Rural Ramblings – Summer 1978
Ralph C. Miller
“Where’s the Column?” the Editor was asking. “Again?” I say, “but I haven’t been anywhere.” His reply is unanswerable, “That hasn’t stopped you before.” – Well, he’s the Editor. When I don’t have a trip to speak about I can always tell one of my stories!!? – “Rambling in his mind” they used to say while they were making small circular motions with a forefinger near the temple. I don’t care – that and Grandchildren are the chief recompense for getting old.
To begin with I do have a little trip to talk about (I guess an out-of-state jaunt counts even if we did accomplish it in one long, long day). We went to a horse auction – a farm auction actually, although the horses were our primary interest. Up into Washington State just southwest of Olympia, the capitol. When I had to get up at 4:30 in the A.M. I wondered whether I really wished to be a kid again back on the farm; daylight under rain-washed skies just barely improved the outlook.
I’m an Oregonian now, born in Wisconsin, lived in most parts of the U.S. and even overseas, and I’ve travelled more than somewhat. I still say Washington is the cleanest State (or even Country) that I know. Mostly, of course, I mean along the highways, but farms, towns, and cities as well. I’m not trying to start anything, I didn’t say it’s my favorite. I live in Oregon because THAT’S my favorite. Washington just seems cleaner, unsullied – maybe because it’s a little further away from the chief sulliers.
Well the auction… Ernie Herman was a horseman and farmer up there; had a lot of friends all over the Northwest. When he died last Fall he left a hole. Good farmers, good neighbors, good horsemen have a way of doing that. There are still some left and they proved their worth by rallying around to help Ernie’s family set up the auction.
We went a long way to attend but we weren’t the furtherest from home by a good bit. That was a plus; another was the avid interest in the horse furnishings, the equipment, and the dozen or more horses sold. On the average they brought good prices. I wouldn’t be surprised if $4000 for the top mare wasn’t some kind of a record for a private auction in this part of the country. The bidders and buyers were by no means all old time horsemen or even old either. We have a way to go out here to catch up with the Middlewest in horses and horsemen but we’re moving up. Watch out for us.
It was a pleasure to see and talk to so many of our readers first hand. Wish we could get in more of that. Another plus is to be able to get off like that for a day with “My Son, The Editor.” There’s always such a lot of policy and decision making that we can get a better handle on during the odd jaunt that we take together.
Of course there finally comes the moment when you’re talked out (or just grown numb with problems and decisions) and we fall silent letting the unrolling countryside heal what ails us. Out of nowhere during one of those lapses I remembered the “Travelin’ Man.” Sometime this Summer it will be 49 years but I could see him as I might have seen him last week.
I’m sure it was the horse and buggy – even as far back as 1929 a horse and buggy wasn’t the usual rig, although several of those I thought of then as Travelin’ Men seemed partial to some variation on that theme.
“I digress,” if I may borrow the George Gobel line, to clarify, if I can, what I meant by Travelin’ Man. Many people back then (did I just imagine they were mainly older ladies?) would use the term in reference to one man or another. I’m not sure why it so often appeared that it was a judgement on his ethics, morals or his dependability. It was also rather curious how often the term (and the man) seemed to be the object of their faintly scandalized fascination. By no means would all of them fit in the category of traveling salesmen either.
Not being an older lady my understanding of the term was not always the same as theirs, but my fascination was just as real. More so, in fact, sometimes tantamount to outright hero worship.
To get back to the Gent in the buggy – HE was a traveling salesman, oddly enough; most of those thought of themselves as pretty “hot stuff” and wouldn’t have been caught dead anywhere near a horse that didn’t have a jockey on it. I’m going to call him Mr. Fox chiefly because I remember him as Mr. Fox. If that’s just association I suppose he might well have been Mr. Wolf or even Mr. Slye.
March of ’29 our house burned to the ground. My Father, occasionally my Grandfather, and the 12?year old boy that I must have been at the time were just starting to rebuild that Summer. We were living in an enlarged workshop there with the wood cookstove set up out in the yard for two reasons: with 5 in the family there was hardly room in the little shop for the hot stove and secondly that old stove was suspected of causing the fire.
Coincidence or long ears but Mr. Fox just happened to drive down that particular country road selling (what else) cookstoves. The tired old horse, the dusty buggy, that frail, soft-talking man with all the compliments, “Ma’am if you can cook like this after all you’ve been through – under these conditions – on that old stove?!” (Who asked him to stay for dinner… we weren’t quite sure.) Only an insensitive clod (implied) could have subjected the woman he loved to further indignity. Dad teased her about the Salesman’s “line” but he bought the stove. (Nobody else knew either that the greatest depression in our Nation’s history was but months away.)
What impressed me was not his soft sell but that he traveled with the horse and buggy; “Came all the way from Michigan – expect to get into Minnesota if my horse and rig hold out.” Definitely a Travelin’ Man, and the family back home that he spoke of with faint wistfulness may well have been only window dressing like the rig. If he sold as many stoves elsewhere as he did locally he could have driven a Duesenberg.
