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THE AUTUMN CATTLE SHOW
New England’s purely farming districts the cattle show is the one event of the year that attains to genuine greatness. It is in such districts you see it at its best — a rural picnic that draws to it the people of all the countryside. The towns and villages roundabout are depopulated. I am not sure that the ministers go, but the church elders are on hand with their fat cattle and all the varied farm belongings in which they take pride; and so are their wives and daughters and other members of the family, even to the hired man.
The “Nigger” Target
It is the social element which gives the fair its most vital attraction. The people come not so much because of the races, the exhibits, and the pleasure-making contrivances, as because of the certainty of meeting all their friends and acquaintances. In the two days of the show they pick up more news than they would in months of ordinary days. “I ain’t seen you sence the cattle show last year,” you will hear one woman say to another. “Why don’t you come and make me a call once in a while? It ain’t but eight miles.” And when the preliminary whys and wherefores have been settled to mutual satisfaction they fall to detailing the happenings of the past twelve months, lingering with especial minuteness over the ravages of death and disease.
Perhaps there is no better place to see the country fair than at Cummington, in western Massachusetts, a town that possesses the double distinction of having the cattle-show grounds of the district, and of being the birthplace of William Cullen Bryant. It lies among the tumbled hills which abound in that part of the state, and is far from railroads and large centres of population. The region for many miles around is one of scattered farms and little villages. Probably no town tributary to the fair contains much over one thousand inhabitants, and some fall a good deal short of that number.
The fair is held the last of September. Autumn comes early on the hills. All the corn is cut and stacked in the fields. Nature’s year’s work is about finished. Nearly all the banditti weeds and flowering plants of field and wood are weighted with seeds, or the seeds have flown and only empty husks remain.
The road by which I approached the fair-grounds led much of the way through the woodlands, orange and yellow with turning leafage. Dwellings were few and far between, and it was nothing unusual to drive for miles without seeing aught more closely related to a human habitation than a lonely gray sugar-house in a patch of rock maples. Sometimes a squirrel chattered at me, sometimes a crow flapped into view overhead, gave a disturbed caw or two, and hastened away, and once I roused a partridge that disappeared with a startled whir of wings. But as a whole the woods were very quiet. The last few miles of the way I did not lack company. There were teams before and teams behind — a long string of them climbing the final hill, humping over the “thank-you-marms” and rattling across, one after the other, the frequent little wooden bridges that spanned the rivulets the road encountered. Most of them were family teams of two or three seats, but there were many top buggies cleaned up for the occasion, each holding “a fellow and his girl.” Then there were the confirmed old bachelors, who rode alone; and there was the more pronounced jockey element represented by men who usually brought along a single male companion. As I neared the grounds I began to see teams hitched to the trees along the roadside. The owners were careful not to leave anything of value in their vehicles, and every man who had a whip that was worth stealing insured its safety by taking it along with him. Whenever and wherever you met him later in the day you would find him with the whip in his hands.
The grounds with their one-third of a mile racecourse lay in an elevated hollow of the hills that seemed to be the only spot in the region sufficiently level to lay out such a track. Immediately surrounding were either rough depressions or rocky ridges, and some of this wild land was inside of the high board fence that engirdled the fair-grounds.
By paying a little extra one was privileged to drive his team through the entrance gate and keep it on the grounds all day if he chose. A favorite resort of vehicles was a grassy hill that rose within the circle of the race-course. Here the wagons were left while the horses were led away to he hitched elsewhere.
If you arrived after things got well going, you struck pandemonium the moment you passed through the wide wooden gates. “Fakirs” and travelling tradesmen had been coming by every road all the day before, and the centre of the grounds was now full of booths and tents, with an intermingling of peddling wagons and stands and amusement paraphernalia. The place was a great human beehive. Those who had conic to make money strove to attract trade by continual shouting, and a brass band played enlivening strains at frequent intervals, while the crowd itself was in constant motion, and there was a never ceasing undertone of voices talking, calling, and laughing. It was a motley throng, including people of every age, from babies and toddlers up to nonagenarians. Many of the folk were dressed tastefully and in modern styles, but others, by reason of carelessness or isolation or poverty, wore garments that were very antiquated. Then, too, there seemed to be a curious difference of opinion as to whether winter or summer apparel was the more appropriate.
