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THE CANTALOUPE COAXER
EVERY spring at the old farm we used to put in a row of hills for cantaloupes and another for watermelons. But, truth to say, our planting melons, like our efforts to raise peaches and grapes, was always more or less of a joke, for frosts usually killed the vines before the melons were half grown. Nevertheless, spring always filled us with fresh hope that the summer would prove warm, and that frosts would hold off until October. But we never really raised a melon fit for the table until the old Squire and Addison invented the "haymaker."
To make hay properly we thought we needed two successive days of sun. When rain falls nearly every day haying comes to a standstill, for if the mown grass is left in the field it blackens and rots; if it is drawn to the barn, it turns musty in the mow. Usually the sun does its duty, but once in a while there comes a summer in Maine when there is so much wet weather that it is nearly impossible to harvest the hay crop. Such a summer was that of 1868.
At the old farm our rule was to begin haying the day after the Fourth of July and to push the work as fast as possible, so as to get in most of the crop before dog-days. That summer I remember we had mowed four acres of grass on the morning of the fifth. But in the afternoon the sky clouded, the night turned wet, and the sun scarcely showed again for a week. A day and a half of clear weather followed; but showers came before the sodden swaths could be shaken up and the moisture dried out, and then dull or wet days followed for a week longer; that is, to the twenty-first of the month. Not a hundredweight of hay had we put into the barn, and the first hay we had mown had spoiled in the field.
At such times the northeastern farmer must keep his patience — if he can. The old Squire had seen Maine weather for many years and had learned the uselessness of fretting. He looked depressed, but merely said that Halstead and I might as well begin going to the district school with the girls.
In the summer we usually had to work on the farm during good weather, as boys of our age usually did in those days; but it was now too wet to hoe corn or to do other work in the field. We could do little except to wait for fair weather. Addison, who was older than I, did not go back to school and spent much of the time poring over a pile of old magazines up in the attic.
Halstead and I had been going to school for four or five days when on coming home one afternoon we found a great stir of activity round the west barn. Timbers and boards had been fetched from an old shed on the "Aunt Hannah lot" — a family appurtenance of the home farm — and lay heaped on the ground. Two of the hired men were laying foundation stones along the side of the barn. Addison, who had just driven in with a load of long rafters from the old Squire's mill on Lurvey's Stream, called to us to help him unload them.
"Why, what's going to be built?" we exclaimed.
"Haymaker," he replied shortly.
The answer did not enlighten us.
"'Haymaker'?" repeated Halstead wonderingly.
"Yes, haymaker," said Addison. "So bear a hand here. We've got to hurry, too, if we are to make any hay this year." He then told us that the old Squire had driven to the village six miles away, to get a load of hothouse glass. While we stood pondering that bit of puzzling information, a third hired man drove into the yard on a heavy wagon drawn by a span of work horses. On the wagon was the old fire box and the boiler of a stationary steam engine that we had had for some time in the shook shop a mile down the road.
We learned at supper that Addison and the old Squire, having little to do that day except watch the weather, had put their heads together and hatched a plan to make hay from freshly mown grass without the aid of the sun. I have always understood that the plan originated in something that Addison had read, or in some picture that he had seen in one of the magazines in the garret. But the old Squire, who had a spice of Yankee inventiveness in him, had improved on Addison's first notion by suggesting a glass roof, set aslant to a south exposure, so as to utilize the rays of the sun when it did shine.
The haymaker was simply a long shed built against the south side of the barn. The front and the ends were boarded up to a height of eight feet from the ground. At that height strong cedar cross poles were laid, six inches apart, so as to form a kind of rack, on which the freshly mown grass could be pitched from a cart.
