MEMOIRofPAUL ERNEST REBILLARD
Transcript of a taped interview
Narrator: Paul E. Rebillard
Tape: #1 C & D.
Date: May 28, 1987
Place of interview: Mr. Rebillard’s home on Woodland Dr., Lakeville, CT Interviewer: Robert Steck.
Paul Rebillard was born in Taconic and has lived most of his life there and later in Lakeville. In this interview he describes the work involved and the methods used in performing essential tasks in a mostly rural, farming community in the early years of the twentieth century — ice harvesting, cutting timber and logs, haying and its storage, harvesting corn. He speaks of his life at home as a young boy – school & chores. In the last few part of the interview he philosophizes about changes he has seen in life styles and the way of life. The interview also contains references to the Scoville estate in Taconic and Grasslands Farm.
Property of the Oral History ProjectSalisbury Association at Scoville Memorial LibrarySalisbury, CT 06068
RS:All right, then. Paul. We’ll start in terms of what labor was like, a general picture of the
PR:Well, we have talked recently about the ice in this period, which was a very necessary
industry back fifty, sixty, seventy years ago. Although it’s a fairly familiar subject there are some things about which people today don’t fully understand. The first thing, of course, was the absolute necessity to harvest ice because there was no such thing as a refrigerator. Iceboxes, yes, but to make an icebox work you need ice.
To get ice was a brutally hard labor-involved affair, which took place in midwinter necessarily, because we had to wait until the ice was thick enough to harvest. By thick enough I would think between twelve and fourteen-sixteen inches was regarded as probably thick enough to begin the ice harvest. Of course, the first thing you had to do was go to the lake or pond or wherever you were going to harvest the ice, select the site and mark it out. This marking was done by a horse-drawn plow affair, which was an instrument with serrated teeth at the bottom, about six feet long, quite heavy. It had to be heavy in order to hold itself in place. So, this instrument was placed on the lake, drawn by a horse in a straight line. It was essential to have a straight line so we’d end up with a square cake or, at least, not square cakes but regular rectangular cakes.
RS: How did you fix that straight line?
PR:Well, that was up to the horse and the man. Usually, the way I saw it done, a man led
the horse and a man stood in back with handles, like a plow, plow handles. He guided, held the ice plow upright and the horse pulled it. It was led by a man that he preceded with an absolute straight line. As I say, that was essential, to get a straight line. Having plowed a good straight line to a depth of perhaps six inches deep. Then the plow had a guide with a handle that flipped over. So now you flip it over from the original line that you have plowed in the ice, drop this guide into that line and as you come back you follow the same line. This guide proceeds down the slot you have cut in the ice, so now you have two straight lines. When you get to the other end, you just flip the guide over into the last plow mark you’ve made and you proceed until you have made the required number of straight lines across. This accounts for the line one way.
Now, of course, you start on the other side and go 180 degrees across these two lines in a nice straight line as you did the first one. Then you proceed back and forth and you’ve gotten yourself a nice straight line continually flipping the guide over the slot you’ve just made. The result is a checkerboard, a perfectly formed checkerboard of slots, approximately six inches deep when you have marked out the required number of cakes for a day’s harvest or whenever. Now your ice field is marked out.
The average size of the cakes, as I recall, would be about twelve by sixteen inches. In other words, something that a man could handle. Having gotten your field all plowed out, then you opened it which required chopping down through ice and producing an opening, down through the ice into the water, so that you could proceed to begin to take the cakes out.
Once you got the field opened and you had open water, then it goes very, very easy with a chisel affair to just get solidly down into the marks you have made. It would break off the cakes. You might break off a string of cakes, six or eight cakes in a row. You would guide those to a point from which you’re going to pull them out of the water. Now, this was done in several different ways. But the easiest way and then the first way until you got your field wide open was by means of an ice saw, a long-handled ice saw. You’d float the cake of ice up near the edge of the opening. Just tip the back end down, the front end up and grab it with the ice tongs. The buoyancy of the cake would just push it up on the water and with a little boost out it would come from the lake. You’d slide that cake off to a loading point, which might be on the shore or it might be even on the lake if the ice was thick enough to support a team, or a sleigh or a wagon filled with ice. In that case you’d have pretty thick ice. The ice had to be, I’d say, not less than twelve inches thick certainly and probably fourteen, sixteen, up to eighteen inches thick.
RS: You said eighteen inches thick. Did you have to attest to that thickness?
PR: Oh, yes.
RS: How do you do that?
PR:Oh. you just chop a hole in the lake, most anywhere and say, “How thick is the ice? Is it
thick enough?” There you’d measure the thickness of the ice somewhere on the lake. You had to be careful that you were not working in a place on the lake where there was a current underneath which might result in a thinner layer of ice in one place or another. But you knew your lake. After all we’d done this every year for the past five years, so you knew your lake. So, once you’ve determined the ice is thick enough you go ahead.
Now the ice was of course…. Now we have the ice field open, we begin to take cakes on top of the ice, perhaps shelling them over to the shore or just lifting them by hand. Two men lifting the cakes of ice up into the wagon or the sleigh until you have the wagon or sleigh filled and off you go to the ice house.
RS: How were these men dressed?
PR:These men were dressed WARMLY, believe me. One of the things that has disappeared
from the scene… I haven’t seen any of these for, oh, forty years, I think. …was an outfit called felt boots, felt f-e-l-t boots. You wore something like a stocking, like a large stocking made of felt and it was thick. Over the foot of this stocking affair was a good heavy rubber boot. Therefore, felt boots. They were very, very warm. They were very, very heavy, very, very heavy, and very, very
clumsy. You clopped around with these things on, but they were warm and that was essential because you worked out on the lake in terrible weather conditions. It was necessarily cold. You couldn’t work out on the lake if it was raining a warm rain storm, for example. No work could be done. So it had to be cold, usually crisp and cold and usually with about a forty mile wind blowing, as I remember.
