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Adopting An Abandoned Farm
BY KATE SANBORN
I. - FROM GOTHAM TO GOOSEVILLE
II. - AUCTIONS
III. - BUYING A HORSE
IV. - FOR THOSE WHO LOVE PETS
V. - STARTING A POULTRY FARM
VI. - GHOSTS
VII. - DAILY DISTRACTIONS
VIII. - THE PROSE OF NEW ENGLAND FARM LIFE
IX. - THE PASSING OF THE PEACOCKS
X. - LOOKING BACK
An old farm-house with meadows wide,
And sweet with clover on each side.
ADOPTING AN ABANDONED FARM.
FROM GOTHAM TO GOOSEVILLE.
I have now come to the farmer's life, with which I am exceedingly
delighted, and which seems to me to belong especially to the life of
a wise man.
Weary of boarding at seashore and mountain, tired of traveling in search
of comfort, hating hotel life, I visited a country friend at Gooseville,
Conn. (an assumed name for Foxboro, Mass.), and passed three happy weeks
in her peaceful home.
Far away at last from the garish horrors of dress, formal dinners,
visits, and drives, the inevitable and demoralizing gossip and scandal;
far away from hotel piazzas, with their tedious accompaniments of
corpulent dowagers, exclusive or inquisitive, slowly dying from too much
food and too little exercise; ennuied spinsters; gushing buds; athletic
collegians, cigarettes in mouths and hands in pockets; languid, drawling
dudes; old bachelors, fluttering around the fair human flower like
September butterflies; fancy work, fancy work, like Penelope's web,
never finished; pug dogs of the aged and asthmatic variety. Everything
there but MEN - they are wise enough to keep far away.
Before leaving this haven of rest, I heard that the old-fashioned
farm-house just opposite was for sale. And, as purchasers of real estate
were infrequent at Gooseville, it would be rented for forty dollars a
year to any responsible tenant who would "keep it up."
After examining the house from garret to cellar and looking over the
fields with a critical eye, I telegraphed to the owner, fearful of
losing such a prize, that I would take it for three years. For it
captivated me. The cosy "settin'-room," with a "pie closet" and an upper
tiny cupboard known as a "rum closet" and its pretty fire place - bricked
up, but capable of being rescued from such prosaic "desuetude"; a large
sunny dining-room, with a brick oven, an oven suggestive of brown bread
and baked beans - yes, the baked beans of my childhood, that adorned the
breakfast table on a Sunday morning, cooked with just a little molasses
and a square piece of crisp salt pork in center, a dish to tempt a dying
There wore two broad landings on the stairs, the lower one just the
place for an old clock to tick out its impressive
"Forever - Never - Never - Forever" √† la Longfellow. Then the long "shed
chamber" with a wide swinging door opening to the west, framing a
sunset gorgeous enough to inspire a mummy. And the attic, with its
There was also a queer little room, dark and mysterious, in the center
of house on the ground floor, without even one window, convenient to
retire to during severe thunder storms or to evade a personal interview
with a burglar; just the place, too, for a restless ghost to revisit.
Best of all, every room was blessed with two closets.
Outside, what rare attractions! Twenty-five acres of arable land,
stretching to the south; a grand old barn, with dusty, cobwebbed,
hay-filled lofts, stalls for two horses and five cows; hen houses, with
plenty of room to carry out a long-cherished plan of starting a poultry
The situation, too, was exceptional, since the station from which I
could take trains direct to Boston and New York almost touched the
northern corner of the farm, and nothing makes one so willing to stay
in a secluded spot as the certainty that he or she can leave it at any
time and plunge directly into the excitements and pleasures which only a
large city gives.
What charmed me most of all was a tiny but fascinating lakelet in the
pasture near the house; a "spring-hole" it was called by the natives,
but a lakelet it was to me, full of the most entrancing possibilities.
