Litchfield County Sketches

By Newell Meeker Calhoun

Litchfield County University Club
1906

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XVII
The Yankee Farmer


IT is not so very long ago that the larger part of our population in Litchfield County were farmers. The minister, the doctor and the judge each had his own farm, larger or smaller, which he cultivated either directly or by proxy. The cultivation of the soil was the principal means of livelihood, and hence all were interested in it. There was no subject talked of more at the corner store on week days, and under tl1e horse sheds on Sundays, than the crop prospects, the improvement of the soil, the exchange of farms, and matters more or less directly connected with them. The manufacturing villages along our water courses are the growth of the last generation or two. The farmer in our county is still in the majority, but he is not flow always a Yankee farmer. The ends of the earth have been drawn upon in the cultivation of the Litchfield County farms. It was not so fifty years ago. The foreign population then was small and confined very largely to hired laborers. To speak of the men of our county as farmers, at the close of the war or earlier, would have well described them. Let us draw the character sketch of those forebears of ours, that we may see what kind of men they were.

Families growing up in isolated localities, and outside of the great world currents, will naturally present much of originality. The Pilgrims—the original New Englanders—put themselves thus outside of those influences which were shaping character and life in the Old World, causing theirs to be cast in new and strange moulds. As a class our New England farmers were in appearance stern and austere. Their views of the Divine sovereignty, and their experience in wresting from the soil a livelihood, had helped to make them so. They were not demonstrative, and were not given to the display of their affections or emotions. If there was a law in Connecticut forbidding a man to kiss his wife of a Sunday, it did not so much matter, for he was not given to kissing her very much on any day of the week. He did not weep often, and when he did weep it was not in the sight of men. His moral nature predominated rather than his feelings. He was not emotional; his nerves did not lie near the surface. He was true to his family, his Church and his country, although he would not boast of it, taking it all as a matter of course. He was not a man of words so much as of thought and of deeds. Like the electric needle, pointing always to the pole in silence, so our Yankee farmer pointed toward righteousness and truth without the blare of trumpets. He was not a copy of any living man, but resembled John the Baptist more than the Christ. The country solitude had impressed itself upon him. He knew that he was the forerunner of those who should come after, and the laying of the foundations of a millennial Church and State was serious business. He had a strong physique, and could endure almost any amount of hard work and nervous strain. This in itself was of great worth to him and has been of value to his children. He was brainy, not bookish, and thought out his work and worked out his thought. He made his thin soiled farm pay him because he fertilized it with brains and pulverized it with muscle, and that kind of farming would make a Litchfield County farm pay to-day. He did not own or read many books—a small shelf would hold them all— but he knew one Book from cover to cover. He had not much time for reading, but much time for thought. He was not aesthetic, hut loved and appreciated the beautiful, and his soul was often stirred by it. One of his number looked over the artist’s shoulder as he was finishing a beautiful landscape and said, “Yes, sirree, I like ‘em, and thar ain’t nobody that appreciates them better ‘an I do, an’ I do believe if I hed a hundred thousand dollars I’d be pesky fool enough to buy some of them things.”

The Yankee farmer was a natural theologian. Tile thrived on Calvinism and “Edwards on the Will.” His sermons must he dogmatic, dealing with those profound questions of the Divine sovereignty and human freedom. On the other hand, his religion was often as heartfelt and simple as a child’s. He was opposed to all priestcraft and ecciesiasticism, and suffered no man to lord it over God’s heritage. The minister must be one of the members of the local church, chosen and ordained by it, and hence he was one among equals. He could not abide a dark church edifice, but loved the old white meeting house. Stained glass, ministerial millinery and all rituals were an abhorrence to him. He would not observe Christmas even, lest it should savor of popery. He would call no man master in Church or State, and had no respect for kings or bishops save as men. He is usually classed as conservative, but it would be nearer the truth to call him a radical in both politics and religion. That, indeed, was proven by his cutting away both from Church and State in the Old WTorld and here founding the new order of things. He clung to the old so far as he thought it good, but was ever reaching out after the new and the better. New England has led the world in radicalism for two hundred years, and most things that are new start east of the Hudson River. The Yankee fanner was practical, persevering, courageous. As Martyn said of the Pilgrims, so it might be said of him: “Doubt and hesitancy were dropped from his vocabulary. ‘I dare not’ never waited on ‘I would.'" Stern necessity inculcated courage and made him inventive and progressive.

Our farmer of the old days had not much ready money, for the farm produce was in the main exchanged at the country store for such things as he could not produce. His farm might be worth a few thousand dollars, but the family was usually large, and strict economy and thrift were demanded. He saved so closely that he was often called stingy and mean. This was carried at times to the verge of dishonesty, if not clear over. The best apples may have had a tendency to get to the top of the barrel, but when did they ever have any other tendency? He may not always have given “good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over,” but his pound was a fair pound and his bushel a fair bushel, ordinarily. This much can be said: when he was generous it was not with other people’s money. He sat in the gallery at times to save pew rent, and laid himself open to the charge of stealing his preaching. However, he is readily excused, since preaching is not a bad thing to steal.

