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History of Ryegate, Vermont
Chapter XX


HOME LIFE IN EARLY DAYS.

LINEN SPINNING.—WEAVING.-—CANDLE MAKING.—DOMESTIC PURSUITS—SOCIAL CUSTOMS—SINGING SCHOOLS.—WRITING SCHOOLS.

IN this chapter we propose to say somewhat about certain household occupations which have either passed wholly into disuse, or are only occasionally exercised by a few elderly persons. We are mindful of the fact that most of these are of so recent employment as to be well remembered by many who do not call themselves old by any means, but considering also that in a half century hence these employments and domestic pursuits will be only traditionary, their details will then become interesting, and will add value to our narrative.

We have mentioned the domestic manufacture of woolen and linen cloth without giving any account of the process by which the flax and wool were converted into fabrics for wear.

Flax seed was usually sown about the first of May, broadcast like grass seed, and in new cleared land it grew luxuriantly. Hemp seed was also sown, but hemp was used only for coarse goods. Flax has beautiful flowers of clear blue, and the plants are graceful, while hemp grows rank and the blossoms are dull. When the flax was ripe, which was usually about the middle of July, it was pulled up by the roots, and laid out carefully to dry in the sun for a few days, and was turned two or three times a day till thoroughly cured. The stalks were then drawn through a coarse comb with teeth of wood or wire, fastened in a plank, to detach the seeds which were carefully saved for seed or for sale, as there was always a demand for them. The stalks were then tied in bundles, the band being around the seed end, the base of the bundle being spread out. Sometimes the flax was not tied, but was much easier handled, thus. It was then spread on the ground, the tops all one way, and kept thoroughly wet for several days until the hard and woody substance forming the stem of the plant was rotted, and the leaves would fall off when shaken. This step in the process completed, it was then dried, and tied in bundles, the next thing being to "break" it.

The "flax break" was a heavy log of hard wood about five feet long,. a hewed side being set level about three feet from the ground, and several long slats were firmly fastened to it, lengthwise on the upper or flat side. A similar set of slats, set in a heavy frame, and far enough apart to go into the spaces between the lower slats, was hinged to one end of the log, and heavily weighted at the other. The flax was laid on the lower slats, and the upper frame, or knives, as they were often called, was brought down with great force upon the stalks. A second beating was made with a "break" in which the "knives" were set close together. Beating flax was very hard work, and used as a unit of comparison with all other kinds of toil. Flax was then "swingled" by being beaten over a block of wood with a long wooden instrument shaped like a dirk, to take out any woody particles which had escaped the impact of the break. Breaking and swingling were done in the open air in sunny weather, when the flax was as dry as it could be. Thirty-five or forty pounds of flax was a good day’s work for a strong man to swingle.

We may understand how strong and tenacious the flax is to stand all this beating, but it is by no means yet prepared for spinning, for the next process was called "striking" when the fibers were made into bundles and pounded with a beetle, after being cleaned, and the fibers were then drawn through an instrument called a "hetchel." This was made of strong iron prongs, about five inches long, sharpened at one end, and inserted upright in a board. About fifty of these were set in a base of hard wood five inches square, and the flax, slightly wetted, was drawn through them, towards the operator, when all the woody particles were combed out, as well as all the short and defective threads, and the tow separated and removed. Sometimes the flax was drawn through several "hetchels" of successive degrees of fineness, and the fine filaments which survived this process were laid out in long strands, ready for spinning.

A few flax wheels or "little wheels," as they were often called, are preserved in Ryegate, and are beautiful specimens of workmanship. In the early years most carpenters had a lathe, and did very good turning, but the making of flax wheels was a special trade, and a man who made them usually did nothing else. We wish it were possible to preserve the names of some of these skillful artisans, but none are living who remeinber them.

The wheel was turned by a treadle, and the spinner kept her fingers moist with water while at her task. When spun, the threads were wound on a reel, forty revolutions of which, about eighty yards of thread, made a "knot," twenty knots making a "skein," and to spin two skeins was a good day’s work.

