Here to return to
A GLIMPSE OF DELAWARE
THE landscape had been freshened by showers the previous day and now was smiling in the caresses of the bright sunshine. A brisk breeze wafted the grain in the big wheatfields into long green waves, and brought in at the open car windows the odor of strawberries and clover blossoms. The level farmlands looked fertile and well-tilled, and the farm homes had a pleasing aspect of prosperity and comfort.
“Delaware farmers are more industrious than when I was a boy,” a train acquaintance remarked. “These are nice places we’re seein’, and kep’ up in good style. Corn and wheat used to be about all the farmer raised, but now they put their dependence more on berries and early produce. It’s a good place for a poor man to raise everything he wants to eat with very little exertion and have some to spare.
“See those pine logs lyin’ there by that freight station. We would n’t use to ship such like stuff — we would n’t touch it. It’s bull pine, and that’s nothin’ more than a tree weed, and is tough and warps around so you can’t hardly manage it. But if you want to put up a barn or a shed it does for a makeshift.
“They’re gettin’ to have very good roads. I can remember when travellin’ on ‘em was a hardship. They were all standin’ water in the winter time. Farm work used to be done by cattle power, and if a man wanted to go to a place that was farther away than he could walk he stayed at home. Many a man had no horse at all and lived and died without ever owning one. Log houses were common till after the war, and the people were land poor. The principal part of the young men went to sea, but by and by they came home tired of that and bought land. That air cut the farms up, and they’ve learned to make the land profitable so that I bet you now two-thirds of the farmers have bank accounts. You ask ‘em how they’re gettin’ on and they’ll say, ‘Oh, we’re a-livin’, but we ain’t a makin’ much.’
“Then you ask if they’ve got a bank account, and they’ll acknowledge they have. All the towns have banks these days, and they take in money hand over fist. New York and Philadelphia always used to be afraid to trust any man livin’ in the state of Delaware for a five cent piece, but I guess they’re changin’ their minds now. It looks that way to me.”
I went as far as Lewes at the mouth of Delaware Bay. It was here that the first settlers of the state from across the Atlantic established themselves. The place has never grown rapidly and is still half rustic, and abounds in delightful old mansions that are humanized by their association with past generations, and that nestle amid a charming luxuriance of greenery and blossoms.
The dwellings on the seaward borders of the town stand on ground that drops abruptly away to a wide level of salt marshes, and the homes on “the bank” are commonly spoken of collectively as “Pilot-town,” because so many pilots live there. The situation is peculiarly satisfactory to them, for they like to live where they can “spy out on the water.” At the far edge of the marshes are sand dunes, one of which rises in a vast yellow ridge that is slowly enveloping a pine wood.
“Sand is always in motion,” a local man observed to me. “ It’s as unstable as water. You sit down to eat a lunch off there on the shore, and you may think there’s not any wind at all, but you’ll find that sand gets into your bread and butter just the same. I’ve known of a long row of bath-houses that in a single winter were nearly all buried out of sight by the drifting sand.”
One day I followed a roadway across the marshes to the shore of the bay. Vessels were coming and going on the misty gray waters and, northward, twelve miles away, was Cape May, a low blue streak in the dim distance. I went along the beach toward the ocean. At one spot were a few fishermen’s shacks on the dunes, and farther on was a factory that made a business of extracting fish oil from “porgies.” During the season a fleet is kept on the sea catching the fish, and thousands of barrels are filled with oil each week. I thought the vicinity was odorous to the limit of endurance, though it was affirmed that the season’s work had not yet begun, and that I only smelled the ghosts of last year’s oil-extracting. “Besides,” this informant said, “they say the smell is healthy, and you get used to it and don’t notice it after a while. But it went pretty hard with the town folks when the factory was first built. The smell blows right over there when the wind is to the east’ard. One lady said she had to get up in the night to perfume herself.”
