A True Story of Olden Time.
By Daniel Doane Bidwell
Winter had settled in early. It had come with a rush, chasing away unceremoniously the dreary, effeminate, Indian summer days, and substituting a sharp, crisp cold which sent the blood coursing through the veins with a vigor leading old Gran’ther Aaron Olmsted to announce that he felt “fit to fight the Britishers” The cider had been stored in a dozen barrels in the shadows of the north cellar, the corn was husked and was sleeping in its crib, and the big pumpkins lay in yellow waves on the barn floor.
The old Olmsted homestead stood on the west side of the wide village street, in East Hartford, a highway now over-arched by three rows of leafy elms-noble centennarians whose aged boughs, interlocking, form two grand Gothic arches. It was a scanty half-mile from the Great River. Its upper windows commanded one of the fairest views in Connecticut Colony. A narrow fringe of wooded upland reached westward to a rich meadow bordered by a sweeping curve of the Great River. Beyond, a second meadow stretched to the stores of outlying farm-houses of Hartford. Islanded against the cold blue of the November sky and the russet and gold of the late autumnal foliage, rose the steeple of the First Church of Christ in the colony’s northern capital.
It was a hospitable mansion in which the Olmsted family were to collect. Lengthwise it stood to the street and two good stories high with the gambrel roof—changed later to a gable. A ponderous brass knocker, polished till it gleamed, hung on the mammoth front door, which was divided horizontally. A gigantic chimney permitted fireplaces in the lower story rooms and in two of the chambers. In the rear was a long ell, over whose roof rose a long well-sweep. It may be said, parenthetically, that the first piano in East Hartford was consumed when the house burned, in 1876. For a week or more the children in the Olmsted household had been pounding cinnamon and cloves in a gigantic lignum-vitrae mortar, and chopping suet and meat for mince pies, and stoning raisins and slicing citron, and making the rafters of the old colonial homestead echo with the busy preparation for that apostle of festivals—Thanksgiving.
Those sturdy days were still half a century or so earlier than the introduction of prepared spices. It was almost in the crude state that the material used for seasoning came to the kitchen. Its reduction from raw material to culinary ammunition was assigned to the army of children as their natural obligation. On those youngsters who had been “froward” was laid the penalty of preparing a salt, evolving it by the ascending steps of washing, drying and pounding, from primitive rock-salt. For a week the main business of mankind in the little Puritan theocracy had been the secular duty of making pies. By dozens and scores these had come forth daily from the kitchen and been consigned to the icy cavern of ” the north room.” Seemingly, they were made of anything vegetable or animal that is on the earth or in the waters under the earth.
Early on Thanksgiving morning all sorts and conditions of Olmsteds, even
to the third and fourth generation, began to arrive. The homestead was the rallying point of Gran’ther Aaron from all over the colony. It was hoped that two score would sit down to the dinner which would be awaiting the family on their return from ” meetin.” Of the six sons of the white-haired grandsire all were to be on hand at the hospitable board saving Captain Gideon, who was a prisoner to the red-coats in the West Indies, unless perchance he was in Davy Jones’ locker. Of the six daughters, all with their families were to attend. Of the third generation no fewer than twenty-seven were to pay their tribute to the turkeys and pies, and of the fourth there were two, little Mehitable Burnham, just a twelvemonth old, and Pardon Olmsted, three months younger. With the early morning began to arrive other individuals also—individuals not so desirable. Various loafers from the quiet country-side straggled ’round the skirts of the rambling colonial mansion, and stopped in the lean-to and the wood-shed which led off from the savory kitchen. As the morning wore on they departed, laden with jugs and brimming pitchers of cider, given to them by Gran’ther Aaron’s ungodly grandson, Nehemiah, or with turkey drumsticks and pies of divers kinds, the gifts of stout Mistress Olmsted. Among the beneficiaries were some of the few remaining Indians of the neighborhood, miserable, squalid, half-drunken creatures, stigmatized by that most withering of Puritan adjectives, “shiftless.” There was also a visitor whom the children and even their parents regarded with curiosity, mingled in some measure with apprehension. This was a youth of swarthy complexion and foreign and mysterious appearance, who had come with a party of horse traders that had pitched their tents on Bidwell’s Lane some days previously, announcing that they were trading and buying horses to deliver to General Washington at Morristown, to recruit the continental cavalry. There were not lacking those who ” suspicioned them ‘ar traders were as like to wring the necks of gobblers as to buy horses.”
