Saturday, August 04, 2012

Reminiscing with Henry

Compass plants blooming in a prairie remnant are a memory of last summer. This year's drought has browned the prairie, but it will be back.

It's too hot, too dry and we're all too mad at each other on one level or another, or so it seems. Not a bad time for a little escapism.

This piece, written by Henry Gittinger and published in The Chariton Leader of March 16, 1911, offers a view of what life and the landscape were like for a kid in Lucas County just after the Civil War --- polished by the passing of years as childhood memories sometimes are.

Henry, editor, publisher and owner of The Leader at the time, was a great reminiscer. He was born during 1861 in the neighborhood he describes here, the southeast corner of the county (Washington Township) near where Lucas, Wayne, Monroe and Appanoose counties meet, and lived until 1953, more than 90 years.

Times have changed --- and so has the landscape. Although such landmarks as the Davy Evans cemetery remain, just over the line in Monroe County, construction during the 1960s of Lake Rathbun turned the stretch of the river valley he remembered into a backwater. Although the river channel is sometimes evident when the water is low, everything has changed. As has much else.


What a paradise Lucas County was for duck hunters some fifty years ago, or even within the memory of those of the age of the writer, native to this part of the country. The streams then were better supplied with water, as the soil from the cultivated farms have of later years washed in and to some extent filled up the channels, and the primitive lakes, in many instances, are corn fields, having been drained and are put under the plow.

Down in the southeast part of the county, near where the Chariton river passes out of Lucas into Appanoose, the land is more rugged and the timber belts broad --- in those days miles in extent and of centuries' growth. Numerous bluffs rise at places to considerable height, overlooking the opposite stretches of lowlands, gradually rising in undulating hills and to the upper levels.

The wooded hills were full of wild turkey and fowl of the smaller quill, and an occasional deer fell prey to the hunter's rifle. The coyotes lost themselves to view as they scampered along the brow of the ridge, while the backs of the horses and cattle of the settlers, forming herds, could be discerned in the tall grass or their location determined by the sound of the bell.

The bell cow was an important adjunct in those days and sometimes there was a chime --- as bell cows were of social disposition and often formed combinations of herds. What boy or girl has not gone out over the prairie, when the cows failed to come home, mounted tandem on one of the trusty steeds, listing for the bell. Finally the steady "tingle-lingle-lang" was wafted through the stilly evening air and there was soon joy in the milk yard.

What sport it was to fight milch duels --- that is, while some one was engaged at his or her task, to turn the stream of lacteal fluid to their direction and when they looked around, to fill their eyes and mouth, only to have the favor returned a few minutes later? It was worth the spanking sure to follow, because the matron of the home never endorsed such sport. But we started out to tell about duck hunting.


In the spring of the year about the time the sap commenced to flow down the trunk of the forest maple, and the frogs to tune their croaking devices in the near-by swamps, the wild geese could be seen coming up from the south in their long V-shaped processions, high in the azure, while their leader constantly cheered his command with his "honk, honk, honk" until of a sudden they circled to the southwest, and slowly descended to the earth, across the river, where there was a big opening in the forest and where the surface was covered with a sheet of clear water, dotted here and there with numerous muskrat isles.

This was a favorite stopping place in their migration to the northern hatching grounds. Oft here reverberated through the hills reports from fire arms and above the smoke appeared the feather command in disorder, which finally settled to the water again, quickly to be repeated --- a constant skirmish between hunter and hunted --- an incessant bombarding with more or less fatality to the migratory tribes.

If you will pardon the expression, the ducks came in clouds and halted in the river and the near-by lakes, "the Big and Little Goose Ponds," and became a prey to enemies without and enemies within. A big green head might be noticed floating complacently on the surface, enjoying swim-life to the full, when suddenly he would disappear beneath the surface, never more to rise. Some wiley muskrat had seized him by his paddles and pulled him under and taken him to its submarine larder. It would apoear that between almost constant firing from beyond the breast-works of rushes and muskrats few ducks would reach the northern climes, but as there were millions of them, apparently, the few that fell by the hazards would scarcely be missed. The writer has seen them so thick that as they arose from the water and passed over missiles were thrown up which did the fell work --- and has even known them to be caught by hand.


