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ABOUT “old times” there always hovers a peculiar charm. A dreamland atmosphere overhangs them. The present, as we battle along through it, seems full of hard, dry facts; but, looking back, experience takes on a rosy hue. The sharp edges are gone. Even the trials and difficulties which assailed us have for the most part lost their power to pain or try us, and take on a story-book interest in this mellow land of memories.

To speak of “the good old times” is to gently implicate the present, and the mild disapproval of the new therein suggested is, from elderly people, to be expected. We grow conservative with age. Quiet is more pleasing than change. The softened outlines of the past have an attraction which the present matter-of-fact hurry and work have not, and the times when we were young hold peculiar pleasure for our contemplation. To actually prove by logic and rule that the old times were better than the new would not be easy. They had their lacks. The world learns and gains many things as it ages. It is to be hoped that it grows better as it grows older; but even so the past has its charm, whether one of memories in which we ourselves were actors, or of story, which shows the contrast to the present which is the out-growth of that past.

In writing of “old times” we have a definite period in mind. All times, in truth, but the present are old, but wherever the phrase is met with, it refers to the years when the grand-fathers and grand‑mothers then living were young. Ever since there were grandfathers and grandmothers there have been “ old times,” and these times have kept even pace with the ageing of the world, following, shadow-like, the accumulating years, and always nearly three-quarters of a century behind the present. It therefore follows that the “old times” pictured in this volume have to do with the early part of this century.

This old life as it ran then in our New England farmhouses was the typical American life, and was not essentially different front country life in any of our Northern States. Even with that of the city it had many things in common. The large places had much the character of overgrown villages, and were I not yet converted into the great blocks of brick and stone, now familiar, where business may throng miles and miles of noisy streets. Factory towns, too, with their high-walled mills and grimy, crowded tenements huddling about, were of the future.

But the dawn of the new century was the herald of change. Everywhere was activity. The country was new, and we had many needs which the Old World did not feel. Necessity made us inventors, and ingenuity became an American characteristic. A long line of towns stretched along the Atlantic coast and occupied an occasional interval along the larger streams, and houses were beginning to appear and hamlets to grow farther inland. The adventurous were pushing westward. The heavy canvas-topped wagons drawn by the slow-moving oxen were trundling along the road toward the setting sun. Under the white arch of canvas were stored the furniture and household supplies of a family. Behind were driven the sheep and cattle which should form the nucleus of new flocks in the new home.

The century was seven years old before Fulton’s steamer made its trial trip. Advantage was quickly taken of this new application of power, and soon steam vessels were puffing up and down all the larger rivers and along the coast, though a dozen years elapsed before one ventured across the Atlantic. Railroads were still unthought of. Even wagons were not common for some years after the close of the last century.

There were very few places in the United States whose inhabitants exceeded ten thousand in 1800; but the building of factories shortly commenced, and these became the magnets which drew a great tide of life from the country and from foreign shores into the cities. The factories gave the death‑blow to the multitude of handicrafts which up to this time had flourished in the New England villages.


The New England town of the period was made up of a group of houses about an open common. At least, it started thus. As the town grew, a second street or a number of them were laid out parallel or at right angles to the first, or houses were erected along the straggling paths which led to the surrounding fields; and the paths in time grew to the dignity of roads, and linked the scattered houses and hamlets to the parent village. The central village, where the lay of the land permitted, was built on a broad hilltop, partly, as in the case of the older towns, for purposes of defence, partly because here the land was less thickly overgrown with trees and underbrush and was more easily cleared. Another reason was that the Old World towns were built thus, and the emigrants to this country naturally did likewise, even though the Old World life in feudal times which gave reason for this was entirely of the past.


Here was the meeting-house, a big, quiet building fronted by the spire. A group of weather-worn sheds were close behind it, where parishioners living at a distance might shelter their horses during services. Not far away was the tavern, a substantial and roomy building whose sign swung from the front or dangled from a tree or pole close by. Then there would be four or five little shops and stores among the lines of comfortable two-story dwellings.