At length I crossed a sandy point where the bones of many a staunch ship lay imbedded, and had before me the restless billows of the open ocean, and could hear a bell buoy tolling its somber, warning notes. Where sand and water met was a recent wreck with most of its masts still standing. But the hull was badly broken, and the waves were roaring and dashing about it like ravenous beasts. For a considerable distance I continued to stroll along the shore, just out of reach of the slither of foam that each breaking wave sent far up the incline of the beach. When I presently turned my footsteps toward the town I decided to make a short cut across the marshes. But as soon as I left the dunes and was down on the low ground I stirred up a horde of mosquitoes in the coarse, thin grass. They settled on my clothing and clung there, and made such savage assaults on my face and hands with their poisoned lances that I shifted my course to the sandhills where these pests were comparatively few. It was supper-time when I reached my hotel, and most of the guests, and the proprietor and his family, had sat down to eat. As I took my place the landlord remarked to a lady at a table adjacent to his, “It’s blustering this evening.”
“Oh, yes,” she responded, “the wind comes up every evening and blows like the dickens. You know that, don’t you?”
“Well,” he said, “I don’t know much of anything, and half I do know ain’t so.”
“Did you go to that dance last night?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied, “and my girl was the best lookin’ girl there. The only fault I had to find was that she would n’t stand straight. We all have our troubles. I hearn one feller complain that his girl could n’t dance without steppin’ on his feet. Then there was a girl from Wilmington that I tried to be pleasant to; but she was mad because she’d sat on a strawberry and spotted her dress. So she would n’t talk.”
In the lingering twilight that evening I visited a negro cemetery. The graves clustered about a plain little church. A few of them had headstones or wooden markers, but evidently there was nothing to show the location of most of them when the mounds disappeared. The two most conspicuous headstones were flat slabs of cement, each with a heart incised near the top. The lettering had been roughly cut into the cement before it hardened. Here are the inscriptions:
That peculiar word in the final line of the Burton stone is probably meant for “quickening.”
While I was looking at these cement works of art a negro laborer on his way home from the fields came through the cemetery, stopped, and said: “A colored boy described those out and made them himself. He was only about fifteen, but he did a right good job.”
Along the path that led from the street to the church were many seemingly new-made graves. I fancied an epidemic had been sweeping off the negro dwellers of the town, but the colored worker said: “Oh, no, sir, the graves have been renewed and freshened up for Decoration Day. They look neater to keep the grass off, but we only trouble to do these along the walk. That’s the oldest part of the cemetery over there next to the dividation line. Often when we are digging a grave there we find skull bones and leg bones and arm bones. Of co’se we naturally did n’t know any one was buried at the spot we’d picked out. Ginerally we put the bones back right where they were and dig in another place.
“A good many have died this past year. For one thing we’ve had a fearful winter — the worst in thirty-five years. It’s the coldest we ever experienced — I don’t except none. You just bet you had to keep as near the stove as you could without gettin’ burnt. I hearn sev’ral talkin’ of a man who suffered with cold feet. It seemed he could n’t get ‘em warm nohow, and finally he pulled off his shoes and slapped his feet up on the stove. That way he got ‘em a little warmer than he wanted to, and they held so much heat that afterward he could n’t get ‘em cool.
“You mought think that lots o’ the houses you see was so poorly built or in such bad repair they would n’t be much protection, but it’s my idea that most houses are too tight to be healthy. I know a white gen’leman who lives in an old house that’s never been fixed up in years. If he goes to bed at night and there comes a snow, he feels the flakes droppin’ down on his face from the leaky roof; and in the mornin’ he jumps right out of bed into a snowbank. He has six or eight children, and he says to me, ‘They never have had a day’s sickness. But I confess,’ says he, ‘that many a time I would n’t have cared if the house had been a little tighter.’
“The crops are lookin’ very prosperous this season, ain’t they? Last year we had n’t broke up any ground at this time it was so dry. You could n’t get a plough point into the clay land. But at last, some way or ‘nother, most men managed to get a little seed planted. The wheat was n’t putt in early enough though for it to git a holt, and the dry weather just killed it dead. Our corn was so parched up we did n’t have none noway, and the strawberries dried and cooked right on the vines, and wa’n’t anything. We did n’t have no luck with our potatoes either. Gosh! the for’ard potatoes was nothin’, and the late crop was a failery, too. We was cut short on everything. Oh, the farmers was torn all to pieces last year.”