But duck hunting was but one of the joys of rural life in those informal days. When the spring freshets came and the river over ran its banks and there were miles of sea from Whitmore's mill to the east bluffs, youthful prowess was tested on rafts and the deep was navigated from shore to shore in pirate fleets. What boy does not want to be wicked sometimes --- in imagination at least. There were Bill Larrick, Frank Woodruff, the Coffman boys, George Sears, Billy Mahan, the McCormicks and others we might name, who have settled down into sober manhood --- lo, these many years, who were not looking to be sainted just at that time.


This was before the days of harvest machinery --- in fact prior to the time of tame grasses, when the small enclosures were given up to the propagation of corn and the other staple cerials and the common was the pasture and meadow. After the floods had subsided, the corn suckered and laid by and the wheat and oats cradled, the farmers whetted their scythes and began the task of hay making out on the second bottoms or the swales in which the blue-stem and pea vines grew luxuriant. Swish, swish, swish to the end of the plot went the scythe, which is a science all by itself. Then the scythe was stood on its snath and the whet stone applied, on this side and on that side --- with perfect rhythm. There are not a dozen people in Lucas county today under fifty years of age that can whet a scythe, to say nothing at all of using it.

After that women and men, boys and girls, barefooted in the stubble, defying snakes and snags, raked the hay into winrows and then it was cocked up for convenient stacking --- sometimes these fields stretched away for considerable distances, then as if by design some old bull led a herd of cattle into the array soon after the dawn of day, and the long horned kine enjoyed the toss --- and lucky it chanced to be were the clouds not lowering.


Our boy knowledge of geography was limited and was mainly confined to the Benson school house, the upper and lower fords, the La Follett bridge, Whitmore's saw mill, the jarvis berry patch, and the sand bank where there were a great many black haws, and the Davy Evans grave yard. In those days it seemed that the grave yard was the most civilized spot on earth and we took great delight in scanning the tall white shafts and reading the inscriptions on the stones. To us this was a very historic spot --- and where we studied genealogy of races. There was a big monument erected to the memory of the soldiers from that neighborhood and their names were engraved thereon and they represented to us all who had fallen in the struggle. Such is the innocence of youth.

The base of the Civil War memorial in the Davy Evans graveyard.


One day Frank Woodruff told a wonderful story of the Mammoth Cave. Where he had heard of it is unknown to us to this day. But it was sufficient to arouse youthful imagination, so he gathered up a crowd belonging to his gang and we all went down beyond the west clearing on the Knowles farm, where the river makes a horse-shoe bend to get around a high knoll and where a big drift of logs and timber had formed in the channel, covering several acres of space, up and down stream. so we explored the caverns, crawling through causeways and slimy passages down near the water, escaping nasty lizards and poisonous reptiles, for half a day, until satisfied. Once a mud turtle laid hold of Frank's hand and he came out a cripple, but this added zest to the exploration and all were satisfied. This may not be the quality of sport enjoyed by the youth of today but it certainly was first class and of most thrilling interest at that time.


As a merited reward for some good deed done --- or bad one left undone --- it matters but little which, the writer was promised a trip to Chariton, that he could go along when they took the wool to market. That trip will never be forgotten as long as we live. At that time, he had never been further west than to the top of the long clay hill which begins its slope on the old Mormon trace, at the Honey Creek bridge, but now the family resided half a league down that creek and to the east.

We started early in the morning with our load, crossed the creek at the ford and commenced to climb the hill and thence on the divide, on which was the track leading to the main traveled way. We looked back and it seemed like a farewell. This was then an unsettled country. George Parsons, Asberry Evans, Nate and John Pierce, George McCormick, Andrew Lockridge, et. al., had not yet taken possession in the name of George Washington and the continental congress, but all was a wilderness at the headwaters of Mayfield Slough, save as a feeding place for a few domestic herds.

We got into Chariton a little before noon and began to treat with the wool merchants immediately. It is remembered that a high fence was around the court house square and tall grass grew within the enclosure. A man with a scythe had just finished cutting the grass and before we left in the afternoon he had it in the winrows and had commenced to shock it. We have never to this day learned what disposition the county made of that hay. It certainly was not fed to mules for placards were noticed tacked to the steps of the old court house, "No democrats need apply," "Democrats not permitted to hold office," "Nothing but republicans on the inside," etc. What a change during the intervening decades has been wrought. Hay is no longer made while the sun shines in the court house square and the ancient prejudice against democrats no more exists.

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