The Yankee farmer was characterized as a shrewd guesser. Ask him a question, and the only answer might be, "Wal, I guess so,” or “I guess not.” This word “well” served as many purposes as the German word “so.” He was sharp eyed, quick to see through things, and “take a sense” of them, as we say. His wit was more like that of the Scotch than like that of any other people. Accosted one day by some smart young fellows, who thought to make game of him by asking him if he believed that Balaam’s ass really spoke as the• Bible indicated that it did, his reply was, “Wal, I do’ know as it is any harder to believe that the ass spoke like a man than it is that men speak like asses.” A visiting Englishman was greatly impressed by the severity of a thunderstorm, and accosting an old resident said, “Isn’t this pretty severe thunder and lightning?” “Yes,” answered the farmer, “considerin’ the number of the inhabitants.”

Conscientiousness was his prominent characteristic. He lived in a realm where God and conscience reigned supreme. He would do what he thought was right, though the heavens fell. An appreciation of the Divine righteousness and the desire to walk according to the Word of God were his in large measure. Two things he prized and worked for unwearyingly—his church and his school. He planted them side by side, and wrought ever for their highest usefulness. These two institutions have made our country what it is, showing that those rugged men and women were far seeing and prophetic. They were wont to take a long look ahead, and built for the generations yet unborn. They felt the responsibility that rested upon them, and did not live in ease and pleasure, but sacrificed for the highest good of their generation and the untold generations that should come after them. They were benevolent, and opened their hearts and their pocketbooks for the establishing and maintaining of missionary work at home and abroad. Their benevolence was not measured by what they had, but they denied self in order that they might have something to give. It was no uncpmmon thing for a family to go without certain articles of food for the purpose of laying aside the value of them for missions. Butter they would deny themselves for weeks at a time, so as to give more for the doing of the Lord’s work at home or abroad.

The Yankee farmer was a lover of liberty as well as a lover of God. Carrying his musket to church did not seem incongruous to him. Holding the town meeting in the vestibule of the church, or in the church itself, was to him a proper use of the House of God. Both his religion and his government were worth fighting for, or dying for if need be. He left the plough in the furrow and obeyed his country’s voice, and the dust of Yankee farmers fills soldiers’ graves oftentimes unknown and unmarked. Some who read these lines will recall those men and boys, from the farms of Litchfield County for the most part, who marched forth so bravely as the Nineteenth Regiment, Connecticut Volunteers. Their history was written in their blood ‘On the hardfought battlefields of the Southland. A remnant only returned, and even those had given their best strength and vitality to their country.

They are gone for the most part, those old-fashioned men and women who used to live on the hilltops and in the valleys, and a new generation has faken their places, and the world will never see their like again. Their simple manners, kindly ways and gentle, homely lives are of the past. We may have greater men and more liberally educated women, but we shall have no better. The Pilgrim blood is thin and blue, and runs but feebly through the veins of those of to-day. It has even come to pass that men who owe all they have and all they are to a New England parentage are found sneering at the old faith and manners. That which the Sons and daughters of these Yankee farmers have accomplished at any time or anywhere has been because of that heritage of body and brain, heart and soul which has come to them from their ancestry. The most successful business men, the brightest lawyers, the most skilful physicians, the most learned statesmen and the best and truest ministers of the Gospel have come of this old stock. The cities and the great West have been replenished and made fruitful from the rocky farms of Litchfield County. What is to become of the nation if this supply shall cease altogether? Rivers may for the present be beautiful and strong, but what would they be without the fountains high up among the hills? The splendid rivers of thought, of invention, of commercial and business life, of benevolence,’ charities and education would be comparatively small and worthless without these fountains among the granite hills of New England. It certainly is becoming for those who love their country and their fellow men to pray that the kindly dews of heaven may so fall upon these beloved hills of ours that these fountains of usefulness and power may not wholly cease, and that the promise may be fulifiled, “Instead of thy fathers shall be thy children, whom thou mayest make princes in all the earth.”

Whittier, who perhaps understood the New England people and character better than any other of our poets, and who gave us his thought about them so beautifully in “Snowbound,” may utter for us our closing word:

“Clasp, Angel of the backward look
And folded wings of ashen gray
And voice of echoes far away,
The brazen covers of thy book;
The weird palimpsest old and vast,
Wherein thou hid’st the spectral past;
Where, closely mingling, pale and glow
The characters of joy and woe;
The monographs of outlived years,
Of smile-illumed or dim with tears,
Green hills of life that slope to death,
And haunts of home, whose vistaed trees,
Shade off to mournful cypresses
With the white amaranths underneath.
Even while I look I can but heed
The restless sands’ incessant fall,
Importunate hours that hours succeed,
Each clamorous with its own sharp need,
And duty keeping pace with all.
Shut down and clasp the heavy lids;
I hear again the voice that bids
The dreamer leave his dream midway
For larger hopes and graver fears:
Life greatens in these later years,
The century’s aloe flowers to-day!"


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