Looking Back

Let's Have a Turtle Frolic

A diamond back terrapin. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When I lived in Ohio, my favorite restaurant was the Springfield Grille in Boardman, not least because they served an excellent turtle soup. While rooting around on the ‘net not long ago, I found this 1891 account of “Trapping the Terrapin. Various Methods of Trapping the Toothsome Turtle” Terrapins are small turtles usually found in fresh or brackish waters of the eastern U.S. Due to over-hunting, terrapins are scarce today so snapping turtle or sea turtle meat is used in soup instead.

But in the 1700s and 1800s, the terrapin population was still large, and folks of that time loved turtle; there are stories from those days of events called “turtle frolics” where attendees were served hot turtle soup from three-foot upturned turtle shells, while there are accounts of John Adams, George Washington and Abe Lincoln all enjoying savory bowls of the stuff. A famous Swiss physician, Samuel Tissot, wrote of the blood-cleansing properties of turtle soup in 1760.

The 1891 article points out that the terrapin is a swift and strong swimmer unless, being a cold blooded reptile, he is sluggish from cold weather. When the beasts are active, a trap made of coarse netting with an inward pointing funnel-like entrance at one end is used. Fish bait is put inside and the turtles enter through the funnel and can’t find their way out again. Part of the net trap must be above water so the turtle can surface to breathe air.

In the Chesapeake Bay area terrapin were hunted with dogs, of all things. A well-trained terrapin dog was said to be worth $100 and took at least six months to train. The dogs were used during the turtle spawning season when the critters left the water to lay their eggs. The dog would follow the water’s edge until he sniffed out a fresh turtle track, which he would then follow to the nest under some grass or bushes. When the dog located the egg-laying turtle he would put a foot on her back to hold her in place and bark loudly. The hunter would run up, grab the unfortunate amphibian and drop her in a gunny sack. The story claimed that “as many as fifty terrapins have in this way been caught by one dog in a single day.”

In some places hunters dug long shallow ditches in the marshes in the fall and, while the tide was out, stirred the bottoms of these depressions into a soft mud, into which the turtles would burrow, thinking they had found a good safe spot to spend the winter. When cold weather arrived, the hunter took a pitchfork and probed the mud. He could tell the difference between hitting a rock or a turtle shell and if it were the latter he dug it up, and into the bag it went.

Sometimes in winter when the turtles were sleeping peacefully beneath the mud under dead grass, cat-tails and reeds, the grass was set afire. The fire warmed the mud, causing the poor deluded terrapins to think spring had come early. They would burrow out of the mud and were summarily grabbed and popped into a sack.

In the Maryland and Virginia coastal area, during the summer terrapins lived in deep holes along the creeks. Several hunters in a boat would drift silently to the edge of one of these pools and suddenly begin hammering on the side of the boat with wooden clubs. Apparently, turtles are as curious as cats or cows and numbers of them would come to the surface to see what all the fuss was about. Of course the hunters were armed with long handled nets and scooped the hapless creatures into the boat.

Marketable terrapins were divided into three grades according to size. “Counts” were those whose undershell measured more than six inches. “Heifers,” also called “Scanty-Backs,” had shells between five and six inches, while “Bulls” or “Half-Backs” were less than five inches.

The article describes the only successful “Terrapin Farm” at that time, which was located at Roanoke, Virginia. There was an immense pond into which the tide ebbed and flowed through a screened sluiceway. Four to five thousand turtles were kept and were fed eight or ten bushels of fish and crabs twice a week. Early in June the females would leave the water and deposit anywhere from eight to twenty eggs, carefully covering them with sand. Some of the eggs hatched in around three months, although many waited until the following spring.

The hatchlings are described thus: “On his first appearance in the world a baby terrapin gives but little promise of his future epicurean greatness. He is half an inch in diameter, dirty, soft and helpless. He will not even venture to wet his toes in the water until several weeks old. The first winter of the little fellows’ lives they are packed in loose chopped straw and kept in a warm, dry place where they doze until awakened by the blue birds. In the spring they have each grown to the size of a quarter of a dollar, and are then turned into the pond to learn from the older fellows their future usefulness. Terrapins grow an inch a year, a Count being at least six years old.”      

I don’t know why eating turtle has so fallen out of favor — when I had my turtle soup at the Springfield Grille I’d sometimes get one for my family to taste it. They always said “Yes, that’s good,” but none of them ever ordered it for themselves. Possibly it’s not eaten because it’s not available at most places, and that may be due to the fact our ancestors ate so many of the critters that they’re now scarce, and expensive.

