[Reminiscences of childhood in Wickford, Rhode Island, ca1840s]
On the eve of the Nativity, the windows of the church are ablaze with lighted candles in every pane, and the country around is attracted by the grand illumination.
Through all of my childhood, there was never a Christmas Eve without this commemoration. The service in church, with jubilant song, and solemn, yet hopeful, sermon, seemed a sacred prelude to the bright morn when Christ the Lord was born, and the feast was kept in all its fulness. I can never cease to feel the hallowing influence of the old time Christmas seasons in St. Paul's, Narragansett.
The marks of the profuse decorations are still visible on walls and pillars. No one regarded it as a defacement to drive nails everywhere if only the end were attained, and the house of God was made beautiful. The prints are suggestive to us, who can fill out the artistic designs.
During most of the earlier New England winters, the lanes leading to the old church, were white
and crisp with snow. Merry sleigh bells saluted the ear, as the parishioners came from far and near, to keep holy day.
Sometimes the frost and cold were so severe, and the paths so untrodden, that the worship was held in the rector's parlor, as it used to be in the Glebe house.
About the centre of the main street, opposite what is now Wall Street, and next to the Wickford House, was the residence of the rector. It is a gambrel roofed, two story and attic building, with an "Ell," which has been added, since occupied by strangers.
After some years of roving from tenement to tenement, the "Dominie" anticipated a portion of his patrimony, and purchased with it a positive home for his family, where holy and happy associations might cluster and be fixed. When the wind was fierce, and snow and sleet were driving furiously, a few of the nearest neighbors used to assemble around the rector's hearthstone, for prayer and praise. I can hear the wailing sound of the wind through the key hole, mingling weirdly with the Tones of the quaint spinette, and the accompanying
voices. The old-fashioned fireplace sends forth a cheery blaze, the logs sparkle and crackle, and the polished brasses reflect serious faces. The gravity of their elders influences the children, who suppress all mirthful impulses, and deport themselves as becomes the day and the occasion.
A description of this New England home in those earlier times, may not be amiss. To many of the present generation the things that were to me precious realities, seem mythical.
The mode of life is now so entirely different, and household arrangements and utensils are so essentially changed.
In my earliest childhood, the gaping chimney places made fresh and healthful the air of the living rooms, and sleeping apartments. In summer we filled them with evergreens, or ferns, or the red berried asparagus; and in winter the glowing flame and coals were wondrously attractive.
What suggestions in the long black crane with hooks and trammels; the hanging pots with savor of good things to come; the iron bake kettle with blaze beneath, and live coals on top, and browning biscuits peeping out when the cover was raised an
inch for the purpose of inspection; the Dutch oven on the hearth, with goose or turkey, or other tempting fowl, odorous of sweet herbs and spices, as the crisping process goes on, making impressive the proverb in Lorna Doone, "The joy of the mouth is the nose before."
The old hearthstone has other recollections for us. There, before the lucifer match was common, we made tiny splints from pine shingles, and dipped the ends into melted brimstone, and scorched linen to put in the tinder box, with flint and steel, so that in an emergency we might strike a spark, and be certain of a blaze, even though the curfew should fail, and the hidden coals be worthless and dead.
We had not one of those copper devices that some people used to put close against the chimney back, over the hot ashes; but the brands and living embers were always raked together at bed-time, and thickly overspread with ashes, and generally, this preserved the nucleus for the next day's fire.
When it failed, we either got a burning brand from one of our neighbors, or flint and steel created
the spark that lighted shavings and charcoal, and soon produced a brilliant result.
Often a loaf of brown bread had its bed in the hot ashes, and was drawn forth steaming and delicious for the early meal.
At eventide our father "hunted" apples on the live coals, for us, or roasted chestnuts, or popped corn. Never mind if he was a grave clergyman, with sober official duties to engage his highest thoughts and earnest attention. Like his divine Master he could stoop to embrace the children, and suit his benefactions to their simple and innocent desires. Whenever he could serve his family, without neglecting other claims, he was found in the domestic circle.
Inventive to an unusual degree, he made for his children toys that they could not have purchased. There are still preserved among us, perfect models of the old brown church, which it pleased him to construct when we were men and women, and when he himself was nearing the temple not made with hands.
Beside the old fireplace, in the gambrel roofed homestead, there hung leathern bellows, with brass
nails, and a long handled copper "warming pan," that tempered the cold sheets of our beds in the winter time.
