Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Town Meeting Day [circa 1897]

Photo from our family collection.
Thought to be a portrait of g-grandfather William Lewis, circa 1911.

Town Meeting Day

When the morning sun broke free of the over-hanging mountains on that early March day in 1897, the breakfast time smoke from neighborhood chimneys had already spiraled into the cold, crisp air.

Cows had been tended and foaming pails of milk put through the separators; sleepy chickens had been prodded from their nests, eggs gathered and cracked corn flung onto the hard-packed ground of the hen yards.
Horses were hastily curried and led out from the stables, their snorting breath feathering into thin grey plumes, while their big hooves cracked the skim of ice that had formed overnight on dooryard puddles, as they were guided between the shafts of the family buggy or hitched to the tongue of a high-seated wagon.

Doors slammed, children milled about, the sound of metal wheels grated on the winding gravel roads, as the families of the small Adirondack hamlet prepared to gather for Town Meeting.

Every year since there had been organized towns in New England and upstate New York, the first Tuesday of March had been designated as the time when the men of the towns would gather to elect officials to serve for the coming year. Selectmen were needed to run the business of the town, a brave Constable to intervene in any cases of trouble or wrong-doing, a Road Commissioner to see that the narrow roads were plowed after heavy snowfalls, to level out the frost heaves and potholes of springtime.

The town needed a Dog-Catcher, an Overseer of the Poor, a Fence Viewer; a Pound-Keeper to round-up and care for any stray cows and horses until their owners could be located and charged with keeping their animals at home.

Weeks ago, posters announcing the time and place of the meeting and the business to be settled had been tacked on the wall at the general store, nailed to the door of the blacksmith shop. Notices were put in the paper.

Town Meeting day was important and every man who wanted a say in how the town would be run, was heading for the schoolhouse at the crossroads where the gathering would be held.

The women weren’t allowed to vote [although many of them had expressed their opinions to their spouses] and those who had babies or toddlers would not have taken them out in the chilly air. A few of them did quickly tidy their kitchens, ready to go along and help set out a cold lunch at noon.

For older school children, this was a grand holiday. Since the schoolhouse was needed to hold the meeting, classes were suspended for the day. Boys of ten or twelve years hurried to help their fathers “hitch-up” and then got under foot as clean horse blankets and baskets of sandwiches were handed up to be stowed under buggy seats.

At the Lewis farm, tucked at the foot of looming Tongue Mountain, young Mac and his brother Andrew helped their father with the barn chores, just as they did every morning.

They stowed away a hearty breakfast of sourdough pancakes, maple syrup, oatmeal porridge, home-cured ham and fresh eggs. While Mother and little sister Julia quickly washed the dishes and tucked the last items in the lunch basket, Mac stood outside at the horses heads, stroking their soft noses and brushing their winter-roughened manes, for Mac dearly loved horses and already “had a way” with them.

Vote or no, Mac’s mother was not one of the women who would stay meekly at home today minding the house! Bonnet firmly anchored, skirts held above the mud, she shooed her family in front of her, settled herself on the front seat of the buggy and nodded to father that they were ready to leave.

Father Bill Lewis was a quiet man, with a bushy grey beard and mild blue eyes that viewed life calmly and keenly through his wire-rimmed spectacles. He had gone west while still in his teens, one of thousands of men to work on the construction of the Union-Pacific Railroad that spanned the Great Plains. Mac loved to hear father tell of those days when the famous Buffalo Bill Cody had ridden into the railroad camps with his train of men and wagons, supplying buffalo meat which the camp cooks prepared for hungry workers. Bill Lewis had been among the crowds that thronged Promontory, Utah on the 10th of May, 1869, when the “golden spike” was driven to celebrate the joining by rail of east and west.

Young Mac had spent all of his 12 years in the shadow of Tongue Mountain on the hill farm first owned by his grandfather and great grandfather.

He was familiar with winding dirt roads and small steep pastures bounded by grey stone walls. He knew the over-grown paths that twisted through the hardwood slopes to Weed Pond and North Pond. He was learning where the blueberries grew and where in August to fill a lard bucket with fat blackberries in the dark and secret thickets of the woods.

Mac listened in wonder when Bill Lewis could be coaxed into a story-telling mood. Father described the plains of Nebraska where the wind blew every day, summer and winter, rippling through the short bleached grass, whipping across a landscape where no trees grew except the sprawling cottonwoods along the river banks.

Bill recalled the high desert of Wyoming, endless miles of sagebrush inhabited by jack rabbits and antelope, where summer heat shimmered and rocky bluffs loomed across countless acres of gritty sand. He spoke of the fierce cold of western winters when work crews spent as much time huddled around the fires in their tent cities as they did struggling to move the railroad tracks forward mile by agonizing mile.

Mac listened and pondered but could not picture these places that were only names on a schoolroom map. The shores of Lake George, the sprawling buildings of the nearby graphite mines where Bill worked now as a mine foreman, the old farms tucked into the steep hillsides—these were part of the familiar world where Mac lived.

Bill told his family of the Indians who sometimes attacked the railroad camps. It didn’t happen often, but the Indians were not happy about the invasion of the railroads into their hunting territory, and rifles for defense in case of a raid were brought along each day by the railroad crews as well as picks and shovels.