It could be easily enlarged at once, and by putting a wind-mill on the
hill, by the deep pool in "Chicken Brook" where the pickerel loved to
sport, and damming something, somewhere, I could create or evolve a
miniature pond, transplant water lilies, pink and white, set willow
shoots around the well-turfed, graveled edge, with roots of the
forget-me-not hiding under the banks their blue blossoms; just the
flower for happy lovers to gather as they lingered in their rambles to
feed my trout. And there should be an arbor, vine-clad and sheltered
from the curious gaze of the passers-by, and a little boat, moored at a
little wharf, and a plank walk leading up to the house. And - and oh, the
idealism possible when an enthusiastic woman first rents a farm - an
It may be more exact to say that my farm was not exactly "abandoned," as
its owner desired a tenant and paid the taxes; say rather depressed,
full of evil from long neglect, suffering from lack of food and general
As "abandoned farms" are now a subject of general interest, let me say
that my find was nothing unusual. The number of farms without occupants
in New Hampshire in August, 1889, was 1,342 and in Maine 3,318; and I
saw lately a farm of twenty acres advertised "free rent and a present of
But it is my farm I want you to care about. I could hardly wait until
winter was over to begin my new avocation. By the last of March I was
assured by practical agriculturists (who regarded me with amusement
tempered with pity) that it was high time to prune the lazy fruit trees
and arouse, if possible, the debilitated soil - in short, begin to "keep
So I left New York for the scene of my future labors and novel lessons
in life, accompanied by a German girl who proved to be merely an
animated onion in matters of cooking, a half-breed hired man, and a
full-bred setter pup who suffered severely from nostalgia and strongly
objected to the baggage car and separation from his playmates.
If wit is, as has been averred, the "juxtaposition of dissimilar ideas,"
then from "Gotham to Gooseville" is the most scintillating epigram ever
achieved. Nothing was going on at Gooseville except time and the milk
wagon collecting for the creamery. The latter came rumbling along every
morning at 4.30 precisely, with a clatter of cans that never failed to
arouse the soundest sleeper.
The general dreariness of the landscape was depressing. Nature herself
seemed in a lethargic trance, and her name was mud.
But with a house to furnish and twenty-five enfeebled acres to
resuscitate, one must not mind. Advanced scientists assure us of life,
motion, even intelligence, appetite, and affection in the most primitive
primordial atoms. So, after a little study, I found that the inhabitants
of Gooseville and its outlying hamlets were neither dead nor sleeping.
It was only by contrast that they appeared comatose and moribund.
Indeed, the degree of gayety was quite startling. I was at once invited
to "gatherings" which rejoiced in the paradoxical title of "Mum
Sociables," where a penalty of five cents was imposed on each person
for speaking (the revenue to go toward buying a new hearse, a cheerful
object of benevolence), and the occasions were most enjoyable. There was
also a "crazy party" at Way-back, the next village. This special form of
lunacy I did not indulge in - farming was enough for me - but the painter
who was enlivening my dining-room with a coating of vivid red and green,
kindly told me all about it, how much I missed, and how the couple
looked who took the first prize. The lady wore tin plates, tin cans, tin
spoons, etc., sewed on to skirt and waist in fantastic patterns, making
music as she walked, and on her head a battered old coffee pot, with
artificial flowers which had outlived their usefulness sticking out of
the spout; and her winning partner was arrayed in rag patchwork of the
most demented variety.
"Youdorter gone" said he; "'twas a great show. But I bet youder beaten
the hull lot on 'em if you'd set your mind on't!"
My walls were now covered with old-fashioned papers, five and ten cents
a roll, and cheap matting improved the floors. But how to furnish eleven
rooms? This brings me to -
"Going, going, gone."
Next came the excitement of auctions, great occasions, and of vital
importance to me, as I was ambitious to furnish the entire house for one
When the head of a family dies a settlement of the estate seems to make
an auction necessary. I am glad of the custom, it proved of invaluable
service to me, and the mortality among old people was quite phenomenal
at Gooseville and thereabouts last year. While I deeply regretted the
demise of each and all, still this general taking off was opportune for
There were seventeen auctions last season, and all but two were
attended by me or my representatives.
A country auction is not so exciting as one in the city; still you must
be wide-awake and cool, or you will be fleeced. An experienced friend,
acquainted with the auctioneer, piloted me through my first sale, and
for ten dollars I bought enough really valuable furniture to fill a
large express wagon - as a large desk with drawers, little and big,
fascinating pigeon holes, and a secret drawer, for two dollars; queer
old table, ten cents; good solid chairs, nine cents each; mahogany
center-table, one dollar and sixteen cents; and, best of all, a tall and
venerable clock for the landing, only eight dollars! Its "innards" sadly
demoralized, but capable of resuscitation, the weights being tin-cans
filled with sand and attached by strong twine to the "works." It has to
be wound twice daily, and when the hour hand points to six and the other
to ten, I guess that it is about quarter past two, and in five minutes
I hear the senile timepiece strike eleven!