Another negro who furnished me enlightenment of a picturesque sort was a gray, elderly man whom I accosted the next day as he was hoeing a little patch of potatoes beside his house.
“Potatoes are not up where I live,” I said.
“Where do you come from? he inquired.
“From Massachusetts,” I replied.
“Good land!” he exclaimed, “you’re a long way from home, I reckon. Is Massachusetts in the north part of the climate or the south part?”
“The north,” I said.
“How long does it take to come from there to here?” was his next question.
When I had satisfied him on that point he remarked that he did not usually hoe his garden except in the evening. “I’m hired out to work durin’ the day,” he said, “but this mornin’ I been helpin’ my wife to wash some. She’s kind o’ been paralyzed.
“See, there’s some potato-bug eggs on that leaf. About a thousand bugs would hatch out of them eggs, so I’ll just pinch ‘em with my fingers. Along about the last o’ March the bugs are flyin’ all over this country. If there’s easterly weather at that time vessels meet great rafts of ‘em on the water, and you find ‘em heaped up on the beach. That shows they come from some foreign place where it don’t freeze. But a good many of ‘em stay in the ground here all winter. I’ve dug ‘em out in February, and they were as much alive as ever they are. You plant your potatoes, and the bugs come right up with ‘em ready to begin eatin’. Most people fight ‘em with poison, but I don’t keer to do that. I think some of the poison might get in the potatoes. So I go to work and ketch the bugs and pull their heads off. Then I know they’re done. If I pick ‘em in a bucket and undertake to mash ‘em with my foot I’m satisfied that some of ‘em live. They’re pretty tough. I wonder that they don’t try to get away by flyin’. They’ve got wings. But they act like a possum — soon as you touch ‘em they drop and act as if they was dead — ha-ha-ha-ha! They’re jus’ tryin’ to fool you. Everything has to have its little smart ways. I keep pickin’ ‘em off, and ‘bout the time I think I’m cle’r of ‘em the eggs are comin’ on to hatch. I don’t know what them bugs ever originated from, but I’ve always kind o’ thought in my own mind it was from guano. We never had no such thing before the guano and stuff began to be brought across the ocean here.
Setting the net
“There was a different kind o’ bugs on the potatoes when I was a boy a-comin’ up, and I’m somewhere about sixty-five years old now. Those bugs were slim most like a big ant, and they had shell wings that were black with a little white streak. There were lots of ‘em, but you could drive ‘em off with a switch. You can’t drive these bugs. There’s no drive in ‘em.
“Things change, don’t they? Even the weather ain’t what it used to be. Every year the season gets a month later it ‘pears. If we’d ketch a good open spell in the old times we’d get all our ploughin’ done in March. But sometimes we’d have snows and blowin’ and freezin’ chuck down to the last of the month. Many a time I’ve been ploughin’ and had to knock off on account of a storm. I’d leave the plough, and the snow would kiver it up. But we used to be through thinnin’ our corn by the last of May, and we’d commence to lay by the crop right after the Fourth of July — quit work into it, you understand. Before the end of September the harvest would be all in, and winter begun and we’d have little scuds of snow. Now winter don’t start so soon, but you got to look out for hard weather later in the spring, and you can sleep with all the covers on till June. Take it weather, bugs, and all, the farmin’ man ain’t got but a very little left when he’s paid his help and his fertilize bill. He has to sell off all he’s raised, and that leaves him down with nothin’.”