The upper clothing, of course, was good old long-handled underwear and good heavy clothing, – heavy jackets and heavy mittens. Mittens, not gloves, because mittens are so much warmer on the fingers than gloves. If you wore gloves your fingers would freeze probably. So, most everybody wore mittens and felt boots. That was before L. L. Bean’s beautiful outdoor wear. There was no such thing. Incidentally, also, these boots were terribly slippery on the bottom and that necessitated what we used to call crampons, which was a serrated blade which strapped right around the foot of the boot and they gave you some traction.
RS: How do you spell that?
PR: C-r-a-m-p-o-n-s. Crampons was what we called them. I don’t think that’s a proper name. But they gave you some traction on the ice. Without them you would slip and fall. If you weren’t careful you fell in the water. Anyway, as I said in the beginning, icing was brutal, brutal hard work done under the worst possible weather conditions.
Now we have the ice and the sleigh or wagon. We haul it off to the ice house. I’m speaking of the Taconic area now. In the Taconic area we had about five ice houses which had to be filled. The Scovilles had the large ice house which is still standing up in Taconic. Grassland Farms had a large ice house. Then there were about three other private ice houses around which had to be filled. While you were at it, you filled the whole bunch, of course. You stuck with it as long as the weather held, until the ice was all in. In these ice houses, of course, you started on as level a floor, sawdust floor, as you could possibly get in the ice house. So that required a little labor to take out the old ice that had been left from the season before, throw that out and get a nice level surface on which to place the first layer of ice. If you didn’t have a nice level surface, you ran into trouble later on because your ice would be going up and down, etc. So the ice houses had a good sawdust floor, which had probably been there for years, probably two or three feet of sawdust on the bottom.. Around the edges of the ice houses was left a space of about twelve to eighteen inches, which, of course, is filled with sawdust. This had an insulating effect that very efficiently kept the ice from one season to the other.
In the one particular Scoville ice house that I worked in many times, it was built on the side of a hill so you had a lower door and an upper door. You’d start at the lower door and fill it as high as you could push the cakes of ice until you got about ten or twelve layers. Then you moved to the upper doors where you could just slide them down onto those layers and probably build another eight or ten layers. So you probably wound up with fifteen to eighteen layers of ice. The ice house itself was about forty by forty, so that required a few thousand cakes of ice. That was the biggest one.
RS:Were the ice houses like a cave in the side of the hill.
PR:No. This particular one was a brick Ice house, a brick building just built into the side of
a hill and it was quite high. From the bottom side of the hill it must have been eighteen, twenty feet high. The upper side, of course, was only about ten or twenty feet in height. But most of them were built level with the ground.
RS: Were there any where you’d dug into the ground?
PR:Oh, you’d dig in no further than you’d go for the ordinary foundation of the building.
No, no. I understand that they probably wanted to get down so they were further insulated by the earth. But I never saw it done that way. No, it was just an ordinary construction, with a good solid concrete foundation and a nice wide-open solid door. Also in the top of these buildings was a little ventilation, strangely enough. It seemed to help preserve the ice if you had a little ventilation at the top of the building.
But men were so used to this operation. It was amusing because every year the same man led the same horse with the same plow. The same man was always back there guiding it with his hands on the handle like a plowshare. It seemed that every man had his job and knew exactly what he was to do. So, it was quite efficient, but as I said before brutally hard. Hard labor that required the lifting of these cakes. It’s no great deal for two men to get a hold of a cake of ice and lift it up into a wagon or a sleigh. But when you stand there and do it eight or ten hours a day after a while these cakes get very, very heavy and you get weary. You did get tired. You did get an hour for lunch. We used to get an hour for lunch and that was necessary, too.
RS: How long was the work day?
PR: Well, we worked not less than eight hours and there were many ten-hour days. Ten-hour days were rather customary back in those days. My father worked eleven hours. He worked from seven in the morning until six at night with an hour off for lunch. That was a ten-hour day and he did this for forty years or more. And that was customary. The eight-hour day was a picnic, really a piece of cake. Unless you have further questions about the ice.
RS: Well, I’d like to…a couple of questions. The men who worked on the ice meant that they were working in the winter. What was the rest of their year’s work?
PR: Well, some men who were without a job, for example, carpenters who back in those days found it very hard to work throughout the whole year. They would help out with the icing. But, mainly, the people who got in the ice route were the typical people who worked on a farm and did farm work the rest of the year. So they had a full year’s work. But there were some people, as I said, painters, perhaps, carpenters who found it difficult to work through our hard winter. They would say, “Well, if you need any help today, I’ll give you a hand.” But for the main part it was an ali-year crew.
RS: None of this was for boys. You really needed men.
PR: No, no. I don’t remember really boys. I worked at it probably from age fourteen, if you call that a boy.
RS: Not in those days.
PR:In those days fourteen year olds were men, did men’s work, at least most of the work.
RS:The other question I have in mind is, I presume like our community, other communities
in the United States were made up of different nationalities, different religions, etc. What was the ethnic nature, at least of the people who worked on this?
PR:In this particular area, in that particular type of job, it was a very mixed group of men. I
don’t think in this particular area there was any ethnic number over any other ethnic number.
When it got to the charcoal industry, a subject on which I spoke a few years ago, that was different. That was largely French in this particular area. Many French people came over and they just naturally gravitated to the charcoal industry.
RS: You mentioned that that was something they had done in a particular town most of them came from in France.
PR: They came from France to this town, to Salisbury and Sharon. Most of them came from a particular small village In France. 1 suppose the way that happens was one or two came over here and found work in the charcoal industry and they immediately wrote back to France and said, “Come on over. There’s all the work you need here in the
charcoal industry.” So, one after another came over. I could think of six or eight or ten families who all came to this area and wound up in the charcoal industry.
RS: Now, the ice workers, then, would include people who may have lived here a few hundred years, right? And would include new immigrants from various areas?
PR:Oh, yes. I would think that the ethnic makeup of those people who worked on the ice
was largely the same as the people who live here today. I can’t determine any particular preponderance of one nationality over another.
RS: Were there any difficulties in relation to immigrants – language difficulties or anything like that?
