Chapter V
Ways And Means In John's Boyhood

From "John Burroughs - Boy And Man" (1920)
By Clara Barrus

Seventy and eighty years make quite a difference in the customs and methods of people living in the same locality and following, in the main, the same pursuits as their ancestors. Our ways and means to-day seem quite commonplace to us so accustomed to them, but eighty years hence they may hold a great deal of interest for our children and grandchildren, just as the way they did things when John Burroughs was a boy interests us to-day.


In those days they could not step out to a grocery and buy a loaf of bread. It would not have gone far in such a big family. A baking-ten big loaves of rye and two of wheat-had to be pieced out with pancakes, Johnny cakes, and biscuits.

On baking-day the old kitchen was all a-bustle. The great brick oven was heated piping hot before the bread went in, by building a fire in it where the loaves were later to go. Such a skurrying as there was among the boys when their mother called for more and yet more light, flashy wood!

"One more armful-quick!" she cried, when they would think their job done. Then they watched her as, opening the door and testing the oven with her hand, she pronounced it hot enough; quickly raked out the coals and .ashes, and put in the loaves with the long-handled iron shovel. An hour later, when the big wooden door was opened, and the brown crusty loaves drawn out-was there ever a more delicious smell! And sometimes Mother Burroughs cuts one of the warm rye loaves for her hungry boys-" Um! Um! Guess I don't mind getting oven wood, after all!"

There was also a little Dutch oven made of tin, closed at the sides, back, top, and bottom, like a little shed. This was set down with its opening close to the fire; in this their mother could bake Johnny cake or biscuit in a hurry, when company came unexpectedly.


Before John was old enough to do any milking, he saved his mother many steps by helping with the pans. There were about ten pailfuls of milk at each milking, morning and night; it took four pans to a pail, so there were forty milk pans to skim and wash twice a day. Starting to skim about three in the afternoon, it usually took her an hour, with John carrying the pans. A boy had to mind his p's and q's with those full pans, Perhaps it is due to that early task that we never find him "slopping over" in later years.

How deftly his mother skimmed the cream! With a case-knife she would sweep around the pan, then slip the thick yellow mass, looking like a leather apron, into the cream-jar. When the milk was "lobbered" they saved out some for pot-cheese, and ate some, sweetened with maple sugar, as " bonny clabber," but the most of it, with the skim milk, was fed to the pigs.

A Dog Churn

A Dog Churn


In summer the butter was made by means of the dogchurn - a large wheel set at an angle, which went round and round as the old mastiff, standing in one place, would tread it. The cogs on the wheel turned a shaft which bad a crank, the crank worked the sweep, and the sweep lifted the churn-dasher. It was a dull, tiresome round, even for a dog, usually taking half a day. Old Cuff got so he knew when churning was to be done and at such times contrived to have important business with the woodchucks in a distant field.

When Cuff quit his job they pressed an old ram into the service, but after a time he proved fractious, hanging back and settling down and refusing to make the wheel go round. When that was the case, John and Eden had to take their turn at the tiresome treadmill. They soon learned to outwit the balky fellow: Rigging up the hetchel behind him so that when he started, to settle down the teeth of the hetchel would prod him sharply, they forced him to do his stunt, willy-nilly.

There came a day when, utterly weary of the many unlucky turns of Fortune's wheel, the ram decided to make an end of it. He jumped off the wheel and hanged hi

self with the rope by which he was tied. John and Eden, for reasons, mourned the death of that ram more than did any others in the Burroughs household.

(Once when Mr. Burroughs was past seventy I was with him in an old mansion at Johnstown, N. Y., where numerous implements of auld lang syne were on exhibition -spinning-wheels, looms, distaffs, swifts, warming-pans, horse-pistols, and so on-and when some one asked, "Have you ever seen a dog-churn?" he retorted quickly, "Yes, yes, and I've been the dog," and fled down the attic stairs as though afraid of being pressed into service again.)

In winter and early spring when there was less milk, they used a hand-chum, and two of the boys had to ply that dasher up and down interminably-work which they cordially disliked. They did not dislike the delicious buttermilk, though, with the little flecks of butter swimming about in it, which their mother dipped for them from the old blue churn after their glad shouts of triumph-" Butter's come!"


John's mother made cheese only three or four times a year; they could not afford it oftener as it took a whole milking.

