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. Try these simple and entertaining country games in this excerpt from chapter 20, “Country Pastimes.”
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Country boys knuckling down for a brisk game of marbles probably didn’t know they were engaging in a pastime popular among the ancient Romans.
Summers were usually filled with farm chores, fishing along a shaded stream bank, or cooling off in the old swimming hole. But come autumn, boys arrived at school with serious pursuit in mind, their pockets bulging with marbles.
Each player selected the marble he judged best for a shooter, whether because of its appeal to the eye or because of the luck it had brought in the past. The shooter was known as a taw, and the fellow who could boast of one made of agate, fondly called an “aggie,” was the envy of all. To decide who would shoot first required “lagging” one’s taw up to a line. The owner of the taw nearest the line began the game, and so on down the line. Within a small circle drawn in the dirt, each participant placed four or more marbles. The object of the game was to knock as many marbles as possible out of the circle, those marbles becoming the prizes of the shooter, who continued until he missed. When all the marbles had been claimed, the game ended.
In more recent generations, playing for “keeps” became popular, though this was much frowned upon by the school as being in the realm of gambling. However, unhampered by the eye of authority, the game proceeded in earnest, resulting in a good shooter’s lugging home a heavy bag of marbles by day’s end.
Winter with its frozen ground and occasional blankets of snow temporarily interrupted the sport, which revived with the first hint of spring warmth. By the end of a season, a serious player displayed quite a set of callused knuckles.
Today the game of marbles is less enthusiastically played among schoolboys. Instead it has been organized as an international sport, played by a few adult professionals, who cannot possibly enjoy the game as much as we did years ago.
In the old days, standard equipment in the pocket of every country boy was a good, sharp jackknife. One with a long, stout blade and fancy handle for killing a bear or one on a ring attached to a long chain and concealing a variety of useful tools—bottle opener, can opener, screwdriver, and leather punch—had its place. But the knife commonly carried and cherished by every young lad was a plain, solid one with a good-sized sturdy blade plus a smaller blade, having a strong spring and a well-shaped handle harmonious with the owner’s grip. It was a kind of symbol that the boy had reached a responsible age. He employed it in a variety of ways—for whittling useful articles, cutting fishing line, and scraping animal skins. In addition, it was used for sheer amusement.
A popular game in those times was variously known as mumble-the-peg, mumblety-peg, or mumblepeg, depending upon the area from which you hailed. Two players or more could take part, the only prerequisites being their jackknives and soft ground. A starting line was marked, and each player in turn attempted to toss his knife, held in stipulated positions, so that it would stick into the ground. These are the basic holds, often altered or embellished upon at whim, that were required in playing mumblety-peg:
- The knife is held flat on the palm with the point out. It is flipped up, makes one revolution, and, if all goes well, lands point first in the ground.
- The same procedure as above is followed with the knife balanced on the back of the hand.
- This time a fist is made, the knife lying between the fingers and palm. The knife must be tossed three times in succession.
- The knife is held by the tip and flipped.
- The hand is held palm up in the policeman’s stop position; the knife point is directed downward in the lower palm.
- The knife point is held between the left thumb and forefinger; the handle is struck smartly with the fingers of the right hand. This position is known as “spank the baby.”
A number of others followed, some rather dangerous, such as tossing the knife over the head or through a circle made by the thumb and forefinger. Any position in which it landed was considered fair, no matter how far it inclined to one side, if another could be passed beneath it.
The person first to complete the required throws was the winner. It was the privilege of the victor to drive a 2-inch peg into the ground with three sound whacks from the handle of his knife. Then, with eyes closed, he was entitled to three more blows. He strove desperately to drive in the peg until it was flush with the ground, because the loser, on hands and knees, had to extract the peg from the dirt using his teeth as pincers. This obligatory penance of the vanquished gave the game its title.
The clang of a horseshoe landing bestride its mark is a summer sound that evokes memories of good companionship, good exercise, and possibly a good cold drink of well water. Country folk used to say that the best stakes (or stobs, as they are called) for horseshoe pitching are old railroad spikes driven firmly into the ground 40 feet apart. Favored was a 2 1/2-pound shoe, the claim being made that lighter ones don’t carry the distance as well.
Rules vary according to the whims of players, but in pitching horseshoes according to standard rules, a ringer gives you 3 points and a leaner, 1 point; otherwise, the shoe closest to the peg gets a point, provided it is not more than 6 inches away. The first player to chalk up 50 points is proclaimed the winner.
