Gathering Places

Winter was the pause in the rhythm of the agricultural year. To be sure, the farmer had to tend his animals whatever the weather, but the pressures of the spring and summer were behind him now. The harvest of the fields had been gathered in while the days were longer and warmer. Winter was the time in the life of a New England country town for gathering and socializing.

Rural people spent much of their time in work which was solitary or offered little time for conversation, so they took time on the margins of the day, at the end of the week, and in the winter quiet of the year for visiting and talk. If we could return to the New England past in the snowbound silence of a winter night, we would hear the voices of the town. Gossiping, joking, exhorting, praying, arguing, speculating, celebrating, singing and bargaining, farm folk and villagers whiled away the long New England winters.

People would gather at home, at the store and in the tavern. (We aren't overlooking the meetinghouse, but we covered that aspect of community life in last Winter's Rural Visitor.) Every rural community was a collection of kin and neighbors, allies and opponents, the respectable and the outcast. The settings for their social contacts were the arteries of community life.

Let's imagine that we can return to a long-ago winter in the country. We are going to eavesdrop in the center village and around the countryside, too. We'll begin with visiting in the homes of friends. The reader of early 19th-century diaries is impressed by the volume of entries about visiting. In the winter months of 1836, Ephraim Coleman of Newington, New Hampshire, visited friends an average of five times a week. During the same months, Pamela Brown of Plymouth, Vermont, was constantly receiving guests. She brought people home after meetings and opened the door to others who were passing through town or had simply shown up. When not being visited, Pamela was frequently out paying visits herself.

Without the telephone and automobile, a visit, even to a house in the same town, was frequently a substantial commitment of time and energy. The result was the custom of frequent overnight visits, a custom the rural folk called "tarrying." The pattern was to travel in the forenoon, arriving in time for dinner, or if later, for tea, and then to spend the night. To "tarry" with friends was one of New England's most common social rituals.

Today the telephone makes it an easy courtesy to announce one's plans to visit. In a world without telephones and infrequent mail service, visitors usually came unannounced. The ability to respond to such occasions, to feed a half-dozen additional guests on short notice, was one of the marks of a good housewife. Sleeping arrangements often had to be improvised in ways which would surprise us today. Both children and adults were generally used to sharing beds with others of the same sex. Except for a rare guest of special importance, visitors simply expected, come bedtime, to tuck themselves in with members of the family.

People who tarried spent long hours in talk, gathered around the fireplace or sitting around the center table in the parlor warmed by the stove. In the process, they shared each other's domestic intimacies in ways in which only very close kin, or no one at all, would today.

What was the flavor of conversation on such occasions? It could be deeply serious in some households, with talk confined to the most recent Sabbath sermon, the prospects for a religious revival, or the success of the temperance campaign. Yet these were surely a minority. Even in the Reverend Lyman Beecher's parsonage, intense theological discussion could give way to merriment as the minister himself picked up a song, or told a joke.

In Oldtown Fireside Stories, Lyman's daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, offers another possibility — a New England tradition of "chimney-corner story-telling". Her wonderful stories of Sam Lawson, like "The Ghost in the Mill" or "Captain Kidd's Money", were based on tales that she and her husband remembered from their childhoods in Litchfield, Connecticut, and Natick, Massachusetts — "tales of war and adventure, of forest-days, of Indian captivities and escapes, of bears and wildcats and panthers, of rattlesnakes, of witches and wizards, and strange and wonderful dreams and appearances and providences."

Such tales continued to be told in the 1830's, as Francis Underwood recalled. He recaptured the conversation of his mother and her friends in a farmhouse sitting room in Enfield, Massachusetts; in nasally accented Yankee dialect, they shivered at a tale of Satan prowling the local woods disguised as a black bear, and then told the story of the tavern-keeper's clock:

"There's strange things happen in this world. . . Naow, yeou know the tavern-keeper died arter he was kicked by a hoss. Wal, Mis' Shumway, who's a woman o' trewth, tol' me that she was ther' washin' and scrubbin', and then an ol' clock that hedn't been runnin' for a year suddenly broke out a strikin'. They caounted, and it struck forty-four! Jest the dyin' man's age."

