Web Text-ures Logo

Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)

Click Here to return to
The New England Country
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter

Kellscraft Studio Logo



THE New England country has with the ageing of the century been depopulated. The causes are various, but the evolution of the newspaper has much to do with this. Visions of movement, and wealth, and fame penetrate daily to the smallest village. Youth has always elements of unfixity and uneasiness. It craves stir and excitement. The future is full of golden possibilities. Riches or position present no height which may not be scaled. But it is not the farm which holds these higher possibilities. No, they are to be won in store, or shop, or bank, where the noisy tides of the big towns keep up their restless sway through the leagues of brick-walled city streets. In the city is always movement. Not a paper comes into the country village but that tells of some grand emprise, some fresh excitement, that has its home in a familiar near city. But the chronicler for the home village finds no items more worthy of note than that some one’s cow has died, and that Amanda Jones is visiting Susan Smith. The contrast presented is one of home monotony and triviality, and city stir and grandeur. The picture is not altogether a true one. Acquaintance with the big places is to the country boy almost uniformly disappointing. The buildings are not so high nor so fine as he supposed. The din and crowds of the city streets grow confusing and wearisome. If he stays and gains a situation, and begins to work his way up in the world, he finds competition intense, his freedom sharply curtailed, and his lodgings narrow and in many ways lacking comfort. If he lives on his wages, which at first will be very small, close economy is required in food, clothes, and other expenses. In summer the heat is apt to make office and lodging-place stiflingly disagreeable. All through the year memories of the home farm, if he be imaginatively inclined, make Arcadian pictures in his mind, and he many times questions if he has not jumped from the frying-pan into the fire.

No one place holds every element of pleasure or comfort. The country has its lacks, so has the city. The ideal home is perhaps in theTHE BACK SHEDS country village within easy travelling distance of some big town. Thus you may largely avoid the drawbacks of either place, while you have within reach all their pleasures. To live far back among the hills, cut off from the nearest railway station by many miles of hard travelling, is, in these modern days, a positive hardship. Few young people will settle down contentedly where they are so cut off from the pleasures of seeing the world by occasional railroad trips, and getting the glimpses they crave of the busier life of the cities. Hence the tide sets away from the remoter towns. The masses always follow the turn of the current whichever way it shows strong tendency to run, and the boys, as they grow up, live in full expectation of leaving the hone place after school-days arc over. One by one they go from the valleys and the hill-tops, and merge into the busier life of the factory villages and the cities. An air of depression lingers over the regions they leave. The roost vigorous life has departed, enterprise is asleep, thrift lags. There are still houses neatly kept, with clean, well-tilled fields about, and a town now and then which is a happy exception to the rule; but there is much which is hopeless and despondent. Few roads can be followed far without coming upon some broken-windowed ruin of a house, now for years unoccupied, and wholly given over to decay. The children left, drawn by dreams of the gains the city or the sea or the far West offered; and the parents are gone, too, now. The shingles and clapboards loosen and the roof sags, and within, damp, mossy decay has fastened itself to walls, floor, and ceiling of every room. Gaps have broken in the stone walls along the roadway, and the brambles are thick springing on either side. In the front yard is a gnarled, untrimmed apple-tree with a great broken limb sagging to the ground, and about a ragged growth of bushes. As time goes on, the house falls piece by piece, and at last only the shattered chimney stands, a grim monument of the one-day comfortable home — a memorial of the dead past.


Yet even now life is not all of the past. Amidst the rubbish careful watching might reveal many of the little creatures of the field, and at eventide of summer days you might see a darting of wings and descry a little company of swallows dipping toward the chimney’s open cavern.


Some of the deserted homes would be still habitable, and that very comfortably so, were there tenants. The life possible on these farms would seem much happier and more desirable than that possible to the poor family in the tenement of a factory village or in the crowded quarters of our cities. But the country is to such very “ lonesome,” and there is hardly a city family of the more ignorant classes but will choose squalor in the city rather than comfort in the country. The noise and continual movement of the town have become a part of their lives, and severed from that it is but a blank, unspeaking landscape unfolds before their eyes. Nature is really never lonesome. Only our habit and education make it so seem. Nature is always singing, whether in our fellow humans, or in the hills and valleys, or in the life of plants and animals. It is we lack eyes to see and ears to hear. Nevertheless, mankind is naturally social, and though Robinson Crusoe and his island were very interesting, we do not envy him the experience, and demand at least a few congenial neighbors within easy reach.