People in general neglected ornamental trees, though there were before this occasionally persons who had set out shade trees, and places which had started lines of elms along the village streets. About this time Lombardy poplars became fashionable. The poplar teas a French tree, and was therefore championed by the Jeffersonian Democrats, who had for France a decided partiality. For the most part these trees have disappeared. Still, here and there their tall, compact, military forms are seen standing dark and stiff, and with a still lingering air about them of foreign strangeness. The appearance of the common or the village in general was little thought of. Sidewalks received almost no attention, and such paths as there were had been made by the wear of travel.

What fine buildings those houses of old times were and still are! — not in the least pretentious, but having a certain distinguished air of comfort and stability; no suggestion of the doll-house which so many of our Queen Anne cottages bring to mind, but withal an appearance of quiet and attractive dignity. The supreme effort of the builder seems to have centred in the doorways, which are often quite intricate in their ornament; yet they are never reckless in design, and are always pleasing in effect. Often, too, the decoration of the doorway was echoed in the ornament of the window-frames and the cornice under the eaves. Piazzas were rare, but many houses had a porch before the entrance. The finer residences had knockers on the front doors. Door-bells came into use a little later. Instead of the modern door-knobs, iron latches were used, or in some cases wooden ones. If the latch had no thumb-piece — and the more primitive ones had not — a string was attached and run through a hole bored for the purpose just above. The latch was on the inside, and there was no way of raising it except the latchstring hung out. Locking was readily accomplished by pulling in the string. Some houses had wooden buttons on the doors just over the latch, which, when turned down, held the latch in its notch and thus locked the door. In still other cases doors were locked by means of a fork thrust in just above the latch, but for the most part doors of buildings, both public and private, went unlocked. 

Houses in town, and the meeting-house as well, were painted red or yellow. Many houses, especially those belonging to the poorer people and those out‑ side the main village, were unpainted. On some of our old buildings may yet be seen suggestions of these former brilliant hues, though sun and storm have been softening the tones all through the years, so that only a shadowy tint of the old red or yellow still clings to the weather-worn clapboards. Most houses changed color to white, when that became the fashion fifty years ago. Blinds of the modern pattern were not much used before the century was well begun. In the Indian days heavy wooden doors were swung to across the window openings to bar the passage, but after 1750 the Indians were no longer objects of terror to New England people.


The larger wild animals were almost altogether gone by this time in the regions longest settled. The sheep pastured on the hills were not now in danger from prowling wolves or bears. Some of the old farmers had perhaps in their younger days heard the dismal cry of the former far off in the woods, perhaps had shot a black bear or two, or caught a few in traps; but now a bear, wolf, or wildcat was rarely seen anywhere in the vicinity of the older towns. Deer had almost disappeared. Wild turkeys could still be shot in considerable numbers, and in the fall great flocks of pigeons made their flights in sufficient numbers to darken the sky.

To the boys, that seems the golden age when the Indians lurked in the deep woods, when bears and wolves and other wild beasts had to be fought with. At such a time who would not be a hero! hoeing corn, digging potatoes, bringing in wood, milking cows, where is the chance to show our talents in these things? The heroes are in the West, the North, or in the Tropics now. These present times are slow and dull, and hold no such opportunity as had the fathers, for the valiant youth to show his quality. But this feeling is a mistaken one. The lives of the fathers were many times dull to them; they had much monotonous labor; wild animals were nuisances, which caused loss and worry; while the Indians gave them many a scare, and awakened little feeling in the youngster of that day beyond one of terror. At the time of which I write the pioneer epoch was past in New England, but many stories of Indians and wild beasts were told about the firesides on winter evenings.


In a country town the coming of the stage-coach was one of the events of its daily life. Some places were visited by the coaches once or twice a week, others once a day or even oftener. When the lumbering coach swept down the village street with crack of whip and blast of horn, everybody tried to see it as it rumbled past. Happy was the man or boy whom business or pleasure called to the tavern when the driver with a flourish brought his horses to a standstill before the door. The driver was a very importanperson in the eyes of most of the villagers, and by none was his importance more highly appreciated than by himself. His dignity was made the more impressive by the high beaver hat he wore. News was slow in travelling, and the papers of the day were rather barren of the gossipy items which the average human being craves. This man of the world, therefore, who, in his journeyings, saw and heard so much of which his fellowmen were ignorant, assumed a magnified importance. He always found ready listeners, and his opinions had much weight. If inclined to be reticent he was questioned and coaxed to divulge his knowledge of the happenings in the outside world with no little anxiety. When railroads came, the coaches travelled remoter ways. Some found a last resting-place in backyards, and there amid other rubbish, grasses, and weeds gradually fell to pieces. Others, pushed onward by the iron horse, went West, getting farther and farther from their old haunts, till at last the Rocky Mountains were reached. It may be that some of the old New England coaches are still at work in those rugged regions.