PR:No, no. At least not in the town of Salisbury. I never heard any other language other
than English spoken in the town of Salisbury to any extent. That is not true where you have a large group of Italian people. You only have to go over the border over into the town of Canaan and you’ll find something entirely different where you have many Italian families. And even today you’ll find Italian being spoken in Canaan, but not in Salisbury – not in my lifetime.
RS: I was told in one interview that in Lime Rock on the hill which is on the other side of where the furnace is, in Lime Rock, that there were tenets where and a great number of French people who worked in the ore industry there, who used to sing songs at night and have bonfires, etc.
PR:Yes, I’m sure that is true and I think you would find that those people were closely
related to the people who worked in the charcoal. The two, after all, were very closely allied and I would think that these were the same people, different families of the same group that you are referring to. And that was probably absolutely true….That was really true up on Mt. Riga and the Mt. Washington area. They did get together and sing French songs, etc.
I’ll tell you a peculiar thing. Most French people when they came over here became very determined Americans. In my own family, for example, my father wouldn’t permit French to be spoken in his home, except for short lengths of time. So none of the children grew up speaking French. They might know a few words, but it was a sad thing that we didn’t learn two languages because my father was…became all American and he insisted that English be spoken. As a result, he spoke very good English and read avidly and was a self-educated man, an American-educated man.
Again, I say, that’s not necessarily true of the Italians. They seemed to retain their national flavor, I think, much longer than many other nationalities.
RS:Now, these people who came from France, it just occurs to me, would have come here
subsequent to the French Revolution – in other words, ten years, fifteen years, eighteen years. Would they have brought any of those traditions with them?
PR:It’s true. Some came after the French Revolution, some came before. My father was born
in 1858 and he came over here in 1872 at the age of fourteen. So he was not terribly affected by the effects of the Revolution. Strangely enough, most of the French people who came over here were Protestant, Huguenot origin, which is contrary to France which about eighty percent Catholic. But just about all the people who came over here were Huguenots and Protestants.
RS: Do you happen to know why they wanted to leave France to come here?
PR:I don’t know any particular reason, except that at that time people had heard of America
because of the Revolution and they knew that it was building at a tremendous rate and I’m sure that they said to themselves, ‘‘We can find a spot for ourselves, a life for ourselves, in America.” America was a magic word back in those days, as it is today, we fondly hope. But I don’t know of any single reason except this terrible urge to go to America. The fact that there was plenty of work here, work for everyone, I think,, was the real drawing card, probably.
RS:All right. Well, let’s take a look at some of the other areas of work in the area.
PR:Yes. I find it interesting and almost unbelievable that today people don’t fully
understand or realize how hard people worked, just a mere fifty or sixty years ago. Almost any phase of work was done largely by hand. There were no machines to speak of. Sure, there was a mowing machine to cut down the hay, and a rake, a horse-drawn rake, to rake it up into rib rows, etc.
But speaking about the hay, the haying business, it was probably the lightest work of all on the farm and the most enjoyable. As I said, the hay was necessary for the cattle, for the cows to survive, so it was stored in large barns. Loose, I might say. Today, almost all hay is baled, but back in those days, as far as I can remember, I never saw bales of hay put in. It was always put in loose which necessitated the following operations. First, the hay was cut down, mowed by the mowing machine. Those mowing machines had a series of blades that ran back and forth. Those blades had to be sharpened by hand every morning before you went out to the hay field. Those blades had to be kept sharp. So, now the hay is cut down. It lies there. Well, then I suppose you’re going to get some rain on it. So you have to leave it there another day until it dries. Then you have a little sunshine come out, so you go out with a horse-drawn rake and you rake it up in windrows, which is a long, more or less straight line left on the field.
The next operation was an operation for which there was no machine to do it – that I ever saw. That was called cocking the hay.
PR:Cocking, c-o-c-k-i-n-g, Hay cock. You went down the windrows with a hay fork and you
piled the hay into a haycock which was of a convenient size so that you could thrust the fork into the haycock and lift it up onto the hay wagon. The haycock had to be just about a certain size. You lifted it up on the wagon and you put it on the wagon where the driver said to put it. He had a fork in the wagon and said, “Here, put it there, put it there, put it here.” So you got nice level hay on the hayrack, hayrick, which was a wagon with a large wooden platform on it. He was very fussy how you put the hay on the wagon because you had a little rough territory to go over between there and the barn. If it wasn’t put on the hay rack properly the stuff might slide off and then you were in trouble. So he said, “Put it there, put it there,” to every man that pitched the hay on the rack. He knew what he was doing, exactly, and the man who was on the wagon, he knew exactly where he wanted…So you didn’t have to say much. He knew where he wanted the hay. So, that’s where you put it. Then you took your fork, cleaned up the last of the hay left from the haycock, threw it up in.
These things were built to a height at which a man could reach up to the top of the load of hay. Those hay loads were pretty big, so you had to be rather agile and familiar with the job to lift the hay up on your fork, push it over your head as high as you could push it. The man on the low peg (?) would grab it with his fork and put it where he wanted it. As soon as you have your hayrack filled, he’d say “Okay, come on up.” So the two or three men who were pitching hay onto the wagon would get up onto the load and they would hold it down in places so that it would compress the hay, so it would be less apt to fall off as you went over these rough spots. Sometimes I’ve seen the whole load of hay fall off and it was a terrible job to put it back on the wagon again.
Now, proceeding from the hayfield to the barn… The hay was put into what was called a haymow (pronounced like cow, Ed.) which is over the top of the cow barn, usually. It was usually a pretty high arrangement. So then we had a fork, a hay fork, which was an automatic tool with two big fingers which came down and grasped a load of hay off the hay rack and it was hoisted up on a rope and pulled into the barn and dumped. Now, the worst job in all that was what we called, ‘mowing away the hay’. The hay was dumped in front of a large window in front of the barn. The hay, somehow or other, had to be gotten into the rearmost portions of the haymow. That was done by people who could stand the dust from the hay and heat up to about 125-130 degrees in the top of the barn, which was hotter than all get-out. I can remember my father, who was not a very big man, but he always seemed to be the guy who had to mow the hay away. It was hot, dusty job. I often felt that he did this for one particular reward. It seemed to me, at the end of the day when all the hay was brought in from the hayfields, brought to the barns and mowed away, somebody would be outside the barn with a great big pitcher of ice-cold ginger beer. I don’t know what ginger beer was made of. But I suspect it was water, ginger and a little bit of vinegar because it was a tart… and maybe a little sugar…because it was tart and sweet. But it was a very refreshing drink and everybody would stand there and drink that ginger beer and get a little life back into their
bodies. But that was what haying was like. It was a lot of fun, really. Hard work, some parts of it, but it was the easiest of all the farm operations, I guess. That sort of covers haying. I guess. We’ve covered icing….