Some of the attendants were strange-looking people, suggestive of caricature — raw, long-haired boys, gnarled men with quaintly trimmed beards, and faded women, the lines and expressions of whose faces brought up before one visions of olden times: On the other hand, there were present more or less city folk, to whom a rural jollification of this sort was a very real pleasure. Another class of outsiders was that of the gentry politicians of the county, who had come to pull wires in anticipation of the approaching election, and to pose in the eyes of the public as genial good fellows.
Wherever the crowd gathered thickest there hovered peddlers of pop-corn, peanuts, grapes, peaches, and five-cent cigars — the standard price at cattle shows. There, too, you found the man with the bunch of colored balloons. While in his hands they pulled jauntily skyward, but once transferred to the children they were very apt to soon burst or droop to earth. The itinerant hawker and distributor of happiness who seemed to be most successful was one who carried little striped whips, and squeaky whistles with rubber sacks on the end. “Catbags” was the expressive name of these whistles. You blew and distended the rubber, then took it away from your mouth, and the thing emitted a long, wailing piping quite enchanting to the ears of childhood; but to older people the noise was rather distracting after it had been heard continuously for a few hours.
Not all the interest was confined to the show grounds. Just outside, near the entrance, was a peculiar gathering of men who were getting all the fun they could without going in. They were toughs and ne’er-do-wells who drove rusty, ancient vehicles and abused-looking horses, which they were always ready to swap or sell. Toward noon, when I went out for a stroll, most of the gang were collected about an old negro. He was sitting in a shaky buggy, and was trying to get an offer for his old white nag. “There ain’t a blemish on him,” the negro declared, and he cantered his steed down the road to show his paces.
Without the Gate
The dickering was long-drawn-out and resultless, and finally the negro said he must go home and get something to eat. As he started off, he remarked: “Well, I can’t sell you this horse, gentlemen, an’ I can’t swap him. Nobody don’t want such a horse ‘cause he’s a poor horse.”
Cattle show gets its name from its exhibit of farm creatures, and these, either in pens or tied to lines of railing, occupied an acre or two on the inner borders of the race-course. About them the men gathered in force to discuss the merits of the various animals. Hence, in that vicinity you got a concentrated essence of Yankee smoking, spitting, and dialect such as it would not be easy to match the world over.
The Stage from the Neighboring Town
The centre of interest for the women was a large, barnlike, two-story hall, the most prominent structure on the grounds. In it were exhibited a thousand and one products of housewifely art and of agricultural success. One section was devoted to flowers from home flower-beds. Some were in pails, some in pots, and some in cheese-hoops and soap-boxes, and, besides, there were cut flowers in extraordinary bouquets — decorative erections that were certainly ingeniously and fantastically contrived if they were not as beautiful as the designers and constructors believed them to be. A few steps farther on and you were among the fruits and vegetables. Here was a great concourse of plates with fine apples, pears, peaches, or quinces on each. Then there were grapes, plums, strings of onions, heaps of beets, carrots, cabbages, and such things, and a squash calculated to make one gape with wonder at its immensity. Next in order was an exhibit of butter and of cheeses, the latter brown and wrinkled and rather unattractive outwardly, yet at the same time suggestive of a certain ripeness and inner richness. There were pickles and cans of preserves and loaves of bread, all hopeful of prize honors; and, set against the windows to show their color and translucence, were bottles of maple syrup and tumblers of jelly.
The display in the lower room of the hall was distinctively of the fields and kitchen, while that of the room upstairs was as decidedly an exhibition of the arts of the sitting room and parlor. The array of fancy work was such as might rival the show-window of a dry-goods store. Every inch of space on the long tables was full, and many articles were tacked up on the walls or draped over lines as if hung up to dry indoors after a rainy Monday’s wash. Patchwork quilts were favorites for demonstrating a woman’s prowess with the needle and taste in making combinations. Some of them contained so vast a number of tiny pieces it made one weary just to look at them and think of the labor involved. Yet therein lay their merit. Such a quilt is a monument to the patience and skilful industry of the maker, and as such will be a source of pleasure to her as long as she lives. Quite likely it may be laid away as too good for common use and be handed down in the family as an heirloom. Besides its other excellences it has the virtue of being a record of feminine garments worn by the family and by the family fiends — everyday dresses, wedding dresses, baby dresses. The whole gamut of human life is pictured in the texture of the coverlet, and the constructor can probably recognize and give something of the history of each dress and person there represented.