Another characteristic vehicle of the times was a long, heavy wagon with an arched canvas top and high board sides, drawn by from four to ten horses, which travelled between Boston and towns inland, conveying tea, coffee, and store goods, and returning with a load of pork, butter, cheese, and grain. These wagons were useful when families wished to travel long distances. When the railroads began to do their former work the wagons were utilized by the emigrants, and finally on the Western plains were given the name of “prairie schooners.”

When an inland town was in the neighborhood of a navigable stream the heavier supplies, such as sugar, rum, and molasses, were brought up the river in big flat-boats. These boats were clumsy, square-ended affairs,. with a narrow cabin across the stern just high enough for a man to stand up in, where were a couple of bunks and a rude stove. A big, square sail on a thirty-foot mast moved the craft, but when the wind failed it was necessary to resort to poling. The helmsman had his post on the roof of the cabin, and he with one other man made up the crew. Sometimes they ate their meals on board, sometimes stopped at a village on the banks and went to the tavern. When darkness settled down they hitched somewhere along shore, but at times, when the wind was fair and the moon bright, would sail on all night.


Post-offices were in the early days far less common than now, and postage was expensive, varying in amount with the distance the missive travelled. Letters were not stamped, but the sum charged was marked on the corner and collected by the postmaster on delivery. Envelopes were not in common use till about 1850. Letters were usually written on large-sized paper, and as much as possible crowded on a sheet. The sheet was dexterously folded so that the only blank space, purposely so left, made the front and back of the missive. Then the letter was directed and sealed with wax, and was ready for the mail. Towns not favored with a post-office would get their mail by the stage-coach, or, if off the stage routes, would send a post-rider periodically to the nearest office. As the post-rider came jogging back with his saddle-bags full of newspapers and letters, the sound of his horn which told of his approach was a very pleasant one to those within the farm-houses, who always looked forward with eagerness to the day which brought the county paper with the news.


The out-door farm life of that time was distinguished by its long hours and the amount of muscle required. The tools were rude and clumsy, and the machines which did away with hand labor were very few. From seed-time to harvest, work began with the coming of day light in the morning, and only ceased when in the evening the gray gloom of night began to settle down.


Up to this time little fencing had been done about the pasture land, that being common property on which everybody turned loose their sheep and cattle. Many of the creatures wore bells, which tinkled and jingled on the hillsides and in the woods from morn till night. But now the towns were dividing the “commons” among the property-holders, fences were built, and the flocks separated. On rocky land many stone walls were built, but in the lowlands the usual fence was made by digging a ditch, and on the ridge made by the earth thrown out making a low barrier of rails, stakes, and brush. Gradually more substantial fences were built, for the most part of the zigzag Virginia rail pattern.


Oxen did most of the heavy farm-work, such as ploughing and hauling, and it was not till after 1825 that horses became more general. The common cart which then answered in the place of our two-horse wagon was a huge two-wheeled affair having usually a heavy box body on the “ex.” But when used in haying, the sides of the box were removed and long stakes were substituted.

In the summer the men were out before sun up, swinging their scythes through the dewy grass, and leaving long, wet windrows behind them for the boys to spread. Mowing, turning, and raking were all done by hand, which made the labor of haying an extended one. In the busiest times the women and girls of the family often helped in the fields “tending” hay, or loading it, or raking after. They helped, too, in harvesting the grain and flax, and later in picking up apples in the orchard. They did the milking the year round, using clumsy wooden pails, and for a seat, a heavy three-legged stool or a block of wood. The smaller children drove the cows to pasture in the morning and brought them back at night, often a distance of a mile or two along lonesome roadways or by-paths.