Into the big kettle of milk went the rennet (the dried stomach of a calf) to curdle it. When it was a solid curd, John would dip out the thin yellow whey and feed it to the pigs, taking frequent toll of the sweet curd as he dipped. One day he took such heavy toll he was completely cloyed, and it was a month of Sundays before he wanted to taste it again.

The curd, suspended in an old table cloth, dripped for hours, and then was packed in the big hoop, or cheese mold, and put in the press; a kettle filled with stones hanging on the end of the lever of the press affording the weight. The green cheese stood in the press for weeks, and when released was dry and solid. Stored in the back bedroom, it was not cut until seasoned, and then only when company came.

"And that's the cheese of it," was slang in John's boyhood.


The boys liked to watch their mother make candles.

"Go and fetch me the rods and bars - I'm going to dip candles this afternoon," their mother would say, and John and Eden would bring the candle-bars and the bundle of candle-rods from the attic, placing the bars with their ends resting on the backs of chairs, in readiness to support the rods. These about three feet long, were whittled by the boys out of elder wood.

The tallow, obtained from a beef they had killed, was put into the big caldron of hot water. Twelve pieces of wicking about sixteen inches long were hung over each rod a few inches apart, and twisted and tied. (This left a loop at the top of each candle, which had to be burnt off when first lighted.)

The boys made themselves useful in handing the rods to their mother, who, after dipping the dangling wicks in the melted tallow, rested the rods on the long bars. By the time she had dipped them all, the first rod-full was ready for the second dipping; and so on till all were dipped thirty or forty times. It was fun to see them grow bigger with each tallow bath till large enough to fit the candlesticks. Sometimes, looking critically at a rod-full, she would decide that they needed one more dip, so in they would go again. When they were cool enough, she would carefully straighten them, and John and Eden would slip them off the rods, smooth the butt ends, and pack them away from rats and mice on a shelf in the wash-house. Many a time of a winter evening John would hear the familiar injunction, "Run and fetch a candle, John-this is 'most burnt out."

Those dipped candles looked quite different from the symmetrical paraffine candles we use to-day; yellowish white, and bigger at the butt-end, they tapered to a rather small calibre at the top. Because of this slender top, they would burn down very fast when first lighted. The wicks, much larger than those of modern candles, were "big as a rye-straw," and required frequent snuffing. Farmer Burroughs used to do it quickly with thumb and finger, and John himself got so he could snuff them deftly Without burning himself, but his mother and the girls used the brass snuffers on the mantelpiece.

Later the farmers' wives bought tin moulds and, arranging the wicks in them, poured the tallow in the mouldsa much quicker process, and one resulting in candles of uniform size.

The iron candlesticks had an arrangement on the side for moving the candle up as it burned away, and at the top was a little hook by which they hung the candlestick to the back of a chair. It was extravagant to have more than one candle lighted, unless there was company. Of an evening, John would bring his book and sit close to his mother as she sat mending and leaning toward the chairback where the lighted candle hung. The round base of the candlestick was sharp on the rim. They used this rim to scrape the bristles from the hogs' backs at hog-killing time.

The boys helped with soap-making by filling the leachtub with ashes after having put in straw through which to strain the lye. The leach-tub was usually a hollow basswood tree which held many bushels. It stood on a slant with the smaller end down, on a big flat stone out by the wash-house. A groove in the stone conducted the lye to a big cauldron. If a suitable tree could not be found, a triangular tub was made by a carpenter -- a reversed truncated cone, held together with a square frame.

The ashes in, they poured water through from time to time, and after a while, out from below flowed the dark brown lye. They judged when this was strong enough by dropping in an egg which floated only when the lye was of the required strength.

Into the cauldron with the lye they dumped all the grease collected since the last soap-making; all the scraps tried out from the lard since hog-killing time-ham rinds, pork fat, and all other waste grease-in it all went. Then, with a fire under the kettle, someone stirred the mass with a long stick from time to time. From this there finally resulted the brown, jelly-like, slippery soft soapthe only soap which they had to use. A little wooden dish of it always stood on the end of the wash-bench in the kitchen, and when the boys wanted to scrub up, they would dip in their fingers and besmear their hands with the glairy, strong-smelling liquid. There may have been some kind of toilet soap in the best bedroom, but if there was, John has no recollection of it now.