Even then the process was not complete, for several washings, rinsings and bleachings were necessary before the thread was ready for the loom. In early times, and perhaps in Ryegate it was considered the proper thing for a young woman about to be married to be able to show her wedding outfit, spun, woven and made up by her own hands. The immigrants from the north of Ireland who came here about the opening of the 19th century, brought some new ideas which were readily adopted by Ryegate people. But the cultivation of flax, and the manufacture of linen ceased lorg ago in this town, and the mechanical processes which we have described are now carried on by machinery in those parts of the country where flax is raised in great quantities.

Some years before the linen industry died out in this part of the country, spinning machines came into use, and superseded the hand process. In 1834 William Chalmers, who had been a linen spinner in Scotland, came to Newbury, and later, imported spinning machinery from the old country, and carried on the business of thread and cordage making for many years at Corinth Centre.

The manufacture of the finest grades of linen cloth was considered a fine art a century ago, and Mr. Miller mentions several ladies of the olden time who were skilled in it, and beautiful specimens of their work are carefully preserved by their descendants, who often know nothing whatever of the way in which they were made.

In preparing wool for making cloth, the fleece was carefully picked over, and all the rough pieces thrown out, when it was washed, and dried.

Before weaving came coloring, and there were secrets in the art which were handed down from mother to daughter as a family inheritance. The dyes were nearly all vegetable ones, and there were plants and barks which were especially valued. The account book of Thomas Barstow, before cited, mentions only one commercial dye—indigo—which retailed at two shillings or 34 cts. an ounce.

Some people always kept one or two black sheep, and mixed their fleece with white wool, making a pretty grey called "sheep’s grey." It would thus seem that the "black sheep in the flock" may be made of good use after all.

Before spinning came carding and the wool being carefully greased was manipulated with cards like cattle cards. The process was thus: The operator took a card in her left hand, resting it on her knee, and drew a tuft of wool across it a number of times till the wire teeth were full. Then with a second card, slightly warmed, the wool was deftly worked into a "roll" for spinning. Wool combing was a different and more trying process, and it was not much employed in Ryegate, but the thread produced by it was superior to any other. It is doubtful if any one is left who can card wool, as the process went out of use with the introduction of carding machines, but forty years ago there were old ladies who would take the cards and work up a few rolls when they ran short.

Carding machines were introduced from England by a man named Standrin, first manufactured near Boston, Mr. Asa Gookin being associated with him in the business. Mr. Gookin made and patented several improvements and about 1799 they removed their business to Haverhill, N. H., and made carding machines at the falls on the Oliverian, north of Haverhill Corner, then, and for many years after, a center of manufacturing enterprise. Their machines soon drove out hand carding and were sold to all parts of the country and Canada One of Mr. Gookin’s machines was in use in this vicinity within a few years.

Spinning is still carried on in Ryegate, although to a limited extent, and it is not necessary to describe a process which has been unchanged for centuries. Spinning, unlike weaving, was entirely woman’s work, and there are elderly ladies here who remember that they learned to spin when too small to reach the wheel, and had to stand upon a plank. When the spindle was filled the thread was wound upon the reel, each revolution making two yards. Forty turns or eighty yards made a knot, and seven knots a skein. To spin six skeins was a good day’s work for a smart woman. In the illustration of the ancient kitchen of the James Whitehill house the flax-wheel, the spinning wheel and the clock reel are represented.

In many houses a room was set apart for weaving, sometimes a small building was erected for the purpose. Looms may still be in occasional use, and are, literally heirlooms, as a well constructed loom will outlast several generations of operators. A loom had to be accurately constructed to do good work, and there were weavers in early days whose work, on specially constructed looms, seems marvelous. Gen. A.

H. Hill in his account of Groton for Miss Hemenway, tells of Archibald McLaughlin, who invented a loom on which his wife wove a coat in one piece, sleeves, collar, lapels and all. This coat was taken to Washington by Gen. Mattocks and exhibited to Congress, who presented the inventor with a reward of fifty dollars for his ingenuity. It would seem that inventive genius so unusual should have been encouraged to direct its labors into channels which would have brought the inventor both fame and wealth. He went west in 1837.

