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New England Joke Lore
SHOWING SOME GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS
WHEN the young business man or girl stenographer who has grown up in one of the innumerable thriving towns or cities of the broad Mississippi Valley, scans the morning paper on the way to the daily task and reads of the incidental happenings duly chronicled as New England News, there may perhaps be a glance of the mind's eye at that little corner of the map of the United States as revealed in the not remote school days. Then it was necessary, if one would be on harmonious terms with the teacher, to at least memorize the state capitals of Vermont, New Hampshire, and little Rhode Island, as well as those of the somewhat much more imposing looking states of Maine, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. And how small and insignificant they all looked compared with the rest of the map!
It is true that geographies of good standing are not supposed to deceive, but it is doubtful if any of them ever quite did justice to the northeast corner of the U. S. of America.
And when, as sometimes happens in these modern times, the young business man marries the little stenographer and by industry and intelligence becomes prosperous, there is a desire for the well earned holiday. He and the girl stenographer now become a matron, if permitted choice, are impelled to explore that same little corner of the earth so shabbily set forth by the map, but so attractively described by acquaintances who have toured that section in summer.
And perhaps they will repeat these visits and view many smiling valleys and listen to the soothing lullabies of the surf by night and to unconvincing statements of hotel clerks by day — and yet will have missed the most satisfying and illuminating characteristic of New England — contact with the real typical New England Yankee.
Nowhere on earth does the aphorism that appearances are often deceitful more frequently prove to be true than in New England, especially in the rural districts. The impressive appearing motorist displaying the now familiar license tag of the region may be a local tradesman rated in the commercial register as "capital $500 to $1000, credit limited." Just behind in a cloud of dust the carelessly dressed man in shabby looking buggy drawn by a placid old horse, may own a fine farm, many pedigreed cattle and possess in addition an abundance of reserve cash with which to take advantage of any favorable opportunity for investment. While the apparel may "oft portray the man," it is far from being an infallible test in New England. Even when the native of this region is transplanted to some bustling city, he is prone to develop carelessness in dress as prosperity steals upon him.
The native resident who remarks casually that the New England climate consists of "nine months winter and three months late in the fall," is not probably making any plans to remove elsewhere. He is taking a sardonic pleasure in making it clear that he is laboring under no delusions as to what the seasons will reveal in the months to come. He makes no attempt to gloss Over the enormities of the midwinter season, but indeed seems to take much satisfaction in quoting the below zero records which make a Philadelphian, for instance, gasp with horror.
A sturdy woman of middle age, who had been born and raised in a northern New England region, was chatting with a traveler about some recent extremely cold weather and told him that the temperature at her home had gone down to about 38 degrees below zero. As he expressed some interest she added, "over in the next town it was 46 below." Upon noting the surprise occasioned by this statement she hastened to say that it was 52 below at the same time in another town about twenty miles distant. She then assumed an expression of great candor and proceeded, "My daughter, who lives about ten miles beyond that place, wrote that their thermometer registered 58 degrees below zero."
She was a truthful woman and a good Methodist. The abashed listener hastily changed the subject.
Stories of such extreme cold seem to be exaggerated, to strangers who have traveled these districts in ordinary winter weather, but it is merely exceptional rather than impossible. To people of normal health such cold waves are merely an unpleasant incident. Those of experience will insist that on the average the winter of even, steady cold is healthier than the warm ones.
While there is, of course, a temptation to elderly people of means to spend their winters in some warmer section, there are plenty of instances on record to prove that it is usually better to "stick it out" at home, unless of course the change of climate is to be permanent. Withstanding the cold develops vigor for the relaxing days of spring and summer. Besides, in this matter as in many others, it is evident that nature abhors a quitter.
Before Last Winter's Snow"
It is the winter of unusually deep snows that stimulates the Yankee sense of humor. An early summer visitor driving through a deep gorge, scarcely touched at any part of the day by sunshine, found a man busily shoveling snow which had evidently drifted deep across the road.
"You must have had lots of snow here last winter," he remarked as he drove by.
"Oh! no," was the reply, "this is winter before last's snow."
