My Reading, June 15, 2011
Here's my reading for "The Neighborhood" June 15, 2011
The little rural village of Sanborn NY , near Niagara Falls , where my mother was born and grew up, will always be a special place for me. During the war, Mom, my brother Doug, and I lived there with my Grandma Stover. (Dad was doing defense work in South Carolina .) I experienced a true old-fashioned country winter in Sanborn, which like nearby Buffalo , gets a record accumulation of snow; and that winter of 1944-1945 was a big one. The roads were snow-covered all winter, and a common recreation for us kids was to tie a sled, or even two or three, behind a car and be pulled around town. Sometimes this was with parental cooperation, sometimes not. If you were lucky enough to be nearby when a car stopped, and you had your sled, you just belly-flopped down behind it, grabbed the bumper and held on when it drove off. No sled? No problem. We’d just squat down on our heels, grab the bumper the same way, and away we’d go. Hit a bump, or worse, a bare spot? Definitely not good. I saw many a kid go sprawling forward onto his chest, and sometimes onto his face. What if the car had to stop? I guess we never thought much about that. Did I, hardly eight years old, really do all this daring stuff? I remember a few marginally successful attempts squatting behind cars at school, where Mom wouldn’t know, and I know I hung on long enough to remember it. Incredibly, drivers sometimes turned a blind eye to what was going on, and drove off knowing they had kids in tow. Maybe it was the war. Maybe even we folks on the Home Front had a little “live today” attitude. As for being tied on a sled behind a car, yes, I remember doing that, too. Yeah, I know, we were nuts, but remember, it was a rural, sparsely-populated village, with little or no traffic. In any case, there weren’t a lot of ways to have fun in those wintry, war-time days.
After the war, we moved to Haddonfield and each summer, we returned to Sanborn to visit Grandma and our Stover cousins. Grandma died the next year. She was laid out at home in the front bedroom. She was a kindly woman and throughout her life, she had helped many people, both as a practical nurse and simply as a compassionate person. My grandfather, Frank R. Stover, who died before I was born, owned the Sanborn general store and lumber mill. He had often extended credit and helped a lot of folks make ends meet. In particular, he had been good to the Tuscarora Indians that lived on the nearby reservation. I remember Mom describing how the Indians would sometimes come to the house with fruit, vegetables or maybe a chicken to pay their bill. I remember someone said at the time of Grandma's passing that it marked the end of a Sanborn era.
We continued to visit our Sanborn relatives each summer. The summer I was ten or eleven, my Uncle Clark took me to the nearby Tuscarora Indian reservation to watch an Indian lacrosse game. An article in Smithsonian Magazine, December 1997, describes how Indians invented the game.
“Games lasted for days at times, and in some tribes players and non-players alike bet ponies, fortunes in fur and beadwork, even wives and children, on the outcome. Sometimes the ball was carved as a human head that would fly off the club's handle and smack an enemy brave. Today, in Indian communities all over North America at the first sign of spring youngsters sally forth carrying lacrosse sticks. Many Indian players still request to be buried with their sticks beside them. The tradition of carved wooden lacrosse sticks still flourishes as well. In the Tuscarora Nation, near Sanborn , New York , Tuskewe Krafts, a firm owned by John Wesley Patterson, Jr., turns out 10,000 sticks a year at prices from $60 to $90.”
Note: Ancestors of John Wesley Patterson, mentioned in the magazine, were frequent customers of my grandfather’s store. Their Patterson name appears in his ledger book, which I still have.
The day Uncle Clark took me to the reservation the Tuscaroras were playing the Senecas, or one of the other Iroquois Nations. The game was mayhem. They were charging up and down the field bashing each other with their sticks and in general having a wonderful time. I suspect a good bit of liquor was involved. At a lull in the game, Uncle Clark walked me over to meet a cluster of older Indian men. They greeted him warmly, and Clark introduced one of them to me as the Chief of the Tuscarora Nation. I was impressed, but disappointed that he was wearing regular clothes and no fancy headdress. Then Clark told the men I was the grandson of Frank Stover. What a reaction! They made a big fuss over me, and went to great lengths to tell me what a respected man my grandfather had been. Grandpa had died a few months before I was born and I never knew him. It was a proud moment.
My grandmother’s house, now Uncle Clark and Aunt Fanny’s, sat in the corner of a very large field that was owned by the Sanborn Fire Department. Each summer the firemen in Sanborn and in each of the nearby villages held a “Field Day,” which was the social highlight of the year, and the Firemen’s annual fund-raiser. On Saturdays throughout the summer, people went from town to town, supporting each others’ Field Day.
