Chapter VI
Chores And Pastimes

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

Being a boy is pretty much the same everywhere. The odd jobs so easily turned over to the boy differ in different places and times, but, as a rule, since Cain and Abel were "kids," boys have been expected to do the hundred and one things that no one else seems to have time, or inclination, to do. Whatever inner rebellion is felt at the unending nature of the chores, most boys face the music and do their stunts, and still squeeze out time for more important matters.

Our boy was no exception to other boys when it came to a choice between chores and pastimes; he found joy in the things that boys usually do, and found certain tasks irksome, as boys do, have done, and will do, the world over; and yet, much of his work was play, or if not, he managed, somehow, to get a pretty full measure of enjoyment even though not escaping the work.

Sometimes his father found him dreaming under the apple trees, or behind the wood-pile with a book, the chores still undone, and an uneasy fear haunted him concerning the lad; he was afraid John would never be a good farmer, and, with that queer hankering after books, might even become a Methodist minister. To an Old School Baptist like Farmer Burroughs, that was about the worst end imaginable! Why, John sometimes saw his father and their Methodist neighbour, Jerry Bouton, almost come to blows as, sitting with Bibles on knees, they argued hotly over" free salvation,"" predestination," and other religious beliefs in their diverse creeds.

Farmer Burroughs believed that all his other boys would eclipse John: There was Hiram who did so many things well. He was handy at making all sorts of implements used on the farm which had to be made by handneck-yokes, axe-handles, hay-rigging, cradle-fingers, sledrunners, and so on. And he could graft trees, blast rocks, and lay stone walls, in none of which things John showed any aptitude.

Now, while it is true that John never acquired Hiram's skill and handiness, nor Wilson's boldness, thoroughness, and thrift, nor Curtis's expertness as a milker, nor Eden's orderliness and system, yet, as a matter of fact, he equalled and even excelled his brothers in much of the farm work, in spite of his thirst for knowledge. He usually tackled his jobs, when "forced put," with more vim than the others showed, as well as with more "gumption," chiefly because he wanted to get through with them and get to something more interesting. Tasks were, with him, nearly always means to other ends, and with these ends in view, he could keep his nose to the grindstone, saw wood, hoe out his row, plough a straight furrow, and cut as broad and clean a swath as the next one.

There were a few things he failed to do well: he was not good at loading hay on a wagon, or at building a stack, and he never learned to manage a team of horses, or a yoke of oxen as well as his brothers, but in most of the farmwork he did his tasks well-when he could not get out of doing them!

There was one thing about John as a lad that pleased his father: he was always ready to hunt straying sheep and salt them on the hills. His father never knew how much he brought back besides the sheep on those rambles. As a matter of fact, John felt a keen interest in sheep, more especially sheep with a fancy strain in them; also in fancy breeds of poultry. He and Eden used to hang around Neighbour Chase's poultry-yard, their eyes completely filled with the extra large top-knots of the fowl there. Although his father did not realize it, it was that extra touch which fascinated the boys-not merely the everyday breeds-it was like a bit of poetry; it appealed to their imaginations. In later years John has said that had he not become a writer, he would probably have become a fancy-stock farmer. Eden, on a small scale, followed his boyish bent. The high-bred lords and ladies in his poultry domain were watched and tended with much the same interest and affection that his more gifted brother has bestowed upon the wild birds and other creatures of forest and field.


Nowadays, one sometimes hears Mr. Burroughs exclaim with a sigh:

    "Ah, well-a-day! for the good old days

    When I kept my father's kine!"

though he doubtless sighed for other reasons when keeping them.

He knew those kine as he knew the members of his family. The herd of thirty or more cows was made up mostly of Durhams and Ayrshires. The "old Sam Scudder cow" was the leader, a peaceful, well-behaved creature, slender-horned, deep-shouldered, large-uddered, whose will was law in yard and stable and field. The boys gave her the first place everywhere. She had her choice of standing-room when milked; was first served when the herd was foddered; was given the juiciest pumpkins, and tacitly granted the best and softest places in the field. She ruled as with the breath of her nostrils -- a sniff and a threatening look, and everyone gave way to her.