School Master and His Snow Grave
Among the legends clustering about a little country schoolhouse is a comedy in which deep snow furnished the motif and more literally the environment. An earnest young college student who was self-supporting, secured the privilege of teaching the winter term of school. Among his pupils were several husky youths to whom burning the midnight oil made little appeal. It soon became evident to the parents that the well-meaning but somewhat diffident teacher was destined for trouble. A tremendous snowfall with high drifts brought events to a climax. While the teacher was away for his lunch at the noon hour, the boys dug a deep "grave" in a snowdrift near the schoolhouse, and when their unsuspecting victim approached he was promptly seized, and in spite of his struggles, placed in the grave and lightly sprinkled with snow. Needless to say he was glad to resign his position and make way for a successor of probably less education but considerably more muscle.
The successive snow storms often bring about a condition of the back roads that makes traveling difficult in the latter part of the winter. Under these conditions it is an unwritten law that as compared with those who travel light, the heavily loaded team shall have the right of way. On a certain occasion this custom was peremptorily challenged.
Roads and the Right of Way
Two families of the neighborhood were far from friendly. Two brothers of one of these uncongenial families returning home from town with a horse and sleigh chanced to meet the robust scion of the other family with two horses and a big sled loaded with logs. Instead of yielding to the work team as precedent required, these young hopefuls demanded half of the roadway. Although fully appreciating the personal motive in this action, the driver of the log team blandly explained that if he were to turn his horses into the soft deep snow by the roadside, his load would be stuck in the drift. Interpreting this explanation as an evidence of timidity, one of the young men jumped from the sleigh and taking the two team horses by the bridles, started to turn them into the drift. The driver was quick as well as athletic and in a very few seconds a three cornered fist-fight was well under way. It was short and decisive, after which the two brothers meekly turned their horse and sleigh out into the snow drifts, passed the load of logs and went home. The scarlet evidence of bloody noses in the snow soon faded, but numerous firesides were cheered by the story which soon went the rounds of the neighborhood.
While the rural midwinter season tends to physical inactivity, the Yankee sense of humor is apparently stimulated. It may be said, however, that while the sarcastic brand of humor is not popular, occasionally some "deep thinker" will evolve an intricate plot like the following.
Post Holes in the Ice
In a certain community there was a newly hired farm hand whose ingenuous innocence was a constant temptation. A young blacksmith found out that the farm hand was especially fond of trotting races. He accordingly proceeded to elaborate on a mythical trotting meet that was supposed to soon take place on the lake. The stranger's eyes sparkled. That was something like the real life. He asked what it was going to cost to see the races. The blacksmith named a very high figure, but hastily reassured the young man that it would be easy for him to secure a season ticket if he would help to get things in readiness. The farm hand eagerly agreed and asked what he could do. The blacksmith told him that of course there would have to be a board fence around the ice track and that it would be necessary to dig post holes in the ice, indicating the section of the lake where the fence must be built. The next morning the confiding hired man got a day off and promptly proceeded to the lake, devoting several hours to the laborious task of post hole digging before someone's curiosity led to an investigation and the disillusionment of the victim.
It is not characteristic of the normal New England mind to dwell upon that which is somber. That trend of mind which contemplates with satisfaction the gloomy and funereal, never fails to create amusement among normal Yankees.
Man Who Took Comfort at Funerals
There is an old time story of the eccentric old bachelor who lived with his married brother, a bustling person of numerous activities, noted for a propensity to begin many enterprises but seldom finish them. Poor "Hamp," the bachelor, was constantly being speeded up at the endless jobs. One day he announced his intention to take an afternoon vacation and attend a funeral. His taskmaster objected.
"Why do you want to go to that funeral? You went to one only last week and you never were acquainted with either of the families."
"Hamp" hesitated a moment. A half day's release seemed wonderfully inviting.
"Well, to tell the truth," said he, "about all the comfort I take is in going to funerals."
The grim visaged old farmer who sits with bent shoulders guiding his slow moving pair of farm horses along the dusty road, reflects the stern realities of making ends meet — and perhaps a little bit more — as the tiller of a rocky New England farm. But the smartly dressed tourist may have far less of that mental flexibility which enables one to shift the processes of thought from that which is burdensome to that which renews the cheerfulness of youth. As an example of this capacity there is the incident of the field of oats.
