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Life in Emmitsburg in the mid 1800's

Interview with Henry Stokes (1825 - 1910)

[Originally published in January 1908 in the Emmitsburg Chronicle]

Among Emmitsburg's remarkable young old men is Mr. Henry Stokes. Although his years by the calendar are many, his physical and mental faculties are unimpaired and his spirit is buoyant and youthful he is a living demonstration of the saying, "a man is as young as he feels."

Mr. Stokes was born January 17th, 1825 and that makes him eighty-three years old. Though you wouldn't think it to look at him and hear him talk about matters of past and, present interest. His grasp of current affairs is remarkable and he possesses that rare quality, the judicial mind, which is due in part, no doubt, to his long experience as it magistrate.

While Mr. Stokes is not one of those who always say "the old is better," he can tell his share of interesting stories of past times and, indeed, his memory is not less remarkable than his mental alertness and his shrewd insight.

In a recent interview with a Chronicle reporter Mr. Stokes said: "I am eighty-three years old. Perhaps you can't realize what it means to be that old until you reflect that my memory runs back to the time, when men harvested grain with sickles, made fire with flint and steel, raised their own flax and wool, wore blue broadcloth with brass buttons, when commercial travelers were unknown and good whiskey cost twenty-five cents a gallon.

"Yes, I mean just that. I can remember when wheat was cut with sickles, when the cradle came into general use and when the first reaper came to Emmitsburg - that was in 1862. I believe there was a thrashing machine made in Hanover in 1835 by a man named Fitz, but Obed Hussey made the first reaper and he was the father of harvesting machinery, his patent having been granted several months before McCormick's. William Gillelan had some kind of a reaper on his farm in 1852 but in 1853 a Hussey machine was brought to Emmitsburg by Joshua and Lewis Motter. A crowd of townspeople went out to see it work in the field behind Mr. Motter's house. The Rev. Mr. Auchinbaugh and I took off our coats and bound the first sheaves.

"Did you know the first matches in this country were made over at Mechanicstown [Thurmont]? That was seventy-five years ago. A blacksmith named Jacob Weller discovered the process. The sticks were cut by hand out of a block of wood, dipped in a plate of some secret composition and laid on a rack to dry. They were packed in pasteboard boxes and would ignite when rubbed against a slip of sandpaper. A box of matches about two inches wide and three-fourths of an inch thick cost twenty-five cents. People were afraid of them at first but soon got used to them.

"Weller's factory only ran about two years. An Ohio man discovered an improved method of making matches and put Weller out of business. The house where he had his factory is still standing.

"One can hardly, realize now the inconvenience of the old ways of making fire. Flint and steel were in common use. Sometimes an old flint lock musket was employed. A little powder would be put in the pan and flashed, on a piece of tow with which a bit of paper would be lighted and the burning paper would light a candle and so you had fire.

"Sometimes on a bright day a burning glass would be used to light a piece of punk, as we called the rotten wood from an old log or stump. In the villages it was common for neighbors to borrow fire from each other. The housewife would watch the chimneys of the nearby houses and when she saw smoke coming out of one of them she would run over with a little earthenware crock and get a few live coals which were carefully hurried home across the field. We were mighty careful not to let our fires go out at all for you can see, it was a serious matter. The good hickory coals well covered up with ashes would last till morning but we didn't always remember to do it.

"There was a common saying: 'You are in a hurry, you must be after fire.' That was the polite thing to say when people paid you a visit and didn't stay long. It died out a long time after the custom of borrowing fire disappeared.

"The country about here was full of small industries; carpet, linen and blanket weaving, coopering and shoemaking are some of the lost trades. A man would sometimes farm in the Summer and follow a trade in the Winter. My father was a farmer and made flour barrels in the Winter. I have known a farmer also to be a tailor. The shoemakers would travel about the country making up shoes for whole families. That was called 'whipping the cat.' I don't know how the phrase originated. The shoemaker made his pegs by hand. He would cut thin slabs off a block of maple wood about three inches square. He would bevel both sides of one end of the slab so that when it was cut up into pegs they would be already pointed.

"I was born in Mechanicstown. For a time I worked in a woolen mill there but I didn't like the proprietor so left him and learned the saddlery trade under a man in Mechanicstown named Joseph Freeze. I thought there was a good opening in Emmitsburg so I came here in October of 1846. There was one saddler here when I came and a fortnight afterwards another arrived. They both left in about eighteen months. My first shop was where Mr. Michael Hoke's place is now. In 1855 I moved up here. I retired in favor of my son Harry on January 1st, 1889, having been in business forty-four years and three months. The business has been in continuous existence under our family name for sixty-two years and three months.