Other favorite articles shown at the cattle show were elaborate rag rugs, sofa pillows, home-knit mittens and stockings, worsted slippers, delicate doilies, and quantities of crocheting. “Mary Stevens done that,” said a woman, picking up some of the most intricate of the embroidery and calling her husband’s attention to it. “Ain’t it remarkable how she can do such a lot with her needle, and she a cripple that can’t put her hand up to her head, and not even feed herself!”
I thought the needlework showed a distinct love of color and prettiness quite independent of utility and fitness; for certainly a good deal of it would be hopelessly out of harmony in the average home. A more satisfactory phase of the exhibit was the housewifely thrift that was apparent in discovering possibilities in odds and ends of waste. Here was the old wearing apparel rejuvenated in the form of rag carpets, rugs, sofa pillows, etc., but the climax in this transformation of household débris was reached in a pretty vase that had acorns, suspender buttons, nails, iron nuts, and other hardware stuck into its yielding surface, and then the whole had been gilded. It was an ingenious use of rubbish, but the result looked like the product of some heathen nation of Africa or South America.
Art pure and simple was represented by a number of hand-painted plates and silk banners and several pictures in oils, water-colors, and pastel. The subjects which the artists chose to depict were usually either flowers or impossibly romantic landscapes. But, though the pictures received their due share of admiration, they did not stir the hearts of most as did the long-houred intricacy of the fancy needlework.
One corner of the upper hall was reserved for a children’s department, and here was a six-year-old’s loaf of bread occupying a place of honor amid a whole table full of cookery and canned fruits and jellies and pickles, the handiwork of other housekeepers of tender years. The children showed, too, a collection of small hens’ eggs, several plates of fruit, some very big cucumbers and some very little pumpkins, and there were exhibited many child efforts at patchwork, splashers, cushions, and a variety of pufferies and vanities in the needlework line, for which my vocabulary has no names. The shining light among the boy exhibitors was one who showed sixty different kinds of beans of his own raising. If he did not get a half-dollar prize, I do not think the judges did their duty.
The prize committees I saw at work had the air of feeling a due sense of their responsibility, and I suppose they worried out their decisions as fairly as they could, though these were sure to be regarded with critical dissent by the owners of the goods that did not find favor in their eyes. Still, the distinction of being one of the judges to some degree compensated for the grumbling of the dissatisfied — and, besides, the committees felt at liberty to sample freely the more toothsome things that fell under their judicial care, so that in certain cases the things judged well-nigh disappeared in the process of having their comparative merits settled.
The exercises on the race-course began at eleven o’clock with a “Grand Cavalcade of Oxen.” Oxen have largely given way to horses on the New England farms, but there are still plenty of them among the hills, and the cavalcade was impressively long and slow and sedate, except for a couple of little steers at the end of the procession who did not agree with the boy in charge of them as to where and how they should go. They kept the lad in turmoil all through the march, and put him to shame before the multitude. A touch of humor was given to the sober trail of the oxen by a long-legged farmer who rode astride of one of the creatures. Another man, known to every one as “Cephas,” furnished merriment by riding in one of the ox-carts and playing a little organ with a crank. As Cephas was rigged up like a true clown in an outlandish costume of all the colors of the rainbow, this was a very popular feature of the parade.
The Cavalcade of Oxen
By the time the cavalcade of oxen had gone the rounds it was noon, and thought turned dinnerward. Some resorted to the eating tents, but the large majority went to their wagons and resurrected from tinder the seats various boxes, baskets, tin cans, and bottles, and made preparations for an open-air feast. The food was generous in quantity, and it had a holiday flavor in that there was coffee for children and all, and the cake had frosting on it. To be sure the coffee was cold, and one drinking cup did for several of the picnickers, and the pie had caved in, but accidents and shortcomings are null and void on such an occasion. Often relatives who lived in different parts of the home town or the county got together for dinner and the victuals of both parties were passed about indiscriminately. This added to the interest, especially to the investigating minds of the children. Even the grown people showed a joking preference for a change from the home cooking.