This colored man could hardly be vouched for as a competent authority on agriculture, and I quote with more confidence a town farmer with whom I later became acquainted. “Land sells higher and higher all the time,” he said. “Well, sir, the farmers are wakin’ up, and we get more out of an acre raisin’ vegetables and small fruits than we used to get out of a half dozen acres of corn; and I’ll tell you another thing, Mister, that is drivin’ the price of land way up — people with capital are not foolin’ with coal and oil stocks as they did once, but if a man has a few thousand dollars, he says, ‘I’ll loan it out here on farm property where I know what I’ve got.’ Farmin’ has become profitable because the cities have grown so enormously. They look to us to supply ‘em with food. We could n’t do it by the old methods. In my early days we cut all our wheat with a cradle, and it was pretty near a day’s work to cut an acre. Now we go in with a reaper and cut twenty acres in a day. Then we cut all the hay with scythes, and raked it up by hand. Riding-machines are common on the farms now, and the work is far less laborious. Fifty years ago oxen were the farmers’ usual draught animals, but now they’re too slow and have nearly disappeared.
“Most of us are descendants of the old-time inhabitants and have been around these diggings all our lives. There’s very few furriners, but we have a good many negroes, and they’re a very prosperous people. They’ve got schools, and they’ve got churches, and where a colored man ten years ago could n’t pick up a dollar he can now pick up five.
“When I was a boy this town had about a thousand inhabitants, and there was only two free schools in the place, and those two did n’t amount to a great deal. We had ‘Select Schools’ that were better, but if you went to them you had to pay tuition every quarter. I’d venture to say that the little clapboarded free school buildings did n’t cost over three hundred dollars apiece. The seats had no backs, and they were too high for the small children. So the little ones would sit with their feet dangling and kicking. Oh, mercy! we did n’t have much comfort in them times. We were expected to be on hand to start the school day at eight in the morning and were n’t turned loose till five in the evening.
“School commenced in the fall in September and went on about six months. Out in the country they’d have only a three months’ winter school with possibly another month in the summer if they could raise the money to pay the teacher. People had to have their children to work. Wood for the schoolhouse stove was furnished by the families that sent children. It’s pretty skearce around here now, but ‘t was plenty then, and each family give a load. We had men teachers who were paid twenty-five to thirty dollars a month. They were men who followed teaching for a business, and often were well advanced in years. They did n’t teach much but ‘rethmetic and history and grammar and writing, and the books was few and poor; and yet if I only knew all there was in them books I’d be satisfied.
“Most of the teachers were pretty severe. Generally they taught for what there was in it, and as a natural consequence they were cross. If a boy did n’t behave the teacher would take him by the hand and rule him. I used to be punished that way or switched pretty often, and I needed more punishing than I got, but I did n’t think so then. Some boys were always in trouble and they’d get terrible whippings. There was no inducement to study — nothin’ to interest them, and they were much inclined to play truant. They’d sneak around and go fishing, even if they knew they’d be corrected for it. ‘Tain’t so now. The boys want to go to school, they have so much fun there. But, as the feller says, ‘You can never tell much about a boy.’ One of the most ornery boys that ever lived in this town is now captain of a big ship that makes voyages out to Chiny.”
On another day, in my quest for
information, I spoke with a woman who was feeding some chickens that were in a
coop near the street fence. She was proud of her chickens, but was still more
proud of the garden back of the house, which she presently invited me to visit,
so she could show me all the varied growing things that crowded its narrow
limits. Her remarks ran on something in this wise:
The pump at the back door
“See that little cherry tree. She’s loaded full and she bears every year. Next beyond is a dwarf apple tree, and that never fails to have fruit on it either, though we’re too bleak here for apples to do first-rate. Most of what we raise we use in our own family, but I’m always sellin’ a little somethin’ or ‘nother. Last spring I sold enough kale and mustard greens from the garden to buy a barrel of flour. I scatter the seed around in the fall, and it keeps coming up all the time. I’ll give you some and you can sow it in your garden.
“We’ve got a nice soil to work in hereabouts. You can’t hardly find a stone large enough to throw and scare the birds away in this part of Delaware. My husband does the heavy garden work. That’s him hoeing over by that grapevine. Here ‘s a bunch of ribbon grass, and it’s a curious thing that you can’t find two blades striped alike. That’s a mystery, ain’t it? And yet it’s the same with people. As many as there are in the world no two look exactly like each other.