RS:I have an interest in harvesting corn.
PR: Oh, yes. Harvesting corn. Well, from the outside looking in, harvesting corn wouldn’t seem to be such a terribly hard job. But com, the ensilage corn, cow corn so-called, is not your average sweet corn. It’s much larger, much taller, half as big as the thickness of your wrist at the bottom. It’s eight to ten feet tall and one corn stalk by itself is heavy. We did have a machine which cut the corn and laid it down and tied it into bundles of six or eight stalks. Now, you have six or eight corn stalks laid down on the ground and tied with a harvest twine, which was done by the machine. Almost invariably, you are out on the field on a wet … We’re speaking of September now and the dew or rain or whatever you’ve had the night before or even that morning was heavy on the corn. The corn itself was heavy and before you had worked in the cornfields for fifteen minutes you were wet from head to foot. It could be quite cool on a September morning. The corn had to be lifted from the ground and thrown up onto a wagon somewhat similar to a hay wagon. You couldn’t lift it as high as you did the hay because it was much too heavy. But you probably had six or eight layers of these sheaves of corn thrown up onto the wagon. It took a pretty strong man to take one of these bundles of com and throw it up onto the wagon with the length of corn being, as I said, eight to ten feet tall. It was a hard, hard job.
The corn was then hauled away on the wagon to the silo where it was then pulled off the wagon and put into an ensilage cutter, which ran down a chute to the ensilage cutter itself which chopped it up and blew it up a chute into the top of the silo. Up and sown into the silo. Now this particular job was not terribly hard to take it off the wagon, put it on the chute rather than through the cutter, but it was a dangerous one. I know of one occasion where a man’s arm was pulled into this ensilage cutter and he got it out just in time and his hand and wrist were gone. But that happened, I would say, probably hundreds of times every year throughout the whole corn-producing area, where you produced corn. A very, very dangerous job. Farm equipment back in those days…. It still today is a very dangerous thing, even if you’re watching yourself every moment. Your hand or your arm or your leg could be pulled into one of these machines. So that pretty well deals with harvesting corn, unless you can think of any other.
RS: Let’s go back to the wood cutting.
PR:Oh, wood cutting. Now you’re not speaking of wood cutting for the charcoal industry
now. You’re speaking of wood cutting for domestic use.
PR:Well, I can speak about wood cutting.. Two major uses for wood involved wood cut to
about two and a half to three feet lengths and probably fifteen to eighteen or twenty-two inches in length. The shorter lengths would be used for fireplace wood and most houses had fireplaces. There was a great need for fireplace wood, although at that time many houses were beginning to be heated with coal. But a lot of people depended on fireplace wood for heat. Also, on the Scoville estate, over at the Grassland Farms they heated the barn with hot water and hot water was produced from quite a large furnace which used three foot lengths of wood. You opened a big door into the maw of that furnace, you needed these three foot lengths of wood, which were quite heavy. The wood, of course, had been slit into sections. You couldn’t put a whole log in there. Getting wood itself…
RS: Did they already have piping then.
PR: Yes, Grassland Farms had piping and one of the first hot water systems that I ever saw. It didn’t go into the cow bam section because the cows themselves produced enough heat to keep themselves warm. But there were various bits of machinery around there that had to be protected from the cold. So there was a little hot water system there in the immediate vicinity of the furnace.
Over at the Scoville estate proper, you had an entirely different thing. They had a large, large greenhouse, consisting of six or eight separate little greenhouses by themselves, all connected. These greenhouses were all heated by steam heat or hot water. Actually it was steam but it required the same amount of piping. It was steam
heat. This steam heat was produced by, again, a large furnace in the cellar of the greenhouse area. That also took three-foot planks of wood. Well, those three-foot lengths of wood don’t just grow at hand. You have to go get them.
So we had probably fifty to one hundred acres of woodland about a half mile from the greenhouse area. So, every year after all the outside chores had been done and we got a lot of snow on the ground and it got good and cold, we went into the woods to cut wood. Normally, we selected either downed trees or dead trees to cut. Well, today to fell a tree, you can fell a large tree in two or three minutes with a chainsaw. Nobody ever had heard of a chainsaw back in those days. So the first thing you did was select your tree. You selected the direction in which you wanted to drop the tree. You notched the tree in a peculiar manner so that when the tree was felled, that’s where it would fall. Now again to get back to my father who was very, very handy with an axe….When he chopped into a tree, the resulting notch that he chopped was so smooth you’d swear it was cut by a saw. He was so accurate with the blade of that axe. Every man had their own axe. They sharpened it. They took care of it. And nobody else touched it! That was his private axe.
So now we get back to the tree. The tree was notched in such a manner that it would fall where you wanted it to fall. If it didn’t fall where you wanted it to fall, it might fall into another tree and not fall at all. That’s what we used to call “hanging it up”. Well, if you hanged a tree up, you were in hot water and you were in great trouble because once you hung a tree it was very, very difficult to get it loose and get it down again. But anyway, my father would normally…. This involves the years I worked in the woods. My father would normally notch the tree and it got so that someone would go out a little distance away from the tree and stick a little stick in the ground and say, “This is where the tree is going to fall.” Invariably, it would fall very, very close to that spot. After the tree was notched, then you took a cross-cut saw which is about four to five feet in length – some were actually six feet – with a handle on each side. Now, when you’re cutting a tree down, it’s a lot different, a lot harder than it is to cut it up, if you know what I mean. In order to cut it down, you hold the saw horizontally, necessarily because the tree is vertical. So now you bend over and you’re in a horrible, uncomfortable position.