When the grain ripened, it was reaped by hand with the slender, saw-edged sickles. The peas and oats, which were sowed together, had to be mowed and gotten in; the flax had to be pulled and rotted; there was hoeing to be done, and the summer was full of work. In the fall the corn had to be cut and husked and the stalks brought in, the pumpkins and squashes gathered, potatoes dug, the haying finished, and the apples picked. Most farms had large orchards about them, and many barrels of apples were stowed away in the cellar, but the larger part was made into cider. There would usually be several little cider-mills in a town, whose creaking machinery could be heard on many a cool autumn day groaning under its labors. The shaking of the apple-trees and carting the fruit to mill, and the taking copious draughts of the sweet liquid through a straw from the tub that received it from the press, and then the return with the full barrels — all this had more of the frolic in it than real work, particularly for the boys. The sweet apples, in large part, were run through the mill by themselves, and the cider was boiled down at home into a thick fluid known as apple-molasses, used for sweetening pies, sauce, and puddings. When harvesting was done, the cellar was full of vegetables in barrels and bins and heaps, and heavy casks of cider lined the walls, and little space was left for passageways. Even in broad daylight it was a place mysterious, gloomy, and dungeon-like; yet its very fulness which made it thus was suggestive of good cheer.

Winter, too, brought plenty of work, but it was not so arduous and long-continued as that of summer. There was the stock to feed and water and keep comfortable; the threshing to do; trees must be felled in the woods and sledded to the home yard, there to be worked up into fireplace length; tools needed mending; there was the flax to attend to, and, if new fencing was to be done in the spring, rails must be split.


Grain was threshed out with hand-flails on the barn floor. On many days of early winter and from many a group of farm buildings the rhythmic beat of the flails sounded clear on the frosty air as straw and grain parted company. When it was necessary to go to mill, the farmer filled a couple of bags, fastened them across the back of his horse, mounted in front, and trotted off to get it ground, or perhaps his wife or one of the children mounted instead and did the errand. The grist-mill was in some hollow where the water paused above in a sleepy pond, and then, having turned the great slow-revolving wooden wheel against the side of the mill, tumbled noisily on down the ravine.


In the earliest days of spring, if the farm had a maple orchard within its borders, there were trees to tap, and sap to gather and boil down. The snow still lay deep in the woods where the maples grew, and the sap-gathering was done with an ox-sled on which was set a huge cask. In some sheltered nook of the woods a big kettle was swung over an open-air fire, and the boiling-down process commenced.

Not much farm produce was sold for money; the people raised and made much more of what they ate and wore than at present, and exchanged with neighbors and the village storekeeper whatever they had a surplus of for things which they lacked. Even the minister and doctor were paid in part with wood, grain, and other produce. At the beginning of the century accounts were kept in pounds, shillings, and pence, and the money in use was of foreign coinage, mainly English and Spanish.


The kitchen was the centre of family life. Here a vast amount of work was done. Here they ate, spent their evenings, and commonly received visitors. Often it served as a sleeping-room besides. Its size was ample, though the ceiling was low and pretty sure to be crossed by a ponderous beam of the framework of the house, the lower half projecting from the plastering above. A few straight-backed chairs sat stiffly up against the wainscoted wall, and seemed to have an air of reserve that would change to surprise if one ventured to move or use them. There stood the dresser, with bright array of pewter, a small table, a bed turned up against the wall and hidden by curtains, a cradle, a stand, a great high-backed settle, and lastly, extending almost across one end of the room, was the most important feature of the kitchen, the fireplace.


Let us take an early morning look into one of these old kitchens. Dusky shadows still linger; we cannot make objects out clearly; one or two coals are glowing in the cavernous mouth of the fireplace, and a wisp of smoke steals upward and is lost in the gloomy chimney. It is late in the fall. When winter really sets in, the turned-up bed will come into use. Somebody is moving about in the bedroom, and now the door is opened and the man of the house, in frowzled head, comes from the sleeping-room. He is in his shirt-sleeves, and the heels of his big slippers clatter on the floor as he shuffles across to the fireplace. He is a smooth-faced, middle-aged man, vigorous, but slow-moving, and bent by hard work. He pokes away the ashes, throws on the coals a few sticks from a pile of three-foot wood on the floor close by, and in a few moments there is a fine blaze and crackle. The room is chilly, and the man rubs his hands together, stooping forward to catch the warmth from the fire. A scratching is heard on the outside door. He shuffles over and opens it. The cat glides in and rubs against him gratefully as she goes over to the fireplace, where she seats herself on the hearth and proceeds to make an elaborate toilet.