Immediately after dinner the folk began to resort to the “grand stand.” This was just across the track from the judges’ two-story pagoda, whence these dignitaries viewed the races. The only thing grand about the stand was its name, for it was nothing but a few lines of unplaned plank seats terraced up a hillside. The seats were soon filled, and the overflow accommodated themselves on neighboring stones and hillocks. An old gentleman with a blue sash over his shoulder was cantering up and down on a big black horse, trying to keep the crowd off the race-course. This man was the marshal. “All go across that want tew,” he would call out, “but we can’t have yew blocking the track.”
He and two young fellows who assisted him made feints of riding down the crowd, but with all their efforts they could not keep the course clear. Several pairs of oxen were making ready to draw a load of stone on a stone-boat, and the crowd was bound to get close up, even if they stopped the whole performance.
On the Grounds
In this they displayed their Yankee independence, or, to use a term that more exactly describes it, their Yankee hoggishness. The men who were the most obstreperous were those who had been drinking. It was a no-license region, but it was not wholly parched for all that, and rumor said you could get “crab-apple bitters” right on the grounds. There was one man in particular whose uncertain step and swaggering manner and sense of importance showed that he had found recent inspiration to great deeds in the bottle. He would obey no orders, and once when an official’s horse crowded on him he caught its bridle and called the rider a hard name. This rider had red hair, and therefore, in the popular estimation, a temper, and he instantly responded by raising a little whip he carried and striking the drunken man square in the face. That made the latter furious, he dropped the bridle, broke into oaths, and would have snatched the orderly out of the saddle had not others restrained him. Gradually he subsided, but for some minutes serious fighting seemed immanent.
“What an ugly craowd there is here!” remarked the man next to me. “They’re baon’ to git on the track. Some one ought to send the band daown here an’ let ‘em blow them fellers aout!
“I wisht they’d quit their foolin’ and begin,” the man continued, after a pause. “This stun I’m settin’ on ain’t gettin’ any softer. If I don’t bring a seat with me tomorrer then I’m a liar.”
TO BUY OR NOT TO BUY
But now the oxen were drawing. They only dragged the stone-boat a few feet, but it made the great creatures pant and twist painfully. The contest was between two yokes, and after the first had been successful in its effort the second tried it. They, too, succeeded, and then more stone was added. So the trials wenton, and the stones were piled higher till one pair or the other found the load beyond its strength to move. It seemed like cruel work, yet the friend at my elbow, regarding the final struggles of the champion, imperturbably said, “They handle it pretty good naow, but I don’t see haow any farmer can work with cattle — they’re so blame slow. We ain’t had none on our place sence I was a boy.”
Some of the oxen were presently attached to carts and driven about to show their training, and one of the drivers got up in his cart and invited the lookers-on to ride with him. “Don’t stan’ there star-gazin’,” he called out, “when you got a chance to ride with a good-lookin’ man.” So a dozen chaffing young fellows clambered into the cart and sat around on the edges, and took a turn or two up and down the track.
Later in the afternoon there was an exhibition of horses and colts, and the day ended with a bicycle race.
The second day of the fair vas distinguished from the first by being called “the horse show.” There were frequent trotting matches on the race-course, both morning and afternoon, and the crowd was even larger than on the day previous. All the fakirs were on hand, and the uniformed brass band furnished enlivenment with its bursts of music. In short, there was for the pleasure-seekers all the din and dust and turmoil that contribute to make the occasion notable and interesting in its strong contrast to the country quiet and repose of the rest of the year.
The races were not professional, and were the more attractive on that account. We were not watching a contest between mere racing-machines, and every driver and horse had a readily perceived character of their own. The two races which overtopped all others in the interest aroused were the two which were most picturesque and amateurish. In the first a woman drove in the class set down on the programme as “Carriage Horses.” She was a pleasing, modest-looking little person, with a fur muffler about her neck. The sympathies of the onlookers were hers from the beginning, and she drove in such a steady, determined way that, though her horse was not in first it never made a break, and she did the neatest driving of any of the contestants. Everybody cheered when the judges fastened the blue card to her horse that meant she had taken the first prize.