There is hardly any purely farming community in New England but that has decreased in population within the past fifty years. It has been the hill towns which have suffered most, but the valley towns have been affected as well. It has become the habit to account all country life dull, and the city’s superior liveliness, and the chances to earn ready money offered by stores and factories, draw away the life of even the most favored communities. New England is today much less a region of thrifty Yankee farmers than it is a land of busy manufacturing villages. Of these, enterprise and ingenious inventiveness are characteristic. They call to them a large foreign population which fills the monotonous rows of tenements in the neighborhood of the mills, or in the case of the more thrifty establishes itself in little separate family homes on the outskirts. The farming regions about naturally take to market gardening, and these places become the chief buyers of produce for the country miles about.


Farming towns within easy distance of the railroads usually attain a fair prosperity, and energy and forethought give good returns for labor expended. The towns themselves with their elm-shadowed streets are neatly kept, and there is a certain pride taken in the good appearance of the homes half hidden in the drooping foliage. In the remoter towns are found thrifty dairy farms here and there, but the villages as a whole are inclined to look weatherworn and hopeless. Many of the houses have been strangers to fresh paint for a score of years or more; and others, though still inhabited, depress with their broken chimnies, leaky roofs, and decrepit out-buildings; while there are not wanting the homes altogether deserted, silent, broken-windowed, and sepulchral. Often these upland towns are nearly barren of well-grown trees which might add so much to their appearance, and the trees there are, look wind-blown and storm-beaten. This, with the thin, weedy grasses which grow on the opens before the churches, gives such places au accumulated forlornness.


It may be possible to find one of the outlying hamlets entirely deserted. There are little villages where you may find half a dozen or more forsaken hones, and no more than one or two still occupied; and the whole village and land is concentrated in one or two big farms, — big only in acres, however. There is slight attempt, as a rule, to keep up a thorough tillage. The best of the fields are gone over each year and a scanty harvest gleaned, and it may be questioned if equal labor on fewer acres would not produce greater results. The surplus buildings of the now depopulated village receive slight care, and time and decay deal hardly with them. The best of them serve as storage places for farm crops or tools. The more broken-down are levied upon occasionally for a few boards to mend a fence or a leak in one of the neighboring buildings, and so is hastened their time of complete ruin.


Some places have won the favor of the summer visitors, and so have gained renewed prosperity. A few weeks’ sojourn far from the heat and noise of the city on these quiet, breezy hill-tops is no small pleasure, and many a person of means takes pride in the cottage home he has bought in some nook he thinks especially favored by nature, and looks forward all through the lengthening days of the spring to the time when he can unlock its door once more, wind the clock in the hall, and settle himself with his family for the yearly vacation. He finds not a little fussing and fixing to employ him about the place, and he saunters forth in his oldest suit, when the notion takes him, to talk with his neighbors the farmers. The chances are he gets off his coat and renews his youth by helping in the hay-field, and there, like enough, the rest of his flock hunt him out, and all have a triumphal ride on the loaded cart behind the slow-moving oxen to the barn.


When the summer visitor came up from the railroad station on the train, he noted the enticing look of the little streams in the hollows, and the tinkling murmur of the ‘waterfalls sounded in his ear a call to get forth his fishing-rod. He was not long settled in his vacation home before the fishing-tackle was forthcoming, and he might be seen with vast caution and seriousness following up the neighboring brook through the tangled woods, and across the pastures among the rank-growing ferns and grasses, casting the fly and trailing it after the most approved fashion along the surface of the water, and perchance, if destiny favored, pulling forth at times a dainty little trout. The streams are so thoroughly fished that at finger-length, in the more accessible regions, the fish is esteemed a prize. Driving is always in order. There are glens, and waterfalls, and high hills with wonderfully far outlooks, and delightful winding valleys, to visit almost without number.