Most conversation probably dealt with the tangible and prosaic concerns of everyday life. Eighteen-year-old Zeloda Barrett of New Hartford, Connecticut "took down the heads of the discourse" of one long evening when company visited.

"1st was about Swine. 2nd Demicrat pigs. 3rd About Mr. Spencer and Mr. Smith's arbitration. 4th Mrs. Ensigns sore finger. 5th Colonel Kellog's commission for a General. 6th About the meetinghouse being seated..."

Zeloda must have kept track of this with a mischievous smile. The conversation had ranged over agriculture, politics ("Demicrat pigs" were surely not a new breed of porkers but a contemptuous political reference), community disputes, personal fortunes and misfortunes, and church affairs!

More obvious to the casual traveller than innumerable fireside conversations were the public gathering places of the rural community. There, wits were tested, and old scores settled. The tone of a visit in store or tavern was apt to be very different from that of "tarrying" in someone's home.

A country store was more than the community's crucial economic link to wider markets. It was a community forum, an information center, even an arena of debate and competition. Particularly in the colder months of the year, country stores were abuzz with life. "A double row of horses, shaggy with buffalo robes, was often to be seen" in front of country stores after Thanksgiving. Loafers, men talking politics, women eager for the latest news of births, marriages and deaths, all spent far more time in the store than needed for simply transacting business. Trading was a social process; most transactions were sure to be watched and overheard. The news of an unusually large purchase or a particularly sharp bargain would soon find its way into the homes of the village.

In some stores, trading and conversation became parts of a competitive game. Historians of New England's lighter side are fortunate that P. T. Barnum, the great showman, spent his youth clerking in a store in Bethel, Connecticut, in the 1820s. The early chapters of Barnum's Autobiography depict a rural New England from the vantage point of the store — which was definitely not that of the parsonage! "I cut open bundles of rags, brought to the store by country women in exchange for goods, and declared to be all linen and cotton, that contained quantities of worthless woolen trash in the interior, and sometimes stones, gravel, ashes. . . Of course, the astonished woman would impute the rag-swindle to a servant or neighbor who had made it up without her knowledge..."

Barnun did not openly confess to occasionally keeping a heavy thumb on the scale to even the score. But his hints leave little doubt that he did, and little doubt that like some other storekeepers, he used his quickness in mental arithmetic to shave a few pennies from trades with his slower customers. Ferocious practical joking, and tall tales aimed at the credulous, were also part of the daily routine of Barnum's store.

Other stores were more edifying if less unpredictable places to visit. Brought up in a New Hampshire village, Elizabeth Rollins remembered the store as "an unorganized lyceum" where "a wise blacksmith and a well-read carpenter held high dispute with the college-learned lawyer and doctor, while a row of eager listeners sat perched on the counters."

The audience included both center villagers who lived close by and farmers, "who like to drive hither on moonlit nights, to hear what they called 'college learning'". The minister came infrequently; but when he entered, more jocular conversation faded away.

In the very dead of winter, the days around the coming of the New Year would see customers coming into the store to settle up their accounts. Following one of New England's oldest New Year's customs, heads would bend over the well-thumbed pages of the ledger until the "debtor to" and "credit by" entries were reconciled and the balance either paid or "brought forward" to begin a new set of reckonings.

As town meeting time approached, stores became even more crowded. Local factions gathered there to plan their strategies, or to argue with their opponents. Farmers and artisans assembled to read the warrant for the meeting and puzzle over its effect on their next year's taxes.

Usually only a short walk from the store and close to homes and meetinghouse, the tavern was yet another sort of gathering place. By the 1830's the atmosphere to be found in New England country taverns varied greatly, sometimes even within the same village. The issues were rum and respectability.