Mac had no concept of Indians as enemies. The only Indian in Graphite was a middle-aged man they called “The Old Indian”, a silent, dark-skinned person who wore a red-checked flannel shirt in all but the hottest weather and tucked his grey-streaked black hair beneath a shapeless felt hat.

Mac’s daydreams fell away as the horses trotted smartly into the schoolyard. He vaulted from the buggy, caught his little sister as she tumbled, laughing, into his up-raised arms, a warm bundle of woolen coat and bunchy calico skirts. Mother handed down the lunch basket, Andrew hopped over the wheel, and Mac walked along-side as father maneuvered for a place at the hitching rail.
Other wagons and buggies turned in, men called greetings, women smiled and beckoned to neighbors whom they hadn’t visited during the long cold days of winter.
Boys, freed from the tedium of arithmetic and reading, sauntered grandly toward the swings or found a dry spot in the thawing yard where they could shoot marbles.

By 10 o’clock the last stragglers had gathered and packed into the schoolroom. Town Meeting for the year 1897 had begun.
The morning went well. It was no surprise that the usual moderator was called to preside over the meeting, a respected old land owner known for his honest dealings.
The selectmen were reinstated, the town treasurer made his report and it was agreed that funds were available to repair the school woodshed.
Lunch time was announced and with only a few more articles of business to be considered, the men of the town were well pleased with themselves.

The boys came in, red-cheeked from playing in the wind, the women unwrapped sandwiches and opened jars of pickles, carved squares of gingerbread and applesauce cake. Talk was cheerful and neighborly. As the meal was finished someone glancing out the window remarked that the weather was changing. Clouds had rolled up from the lake, the wind had picked up, there could be rain or snow come evening.

Perhaps it was the uneasy change in the weather; maybe lunch hadn’t set well on certain stomachs. The cold wind soon drove the boys back inside to take up places near their respective fathers. The few women put away leftovers and retired to the back of the room taking sleepy youngsters onto their laps.

The fence viewer droned on about the need for certain farmers to better contain their cattle, then the final article came up for discussion.

The January thaw had resulted in a damaged wooden bridge on one of the more remote roads. The bridge needed to be repaired and a new culvert put in place. Who should be hired to do the work?

A name was put forth: “I move we hire John B., “ said a sandy-haired man.

“Well! What a poor idea that would be!” exclaimed another man, not waiting to be acknowledged by the moderator. “Everyone knows he’s so lazy he can’t get his own work done. How could he build a bridge before another winter?”

A mutter rumbled about the room. A voice, raised a bit louder than necessary, stated, “Now Joe, it couldn’t be you’d like to see your brother-in-law get that bridge job so he could supply the planks from his own sawmill and charge the town more than they’re worth?”

Another man, red-bearded and red in the face, shouted, “The road work always goes to the men on that side of town. There’s some of us up on the hill who wouldn’t mind a job if there’s money floating around!”

He was challenged by a large bald-headed gentleman who trumpeted, “The work goes to them on our side of town because there ain’t no one in your parts who could figure out how to lay a bridge that would hold up a horse and wagon!”

The rumbling voices broke into shouts. One bellowing farmer, his face nearly purple, waved his fists as he offered his opinions.
The moderator pounded on the desk with his gavel, demanding, “Order! Meeting will come to order! Only one man speaks at a time!”

Dozing children woke to whimper and cry. Women shushed them and glared in the direction of the men. The loud voices continued, roughly over-riding each other, as insults were traded. The moderator banged the desk again and again, shouting into the fracus, “Order! I say, ORDER!”

Mac stood wide-eyed at his father’s elbow. Bill Lewis sighed, but didn’t try to make his thoughts heard in the uproar. Mac let his eyes rove over the room. Several of the boys stood cowering by their fathers. One lad, whose father had just been called lazy, was staring miserably at his muddy shoes. Across the room another boy hunched his jacket up around his ears. It was his dad who had shouted the insult. Tom was his best playground pal, but would he want to be friends tomorrow? As the harsh voices jarred through the too-warm room, the boys fidgeted. Playground squabbles were frequent, but quickly forgiven. Grown-ups calling names and upsetting a meeting was a new and frightening experience.

From the corner of his eye, Mac caught a slight movement. He realized that Old Indian had been leaning against the wall just beyond father. Old Indian had taken no part in the meeting, had eaten his lunch with only a polite nod to the women, had given brief answers to the few men who greeted him. Now, as Mac watched, Old Indian began to slip carefully through the throng of jostling men a few unhurried steps at a time, calling no attention to himself. Bit by bit he made his way to the big chunk stove in the far corner of the room, looked cautiously around, then put his shoulder against the elbow of the stovepipe and nudged.

“What on earth is he up to?” thought Mac, but he made no move. Another shove of the big Indian’s shoulder and the stovepipe came apart. Un-noticed in the hubbub, Old Indian left the schoolhouse, shutting the door soundlessly behind him.