There were Old Brockleface, Old Bob-tail, the Far' cow (the farrow cow), the Brindled heifer, the Dun heifer, White-foot, Lop-horn, the Muley cow, and many others of varying appearances and character. There were timid cows in the herd, awkward cows, forlorn cows, kicking cows, benevolent cows, fractious cows-each with its special character, which the boys grew to know as they knew one another. They learned to keep a sharp eye on the ring-leaders in all the mischief-the ones who jumped the fences and led the others into the corn Then there was the butt of the herd and there was the bully, who was always pushing, crowding and goring the others. There were gentle, soft-eyed cows with faces like a deer's-all kinds and conditions made up. the Burroughs herd.

One became expert at understanding the creatures. John learned to interpret their lows-whether of hunger, of impatience, of distress, of danger, of unrest, or of frenzy. He loved to watch them grazing, or lying under the trees, chewing their cuds, or standing belly-deep in the streams. He especially loved the sight of them silhouetted against the sky at twilight, as they grazed along the level summit of the side-hill above the house. He delighted to watch them eating pumpkins or apples. In fact, John loved the cow, and found most of her ways, ways of pleasantness, her paths, paths of peace. She was, in truth, the Rural Divinity at whose shrine he bowed.


It oftenest fell to John and the dog to drive the cows to and from the pasture over beyond the beechwoods, half a mile or more, and they had a good many adventures by the way.

"Co' boss! Co' boss! Co' boss!" he would stand in the bar-way and call while Cuff would run down and round them up. The cows being disposed of, he and Cuff were ready for whatever might come up. It was often a chase for a woodchuck which whistled shrilly as it took to the stone wall. Now boy and dog were sworn enemies of those bold rodents that burrowed in every hillside and made raids upon the grass and clover, and even upon the garden, and the pursuit of them was swift and deadly.

Such a yelping and a pawing as there was when the dog, baffled, saw his prey escape! but they were not to be outwitted thus. The two of them were much too much for the wretched 'chuck. John would pull down the rocky sanctuary, Cuff would seize his victim, and soon the flabby rodent would be only a lifeless, bloody, disembowelled mass, when boy and dog would march away home, glad that there was one less ugly "varmint" in the fields. He remembers one woodchuck black as jet which he got when fourteen or fifteen years old; it weighed fourteen pounds.

More peaceful pastimes, however, claimed many of the summer hours. He wandered in the beechwoods to listen to the mellow flute of the veery, or to watch the antics of that Puck of the woods, the red squirrel, as he snickered and scampered amid the trees. On frosty mornings he sometimes saw him beating the "juba" on a limb -- a regular breakdown performance, his own squeals and snickers furnishing the applause

Sometimes in poking about the woods John discovered where the red squirrel had hoarded his small savings: not far from his nest he would tuck a butternut here, a black walnut there, in the crotches of the trees, for all the world as though he had heard the warning against putting all one's eggs into one basket. He had great respect for this shrewd rodent who always seemed to know just where to gnaw into a nut the best to expose the meat; every nut he examined showed that the frisky creature had known on which side his bread was buttered.

Loitering in the beechwoods he occasionally found in a hollow tree, the stores of the little white-footed, whitebellied mouse -- a quart or more of beech nuts, every nut shelled as clean as a whistle!

When going along the road with the cows he often saw the junco, or slate-coloured snow-bird, dart from a low bank in the roadside, her white petticoat fluttering as she flew. On searching the bank, there under its brink, cunningly concealed, was the nest of dry grass and moss, with its lining of finer grass and hair, and its greenish-white eggs, each with a wreath of brownish spots at the larger end.

