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The Home Porch

FIFTY years ago that idyllic little song, “The Blue Juniata,” was known by every one. It is very simple, and  yet the sentiment of  the words and the gay, easily caught harmony of the music pleased the public fancy, and it was not only universally sung, but parents named their children after the heroine, and boat‑owners adopted the name for their boats.

The song is not now as widely and ardently beloved as formerly, though it still charms, and it is to be found in the popular collections. The first verse is

“Wild roved an Indian girl,
Bright Alfarata,
Where sweep the waters
Of the blue Juniata.
Swift as an antelope
Thro’ the forest going,
Loose were her jetty locks
In wavy tresses flowing.”

What always impressed me most in this and the other three verses of the song was the river. Its beauty, I thought, must be superlative the blue Juniata and the sweep of the waters — how delightful!

The rhythm of the river’s name, too, made a strong appeal to my imagination, and it was these things more than anything else that impelled me to visit the stream toward the close of a recent summer. I did not get acquainted with its upper course, but kept to the hilly country through which it flows for many miles before it empties into the Susquehanna. On either side are frequent wooded ridges extending away at right angles, with pleasant farming vales between.

Numerous little towns are scattered along the banks, each with a covered wooden bridge reaching across the stream. The river is too small and shallow to be used for traffic, and it is never enlivened by anything larger than rowboats. It has hardly the rollicking character suggested by the song which has made it famous, and yet its only serious fault, as I saw it, was its color. “No, it ain’t blue just now,” said a farmer, on whose piazza I had taken refuge to escape a shower, “but it is usually. This year, though, we’ve been having rains constant, and the river’s been muddy all summer. There ain’t been a single time when we could go gigging.”

“Gigging! What is that?” I asked.

“Ain’t you ever gigged?”

I confessed that I had not.

“Well, gigging is going out in a boat at night with a lantern and a spear after fish. Sometimes we get fish that long” — placing his hands about two feet apart “carp, you know.”

From where we were sitting we looked across a grassy yard enclosed by a picket fence. The fence was designed primarily to keep out the hens and other farm animals, but it came very handy as a hanging-place for pails and crocks and various household odds and ends. The crocks were especially conspicuous. Indeed they were to be found on nearly all the farmyard fences throughout the region; for the people were accustomed to put their milk in crocks instead of in pans. On this particular fence there was quite a line of these crocks — squat, heavy earthen jars that would each hold about four quarts. In color they were light brown, excepting one of a deep brick tint, which the man said had been his grandmother’s, and was, he supposed, more than a hundred years old.

The Dooryard Fence

“This house is old, too,” he added “anyways the end toward the road is. It is an old Indian house, and that end is built of logs. There used to be loop-holes in it to shoot from, but the logs and everything has been boarded over and hid from sight this long time, inside and out. It seems as if Indians must have been plenty here once. We’re always ploughing up their arrow-tips and tomahawks.”

The shower was nearly past, and the man stepped out into the yard and picked several clusters of grapes from a vine that trailed up a tall pear tree.

“These’re right nice, now,” he remarked, as he handed me some. “Which do you get most of — pears or grapes — from that tree?” I inquired. “Well, since the vine’s growed over the whole tree we often won’t get more’n half a bushel o’ the pears, but you c’n see we’ll get a good lot o’ grapes this year.”

When the last lingering drops of the rain had fallen I returned to the muddy road. A mile’s tramping along its sticky trail brought me to a railway station, and I sat down to rest on a platform truck. Every few minutes a freight train would go thundering past. The valley is a great railroad thoroughfare; for the stream has graded a pathway through the hills directly toward the coal and iron regions of the western part of the state. The trains were very long, and often contained from sixty to eighty cars. How the engines did pant and sway from side to side as they shouldered along, dragging their mighty burdens!

“I suppose the weight of that there train is almost beyond computation,” said a sunburned, middle-aged man, who had sat down on the truck near me just as a train of monstrous coal cars, all loaded to the brim, clattered past.

This remark led to a conversation, and the man told me he had a farm a few miles back from the river. It was a little farm only fifteen acres — and I judged he did not depend entirely on it for a living. At any rate he mentioned that the previous spring when the floods had washed away nearly all the bridges in his town he had taken the time to help for several weeks rebuilding them. But his farm had suffered as a consequence. “I bought a sprayer for my trees,” he said, “and I only got a chance to use it on one side of one apple tree, and that tree is just loaded on the side I sprayed and you kin hardly find another apple on the place.”