The other race was open only to lads under fifteen and misses under twenty, and was designed more to show the deftness and capacities of the drivers than the mettle of their steeds. There were three entries, a dark-haired girl, stout and tanned, her poverty evidenced by a hat three or four years out of date; a light-haired girl much more ladyfied and smartly dressed than the other; and a freckle-faced boy.
None of them had much to boast of in the way of a horse, but as it was to be an exhibition of skill rather than speed, the looks of the animals did not much matter. They lined up before the judges’ stand, and at a given signal they all jumped from their buggies, hastily unhitched their horses and took off the harnesses. Then they as hastily restored the harnesses and put the horses into the shafts again. All three were nervous and excited, and their feelings were shared to a considerable extent by the people intently watching them.
Now the light-haired girl was through and leaped into her buggy and was off. The boy was only an instant behind, and it looked as if the dark-haired girl who started last had no chance. Round the course they went, and on the second circuit, which was the final and decisive one, it was seen that the dark-haired girl was gaining. Near the close she was about to pass her rivals when they laid on their whips and their steeds broke into a gallop and left her to come in belated and alone. The judges had already descended from their elevated stand to look into the manner in which the three had accomplished their harnessing. Only the dark-haired girl had done this perfectly. The other two had slighted details in their haste, and on the course they had not kept their horses in good control. The first prize escaped them, and the light-haired girl, who had felt sure of it and had decided just how she would spend the money, wept with the bitterness of the disappointment.
The crowds looking on at the races kept fluctuating — people were coming and people were going all the time, for no one cared to spend a whole day on any single feature of the fair, however fascinating. Everybody had brought a supply of spare cash, which must be spent, and, particularly in the children’s case, this money burned in their pockets until it was gone. “There was some regret at parting with the last of it, and yet a certain satisfaction in having the matter settled and completed.
For the hungry there were dining tents set with long tables, and having at the rear improvised open-air kitchens. Eating resorts of a humbler sort were the booths where you could get a quick lunch of rolls and “Frankfort sausages — Coney Island style,” and walk off with the repast in your hand. The “Coney Island style” was always emphasized by the vendors, and it was clear they thought it added vastly to the attraction.
Then there were booths which made a specialty of candies, fruits, and beautifully tinted cold drinks, set forth seductively in large, clear glasses. Colored drinks apparently sold better than uncolored. A man would perhaps not pay any more for pink lemonade than for plain, but he would buy it quicker and feel he was getting more for his money.
Cooking Apparatus at the Rear of the Eating Tent
All the vendors were shouters and spared no effort in vociferating the merits of their very desirable wares, but the man who made the most noise was a whip merchant. He stood in the tail of his wagon with his stock in trade in a rack at his side, while down below was a post about which he was continually snapping the whips to show how good they were.
“There,” says he, “is a whip you couldn’t buy in the stores for less ‘n a dollar and a quarter [snap, snap, snap], and, gents, I’m goin’ to let you have it for seventy-five cents [snap, snap]. There’s good timber in that whip. See — you can bend it like the old Harry! Seventy-five cents! Gosh, it’s terrible, cuttin’ the price that way, but I can’t be here doin’ nothin’, so I offer inducements [snap, snap]. Grandpa [pointing to an elderly man who is fumbling in his trousers pocket], you’re goin’ to take this whip, ain’t you?”
The old man shakes his head, and instead of money extracts a generous bandana handkerchief and blows his nose. This was a disappointment to the whip man, but he promptly took up the thread of his discourse and said: “Well, boys, now I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Here’s a little red bird [picks up a whip with a strip of red on the handle] and here’s a little yellow bird. Now I’ll put them with the seventy-five center, and one dollar takes ‘em all.”
So he keeps on till some one buys, and then he says he will make up a lot of six. “Here they be,” he calls out. “No, there ain’t but five! I’m gettin’ cross-eyed so I can’t count. Well, there’s another. Now I’m goin’ to let you have the whole six for a dollar. You can’t afford to go out and cut a stick when you c’n buy ‘em like that;” and, between his eloquence and the merits (somewhat uncertain) of his whips, he found purchasers in plenty.