RS: Now you’re talking about two men. Right?
PR:I’m talking about two men. One at either end of the saw. You may be sawing a tree
that’s eighteen inches in diameter. Again, that might not sound like much but when you are on one end of a cross-cut saw and you saw through a two foot or three foot diameter tree, it involves a lot of sawing. I have to go back to my father all the time. He was short, about five foot eight Inches, a bit close to the ground, but he could out saw any man I ever saw in that position, the horizontal position. It was terrible. It used to break my back and I’d be out of wood in no time. And he’d say, “Come on, let’s get agoin’”.
So anyway, now we sawed the tree down. It falls where it’s supposed to fall. It’s on the ground. The first thing you do is lift the tree, chop off all the limbs with your axe, haul them away to a pile where you’re later going to burn them. If the branches were large enough, you’d save them for firewood. The small branches you’d haul off and throw in the pile. Now you cut the logs to the required lengths. If you’re going to use it for three-foot wood for the furnace, you’d probably cut it into six-foot lengths. If you’re going to cut it for eighteen inch wood for fireplaces, you’d probably cut two eighteen inch lengths or three feet, three feet and a half. So now you have the tree down on the ground. You have it cut up into the required lengths, necessary sizes. Now you have to split the sucker. Again, there was no such thing as a log splitter. You split that log with wedges and hammers. You know what a wedge looks like? It’s an iron piece, rather sharp on one side and blunt on the other. You’d insert that into either the end of the tree or the top of the tree and you’d hammer them in until the thing finally splits. Sometimes if the wood is very stringy, an oak tree is very stringy, you might get four or five wedges and it still hadn’t split. Then you’re in trouble. So you might have to make a wood wedge for this. It’s thicker. Hammer it down and hammer away until it finally splits. Then you get it down to the size where you can handle it. You don’t have any
loaders and you load them by hand. You bend down there and you pick that thing up and you throw it up onto the wagon or sleigh. Again, this is brutal, hard work. Yet there was a lot of fun connected with it. First thing we’d go on a morning which might be ten or twenty below zero. We’d make a big bonfire so we could warm our hands and our wedges, incidentally. If the wedges were not warm, they’d pop right back out of the tree when you tried to hammer them in. They’d come out like a shot. So your wedge had to be warm.
So, you loaded up the sleigh and away you went with a load of wood, took It down to the area near the greenhouse where then you either sawed it by hand, cut it up in the required lengths, or you cut it with a circular saw. With a saw about thirty-six inches in diameter, driven by a, probably an old Ford tractor with a big belt on it. That thing would go ninety miles an hour and whistle in the air. You stood there and you sawed these things up into the proper lengths. Again, a most dangerous job. I once saw one of these circular saws, while going at full speed and the man who had put the log on the saw table didn’t have it at the quite right angle and the saw split. It disintegrated, probably fifteen different pieces, revolving at a tremendous rate. It threw the pieces straight up into the air at quite a distance. Any one … could have been dismembered had it hit them. As it was… I remember the fellows name was Bill Reid. When the saw exploded he was the only man that was hurt. He got a little piece of the saw lodged in his nose. It sounds funny but it could just as well have hit the eye. It lodged into the top part of his nose. He didn’t know it was there. We saw blood running down his face. Finally, someone reached up and took the piece of the saw and pulled it out of his nose.
Wood was a necessary thing, required for heat and everybody did it. It came as natural as breathing. In the wintertime you got in ice and you got in wood. In the fall of the year you got in corn. In the summer you got in hay. This, briefly, is some of the types of work that I have seen done as a young man. This goes back to let’s say 1919 to the early thirties. In the late thirties I was more or less involved in it now and then. There were always phases.
RS: You mentioned one other area, the building trade.
PR:Oh, the building trade is interesting.
End of Side C
(n.b. some dialogue lost when tape was turned over.)
You had to be able to do magic with a square, for example. I recall one man, whom I will not name. He didn’t have a grade school education but he was an absolute magician with a square. He could do all sorts of problems and he built houses. He built them solid and square.
There’s one other thing I might mention. Not only in the building trade but in all phases of work. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong you can correct me if you think so, but it seemed to me back in the good old days men had a certain pride, a certain pride in the work. Whatever work they did, they did it with pride. They were determined to do a good job. Part of that came through necessity because if you didn’t do a good Job, soon you didn’t have a job. I think there was this pride in workmen in those days who were determined they were going to be known as a man who did good work, whether carpenter or bricklayer. Bricklayers back in those days laid brick as fast and as well as they could. I don’t know if you know it or not, but today there’s a limit to the number of bricks you’re permitted to lay in a day. That’s determined by the union which says. “This is the maximum number of bricks we’ll let you lay in one day, period.” In the old days, you laid as many bricks as you could and did them the best you knew how. That goes along with the feeling that I have that men produced what they could, the best that they could and they’d like to be known for doing this type of work.
RS:Do you think that possibly higher moral standards in those days existed also?
PR:Oh, I think that’s unquestionable. I think when you speak of moral standards, I think
the family was a much more integrated, necessary part of life. If you didn’t have a family,
you were footloose and fancy free. I don’t know about morals, speaking about morals actually. Men drank and ran around but for the main part they came back to the families and supported the family. A man, normally, was the head of the family. Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know and I’m not here to say. But most men today, I don’t think you refer to as the head of the family. The wife is out working and perhaps making more money than the husband is. I don’t think there’s hardly such a thing as the head of a family anymore. It used to be that the man was regarded as the head of the family. He was very proud to be named as the head of the family. Do you agree?
RS: There’s no question about it.
PR:So, you speak of moral. As far as morals go I don’t imagine the morals have changed over
RS: Well. I was thinking of morals in the sense of honesty and corruption. I wasn’t thinking in terms of drinking or things like that.