The scene was unique. The sale had been advertised in post-office and
stores as beginning at 10 A.M., but at eleven the farmers and their
women folks were driving toward the house. A dozen old men, chewing
tobacco and looking wise, were in the barn yard examining the stock to
be sold, the carts and farming tools; a flock of hens were also to be
disposed of, at forty cents each.
On such occasions the families from far and near who want to dispose of
any old truck are allowed to bring it to add to the motley display. The
really valuable possessions, if any, are kept back, either for private
sale or to be divided among the heirs. I saw genuine antiques
occasionally - old oak chests, finely carved oaken chairs - but these were
rare. After the horses have been driven up and down the street, and
with the other stock disposed of, it is time for lunch. Following the
crowd into the kitchen, you see two barrels of crackers open, a mammoth
cheese of the skim-milk species with a big knife by it, and on the stove
a giant kettle in which cotton bags full of coffee are being distilled
in boiling water. You are expected to dip a heavy white mug into the
kettle for your share of the fragrant reviving beverage, cut off a hunk
of cheese, and eat as many crackers as you can. It tasted well, that
informal "free lunch."
Finding after one or two trials that the interested parties raised
rapidly on anything I desired. I used to send Gusta and John, nicknamed
very properly "Omniscience and Omnipotence," which names did equally
well when reversed (like a paper cuff), and they, less verdant than
their mistress, would return with an amazing array of stuff. We now have
everything but a second-hand pulpit, a wooden leg, and a coffin plate.
We utilized a cradle and antique churn as a composite flower stand; an
immense spinning-wheel looks pretty covered with running vines, an old
carriage lantern gleams brightly on my piazza every evening. I nearly
bought a horse for fifteen dollars, and did secure a wagon for one
dollar and a half, which, after a few needed repairs, costing only
twenty-six dollars, was my pride, delight and comfort, and the envy of
the neighborhood. Men came from near and far to examine that wagon, felt
critically of every wheel, admired the shining coat of dark-green paint,
and would always wind up with: "I vum, if that 'ere wagon ain't fine!
Why, it's wuth fifty dollars, now, ef it's wuth a cent!" After a hard
day's work, it seemed a gratification to them to come with lanterns to
renew their critical survey, making a fine Rembrandtish study as they
stood around it and wondered. A sleigh was bought for three dollars
which, when painted by our home artist, is both comfortable and
At one auction, where I was the only woman present, I bid on three
shovels (needed to dig worms for my prize hens!) and, as the excitement
increased with a rise in bids from two cents to ten, I cried, "Eleven!"
And the gallant old fellow in command roared out as a man opened his
mouth for "Twelve!": "I wouldn't bid ag'in a woman ef I'se you. Let 'er
have 'em! Madam, Mum, or Miss - I can't pernounce your name and don't
rightly know how to spell it - but the shovels are yourn!"
Attending auctions may be an acquired taste, but it grows on one like
any other habit, and whenever a new and tempting announcement calls, I
rise to the occasion and hasten to the scene of action, be the weather
what it may. And many a treasure has been picked up in this way. Quaint
old mirrors with the queerest pictures above, brass knockers,
candlesticks of queer patterns, cups and saucers and plates, mugs of all
sizes, from one generous enough to satisfy the capacities of a
lager-soaked Dutchman to a dear little child's mug, evidently once
belonging to a series. Mine was for March. A mother sitting on a bench,
with a bowl of possibly Lenten soup by her side, is reproving a fat
little fellow for his gross appetite at this solemn season. He is
weeping, and on her other side a pet dog is pleading to be fed. The
rhyme explains the reason:
The jovial days of feasting past,
'Tis pious prudence come at last;
And eager gluttony is taught
To be content with what it ought.
A warming pan and a foot stove, just as it was brought home from a merry
sleigh-ride, or a solemn hour at the "meetin'-house," recalling that
line of Thomas Gray's:
E'en in our ashes live their wonted fires.