Speaking of the farms in the district as a whole, he said that while some ran up to two and three hundred acres or even larger, a hundred acres was considered a fair-sized farm and there were more under that figure than over. The tendency is for the farms to divide into smaller ones. The majority of them are mortgaged, and the farmers are just about able to meet their interest charges and other expenses and hold their own.

“Yes, it takes some scratching to pay a mortgage,” my companion declared. “You wunst get one and it hangs on and hangs on and you’re likely to be left in the brush in the end.”

It was his opinion that the local farmers had not shared the prosperity of the country in recent years; and yet some of their troubles were of their own making. There was the way they went into life insurance, for instance. I did not clearly understand the relation of cause and effect in parts of what he had to say on this subject. Life insurance was evidently a great bug-bear to him. He looked on it as the wildest kind of speculation and may have got something of a different nature mixed with his narrative.


“We have had people that was well fixed, and life insurance has made ‘em poor,” he affirmed. “There was one man I know that went into it right strong, and he kep’ makin’ until he had twenty-five thousand dollars, and he was tellin’ a neighbor man about it; and this neighbor, he was a good old Christian man, and he said, ‘Now stop, you’ve got a good house and buildings and a good farm and you’ve got all that money. You’re the richest man in these parts. Now stop where you are.’

“But the man said he was goin’ to go in again and double his twenty-five thousand and then he’d stop. So he insured some more and lost all he had, and last week his farm was sold at auction for thirty-seven hundred dollars.

“The insurance agents are always goin’ about among us tryin’ to get us to insure, and I’ll tell you jus’ how mean and low and devilish they are; and I’m a man of truth, mister, and you can depen’ on what I say. They try to make you insure your relatives that are gettin’ old. Now, I call that devilish. I intend to live right, I’m a member of the church and of the Sunday-school, and I’m a delegate to-day on my way to a church meetin’. Well, they been after me to insure my parents; but I don’t want to harbor the thought that I could make money by their dying. There was one feller bothered me special. My father was gettin’ feeble and he was a consumptive man, and this agent was forever urgin’ me to insure my old father for ten thousand dollars.

“I didn’t like to be dragged into a thing I knew the devil was in, but he kep’ at me, till one day he come when I had the toothache and neuralgia. I thought my eyes was goin’ to bust out of my head; and I said, ‘I don’t want to see you no more. If you come here againunless you’ve got the law to protect you in your business — Ill kill you or cripple you for life. I’d do it now, but you’ve jus’ hit me on the wrong day. I got the toothache and the neuralgia so I ain’t fit to do nothing.’

“That’s what I tol’ him, and he never dared show himself there again.

“Some folks gets their insurance money by fraud. I know a man that made out a certificate declarin’ a certain person had died that hadn’t. He is a man that pretends he is a minister and signs ‘Rev.’ to his name, but he is so ignorant he don’t know enough hardly to direct his poor little children aright.

“The Good Book says, ‘What a man sows that he’ll reap,’ and it’s true. Most of ‘em that insure has a pretty hard time. The payments have to be made and that takes all that them who are insured kin earn, and a good many times it eats up all their property. Men that was well-to-do have got shaky and are about halfway on each side o’ the fence. You can’t tell when they’ll have to drop everythin’.

“There’s a case like that right next to me. My neighbor, he got his mother-in-law insured. He was a poor man, but he didn’t think she’d live long, and he paid on and paid on until he about broke his neck. I was talkin’ with him only lately, and he was askin’ me what he better do.

“I tol’ him, ‘Unless you stick to it you’ll lose all you’ve put in.’

“That didn’t make him feel any better, and he swore and called his mother-in-law a bad name, and said every one died but the right one. Now, ain’t that devilish?”

I had to acknowledge that the spectacle of this man anxiously awaiting the demise of his mother-in-law was not at all admirable, even supposing her character furnished mitigating circumstances. What further information I might have gathered on the subject of insurance I do not know, for my friend’s train came in just then and we parted company.

Typical Outbuildings

During my wanderings along the Juniata I went up several of the side valleys, and found them uniformly fertile and attractive. I wondered if my acquaintance at the railroad station was not mistaken about the prevalence of mortgages, but I was assured by others that he was not. Certainly the broad, smooth fields, and the numerous herds grazing on the aftermath in the home lots, and the substantial houses and great barns were suggestive of comfort and plenty. The dwellings were in most cases wooden; but brick and stone were not infrequent. The home vicinity had always a pastoral, domestic air. You were sure to see cats aplenty, and a loitering dog or two; hens and chickens were everywhere, and it was not unlikely the farm poultry would include ducks and turkeys; pigeons fluttered about the roofs of the whitewashed outbuildings, a bevy of calves would be feeding in a near field, and you could hear the pigs grunting in the hog-sheds. Wheat was the leading crop of the region, and most barnyards at that season contained a towering stack of straw, somewhat undermined by the gnawings of the cattle. Indian corn was another heavy crop. The grain raised was nearly all ground locally, and every town had its grist-mill, usually a big stone structure in a vernal hollow, with a placid mill-pond just above.