Story of the Field of Oats
A farmer was standing by the roadside looking disconsolately at his oat field which he somehow seemed to feel was a personal reproach. A cold wet season had had a most discouraging influence and there was promise of but a very small crop.
Along the highway came a well-known elderly citizen who would be sure to notice the oats and estimate them for just what they were worth. He stopped his horse and passed the customary salutations and seeming in no hurry, the conversation covered quite a range of local topics. The owner of the oat field began to breathe easier. Perhaps this man had not noticed the oats. He exerted himself to be agreeable to the traveler. The latter finally straightened his reins. The patient horse began to look expectant, slowly started up and then the blow fell, but not on the horse. His driver gave a comprehensive glance across the field.
"Your oats," said he, "are short — but thin." For the benefit of the uninitiated it might be said that it is perfectly possible to secure a fairly satisfactory yield of oats even if in short stalk, provided that there is a thick stand. From the foregoing it will be evident that the outlook in this case was very unfavorable.
Monotony is supposed, by those enlightened ones of the earth who reside in large cities, to be inevitably associated with rural life, but youth can generally be depended upon to provide a thrill now and then, even in the back woods.
Kitchen Dance "Up the Branch"
One evening in late winter, three enterprising young men in search of diversion, decided to hire a horse and sleigh and attend a dance, which by some underground source they had heard was scheduled for that date at a farmhouse some three or four miles away "up the Branch."
Now, of course, the code of etiquette required these young gallants to engage a barge, pair of horses and driver and also invite three young ladies to accompany them. But funds were scarce with them and relying upon what is now known as "nerve," they felt sure they could secure dancing partners among the girls who would be sure to be present.
Driving up to the door of the farmhouse with a flourish, they turned their horse over to the volunteer hostlers and joined the party. As they were good dancers and not burdened with bashfulness, they were not long in making acquaintances among the girls present and were soon enjoying themselves greatly. To be sure they noticed a marked lack of cordiality among the other boys, but they did not allow so trifling a matter as that to disturb them.
All pleasures came to an end and about three o'clock in the morning it occurred to the three young heroes, that as each of them was expected to be "on the job" that morning, it would be well to start for home and get a little sleep. So they called for their horse and making graceful acknowledgments to the young ladies for the pleasures of the occasion, they put on their top coats and took their places in the sleigh.
The horse was quite restive and apparently in much haste to start. One of the trio took the reins and the volunteer hostler, giving the horse his head, they started at a fast pace homeward.
It was very dark and deep snows of the winter, now mostly melted away, had left a rather uneven roadbed. There were frequent deep depressions into which the rapidly moving sleigh would sink with nerve-racking concussions. One of the passengers protested to the driver.
"What's the use in driving so fast?" said he. "My teeth are all getting loose."
The driver tugged on the reins.
"I don't understand the nature of the beast," he said. "Here, get hold of the reins with me and see if we can't make him slow down a little."
They tugged at the reins with all their combined strength, but apparently it only made the horse go faster. Accordingly they gave their principal attention to getting through the "cradle holes" with as little shock as possible. The fast pace of the horse was rapidly bringing them toward their home town and they soon saw the street lights. The horse evidently had but one object and that was to get the job over with and reach the stable and his own comfortable stall.
Moving down a long street at a very fast pace, the horse made a sudden sharp turn toward his stable. The sleigh, skidding violently across the wide, icy street, struck the curb and capsized, throwing the three heroes of the dance out upon the sidewalk together with the sleigh robes and other equipment.
The horse, with the sleigh still attached, then dashed up the street at a mad gallop toward the stable.
Gathering themselves up, somewhat shaken and bruised, but not seriously marred by their experience, the devoted three picked up the robes and blankets and made their limping way to the stable.
They found the horse and somewhat shattered sleigh being inspected by a much disgusted looking stable man.
"What's the matter with you fellows, anyway?" said he. "Don't you know enough to harness a horse?"
The light of the lantern solved the mystery of the wild ride home from the dance. The obliging volunteer hostler had carefully refrained from putting the bit in the horse's mouth.
After paying the bill for damages sustained by the sleigh, the young adventurers decided that the boys "up the Branch" had evened the score.