There were several shooting galleries on the grounds, and their popularity was attested by the constant pop of rifles and by the ringing of bells which sounded automatically whenever a bull’s-eye was hit. A still more popular amusement, and one that had an almost uninterrupted run of custom, was a merry-go-round. A hand-organ furnished music, and two stout, sweating men provided power, and the little painted horses spun around the circle very gayly.
Not far from the merry-go-round was a pounding-machine. You gave a blow with a heavy wooden beetle, and a marker slid up a tall pole to show the weight of your stroke. “Well, well,” shouts the fellow in charge, “who’s the next man? Come, gents, try your strength. Well, well, it’s fun — only costs you half a dime, and you find out just how much the correct weight of every blow is. Have a try, gents. You’ll be sorry if you don’t. You’ll go home and hear your comrades tell what they can do, but you can’t tell what you can do without telling a lie. I’d tell one hundred lies for a nickel, but I don’t believe you would.”
One of the tents was a photograph gallery, where you could get your tintype taken for twenty-five cents. “Right this way,” the rowdy-looking proprietor was shouting from the door, “we’re on earth big as life and twice as natural.”
His next neighbor was expatiating on the unparalleled charms of “Conkey’s Great Mechanical World — perfect working figures — constantly in motion — free to all — we don’t ask for money — just walk right in, ladies and gentlemen, and pay ten cents when you come out if you are satisfied — if you are not satisfied don’t pay anything.”
Such as succumbed to this enticement found that the tent contained a platform on which were a number of miniature buildings and people made to represent a real village, while for a background there was a painted canvas depicting a fine assortment of blue cliffs, waterfalls, green fields, villas, and distant towns. But one’s attention was chiefly absorbed by the busy inhabitants of the hamlet. They seemed rather rheumatic and stiff in the joints, yet there was nor a single idler in the whole lot. The chief mansion of the place was undergoing repairs, and a Lilliputian man sat on the peak of the roof shingling, a mason was everlastingly putting the final bricks on the chimney, and a painter was at work on a balcony. In the yard below was a man mixing mortar, and three carpenters at a bench were nailing, sawing, and planing. A woman churning on the piazza and another woman at the well drawing water represented the domestic side of the home. In other parts of the village were a blacksmith’s shop, before which a horse was being shod, a sawmill going full blast, and a railroad station with the officials all attending to business. Every thirty seconds a train rushed through the hamlet. It came from a hole at the left and disappeared into a hole at the right, labelled “Hoosac Tunnel.” I paid ten cents when I went out.
Another chance for amusement was furnished by a man with a blacked face and clothing stuffed out ponderously with hay. He stood at the farther end of a little fenced-off space, and let any man throw three balls at him who would pay five cents for the privilege. If you hit him, you could have a cigar.
One booth that was much patronized was known as the “fish-pond.” In its open front was set a shallow tank of water, wherein were floating many little slips of wood, or “fish,” each bearing a concealed number. On the walls of the booth were all the articles it was possible to draw numbered to correspond with the fish in the tank — and there were no blanks, the proprietor said. Every one got his money’s worth and you might draw the grand prize — a pistol or a gold watch. Most of the articles were valueless trinkets, but among the rest hung the pistol and the gold watch, with naught between you and possession save a lucky ten-cent piece, and many a dime was staked fruitlessly on the will-o’-the-wisp chance.
All things have an end, and cattle show is no exception. As the afternoon of the second day waned and the exercises on the race-course were drawing to a close a growing restiveness was manifest in the crowd. The chill of the autumn evening was coming on and dispersion began about four o’clock. The vendors of perishable fruits and eatables dropped their prices, and the work of taking down the tents and booths and packing up commenced, a tinge of forlornness and desolation crept into the scene and the fun was over. People were in a hurry to depart, yet they were not in such haste as to neglect to drive around the race-course before they went out the gate. This spin on the track adds a final touch of completeness to the occasion, as no man who has any pride in his team neglects to make the circuit at least once.
So ends the cattle show, though its memories with the meeting of friends, the excitement, the half-dozen whips for a dollar, the many circulars gathered free, and a colored advertising yardstick, not to mention the children’s catbags, last a long way toward the fair of next year.
Five Cents a Throw at the Dolls