A Grist-mill

These mills were delightfully rustic, and they had a pleasing air of age and repose. I liked, too, their floury odor. There was something very sweet and primal about it, as of a genuine fruit of the earth — not simply a tickler of the palate, but an essential sustainer of human life. I approached one of the mills and asked a young fellow who was smoking his pipe in the doorway if they allowed visitors.

“Depen’s on what sort o’ ‘umor the captain’s in,” said he, and turned and spoke to some one in the mill.

The “‘umor of the captain,” or proprietor, proved to be agreeable, and I spent half an hour looking about the dusty, cobwebby old building, with its big wheels and hoppers, and heaps of grain, and bags of flour and meal.

I returned to the road presently and resumed my walk, and a quarter of a mile farther on came to a cider-mill that had just begun its autumn work. It was a shaky little skeleton of a structure on the banks of the creek, with a blacksmith’s shanty adjoining; and the mill and shop together drew a crowd. A bellows wheezed and a hammer clanked from the dusky recesses of the shop; a horse was being shod, and its mate, still hitched to the heavy farm-wagon, stood half asleep outside. A small engine puffed and rattled within the mill, and a farmer at one side was shovelling a load of apples into the hopper. Other loads were waiting their turn, each with an empty barrel or two on top. A group of children lingered about looking on and eating apples which they selected from the wagons, and a number of men were sitting or standing here and there, visiting and chaffing and occasionally stepping up into the mill to take a drink of cider from a tin cup that hung handy. Most of the cider the farmers were then making was to be boiled down for use in preparing a winter’s supply of cider apple-sauce, or apple-butter, as it was called. Apparently no family could do without this culinary luxury, and I saw the process of manufacture going on in many a back yard. It was important that the cider should be boiled while it was perfectly sweet; and as soon as possible after it had been brought home, a great copper kettle was set up in some convenient spot, filled with cider, and a fire built underneath. The rule was to boil the cider three-fourths away; and if the boiling was started early in the morning, it would be completed by noon. The scene presented was quite gypsylike, with the crackling flames, and the spluttering, bubbling pot, and the smoke and vapors, and the sunbonneted women hovering about.

Making Apple-butter

When the cider had been properly reduced, the pared and sliced apples were added, and flavored perhaps with cinnamon, or perhaps with allspice and cloves. The boiling of the apple-sauce would very probably continue into the evening. All through the afternoon the women took turns in keeping the contents of the pot stirring, for which purpose they used a wooden paddle with a very long handle inserted at a right angle. It was a relief to every one concerned, when the apple-butter had thickened and was pronounced done. Now it only needed to be taken up with a dipper and put into casks or earthen crocks and it was ready to be set away. Some households were content with fifteen or twenty gallons, but others thought they could not get along with less than a “barl” full.

Skirting the north bank of the Juniata was the ditch of an old canal. In the bottom was more or less stagnant water, but for the most part the hollow was overgrown with grass and weeds. Conspicuous among the latter were the sturdy, wide-branching jimson weeds, set full of round, spiny pods that were beginning to crack open and scatter their seeds. One day I came across a man hacking at these jimsons with his scythe. The sun was low in the west, and he was about to desist. “There’s a heap to cut yit,” he said. “I ought to ‘a’ started the job earlier.” I was less interested at the moment in jimsons than in finding lodging for the night, and I asked the man where such shelter was to be had. He replied that I might perhaps stay with him — but he would have to see his wife first. Then, after mentioning that his name was Werner, he led the way up a stony lane to a tidy farm-house on a knoll well above the river. We went into a shed kitchen at the rear of the dwelling, where we found the farmer’s wife and daughter busy drying peaches in the stove oven. They agreed that I could stay, and I sat down by the fire. The room swarmed with flies and midges, but otherwise was not unattractive.

Mrs. Werner from time to time stepped to an out-building for wood. The supply was nearly exhausted, and some of the sticks she brought in were pretty poor specimens. “Upon my word, I don’t know what we shall do if we don’t get more wood soon,” she remarked to her daughter. “My, oh my, that there cherry we’re burnin’ now is awful!”