If I Had A Hammer

Cheney and Maydole ads from the January, 1936 issue of Hardware Age magazine

Almost every one of us has used a hammer (or a wrench, a pair of pliers, or even a rock in lieu of one), but who ever gave a thought to the history of the ubiquitous little tool? Not me, I know. Of course we all have vague images of crude stone hammers in our heads, but we’re accustomed to the really good ones available today. When a fellow uses a modern one all he has to worry about is hitting his thumb (I worked as a carpenter’s helper for a while as a teen-ager and one of the old-timers told me that a man couldn’t claim to be a carpenter until he’d lost his thumbnail three times) and not that the hammer head will fly off and bonk a co-worker on the noggin.

A couple of hundred years ago if you wanted a new hammer you went to the local blacksmith and had him make one for you. Depending upon his skill the hammer may or may not have been well balanced and/or tempered properly. Then it was up to you to whittle and fit a handle and secure it somehow to the hammer head, not an easy task.

It seems there are two men, both of them blacksmiths, who vie for the honor of being the first really good hammer makers in this country. One, David Maydole, was born in Scoharie County, NY in 1807 and was apprenticed to a blacksmith when fifteen. Maydole made his own hammers and while using them in his shop noticed that the heads would sometimes fly off the handles, or they would be too soft and mushroom, or else be too hard and split. He worked and experimented and finally by the early 1840s had solved these problems. He’d learned how to properly temper the heads for both strength and resilience, and after contemplating the extended eye of an adz, applied the same principle to a hammer by adding a tapered neck to the head that allowed the handle to be firmly wedged inside the head.

Now Maydole’s shop was in a small town with not much of a demand for hammers until, according to Maydole Company lore, a crew of carpenters came to town to build a new church. One of them had forgotten or lost his hammer and asked the blacksmith to make him “as good a one as you know how.” Maydole asked him if he’d be willing to pay as much as that good of a hammer would cost and the guy said he would, so Maydole made it. The carpenter paid and was thoroughly satisfied with his new tool, resulting in all the other carpenters coming to Maydole wanting similar hammers. The word got around town and before long a local shopkeeper ordered some to sell. The fame of the Maydole hammer spread, demand sky-rocketed, and by 1845, the Maydole Hammer Factory was in operation.

By the time David Maydole died in 1882 his company was said to be the largest hammer manufactory in the world and it continued to make hammers and edge tools up until 1957 when a fire put the firm out of business.

No such romantic story exists about the other hammer maker, Henry Cheney, who was born in 1821 in Otsego County, New York. He learned the blacksmith trade, developed a superior method of tempering steel and started to make handled hammers about 1845. Ten years later the factory was moved to Little Falls, NY, where it continued to make tools under the Cheney name, although under several different owners, until 1954.

Cheney’s main claim to fame was the nail-holding hammer for which he was issued a patent in 1867. The Cheney Patent Nail Holder had a small socket at the back, between the claws to hold a nail in a position to start it with a single blow. This innovation eliminated the need to hold the nail between the thumb and forefinger of the other hand, thus removing the risk to that vulnerable thumbnail and preventing the air from becoming blue around the job site.

I don’t recall what brand of hammer I used during my brief stint as a carpenter’s helper; however about 1960 I bought a Stanley Steelmaster straight claw hammer that I still have, and that has never shown a sign of the head loosening. Of course on the Steelmaster the head and handle are forged from one piece of steel and then the handle is wrapped with neoprene to give a cushioned grip.

Ain’t history fascinating?

What Bill Nye Knows About Farming

A Texas toad. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) 

In 1885, two of the existing farm implement papers at the time, Farm Implement, published by E.J. Baker, and Farm Implement News, merged under the editorship of Charles W. Marsh who, along with his brother William, invented the celebrated Marsh harvester. The first combined issue was that of April, 1885, and, even though humor was a rarity in the farm papers back then, it contained the following more or less humorous story.

During the past season I was considerably interested in agriculture. I met with some success, but not enough to madden me with joy. It takes a good deal of success to unscrew my reason and make it totter on its throne.

Agriculture has a charm about it which I cannot adequately describe. Every product of the farm is furnished by nature with something that loves it so that it will never be neglected. The grain crop is loved by the weevil, the Hessian fly and the cinch bug; the watermelon, squash and cucumber are loved by the squash bug; the potato by the potato bug; the cabbage and tomato by the cutworm; and so forth and so on, so that no plant need be a wallflower.

Well, I began early to spade up my angle-worms and other pets to see if they had survived the severe winter and found they had. They were unusually bright and cheerful—oh, the potato bugs were a little sluggish at first, but as the ground warmed up they pitched right in and did first rate. Along in April I had not seen a cutworm and began to fear they had perhaps perished in the past winter’s extreme cold.

One morning late in the month, however, I saw a cutworm come out from a cabbage stump and take off his muffler and ear muffs. He was a little stiff in the joints but he had not lost hope. I saw at once now was the time to assist him if I had a spark of humanity left. I searched agricultural papers, the encyclopedia and the almanac to see what farmers feed their blamed cutworms, but nary a word. I feared that I had brought but one cutworm through the bitter winter and now I was liable to lose him unless I could find what to feed him. I even askes my neighbors, who jeered and spoke sarcastically. Apparently all their cutworms had died last winter and they couldn’t stand to see me get ahead.

All at once I had a brain storm! The worm had wintered under a cabbage stalk; ergo, he was fond of that food. So I bought him two dozen red cabbage plants, at 50 cents a dozen. I had hit it! He was passionately fond of these plants and would eat down two or three in one night. He also had several sauerkraut festivals for his friends and I had to buy three dozen more cabbage plants.

By this time I had collected a large group of common scrub cut worms, early Swedish cut worms, dwarf Hubbard cut worms, and even some registered shorthorn cut worms, all doing well, but I thought, a little listless and bilious. As my squash bugs, currant worms, potato bugs, etc., were all doing well without care, I devoted myself almost exclusively to my cut worms. They were all strong and well but seemed melancholy with nothing to eat day after day but cabbages.

I therefore bought five dozen large tomato plants that the worms ate at the rate of eight or ten each night. In a week the cut worms had thrown off that air of ennui and languor that I had formerly noticed and were gay and light hearted. I got them some more tomato plants and then some more cabbage for a change. On the whole I was as proud as any young farmer who has made a success of anything.

Then one morning I noticed a cabbage plant still standing unmolested, and the next day it was still there! I was thunderstruck! I spaded up the whole patch but there wasn’t one worm. Just as I had become attached to them and they had learned to look forward each day to my coming, when they would almost come up and eat a tomato plant out of my hand, someone had robbed me of them. I was almost wild with despair and grief.

Just then I saw something move at the corner of the garden. It was bumpy and mostly all stomach but it had a foot at each corner. My neighbor said it was a warty toad. That critter had eaten up my summer’s work and had swallowed all my cunning little cut worms. I tell you, gentle reader, unless some way is provided whereby this warty toad scourge can be wiped out, I for one shall relinquish the joys of agricultural pursuits. When a common toad, with a bad complexion and no intellect, can swallow up my summer’s work it is time to pause.

I don’t know who Bill Nye was, but he told a pretty clever story.

Didja' Ever Watch An Ant?

Twain’s ant busy with his ancient grasshopper leg. (From the book A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain)

Did you ever watch an ant? I mean sit for a quarter hour or so and closely watch an individual ant at what he probably considers to be work—and work he does, although to my human eyes his strenuous efforts seem aimless and futile.

In 1880, Mark Twain published a book titled, “A Tramp Abroad,” about his travels in Europe. In it, he told in his inimitable way of watching an ant. I’ve edited it a little, but here’s Twain’s story, with which I agree entirely.

Now and then, while we rested, we watched the laborious ant at his work. I found nothing new in him—certainly nothing to change my opinion of him. It seems to me that in the matter of intellect the ant is strangely overrated. During many summers I have watched him, when I ought to have been in better business, and I have not yet come across a living ant that seemed to have any more sense than a dead one. I am persuaded that the average ant is a sham. I admit his industry, of course; he is the hardest-working creature in the world, but his leather-headedness is the point I make against him. He goes out foraging, he makes a capture, and then what does he do? Go home? No—he goes anywhere but home. He doesn't know where home is. His home may be only three feet away—no matter, he can't find it. He makes his capture, as I have said; it is generally something which can be of no sort of use to himself or anybody else; it is usually seven times bigger than it ought to be; he hunts out the awkwardest place to take hold of it; he lifts it bodily up in the air by main force, and starts; not toward home, but in the opposite direction; not calmly and wisely, but with a frantic haste which is wasteful of his strength; he fetches up against a pebble, and instead of going around it, he climbs over it backward dragging his booty after him, tumbles down on the other side, jumps up in a passion, kicks the dust off his clothes, moistens his hands, grabs his property viciously, yanks it this way, then that, shoves it ahead of him a moment, turns tail and lugs it after him another moment, gets madder and madder, then presently hoists it into the air and goes tearing away in an entirely new direction; comes to a weed; it never occurs to him to go around it; no, he must climb it; and he does climb it, dragging his worthless property to the top. When he gets up there he finds that that is not the place; takes a cursory glance at the scenery and either climbs down again or tumbles down, and starts off once more—as usual, in a new direction. At the end of half an hour, he fetches up within six inches of the place he started from and lays his burden down; meantime he has been over all the ground for two yards around, and climbed all the weeds and pebbles he came across. Now he wipes the sweat from his brow, strokes his limbs, looks around to see which is not the way home, grabs his bundle and starts; he goes through the same adventures he had before; finally stops to rest, and a friend comes along. Evidently the friend remarks that a last year's grasshopper leg is a very noble acquisition, and inquires where he got it.

Evidently the proprietor does not remember exactly where he did get it, but thinks he got it "around here somewhere." Evidently the friend contracts to help him freight it home. Then, with a judgment peculiarly antic (pun not intended), they take hold of opposite ends of that grasshopper leg and begin to tug with all their might in opposite directions. Presently they take a rest and confer together. They decide that something is wrong, they can't make out what. Then they go at it again, just as before. Same result. Mutual recriminations follow. Evidently each accuses the other of being an obstructionist. They lock themselves together and chew each other's jaws for a while; then they roll and tumble on the ground till one loses a horn or a leg and has to haul off for repairs. They make up and go to work again in the same old insane way, but the crippled ant is at a disadvantage; tug as he may, the other one drags off the booty and him at the end of it. Instead of giving up, he hangs on, and gets his shins bruised against every obstruction that comes in the way. By and by, when that grasshopper leg has been dragged all over the same old ground once more, it is finally dumped at about the spot where it originally lay, the two perspiring ants inspect it thoughtfully and decide that dried grasshopper legs are a poor sort of property after all, and then each starts off in a different direction to see if he can't find something else that is heavy enough to afford entertainment and at the same time valueless enough to make an ant want to own it.

I’ve watched many ants go through the same seemingly useless performance as Twain describes, although I once saw a group of carpenter ants that were actually cooperating and getting something done. They were digging a new hole in an old wooden framework behind my barn. As the digger ants cut out grains of sawdust and kicked them out of the hole behind them, a crew of bearer ants grabbed each grain in turn, carried it to the edge of the plank where it was dropped overboard onto the ground, and then returned for another load.

I reckon those carpenter ants had a good foreman.

Sam Moore

Waxing poetic down on the farm

Cartoon of cow and calf. [From an old issue of the Michigan Gargoyle, the University of Michigan student magazine]

There have been some great farmer poets over the years. Oh, not always famous, such as Scotland’s Robbie Burns, who was often called the “Ploughman Poet” and who once plowed up a mouse nest and wrote of the woes of the “Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,” that scurried, panic stricken, down the furrow ahead of the plow—anyone who has done much plowing has seen the same thing.

No, I mean a working farmer who might see or experiences something and feels moved to versify about that particular event. Some of these farmer rhymes are not particularly good or well written, but most are heartfelt and often funny.

To give some examples, here is one that I think I may have published in the past. In the July 27, 1893, issue of The Farm Implement News was the following unaccredited plaint that gives a glimpse of what the "Good Old Days" were like for some farm boys.




I'd like to be a boy again, without a woe or care,

with freckles scattered on my face, and hayseed in my hair.

I'd like to rise at 4 o'clock and do a hundred chores,

like saw the wood and feed the hogs and lock the stable doors.

And herd the hens and watch the bees and take the mules to drink,

and teach the turkeys how to swim so that they would not sink.

And milk about a hundred cows and bring in wood to burn,

and stand out in the sun all day and churn and churn and churn.

And wear my brother's cast-off clothes and walk four miles to school,

and get a licking every day for breaking some old rule,

and then go home again at night and do the chores once more,

and milk the cows and slop the hogs and feed the mules galore.

And then crawl wearily up the stairs to seek my little bed,

and hear Dad say, "That worthless boy! He doesn't earn his bread!"

I'd like to be a boy again; a boy has so much fun,

his life is just one round of mirth, from rise to set of sun.

I guess there's nothing pleasanter than closing stable doors,

and herding hens and chasing bees and doing evening chores.


There’s much controversy today about Daylight Savings Time, which was instituted during World War One. Farmers have never liked it because the cows, chickens, and other critters aren’t exactly clock watchers.

When, for the first time, the clock was set ahead one hour on April 1, 1918, the following poem was written by Alan L. Strang who was just ten years old. Alan was born in Spokane, Washington, August 18, 1908. The family moved to California in 1913 and settled in Redwood City. A description of the boy reads, “He had a gentle, loving disposition, was always frail and delicate and possessed a mental development far in advance of his years. He was taken to the Great Beyond January 29, 1919. The poems contained in this book were written prior to his tenth birthday. Considering the age of the author we feel that the work contains real merit, while the sentiment expressed betokens that patriotic spirit which never fails or hesitates when our country calls for men.”


How can we Fool the Rooster?


Our Rooster wakes at half-past five and crows with all his might,

He tries to wake the people up before the day is light.

When Daddy hears the rooster crow he knows he should awake

And light the kitchen fire, so Ma Can cook the Johnny cake.


Now, maybe we can fool my Dad that it's half-past five when it's half-past four,

And maybe the system's the best we have had to fool some thousands of people or more;


But, how can we fool that rooster?


I have always thought our rooster had a clock inside of his head,

And I don't know how we can fix it so we can set the clock ahead.

I asked my Dad, and he said to me, "Why, son, you surely know

A rooster's instinct wakens him and tells him when to crow."


Now the hands of the clock we can turn ahead, we can fool the people and feel content;

But the thing that worries me night and day, and on which my entire thought is bent


Is, how can we fool that rooster?


And finally this anonymous and slightly risque look at the life of a cow. It came from an old magazine called Die Veteraan Boer in the Afrikaans language, or The Veteran Farmer in English, which is dedicated to “Keeping alive memories of bygone farming days in South Africa.”  It just goes to show that cows are cows anywhere in the world.




I have just given birth to a heifer,                                If what I have heard is the truth sir,

Of pride and of milk I am full,                         Unnatural though it may seem;

But it’s sad to relate that my lacteal state                    A cow’s female passion is right out of fashion,

Was not brought about by a bull.                                And a bull is just a wonderful dream.


I have never been naughty I swear it,                          I know that the farm is a business,

In spite of the calf that I’ve borne,                               In which we must all pull our weight,

Like Farmer Brown’s tractor.                                     Well, I’d pull and I’d pull

I’m “Virgo Intacta.”                                                   For a strongly-built bull,

My regard for the bull is forlorn.                                 For this phony business I hate.


How drab is the cowyard and meadow,                     It mustn’t be thought that I’m jealous,

The cowshed seems empty and gray.                          There are things that a cow shouldn’t say,

The small bit of fun in the year’s dreary run,              But I’ll bet if I could, I most certainly would,

Science has taken away.                                              Return to the old-fashioned way! 

No. 179

The Bryan steam tractor owned by Justin Click of Lake Station, Indiana. (Photo by Sam Moore)

Talk about rare tractors – at the Wauseon, Ohio show some years ago, I saw a Bryan tractor, a large, conventional looking (at least from a short distance away) tractor of that era, although the engine block appeared to be huge. The tractor was owned by Justin Click of Lake Station, Indiana, and there's something very unusual about the Bryan, besides its rarity. 

George Alfred Bryan of Albuquerque, New Mexico, worked for the Santa Fe railroad during the early part of the twentieth century. His career with the SF encompassed every job one could perform on a locomotive, from wiping to firing and then operating the big steamers and finally, chief inspector. Based upon this experience, he became an expert on steam locomotives and seems to have become consumed with the idea of building lightweight steam vehicles using a liquid fuel, such as kerosene.

Bryan has a string of inventions relating to steam vehicles to his credit. He designed a burner that atomized and efficiently burned the fuel. He also developed a firebox that kept the flame separate from the boiler tubes, aiding in complete combustion and eliminating carbon buildup on the tubes, while allowing for quick steam buildup.

The flexible tubes themselves were bent into a zig-zag configuration and were connected at each end by a tapered plug and clamp arrangement that not only made the individual tubes easy to replace, but made the connection unlikely to develop leaks. Other patents related to how the engine should be mounted and the layout of a tractor chassis were issued to Bryan during the early 1920s.

According to The Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805 – 1942, Bryan built a steam car as early as 1913, which he tested in the mountains and heat of New Mexico. Apparently, it worked well and Bryan founded the Bryan Harvester Company in 1916 along with his father. However, New Mexico was a long way from supplies of steel and other raw materials and a pool of skilled labor, not to mention the large agricultural market they would need in order to sell their tractors, so, in 1918 the Bryan Harvester Company was moved to Peru, Indiana. 

It's unknown how many Bryan steam cars were actually built – most sources claim that only six were produced between 1918 and 1923, and several of these were built for Bryan Company officials. A photo of a 1922 model in the above mentioned catalog shows a typical four-door touring car of the 1920s, with wooden-spoke artillery wheels, a light colored body and black fenders, and big, nickel-plated headlights.

As far as the Bryan steam truck, it seems that a prototype was probably built during this period, but it never went into production; the early 1920s were a period of post-war recession, particularly on American farms.

The Bryan steam tractor apparently was slightly more successful than the car and truck. Again, it's a mystery as to how many were actually built (one account claims "hundreds were manufactured and shipped throughout the United States), but only a few have survived.           

As mentioned earlier, the Bryan steam tractor looks a lot like the average gas tractor of the day, and nothing at all like the big Case or Reeves steam traction engines. Out front is a large radiator which serves as a condenser for the steam boiler. In the engine compartment is a large, rectangular steel box, inside of which are the boiler tubes and beneath which is the kerosene burner. Unlike the steam traction engines we're used to seeing that operate at less than 200 pounds per square inch boiler pressure, the Bryan vehicles were designed to run at around 600 psi.

Just behind the boiler is a two-cylinder steam engine, mounted horizontally. A spur gear at the center of the engine crankshaft meshes directly with the first gear in the transmission gear train. The engine pistons are four inch bore and five inch stroke and operate at speeds of 20 to 800 RPM. Tractor ground speed can be varied between one-eighth MPH to seven and a half MPH. The Bryan tractor was never tested at Nebraska and was initially rated at 26HP on the drawbar and 70 on the belt, although the drawbar HP was later lowered to twenty. 

 A shaft driven from the transmission case runs along the left side of the engine and boiler and drives a fan behind the condenser. A large belt pulley on the right side, just inside the rear wheel, is driven from the transmission case.

Mr. Bryan also developed a home heating system that used his boiler. Apparently, he realized that steam powered vehicles were past they're "use by" date and opted to concentrate on the home heating business and other applications for his steam equipment.

Around 1925, Bryan changed the name of his firm to the Bryan Steam Corporation and gave up vehicles. The company still exists in Peru, today called Bryan Steam LLC, and still specializes in Bryan "Flexible Water Tube" boilers. 

It appears that there are only some half-dozen Bryan tractors in existence today and several of these are exhibited in museums, with only a couple in running condition; one appeared at the Rollag, Minnesota show several years ago, and belonged to Peter Mandt of Wahpeton ND, and the one owned by Justin Click that was exhibited at Wauseon.

I got some photos of the Bryan steam tractor while it was being filled with water and was standing there when they took off. As the driver advanced the throttle, the tractor moved off smoothly with just a faint chuff and a little steam from the exhaust.

The Vermifuge Bottle

Sam MooreDuring these days of doom, gloom and uncertainty, this little tale of a long ago cure for what ails you may bring a smile to your face. It was published in 1912 by C.A. Stephens, a prolific short story author, many of whose tales were published in The Youth’s Companion. One series concerned four or five cousins, all who had lost their parents in the Civil War, and who then came to live with Gram and Gramp on their New England farm. This was one of their stories which I’ve compressed to fit it into a blog format. — S.M.


Gram was a dear old soul, but she had fixed ideas as to the ailments of youngsters. Whenever any one of us had a cold or upset stomach she was always sure we were suffering from an attack of worms. She seemed to believe that the average kid was nothing but a thin shell of flesh and skin, enclosing hundreds, if not thousands, of worms! And drastic measures were necessary to keep this raging internal population down to the point where a child could survive.

For this, Gram had one remedy in which she had implicit faith and that was a huge spoonful of Van Tassel's Vermifuge, followed four hours later by two great spoonfuls of the castor oil of that period, an oily, rank abomination. As for Van Tassel's Vermifuge, it resembled raw petroleum, an evil, greenish-black, syrup almost too nauseous to swallow. It was my fervent hope in those days that, if in the next world there was a deep, dark, super-heated cell, it was reserved expressly for Van Tassel and his potion.

Any time one of us came to the breakfast table, looking a little rusty and peaked and without appetite, Gram would exclaim, "Poor child, you are all eaten up by worms! You need a dose of Vermifuge." With fascination, the worm-suspect would watch her pour out the hideous, sticky liquid, till the tablespoon was full and running over. “Now shut your eyes and open your mouth," Gram would say, and when the awful dose was in, "Swallow! Swallow hard!" Then she’d cup her hand under the victim’s chin and tilt his head back until there was nothing to do but swallow, gagging and coughing. Gramp would always offer a swig of coffee to hopefully kill the taste, although it never quite did.

Gram kept the noxious stuff in an old demijohn in the cupboard. Now there was another jug on the top shelf in the same cupboard, about half full of old, thick elderberry wine which Gram had made years before. It was used only "for sickness," and was always kept on the upper shelf. The Vermifuge and the old elderberry wine looked a lot alike, and once, mysteriously, someone, somehow had shifted the thick, dark liquids from one bottle to the other and put the jugs back in their usual places.

In due time Ellen had to take a dose from the Bottle and it was noticed that she appeared surprised, but neither cried nor gagged. Nor did she seem in a hurry to swallow the conciliatory sip of coffee from Gramp's sympathetic hand. "Why, Ellie girl, you are getting to be quite the brave girl,” was his comment. From then on, after we got over the initial shock of not tasting the horrible Vermifuge, we actually looked forward to the formerly hated treatment and the warm, tingly feeling it made in our stomachs.

There was to be a "quarterly meeting" at the church one Saturday afternoon and Sunday, and the preacher came to Gramp's to stay till Monday morning. Elder Witham was getting on in years and he had taken a cold which affected his appetite. Gram had prepared a good supper on the Elder's account, but after we all sat down and he had asked the blessing, he said, "Sister Sophie, you've got a nice supper but I don't believe I can eat a mouthful to-night. I'm all out of fix and I'm afraid I shan't be able to preach to-morrow. I think I’ll just go lie down a bit on your lounge, to see if I can't feel better."

Well Gram was much disturbed and said, "Elder Witham, isn't there something I can give you to take? Some Jamaica ginger, or something like that?" [a popular tonic at the time, Jamaica ginger was mostly alcohol.]

"Oh, that is rather too fiery for me," the Elder replied.

"Then how would a few swallows of my elderberry wine do?" queried Gram.

"But you know, Sister Sophie, that I don't hold with such things," said the Elder.

"Still, I think really that it would do you good," urged Gram.

"Perhaps," said the old fraud, for truth to say, this was not his first experience with the elderberry bottle; so Gram went to the cupboard.

About this time, we kids decided we’d had enough to eat and quietly disappeared outside, where we listened at the open window. Gram poured out a small glass of elderberry wine and handed it to Elder Witham. He took one good swallow, jumped to his feet and ran to the wood-box. "Jehosophat! What! What? What in thunder is this?" he spluttered, spitting as energetically as possible. "You've given me bug-pizen! — and I've swallered a lot of it!"

Shocked and frightened, Gram could only sit, bug-eyed and helpless at first, and then she snatched up the bottle, smelled of it, then tasted it.

"My sakes, Elder Witham!" she cried, "Don't be scared, it's only Vermifuge, such as I give the children for worms!"

"Aaugh!" coughed the good man. "But it's nasty stuff, ain't it?"

As we milked that night, I’m sure I saw Gramp shaking with something like laughter, but his back was to me and I’m not sure. Not much was said at breakfast next morning and the Reverend didn’t preach that day. Gram didn’t attend meeting — she was nearly ill from shame, and it was several days before she felt up to investigating. Along about Thursday she cross-examined us all rather sharply but no one seemed to know much and all she could do was give us an earnest lecture about the importance of telling the truth.

The episode put a damper on the Vermifuge Bottle, however; it was never quite so prominent after that.

— Sam Moore

Vermifuge Bottle
Taking a dose from the Vermifuge Bottle. [Illustration from the book]


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