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UNCLE SOLON CHASE COMES ALONG
THERE was what the farmers and indeed the whole country deemed "hard times" that fall, and the "hard times" grew harder. Again we young folks had been obliged to put off attending school at the village Academy — much to the disappointment of Addison and Theodora.
Money was scarce, and all business ventures seemed to turn out badly. Everything appeared to be going wrong, or at least people imagined so. Uncle Solon Chase from Chase's Mills — afterward the Greenback candidate for the Presidency — was driving about the country with his famous steers and rack-cart, haranguing the farmers and advocating unlimited greenback money.
To add to our other troubles at the old Squire's that fall, our twelve Jersey cows began giving bitter milk, so bitter that the cream was affected and the butter rendered unusable. Yet the pasture was an excellent one, consisting of sweet uplands, fringed round with sugar-maples, oaks and beeches, where the cleared land extended up the hillsides into the borders of the great woods.
For some time we were wholly at a loss to know what caused all those cows to give bitter milk.
A strange freak also manifested itself in our other herd that summer; first one of our Black Dutch belted heifers, and then several others took to gnawing the bark from young trees in their pasture and along the lanes to the barn. Before we noticed what they were doing, the bark from twenty or more young maples, elms and other trees had been gnawed and stripped off as high as the heifers could reach. It was not from lack of food; there was grass enough in the pasture, and provender and hay at the barn; but an abnormal appetite had beset them; they would even pull off the tough bark of cedars, in the swamp by the brook, and stand for hours, trying to masticate long, stringy strips of it.
In consequence, probably, of eating so much indigestible bark, first one, then another, "lost her cud," that is, was unable to raise her food for rumination at night; and as cattle must ruminate, we soon had several sick animals to care for.
In such cases, if the animal can only be started chewing an artificially prepared cud she will often, on swallowing it, "raise" again; and rumination, thus started, will proceed once more, and the congestion be relieved.
For a week or more we were kept busy, night and morning, furnishing the bark-eaters with cuds, prepared from the macerated inner bark of sweet elder, impregnated with rennet. These had to be put in the mouths of the cows by main strength, and held there till from force of habit the animal began chewing, swallowing and "raising" again.
What was stranger, this unnatural appetite for gnawing bark was not confined wholly to cows that fall; the shoats out in the orchard took to gnawing apple-trees, and spoiled several valuable Sweetings and Gravensteins before the damage was discovered. It was an "off year." Every living thing seemed to require a tonic.
The bitter milk proved the most difficult problem. No bitter weed or foul grass grew in the pasture. The herd had grazed there for years; nothing of the sort had been noticed before.
The village apothecary, who styled himself a chemist, was asked to give an opinion on a specimen of the cream; but he failed to throw much light on the subject. "There seems to be tannic acid in this milk," he said.
At about that time uncle Solon Chase came along one afternoon, and gave one of his harangues at our schoolhouse. I well remember the old fellow and his high-pitched voice. Addison, I recall, refused to go to hear him; but Willis Murch and I went. We were late and had difficulty in squeezing inside the room. Uncle Solon, as everybody called him, stood at the teacher's desk, and was talking in his quaint, homely way: a lean man in farmer's garb, with a kind of Abraham Lincoln face, honest but humorous, droll yet practical; a face afterwards well known from Maine to Iowa.
"We farmers are bearin' the brunt of the hard times," Uncle Solon said. "'Tain't fair. Them rich fellers in New York, and them rich railroad men that's running things at Washington have got us down. 'Tis time we got up and did something about it. 'Tis time them chaps down there heard the tramp o' the farmers' cowhide boots, comin' to inquire into this. And they'll soon hear 'em. They'll soon hear the tramp o' them old cowhides from Maine to Texas.
"Over in our town we have got a big stone mortar. It will hold a bushel of corn. When the first settlers came there and planted a crop, they hadn't any gristmill. So they got together and made that 'ere mortar out of a block of granite. They pecked that big, deep hole in it with a hammer and hand-drill. That hole is more'n two feet deep, but they pecked it out, and then made a big stone pestle nearly as heavy as a man could lift, to pound their corn.
"They used to haul that mortar and pestle round from one log house to another, and pounded all their corn-meal in it.
"Now d'ye know what I would do if I was President? I'd get out that old stone mortar and pestle, and I'd put all the hard money in this country in it, all the
rich man's hard money, and I'd pound it all up fine. I'd make meal on't!"
"And what would you do with the meal?" some one cried.
Uncle Solon banged his fist on the desk. "I'd make greenbacks on't!" he shouted, and then there was great applause.
That solution of the financial problem sounded simple enough; and yet it was not quite so clear as it might be.
Uncle Solon went on to picture what a bright day would dawn if only the national government would be reasonable and issue plenty of greenbacks; and when he had finished his speech, he invited every one who was in doubt, or had anything on his mind, to ask questions.
"Ask me everything you want to!" he cried. "Ask me about anything that's troublin' your mind, and I'll answer if I can, and the best I can."
There was something about Uncle Solon which naturally invited confidence, and for fully half an hour the people asked questions, to all of which he replied after his quaint, honest fashion.
"You might ask him what makes cows give bitter milk," Willis whispered to me, and laughed. "He's an old farmer."
"I should like to," said I, but I had no thoughts of doing so — when suddenly Willis spoke up:
"Uncle Solon, there is a young fellow here who would like to ask you what makes his cows give bitter milk this fall, but he is bashful."
"Haw! haw!" laughed Uncle Solon. "Wal, now, he needn't be bashful with me, for like's not I can tell him. Like's not 'tis the bitterness in the hearts o' people, that's got into the dumb critters."
