Grandsons are fun to have around. Their fascination with tools and machinery makes them easy to entertain. In March, I took Tristan and Conall to the PioneerVillagein Green Cove Springs. This museum collection of old buildings and items from the 19th and early 20th centuries portrays early life in rural Florida. As we went through the grounds and buildings, I pointed out various objects to the boys and described what they were used for and why, many of which are now to be found only in museums. I drew the boys’ attention to the bell atop the little church tower and told them how it would be rung to call people to meetings. In the store, most of the goods were behind the counter, not out on shelves, which not only gave customers more personal service, but undoubtedly cut down on thefts. (People of the past were not really much different from us.)
I actually remember many of the old timey items being used during my early childhood. Rewind a half century or so. My great-Grandad had a little store that supplemented his farm income. I did not need to read the sign in front of a great wooden hulk to know that it was a threshing machine like Grandad’s. I remember seeing it in operation once when I was very small and I can’t forget how noisy it was and how it would shake. What is a threshing machine? A precursor of the combine, it would separate grain from straw. I believe Grandad was threshing oats that day. The machine was stationary and they would feed the oat hay into it with pitch forks. It was powered by a flywheel connected by a belt to the power wheel of a tractor. Before they had tractors, I suppose they used horses or other means to run those machines. And before they had machines, they did it by hand. That we are here today attests to the fact that they got the job done one way or another.
I remember Grandpa Rogers using a horse-drawn plow, mowing machine, and hay rake like those on display, before he got his first tractor. He kept his Belgian draft horses, Jessie and Duchess, around for years even after they retired from employment. I would ride Duchess when I was older, but that’s another story.
The houses had antique stoves similar to those my grandmothers used before they got modern stoves. I remember Grandma Masters feeding sticks of wood into her kitchen range. Grandma Rogers had a kerosene stove. The modern gas and electric ranges that replaced them were easier to cook on. I remember many of the kitchen utensils displayed, some still in use but others having been consigned to history. I remember Grandma Rogers using a crank churn to make butter, like one shown. I’m sure it was more efficient than the older upright churns, also on exhibit. I explained all these things to the boys and related my memories of them. They did not act bored.
Fast forward to the present. A few weeks later, Tristan helped me clean out a shed where some things had been stored untouched for more years than I care to admit. There were buckets of tools and sundry items, covered with dust and rust and unidentified debris. One by one, I emptied and sorted through them. Discarding the trash, I picked through the relics and asked Tristan if he knew what things were. If he didn’t know, I would tell him and explain their purpose: a vise, a drawing knife, a carpenter’s plane, some electrical components, and so on.
There was a fuse from an old electrical box. I explained to Tristan that these were used before circuit breakers like I have in my house. I didn’t tell him the story about when I rearranged the fuses in my grandparents’ cellar. I didn’t want him to get ideas. Maybe when he’s older I’ll tell him how they were many different colors, to my eyes randomly placed, so I proceeded to organize them into a prettier pattern. Of course, since each was of a different amperage, this affected some of the circuits in the house. When the adults went down to see why the electricity wasn’t working, I had to explain how the fuses had moved from one socket to another. I got into some trouble over this, but at least no one got hurt.
Fast forward another half century or so. I imagine my grandchildren going through my attic after I’m done with all my material things. I imagine them saying to their children or grandchildren, “Do you know what this is? Do you know what it was used for?”
“This is an electric typewriter. That’s what people used before they had personal computers. And what’s this? It’s a manual typewriter, which they used before they had electric typewriters. And here’s my grandmother’s old sewing machine. She used this to sew clothes with before they had … (a more efficient invention might be mentioned here).” What other gadgets that I now use will be replaced by new ones that I cannot envision? If I could, I’d invent them myself.
I’m not advocating that we live in the past, although a return to a simpler life style wouldn’t hurt us. I like writing on my computer, even though it seems to have a will of its own at times. I don’t have to rely on white-out when I make my myriad mistakes. It’s so easy to edit, and I don’t have to retype whole pages to get a manuscript to look right. But it won’t work when the electricity goes out, like the old manual typewriter did.
Much lore was lost with the passing of my grandparents’ generation and those before them. While my family was fortunate enough to have listened to the old stories, how many did we miss? We need to insure that what we learn and do today is shared with our descendants. An appreciation of our heritage enriches us. When we know how our ancestors lived, how they grappled with challenges and overcame obstacles, we have a better understanding of ourselves, of our own strengths and needs. Knowing where we came from better equips us for our future. Our children and grandchildren will have richer lives if we continue to pass down the lore.