Some Town Characters
Every town has its full share of "characters" and
Emmitsburg was no exception. It is hard to say exactly what is meant by
the term. Perhaps it is enough to say that he or she is someone who is
different or especially notable, with some being more so than others. In
any event, here are a few:
Benís claim to fame is that he was the catcher on the town baseball
team, the only organized sport in town. I think I should strike the word
"organized." The yearly schedule consisted of Saturday
afternoon games with Thurmont, Fairfield, Taneytown and one other, I
think it was Motter's Station or Rocky Ridge. Home games were played on
Fireman's Field, near the town square. At noon a boy would walk from one
end of the town to the other, ringing a bell and announcing that a game
would begin at one o'clock. But at about eleven o'clock, a more dramatic
announcement of an impending game was to be seen. Ben lived near the
west end of town, and at eleven, Ben would leave his home, fully armed
for the struggle, and begin his walk to the scene of the action. And so as
to be better seen, Ben chose to walk, not on the sidewalk but out in the
His uniform never was clean nor fully stitched. The same with his red
and white baseball stockings; they too had suffered from wear. Ben was
unshaven and wore no cap. It was his cleated shoes which announced his
coming, as he stepped along over the cobblestones. To us, the young
ones, Ben was impressive, even as he merely walked. But the walk was
only the prelude. Once the game began, Ben became the center of
attention. It might have been that signals between himself and the
pitcher became confused, or whether he needed a little more practice, we
will never know.
But it was sure to happen, a fast ball from the pitcher
would strike Ben on a sensitive finger or knuckle, and Ben would give a
virtuoso performance. Off would come his mask and glove and, amid loud
groans, he would shake the injured member up and down and in circles,
showing every sign of a serious injury. We youngsters thought Ben was
surely finished for the day, but the older ones knew better. "Shake
it off, Ben" they yelled, and soon Ben was ready to resume play.
You might think that by now, Ben had taken enough punishment, but more
trouble was in store. An opposing player is on his way from third base
to Home plate, under a full head of steam, and only Ben stands in his
There is a violent collision A cloud of dust hides the runner and Ben
for a moment, and as the air clears, there is Ben, only half conscious,
stretched out on the ground. With help from his teammates he gets to his
feet, his hands or nose or both are bloodied, but his spirits are soon
revived by loud cheers from the Emmitsburg side. Ben is ready again. And
would you believe it! It is his turn to bat, his team is trailing and
badly needs a score. Now Ben is not a Babe Ruth at hitting, so his
orders are to let his elbow get in the way of a pitch and thereby win a
free trip to first base. So, with more moans and groans, our hero does
his part as he plays the great American game. I vote for Ben.
There was another character, whose name I never knew. But come warm
weather and he would appear in town, with horse and wagon, and calling
out in a loud voice: "Any rags, any bones, any old iron, (then a
pause) any old gum shoes." We boys counted on him for a few cents
for any of the above items we could find. Usually we could find some old
bones in one of a tire nearby fields.
Although not known too well by many of the townspeople, Reuben was
well known to our family, since he was in charge of the Water Company
property up in the mountain, about three miles to the west of town.
Reuben lived there in a house, not far from the reservoir.
Earlier in this story, I mentioned that my brother Sam and I had
written an article about the Water Company, at a time when our family
was closely associated with its management.
Reuben was a loyal, conscientious and reliable man, with two amusing
characteristics. He took things very literally and he sometimes found
himself at a total loss for words, leading him to fill in the vacant
spaces with a patter that never changed. Let me describe a visit by
Reuben to the shop, to tell Papa that water in the reservoir was very
low. I tell you what to do, Reuben," says Papa, "You take a
pail and fill it from your faucet and dump it in the reservoir."