PR: Yes. In terms of honesty I think there was a necessity for honesty. It was generally recognized. If you were not honesty, you soon gained a reputation that was not too great. This in turn would affect your livelihood. Today, people gravitate from one place to another and people get into the automobile and go or get on the airplane and find another state. It was not so. You were closely confined by your own immediate area, I think, in those days, and the town. A lot of men never got out of their town except to go to perhaps a fair or something. In the fall they went to a fair at Great Barrington or someplace else. But men hardly moved out of the village or town in which they lived.
RS: And there was concern for what the community thought of you.
PR: Yes, indeed, of necessity.
RS: Now, how much participation was there, let us say, in Town Hall meetings and community decisions?
PR:There was a great awareness of what went on in the town. I believe town meetings were
much better attended in the old days, than they are now. Now, a budget of a few million dollars is passed by perhaps eight or ten people. But I’ve seen the old Town Hall jammed to the rafters on many occasions and I think the people again, had a pride in taking part in the affairs of the town. Unfortunately, I think we’ve lost that now. I think the so- called natives have become apathetic and I believe that the newer people from the cities are more interested. I believe they’ve taken over the affairs of the town and rightfully so.
RS: What brought on this apathy? And now we… There are several things that have occurred….The younger people of native people, do they move away or do they settle here?
PR:Well, I would speak of two different times. Traditionally, the younger people did not move
away. They stayed and perhaps inherited a share in the farm on which they grew up. Now there is very little of this farm life and young people, when they grow up, find there’s nothing to do here, so they must take off from the city somewhere. So we’re losing our young people very, very rapidly. This may account in a way for the apathy that seems to prevail in town affairs. I’m not sure that this is true but it certainly…. I believe it has effect. My own two children that love this area and this town so much when they grew up there was nothing for them to do so they just had to leave.
Then the influx of people from the city is well known and these people, many of them are weekenders, are vitally interested in the affairs of the town. As I said before, they have taken over the affairs of the town. We have abdicated; the old-timers have abdicated our former positions of power and interest. I guess it’s a sign of the times.
RS:Let’s go back to something here about the working conditions. You mentioned that
years were from 1919 approximately, through the thirties, which means that you were working during the period of the Great Depression. How did that affect this area?
PR:I would say…. I, personally, happened to be away during the early years of the
Depression. I came back just at the end of the Depression. But I would think that this, again 1’11 say the town of Salisbury was very, very little affected, unaffected largely by the Depression. Things always moved slowly. In the old days there were a certain number of things that had to be done, so those things were done. Depression or no Depression. So, I feel that we were not nearly as much affected by the Depression as the city areas.
RS: Did most people still farm?
PR:In those days, yes. There were always countless farms. Many small homes had eight or
ten acres out behind their homes. They had half a dozen cows and four pigs and a couple of horses. You might call those farms. They were not typical farms. The larger farms, of course, operated on a larger scale. There must have been twenty or twenty-five good-sized farms in the town of Salisbury. Now, I think, there are perhaps a half dozen. But back in those days you did have the farm work to fall back on, I think. People had more of a tendency to live off the soil than they do today. Today, everyone goes to the super market and picks just about everything off the shelf. Not so, the old days. In my own particular family we always had a large garden, vegetable garden. Those vegetables were very assiduously grown and eaten during the summer months and canned for the winter months. People canned fruit and vegetables to a large extent. You almost lived off your little garden. All you needed was a bit of meat, coffee and sugar and a few of those items. But the vegetable garden, people lived off them. This is not true anymore. We have a change of life manner. It’s entirely different than it was, let’s say fifty years ago. Entirely.
RS: In that respect and at least in my view, looking at history with sympathy and not interested in comparing it with today, the conditions of work that you experienced at that time. Did you find that they were satisfactory? What was the pay scale? Was the pay scale something that people accepted? If you wanted a raise, did you go see the boss on your own, by yourself, or did a few of you go in together?
PR:I never heard of an instance when a few people went in together. I think if you were
working for a farmer, for example, I think if you had one child and suddenly you had two or three children, you probably went to the boss and said, “Look, my family is getting larger. I need to have some more money.” I would say that ninety-nine times out of a hundred the boss or farmer or whoever he happened to be would say, “Yes, I understand. You’re going to have a little more money from now on. Maybe one of your children will have to work on the farm a little bit to help out, but I certainly understand your position. You have to have a little more money.”
I never heard of any contention over money. Farm hands were paid about so much whether he worked this farm or that farm. If there was a farmer in town who was a notoriously poor payer, it was found out and he would have a hard time getting anyone to work for him. Therefore everyone paid what was considered a fair wage, a living wage. It was different. There were no groups going, saying, “Say, we’ve got to have more money.” It just didn’t work that way.
RS: You mentioned before about bricklayers, for instance, that one would lay as many bricks as he could within the time of his work, which seemed to indicate one bricklayer may, let’s say, lay twenty bricks more than another. Were they paid according to the bricks they laid, or what?
PR:Originally they were paid for the number of bricks they laid. The last I knew, which was
quite some years ago, the bricklayers’ union…. They were only allowed to lay, I think it was 1500 bricks a day. Prior to that ruling by the union, it was possible for a good bricklayer to lay three or four thousand bricks in a day. When they finally organized themselves, they were told, “This is all you can do.” What are you going to do? If you want to get a building built you must employ union labor. Naturally, the cost of the building goes up. Less work was done. So they’d just dawdle along and lay their 1500 bricks and that’s it. That applies to all kinds of work.
RS:Coming back to those days. If you had two workers and one laid one hundred bricks
and the other laid eighty bricks, did they get a different salary?
PR:No, I think in a case like that it would soon be known that Joe laid more bricks than
any other man on the Job and he’d probably become a foreman. Or, these days he wouldn’t have to lay any bricks at all. He’d just go and tell the other guys to work a little harder. But there, again, I think every man knew that he must produce a reasonable amount of work. Otherwise he was out of a job. There again the pride comes in. Every man has pride, I don’t care who he is and I believe that, coming back to bricklayers. I think their pride was overcome by the ruling of the bricklayers’ union. I think that a good many men gave up laying bricks because they couldn’t do the job they really liked to do. I really think so.
RS: Let me get some various specific questions. That was a very good description.
