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Life in Emmitsburg in the mid 1800's

Bennet Tyson Remembers the Old Racetrack on Popular Ridge
and a Simple Game Played in Those Days

[Originally published in March 27th, 1908 in the Emmitsburg Chronicle]

One of Emmitsburg’s sturdy old boys is Mr. Bennet Tyson who was born January 4th, 1832. So he has only seventy six years. No doubt if he came fooling around Mr. Flaut, Mr. Motter or Mrs. Barry trying to tell them how things were done in the old times, they would pat him on the head and tell him to run away and play. For they were grown ups when he came upon this mortal scene, Even his father was only eight years old when Mrs. Barry was born. That will give you an idea of how old Mrs. Barry is and how young “Uncle” Bennet Tyson is.

What inspiration Emmitsburg’s ancient ones would furnish for an essay on “The Art of Growing Old.” A man like sound liquor should become mellow with the years; not acrid and harsh, not cloudy and dull but radiating; he cheerful light and the bland atmosphere of good wine. So do Emmitsburg’s old people and Mr. Tyson is no exception and when you talk to him you can hardly realize that his age is six years over the scriptural allowance. His shrewd, merry blue eye is undimmed; his mind works, as it always did, with mathematical accuracy; his step is confident and jaunty. Only last year he preformed feats of climbing when he was working on the steeple of St. Joseph’s Church, way up under the belfry, which made the spectators hold heir breath. It is a safe bet that he could almost any time put many a lad of half his years to the bad if it came a day’s swinging of the hammer or shoving the plane.

When the Chronicle reporter had been introduced and his mission explained the cigars were lighted and when be benevolent odor of tobacco had filled be room, Mr. Tyson was asked to tell be famous story of his father running away to Lockport in the early twenties. “That happened before I was born but it is a true story,” said he. “My father was born in Baltimore in 1804.

He came to Emmitsburg about 1818 and was apprenticed to John Barry the shoemaker. He didn’t get ahead as fast as he thought he deserved so he ran away. He was finally; traced to Lockport, N. Y. How he ever got there I don’t know. Barry sent a man named Mansfield to bring him back. It is 250 miles from Emmitsburg to Lockport as the crow flies but Mansfield walked and I guess he thought it was nearer 400 miles. He got a map and drew a line between Emmitsburg and Lockport took the direction with pocket compass and set out on his march through the trackless wilderness. He carried his kit of shoemaker’s tools so he could work his way and he set out with only a lump of corn pone for food. A man named McFadden started with Mansfield but he only got as far as Poplar Ridge. He wasn’t much of a traveler. Well, somehow Mansfield got to Lockport. The Erie Canal was building at that time and my father was on the works. He willingly agreed to return so they made the journey back on foot. I sometimes wish my father hadn’t come back. Then maybe I wouldn’t have been born into this wicked world,” said Mr. Tyson, with a twinkle in his eye.

“It might have happened in a worse place than Emmitsburg,” said the reporter. “That’s true,” said he. “I guess things turn out for the best. My rather served his time out with Barry and I reckon he was glad enough to get back home.” “Did you ever run away when you were an apprentice?” Mr. Tyson was asked.

“No I have had no adventure,” said he. “I was apprenticed to Shorb and Miller, carpenters, being regularly bound out for five years. “I was indentured in 1847. I got nothing but keep and clothes. They treated me well and, let me tell you, they taught me something about the business. A boy learned his trade right in those lays and he knew what work was, too.  When I was free I earned as much as $11 a month and found, and worked from dawn to dark that was the rule. In the summer that meant from 4 A.M. to 8 P. M. I remember one job at Diehl’s Mill down Taneytown way. The boss would call me at two o’clock in the morning and we walked five miles to the place. We worked as long as we could see to hit a nail. Then we tramped back. On Saturday afternoon we quit at five o’clock and went home to cut wood for the next week’s fires.

Emmitsburg’s most accurate mechanic, a graduate of the University of Hard Knocks, Mr. Bennet Tyson tells some of his experiences. The old racetrack on Popular Ridge and a simple gamed played in those days that may have been the original game of Baseball. An example of Uncle Bennet’s mechanical ingenuity and skill.

"You can see that men who work as hard as we did hadn’t much time to play games and I don’t remember much about them. Long bullets were one. The player had a long leather strap one end of which was fastened about his wrist. An iron ball would be rolled up in the strap and with an underhand swing of the arm it was pitched ahead of the player. An expert could send it several hundred yards along a straight road. It was generally played along the public roads and I knew of one game that lasted to Taneytown. The side that got the ball there first won that was all there was to the game. "

"A simple game was played that may have been the origin of baseball. There were a batter, a pitcher and a few fielders. All that I can remember about it is that the pitcher tossed the ball to the batter and if he struck a fly and was caught he was out. They didn’t run bases and there were no strikes. The only way to get a batter out was to catch him out."

"Out towards Poplar Ridge there was a race course. The land now belonged to the Fraileys. That was long before my time but I used to hear my grandmother talk about it. They would have scrub horse races and all kinds of gambling games: sweat, roulette and others. Everybody would get drunk and stay drunk for week; I have heard my grandmother say.

"As to the cost of living, the necessaries of life were cheap and plentiful. I have known whiskey to sell as low as eighteen and three-fourths cents a gallon and tobacco in proportion. Flour I have bought as low as $3.50 a barrel before 1850, and fresh pork for three cents a pound."

"I never had but one attack of illness. I was down with intermittent fever in 1842. They thought I was going to die but I fooled them and I have never been sick a day since."

It should be said for Mr. Tyson, who is not given to blowing his own trumpet, that for many years he has been Emmitsburg’s leading builder. He erected the Academy building, refectory and kitchen and the big infirmary at the Convent; also St. Euphemia’s school buildings; also, the Emmit house.

He built the Presbyterian Church and rebuilt it after it was destroyed by fire. He erected many private dwellings. As he modestly lays, nothing he has ever built has fallen down but everybody knows when he put up a building it was done right.

He never had a technical education but he can work out the most complicated plans with mathematical exactness. Father Hayden told The Chronicle reporter how, on one occasion, Mr. Tyson helped St. Joseph’s Church out of a serious difficulty. It was when the new organ was bought. The old one weighed one thousand pounds but the new one weighed ten times as much. An architect from St. Louis said the loft would have to be rebuilt to carry the additional load. The builders of the organ said the same. The situation was turned over to Mr. Tyson who contrived a plan by which the organ could be carried safely without rebuilding the loft. He did the work out in his shop and so accurate were his calculations that every timber went to its place with hardly a stroke of the saw. Not only is there no vibration but also, in Mr. Tyson’s opinion, the loft would support twice the weight it does now.

That is the kind of a mechanic Mr. Tyson is.

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

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