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Life in Emmitsburg in the mid 1800's

Farm Life & Political Campaigns

[Originally published on July 24th 1908 in the Emmitsburg Chronicle]

"The more I read about the old days in Emmitsburg," said an appreciative Chronicle subscriber, "the more I wish I could go back seventy or eighty years and live in those times and see for myself what they were like. I can't do that, so the next best thing is to read about them in the Chronicle. It sounds good to me-the story The Chronicle has been telling about the old ways and the old people and you can't print too much of it for me." Whereupon a member of the staff was sent out to interview the ancient authorities on the history of Emmitsburg and get them to tell more about the days when they were young.

The first "oldest inhabitant" The Chronicle man met was Mr. Nathaniel Rowe sitting under his vine and fig tree which is a horse chestnut tree in front of his house. "Mr. Rowe," said the reporter, "the readers of The Chronicle want some more of your `reminiscences.," "Well they can have them and welcome," said he. "Since you stirred me up to thinking about the old times much has come back to me that I had forgotten and now I can talk to you to some purpose. How would you like to hear" about an old fashioned corn-husking ?" "Nothing better, itís all good," Said the reporter

"In the first place" said Mr. Rowe after he had led the way into the cool, dusky front parlor, "I want to say to you again, that I don't think these latter days are such a wonderful improvement on the past. Take harvesting for example. Many a time I have seen my grandfather reaping grain with a sickle. He would take a great armful, just the right quantity, and cut it off about three 'inches from the ground with a slashing stroke of the blade; it would fall as exactly and neatly as if laid down by a reaper. And he made good speed, too. Not as fast as the machine would do it, of course, but we had plenty of time then and we weren't crazy to go through everything we had to do at a breakneck pace. We thought more about doing our tasks well and thoroughly than in getting done in a hurry. I don't say we should go back to the sickle and the cradle, but I do love the days when a man was of more importance than a machine.

Our methods of thrashing were as primitive as our reaping. Horses trod out the grain as the oxen in the scriptures did. The heads were piled in a big circle on the barn floor and four horses, two and two, walked around and around on them until all the grain was trodden out. We had to keep turning the mass with a fork so as to inquire a thorough job. That was cold work. We always thrashed in the Winter time and we boys would have to ride the horses to keep them on the grain. Thus we did with wheat and oats. Rye and buckwheat were thrashed with flails, two men striking together. There was a knack about that and if you didn't understand how to do it you were liable to get a crack on the head you would remember. Of course in both methods the grain was passed through a mill to winnow out the chaff.

"But I must get to the corn-huskings. We generally held them in October when the moon was full. In those days it was the custom to allow the corn to ripen thoroughly on the stalks and it therefore plumped out better than when the stalk is cut and shocked with the ears on. A corn field after it had been topped was a pretty sight. When the corn was full ripe the ears were pulled off and hauled to the barn. The stalks were allowed to stand through the Winter and in the Spring were pulled up and burnt. We generally seeded a field to oats after it had been in corn.

"The day before the husking the neighbor-women would come and help get ready the harvest supper. What did we have for supper? Good things, let me tell you. Chicken pot-pie, roast pork and apple sauce, cakes and every kind of pie you could think of and plenty of everything. Well, the ears of corn would be laid out near the barn in long rows about three feet high and three feet wide. As many men as could get to a row would fall to with their husking palms. We began about dark and worked until about ten o'clock. If there was no moon great bonfires were made to give us light.

Most every farmer had at least one or two slaves and the darkies would bring their banjos and sing the good old songs while we worked. It was a thirsty business and a bucket of water was kept going up and down between the rows. The water bearer would carry the bucket in one hand and the whiskey bottle in the other for some needed a little stimulant to sustain them at their labors.

"Sometimes as many as seventy-five men with their women folk would come to a husking and they could shuck the corn crop of a big farm in one evening. NL., the women didn't do any husking. They helped put the finishing touches on the supper and serve it when the men were ready. Between the hard work and the whiskey we had hearty appetites by quitting time and what we could do to a pile of grub would astonish you.

"I believe the young people got more fun out of the apple butter boilings than out of the huskings. The night before the boiling the neighborhood boys and girls would come to core and `snits' the apples, as they called it, and that was always a great frolic." "Must have been a great opportunity for courting," said the reporter. "Well, I have heard say there was some kissing done on the sly, " admitted Mr. Rowe, "but the next night was, more interesting for the young people who were inclined that way.

In the morning the big copper kettle in the yard would be filled with cider, as much as a barrel, sometimes, and the fire would be lighted. The cider was boiled down one half. That generally took until noon. Then the apple snits were added a little at a time. Then the stirring began and never stopped until the apple butter was done. A paddle fastened at right angles to a pole about six feet long was used for stirring and it was kept going slowly round in the kettle until 'way into the night. The young people in pairs would take turns in stirring, one on each side of the pole facing each other. When a boy and girl had hold of the pole you can guess what might happen in the evening when it was dark except for the light of the fire under the kettle," said Mr. Rowe with a sly twinkle in his eye as if his knowledge of what happened was not altogether a matter of hearsay."