It was no hardship to undress beside the fire, and run upstairs to jump into a nest so lovingly prepared.
If we had been good children during the day, our father never failed to put some token of his approbation under our pillows after we had fallen asleep, which proved next morning a pleasant greeting and happy stimulus. It was perhaps a very trifle; a sugar Gibraltar, a fig, some raisins or "conkles," a stick of candy. The motive magnified the gift, and made of it a great fortune.
My mind constantly reverts to that dining room hearth. It was there that the Dominie, at a moment's notice, produced "Shank's horses," upon which he trotted his babies, to their delectation, and where he played "Come ze Come" with the older offspring, or told stories to keep the young brood diverted, while the Dominess pursued some engrossing vocation.
It was there that we most frequently gathered when "Frigidata" drove us indoors, to spend our
evenings in close companionship with one another, and it was there that we not only had games and various amusements, hilt also lessons and profitable converse, that would help and bless us through all of life.
At this crowning season of the year the old chimney gave best, most marvelous cheer, and the little funny man with frost-covered beard, came down amid the soot, and left treasure for us while we slept and dreamed bright, happy dreams.
In summer time the earthern furnaces were placed in the chimney or out of doors, that the deadly fumes might prove harmless. Anthracite had not as yet become a general article of fuel. Great, hooded carts went up and down the village streets, their blackened drivers crying out their welcome commodity, "Charcoal! Charcoal!"
It was so easily kindled! Besides the portable coal furnace, sometimes the "gypsy kettle" hung on its tripod, and, heated by blazing fagots, cooked potatoes for the swine, or helped the housewife with her soft soap, that old time, invaluable concoction from lye and the refuse grease. It was no
small task to meet the demands of New England housekeeping in that day.
In the autumn especially, there were Herculean preparations for the cold season. The larder must be richly supplied. Dried apples and dried pumpkin, with all sorts of preserved fruits; sweet corn, and pickles; corned beef, and pork; spare rib; and tenderloin; head cheese, and souse; salted scraps, and long links of stuffed sausages; mince pies, piled high on the store-room shelves; firkins of apple sauce; "sounds and tongues;" mackerel and herring. All required the personal thought and supervision of the female, as well as the male head of the family.
Then came quiltings, making of comforters and thick woollen garments for the wintry reign.
The changing seasons brought busy work to the New England rectory, where the golden god was chary of his favors, and every inmate had to lend a helping hand for the well being of all.
So far as style and luxuriousness of furniture concerned, it was a very simple age. The painted or sanded floor was common for back rooms, and an ingrain carpet for the parlor prevailed in most
families, until gradually all the rooms were covered, some with "Venetian," others with rag, and by-and-by a Brussels made its entree here and there, though that frugal rectory never arrived at such dignity.
It was a pleasant home, with all its self-denials; plenty of room, an unstinted table, health, joy, and love, abounding. What more could one want ?
The front entry of the old house was so spacious, compared with most vestibules in village homes, that we rightly dubbed it "Hall," and sat there at twilight, with our guests, looking out upon the water opposite, and the boats gliding through the Channel.
On the ledge of the staircase were two fire- buckets. A law of the Rhode Island Colony, in 1754, made it obligatory that every householder should keep two good leathern buckets, capable of holding at least two gallons each, with the owner's name painted legibly thereon, to be kept in some convenient place, under penalty of, at first, twelve shillings, but which finally reached five dollars. These buckets always hung or were kept in the
front entry, and were only used in case of fire, and
if no male person was in the house to take them, they were placed upon the front doorsteps to be used by the first passer by. They were annually inspected by the town sergeant, or one of the town constables, and a fine was imposed when they were in a useless condition.
Even after 1794, when fire engines were imported from London, the buckets were still in use, and passed by double line, from hand to hand, to be emptied and refilled. Hundreds at a time were sent over from Holland. They were very strongly made, stitched and bound, and lasted a long time.
After fifty years' absence I unearthed from the garret eaves of the old house in Wickford, two fire buckets with the name "L. Burge" as fresh as if just painted. It is a fashion nowadays to cherish the relics of the past, but unfortunately, most of the possessions of our early childhood were scattered before we could appreciate their future value, and can be recalled only by memory.
--Mrs. F. Burge Griswold, Old Wickford: "The Venice of America"
Milwaukee: The Young Churchman Co., 1900
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