“Next to the ribbon grass is an old-time lily. It used to belong to my great aunt, who died when she was in her eighties. The root is good for a salve, and people come to me from way back of Georgetown for it.
“I’m a great hand for herbs. I guess I inherit my liking for ‘em from my mother. She was a regular herb doctor, and they would send for her from far and near.
“I work in the garden just about all the time in pleasant weather, even if I neglect things that ought to be done in the house. For thirteen years I had dispepsia and was troubled with heart trembling. My stomach was always cold and I was so weak I could n’t walk across the floor without holding on to a chair or table. I nearly wore out our carriage going out riding. Somebody had to help me in, and I would sit with a pillow at my back, and yet I could n’t bear to have the horse trot. It would shake the wind all out of me. One night I dreamed I saw our doctor just as plain as I see you now. He stood lookin’ at me, and I said, ‘Why ain’t you givin’ me some medicine?’
“‘Go out and feed your chickens,’ he says, and went away.
“Next day I remembered my dream, and I said to myself: ‘That meant something. It meant for me to cure myself by outdoor exercise and air.’
“I begun at once, and now I’m a well woman. I’m gettin’ so stout I can’t wear hardly any of the clothes I’ve got, and I can eat most any food — except of course something like boiled cabbage late in the day. Nobody ought to eat that then.
“I was raised on a farm, and I think I’m naturally active, but I don’t work the way my mother did. She was very industrious, and though the family was large I never knew her to have a servant in her life. There was n’t an idle minute about her. We’d make as much as sixty dollars some seasons knitting in the long evenings after the farm was laid by. We grew sheep, and mother handled the wool and spun it into yarn. While I was still very young I used to get my little straight-backed chair every evening and place myself right by her to pick wool. She learned me to knit my own stockings when I was eight years old.”
The woman’s husband had now joined us, and he remarked: “Things were much like that in all the farm families. Where I lived the boys as well as the girls learned to knit and darn their own stockings. Everybody had homemade clothing that the women cut out and sewed by hand. The cloth for the men’s clothes was what was called fustian, and for the women’s clothes it was linsey-woolsey. I would get one suit a year just before Christmas, and it did n’t matter how it fitted if ‘twas so I could get it on. There was no such thing as a vest for young boys — just pants and a jacket. Neither did we have an undershirt or drawers. I never wore any till I was grown up, and I did n’t wear stockings except in winter. The boys in a family that lived right along side of us did n’t wear either shoes or stockings the year through. Their feet would turn purple in winter and sometimes crack between the toes and bleed, but they claimed they did n’t suffer from the cold any more than if they’d worn shoes.
“Every fall the shoemaker came to our house to make us a pair of boots or shoes all around. I used to have little low shoes with just four eyelets in ‘em for lacing, and they were lined with red sheepskin. The soles were pegged. The shoemaker would punch holes with his awl and drive in two rows of pegs right around the edge. We never had a box of blacking, but we’d turn the stove lid over and rub on soot from it with a brush. That made our shoes black, or at least they was n’t white, you know. I would carry ‘em under my arm on the way to Sunday-school to save ‘em. Just before I got to the church I’d sit down in some pines that grew by the roadside and put the shoes on. I never wore ‘em in the spring longer than I could help. The country then was all in timber and more protected than now, and as early as March we’d strip off our shoes and go for the woods and crawl in the hog beds in the pine shats. It was nice, in a sunny place where the wind did n’t hit. We preferred to go barefoot even if we did have stone bruises and what they call cowitch.”
“The way my father had me wear my shoes,” the wife said, “was to change them to the other foot each day so as to keep ‘em from getting’ lopsided. They were rights and lefts a little bit, but you would n’t hardly know it.
“Fashions did n’t change much, and all of us, rich and poor, wore about the same kind of clothes. The women wore sunbunnets and aprons to church. I’ve did it. I used to think our linsey-woolsey dresses were beautiful, but when I was seventeen I wore mine to church in town, and they made fun of it because it was sheep’s wool. So I would n’t wear linsey-woolsey again.