The man kicks off his slippers and pulls on a pair of stiff, heavy boots. He takes his coat from a peg by the fireplace, puts it on and his cap, and goes out. Ivery footstep falls clear and distinct on the frozen ground. The big arm of the well-sweep in the yard creaks as he lowers the bucket for water. Soon he returns with a brimming pail, fills the iron tea-kettle, then goes out again.


The kettle, suspended from the crane, seems quite shocked by this deluge of cold water. It swings in nervous motion on its pot-hook and shakes from its black sides the water-drops, which fall with a quick hiss of protest into the fire. The heat below waxes greater, and the cat moves to a cooler position.

It is lighter now. The tea-kettle recovers from its ill-humor, and, half asleep, sings through its nose a droning song of contentment and sends up the chimney quite a little cloud of steam. Now the woman of the family has appeared and bustles about getting breakfast. She calls the children at the chamber door. Down they come, and crowd about the fire or scrub themselves in the wash-basin on the table. Grandfather is up, and he and the older boys go out-doors. Grandma helps the smaller children fasten their clothes and wash their faces, and assists about the housework.


Some of the older girls, perhaps grandma or the mother also, soon take their wooden pails and go to the barn to milk the cows. When they returned, they strained the milk through cloths held over the tops of the pails into the brown earthen pans, and then were ready to help with the breakfast preparations. A second kettle has been hung from the crane, in which potatoes are boiling. Coals have been raked out on the hearth, and over them is set a long-legged spider on which slices of pork are sizzling.

By the time breakfast was ready, the men, by reason of their open-air exercise, had appetites which nought but very hearty food could appease. Before they sat down to cat, the family gathered about the table and stood while the head of the family asked a blessing. Then the older ones seated themselves, while the children went to a small second table at one side, about which they stood and ate, trotting over to the main table when they wished to replenish their plates.


Many families had cider on the table to drink at every meal. Other people would have coffee or sometimes tea, though the latter was not much used except for company, and neither to such an extent as at present. Coffee was sweetened with molasses — ordinarily, and so accustomed palates become to this, that when sugar came into more general use, it was considered by many a very poor substitute.

Breakfast eaten, the household gathered about the main table once more and stood while thanks were returned. Then followed family worship. It was customary to read the Bible from beginning to end, — a chapter each morning, — all the family reading verses in turn; and then, if they, were musical, a hymn was sung. Lastly, all knelt while prayer was offered.


Work now began again. The men left to take up their labor out of doors, while the women busied themselves in the house with their varied tasks. As the morning wore away, preparation began for dinner. What was known as a “boiled dinner” was most often planned. It was prepared in a single great pot. First the meat was put in; then from time to time, according as the particular things were quick or slow in cooking, the vegetables were added,—potatoes, beets, squash, turnip, and cabbage, — and probably in the same pot a bag of Indian pudding. When clock or noon-mark registered twelve, the dinner was dished up and the men called in. The meal was hearty and simple, and the family did not feel the need of much besides the meat and vegetables. Even bread was hardly thought necessary. Sometimes pie or pudding was brought on for dessert, but not regularly. The pie-eating era began a generation later.

At six o’clock the supper-table was set. The cows had been fed and milked; the boys had brought in the wood, and as they had no wood-boxes, they dumped the heavy three-foot sticks on the floor by the fire, or stood it up on end against the wall at one side, or piled it between the legs of the kitchen table; and other odd jobs were done, and the family gathered about the table. Bread and milk was quite apt to be the chief supper dish.


After the blessing was asked and the elders had seated themselves, the children would fill their pewter porringers or wooden bowls and pull their chairs up about the fireplace. Instead, they would sometimes crouch on the stone hearth, while the fire glowed and crackled and set the lights and shadows playing about the little figures. Their chatter back and forth and the company of the fire made their circle like a little world in itself, and the grown folks and their talk seemed far, far away.


When supper was ended and the dishes done, the women took up their sewing and knitting. Almost everything worn was of home manufacture, and the task of making and mending n was a never-ending one. Even the little girls of four or five years were not idle, but were taking their first lessons with the knitting-needles. The men had less real work to do, perhaps were occupied with mending a broken harness or tool, making a birch broom, whittling out a few clothes-pins, or constructing a box-trap in which to catch mice. Sometimes certain of the family played games. Evening, too, was a time for reading.