They had no woodland on the farm, and hitherto had depended on line trees, orchard trees that had passed their usefulness, and other waste about the place. But these resources had of late been practically exhausted, and Mr. Werner was planning soon to row up the river in partnership with a neighbor and collect a lot of old railway ties that had been dumped down the bank. They would fasten them together with wire into a raft and tow them down.


Childhood Treasures

I had not been long in the house before it began to get dark and the daughter lit a lamp. Through the open door I could hear the cattle lowing in the fields, some calves were running uneasily back and forth in the orchard anxious to be fed, and the hens and chickens were crowding together on a pile of rails just outside the picket fence that surrounded the yard, peeping comfortably when things were settling to their wishes and uttering sharp notes of alarm and protest when matters were otherwise.

At length a boy of sixteen or seventeen appeared, went to the pump on the borders of the barn-yard, and labored at the handle until he had water enough in the accompanying trough for the two mules and span of horses that were kept on the place. Then he called the dog and went after the cows. By the time he returned, his mother had set the potatoes and beef frying for supper. She now left her daughter to finish while she took a pail and went to the barn to help milk. All the farmers’ wives in the region milked.

Usually the work was shared with the men, but on some farms it fell to the women altogether. The girls learned to milk as a matter of course and were said to enjoy it. The care of the garden was another task with which the women had much to do. The men ploughed or spaded the plot in the spring, but the planting, hoeing, and gathering of produce was relegated to the wives. None of the field work was done by the women ordinarily, and yet they were very apt to help during haying and harvesting, in seasons when hired men were scarce.

The milk of the Werner farm went to a creamery. It was collected daily and the skim milk returned. Just then the price paid was one and one-half cents a quart, and it rarely went above two cents. As soon as Mrs. Werner finished milking and had washed her hands at a bench outside the door, she resumed supper preparations, and we presently gathered at the table.

The clock struck eight while Mr. Werner was asking the blessing. “It’s later’n it is usually at this time,” said he, “but we been extra driven with work to-day.

Farm Market Wagons

Help yourself,” he added, making a little gesture toward the food. “We ain’t much for waitin’ on folks.”

After supper the women cleared the table, washed the dishes and the milk-pails, and attended to the drying peaches. The boy went off to another room to study his algebra lesson for the next day at school.

Mr. Werner and I sat and talked. “We have to work pretty hard,” he said, “and we’d ought to keep a hired man, but we can’t afford it. I’ve had bad luck this year. I lost a good young horse in the spring, and then come July I lost most half of my young cattle. The cattle was with other young stock from the neighbors out on a mountain pasture. We paid the owner of the land for the grazing privilege, and he was to look after the cattle; but he was careless and a good many of ‘em got into a ravine between two ridges and couldn’t find their way out. There wa’n’t no feed, and they e’t laurel. That poisoned ‘em and they died. I ain’t had no such bad luck since the flood.”

“The flood! When was that?” I inquired.

“In 1889,” was the reply. “The Juniata ain’t naturally a deep stream. You could wade it almost anywhere, though you might get your shirt collar wet in some places. But when we had the big flood, you couldn’t ‘a’ touched bottom with a fifty-foot pole. It rained for three days about the first of June, and the last night o’ the rain it come down in slathers. We could hear it leakin’ in the garret, and my wife, she kind o’ thought we better get up and see to things. I wish we had. When we looked out in the mornin’ the river was way out o’ the banks, and the water was beginnin’ to come into the lower side o’ the yard. It was risin’ fast, and we stepped aroun’ lively. We got some o’ the furniture upstairs, and I turned the stock out toward the higher land. Come nine o’clock we couldn’t stay no longer, and I had to lay boards from the piazza for the women to walk on, and when I left, last of all, I had to wade up to my waist.

“My cows was all saved, but my hogs didn’t have no more sense ’n to swim back to the pen, and they was all drownded but one. The chickens was bound to stay too. They got onto the manure heap in the barn-yard and sailed away with it. All my sheds and most o’ the fences floated off. The barn stood on a little higher groun’ than the rest o’ the buildings, but it was undermined and was left in such bad shape I had to build a new one. The only thing that kep’ my house from goin’ was one o’ those big old chimneys built right in the middle of it. Why, in that flood, if we was settin’ where we are now, we’d be way under water. It come within three inches o’ the ceilin’. Everything on this floor was about ruined.

“The river was full of all sorts of things, and the bridges was all swep’ away and the crops spoiled, and it was terrible. It was that flood that did up our canal.