“We used to walk to church in the morning, but it was too much to walk again in the evening, and we’d put the oxen to the cart and ride, and perhaps take along some of the neighbors.”
“I was a bound boy,” the man resumed, “but I was treated same as the man’s own children except that I did n’t get much schoolin’. I stayed at home and worked when the weather was fit, and at the time I went into the army I could n’t read or write. The man I worked for was kind o’ rich, for he not only had a pair of oxen but he kept a horse. Oh, laws, yes! anybody that owned a horse was somebody. But most of the people around here was poor, and all they cared for was a little something to wear and to eat. Ther buildings were very common. Cattle sheds, for instance, were roofed with brush on which pine shats were thrown. The shats would shed rain if there was enough of ‘em, but they’d rot in two or three years, and then we had to take the oxen and haul more. The sheep and cattle in them days stayed outdoors mostly, and after a heavy snow we’d have to dig ‘em out from where they’d crowded up to the hayrack or some other slight shelter.”
“At our place,” the wife remarked, “we used to thresh our wheat in the cattle pound, or barnyard as some would say now. We’d rake everything off as clean as we could and then lay the wheat bundles in a circle, heads in. Oxen that the men would drive were used for treading out the grain, or perhaps two or three horsebackers went around on it. I’ve rode one of the horses threshing wheat a many a time. In the center stood some of the men with turning-forks keeping the wheat bundles stirred up. After a while they’d take the stock all off and upend the bundles and turn ‘em right over. Then there was more treading. It was no long job. We did n’t raise much. Why, my dear man, if we had ten bushels we thought we had a big crop. There’s more raised now on one farm than was grown then in the whole county. Any bread made of flour we called cake, but we had plenty of cornbread. There were no stoves then with us, and we placed the cornbread on a board and baked it on the hearth in front of the fire.
“If my father went visiting after church, or most any time, the people he visited would probably send the children a little something to eat, and often, if he come home and did n’t say nothing about what he’d brought, we’d wait till he took his coat off and search his pockets. Sometimes he’d carry around a biscuit two or three days before we got hold of it. By then it was right dirty and black, and so hard we could n’t break it. But that made no difference. We’d take a hatchet, and chop it up, and it tasted good to us.”
After I parted from these friends I wandered out into the farming region that lies back of the town. Its fertility was very evident, and its flourishing crops were a joy to behold. Often there were hedgerows between fields or along the roadsides. These were decidedly more pleasing to the eyes than fences, but a man whom I accosted as he sat on the edge of his piazza, and who whittled the piazza floor very industriously while we talked, said: “They ain’t puttin’ in no new hedges, and they’re tearin’ up the old. People are kickin’ against ‘em on account of the snow. We have a good bit of snow here some years, and the hedges ketch the drifts. I’ve walked from here clean in town on snow that blew in and filled the roadway up even with the tops of the hedges that were on both sides. We had to cut a road through for the teams same as a canal.
“Another thing we got against the hedges is that they’re wasteful. Take that field yander — the wheat next to the hedge is mighty slim. It’s like havin’ a field long side of the woods — the hedge roots take all the substance and moisture out of the ground. You lose more or less on a strip ten or twelve feet wide.”
But I found one advantage in the hedges — they protected the wild strawberries, and the berries were so abundant and delicious that I lingered picking and eating them a long time, and was tempted to continue in Delaware till the strawberry season was past.
NOTES. — An automobile route goes down through Delaware from Wilmington to Cape Charles, a distance of 212 miles. The roads are macadam and dirt. Wilmington, the largest city in the state, has extensive manufactories and considerable historic interest. About 13 miles to the northwest Washington was defeated by the British in September, 1777, in the Battle of the Brandywine.
Dover, 47 miles south, the capital of the state, was founded in 1700 by William Penn. Between it and Felton, 12 miles farther on, are immense apple orchards.
Old Lewes and some of the other towns at the mouth of the Delaware have a good deal of attraction as vacation resorts.