Sometimes I would offer a little more to gain some coveted treasure
already bid off. How a city friend enjoyed the confidences of a man who
had agreed to sell for a profit! How he chuckled as he told of "one of
them women who he guessed was a leetle crazy." "Why, jest think on't! I
only paid ten cents for that hull lot on the table yonder, and she"
(pointing to me) "she gin me a quarter for that old pair o' tongs!"
One day I heard some comments on myself after I had bid on a rag carpet
and offered more than the other women knew it was worth.
"She's got a million, I hear."
"Wanter know - merried?"
"No; just an old maid."
"Judas Priest! Howd she git it?"
"Writin', I 'spoze. She writes love stories and sich for city papers.
Some on 'em makes a lot."
It is not always cheering to overhear too much. When some of my friends,
whom I had taken to a favorite junk shop, felt after two hours of
purchase and exploration that they must not keep me waiting any longer,
the man, in his eagerness to make a few more sales, exclaimed: "Let her
wait; her time ain't wuth nothin'!"
At an auction last summer, one man told me of a very venerable lantern,
an heirloom in his first wife's family, so long, measuring nearly a
yard with his hands. I said I should like to go with him to see it, as I
was making a collection of lanterns. He looked rather dazed, and as I
turned away he inquired of my friend "if I wusn't rather - " She never
allowed him to finish, and his lantern is now mine.
People seem to have but little sentiment about their associations with
furniture long in the family.
The family and a few intimate friends usually sit at the upper windows
gazing curiously on the crowd, with no evidence of feeling or pathetic
I lately heard a daughter say less than a month after her father's
death, pointing to a small cretonne-covered lounge: "Father made me that
lounge with his own hands when I's a little girl. He tho't a sight on't
it, and allers kep' it 'round. But my house is full now. I ain't got no
room for't." It sold for twelve cents!
Arthur Helps says that human nature craves, nay enjoys, tragedy; and
when away from dramatic representation of crime and horrors and sudden
death, as in this quiet country life, the people gratify their needs in
the sorrows, sins, and calamities that befall their neighbors.
I strongly incline to Hawthorne's idea that furniture becomes
magnetized, permeated, semi-vitalized, so that the chairs, sofas, and
tables that have outlived their dear owners in my own family have almost
a sacred value to me.
Still, why moralize. Estates must be settled, and auctions are a
blessing in disguise.
Of course, buying so much by substitutes, I amassed a lot of curious
things, of which I did not know the use or value, and therefore greatly
enjoyed the experience of the Spectator as given in the Christian Union.
He attended an auction with the following result: "A long table was
covered with china, earthenware, and glass; and the mantel beyond, a
narrow shelf quite near the ceiling, glittered with a tangled maze of
clean brass candlesticks, steel snuffers, and plated trays. At one end
dangled a huge warming pan, and on the wall near it hung a bit of
canvas in a gilded frame, from which the portrait had as utterly faded
as he whom it represented had vanished into thin air. It was a strange
place, a room from which many a colonial citizen had passed to take a
stroll upon the village street; and here, in sad confusion to be sure,
the dishes that graced his breakfast table. The Spectator could have
lingered there if alone for half a day, but not willingly for half an
hour in such a crowd. The crowd, however, closed every exit and he had
to submit. A possible chance to secure some odd bit was his only
consolation. Why the good old soul who last occupied the house, and who
was born in it fourscore years ago, should necessarily have had only her
grandmother's tableware, why every generation of this family should have
suffered no losses by breakage, was not asked. Every bit, even to
baking-powder prizes of green and greasy glass, antedated the
Revolution, and the wise and mighty of Smalltown knew no better. A bit
of egg shell sticking to a cracked teacup was stolen as a relic of
Washington's last breakfast in Smalltown.
* * * * *
"While willow-pattern china was passing into other hands the Spectator
made a discovery. A curious piece of polished, crooked mahogany was seen
lying between soup tureens and gravy boats. He picked it up cautiously,
fearing to attract attention, and, with one eye everywhere else, scanned
it closely. What a curious paper-knife! he thought, and slyly tucked it
back of a pile of plates. This must be kept track of; it may prove a
veritable prize. But all his care went for naught. A curious old lady at
his elbow had seen every action. 'What is it?' she asked, and the wooden
wonder was brought to light. 'It's an old-fashioned wooden butter
knife. I've seen 'em 'afore this. Don't you know in old times it wasn't
everybody as had silver, and mahogany knives for butter was put on the
table for big folks. We folks each used our own knife.' All this was
dribbled into the Spectator's willing ears, and have the relic he would
at any cost. Time and again he nervously turned it over to be sure that
it was on the table, and so excited another's curiosity. 'What is it?' a
second and still older lady asked. 'A colonial butter knife,' the
Spectator replied with an air of much antiquarian lore. 'A butter knife!