There were weavers who wove very intricate patterns, and in the History of Windharn, N. H., it is mentioned that a piece was woven using fourteen treadles, giving many combinations of color. Weaving need not be described here, but a word may be said about the shuttles, some of which are carefully preserved. There was a man in Danville whose name the writer can neither recall or ascertain who made shuttles which were considered superior to all others, just why is not remembered.

Reed making was a special art and the reeds or "sleys," as they were sometimes called, were thin strips of cane or metal, inserted side by side, fastened at both ends in strong parallel strips of wood, as long as the width of the loom permitted.

The warp threads were passed between each pair, and the number of these to the inch indicated the fineness of the cloth, or the "set of the web" as it used to be called. For very fine linen there might sometimes be sixty of these thin strips to the inch. Reeds for common weaving of woolen cloth had about twenty strips.

John Cochrane, who lived in Newbury near the Bradford line, was a reed maker, and supplied the reeds for looms over a wide extent of country. A daughter of his, who died in Newbury, Jan. 16, 1909, in her 102d year, recalled, when in her hundredth year, how she accompanied her father when a child of seven years, in one of his rounds through Ryegate, Barnet, Peacham and Danville, where he stopped at nearly every house to inspect repair or replace the reeds in the looms, which were then found at every farm.

The weaving itself was comparatively plain and simple work, but experience, patience and constant care were indispensable to properly wind the warp upon the beam and have each thread carefully drawn through the harness and reed. The number of yards woven in a day depended upon the fineness of the cloth. In weaving broadcloth of about thirty threads to the inch, three yards was a good day’s work, in which the shuttle was thrown over three thousand times, the treadles pressed down, and the "batten" (the swinging frame in which the reed was secured) was swung against the cloth the same number of times. In weaving intricate patterns where several colors in both warp and filling were used, all the skill and experience of the weaver were called into action. On many farms there was a small piece of grassy ground, near the house and contiguous to a spring or running brook called the "bleaching-field," which may in one or two instances still bear the name, and near which the linen cloth was spread out for bleaching during several weeks, and slightly wetted each day.

Some one has remarked that between the sowing of the seed and the time when fine linen was ready for making up, the product passed through no fewer than thirty different processes, occupying about eighteen months. It was the great amount of labor put into the work that made the high price of fine linen.

We must not fail to note that such domestic arts as spinning and weaving gave employment incidentally to many persons, from carpenters who constructed the looms to cabinet makers who made flax-wheels, shuttles and the like.

"The light of other days" was a tallow candle in an iron candlestick, whose absence was supplied by a block of wood with a hole to receive the candle. Dr. Currier remembers attending a writing school kept by John Bigelow in the Whitelaw schoolhouse, which was lighted by tallow candles stuck in potatoes. But in general the evening light came from the open fire, the candle being used to read or work by or to go about the house with. Most families had brass candlesticks for ornament of the parlor mantle, and for use on state occasions. To burn more than one candle at a time bordered on extravagance. In our time, when many of our houses are flooded with brilliant light by a turn of the fingers, such evenings seem far away, yet people not yet turned of sixty can remember when candles furnished almost the only light in the houses. Candles are still made by being run in moulds, but in early days they were made by dipping, which is almost a forgotten art. A smart woman with sufficient assistance in keeping up a fire and handling the heavy kettles, could dip about two hundred candles in a day.

It cannot be ascertained at what period oil lamps came into occasional use in this town, certainly not before 1820, as Mr. Livermore thinks there were not more than one or two at that date in Haverhill Corner, which was understood at that time to lead in every improvement.