When the bell of the village meeting-house began to remind the people of duties spiritual the army under the Olmsted roof-tree was ready to respond to its invitation. Nehemiah Olmsted and Ozias Bidwell, two of the third generation, were left in charge of the homestead when the reunited family filed soberly down to the meeting-house. The two young clansmen were placed on this detail not so much because they were the most reliable for that duty, but the more because well-grounded apprehensions were entertained regarding their froward conduct in the temple and consequent rebukes from Levi Goodwin, the tithing-man. They were fit predecessors of the Comstock Cavalry of a later day. When good, old, logical Parson Williams had reached his seventhly and had consequently become well started on his sermon, the two young harem scarems left in charge of the family fort had wearied of their labors as an investigating committee. They had examined the yawning depths of the brick oven, raided the buttery and pantry, hidden Gran’ther Aaron’s gold-headed walking stick, loosened the king-bolts on five of the family chaises in which the Olmsted progeny had journeyed to the mansion, introduced unnecessary pepper into the star chicken-pie, doubled in half-sections the lower sheet in each bed, and employed their mischievous ingenuity in every fertile prank and trick which their active boyish minds could devise.
As they sat in the low-ceiled kitchen, sighing for new worlds of deviltry, two figures darkened the passageway leading in from the lean-to. Looking up
they saw first the swarthy horse-trader who had left in the early morning freighted with a pitcher of cider, drawn by Nehemiah’s own grimy hands, and with two of Mistress Olmsted’s famous pies. Behind the trader was one of his companions from the camp on Bidwell’s Lane.
“Is it hungry ye are again?” was Nehemiah’s salutation. “It is, young sir,” was the reply, in a foreign accent.
“Sit down then, if ye be so minded, and we will feed you.”
Nehemiah motioned with a wave of his hand towards a settle. He produced a plate and heaped it with steaming potatoes and turnips, and dexterously whipped off two drumsticks from one of the six turkeys which were to feed the convened clans, saying as he layed the edibles before his visitors : ” Begin on them two scalps.”
Presently a felicitous idea occurred to Ozi, who had cut a big wedge from the erring chicken-pie, in which the boys had inserted a double allowance of pepper. This he carefully chose from the section which the youngsters had spiced. Laying it on one of Mistress Olmsted’s choicest plates he presented it to the second of his callers, and then deemed it seemly to withdraw to the seclusion of the pantry. Thither Nehemiah discreetly followed him. In a few seconds the lads were rewarded for their industry by the sound of violent sneezing mingled with strange foreign oaths. Looking out they discerned their victim gesticulating fiercely. In a short time they saw him approaching their hiding place. Seeing that he would be discovered, Ozi made a virtue of necessity, and emerged from his retreat to enquire solicitously, ” Be ye ill? ”
With a threatening sweep of his hand the man demanded milk or cider to wash down the pepper. “Give him both together,” advised Nehemiah, under his breath, but Ozi was content with proffering a mug of cider. At that moment was heard the sound of wheels approaching on the road. Hastily gulping down the liquid, the boys’ visitor rushed with a valedictory sneeze from the kitchen and out of the lean-to. The lads followed him and then turned with cheerful faces to welcome Gran’ther Aaron, who was depositing a load from the family chaise.
A few seconds later startled exclamations summoned them to the dining room. Mistress Aaron and a half-score of female Olmsteds were pointing to the table, where crumpled linen and missing knives and forks betrayed the operations of an invader.
” Look yonder,” cried the good old lady : ” What did I tell you ! ” she continued in prophetic frenzy. “They’ve let in some thief, who has stolen our silver. ‘Twould have been better to have disgraced our family before the tithing man than have let this come to pass !
Explanations were given in short order, and the male Olmsteds repaired as a sort of committee of the whole to the camp on Bidwell’s Lane.
The gypsies were on the point of striking their tent, but a few minutes of salutary persuasion by Gran’ther Aaron and constable Timothy Bryant, sup-ported by the evidence of the two boys, resulted in the recovery of the articles which had been stolen by the confederate of the victim of the medicated chicken-pie.
As for Nehemiah and Ozias, it is said that they have transmitted their deviltry to their descendants, but it may be nothing more than the fact ” that boys do not seem to change as much as men.”