Uncle Solon's eyes twinkled, and he laughed, as did everybody else.
"Or, like's not," he went on, "'tis something the critters has et. Shouldn't wonder ef 'twas. What kind of a parster are them cows runnin' in?"
Somewhat abashed, I explained, and described the pasture at the old Squire's.
"How long ago did the milk begin to be bitter?"
"About three weeks ago."
"Any red oak in that parster?" asked Uncle Solon.
"Yes," I said. "Lots of red oaks, all round the borders of the woods."
"Wal, now, 'tis an acorn year," said Uncle Solon, reflectively. "I dunno, but ye all know how bitter a red-oak acorn is. I shouldn't wonder a mite ef your cows had taken to eatin' them oak acorns. Critters will, sometimes. Mine did, once. Fust one will take it up, then the rest will foller."
An approving chuckle at Uncle Solon's sagacity ran round, and some one asked what could be done in such a case to stop the cows from eating the acorns.
"Wal, I'll tell ye what I did," said Uncle Solon, his homely face puckering in a reminiscent smile. "I went out airly in the mornin', before I turned my cows to parster, and picked up the acorns under all the oak-trees. I sot down on a rock, took a hammer and cracked them green acorns, cracked 'em 'bout halfway open at the butt end. With my left-hand thumb and forefinger, I held the cracked acorn open by squeezing it, and with my right I dropped a pinch o' Cayenne pepper into each acorn, then let 'em close up again.
"It took me as much as an hour to fix up all them acorns. Then I laid them in little piles round under the trees, and turned out my cows. They started for the oaks fust thing, for they had got a habit of going there as soon as they were turned to parster in the morning. I stood by the bars and watched to see what would happen."
Here a still broader smile overspread Uncle Solon's face. "Within ten minutes I saw all them cows going lickety-split for the brook on the lower side o' the
parster, and some of 'em were in such a hurry that they had their tails right up straight in the air!
"Ef you will believe it," Uncle Solon concluded, "not one of them cows teched an oak acorn afterward."
Another laugh went round; but an interruption occurred. A good lady from the city, who was spending the summer at a farmhouse near by, rose in indignation and made herself heard.
"I think that was a very cruel thing to do!" she cried. "I think it was shameful to treat your animals so!"
"Wal, now, ma'am, I'm glad you spoke as you did. I'm glad to know that you've got a kind heart," said Uncle Solon. "Kind-heartedness to man and beast is one of the best things in life. It's what holds this world together. Anybody that uses Cayenne pepper to torture an animal, or play tricks on it, is no friend of mine, I can tell ye.
"But you see, ma'am, it is this way. Country folks who keep dumb animals of all kinds know a good many things about them that city folks don't. Like human beings, dumb animals sometimes go all wrong, and have to be corrected. Of course, we can't reason with them. So we have to do the next best thing, and correct them as we can.
"I had a little dog once that I was tremendous fond of," Uncle Solon continued. "His name was Spot. He was a bird-dog, and so bright it seemed as if he could almost talk. But he took to suckin' eggs, and began to steal eggs at my neighbors' barns and henhouses. He would fetch home eggs without crackin' the shells, and hold 'em in his mouth so cunning you wouldn't know he had anything there. He used to bury them eggs in the garden and all about.
"Of course that made trouble with the neighbors. It looked as if I'd have to kill Spot, and I hated to do it, for I loved that little dog. But I happened to think of Cayenne. So I took and blowed an egg — made a hole at each end and blowed out the white and the yelk. I mixed the white with Cayenne pepper and put it back through the hole. Then I stuck little pieces of white paper over both holes, and laid the egg where I knew Spot would find it.
"He found it, and about three minutes after that I saw him going to the brook in a hurry. He had quite a time on't, sloshin' water, coolin' off his mouth — and I never knew him to touch an egg afterward.
"But I see, ma'am, that you have got quite a robustious prejudice against Cayenne. It isn't such bad stuff, after all. It's fiery, but it never does any permanent harm. It's a good medicine, too, for a lot of things that ail us. Why, Cayenne pepper saved my life once. I really think so. It was when I was a boy, and boy-like, I had et a lot of green artichokes. A terrible pain took hold of me. I couldn't breathe. I thought I was surely going to die; but my mother gave me a dose of Cayenne and molasses, and in ten minutes I was feeling better.
"And even now, old as I am, when I get cold and feel pretty bad, I go and take a good stiff dose of Cayenne and molasses, and get to bed. In fifteen minutes I will be in a perspiration; pretty soon I'll go to sleep; and next morning I'll feel quite smart again.
"Just you try that, ma'am, the next time you get a cold. You will find it will do good. It is better than so much of that quinin that they are givin' us nowadays. That quinin raises Cain. with folks' ears. It permanently injures the hearin'.
"When I advise any one to use Cayenne, either to cure a dog that sucks eggs or cows that eat acorns, I advise it as a medicine, just as I would ef the animal was sick. And you mustn't think, ma'am, that we farmers are so hard-hearted and cruel as all that, for our hearts are just as tender and compassionate to animals as if we lived in a great city."
Uncle Solon may not have been a safe guide for the nation's finances, but he possessed a valuable knowledge of farm life and farm affairs.
I went home; and the next morning we tried the quaint old Greenbacker's "cure" for bitter milk; it "worked" as he said it would.
We also made a sticky wash, of which Cayenne was the chief ingredient, for the trunks of the young trees along the lanes and in the orchard, and after getting a taste of it, neither the Black Dutch belted heifers nor the hogs did any further damage. A young neighbor of ours has also cured her pet cat of slyly pilfering eggs at the stable, in much the way Uncle Solon cured his dog.