Illuminating gas was introduced into Boston about 1822, and its brilliant light was one of the wonders which were dwelt upon by the privileged few who made a vist to the metropolis. An uncle of the writer who about 1830 was a merchant in the upper part of the Kennebec valley, was about starting for Boston one morning, when one of his neighbors came in, an old gentleman, and asked him to make a purchase in the city. "My eyesight is getting poor," said he, "and I cannot see to read by candle light. Now I have heard a great deal about gas, and the wonderful light it makes. I want to try it, and, Mr. Palmer, if you will bring me home a shillings worth of gas, I will be glad to pay you for your trouble."

Sperm oil gradually came into use and was better than candle light, but the lamps were smoky and ill-smelling. Kerosene was introduced in 1858, and was preceded by several compounds, one of which, called camphene, gave a brilliant light, but was highly explosive.

Friction matches were invented about 1832, and came into general use within a few years. Before that time the only way to start a fire was by striking a spark with flint and steel. It was a principle of domestic economy never to let the fire go out on the family hearth, and the coals were carefully covered with ashes at bed time. But in spite of all precaution the fire sometimes went out, and there may be one or two old people who can remember when they were sent to a neighbors "to get some fire."

The first stove in this part of the country is understood to have been set up about 1795, in the house of Rev. David Goodwillie at Barnet, by his brother who was a tinsmith at Montreal. Stoves for heating were certainly in use as early as 1800, and cooking stoves of some kind were made at Franconia as early as 1820. In 1828, and perhaps earlier, E. & T. Fairbanks were agents at St. Johnsbury for the Franconia Iron Works, and kept a stock of stoves, kettles, plows and other iron ware made at Franconia, where the industry ceased forty years ago and more.

In those early days when transportation of heavy articles was expensive, such manufacturing establishments appointed selling agents in different parts of the country, from whence their products were distributed. In 1830 the Tyson Furnace Company of Plymouth, Vt., erected a large building at Newbury for the storage and sale of their products. But the early cooking stoves were crude, and not popular for baking, and the brick oven was in general use until about 1860, and may be still in one or two farm houses.

There will be no brick ovens left soon, and the quality of their product will be only a tradition, but no one who ever tasted the bread and beans which the old brick ovens produced will ever believe that any modern range, however constructed, can produce viands which equal their delicious flavor. The drawback was the time and labor required to get the mass of masonry into the proper heat. The oven was filled with finely split wood, replenished until the bricks were thoroughly heated, the smoke escaping through a hole into the chimney. When properly heated the fire was drawn, the oven swept, and filled with joints of meat, pots of beans, loaves of bread, pies and cakes. The mouth of the oven was closed, the mass of brick gave out a steady heat, and the oven could be safely trusted to bake to a turn each article intrusted to its keeping, the experienced housewife withdrawing from time to time the various edibles according to the time necessary to cook them. But for common baking the open fire was used, and various contrivances were employed to hold the bread while being cooked. Mr. Mason says that barley, prepared in several ways, was much used by the first settlers, and that some were slow to like the taste of corn bread, preferring the oatmeal of their native land.

At no other time, and in no other occupation were all the members of a family so closely associated as in farming in the way it was carried on eighty years ago. The girls and younger women spread and raked hay, and were skillful reapers, husked corn, and milked. In many families there were elderly unmarried women, each of whom assumed the charge of some part of the domestic economy. One such is remembered, going about the farm, watching with maternal care over the young calves and lambs, sure to be seen in the cold spring rains, a sturdy figure among the hills, with a huge apron in which any chilled and shivering lamb found warmth and comfort.

In those days of large families it often happened that a man died leaving several small children for whom places were usually found among the neighbors or relatives, and couples, rare in those days, who had no children of their own, often opened their hearts and homes to the orphans. The children of the very poor were bound out by the authorities during minority, to receive, on coming of age, a certain sum in cash and valuables as a start in life. Sometimes this trust was misplaced, and once or twice at March meetings the authorities were directed "to look into certain reports regarding the children." Let us hope that they went to the bottom of matters. But there were excellent men and women in Ryegate who owed their success in life to their careful training by those who " took them to bring up."

In early days, and down to the time when girls began to go to Lowell and other places to work in the mills, the only occupations open to women were teaching, sewing, domestic service, and the care of the sick, all very poorly paid. We have already noted the wages paid to teachers. Tailoresses and seamstresses were a little better paid, often, however, in farm produce, or home made cloth.