The boys and girls helped with fruit-gathering and drying. John and his mother usually gathered the most of the berries, for, as has been said, he was her best berry picker. He knew where the biggest berries grew. Day after day they would go out in the hill-meadows and down in the bark-peeling. Oh, those strawberry days amid the daisies, the tall timothy, and the bobolinks! There was no other berry John liked so well, it delighted so many of his senses; eye, ear, nose, and tongue came in for their share; beautiful as a flower to look upon, it snapped and crackled as he severed it from the stem; it smelled -- Oh, how good it smelled! and tasted! -- but there's no describing its taste! A handful of the dead ripe berries in a bowl of bread and milk, and the king in his parlour eating bread and honey were an object of pity in comparison!

They went along the borders of the fields for "rozberries," down in the bark-peeling for blackberries, and up on Old Clump for huckleberries. In these excursions John always brought home a good deal besides berries, yet always had a heaping measure of them.

The girls had the dull work of looking over the berries and spreading them on plates to be dried in the sun, or, after the advent of the kitchen stove, in the oven. The berries had to be stirred and turned till thoroughly dried. That was drudgery. John had the best of the bargain.

When they dried apples, Hiram, the handy one, pared them, sitting astride the machine be had made, while the others cut and cored them, stringing them on heavy linen thread, after which they were hung on poles and suspended from the kitchen ceiling. Hiram also made the knives for the machine from parts of an old scythe-blade. None of the farmers anywhere round had as good paring-knives as Hiram's. He was in great demand at the apple-cuts.

Our lad always had a sweet tooth, but it wasn't often catered to. "Lockjaw," made from maple sap, and wild honey were the lollypops that Mother Nature offered him, but there was little candy or sweetmeats, and little canning or preserving in those days. Store sugar was scarce and expensive (as to-day). Still, every fall Mother Burroughs would put up a jar of pears, pound for pound, though these were served only on special occasions.

The boys used to go across the fields in the October days to "Aunt" Dolly's and gather a peck of pears (plus as many as they could conveniently stow away in a certain pear-shaped receptacle of elastic texture, which "Aunt" Dolly never saw), picking them very carefully, for their mother wanted the stems left on.

Sometimes they went to "Aunt" Dolly's when not sent there. At such times, they went by night, moving cautiously and quietly, plucking the fruit speedily, regardless of stems. Such pears were preserved in the hay-mow for future use.

One moonlight night four of the boys went over there for a raid on the old seedling pear-tree of which "Aunt" Dolly was so stingy. She had planted the tree herself back in seventeen hundred and something. No wonder she was so "near" with its fruit! "Uncle" Eli heard the boys and "calculating" that it was "Chauncey's boys after them pears," sent his Newfoundland dog out to sick 'em.

When Lige came bounding out, Hi and Curt "beat it," but Wilson and John stood their ground. Wilson had a brass pistol. The boys retreated slowly and in order. Wilson, behind with the' pistol, backed away. When the dog came close, Whang! went the pistol in his face. Lige fled to the house, and the boys fled home. Though a blank charge, it served its purpose.

At another time Jane and John arranged a little visit over to "Aunt" Dolly's, for, small as were those pears, when dead ripe, they were sweet and juicy, and Jane and John had a hankering after them which grew as the pears grew. Their scheme was this: Jane was to go to the house and engage "Aunt" Dolly in the liveliest conversation of which she was capable, while John was to whisk around to the pear tree and occupy himself diligently for a brief but fruitful period.

While fulfilling his part of the bargain with the utmost diligence, likewise pockets, and stomach, wondering meanwhile what topics of conversation were occurring to the none-too-ready Jane, behold what John doth see -- "Aunt" Dolly, rushing around the corner of the house, her white cap flopping indignantly, her tongue lashing unstintingly! The fruit-gatherer, standing on the fence, with protruding pockets, is suddenly arrested. Apparently his labours in this line are at an end. He is speedily persuaded to come to the ground. He is furthermore persuaded to empty his pockets of every last pear. One by one they go reluctantly into "Aunt" Dolly's out-held apron. Discomfited, Jane and John return across the fields, a sorry pair (poor Jane, after all her efforts, not having had a single taste!), while "Aunt" Dolly triumphantly carried the gathered fruit into the house.