First I would like to get an idea, let’s say when you were maybe seven years old, if you can recall that. What a day was like. What time did you get up? What chores did you have to do? What did you have for breakfast? Go through the whole day.
PR: Well, let’s take seven, seven years of age. I probably woke up about the time my father left the house for work and I dressed.
RS: And that was what time?
PR: Oh, I probably woke up at 6:30 or so, something of that sort. In the wintertime I can certainly remember I ran to the stove and dressed by the stove because it was so frightfully cold in my bedroom that many times I saw snow drift through the window, underneath the window. So, we would grab our clothes and run down beside the stove and dress there. My family was very, very poor. I can’t imagine anyone being any poorer than we were. But we always had enough to eat and we always had, if not acceptable clothes, clothes that kept us warm, kept the elements out anyway.
Anyway, for breakfast many mornings, some of the good mornings, we had pancakes. All the pancakes you could eat with maple syrup or molasses on the pancakes. Or it might be oatmeal which I still love today. A good big portion of oatmeal with either whole milk or cream, maybe a little fruit if we had fruit around. Then, of course. I was seven years old. I’d get dressed and had breakfast and off to school.
RS: Which meant walking how far?
PR: Well, I never walked less than a mile. I think the farthest I had to walk was about a mile and a half. This was, of course, a lot of fun especially in the spring and summer. But in the winter it wasn’t so much fun. In many cases we had to walk through deep snow. There again if you had someone to walk with it was sort of fun, unless it was a raging blizzard. We didn’t have the snow days back in those days. We had school, whether snow or no snow. So, you’d spend your five hours in school and then come home.
RS: Did you have lunch in school?
PR: No. We took our own lunch. But one happy thing when I went to the Taconic School there was a house right next to the school and they provided hot cocoa or something which I’ve never had since but which I loved. It was called potato soup. I don’t know what it was made of but it was delicious, absolutely delicious. We brought it over in big cans. We carried a big can in each hand, whoever was appointed to go over there and get it. This was a government subsidy back in those days. It was for a while and then it seemed to me we had to pay a nickel for our cup of soup or cocoa. I’m not sure when that changed but I feel that it was a state or government subsidy or provided by some wealthy person in the town. Maybe it was the Scoville family who had it provided. I’m not sure but for all the winters that I went to school in Taconic, we had this hot cocoa or hot soup which the older boys, eighth grade boys, two of them would go over. They were appointed to go over and get the cocoa. So that was a help really.
Then, you speak of chores. I think every kid had certain duties to do. Mine, in the summertime, I had to work in the garden, for example. My father would tell me the night before, “When you come home from school, you’ll hoe these beans, these four rows of beans.” or “You’ll till these ten rows of potatoes” or “You’ll stake up the tomatoes, put some stakes in and tie them up.” or “You’ll pick the potato bugs off the potatoes” or “You’ll get the kindling wood in to start the fire in the morning. It’s your job to keep the kindling wood, a good supply of kindling wood on hand.” or ‘You’ll mow the lawn, the lawn needs mowing.” There was always something to do. We didn’t have running water in the house. “You will go to the spring and get water.” That’s morning and night, that was the hard side, but the happy side came after, after my chores were done.
RS: You did your chores after you came home from school?
PR:After we came home from school.
RS: About what time?
PR: Well, I’d get home from school, I suppose, at 3:30 or so.
PR: So I did my chores. Then I could do anything I wanted, anything at all. I had a few friends. We’d go out in the woods with a BB gun, shoot at birds, which I later learned not to do. We’d start a fire, climb a tree. One of the big things we did was climb a birch
tree. We called it “swinging birches” Have you ever done it?
PR:A wonderful thing. Kids don’t do much of that anymore. You’d climb up a birch tree as
high as you can until the thing bends over and lets you down to the ground. So, it was a happy childhood, a very, very happy childhood. In the winter months you didn’t have so much garden work to do, but you still had to keep the kindling supplied and the water, etc. and perhaps help with the wood for the stove. Then we’d go sliding or skating- skating parties at night. And we had more fun. We had more fun; I can’t begin to tell you. It was a happy life.
RS: What time did you have dinner?
PR:Well, usually not until my father got home and that would be about six o’clock or so.
When he started working, getting through at five, we’d eat about six. No one ate until he got home, that’s for sure.
RS: And after dinner?
PR:After that there was school work, homework, and this was the unwritten rule. My father
checked my homework and my sister’s to see that it was done. This was regular as clockwork. You did your homework. We had quite a lot of homework to do and my father always checked to make sure it was done.
Then there’s another interesting thing. If I had any trouble with a teacher, I was in double trouble with my father. I never knew him to support me against a teacher. The teacher was always right no matter how wrong she might be, the teacher was right. I grew up that way, feeling, knowing that the teacher was right. I think it’s a good lesson.
RS: You never knew that the teacher was wrong?
PR:Well, the reason why I say that the teacher was always right is, if I complained to my
father I got nowhere. If the teacher wrote a note, which I don’t remember she ever did. If she ever wrote a note saying I was bad, I did something really bad I would get in real big trouble. In real big trouble. In that case the teacher was always right. If she said I did something wrong, I did it. There’s no way out of this. My father always supported the teacher.
RS: But your own feelings… If you can recall an instance, a teacher can be wrong sometimes. Can you recall an instance when a teacher was wrong in your case? Now, of course, that’s not necessarily…
PR:Truthful, I don’t think I can. In retrospect, I’m forced to admit that the teacher was right.
Sometimes at the moment it seemed like she was too stern. But, as I say, thinking over all those years ago, I think was 99/44 one hundred percent right.
RS: And the teacher had a standing in the community at that time.
PR:She had an excellent standing in the community.
RS: You’ve mentioned that one of your teachers was Mrs. Holmes.
PR:Actually, she was never my teacher. I was in the upper grades when she came to the
school. Her name was Goetting, later Mrs. Holmes. But at that time I had a teacher named Fish, Edna Fish. I never mentioned it before but I’d never had a mother. My mother died when I was twenty-two months old, so I’ve never had a mother. So when I went to school, at the age of five…
RS: So your father raised the family. There was no mother or mother substitute?
