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  • Mj Pettengill

From the Author's Pen: The Fourth of July at the Poor Farm


Image, Harper's Weekly, Public Domain
Image, Harper's Weekly, Public Domain

So, what did they do to celebrate July 4th on the County Poor Farm? Did they acknowledge it, or was it just another day? Finding out was another quest. Writing this series has opened so many doors, quenching my thirst for knowledge. This curiosity is still thriving as I continue to write the fourth book. I love the learning. The following excerpt is part of one of my favorite chapters in Down from the Tree. But honestly, I say that about so many of them. (MjP)

JULY 4, 1878 County Poor Farm Ossipee, New Hampshire The room quieted when Moses shuffled in with thick clouds of smoke swirlin’ in his wake.

“Now folks,” he said. “Tonight is a special night. If you remember, we’ll have a fire and sing songs. The Methodists will be bringin’ some lemonade. Then, it’ll be time for bed; there’s work to be done tomorrow.”

Some of the grandmothers looked up, while the others continued to eat. The men tried to hurry through the line, and the women in yellow had no expression either way.

Mrs. Carter—bent with age and nearly blind—let out a good holler. “Let’s sing for the good of the country.”

“I say we sing a tune for those who fought the Rebs,” Mr. Smith said, wavin’ his tremblin’ hand in the air.

“A great many of our men and boys never returned. We shan’t forget,” Mr. Eastman said.

“Maybe we can bring comfort to those souls that still grieve,” Mrs. March said.

“I say we forget about trouble for once,” Mrs. Smith, a tolerable old spinster, and pretty good type spoke up.

“She’s right,” Lidie said.

Then everyone started talkin’ and shoutin’ all at once. I looked beyond them and set my eyes on Agnes, who sat there with her fingers in her ears.

The room fell silent when Elam’s bowl crashed to the floor. “Elam no like… no like.” He began to cry.

“Look what you did, you clumsy idiot,” Polly said. Of course, she pinched his ear and forced him to bend down and pick up the bowl.

“No! Elam no like! You hurt Elam!” He threw himself down, swingin’ and kickin’ at Polly.

Billy Peavy and George raced over, grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, and dragged him down the hall, towards the old rotten’ stairs that led to lock-up.

Moses said nothin’; he just sucked on that pipe, makin’ it gurgle most unpleasantly. Silas walked in just as the men yanked Elam through the door. I dismissed the image of Mamma tellin’ me to mind my P’s and Q’s. But she wasn’t there to stop me, and there wasn’t anything that would prevent me from runnin’ after them. Elam needed another boy to stand up for him.

My plate crashed onto the floor when I pushed away from the table. I had no stomach for what was sure to be a brawl. The pitch of the crowd rose up as folks continued to fight over which songs to sing, and how great we were after the war.

I recalled Mamma’s stories about men killin’ men. It’s an evil thing. That’s all war is, Samuel. It’s the self-important men sendin’ the common folk out to kill and be killed. No good ever comes of it. It’s just another example of how we have yet to learn how to truly listen to each other and solve our differences without violence, she’d say. Since her papa never came home from the war, she learned from her Grampa Wills and from the stories of those who returned with empty souls and hollow eyes. Most importantly, her thoughts of war were a matter of her own soul. She told me about her own papa bein’ shot straight through the heart. Sometimes women and children died too. And then there was somethin’ about colored folks and slavery. Was Caesar a slave? Was he free or not?

There was so much that I didn’t understand, not back then, and not as I write this now. But one thing I knew for certain was that talk about killin’ and slavery should get folks’ ears wide open. How could anyone be proud? What did it mean to win or lose?

As I saw it, everyone lost. Because, beyond the fence, they never seemed to sort it out. So, rather than fixin’ things once and for all, they just keep buryin’ them, hopin’ for them to stay hidden in time. Samuel Hodgdon II

Excerpt: Down from the Tree, Book Three