Oftener still when in the sheep pastures he would see the modest little vesper sparrow (the grass finch) in its dress of mottled brown, skulking in the stubble. The bird would start up at his approach, run along a few yards before him, then, flitting a pace or two, again alight upon the ground, only to start up as he came near-luring him on and on, the two white quills showing in its tail during flight. He loved this bird of the stony pastures, and at dusk often wandered out on the hills alone where, sitting on his Boyhood Rock, he listened to its tender strain. Little poet of the pastures! its three long, silvery notes, followed by low trills and quavers subtly expressed to him that peaceful scene-the brown stubble, the quiet herds, and the warm twilight among the hills. The bird builds on the ground in the open with no protection except, perhaps, a thistle or a yarrow to guard its door. John used to amuse himself by stealing upon it, clapping his hat over the nest, peering under at the little prisoner, and sometimes taking it in his hand when, after stilling its alarm, he would let it go -- a practice that was doubtless more fun for the boy than comfortable for the bird.


Oxen were the only horses the earliest settlers had, and even in John's time old Brock and Bright, his father's oxen, figured prominently in the farm life; but in the pioneer days those patient, hulking animals were real heroes; they hauled the farmer and his belongings from one dwellingplace to another, over rough trails through the woods; they broke the first soil for the settlers; they never balked at the tasks required of them; they could live where moose and deer could live, browsing on birch and lindens until their owners could raise a crop of hay.

Brock and Bright were great handsome, sweet-breathed creatures with long, glistening, wide-spreading horns. It was often John's task to yoke them up before he was big enough to guide them about.

Going into the stall, untying Brock, and leading him out by the horns, John would take down the heavy, birchen-wood yoke, remove the key, and pulling out one of the bows, lift the end of the yoke up on his shoulder, and from there on to the shoulder of Brock, the off ox. Then putting the ends of the bow up through the holes in the yoke, he fastened them with the key. Lifting the other end of the yoke, he would then call to the nigh ox, "Come, Bright!" and Bright would walk in and, be yoked up also; in. went the key, and the job was done.


John and Eden were keen for spying out the bumblebees and digging them out of their nests. Of course they got stung, but they expected that. They learned to distinguish three kinds of bumblebees-the red-waisted bees, the yellow-banded ones, and the white- or cream-banded ones. The first kind built on the ground, or in the braces of barns, and from them the boys got masses of comb as big as their fists. The cells of the comb are not hexagonal, like those of honey bees, but round sacs stuck together. The yellow-banded often took possession of a meadow mouse's nest. The vicious white-banded ones chased the boys out of the meadow, settled in their hair, got up their trouser legs, and gave John and Eden many a savage thrust for their interference. The boys found swatters whittled out of shingles helpful in their combats with the bees.

Once John succeeded in collecting two pounds of bumblebee honey. He squeezed it out of the comb, securing a good-sized bottleful, a great rarity. Hiding it in the attic away from the other boys, the Honey-Gatherer tiptoed up there at rare intervals to taste sparingly of the precious store.


It was bad enough to hoe beans when they had to do it at home, but when their father would send Curtis and John across lots to Noah Woolheitzer's to hoe his beans, it was a chore that did not set well. They never lingered over the job, and were at no great pains to do it so well that their services would be sought again. Having ideas of their own as to the propriety of their being impressed into old Noah's service in that way, they adopted a unique method of hoeing his beans: On coming to a fine-looking hill, regarding it long and admiringly, they decided that that hill needed no hoeing; and on coming to a poor-looking hill, they decided that that was not worth the hoeingit would be a waste of time; and so, putting nearly all the hills in one or the other, of these classes, they got along with very little hoeing of beans, and were soon ready to go home, making leisurely pauses along the trout brooks in the valley, chuckling, while lingering there, as to how expeditiously they had hoed Noah's beans.