"I was appointed a magistrate in 1867 and have served continuously ever since except in the years 1894 and 1895. About 1954 I was elected a school commissioner and served many years. I also served several terms as town commissioner and two terms as Burgess, my last term expiring in 1884. I have been always interested in public affairs. The first resolution to pike Main street was offered by me about 1861. We were just ready to let the contract when the fire of 1863 broke out and swept the lower part of the town. Before Main street was piked it was nothing but a big gutter and at times was almost impassable. I also took part in the formation of the original cemetery company. On March 2nd, 1848, I was married. 'There are not many couples who have lived happily together for sixty years.'"

"Now, don't tell me," exclaimed Mr. Stokes in reply to the reporter's, question, "that you want to know how my wedding suit was made."

"Of course," said the reporter. "The Chronicle's readers will be intensely interested to know what a man wore in 1848 on such a momentous occasion."

"Well," said Mr. Stokes, "if you-want to print that sort of stuff I'll give it to you. My wedding coat was made of broadcloth bought in the store and made up by one of the town tailors. It was cut fan-tailed, like the modern full dress coat. The trousers were made of black goods' fitting tight to the leg below the knee; the bottoms-flared out a little over the top of the hoot and a strap passed around under the boot to hold them down. A man to 'be dressed right in those day' had to wear a high silk hat with his best clothes. The brim of the hat was flat and the crown was straight. Some of-the high hats had bell crowns and some were narrower at the top than at the bottom - the fashions varied from time to time. Blue broadcloth for coats was in common use and then brass buttons were used. The wristbands of the shirt were turned slightly back over the cuffs of the coat."

"Did there used to be any good street fights," asked the reporter.

"Not in my time," replied Mr. Stokes. "'The practice had pretty much died out when I came here to live. I have heard that earlier there used to be fights worth seeing but I never a saw one that amounted to anything. I remember just after I came here to live there was a comical scrap in front of the blacksmith shop where Hoke and Rider are now located.

"A lot of mountaineers got to fighting in the street and in the mix-up they rolled under a wagon load of bark standing there. It was dark and we could not see what was going on but it sounded like a dog fight. We pulled them out supposing that somebody was badly hurt but nobody was. That was the way it generally went lots of noise and talk but nobody ever got hurt. The disturbances were generally made by the mountaineers but the town people sometimes mixed in. Since the earliest days there have always been the up-town and down-town gangs of boys. If a boy went outside of his own part of town he was apt to get into trouble if he wasn't careful. They fought fair, however. There was no stone throwing or mean business.

"It is a remarkable thing that the effects of drinking were less pronounced when liquor was in general use than they are now. One reason was that the boys didn't drink. I remember at Mr. Baugher's store there was always a bottle of whiskey on the shelf behind the counter and everybody who came in could have a drink free it he wanted it and everybody was free to decline if he didn't feel like 'taking it.'  I suppose half the people would decline. Whiskey only cost twenty-five cents a gallon and almost everybody had it in his house. Yet there was much less drunkenness then there is now. The boys didn't smoke either. Often a store would keep a box of tobies on the counter free to everybody. A good deal of tobacco was raised here and people made their own tobies. You could buy them four for a cent. A little bundle of them was generally wrapped in a roil of hickory bark."

"'Have there been any changes in the saddlery business since you began to work at it?" Mr. Stokes was asked.

"No," he replied, "a country shop is about the same as it was sixty years ago with the exception of the sowing machine which sews about ten times as fast as a man can. The character of the work however, has changed. When I started, the bulk of the work was heavy gear for the big teams and saddles and bridles. Everybody rode horseback, even the women. It was the only way to get about. There were only two buggies in town when I came here.

"A country saddler used to make everything except the hardware and the village blacksmith made that the rings and the bits and even the heavy buckles. Now we buy the hardware and the pads, the blinders, the collars and other things. We even made the heavy wagon whips the teamsters used.

"The leading teamsters were, Samuel Willhide, John Peble, Jacob Baker, John Wetzel and Tom Gilson. Richard Gilson had a famous team driven by his son, Tom. It used to go as far as Pittsburgh. The through teams would go almost anywhere. One would take a load to Baltimore, for example, there it might get freight for Pittsburgh; from there it might go to Wheeling and from there to Chambersburg just like a ship going from port to port wherever she could get a charter.

"The regular teams from Chambersburg to Baltimore would reach here Monday evening and the wagoners would sleep at the tavern going forward Tuesday morning. Returning, they would stop here Friday night. The wagoner would carry his own bedding and sleep on the bar room floor or on a table if. the house was full. The old Conestoga wagons were used for freight and they could carry big loads but I do not think any heavier than are carried now by team. Tom Gilson once hauled a load weighing one hundred and ten hundred-weight from Baltimore for Mr. Joshua Motter but that was exceptional. Eighty hundred weight was considered a big load.

"The merchants would go twice a year to Baltimore to buy goods. Traveling salesmen were unknown. The big teams would haul the goods to Emmitsburg. In between times the market wagons going to Baltimore would bring back goods for the Merchants in town."

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

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