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Volume 15, Issue 29 ~ July 19 - July 25, 2007

The Burton Family Reunion

Memories of times past

A night of memories and sighs.

–Walter Savage Landor: Rose Aylmer, 1806

Despite what Thomas Wolfe wrote, one can go home again — and sometimes, if you are fortunate, home is like it was when you left it long, long ago. I experienced that satisfying pleasure recently when attending the latest in more than 40 Burton family reunions.

So many years, so few changes, and when I retired for the night there came so many memories and sighs. And satisfaction. I was in Chepachet, Rhode Island, where I split my early life with Arlington, Vermont. The latter has changed much, but not the farm my grandparents purchased for $1,800 at the end of World War I.

Once about 125 acres, it’s now approximately half that. About a dozen years ago, much of the forest was donated to a land trust never to be developed, as my grandparents, long deceased, had urged. They were of the soil, living off the land in Iowa, West Virginia, Virginia, Wisconsin and northern Rhode Island, where they stayed.

The Farm, Now and Then

For a day, I stepped back in time. The farm is still owned by the clan. Chickens still cluck and crow, though now two peacocks are added to the flock. The old milk room, wood shed, chicken coops and house still stand pretty much as when I was a boy.

The farm now has a bathroom, though the old Chick Sales remains next to the woodshed. [Editor’s note: Outhouse, euphemistically named for an early 20th century comedian who passed himself off as a builder of outhouses.] Horses, though no cows, still roam the pasturelands. The old raspberry patch — from which I picked berries for my consumption and for Grandpa to take to market — is now forested.

About the only thing of substance missing is the old big red barn, then occupied by horses and cows with an upper floor filled with hay. It was burned down by two bunking schoolboys playing with fire. Only the shell of the basement remains.

The fields are cut to stave off the march of the forest. Even the old hen house with its tar-papered roof remains, along with a sprinkling of old fruit trees and blueberry patches.

The fields, the house and the outbuildings are filled with memories: sorting eggs for market, bringing in wood for heat and cooking, jumping from upper beams in the barn to soft hay, Grandma’s pies, the bread drawer always packed with her home-baked bread, her delicious homemade cottage cheese and the Mondays when she did the family laundry in copper tubs. The Burtons were industrious, frugal (which they had to be in the Great Depression) and self-sufficient.

Abed in Chepachet, I wistfully thought of those days 70 or more years ago when it took a boy 10 trips from the wood shed to load the wood box in the kitchen. At the time, my official home was a couple miles from the village, midway between life in downtown Chepachet’s small center and the farms that circled it.

Staying on the farm was worth the chores.

We Deliver

How different life was on our Chopmist Hill Road small farm than on Chestnut Hill Road, where the big farm was. My father ran an auto garage/gas station a few miles on the other side of Chepachet, a one-man operation seven days a week. Mother had five children to shepherd, vegetable gardening to do, the household to maintain. So we couldn’t be self-sufficient.

My father’s hours were long. The grocery stores were closed when his day was finished, so any items needed meant a walk of two miles each way to the village for a mother with five kids in tow, winter and summer, rain or shine — if the we-deliver services of the hucksters weren’t scheduled that day.

There was the fish man who came on his own schedule, stopping at every house to sell clams, quahogs and fish. It was the only smell of the ocean and Narragansett Bay we experienced during the Depression. Fish sold for five or 10 cents a pound, and mother didn’t trust his scales.

Once a week Mr. Bates in his panel truck loaded with household items stopped by. I recall him well, it was from him that mother bought our first roll of toilet paper for 10 cents; the family was getting bigger, even and the big Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs no longer sufficed for a family of seven. (At the farm, they did, seeing as they were supplemented by the comfortably soft clothes patterns used by Grandma and Aunt Carolina, who made most of their clothes. And mine, too.

The wet-wash man who stopped every Monday; occasionally Mother used his services in winter. His name was never known. He announced himself as wet wash man, and he had two prominent gold teeth. He took the dirty laundry, returned it two days later, clean, but still wet at five cents a pound. Mother was skeptical of his scales, too.

At varying times came the raspy call of Rags, bones, bottles from a traveling junkman who today would be referred to as a do-it-yourself recycler. I still can’t figure out why he was buying bones.

Also occasionally came the pig farmer from Scituate who wanted table scraps free for his pigs. His hogs didn’t fatten much from our contributions. We licked our platters clean; anything left over went to the dog or the cats, of which there were many.

There was Raymond Barnes, in whose panel truck was freshly made ice cream at 10 cents a cone. Sister Ruth and I knew in the village commercially made ice cream sold for five cents a cone. We preferred, on the few occasions when ice cream could be afforded, to walk to the village and get a double dip for the same price. In the Depression we believed in quantity, not quality.

Stops by the iceman were cherished in summer. The shavings or nuggets of cold ice substituted for ice cream between our lips, and any small chunks were used to chill our Kool Aid. The daily milkman delivered whole and undoctored milk at 10 cents a quart. If it was winter, we had to grab it fast or its cap would rise and it would be like a snowball. Also making the rounds was Curly the baker, whose cream puffs live only in memories. They don’t make ’em that way any more. Real hand-whipped cream.

A couple times a year, an old man in a pickup truck passed by to sharpen knives and scissors, 10 cents a pop. Then there was Ben Solomon in a pickup truck, pitching cheap clothing. If he didn’t have on-board one’s size or color, he’d be back next week with it. With him, your credit was good. But not the insurance man, who stopped by each month to collect a dollar for policies.

It was a procession of peddlers. The people who delivered, who carried the news of those in the countryside, were the makings of everyday life. On the farm it was isolation, but pure country. I preferred the former. Born a farmer, always a farmer. Enough said.

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