PR:No, the only mother substitute we had was the housekeeper. So, I went to school at the
age of five and I evidently needed a bit of mothering. This teacher, Mrs. Fish mothered me because I was a little scrawny waif of a thing without a mother. I’m sure she felt sorry for me. She would put her arms around me and this was, I guess, one of the warmest feelings I ever had in my life when 1 got this mothering from the teacher. So I really couldn’t complain that this lady ever did anything very wrong. Some of the kids got in trouble with her, but I never got in much trouble. So she gave me something that I really needed at that time.
RS:Coming back to the daily schedule. What time did you go to bed?
PR:Well, let me tell you. There was no radio, there was no TV. So after I got my homework
done. I might read a book but I’m sure that I was in bed by ten o’clock unless I was going to a skating or sliding affair.
RS: That was pretty fixed.
PR:It wasn’t fixed by rule. Just by habit. If I stayed up late, late, late I’m sure my father
would say, “Bedtime, To bed.” Oh, one little thing about my father. I never argued with him and he never laid a hand on me. All he ever had to do was – he held up his finger, like this and that was all he ever had to do. I knew what it meant. If I ever disputed him that ‘finger up’ ensued until twenty-five years old. I never gave him a hard time. All he had to do was hold up the finger. That’s all it took.
RS: What was the kind of reading you did? Not at the age seven but in your teens. Do you recall any authors or books that you read?
PR:Well, unfortunately I was not near enough to the Scoville Library to get books from the
library. But we did have a little library in our church in Taconic. The first books I can remember reading, I think, were the Hardy Boys and the Frank Merriweather series. I’ve forgotten the titles but books of that nature. Incidentally, this little library I spoke of at the Union Chapel in Taconic was kept supplied with books by the Scoville family. They’d get a bunch of books in and they’d probably stay there for two or three years. Maybe those books would go and they’d bring some other books in. So they probably came from the Scoville Library here. I don’t know. But that was about the only books I read. Oh, I read Black Beauty and I just can’t recall but books of that nature. Frank Merriweather, Yale. Very light, moralistic reading at that time.
RS:I wanted to get that myth story you were going to tell me about, stones on the roof.
PR:Oh, this was a very interesting thing that I learned at a very early age and I give it to you,
not as fact, but as a myth. However, I’d like to say that there’s a foundation for this myth, in as much as similar instances happened in various parts of the country. And not only in this country, but in Europe, and as I recall and from what reading I have done, it occurred in central Europe. My father always referred to it simply as ‘Stones on the Roof. How this came about here in this area and came to my knowledge was like this. On the Undermountain Road which is Route 41, where Route 41 just comes into Massachusetts at a place called Sages’ Ravine. You go across Sages’ Ravine and you’re now in Massachusetts on Route 41 going north. On the left-hand side of the road just before you get to Sages’ Ravine stood a cottage, a medium sized house, well up off the road, maybe fifty yards off the road on the left, sat on a height over the road. An old lady had lived there for a good many years, apparently alone. Although I’m relatively sure of her name, I won’t mention it because I could be wrong and I would like to be right. So I won’t tell her name. But various people went to visit her now and then, as neighbors always did. And she began to tell the neighbors that she was very, very disturbed, that something had been happening two or three times. They wanted to know what in the world it was, so she said. “In the middle of the night I hear stones coming down on my roof.” Sure enough, upon searching below the roof of the house, they found stones two or three inches in diameter, several of them on several occasions. This poor lady was very, very frightened because out of nowhere, and in the middle of the night, down would come stones on the roof. For what reason, no one ever found out. But this was told to my father by someone who was very, very close to the old lady. So my father accepted it as fact that the stones did indeed fall on the roof. He never knew why. Nor do I. But, as I said, in central Europe it is a myth and they call it simply ‘stones on the roof. It seems to be a foreboding of ill in some ways. It’s certainly not a happy thing. But it seemed to prophesy a death in the family sometime soon. That’s, of course, what the old lady was worried about. She finally died of old, old age. But I thought it worthy of mention because I’m sure that someone will hear this tape some day and they will remember that they have read instances like this which occurred in Batavia, I think, central Europe or the Czechoslovakia area. That’s where this occurred, also in western Germany this thing was known to happen.
RS: It’s the first time I’ve heard about it.
PR:I have heard about it and have read about it. I’m sorry I didn’t pay more attention to it
when 1 read about it so I could authenticate it. But it’s simply a little myth that I’d like to share.
RS: I’m glad you included that. In your… In a previous tape you mentioned the sites of homes on the top of Mt. Washington. Who were the people who lived up there?
PR: Well, I can’t tell you too much about that. I’m sorry, except that I know the Bonhotel family lived up there. When you say houses, these were not really houses. These were cabins, temporary cabins. The Bonhotels lived down in the village some of the time, but they lived up there during the charcoal days. They lived up there in cabins. Too far to travel up and down all the time. When you get to the Mt. Washington area and I mention Mt. Washington because the charcoal was cut not only here but ran up the ridge into the town of Mt. Washington, which is in Massachusetts. The only family that I ever knew up there who were of long-standing were the Whitbecks. They were related distantly to the Sammy Whitbeck family here in town. I don’t know exactly how they were related, but they’d lived up there for many, many years on Mt. Washington. I can’t tell you anymore family names, I’m sorry to say.
RS: Who were your inspirations, your heroes, when you were growing up – let’s say in your teenage years? Who did you look up to?
PR:Oh, Babe Ruth, I guess. Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden, all the super athletes, the greatest of
the greats. In later years, after my father was dead, he was my hero. I never realized that.
RS: I gathered that as you described him.
PR:I never realized it until after he was dead but I did learn later in life that he was my hero.
Other than that I don’t think I had any local heroes, no one of heroic stature in this area that I can remember.
RS: Is there anything else that you want to add?
PR:No. I can’t think of anything and I hope this will prove of interest to someone, someday.
Maybe not at the present time but maybe fifty or a hundred years from now. Someone will hear my voice and say, “Who is this strange character? Those were strange times.” So I think that’s about all I have to say.
RS: OK, Paul and thank you.