There were others, many others on our country roads that fit my vague, unexpressed category of Travelin’ Men. As many of them had local connections I had better generalize so that none can object that I’m denigrating old Dad or Grandpa.
In the early thirties the Rural Electrification program turned loose a whole drove of High Line construction men on the country;?ours included. Bad jokes about “charged up linemen, live wires, getting shocked, making connections” and more unprintable ones were almost as randy as some of the pole climbers. Rural Mamas at barn dances and box socials often divided their time between simpering at the outrageous suggestions of the “Electric Cowboys” and trying to keep their unmarried daughters from like temptations. Like a plague of locusts, when the lines were completed the linemen vanished and with them the temptations not only to the ladies but also to the secret aspirations of the local small boys.
My personal experience with harvest crews was confined to the area around home but there were some (including relatives on occasion) who followed the yearly harvest from the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles right on through Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas and Minnesota. How some of them were able to work that hard all day and still indulge in some of the high jinks they did is still a mystery. “Thrashin” crews drew a boisterous lot – or created them.
The old separators drawn by steam tractors moved down the dusty country roads at speeds that seldom approached 4 miles an hour. It was always blazing hot at harvest time and on or around the tractor temperatures rose to unbelievable heights. I remember one driver who used to walk backwards down the road in front of his machine only approaching it from time to time to kick the front wheels back on line.
Set up in the farm yard the dust, chaff and boiler smoke billowed in great clouds to settle on everything human or inanimate. Threshing had to be done when weather, crop maturity and the crews could come together and since there was always more of it than could be accomplished it was done wide open then on to the next farm. It’s a wonder there weren’t more explosions – boilers or men. I suppose night time escapades served the same purpose as the safety valve on the boilers.
My favorite among “Travelin’ Men” were the horse traders. In our part of the country these were generally farmers, sometimes local, although they might be from?as far away as Iowa or Minnesota. A few were farriers with horse trading as a side line or vice versa. Some were just plain ne’er-do-wells. Monte Rumgay and I once agreed that there was a whole book in our recollections of horse traders.
Almost all stories about the breed center on some flim-flam deal where somebody got the worst of it. The truth was that MOST horse trading of that period was carried on as much for the sheer joy of trying to beat the other fellow as for any elusive profit. If there were good horses to be had they went through the more legitimate channels. Horse trading dealt almost exclusively with the other kind – the skates, the swaybacked, spavin galled wind-broken – the lame, the halt and the blind, or something too wild or untrustworthy ever to make a good work horse.
On the face of it, it sounds unethical if not outright fraudulent, but in truth (if you can use the word in speaking of Horse Trading) it was really more of a game where most of the participants knew and appreciated the one rule that there were no rules. Horses were doped, dyed, overfed, in some cases even pumped up with tire pumps to make them appear younger, healthier or spryer. Teeth were filed or ground to show cups for those who were sanguine enough to think that looking in a horse’s mouth was valid proof of age in a horse trade. I’d match the old time horse trader against a used car dealer every time.
It was a game although it could be a dangerous one. Blind, vicious or potential runaways fobbed off on the uninitiated led at times to serious consequences. I’m afraid that in many cases the public attitude was that if you weren’t prepared for that eventuality you had no business in the game. Although bad blood occasionally slopped over after a trade, most traders could laugh and enjoy being caught out, secretly vowing to get even next time around. All the more so since most of them had in mind someone a little further down the line that they hoped to unload the nag on.
I mentioned dyeing horses above; that possibly calls for further explanation. There existed a definite network among traders. After a year or more on the road they knew which farmer liked which color. Sometimes he would be looking for a horse to match one he owned. A blazed face, one or more stockings or spots could be added or covered up. Iodine, shoe or stove blacking, peroxide, even gunpowder might change the color long enough for the trader to get into the next county.
There was one other thing. Stories of a good swap always got around and after a while many a bad or useless horse built up a recognizable reputation. The solution – dye him and unload him one more time. Right here let me assure any old timers out there that I’m not accusing them of a thing. It must have been some other guy.
Not all recollections of Travelin’ Men are facetious. In the ’30s the depression threw countless numbers of the dispossessed on to the road: It was a grim and frightening time. People in the rural community were torn between sympathy and fear. These men were just that, men, as good and as bad as others but their lot scarcely called for emulation by the young.
I do recall one lighter story to come out of that era. At the clamor for Government to do something, Road Camps were set up here and there. The local one was called The Trojan Camp (Troy after the fall, surely). Earnest college-trained sociologists appeared to rehabilitate the Knights of the Road. Migrants, itinerants and vagrants sounded more professional but the public continued to use hobos, tramps and bums.
One of them a little more vocal than most once objected to the politer terms but insisted that he was a hobo, not a tramp. He explained it to the case worker this way, “You see Ma’am, I’m a hobo, see. A hobo is a guy who travels and works – when he can anyway. But a tramp now, he just travels but he don’t work.”
“Then what about a bum?” he was asked.
“Oh a bum, Ma’am, he don’t neither travel nor work.”
I admit I no longer work much and there may not be all that much difference but if I keep moving, and write about it, I’m a Rambler instead of a tramp or a bum. Anyway you say it, it comes out Travelin’ Man.