Just before the children went to bed, the family laid aside all tasks and games, and read a chapter from the Bible and had prayers. By nine o’clock ail had retired except the father, — the head of the family, — who wound the clock, pulled off his boots in a boot-jack of his own making, and yawned as he shovelled the ashes over some of the larger hard-wood coals, lest the fire should be lost during the night. Then he, too, disappeared, and the fire snapped more feebly, with now and then a fresh but short-lived effort to blaze, and so faded into a dull glow and left the gloomy shadows of the room in almost full sway.


It is difficult to compare the old life with the new and say that in any particular way one was better than the other, and decide under which conditions character would grow most manly or most womanly. Human nature is the same now as fifty or seventy-five years ago; but that nature grows in a different soil, and surrounded by a different atmosphere. Our present standards are unlike the old, the conditions surrounding us have changed, and the way in which our feelings, our desires, and aspirations find expression is changed as well.

It is certain that all the elements of life and growth are within easier reach, and may more easily be drawn together and assimilated, that under favorable conditions one can get a finer and broader culture. Nature with all its forces, holding power for help and hindrance, has been brought more under man’s subjection. Contributions to the sum of human thought and knowledge have been many and valuable. As the years have slipped away the upward path has been made broader and smoother, and one can travel it in more comfort and go much faster. But, at the same time, the downward paths have increased in number and attractiveness, and the narrower ways and more rigid training of three generations ago would unquestionably have held some steady who now are deteriorating.


The fathers made the path toward virtue both narrow and rugged. It required sturdy self-control to keep that way; but each sternly held himself, his family, and his neighbors to the task. Any backsliding or stepping aside called for severe reprimand or punishment. About their lives was a certain forbidding formality and setness. They had a powerful sense of independence, but were very conservative. Any change of thought or action was looked upon as dangerous, and they often made what was their independence another’s bonds. Life was to them very serious. In it, according to their interpretation, there was room for little else than sober years of work. What enjoyment they got in life came from the satisfaction in work accomplished, in an improved property, and in prosperous sons and daughters.


Men’s character moulds their features. It graved deep lines of stubborn firmness on the faces of the men of that time. There were shown determination and enterprise and ingenuity. In the eyes were steadiness and sturdy honesty. But the softening which the free play of humor and imagination would help produce were lacking. The man’s nature was petrified into a rock which held its own, and withstood the sunshine and the buffeting storm with equal firmness. He had ability and willingness to bear great burdens, and the generation did a vast amount of work in the world.

The individual to-day is much more independent of the world close about him than he was seventy-five years ago. He asks less of his neighbors, they less of him. The interests of the community are of less importance to him, and he is of less importance to the community. The town which in the old days would have been a little world to him is now but a small space on the earth. Man has grown more restless. A quiet life of simple usefulness is not enough. His fingers itch for money and he dreams of fame. He feels the swirl of the current which draws him toward those great whirlpools of life, — our modern cities. There alone, it seems to him, are things done on a grand scale to be admired; there alone he sees fair scope for energy and ability. One by one the country dwellers leave the home farms, and some there are win fame and some get fortune, but many are forever lost sight of.


In times past there was less hurry and more content. To be satisfied with what one has is to have happiness, whether one lives in a hovel or in a mansion. To live economy in comfort was once enough. But the view of what constitute the necessities of comfort has changed vastly, and what would once have been accounted luxury may now be but a painful meagreness. The people formerly travelled very little, and had small contact with outside life, save that of neighboring towns, which differed little from that at home. Journeys which now, with the aid of steam, are slight undertakings, were then very serious. In the case of journeys of any length, prayers were offered in church for the traveller’s safe return; and when the journey was ended, the minister gave thanks for the happy accomplishment of the trip. The labor and uncertainty connected with a long journey, and the unfamiliarity with the destination, made home seem a very safe and comfortable place. The newspapers were prosy and slow, and gave little account of the outside world to excite and attract the young. Long reports of legislative and congressional doings, and discussions of subjects political and religious, filled many columns. No space was wasted on light reading. The object was not so much to interest as to instruct the reader. The communications and reports of news were inclined to be prosy and pompous, but were always thoughtful and courteous, rarely abusive or trivial. There was an almost entire lack of local news, and such things as stories, slang, or nonsense were not allowed.


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