Sugar making at Riverby

Sugar making at Riverby


Maple sugar-making was a chore that was not a chore, but a joyous pastime. April days were a delight to the Burroughs boys, sugar-making atoned for all their hardships-it covered a multitude of chores. Even the preparation for the work in the "bush" was eagerly made with something of the zest the angler feels when, as the trout season draws near, he gets out his tackle and sorts his hooks and flies. The night before the tree-tapping the boys sharpened the old basswood spiles and made some new ones, and bright and early in the morning loaded the big sled with the hogsheads, kettles, pans and spiles, Brock and Bright hauling them to the boiling place under the maples. While Farmer Burroughs and Hiram cut the gashes in the trees and drove in the spiles, Curtis, Eden, and John put the pans in place on the sunny side of the trees, and soon were listening to the musical dripping in the pans. The bees smell the sap and hover near; sugarloving bugs settle on the spiles; squirrels come to sip it; the cattle and sheep, unless watched, drink it eagerly, the silly sheep being so fond of it, they will, unless prevented, drink enough to kill themselves. Of course the boys take frequent toll as it sparkles in the pans. Sometimes they find a little orangecoloured salamander drowned in a bath of sap.

The boys frisked about the old "bush," almost as madly as did the calves in spring when let out into the barnyard. Everything was a fresh delight: the blue smoke rising in the crisp air, Phoebe announcing her name, Downy drumming his reveille to spring, squirrels snickering, and robins laughing and running about like happy children. John's cup of joy was filled to the brim; the pans were filled to the brim, too, on the days when it was good sap weather -when it froze at night and thawed by day, the contest between sun and frost so nearly equal as to make a kind of see-saw -- the sun seeming to draw the sap up, and the frost to draw it down.

The boys cut and gathered birch and beechwood for the fire, the sound of their axes ringing through the woods; they built and tended the fire, pushing up the burnt ends, and adding fresh logs from time to time. Sometimes when John was absorbed watching the wild geese flying northward, or a chipmunk frisking along the wall, he would be brought back to the work in hand by hearing Hiram shout for a piece of salt pork, whereupon he would make his legs " clappit " for the house, returning soon with the pork which he would throw into the foaming sap to keep it from boiling over.

Later in the afternoon they collected the sap, storing it in hogsheads from which the supply in the cauldrons was replenished. (Nowadays much quicker results are obtained by the more extended evaporating surface of large, shallow, rectangular pans.)

The boys got so they knew the capacity of the whole two hundred trees in the "bush," just as they knew the individual cows in their father's herd. Some stood in little groups or couples. Some climbed the hill, others strayed out in the sunny fields; a file of six or more stood sentry to the woods above. Besides the rank and file of the commoner trees, there were certain favourites. One of these, at the head of the spring, lifted a gaunt bare arm above the woods; it was a resting-place for hawks and crows, and in it, every year, a flicker reared her brood. Then there were the Siamese twins with their busby heads; and the two rough-coated brothers who stood in the forks of the wood-road embracing each other; and there was the old cream-pan tree which would run a cream-pan full while the others would be running only an ordinary pan full. Next to this, the best milcher in the lot was a shaggy, deformed tree on the edge of the field, while the poorest milcher was a short-bodied, heavy-topped tree near the run, which seldom gave more than a half gallon of sap in a season, but that sap was four times as sweet as sap from the other trees.

A sap yoke

A sap yoke

The cream-pan tree is gone long ago, but for many years its bones lay bleaching in the woods where they fell. Some of the old trees still stand like faithful friends, yielding their life-blood for the present generation, but at every visit to the old homestead in these later years, the boy that used to be notes with sadness others that have fallen, while the ranks are kept filled with many that his boyhood never knew.

On the second day's boiling they had the fun of making "jack-wax," or "lock-jaw": Boiling some of the syrup down to a waxy consistency, and dipping it out with a big spoon, they spread it on a pan of snow, and then the fun began! Armed with whittled sticks, or forks, they lifted the golden wax from the snow, twisted it round and round, and, on putting the toothsome gobs in their mouths, found their jaws pretty effectually locked for varying periods, depending on the size of the gobs.

A sap-run usually lasted about three days. The trees then had to be, as it were, wound up again. It had to come off cold before the sap would take a fresh start.

