following a night of hard freeze, was best for good sap flow. It was important to tap the trees before their buds swelled; otherwise the syrup had a leathery taste and was fit only for sweetening tobacco.
On the side of the tree where the most limbs grew and at a spot showing new bark growth, the tapping iron was driven in at a convenient height and a metal or wooden spout inserted in the hole. Old-time steel spouts were fashioned by the local blacksmith from discarded scythe blades; wooden spouts were whittled from the young shoots of the staghorn sumac. The pails were hung, and soon the rhythmic drip of sap into buckets sounded through the maple groves.
The sap was usually collected twice a day, in the morning and the late afternoon. A team of horses hauled a low sled bearing a large tank into which the buckets were emptied. The contents of the gathering tank were poured into an evaporator in the boiling house. When it had reached the right consistency for syrup, the liquid was drawn off into cans. If sugar was desired, the sap was boiled longer at a higher temperature. The liquid sugar was poured into wooden tubs, where it hardened.
The foaming evaporator pan was watched through the night in an atmosphere of wood-smoke fragrance, sweet-smelling steam, and great expectation. At last “sugaring off” time arrived. Sometimes young folks would have a party. Snow was brought in and hot syrup poured over it, which quickly cooled and thickened into delicious taffy-like strips. Sour pickles or salt were often on hand to counteract the sweetness.
Indians, in the past, collected maple sap in buckets of birch bark. Their evaporator consisted of a hollowed-out segment of tree trunk; they boiled the sap by dropping in heated stones. An easier method employed by the Indians was to let the sap freeze over and over again, the ice being removed each time. Eventually the sap thickened to become syrup.
Along about February, squirrels will bite twigs from the maple tree to lap the oozing sap. The resulting small squirrel-made spigots sometimes drip for days, the sweet liquid attracting warblers and other birds.
Today, sugar maples are piped for sap gathering, and the maple syrup and sugar are made in modern evaporating apparatus in factories. However, there are still many country folks who have fond memories of the maple-sugaring times of bygone years.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Old-Time Country Wisdom and Lore: 1000s of Traditional Skills for Simple Living by Jerry Mack Johnson and published by Voyageur Press, 2011. Buy this book from our store: Old-Time Country Wisdom and Lore.