The glass roof was put on as soon as the glass arrived; it slanted at an angle of perhaps forty degrees from the front of the shed up to the eaves of the barn. The rafters, which were twenty-six feet in length, were hemlock scantlings eight inches wide and two inches thick, set edgewise; the panes of glass, which were eighteen inches wide by twenty-four inches long, were laid in rows upon the rafters like shingles. The space between the rack of poles and the glass roof was of course pervious to the sun rays and often became very warm. Three scuttles, four feet square, set low in the glass roof and guarded by a framework, enabled us to pitch the grass from the cart directly into the loft; and I may add here that the dried hay could be pitched into the haymow through apertures in the side of the barn.
That season the sun scarcely shone at all. The old fire box and boiler were needed most of the time. We installed the antiquated apparatus under the open floor virtually in the middle of the long space beneath, where it served as a hot-air furnace. The tall smoke pipe rose to a considerable height above the roof of the barn; and to guard against fire we carefully protected with sheet iron everything round it and round the fire box. As the boiler was already worn out and unsafe for steam, we put no water into it and made no effort to prevent the tubes from shrinking. For fuel we used slabs from the sawmill. The fire box and boiler gave forth a great deal of heat, which rose through the layer of grass on the poles.
The entire length of the loft was seventy-four feet, and the width was nineteen feet. We threw the grass in at the scuttles and spread it round in a layer about eighteen inches thick. As thus charged, the loft would hold about as much hay as grew on an acre. From four to seven hours were needed to make the grass into hay, but the time varied according as the grass was dry or green and damp when mown. Once in the haymaker it dried so fast that you could often see a cloud of steam rising from the scuttles in the glass roof, which had to be left partly open to make a draft from below.
Of course, we used artificial heat only in wet or cloudy weather. When the sun came out brightly we depended on solar heat. Perhaps half a day served to make a "charge" of grass into hay, if we turned it and shook it well in the loft. Passing the grass through the haymaker required no more work than making hay in the field in good weather.
In subsequent seasons when the sun shone nearly every day during haying time we used it less. But when thundershowers or occasional fogs or heavy dew came it was always open to us to put the grass through the haymaker. In a wet season it gave us a delightful feeling of independence. "Let it rain," the old Squire used to say with a smile. "We've got the haymaker."
Late in September the first fall after we built the haymaker, there came a heavy gale that blew off fully one half the apple crop — Baldwins, Greenings, Blue Pearmains and Spitzenburgs. Since we could barrel none of the windfalls as number one fruit, that part of our harvest, more than a thousand bushels, seemed likely to prove a loss. The old Squire would never make cider to sell; and we young folks at the farm, particularly Theodora and Ellen, disliked exceedingly to dry apples by hand.
But there lay all those fair apples. It seemed such a shame to let them go to waste that the matter was on all our minds. At the breakfast table one morning Ellen remarked that we might use the haymaker for drying apples if we only had some one to pare and slice them.
"But I cannot think of any one," she added hastily, fearful lest she be asked to do the work evenings.
"Nor can I," Theodora added with equal haste, "unless some of those paupers at the town farm could be set about it."
"Poor paupers!" Addison exclaimed, laughing. "Too bad!"
"Lazy things, I say!" grandmother exclaimed. "There's seventeen on the farm, and eight of them are abundantly able to work and earn their keep."
"Yes, if they only had the wit," the old Squire said; he was one of the selectmen that year, and he felt much solicitude for the town poor.
"Perhaps they've wit enough to pare apples," Theodora remarked hopefully.
"Maybe," the old Squire said in doubt. "So far as they are able they ought to work, just as those who have to support them must work."
The old Squire, after consulting with the two other selectmen, finally offered five of the paupers fifty cents a day and their board if they would come to our place and dry apples. Three of the five were women, one was an elderly man, and the fifth was a not over-bright youngster of eighteen. So far from disliking the project all five hailed it with delight.
Having paupers round the place was by no means an unmixed pleasure. We equipped them with apple parers, corers and slicers and set them to work in the basement of the haymaker. Large trays of woven wire were prepared to be set in rows on the rack overhead. It was then October; the fire necessary to keep the workers warm was enough to dry the trays of sliced apples almost as fast as they could be filled.