One hundred and fifty pails a day was a good day's yield from the Burroughs "sap-bush." Usually at the end of the second day's boiling, they syruped off: Carefully dipping the concentrated sweetness out into the pails, the men adjusted the sap-yokes, and, very gingerly, carried the heavy syrup down to the house in the gathering darkness, the boys going ahead with the lanterns. To stumble and spill a pail of syrup would mean spilling fifty pails of sap, and two pailfuls! -- but that is a calamity that never visited any worker in the Old Home " sap-bush. " The women folks strained the syrup while it was hot through an old home-spun sheet into a firkin, the next day reducing much of it to sugar over the fire, making it into cakes, but putting some in cans for immediate use on their buckwheat cakes. From three hundred to five hundred pounds was the average annual yield in the Burroughs "bush."

As the early bird catches the worm, so the early boy, boiling the first run of sap, reaped the shining coins.

When the sap first began to stir, before the buds swelled, or the grass greened in the meadow hollows, John, needing funds of his own, anticipated the general tapping in the bush, and gathered annually a little harvest from scattered trees along the sunny borders of the woods. The bees, knowing that the sap was mounting, were on hand for the first run also, and boy and bees worked diligently.

Carrying the sap to the house, John boiled it down in a deep kettle on the kitchen stove (for by that time the fireplace was not used except as a place to pile stove-wood in) much to the annoyance of his mother. Even when he did not let it boil over (which seldom happened), it was a nuisance to have him pottering about. He took great pains with it, reducing it about twelve times. After allowing it to settle for half a day, clearing it by pouring in a little milk, he ran it into small, greased, patty-pans, making little white cakes, pure as wax, and with a delicacy of flavour that only sugar from the first run can have.

Every spring when he appeared in the village with his little basket of white sugar-cakes, his customers hailed him eagerly. No one else made such white sugar, or got it to market so early. The money he earned from this industry looked bigger than any he has ever had since. One season he earned twelve silver quarters that way, and, carrying them in his pockets for weeks, jingled them in the faces of his envious schoolfellows, at intervals feasting his own eyes upon them. With some of that money he bought a little double-barrelled shot-gun. If the truth must be told it wasn't much of a gun-one barrel was bigger than the other, and one was not straight; sometimes it would go off, and sometimes it wouldn't, but it was a prized possession just the same.

One spring Curtis, deciding to compete with John in his early sugar-making, tapped some trees and proceeded to gather sap also. John, preferring a monopoly, proposed after one day's run to buy him out, so one morning offered him four cents for that day's sap. Curtis, always weather-wise, quickly closed the deal; but alas! that day the trees were on a strike; the sap wouldn't run. " It made a big hole in my reserve," said John; "I almost suspended specie payment."

One spring just after John had got his sugar made, a little sweetheart from the village, his Lowland Mary, came up to the farm to spend the day. He was very glad to have a sugar-cake to offer her, and stood by in bashful delight as she devoured it, but when she did not stop there, but ate more, and yet more, of his little cakes, he looked on ruefully, fearing his entire store would thus disappear; and he wanted that season's yield to bring him enough to 'buy an algebra!

What did the young Sap-gatherer of ten or twelve think and dream about in those far-off years under the maples while tending the kettles? Sometimes he beguiled the time by fancying himself going forth into the world as a young man, and acquiring great wealth, then returning to the old homestead in a splendid equipage, astonishing family and friends by his style and liberality. As he stood before the fire of the great arch and looked forth upon the homely familiar scenes, he pictured the look on his mother's face, the comments of his father, the envious glances of his school-fellows. We shall see later on how his dreams turned out.


About the most fun in summer was when Granther Kelly would come over the mountain from Red Kill to spend a few days. Some of these times he went fishing alone, but generally took John with him; when they saw him slip out into the garden without saying anything, taking along the hoe to dig for worms, they knew he was going alone; but on other days, when he said, "Johnny, get the bait," the lad knew he was to go along. "We'll go and get a powerful string of fish, Johnny," Granther would add, and the boy would hustle and get the worms or the grasshoppers. Then, reaching down his beech-pole, with creel slung on shoulder, Granther would start off, the boy close at his heels. (Their fish-lines, home-made, were of braided horse hair.)

