A trip back in time

My recent research on the history of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania has been enlightening, motivating, and fun. I appreciate more than ever having been born when I was, instead of in the 1800s. But I need something more: I’m such a visual thinker and my right brain wants pictures! I have several trips planned to satisfy that need. I got an unexpected preview last week.

On Wednesday, I went to the doctor for a regular checkup. I usually just phone to ask them to call my pharmacy and authorize refills on my prescriptions. I’m supposed to do that ten-fourteen days before I run out, so they have time to call the drugstore. No, patients cannot request refills online. And no, they won’t email requests to the pharmacy—by choice, they have no internet/email access. There is little about this practice that could be classified as cutting edge or high tech. I hadn’t been to see the doc in a year and figured I’d better show up in person, for a change.

The office is about eighteen miles from home, and another seventeen miles in the opposite direction to my pharmacy of choice. The tiny village (population in 2000: 2,130) probably has changed very little since the first settlers arrived in the early or mid-nineteenth century. Yeah, there are traffic signals and telephone wires and a health food store, among other things. But it is very definitely best described as a quaint, small town in rural Ohio. Its entire claim to fame: a nationally known ice cream manufacturer has a quaint and old-fashioned restaurant there (the ice cream menu is spectacular).

The route from my house to the doctor’s office is along two-lane, hilly country highways that wind through Amish country. It was a perfect day: clear blue skies, moderate temperatures, and light enough traffic that I could take my eyes off the road occasionally to see what was going on in the “hood.”

Only a couple of miles from home, I saw an Amish woman plowing a field. A large horse pulled the plow on which she was seated. There were no men in sight. There was no traffic on the road and no ‘city noise.’ There was only a plowed field with lush green woods behind it; the horse; the plow; and the farm woman. Other than the sound of my car–peace and quiet! For an instant, a split second, I was in a different time and place.

It wasn’t the first time that I’ve seen farm work in progress around here. But it was the first time I’ve seen it when I was writing an historical novel and looking for visual impressions to use in a book.

The woman was dressed as traditional Amish women always dress. Simple fabrics; some color, but usually only solids—no patterns. Long skirts, long sleeves, and—in this case—a bonnet exactly like the one I inherited along with all the old family photos and papers. It struck me that what I was seeing was exactly what I would have seen on the farms where my family lived, after they bravely left the civilized east coast to claim the land in the wilderness that was their only payment for military service in the Revolutionary War.

They headed west toward the frontier, to an unknown and untamed wilderness in what later became Pennsylvania.  Everybody plowed, chopped down trees for wood to build log cabins, and for heat and cooking fires. They cleared the land for planting and for pastures so they could produce, rather than hunt for, food. They defended themselves against the native American ‘savages’ who were really upset about having their land stolen out from under them. And they fought off frightening wild animals that have long-since vanished from the landscape. They took the first steps toward civilizing a largely unexplored wilderness, and the generations that followed continued their work.

The woman on the plow showed me exactly how any woman, of any religion and on any farm, would have looked back then. Respectable women always covered as much flesh as possible with long skirts, long-sleeved and high–necked blouses, and high boots. The only flesh visible was on their hands and faces. Everything else was covered; it was the only decent way to dress in public. I’m assuming they took the sunbonnets off in the house. Snapshot permanently saved to the hard drive in my brain.

I saw, not for the first time, the one-room schoolhouse that the local Amish children still attend, and Amish men—alone or in pairs—working the fields with their horses. I slowed down at least a half-dozen times until it was safe to pass horse-drawn buggies making their way up the road.

That’s not unusual around here. Even on days when automobile traffic is light, extra caution is required when going over hills or around blind curves: there is no way to know in advance when you will suddenly come upon a carriage moving at four or five miles an hour.

I was returning from town a month or so ago and, as I rounded the last curve before the last big hill before my street, I saw a carriage in front of me. Most of the time, the drivers are extremely courteous and pull as far to the right as they can to allow cars to pass. This time, since we were heading uphill and couldn’t see what was on the other side, the buggy stayed in the middle of the lane. I slowed down and stayed behind it.

When the driver reached the top of the hill and could see that there was no on-coming traffic, he pulled to the right and waved me ahead… letting me know it was safe to pass. As I approached my street, I saw the carriage pull into the pizza shop… the only one within seven miles. I’d be so disillusioned if I thought the guy had phoned his order in before hitching up the horse!

I could give you a whole list of reasons I don’t like living in the country. But last Wednesday, I would have given you a single reason why I believe I’m supposed to be here, at least until I finish writing this particular book: there are moments when it provides the closest I’ll ever get to a trip back in time!

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3 down, 3 to go…

I must be making progress, since three of the six books I checked out of the library will be checked back in when I head into town this week.

The Chalmers Pancoast Story didn’t hold much promise when I initially looked through the front matter, although I was fascinated by the will of one of Pancoast’s long-gone ancestors, signed on November 30, 1694.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm, I forced myself to read on, and am glad I did. Pancoast’s memories of his time growing up in Ohio contain stories full of information about the activities of small-town boys. Although he was born twenty years before my father was, I don’t think things changed that much between the two generations regarding how kids amused themselves.

The second half of the book is devoted largely to his life after his newspaper reporter days. Most of it was fun to read, although of little relevance to my research. For example, he has a lot of stories about his hometown, both in his youth and as the place he returned to after his wife’s death—the place where he spent his final years.

The town, Newark, is the closest town to my current location and the place I do most of my shopping. Chal would be happy to know that, although it has changed and grown a great deal since his death, it remains a friendly small town.

I was less interested in other material, particularly his active participation in his favorite charitable group in New York when he lived there. But all in all, it was an enjoyable read and a fascinating look back on a life filled with accomplishments and certainly never dull.

The Country Undertaker’s Wife, by Cora Dodd. (Still Waters Press. Indiana. 1993), is providing information that will be useful and is fun to read. It’s mostly about how people living in the country, far from big cities that might have offered alternative practices, prepared, displayed, and buried their dead. The book is largely a series of tiny stories about some of Mrs. Dodd’s experiences. Some of them are rather surprising, and many are funny or ironic. There is nothing much about her day-to-day life other than her participation in her husband’s undertaking business. A few examples follow.

Another story is told of a wicked man who died and he, too, was taken to the church for the funeral. The minister was literally opening the Pearly Gates and pushing him through with his eulogy when the wife of the deceased (more…)