For more than a month the five paupers worked there, sometimes well, sometimes badly. They dried nearly two tons of apples, which, if I remember right, brought six cents a pound that year. The profit from that venture alone nearly paid for the haymaker.
The weather was bright the next haying time, so bright indeed that it was scarcely worth while to dry grass in the haymaker; and the next summer was just as sunny. It was in the spring of that second year that Theodora and Ellen asked whether they might not put their boxes of flower seeds and tomato seeds into the haymaker to give them an earlier start, for the spring suns warmed the ground under the glass roof while the snow still lay on the ground outside. In Maine it is never safe to plant a garden much before the middle of May; but we sometimes tried to get an earlier start by means of hotbeds on the south side of the farm buildings. In that way we used to start tomatoes, radishes, lettuce and even sweet corn, early potatoes, carrots and other vegetables, and then transplanted them to the open garden when settled warm weather came.
The girls' suggestion gave us the idea of using the haymaker as a big hothouse. The large area under glass made the scheme attractive. On the 2d of April we prepared the ground and planted enough garden seeds of all kinds to produce plants enough for an acre of land. The plants came up quickly and thrived and were successfully transplanted. A great victory was thus won over adverse nature and climate. We had sweet corn, green peas and everything else that a large garden yields a fortnight or three weeks earlier than we ever had had them before, and in such abundance that we were able to sell the surplus profitably at the neighboring village.
The sweet corn, tomatoes and other vegetables were transplanted to the outer garden early in June. Addison then suggested that we plant the ground under the haymaker to cantaloupes, and on the 4th of June we planted forty-five hills with seed.
The venture proved the most successful of all. The melon plants came up as well as they could have done in Colorado or Arizona. It is astonishing how many cantaloupes will grow on a plot of ground seventy-four feet long by nineteen feet wide. On the 16th of September we counted nine hundred and fifty-four melons, many of them large and nearly all of them yellow and finely ripened! They had matured in ninety days.
In fact, the crop proved an "embarrassment of riches." We feasted on them ourselves and gave to our neighbors, and yet our store did not visibly diminish. The county fair occurred on September 22 that fall; and Addison suggested loading a farm wagon — one with a body fifteen feet long — with about eight hundred of the cantaloupes and tempting the public appetite — at ten cents a melon. The girls helped us to decorate the wagon attractively with asters, dahlias, goldenrod and other autumn flowers, and they lined the wagon body with paper. It really did look fine, with all those yellow melons in it. We hired our neighbor, Tom Edwards, who had a remarkably resonant voice, to act as a "barker" for us.
The second day of the fair — the day on which the greatest crowd usually attends — we arrived with our load at eight o'clock in the morning, took up a favorable position on the grounds and cut a couple of melons in halves to show how yellow and luscious they were.
"All ready, now, Tom!" Addison exclaimed when our preparations were made. "Let's hear you earn that two dollars we've got to pay you."
Walking round in circles, Tom began:
"Muskmelons! Muskmelons grown under glass! Home-grown muskmelons! Maine muskmelons grown under a glass roof! Sweet and luscious! Only ten cents! Walk up, ladies and gentlemen, and see what your old native state can do — under glass! Walk up, young fellows, and treat your girls! Don't be stingy! Only ten cents apiece — and one of these luscious melons will treat three big girls or five little ones! A paper napkin with every melon! Don't wait! They are going fast! All be gone before ten o'clock! Try one and see what the old Pine Tree State will do — under glass!"
That is far from being the whole of Tom's "ballyhoo." Walking round and round in ever larger circles, he constantly varied his praises and his jokes. But the melons were their own best advertisement. All who bought them pronounced them delicious; and frequently they bought one or two more to prove to their friends how good they were.
At ten o'clock we still had a good many melons; but toward noon business became very brisk, and at one o'clock only six melons were left.
In honor of this crop we rechristened the old haymaker the "cantaloupe coaxer."