New Maple Sugar Tub
Not far from the scenes of the above comedy, there lived on a little farm, an elderly man of very thrifty habits. He took great pride in the maple sugar he produced. Deciding to have the family supply all in one large receptacle, he had a can made by a local tinsmith to contain two or three hundred pounds of the finest maple sugar. This was filled at the proper season and stored in an attic at the head of a long flight of stairs. Several people of the vicinity were invited to inspect that new sugar tub and its contents.
One day a great misfortune came to the farm. The house caught on fire. There was very little water available with which to fight it and it made rapid headway. It was soon evident that there was no hope of saving the building, so sympathetic neighbors helped to remove such of the contents of the house as could be carried out before it was too late. The old man was naturally much broken up and while they were looking upon the ruins, expressed his regret that he had lost that tub of sugar. Someone said:
"I thought you were up there in the attic. Why didn't you roll it down stairs?"
The old man turned a rueful countenance and said:
"I thought of doing that, but I was afraid it would jam the tub up to let it bump down those stairs."
And now by contrast with the simple soul who took such pride in his new, shiny, sugar tub, there is the story of another type of Yankee whose business shrewdness had made him a marked man in the community, even in the days of comparative youth. Cool, calculating and with unerring judgment, all his various enterprises prospered, and he was looked upon with wholesome respect as a man who lived up to his contracts and expected the same of others. This man shipped livestock to the Boston market and on a certain warm day in midsummer was to send away a carload of fat hogs collected from the surrounding farm neighborhood.
It is important that fat hogs intended for shipment be kept cool. Among those who appeared at the proper time to make delivery, was a man from a little farm away up on the mountain top. He had a very fat hog which promised to weigh heavily and produce a handsome financial return. Somehow he had been careless and allowed the hog to make the journey in the hot sun without sufficient protection. At the first glance the experienced buyer saw the hog was overcome with the heat and told the owner that he could not accept it. The poor farmer was stupefied but an inspection of the sick porker showed him that the shipper was justified in his rejection. He was very much cast down and said that he had been depending upon the proceeds of that hog to meet a pressing obligation. The shrewd Yankee buyer in his cool imperturbable manner noting his distress, turned to his assistant:
"Harry," said he, "make out a check for the amount as per weigh bill," which was promptly done.
The check was handed over to the farmer and he was instructed to take the hog, now in a state of collapse, to a remote corner of the adjoining meadow, kill and bury it.
And yet, had anyone accused the hog buyer of being a philanthropist, he would have resented the idea promptly.
Another instance of philanthropy, bearing upon the same important article of commerce, left a somewhat different impression.
Butcher Who Was Too Generous
In a certain thriving town a meat dealer had gradually acquired a wide acquaintance. As he was a genial man with a ready sense of humor, he was regarded with general favor by outlying farmers as well as by his local customers.
A man who had a farm back on the hills came to this dealer one day and contracted to deliver to him on a certain date an unusually fine specimen of dressed pork, guaranteed to be as near perfection as the most fastidious customer could require.
The appointed day arrived and likewise the farmer and the hog, which being placed upon the scales presented an attractive picture, at least from the standpoint of those who like pork. The dealer seemed well pleased.
"My wife said it was a shame for me to sell this hog," said the farmer as the dealer started to adjust the scales, "she said she wanted that hog's head for 'sowse.' "
"Oh! she did," said the dealer, "well, I will make her a present of it."
The butcher immediately proceeded to decapitate the hog and wrapping the head up in coarse brown paper, handed it over to the delighted farmer who was overwhelmed at such unexpected generosity. The butcher then weighing the hog, figured a moment on a slip of paper and turning to the till counted out the amount coming for the meat at the agreed upon rate.
When the farmer handed the hog's head to his much surprised spouse she inquired: "How much did the hog weigh?"
"It didn't seem to weigh up as much as I expected," said the farmer. "I thought it would weigh twenty-five or thirty pounds more than it did."
The woman looked at her husband suspiciously. "Did the butcher weigh the hog before or after he cut off the head?"
"He weighed it afterwards."
The comments of the wife when she found out the real significance of the "present" she had received, may be imagined. The value of the head would normally be about one third as much by the pound as the entire carcass.