John Burroughs On the "Giant Steps"

John Burroughs On the "Giant Steps"


In John's time the water was brought down to the house from the spring on the hillside in a primitive way, by means of pump-logs bored out with an augur and laid in a trench under the ground, thence conducted to the penstock-an upright hollowed-out poplar log into which the water poured through a strainer, and from which it flowed out of a spout into the watering-trough at the rear door.

When Farmer Burroughs had to renew his pump-logs he would take the boys with him up on the mountain and cut and haul down the "popple" logs, after which a man from Moresville came with his big augur to bore them. It was great fun to watch the man with his fifteen-foot augur bore the holes. John remembers the laying of two sets of pump-logs in his time, besides the occasional boring of some which would decay from time to time.


"John, you and Eden go and shut up the geese -- I'm going to pick them after dinner," their mother would say, and such a squawking as was heard when the boys drove them into the stable!

Sitting on a low chair in the barn, and, taking a struggling goose from one of the boys, tucking its head under her arm, their mother deftly and quickly plucked it on belly, sides, and back. It was a sorry sight when plucked! Shouting derisively, the boys would liberate it, bring her another protesting victim which, in time, they would let out to its fellows, squawking as it went. When she plucked the old gander, disreputable as he looked, he always returned to his wives bragging ludicrously, though what he had to brag about, unless that he had escaped with his life, was hard to guess.

The feathers were later made into beds and pillows. It was the custom in those days, besides keeping up the supply for the family, to make extra beds and pillows, from time to time, so that each boy and girl, when married, could have a feather-bed and a pair of pillows. John's head for many a later year rested on the feathers of those squawking geese he had coralled for his mother to pluck.


Spring beds were unknown in John's boyhood. The four-posted cord-bedsteads, mostly of cherry (mahogany only for the well-to-do), were strung across and criss-cross, making squares of strong cord which supported the mattress, or straw-tick. The bed-cord was tightened with a home-made tool fashioned for the purpose. In winter, feather-beds were used on top of the straw-ticks. Sometimes a corn-husk mattress was used in place of, or above, the straw.

From time to time the oat-straw had to be renewed, for, when broken, it matted and became lumpy. It was then the boys' stunt to take up their beds and walk with them to the stables or the pig-pen, where henceforth the straw served as bedding in a humbler capacity. The ticks, filled with fresh, springy straw -- oh! how luxuriously they sank down into them at night!

Their pillows were of goose-feathers, the sheets and pillow-cases of home-made linen, made from flax which the boys had helped gather, and their mother had spun. The patchwork quilts, pieced by the girls and their mother, were quilted by friends and neighbours who came to the quilting-party from miles around. Willingly the boys brought down the quilting-frames from the attic and set them up in the "other room," knowing that, besides other goodies, they were pretty sure to have white bread, new cheese, and preserved pears for supper! The comfortables, wadded, chintz-covered affairs, sparsely tied with bits of bright-coloured yarn, were also tied off at the quilting-bees.

Over quilts and comfortables was spread the blue and white "kiverlid" woven from the wool that grew on the sheep which the boys had chased over the breezy hills, driven to be washed in Hardscrabble creek, and collected in the barn to be sheared.

"As ye make your bed, so shall ye lie in it." I wonder if sleep would not be a little sweeter and sounder on such a bed, home-made and homegrown, than on our spring beds with glittering brass bedsteads, hair, or felt, mattresses, ready-made sheets, rose blankets, and the modern counterpane. But a boy's sleep is pretty sure to be sound and sweet anyhow, whether he rest on an up-to-date mattress or on a downy bed of Auld Lang Syne.


There was "Aunt" Debby Scudder who lived alone in a little brown house over on the cross-roads. She kept six cows, milking and foddering them herself, worked her own garden, and did many a job ordinarily done by men, doing the work well, and letting neither the grass nor the weeds grow under her busy feet.

She was a meek and pious soul, yet one Sunday as the Burroughs family were driving by in their "pleasure wagon," on the way to the old yellow meeting-house at Shacksville, they were dumbfounded to see "Aunt" Debby out by the side door, rubbing away at the wash-tub.

"Deborah Scudder! what do you mean by washing on Sunday?"

Throwing up her hands dripping with suds, "Aunt" Debby cried aghast, "Sunday! is to-day Sunday?" When convinced that it was, without another word she dried her hands on her apron, left her tubs without a glance back, and hurried into the house, presumably to wrestle with the Lord for her offence in having broken His Commandment. Certain it is she did not go to hear Elder Hewitt that day.