One by one, those men nearest the stove began to cough. Coughing spread, but no one seemed to notice that smoke was puffing gently but steadily from the open stove pipe. It filled the room, making eyes water and noses drip. Finally someone shouted, “Fire! The schoolhouse is on fire!”

There was a sudden moment of horrified silence as men turned to look.

Bill Lewis looked where Mac was pointing. Bill was calm and accustomed to handling men. Pushing toward the woodstove he called out, “There’s no fire, the stove pipe has come apart. Patsy, give me a hand here, someone open the windows!”

Everyone got out of the big Irishman’s way as Patsy strode to help Bill with the stovepipe. Men who had been shouting moments before ran to help neighbors who were pushing at the large windows which hadn’t been opened all winter.

One quick-witted young man wrenched wide the door and pushed it vigorously back and forth on its hinges. Other men flapped their caps at the smoke and said things like “Phew!” and, “What happened to that stovepipe?”

The freezing March wind whooshed through the room, clearing the smoke and chilling hot tempers.

Several of those who been loud and insultingly rude suddenly decided that perhaps they should start for their side of the mountain before it grew colder or sleet should fall. They gathered their families and scuttled sheepishly out. Others stayed, but looked uneasily about, for there was still the matter of the roadwork to be settled.
The moderator blew his nose, cleared his throat with a hawking sound and said firmly, “The meeting will come to order!”

Bill Lewis raised his hand. His quiet voice was clearly heard. “I make the motion that we turn the matter of the bridge and the new culvert over to the selectmen. Let them set a budget and decide who can best do the work.”

Another hand went up and another voice spoke, “I second that.” The motion was passed and the meeting was quickly adjourned. Town Meeting in Graphite, NY was over for another year.

No one lingered long in hitching up and hastening families into the buggies and wagons. The wind was cold and carried the tang of sleet. Men wheeled their horses, nodded stiffly to neighbors as they whipped out of the trodden, muddy yard. A few boys risked a tentative wave of the hand as they passed a wagon where a friend sat painfully straight beside his father.

Later, as they rubbed down the horses, milked the cows and settled the barn for the night, Mac thought about what he had witnessed that day.
He thought he understood in part why some of the men had been rude, accused their neighbors. There were always those who worked hard, took good care of what they had; others would be shiftless no matter what. And those who had less usually resented the families who had been here longer, had more say in how things went.
He thought that Old Indian had been clever to do something that had distracted the arguing men, but one thing puzzeled him. “Father, he said, “Why did Old Indian slip out the door and disappear? When the smoke cleared, he was gone.”

Bill Lewis turned the wooden peg which held the barn door in place, leaned against it and rubbed the ache from his shoulders.

“Mac, he said, “Old Indian don’t like to be noticed. He don’t quite fit in here and he hasn’t any folks of his own here-abouts. He minds his business and he expects people to let him be.”

He straightened and looked across the yard at the light wet snow swirling in the dusk; sugar-snow, heralding thawing days and crisp nights here in the mountains. The smell of the barn, of the horses and cows hung close and familiar on the damp cold air. In the house the yellow glow of a kerosene lamp blossomed and grew in the kitchen window.

Bill put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, noticing how Mac had grown in the past year. He would make a sturdy man soon and Bill hoped, a wise one.

Giving the boy a little push up the path he said, “Old Indian likes quiet. He could see that things were out of hand and there would be a fight. ‘Blessed are the peace-makers.’ Old Indian saved the peace today, but he didn’t want to be noticed or thanked. So, he just went on home.”

Mac couldn’t see his father’s face, but he knew there was a smile in his voice as he added, “Come along. Its supper time and if we’re late your mother won’t be peaceable!”

The bones of this story were told to me many years ago by my Grampa Mac. He referred to the man who dislodged the stovepipe and saved the meeting simply as "The Old Indian."  My search through the relevant census listings hasn't turned up a possible name. I have taken obvious liberties in creating dialogue, but have tried to make the details authentic to the times.
 The Graphite mines were closed for good in 1921 and many of the buildings were dismantled with the lumber sold as salvage.  The hamlet of Graphite disappeared, as did many of the old farms.  J. and I went exploring there in the early 70's with my cousin Will's father as guide. He drove us over a rutted woodland track and stopped where  tumbled foundations of fieldstone outlined the site of the Davis/Lewis farmstead. I could only imagine the house, the barn, the dooryard where my Grampa Mac grew to adulthood.
This is the area where generations of my mother's family settled in the late 1700's. My interest in the history of the towns and the people is on-going.
I am indebted to a privately published book, The History of Graphite which my g-uncle Wilford [Cousin Will's grandfather] compiled and wrote in his 80's.
Public Domain photo
Cousin Bruce DeLarm is a skilled researcher and historian who maintains  a multi-paged website full of information on the families of Graphite and Hague, NY.  His brother has a collection of postcards from the early 1900's which depict these towns.  If you would like to know what the countryside was like a hundred years ago, some of these photos are posted here.  


  1. What a beautiful and evocative piece of writing . I am envious. What a wonderful piece of family history captured too. Thank you. I felt very sad that your old homestead is no longer there.

    Perhaps when we have moved I will be able to settle down and write again . . .

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this MM. Nice work!