"Were politics as interesting when you were a young man as they are now," enquired the newspaper man. "Yes, more so. You can't imagine the fervor and enthusiasm of the campaign of 1840 when William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate for the presidency ran I against Martin Van Buren, the Democratic candidate, and defeated him. A national election now is a pink tea affair by comparison with the 'Tippecanoe and Tyler Too' campaign. You know Tippecanoe was the nick-name given to General Harrison on account of his defeat of the famous Indian Chief, Tecumseh, in 1811.

The battle was fought on Tippecanoe river in what was then the territory of Indiana of which Harrison was governor. He and John Tyler were nominated by the National Wig convention in December 1839 and during the succeeding year, up to the election, the fight was red hot. It was the most exciting presidential campaign the country had ever experienced and Emmitsburg was not less aroused than the rest of the nation. Political mass meetings and processions were first employed in that campaign to stir up enthusiasm and make votes. Party emblems and watchwords were used as never before. It was also known as the 'log cabin and hard cider campaign.' Harrison lived at a place called North Bend, in Ohio, which was then a wilderness, about sixteen miles from Cincinnati.

One end of his house consisted of a log cabin covered with clapboards and it was said that he used hard cider instead of wine on his table. The Democrats, I believe, were really responsible for the log cabin and hard cider becoming issues in the campaign. They ridiculed Harrison for his primitive way of living but the Whigs accepted the challenge and made the log cabin and hard cider emblems of democratic simplicity which, of course, was very effective.

In our parades in that campaign we had a log cabin built on a wagon. It was six feet wide, about sixteen feet long and one story high. Coon skins were nailed beside the door and inside on the walls. The door of the cabin had the latch string hanging out and everybody was welcome to go inside and tap the barrel of hard cider that was kept on hand.

The inside walls of the cabin were hung with traps, rifles, powder horns, and buckskin ball pouches. The wagon was driven by a man dressed in a hunting shirt made of linen or tow which carne to the knees and was hung with a three inch fringe around the bottom and held with a broad belt of buckskin. His hunting breeches of buckskin and a cap of coon skin completed his costume. The horses wore bonnets of coon skin with the heads and tails on. The whole outfit made an impressive appearance.

When Harrison first settled in Southern Ohio everybody there led the frontier life. They were dependent for food mainly on such game as they could kill. The Democrats said that Harrison had lived on coon meat, hard cider and corn bread. The Whigs added the coon as a political emblem to hard cider and the log cabin. That was the significance of the coon in this campaign.

When Harrison first settled in Southern Ohio everybody there led the frontier life. They were dependent for food mainly on such game as they could kill. The Democrats said that Harrison had lived on coon meat, hard cider and corn bread. The Whigs added the coon as a political emblem to hard cider and the log cabin. That was the significance of the coon in this campaign.

'We had speech making without end. I think General Harrison made a speech in Emmitsburg during the campaign. He was here at any rate. At the meetings campaign songs were sung by William Webb who is still alive. He lives in Thurmont. I tried once to get from him some of the old campaign songs but he had forgotten them.

"We made a big campaign ball of muslin stretched on a wooden frame. It was twelve feet in diameter. Through the center of the ball a long pole ran horizontally so that the ends stuck out about five feet on each side. It rolled on the ground on a wooden flange, running around the outside at right angles to the pole. Men would trundle the ball through the streets by taking hold of the ends of the poles on each side and pushing it ahead of them. It was painted with cartoons and political mottoes. I remember one of the cartoons was a picture of a fox getting his paw caught in a trap.  The fox's head was the head of Van Buren. James Hickey, professor of drawing and music at Mount St. Mary's did some of the painting and so did my brother-in-law, Joshua Rowe.

Once we rolled the ball to Frederick for a big meeting there. We left here in the evening and rolled all night, getting to Frederick after daylight next morning. We took a wagon along with straw on the floor and plenty of provisions. When a crew got tired they would climb into the wagon and go to sleep and another crew would keep the ball rolling on through the night. That showed our enthusiasm. Would any of the young men now do as much for Taft or Bryan?

After the election was over a big celebration was held at a tavern kept by a man named Harvey opposite to the tollgate on the Thurmont pike. You know Harrison gave Van Buren a tremendous licking, the latter only getting 60 electoral votes out of 294. The result was very popular in Emmitsburg. Most of the people were Whigs and everybody joined in the celebration which lasted a day and a night. It was held in the field back of the tavern. We needed plenty of room for our celebrations in those days. People came from, all over the county and it was easier to come than to get away for hard cider and other hard stuff flowed like water.

Of course it is a good thing that such a custom has died out. Political campaigns have improved in another respect. You have no conception of the personal bitterness politics engendered seventy years ago. Outrageous and slanderous attacks on private character were usual, and were often 'the cause of personal encounters which sometimes resulted seriously. However there was little, if any, buying of votes. Bribery as we have it now wasn't practiced in those days."

Read other stories in this series of first hand accounts of
life in Emmitsburg in the 1800's

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