On Sunday the summer visitor goes to the village church. Perhaps the services are not as brilliant as those to which he is used, but there is a comfortable simplicity to the place, the people, the sermon, and the singing which charms. The visitor is often a ready and valued helper in making the church and its belongings more attractive, and takes an interest in the schools and library and appearance of the town, which to many a place has been of great assistance. The vacation which includes, beside the ordinary out­ door pleasuring, some of this sort of helpfulness gives a multiplied satisfaction at its close.


The country dwellers of New England are not to-day, in the mass, as strong charactered and vigorously intelligent as were those of the early part of the century. Those elements have found greater attraction and greater chance of reward elsewhere. It often happens that thrift seems to dwell rather with recent corners from across the water than with the older families.


This is sometimes claimed to be because the first will live more meanly than the latter could bring themselves to. The truth is, the new-comers have no pride of family name to sustain, they know attainment rests only on hard work, and their secret of success lies more in their steady labor and good business habits than in any meanness of living. The scions of the old families are looser in their methods and more reckless and showy, and far less given to vigorous work. They may be heard to bewail over this foreign element as usurpers; but in reality corners of thrift and intelligence, whatever their former homes, are a help to the town life. Hard work, saving habits, and the aspiration to give the children of the family an education, has a healthful effect on character, and win oftentimes for those growing up in these homes culture and practical ability equalling the best of that of the older families. If a foreign family takes up with some little house on the outskirts, it may live very shabbily for the first few years. But the land about is gradually brought under full and thrifty tillage, little sheds begin to spring up behind the house, by and by a barn is built, and then the house is made over and an L added, and the progress toward prosperity as presented to the eye is a thing to be admired. It is almost always the remnants of the worn out Yankee families which come on the town, and not these foreigners.


“Yankee” has become almost a synonym for ingeniousness, thrift, and “cuteness.” You can’t scare him; get him in a tight place and he will find a way out; set him a task and he will find some way to do it in half the time you expected; make him the butt of a joke and he will get even with you and pay heavy interest; no matter what part of the earth you transplant him to or the conditions you surround him with, he accommodates himself to the new circumstances, and proceeds with alacrity to financially profit by them. He is a born arguer, and a born pedler, and a born whittler, a Jack-at-all-trades and good at them all.


This, it may be, is the typical Yankee, and without a doubt such can be found; but not every inhabitant of New England is made that way. Yankees are of all kinds, and the abilities, virtues, and short-comings are much mixed in the parcelling out. The Yankee is a man of opinions, and shows great readiness to impart them to others; but the depth or shallowness of these depends on the man. He is inclined to slow speaking and nasal tones, and when a question is asked has a way of turning it over in his mind once or twice before he gives answer, often improving the interval to spit seriously and meditatively. In bargaining, whatever the amount involved, he is given to dickering, crying down, or upholding the price, according as he is buyer or seller. The thrifty man is sometimes simply the man of push and ability, sometimes the miserly man who drives sharp bargains and forecloses mortgages when his poor neighbors are in trouble, and sells hard cider to the drinkers; or he may be one of high standing in church and community, who, though stickling for fairness, is sure to buy low and sell high; who is up at sunrise in summer and long before daylight in winter; who makes long days and fills them with hard work, and is esteemed a hard master by sons and hired men; who lives frugally, and when it comes to spending, as the saying goes, “squeezes the dollar until the eagle squeals.”


As a rule New England country people save nothing above expenses, and even then, spending all they earn, can have few more than the most common comforts of life, and rarely a luxury. Circumstance or some untoward accident of fate may bring this result, but an unstriving lack of thrift is more frequently the cause. Those of this class have a way of being always a little behind in what they do, and there is a dragging want of vitality in what they attempt. They arc a little late in planting, a little late in harvesting. They never get full crops, and fall below the best always in quality, and arc apt to suffer loss through frost or foul weather. “The stitch in time which saves nine” about their buildings they do not take, and these buildings lose boards here and there, and presently begin to sag and need a prop to keep them from coming down prone. So crops, and animals, and farm-tools are ill-protected, and there is increased loss. As compared with the typical Southerner, the Yankee has less warmth of enthusiasm, less open-heartedness and chivalry, but he is steadier and has greater staying-power. The ne’er-do-well class of the North may wear their hearts on their sleeves and be as free as air in their kindliness and generosity; but Yankee thrift, however generous or philanthropic, is self-controlled and inclined to be reticent and politic. But though this may lessen the charm and poetry of it, there is no doubting its increased effectiveness.