Field Days were a slice of old time Americana . The day began with a parade. The firemen themselves would lead it, smartly decked out in their uniforms, with Old Glory flying high. There was hardly a man in the little village of Sanborn that didn’t belong to the volunteer fire department. It was just something you did. Then came the American Legionnaires, the VFW—Veterans of Foreign Wars, a few tottering survivors of the Grand Army of the Republic, their backs bent and marching with difficulty, but every one, square-jawed and head held proudly high. There were a few moist eyes as they passed. Then came the woman’s auxiliaries, boy and girl scouts, children on their bicycles draped in bunting, and babies in their carriages. Campaigning politicians, local merchants, a farmer on his tractor—you name it; if you wanted to be in the parade, you were in it.
Best of all, the Field Day was literally in Grandma’s back yard. There were pony rides and games for the kids; and adult games of skill. Many were homemade, like pitching pennies into a shallow dish floating in a tub of water (nearly impossible). And of course, there was the traditional “Strength Tester.” Hit the lever with a big wooden mallet and see how high you can raise the marker. Maybe you’ll even ring the bell and win a prize. There was a big tent of home-made crafts, jams, jellies and baked goods for sale. A bingo tent. A beer tent. A corn-on-the cob tent, with corn picked just two hours before. The biggest tent, though, was the chowder tent. No Field Day would be complete without chowder. Chowder was a wonderful recipe made by the firemen and their wives from locally-raised chickens and farm-fresh vegetables. Making chowder was an art. About midnight the night before Field Day, about six huge iron kettles, each as tall as a man’s waist, were set up over a row of low wood fires and the chowder was put in to slowly cook. By mid-day the next day, there would be a buzz going around, “How soon is the chowder going to be done? When’s the chowder coming out?” Usually about one p.m., after 12 or 13 hours of slow cooking, the chowder would be deemed ready, and folks would stream into the chowder tent. Many were there to sit and socialize and enjoy a bowlful. They might have brought along a picnic to go with it. But many also came with Mason jars, pitchers, or whatever, to buy chowder to take home. It was seldom more than a couple hours before the word would go out, “The chowder’s gone.” In time, propane flame replaced the old wood fires, and chowder-serving time became more predictable.
Ironically, the Field Day I remember most was in Bergholtz, an old German settlement about four miles from Sanborn. At some point, Uncle Clark had acquired an old horse-drawn buggy, which sat for years, gathering dust in the garage. One year, when I was about twelve, Clark rented a horse and he, Aunt Fanny and I rode proudly in the old buggy in the Berghotz Field Day parade. Even more memorable than riding in the parade, was how we got there. First, Clark pulled the buggy out of the garage, dusted it off, and put me in it, by myself. Then he had Fanny back their Packard up close to the buggy’s stays (the long poles that go along either side of the horse). With that, Clark took the stays in his hands, stepped up onto the Packard’s rear bumper, turned around, sat back against the car’s trunk and braced his feet against the bumper.
“Okay, Frances ” he said, “Let’s go…slowly.” (Fanny was always Frances to Clark .)
And off we went. I expected at any moment the buggy would hit a bump or we’d come to a hill and we’d pull Clark off into the road in front of me, or he’d lose his grip and I’d be free-wheeling down the road. Well, somehow Clark held on to those buggy stays for four miles while Fanny drove the Packard at ten miles an hour. Eventually, we reached the stable where Clark had rented the horse. I don’t know how he held on—or stayed on. I suppose I might mention that Clark dearly loved his whiskey, and it’s possible that before we started, he may have primed himself for the job.
In time, portable carnival-type rides, cotton candy, and other modern marvels started to appear, and the firemen’s Field Day income steadily increased. They used some of their growing funds to build an old-time bandstand, strung with festive lights, in the center of the field. Still, the Firemen’s treasury kept growing, Finally, after years of modernizing their fire-fighting equipment, building a modern new fire hall, complete with an upstairs banquet hall that would seat the whole village, and a large paved parking lot, the firemen pleaded with the townspeople to let them discontinue Field Day―it was a lot of work and they just didn’t need the money. “No way,” the town responded, “It’s an institution. We want it and we need it.” And so, to my knowledge, Field Day goes on to this day behind my grandparents’ house, except with one sad change―there’s no more chowder. Bureaucrats on the board of health deemed that the process was unsanitary.