This didn't seem exactly right to Reuben, but words to express his
opinion didn't come easily, and if we youngsters were lucky enough to be
near, we would hear: "well now doggone it, anyhow, anyhow, dog gone
it anyhow Mr. Hays, anyhow, anyhow, doggone it, anyhow ... it"
Its noon on a hot sultry day in July, and we are all sitting around
the dinner table, when the figure of a gentle little lady can be seen,
but not heard, moving along the narrow passageway between our house and
our neighbors, the Shuffs. "Its probably Mrs. Miller" Mother
would say, and she was right. This little lady was by now at the kitchen
door, carrying a two or three gallon bucket of blackberries, which she
had picked that morning, and then had walked the two or more miles from
her home in the mountain to our kitchen door.
I don't know whether she expected to sell a quart here and a quart
there, but she never got beyond our kitchen. Mother bought all she had.
But the money was not all, for after telling of her hard and toilsome
life, she and Mother had a really good cry, after which her empty basket
was filled with bread, rolls, vegetables, or other food, or perhaps
clothing. Then off she went, to make her way back up the mountain.
Mary and the Ladder
In my list of favorite characters, I must include Mary. Her surname I
will not mention, lest some of her family might be offended. But Mary
provided many smiles and chuckles, when Sam would tell the story about
Mary and the ladder. Mary was unmarried, and had seen many years go by.
Employed in a local factory, twice a day she walked from her home, not
far from ours, down the main street. Mary was not very well put
together. She was tall and thin, her dresses were long and black,
reaching all the way to her shoe tops. Her hat was a carryover from a
forgotten era, her stride was definitely not feminine.
To all this
should be added that Mary was painfully shy and modest, really, to a
fault. Now enter two villains by the names of Frank and Clay Shuff, who
lived next door to us. There they were, waiting for some poor innocent
to pass by. Then Mary would appear, swishing her way along, across the
street from her tormentors, and probably aware that trouble was ahead.
Sure enough, there is a loud whistle. No response, other than a little
more swishing. Another whistle and yet another. This is too much. With a
great effort to show her indifference and disgust, although I now think
that she welcomed the attention, any attention. She would call out: 'why
don't you hursh (hush) up." And on down the street she swished.
I tell this to set the stage for the ladder. Mary lived in a very
unpretentious house. On the first floor was a coal stove, with a stove
pipe extending upward through an opening in the ceiling. Every once in a
while there would be some problem with the heater, and Mary would come
to the shop to ask for help. On one occasion, she came in the evening to
say that the stovepipe needed replacement, and to ask if someone could
come the next day. Now Papa saw a chance for a little fun. " I tell
you what, Mary, I'll send Frank Weant." Now Frank was a well
dressed and sporting type, who was bookkeeper at the shop. "Don't
want him, why don't you come" says Mary. Just then Sam appeared and
the plot thickens. "How about Sam? He can do it. Now Mary is in a
quandary. She knows Sam, but is hesitant. "All right" she
said, "I guess he'll do."
So Sam went over in the morning and there was the ladder in place,
allowing access to the second floor. Mary wanted to show Sam what the
trouble was, but now the question, who should be first to go up, the
ladder. Sam, the devil, waited a while and said: "Mary, you go
first." Mary swished and twisted. "No, I won't" says she.
Sam tried again, telling her that he would hold the ladder while she
went up. I wish I had been there to hear her say: "Won't do it.
Then there was Neil, the town lamplighter. Every evening, just as it
was growing dark, along came Neil with his ladder, just as the
lamplighter did in A. A. Milne's famous poem. He first cleaned the
globe, trimmed the wick, added whatever kerosene was needed and then lit
the lamp and moved on. His job seemed to be important, lighting up the
dark places. This, however, was not his only work. Days were spent
sawing wood by hand for household use, in the course of which, by
constant bending, he became very stooped. I can see him now, as he
traveled the back alleys, his saw buck on his shoulder and his axe in
hand, going from house to house, looking for work.
Our local newspaper was the Emmitsburg Chronicle, a weekly, the
editor and publisher of which was a gentleman by the name of Sterling
Galt, usually referred to as Mr. Galt. He was a public spirited citizen
and a fine newspaperman. Above all, he liked young people. Having no
children of his own, he took all the young boys and girls under his
wing. During World War One, the army had a training camp at Gettysburg.