The boys went to church only occasionally, walking across lots (which compensated some), while their parents and the girls rode in the pleasure wagon. Groaning in spirit to exchange the sunlit fields for that ugly old church, they seated themselves in the gallery where they could look down upon the worshippers (the men on one side, the women on the other), managing, somehow, to live through the two long hours that Elder Hewitt spent in his chaotic discourse. " He was a solemn old raven, but a man of solid worth and sterling qualities," said the man who sat so unwillingly under his preaching as a lad. He never got anywhere. There was no reasoning-just a lot of texts strung together, with occasional emotional outbursts. These outbursts were oases in the solemn, lugubrious delivery that at last came to an end and let the sufferers escape into the sunshine again.

John Burroughs scattering corn for the chipmunks at Woodchuck Lodge

John Burroughs scattering corn for the chipmunks at Woodchuck Lodge

When the old elder had his fling at the unregenerate Armenians, as the Methodists were then called, the boys liked it immensely, for then there was some "git up and git" to what he said. How he used to rollout those magic words, "foreordination," and "predestination "-words which meant that the chosen few, the Old School Baptists, had their names written forever in the Lamb's Book of Life! Their " calling and election " were sure. That sect, to which John's parents belonged, believed that one was "saved by grace," not by "works"; that there was no such a thing as "free salvation," as the Armenians advocated, but that one's name had to be on the roll-call from all eternity, if one was to be saved.

The Yearly Meetings were welcome breaks in the usual solemn Sunday observances, the human element being more in evidence then. The families would come from far and near; the sheds and the church-yard, too, would be filled with wagons and horses. Each family brought great baskets of provisions. Although the forenoon and afternoon sessions were long, drowsy affairs, the noon hour, with the decorous picnic on the grass, atoned for a multitude of texts. Then the men stood or sat around on the ground, discussing the weather and the crops. The women bustled about, spreading out the victuals, and gossipping about their weaving and dyeing, their patchwork, and their carpet-rags. The hungry boys hovered near, eyeing the good things which made their mouths water, and longing for the time when, the long grace ended, they could fall to and dispose of the things predestined to be devoured. After that the men lounged about and smoked, the women walked reverently among the graves of kindred and neighbours, speaking in low tones, sometimes secretly wiping away a tear, pulling a weed here and there, and reading over the lines on the headstones. Then it was that the boys quietly stole away to Stratton Falls, their absence from the afternoon session being tacitly agreed upon. Once there, forgetting all about the weighty doctrines Elder Hewitt was so earnestly expounding in the dismal church, they gave themselves up to the good times it was foreordained from the beginning that boys in all ages shall enjoy.

Sometimes instead of going to church at Shacksville the Burroughs family rode over to Brag Hollow to hear Elder Jim Meade hold forth. John's father was sometimes so carried away by the eloquence of this simple, fine old man, that he knew not whether he was in the body or out of the body. The Elder worked his little farm on weekdays and preached on Sundays. Coming into the schoolhouse barefooted and, standing up among his neighbours, he would open his mouth and trust to the Lord to fill it, while his hearers sat awed by his homely eloquence.

Sylvester Preston, the carpenter who built the wagonhouse for John's father, was quite a wag and had his little joke at the expense of Farmer Burroughs:

"Chauncey, it's the rule for a carpenter to take home twenty nails with him every night, and I shall have to follow the rule," he said, as the first day's work was drawing to a close.

"By Phagus!" ejaculated Farmer Burroughs, as he thought of how much those wrought nails cost, and what an item it would be before 'Vester got the wagon-house done. But he added resignedly, "Well, if that's the rule, 'Vester, I suppose you'll have to," and he went about with a worried look, helplessly pondering the injustice of it. When night came he stood there ruefully, expecting to see Sylvester take his twenty nails. Then, with a loud guffaw, the carpenter made him understand that the nails he was to carry home were those which Mother Nature had forged for him, and that he would bring the same ones back with him every morning.

  1.  "pleasure wagon": A three-seated wagon, made by hand, by Nell Dart, and taken to Enderlin's blacksmith shop in the Hollow to be "Ironed." It cost seventy-five or eighty dollars, a good deal of money then, and was the source of pardonable pride to any farmer thrifty enough to own one. (Return)


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