No such thing. My grandfather had one just like this, and it's a pruning
knife. He wouldn't use a steel knife because it poisoned the sap.' What
next? Paper knife, butter knife, and pruning knife! At all events every
new name added a dollar to its value, and the Spectator wondered what
the crowd would say, for now it was in the auctioneer's hands. He
looked at it with a puzzled expression and merely cried: 'What is bid
for this?' His ignorance was encouraging. It started at a dime and the
Spectator secured it for a quarter. For a moment he little wondered at
the fascination of public sales. The past was forgiven, for now luck had
turned and he gloried in the possession of a prize.
"To seek the outer world was a perilous undertaking for fear that the
triply-named knife might come to grief; but a snug harbor was reached at
last, and hugging the precious bit, the Spectator mysteriously
disappeared on reaching his home. No one must know of his success until
the mystery was cleaned, brightened, and restored to pristine beauty.
The Spectator rubbed the gummy surface with kerosene, and then polished
it with flannel. Then warm water and a tooth brush were brought into
play, and the oil all removed. Then a long dry polishing, and the
restoration was complete. Certainly no other Smalltowner had such a
wooden knife; and it was indeed beautiful. Black in a cross light, red
in direct light, and kaleidoscopic by gaslight. Ah, such a prize! The
family knew that something strange was transpiring, but what no one had
an inkling. They must wait patiently, and they did. The Spectator
proudly appeared, his prize in hand. 'See there!' he cried in triumph,
and they all looked eagerly; and when the Spectator's pride was soaring
at its highest, a younger daughter cried, 'Why, papa, it's the back of a
hair-brush!' And it was."
An auctioneer usually tries to be off-hand, waggish, and brisk - a cross
between a street peddler and a circus clown, with a hint of the forced
mirth of the after-dinner speaker. Occasionally the jokes are good and
the answers from the audience show the ready Yankee wit.
Once an exceedingly fat man, too obese to descend from his high wagon,
bought an immense dinner bell and he was hit unmercifully. A rusty old
fly-catcher elicited many remarks - as "no flies on that." I bought
several chests, half full of rubbish, but found, alas! no hidden
treasure, no missing jewels, no money hid away by miserly fingers and
forgotten. Jake Corey, who was doing some work for me, encouraged me to
hope. He said: "I hear ye patronize auctions putty reg'lar; sometimes
there is a good deal to be made that way, and then ag'in there isn't. I
never had no luck that way, but it's like getting married, it's a
lottery! Folks git queer and put money in some spot, where they're apt
to forgit all about it. Now I knew a man who bought an old hat and a
sight of other stuff; jest threw in the hat. And when he got home and
come to examine it ef thar warn't three hundred dollars in good bills,
chucked in under the sweater!"
"You ought to git over to Mason's auction to Milldon, sure. It's day
after to-morrow at nine sharp. You see he'd a fortune left him, but he
run straight through it buying the goldarndest things you ever heerd
tell on - calves with six legs, dogs with three eyes or two tails, steers
that could be druv most as well as hosses (Barnum he got hold o' 'em and
tuk 'em round with his show); all sorts o' curious fowl and every
outlandish critter he could lay his hands on. 'T stands to reason he
couldn't run that rig many years. Your goin's on here made me think o'
Mason. He cut a wide swath for a time.
"Wall, I hope you'll come off better'n he did. He sunk such a pile that
he got discouraged and took to drink; then his wife, a mighty likely
woman she is (one o' the Batchelders of Dull Corner), couldn't stand it
and went back to her old home, and he died ragged and friendless about a
month ago. Ef I's you, I'd go over, just to take warning and hold up in
BUYING A HORSE.
"And you know this Deacon Elkins to be a thoroughly reliable man in
"Indeed, I do," said honest Nathan Robbins. "He is the very soul of
honor; couldn't do a mean thing. I'd trust him with all I have."
"Well, I'm glad to hear this, for I'm just going to buy a horse of