I think it was called Camp Colt. So Mr. Galt arranged to have an army
Sergeant by the name of Rice, come over from the camp and teach us some
military drills. We had a good number of volunteers, how many I cannot
say, but I know that I was there. We used some kind of guns and learned
how to "present arms," how to do "right and left shoulder
arms, left face, right face" and "right and left front onto
line." We loved it. Here we had a real army officer, in uniform,
and best of all, when drill was finished, we were sent to the town ice
cream parlor for cones, at Mr. Galt's expense.
His interest in youngsters was not confined to military drills,
which, by the way, took place at the local baseball diamond, and were
held twice a week. On other evenings he would assemble the group on Main
Street, near the Methodist Church, and here he supervised games of one
kind or another, always with plenty of action. My memory is that girls
were included in this part of his program. One evening he produced two
pairs of boxing gloves, with each boy having a go at it. I know that I
went home one evening with a bloody nose.
Of course the town was much excited when on a hot summer day a big
limousine drove up Main Street and stopped at Mr. Galt's home. It was
President Wilson and his wife, who had come from Washington to have
lunch with the Galts. I remember reading an account of this event in the
Baltimore papers, how the President had escaped from the White House,
without the knowledge of the Secret Service. For our family it had a
special significance. My youngest brother, Harry, then age six, was
among those crowding around this beautiful car, attended only by the
chauffeur. For something to do, he decided to select a youngster to sit
behind the steering wheel, and Harry was the lucky one. Too bad there
were no photographers there.
Ed Harding was a good friend of mine, and so it is a great
satisfaction for me to pay tribute to him. Ed was responsible for
keeping my bicycle on the road.
He lived at the east end of town, on the second floor of a small
wooden structure, set back from Main Street about fifty feet. There was
a narrow dark stairway leading to Ed's workshop, which also served as
his living quarters. Ed had only one good eye, but a very helpful
disposition. He repaired, among other things, watches, guns, cameras,
bicycles and locks. The room was small, with poor ventilation and very
dim lighting. Hanging from the ceiling or along the walls was a
collection of varied objects, somewhat like a sports museum. It was all
quite fascinating to a youngster.
My bicycle was a secondhand affair that was not in good shape when I
bought it. So I was frequently in trouble. A pedal or a chain or brake
would not function, or a spoke would come loose, and down I would go to
see my friend Ed, who never failed to find a way out of my difficulty.
And the strange thing is that I cannot remember ever paying him
anything. Perhaps it was because he occasionally worked for Papa, at the
shop. I don't know. But I am sure that if I did pay him, it couldn't
have been very much. I didn't have it.
Along with his mechanical talents, Ed was a photographer. I well
recall seeing his tripod, with box camera on top, and Ed, huddled under
a black cloth, taking his pictures.
I wonder now how it happened that my bike couldn't be repaired by
Papa or one of his workmen, at our shop. The answer may be that there
was something very different about Ed and his shop. It seemed a little
out of this world. Somehow you felt that Ed was just an older boy,
helping a younger one. Then too, he did not seem to be a part of any
family, but rather, a lone individual, whose place in the world was to
be the repairer of important things, such as a boy's bicycle.
Come the first of April and one or more "flittins" were
sure to be seen, going through town, meaning that a family was moving
from one location to another. Rentals usually ran to April 1, so that
all those planning to move, did so on the same day. Either a one or two
horse team was used, the wagon being piled high with furniture, tools,
kitchen utensils, a stove or two, crates of chickens; you name it. On
top of all this rode the children. I should mention that it most cases a
cow would be trailing along behind, tied to the wagon. Papa would often
know the name of the family, if not the location of the new home. All
this, of course, would be discussed at our dinner table.
A "flittin" was no big event, yet for the family it meant
almost the start of a new life. For us, watching it pass was like one
act in a year-round show.
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