Housekeepers of our day must sigh for those days when the best possible domestic help could be had for seventy-five cents a week, and this, as old account books show, was the common price seventy years ago. In special cases a dollar a week was paid, and, not infrequently domestic service continued for years. There was an instance in Bayer-hill where a woman was the trusted and beloved housekeeper in one family for thirty-five years, and the tie which bound her to the household was as strong as that which bound its members to each other.

The cash expenses of a family in fair health in those days were so small, that almost all the money which came in was clear gain. At the sixtieth wedding anniversary of Nathaniel Roy and wife of Barnet about thirty-five years ago, it was stated that the family, although well-to-do and hospitable, had not in all those years, bought a pound of sugar or meat or flour. The farm had produced all that the household required, and this was a common case. Mr. Miller mentions a family in this town in which the cash expenditures did not average more than twenty-five dollars a year during thirty years. All was produced or obtained by barter.

These things are within the memory of many not yet old. But such have been the changes, and so many are yet to come, that sixty years hence it will be hard to conceive conditions like those we have described.

Ryegate as it then was, constituted a self-supporting community, and if the town had been surrounded by a wall or turned into an island and put out to sea, its inhabitants would have got along about as well as before.

But after all is said that can be said, we live in better days. Our houses are better built, we are better clothed, our roads are better, and although we may not have a greater plenty of food, we have a greater variety of it, and we draw upon distant states and foreign countries to supply our tables.

Communication, then slow and tedious, is instantaneous. In those days a journey to Boston and back required almost a week, and a trial of endurance. We breakfast in Ryegate, dine in Boston, and are home before sun set. The standard of living is higher; the facilities for reading and education are incomparably better; our opportunities are vastly greater. And when we have concluded these comparisons, and congratulated ourselves upon all these changes, most of them for the better, some personal questions arise which are not easy to answer or to evade.

It is the testimony of all whose memories extend through many years that there is at the present time nothing like the sociability which people had in earlier days—that families do not visit as people did then, that there is not the interest felt in neighborhood affairs, and that in time of sickness or trouble people do not help each other as they used to do, but call in strangers who for hire perform those offices which were once rendered by the kindness of neighbors and friends. That this is true cannot be denied, but the cause lies in the changed conditions of society, and we do not believe that hearts are less warm or sympathetic because people are no longer dependent upon personal meetings to learn of each other’s welfare, or because they hire a trained nurse in sickness, rather than depend upon the good offices of neighbors and kindred.

Two institutions,—writing schools and singing schools—which, in other years had a large share in the social life of the young people, seem to have passed away, and there is little on record concerning either, but Mr. Goodwin remembered both as being held at the Corner as long ago as 1827. Writing schools were serious and practical in their nature, and their attendance was limited, but the witchery of the singing school drew the young people from far and near. The entertainment there provided was innocent of harm, practical and uplifting. Many thus received their first impressions of music. In these gatherings pleasure and instruction were about equally mingled; where acquaintances were made, friendships formed, and around which gather the happiest memories.

The psalmody of those days in Ryegate gave little encouragement to elaborateness in church music, but there were some fine performers upon stringed and wind instruments. Seventy years ago, according to Dr. Currier, there still remained several skilled manipulators of the bagpipes, and there have been some fine performers on the cornet and the violin. Gen. Whitelaw, according to old letters, was a creditable performer upon the latter instrument, and the fame of Willie Brock, son of Dea. Andrew Brock, has come down to our day.

"When Willie fiddled, sir, folk had to dance whether they liked or no, they couldna help themselves." There must have been something marvelous in his playing if we may judge from the accounts of old people, and his fame was by no means local, as he was often called upon to furnish music at assemblies as far away as Plymouth and Littleton. After him Robert Henderson and others were well known.

Balls and dances were discountenanced by the more serious portion of the community, yet such there were, and the old taverns usually had a large room which was set apart for such gatherings.


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