The horseshoe itself has a long history dating back to the second century B.C. Prior to that time, horse owners attempted to protect hoofs from wear and breakage by covering them with socks or sandals. Not until the fifth century of our era was horseshoeing widely known in Europe, but by the Middle Ages it was a common practice. The Japanese attached slippers of straw to the horse’s feet, replacing them as they wore out. This archaic custom survived until the 1800s, when rimming the hoof with iron was introduced.
An aura of superstition has surrounded the horseshoe for centuries. Ancient Romans attributed magical properties to anything made of iron, and so equine hardware was regarded as a good-luck symbol. Finding a horseshoe meant good fortune, provided the shoe pointed toward, not away from, the finder. Since the horses of many dignitaries in Roman times were shod in gold or silver, chancing upon such a horseshoe, no matter the direction it faced, was doubtless considered good luck! Sages of the time advised that horseshoes were a dependable defense against witchcraft. In bygone days, owners of race horses were careful to keep a horseshoe in the stable. This practice was supposed to prevent witches from riding the horses all night before a race. Generations ago the belief was widespread that a new moon had the force to counteract the influence of the evil eye. Perhaps because of the horseshoe’s resemblance to a new moon, it became associated with supernatural power.
All manners of hanging a horseshoe are advocated for ensuring the very best of fortune. Some say the open end should point downward; others argue that the open end should be uppermost to prevent the luck from running out; and then there are those who believe that tacking it up in a horizontal position is most favorable. Silas Hubble of Ohio says that your luck depends not so much upon how you hang it as on how well you hang it up. He avers that the thud of a horseshoe on the head is decidedly not good luck!
In rural areas where square dancing was disapproved of because of its musical accompaniment (some held that the fiddle was an instrument of the Devil), the play-party was accepted as harmless recreation. Popularly called the swinging game, the play-party differed little from the square dance except that the instrumental music was replaced by the singing of the dancers themselves and of enthusiastic onlookers.
Participants in a play-party were generally from the local community. People didn’t flock to it from long distances as they did to the square dance. Even hearsay invitations were sufficient to bring folks out for a good time.
Guests usually arrived at sundown, and dancing commenced the moment enough were on hand to dance the figures, which were known as “games.” Rugs and most of the furniture were removed from the room set aside for dancing. Along the walls, planks spanning boxes or chairs and covered with homemade quilts served as benches.
The man who could do a fair job of carrying a tune and whose voice could be heard despite the din of the dancers took the lead in the game. As the dance proceeded, newcomers joined in. The figures, or games, were very similar to those of the square dance, but simpler. Words of the play-party song accompanying them were good-natured and seldom made much sense. Songs were not written down but were passed along by word of mouth. As a consequence, some were memorized incorrectly, and new words were made up to accommodate the tempo of the song. Singing games, like the tunes for the square dance, were introduced to America by early settlers arriving from England, Scotland, and Ireland. With the passing of time, new versions evolved, becoming typically American.
Many feet thumping in unison on the bare wooden floors, coupled with the cadence of the singers’ voices, converged into one continually repeated throb, so that the whole farmhouse seemed to pulsate. When the players sometimes became breathless, those watching took up the singing, often clapping their hands or tapping their feet to reinforce the rhythm.
As a general rule, refreshments were not served at a play-party, but the old water bucket was put to good use by guests thirsty from so much singing and exercise.
Though it is rarely heard of today, years ago many a country boy whiled away the hours playing the washer game. Three empty tin cans were sunk into the ground some 20 to 25 feet from the toe line. The cans were spaced about 6 inches apart, forming a row at a right angle to the toe line. The players each arrived with a large metal washer in hand, usually one snitched from some old, abandoned piece of farm machinery. It was roughly the size of a silver dollar and of sufficient heft to carry the distance. Just as in pitching horseshoes there is a stake at either end of the game area, so in the washer game there were three cans in single file at either end to expedite the playing.
Each player’s washer was identifiable by a certain mark scratched on it or perhaps by a paint daub of a particular color. Much was made of the manner in which it was held when being tossed. Some players attributed their good luck to holding the washer with thumb and index finger encircling its perimeter; others preferred grasping an edge and spinning it horizontally to the mark.
The clunk of a washer in the nearest can meant 10 points; a successful landing in the second brought 20 points; and a washer in the third and farthest can earned 30 points for its owner. A player had to chalk up precisely 100 points to win—no more and no fewer. If he exceeded that score, he lost as surely as if he had failed to meet the required number of points.
Sometimes money was bet on the outcome of the game—considerably adding to the excitement and importance of a well-placed washer in an old tin can!
Travel back in time to a simpler way of living: For more from Old-Time Country Wisdom and Lore, read The Art of Gravestone Rubbing and Country Events: Harness Racing, Hoedowns and More.
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.