There was a canal-boat tied right about opposite our house when the storm begun, and as the water riz they kep’ shiftin’ the boat until they got it away out back of the house in the orchard where they hitched it to the trees. The river was only out of its banks two or three days, but the walls o’ the canal was broken in lots o’ places and other damage done to it, and the company just left it as it was. Yes, that was a right smart of a flood.”

At the conclusion of this narration Mr. Werner conducted me to my room. All was oblivion after I retired until about four in the morning, when I heard the farmer calling to his son from the foot of the stairs in slow cadence, “Fred, Fred, Fred! do you hear me?”

“Uh-h-h!” grunted Fred, sleepily.

“Come awn!”

A pause and no response.

“Fred, Fred, Fred! do you hear me?”


“Come awn! Don’t pull the covers over you!”

Silence and a repetition of the above dialogue with slight variations continued for fully five minutes.

Then the father went out to the barn and I dropped off to sleep. So did Fred, no doubt, for a half-hour later the parental voice resumed its appeal from the foot of the stairs.

“Fred, Fred, Fred! do you hear me?”


“Come awn!” etc., as before.

At length the father a second time went out, but stopped in the yard and added a few supplementary calls. Still Fred slumbered, and presently in came his father from the barn again. He was ominously silent, and he did not stay below. I heard him ascend the stairs with wrathful footfalls, enter Fred’s room, and haul the young man out of bed by main force. I wondered whether he did this every day.

By breakfast time at half-past six all the barn work was done, and the brimming pails of milk were standing at the kitchen door waiting to be strained. Fred came in a little late. He had been to the river with his gun, hoping to shoot a duck.

“No, I didn’t get nawthing,” he said in response to a question of his sister’s, as he carried a basin of water from the back-room pump to the bench outside.

Then he spit vigorously, washed his hands and face, and spit again. Expectoration was the Alpha and Omega of everything he did.

“No, I didn’t get nawthing,” he repeated when he sat down at the table, “but I see a loon. I didn’t meddle with him, though.”

“Why not?” I inquired.

“Well, I had some experience with one last year. He was swimmin’ in the river, and the boys all got out their guns and he had some fun with us. He’d dodge quicker’n lightnin’. By the time our shot got to him, he’d be out of sight and the ripples circlin’ away from where he’d dove. I had a rifle, and I thought that would fetch him, sure, but I fired more’n twenty times and never hit him only once, and all I did then was to snip off a few feathers.”

Mr. Werner did not quite approve of Fred’s hunting. “We use to have great flocks of ducks fly up and down this river,” he said. “There’d be twenty or thirty or more in a flock. Now, we think it’s a big flock if we see half a dozen, and we don’t have wood-duck any more, but only fish-ducks that ain’t good to eat, and a little duck they call the butter-duck. It don’t make no difference, though. Every one’s boun’ to shoot, and they fire away more lead at the ducks, tryin’ to hit ‘em, than those they get are worth — a good deal.”


Across the river from the Werners’ was a village where I spent some time after I left the farm-house. Like the other hamlets I saw in the valley, this village had a look distinctly Teutonic and foreign. Its narrow streets, its stubby, cut-back trees, its paved walks and gutters, and general stiffness were reminiscent of Holland, yet it lacked Dutch cleanliness, and was tinged with an unthrifty decay and dilapidation.

Among the wooden houses crowding close along the walks were many small stores and shops which earned their proprietors a meagre living by serving the tributary farming region. The farm buggies and buck-boards, carryalls, market and lumber wagons came and went, but were never numerous enough to greatly enliven the place or to very much disturb its tranquil repose. Hitching-places, invariably in the form of wooden posts with iron rods connecting the tops, were provided in front of or near by all the public buildings and larger stores.  

On a Village Sidewalk

The walks were sometimes of boards, but oftener were of brick or rough, irregular slabs of flagging. At intervals on them were great wooden pumps that each served a number of neighboring families. But perhaps the most interesting feature of the town, and one calculated to help immensely the village gossip and sociability, was the porch that projected from nearly every house front, and which rarely failed to have a seat flanking the door on either side. These seats were permanent, each a short settee with room for two persons. They looked very domestic, and were suggestive of much chatting of a placid sort, and of the calmness and phlegmatic ease that seemed to characterize the people not only of the hamlet but of the entire district. This staidness of demeanor on the art of the inhabitants and the gentle aspect presented by nature were not at all what I had anticipated. Indeed, I found little either in the local life or in the appearance of the river and the country bordering to recall the wild romantic flavor of that favorite song of a half-century ago, “The Blue Juniata.”

The Juniata

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