Thrift is apt to become with the well-to-do a sort of passion. The lack of it in a neighbor stirs continued and sarcastic criticism. On the other hand, thrift easily runs into closeness; but the worshipper of thrift is not mean and entirely selfish in this regard. It is a pleasure to him to see well-tilled fields, even if they belong to others, and he has the wish to make what attracts him general. The rich at their death often leave their fortunes in whole or in part to some charity or educational institution which will further a more general thrift.


In stories of New England village-life we find a curious dialect used by the characters. Quaintness and uncouthness are both prominent. To one thoroughly acquainted with its people these stories savor of exaggeration and caricature. Ignorance everywhere uses bad grammar, whether in town or country, New England or elsewhere. Isolation tends also to careless speech. But the New Englander has not either, as a rule, to so marked a degree as to make him the odd specimen of humanity pictured in books. Life in the small villages and on the outlying farms does not present very numer­ous social advantages, and the result is a necessity for depending on one’s own resources. This, with those possessed of some mental vigor, develops individuality of thought and stable and forceful character. In the towns it requires the consultation and help of about half a dozen friends for a young person to accomplish any given object, great or small. On the farm, where neighbors are few, the boy or girl does his or her own thinking and working. Such have more pith and point to their brain movement, and in after life under as favoring circumstances will accomplish more.


Individuality expresses itself in manner and speech as well as thought, and odd ways and queer ideas and peculiar observations arc to be met with very commonly in the New England country. The heavy work brings a certain amount of clumsiness with the strength. The rough clothes usually worn, and the slight care given them, often make an individual grotesque, and the majority of the workers attain to the picturesque in their costumes with their variety of patched and faded oldness. A peculiarity of recent years has come with the fashion of derby hats. There is a naturalness about an old slouch hat, however ancient, stained, and misshapen. If it does not grow old gracefully, it at least does so logically and without reminding the beholder of a more exalted past. But the battered and leaky derby retains to the last a stiff look of aristocracy which ill fits its dilapidated seediness.


But whether a man is uncouth or not depends on other things than his occupation. Neatness is a growth from within rather than from without, and though no sensible farmer works in his Sunday clothes on week-days, there are many by whom you are agreeably impressed, no matter where you meet them. A look from the car window on a rainy day, as you pause at the villages on your route, reveals a curious motley group hanging about the platform. The depot is a favorite resort on stormy days when work is slack on the farm; but loafing is not characteristic of the best of the community, and it is hardly fair to judge all by the specimens who here pre­ sent themselves.


Indoors, where presides the housewife, we expect to find neatness in supreme rule, for the New England woman has in that a wide repute. It is to be doubted if the old-time shining and spotless interiors which the grandmothers tell about are as universal now as formerly. But house-cleanings come with great regularity in most families, and the consumption of brooms and scrubbing-brushes in New England is something enormous. With the advent of wall-paper and carpets and the great variety of furniture and knick-knacks now within reach, has come a discontent with the old simplicity, and the changes are often not pleasing. Taste runs too much in wall-paper and carpets to dark colors and pronounced patterns, and the rooms appear boxy. If much money is spent on furniture it is apt to be spent on style rather than on substantial and quiet comfort. The pictures on the walls are usually a queer collection, from — it would be hard to imagine where — of colored prints, engravings cut from newspapers, and photographs of deceased members of the family. The science of house decoration is something very modern, and it will take time to learn how to do it simply and harmoni­ously.


Life’s currents pursue a tangled course, and while we catch many strains of harmony, there are discordant notes of which we rarely get entirely out of hearing. New England is not perfect, but once to have known is always to love it, no matter how far one wanders or how fair new regions open before one’s eyes. Its changing seasons, its rugged hills and tumbling streams, its winding roadways, its villages and little farms, cling in the memory and sing siren songs of enticement. Nature is sometimes harsh, but she has many moods, and nowhere more than here; and if harsh sometimes, she is at other times exceeding sweet. In cold or heat, storm or sunshine, New England’s rough fields are still the true Arcadia to her sons and daughters.




Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.