How briskly the old man steps off! John has hard work to keep up with him! If they take a piece of rye bread and butter in their pockets, as a rule, John has his eaten long before he reaches the brook. They were usually gone three or four hours and 'most always came back with a "powerful" catch, and powerful appetites as well.

How coyly the old man throws in his hook! He knows just where the trout hide. How nicely he measures the distance, how dexterously he avoids the overhanging limbs!

" If the trout were not eager," John says, " Granther humoured them by seeming to steal by them; if playful, he matched their mood; if frank, he met them half-way. You see he baited his hook with his heart, so the fish had to bite! "

Sometimes Granther was magnanimous and surrendered the rod to the lad for a period all too brief, but fishing with Granther usually meant just tagging along, letting Granther have the most of the fun. Still he would not have missed it for anything.

The last time the two cronies went together, Granther was past eighty, but spry as a cricket. They went down in the Hemlocks that day and got a good catch. On the way back, stopping at a stone wall to rest, the old man, without knowing it, sat on the boy's hand as it lay on the top of the wall. It hurt, but John sat beside him motionless until he was ready to get up and walk on.

When Granther no longer went with him John used to go alone. His first solitary trouting was down in the Hemlocks, but he just went on the edge of the deep, dark woods, dropping his line in the first pool he came to, and standing where he could still look. back upon the sunlit fields. He felt no desire to penetrate alone into the gloom and mystery of those woods. The trout he took from that pool were big and black, but the shadows beyond were still blacker. Little by little, however, on each excursion, he pushed a little deeper into the woods, so that, after a year or two, he not only penetrated them, but also went on to the pastures and woods still farther away. Yet the fishing he liked best was in the meadow brooks with the gay buttercups and marsh marigolds around him, and bobolinks singing overhead. That was where he fished when he could get only a few hours off; when he had half a day, the Hemlocks was by far the favourite stamping ground ; but on the rare real holidays, with a whole day at his disposal, he went through meadows and pastures and beechen woods, three or more miles from home, to Montgomery Hollow. If the trout fever raged too fiercely, when no holidays were forthcoming, John was forced to play hookey, the good "catch" he usually had so pleasing his father that he escaped "catching it" on reaching home.

Planting a tree

Planting a tree

"Father was very fond of trout," he says nowadays, and when they came on the table, always selected my biggest ones for himself. Well, I'm glad he did, but I was not glad, then."He has always had the true angler's ardour; could never possess his soul in patience after getting within sight of the brook, but always had to run the rest of the way; and until he could make a few casts and perhaps get a fish or two, could never calm down enough to arrange his tackle properly.

I once went fishing with him and his brother over in Montgomery Hollow when both men were past threescore years. As we neared the stream, Mr. Burroughs began to fidget:

"Isn't it about time to get out, Curtis?"

"Not yet, John, not yet."

We drive on. Presently he suggests, more pointedly, "Curtis, I think this would be a good place to stop." But Curtis thinks we better drive on still further before going down to the stream, and the eager angler is on pins and needles at the delay. Finally, asking no more questions, nor standing upon the order of his going, he jumps from the wagon and plunges down to the mountain stream as though drawn there by a powerful magnet, as indeed he was. Well may he say that trout streams gurgled around the roots of his ancestral tree. "It looks as though I should never be too old to go afishing," he said somewhat apologetically the summer of his eighty-third year while eagerly getting his tackle ready for his June trouting in the Neversink.

We drive on. Presently he suggests, more pointedly, "Curtis, I think this would be a good place to stop." But Curtis thinks we better drive on still further before going down to the stream, and the eager angler is on pins and needles at the delay. Finally, asking no more questions, nor standing upon the order of his going, he jumps from the wagon and plunges down to the mountain stream as though drawn there by a powerful magnet, as indeed he was. Well may he say that trout streams gurgled around the roots of his ancestral tree. "It looks as though I should never be too old to go afishing," he said somewhat apologetically the summer of his eighty-third year while eagerly getting his tackle ready for his June trouting in the Neversink.


Previous Chapter | Back to the Index | Next Chapter


Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery