The Huckster Wagon

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The open cab

The evolution of entrepreneurship in the days of our youth saw the huckster wagon become the next step ‘forward’ after the pack peddler. The latter was limited to what he could carry but was not bound by roads.

The wagon peddler could carry a much greater stock, and heavier items, and he could use the capacity of his vehicle to transport ‘trade-ins’ he took in swap. These often included old hens or butter and eggs, traded for sugar and spices.

Two kinds of wagon peddlers, or ‘hucksters,’ visited us on Muddy Creek. One sold fresh fruits and vegetables and might have made one trip a year into the country with oranges and grapefruit.

He found folks out our way pretty self-sufficient, and so spent more time on the city streets.

This type of huckster used an open-sided wagon pulled by a horse until about 1930, when he graduated to a motorized vehicle that had open sides or wire mesh on the sides. The Reo Speedwagon of about the 1925-era was one such vehicle.

The peddler who more often came our way used a closed-body wagon. I can see it still. It was one of those special spring wagons that was to a buck-board what a heavy-duty panel truck is to a pickup today.

It was gaily painted and had a built-in spring seat with a roof or top that extended over the open cab.

The sides of the cab had round windows of glass and often there would be flower vases on the inside in which Charley the hustler would place spring wild flowers or wild roses or, in the later summer, cat tails and dried weeds that struck his fancy.

One horse pulled the wagon and it always had an old felt hat perched on its head, with two holes cut in the crown for the ears.

Charley was one of those happy-go-lucky, let-tomorrow-take-care-of-itself sorts of fellows. He was always singing folk songs or strumming on his banjo as the horse picked its way along the road.

In those days, the roads were mostly dirt around Muddy Creek. Only a few were graveled and, here and there, a mile of cement might have been laid out by “Good Roads” Gov. Len Small.

When he visited, Charley usually camped where the gypsies camped, by the big, steel Muddy Creek Bridge, which also was where the flying squirrels nested.

He would pull in by the late afternoon and set up camp, taking care of his horse first. He hung the harness on a nearby fence and led the animal down to the creek to let her drink.

If he’d been lucky that day, he’d put a nose bag made out of canvas on her after that; inside the bag would be a quart of oats traded, perhaps, for a tin bucket earlier in the day.

If he had no oats, Charley would tether the horse to a stake so she could forage on the rank grass that grew along Muddy Creek.

Then, in a small, well-blackened circle of sandstone, Charley would build himself a fire on which to prepare his own evening meal.

We kids would follow him to the grove and visit with him while he made up a fishing line, cutting a willow pole and baiting the hook with grubs found under rotten logs. Then, he’d catch his dinner from old Muddy, which was filled with fish in those days.

Next, with us still watching, he’d cook his supper over the fire. Charley was the one who showed me how to make a reflector oven in which to bake biscuits from scratch over the open fire – a skill that I have even to this day.

When his evening meal was finished and clean up complete, Charley would amuse himself with the banjo, singing ‘The Spanish Cavalier,’ ‘Red Wind’ and spirituals.

By hitting Muddy Creek in the late afternoon, he’d let Mother and the rest of us sort of stew in anticipation of his early-morning visit. So the next day, when he’d come jingling up the road – two bells were tied to the wagon axles to announce his arrivals – we always were at a peak of excitement.

He would drive into the barnyard and tie his horse to an iron weight with a ring that he carried with him. Then, he’d knock on the door and invite Mother and Dad – if he could catch him – to come and inspect his wares.

And such wares they were!

Because he had the wagon room, he carried whole bolts of dress goods -cottons, and even real silk.

He had boots for men and boys, and the boys’ boots had a bit of copper attached to each toe to catch the wear.

There were hats – bowlers, straw kateys, work caps, wood hoods and sunbonnets – and in time, such new items as linen dusters, silk scarves and goggles for use in the new-fangled automobiles.

All sorts of household items also were packed into that wagon-tin-ware, wooden boxes made by the Shakers and galvanized half-bushel measures, one of which I still have, as they never wear out.

Brooms made by the Mattoon Broom Factory in Sumner were sometimes part of Charley’s inventory – regular sweeping brooms, whiskbrooms and, once at least, a small child’s toy broom festooned with a bright red handle.

I begged Mother to get one of the toy brooms for my new little sister, even though it would be several years before she could use it. I thought I could try it out in the meantime.

Charley also carried sweet spices, pepper and baking powder. And horse liniment, which Dad always bought. The stuff was reported ‘good for man or beast,’ and surely soothed old Bill’s sore shoulders.

When Charley brought out his fancy boxed soaps, he was sure of a sale to Mother, whose normal fare was homemade laundry or ‘Grandpa’s Pine Tar’ soap. I remember a transparent amber-colored bar that came in a fancy wrapper and that Mother would let us children use.

Charley also sold fancy boxed writing paper, and stove polish, a staple item always in demand.

As for paying for the merchandise, we soon learned Charley would take cash, or better yet for us, in-kind trades – crocks of home-churned butter, fresh eggs or even live chickens.

There would be no set price for our stuff, or his, in such cases.

One thing was certain, though. Charley left us happy, I think so he felt he’d be welcomed back the next time he showed up with his wonderful dry good store on wheels. FC

The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.

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