Litchfield County Sketches
By Newell Meeker Calhoun
Litchfield County University Club
IT all depends upon how you spell it. If as above, you are to the manner born, and know the luxury of huckleberry pie, or a bowl of bread and milk, black with fresh picked berries. If you spell it “whortleberry,” you are from the city, and from a.ny county in the State save Litchfield. Your knowledge of the berry is derived very largely from the dictionary. I shall hear you call blueberries huckleberries, and declare when you have tasted them that you like one just as well as the other. That is the shibboleth that shall betray your place of birth.
They grew, those luscious berries, by the roadside on the way to school, and we lunched on them in the morning and picked and took them home for our supper at night. They grew by the side of the pond where we fished, and refreshed us at intervals when the perch and bullheads would not bite. The boy was sure of a bite, anyway. During the month of August, when they did most abound, we fairly lived upon huckleberries. Memory recalls the theological student who returned from the Green Mountains, where he had preached during his first vacation, living in the mean time upon salt fish, hard boiled eggs and soda biscuit, very, very rich in soda. This thin, lank, half-famished young preacher, taking bitters for his indigestion, came down to the old farm in Harwinton—that good old huckleberry town— where his sister turned him out to grass and huckleberries. Tradition hath it that he gained eight pounds in twice as many days, and went back to New Haven fully able to digest Harris’s “Systematic Theology” and Hoppin’s “Homiletics.”
Harwinton has as fine huckleberry fields as any town in the county. It has also a large Congregational church, which dominates all the landscape, as it did the thinking of the sturdy farmers who thronged to its worship on Sundays. Its capacious galleries were full of the boys and girls, while the rear gallery held the men singers and the women singers, who sang a lifetime to the worshippers below. They did not mince matters, but sang with the spirit and the understanding, while the congregation faced about, turning its back upon the minister, the better to enjoy the fine work done by its musical men and women. In those days there was nothing that could be called congregational singing.
You may still pick huckleberries on the hills and catch trout in the brooks, while the old church keeps guard over its three graveyards, looking across and up and down the valley, but alas! when the bell rings only a handful of worshippers assemble, and the choir is but a ghost of its former self. “Mary Abijah’s” wonderful voice is heard no more, and the congregation now gives heed to the minister even during the singing. The Huntington chapel—a gem in granite—in memory of the mother of a millionaire, is likely in time to be the church edifice, although the congregation of a half century ago could not have gotten within its doors. Some of the fathers sleep in the hillside graveyards, but some joined their children in city homes, and these old places that once knew them so well know them no more. Strangers have become their ploughmen. But the prophecy has had an unheard of fulfilment, for strangers and aliens own many of the old farms, and a half dozen languages are spoken in the presence of the ancient huckleberry bushes.
The city lady once on a time came to Harwinton to regain health and vigor through breathing pure air, drinking real milk and eating fresh country fruit and vegetables. She had heard of the delights of huckleberrying and must needs go herself. She was driven over a rough, stony wood-path to the old pasture lot, disturbing her fitness of things and likewise her liver. Her country hostess fell to the task of picking the delicious berries, bending lovingly above the bushes or kneeling adoringly before them, or camping down in front of them on cool grass and not so cool stones. The sun beat upon her, but she heeded it not; the bushes scratched her hands, she expected it; the snakes wriggled away, she let them wriggle. She came for berries, and berries she would have. But what of the city lady? Getting around among the bushes was “just horrid.” She would surely tear her skirts. Then, too, the sun was so hot, and it tired her to bend over. She was sure there were dreadful snakes in the bushes. Behold her, then, sitting on a pile of carriage cushions under the shade of an umbrella, picking daintily frOm the bushes which her faithful attendant had broken off and brought to her! This despite the fact. that both bushes and green berries were sacrificed. But she was getting what she came for—health. The soft air fanned her pale cheek, the brook sang its best Summer day song, in low pitched key, the cicadea rasped out their shrill advertisement that the day was hot and they were happy, the fragrance of the new-mown hay came from an adjoining meadow, while the far-away hills were brooded over by the farther away blue sky.
The whole family at the old farm house sometimes go huckleberrying. Father is so nearly through haying that he will go and drive. Dinner shall be taken along, and a camp kettle and coffee pot. This time the pasture lot is on a hilltop, whence the kingdom of Litchfield County can be seen and the glory of it. Yonder is Town Hill, in New Hartford, with the white steeple of its ancient Congregational church, forsaken in these later years by its congregation, but well oared for by its lovers. Under its shadow Tracy Pitkin, Yale graduate, Chinese missionary and martyr, played and nourished his heroic soul. It matters not where his body rests, since his work was so nobly done, the story of which you may read on that marble monument beneath the dome of Memorial Hall, at New Haven. Before he died he dedicated his little son to the cause of Christ his Master in China.
From this same hill so near the sky line, where we went to find huckleberries but are finding something better, you may look across the valley to the northwest and see the spire of the Torringford church, which overshadowed the house in which Samuel J. Mills was born—he of the haystack, and Andover, and Africa. President Griffin of Williams said of him that at least five missionary societies were born in his mind and heart. The father of the American Board of Foreign Missions, the inspirer of his generation, with a noble desire to fulfil the command of the Lord, and the pioneer in African missions, he grew up in a humble parsonage, and left the rich legacy of his life for others to perfect with their faith and self-sacrifice. You are indeed near sacred ground in your huckleberry patch.
When the family goes berrying the most important function is the dinner. The fire is built between two stones, the coffee pot prepared and set boiling, and the contents of the kettle—boiled corn and potatoes—served with the cold meat. Beneath the shade of a stormbeaten, ice-broken old chestnut we eat, drink and are thankful, having for a dessert a dish of berries covered over with real cream—a dish fit for any son or daughter of these magnificent hills.
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