For one thing, the tavern was where the life of the town intersected with the life of the roads. In a village on an important road, at least one tavern room was crowded at all seasons of the year, with stage-drivers and teamsters. Men "with wooden-handled whips and coarse frocks", they spent most of their lives behind horses pulling passenger-filled coaches and heavily-loaded freight wagons along New England's highways. Drovers, too, could be found who were taking herds of cattle and swine, or even flocks of turkeys to market. They were, by and large, a rough lot. Such men liked rum — West Indian better than home-distilled New England if they could get it — chewed tobacco, and quarrelled loudly about the finer points of horses and the worst stretches of road. Young boys passing by the tavern on errands found them fascinating and alarming figures.

The temperance cause had made real inroads in many rural communities by the 1830s. Under the leadership of reformist ministers and awakened churches, some towns had greatly reduced their consumption of alcohol. The "temperance hotels" and "temperance inns" which such communities boasted were quieter, cleaner and more decorous, but much less exciting places than their predecessors. One traveller saw "the keeper of the Temperance Hotel reading a Hebrew bible in the bar, by means of a lexicon and an English version"! Teamsters looked on such places with dismay, and avoided them if they could. But New England people were split over the issue of abstinence from strong drink, and most taverns continued to sell liquor.

Some taverns were gathering places for the community's "outs" and "aginners". Men who shunned the meetinghouse and took little part in the give and take of conversation in the store often found the road-hardened company of the teamsters much more to their liking.

"To one coming from the fresh air without, the breath of that fiery barroom [in Enfield, Massachusetts] was overpowering. The odors of the teamster's boots, redolent of fish-oil and tallow, and of buffalo robes and horse blankets... almost got the better of the all-pervading fumes of spirits and tobacco. This was the exchange for rustic wit, the focus of hate for parsons and deacons, and of ridicule for the newfangled temperance society."

In his leisurely New England journeys of the 1830s, Nathaniel Hawthorne was one respectable traveller who relished taverns far more than meetinghouses. Storing up images and character sketches for later use in his fiction, Hawthorne lounged on tavern benches, smoked cigars, and took friendly glasses of spirits with villagers from central Maine to southern Connecticut. His notebooks contain a portrait gallery of New England tavern-haunters on the fringe of society — the proprietor of a travelling show, a one-armed and shoeless soap-maker who was once a lawyer, an opium-eater, a farm laborer searching for his runaway wife, an abandoned four-year-old boy who ran errands for the teamsters and played in their wagons.

Of course, it was possible for a tavern to sell liquor and retain a respectable demeanor. Most seemed to accomplish this by reserving one barroom strictly for drovers, teamsters and their hard-drinking companions. More genteel travellers and the moderate drinkers of the community could gather in the parlor-barroom. Such taverns could be the setting for rural New England's most festive social gatherings. Their ballrooms rang to the tunes of fiddle and flute for New Year's, Washington's Birthday, and Election Day dances, and private parties on other occasions.

Taverns played a part, too, in another of New England winter's immemorial functions — to provide a time and place for young people to meet and court. In the words of a Maryland traveller, sleighing parties of Connecticut's young people would take a small tavern room, "call for supper and punch, have music, dance, sing, laugh and tell stories, and after amusing themselves until they are tired...return home."

Rural New Englanders used the winter season to tarry with friends and neighbors, to meet at store and tavern. In the winter they could concentrate on the ties of kinship, friendship and courtship. They had time to debate the politics of town, state and nation, to argue the theology of free will and the morality of slavery. The variety of rural society was especially visible then as well, composed as it was of the respectable and the disreputable, tale-tellers and crafty bargainers, the enterprising and the downtrodden, ultra-serious ministers and joking storekeepers. Their world was much poorer than ours in instant entertainment and information, but it was rich in extended personal contact. While talking in their gathering places, the people of a New England town were perhaps more truly a community than at any other time.

Larkin, Jack, Old Sturbridge Village Visitor, Winter 2004

Copyright: Old Sturbridge Inc.