Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hoop poles

Mention a “hoop pole” today and you might inspire images of basketball or tent supports. A century or two ago, however, hoop poles were a well-known and valuable commodity that many local farmers harvested from the wild to earn extra cash.

Hoop poles were long, straight rods, cut in the woods from ash, hickory, hazel, and white oak saplings or from bushes that had been specially pruned for the purpose. While they might be cut in spring or fall, farmers often processed them in midwinter, when they were less busy. Bark and shoots, for instance, had to be removed.

The poles were used around the farm for many tasks such as rollers for moving heavy loads and for temporary floors under haystacks. They were also split to make barrel hoops and basket-weaving material; the poles were hammered to flatten them, soaked in water, and then split into the hoops that held the barrel staves together.

Perhaps the oddest use for hoop poles, however, was as stiffeners in the colossal, but fashionable skirts women sometimes wore in the 19th Century.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Role of roads

From the earliest days of our communities, highways were of great importance, but for much different reasons than they are today. The role of roads has changed significantly in the past century or so.

Two hundred ago, roads were chiefly lines of communication. They connected homestead with homestead, families with town and church, and towns with towns. There were no telephones, no radio, no television, no Internet, and no local newspapers. News traveled mostly by word of mouth, and mouths traveled over roads.

In those days work kept most people at home, not away from it. The farm was their occupation and their chief source of food and clothing. Today, work is often far from home and supplies are in town or the nearby city, all reachable by highways. News, on the other hand, arrives with the flick of a switch, the opening of a mailbox, the toss of a paper carrier, or the ring of a telephone.

In many ways, a road of old was like a wire of today.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Uncomfortable cold

Temperatures have dipped into the teens, and ice is forming on ponds. Yes, we’re finally feeling cold.

What we’re feeling, though, is nothing like what folks used to feel.

The people who settled New England experienced cold as you would never want to. In January and February, frigid air was a 24/7 phenomenon inside most houses, which were inefficiently heated and poorly insulated.

Until the arrival of central heating in the late 19th Century, houses were often iceboxes in winter. It was not unusual to have the water in the house turn to ice overnight and to have snow leak through windows and stay frozen on the floor. Frostbite was a problem not only outside, but indoors, where bedroom temperatures could approach zero. And let’s not even think of what outhouses were like.

So as your nose and fingers tingle and your breath freezes in front of you when you leave your well-heated home, take a moment to remember those hardy people who came before us and who knew few comforts at this time of year.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Bunny blues

Pity the poor New England Cottontail: It’s disappearing from its namesake.

The only native rabbit in southern Connecticut, the New England Cottontail was once widespread from southeastern New York to Maine. Today, studies by Connecticut and New Hampshire biologists are finding so few that this bunny has become a candidate for the federal Endangered Species List.

Several forces are working against the New England Cottontail. The thickets it lives in are disappearing, thanks to both man-made and natural changes. Its food is being gobbled up by deer and by the alien Eastern Cottontail, the rabbit we see all the time. Introduced a century ago by hunters seeking new game, the Eastern Cottontail is more adaptable to suburbanization.

There’s also the growing number of hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes, and even fishers, for whom rabbit is fine fare.

If all that isn’t bad enough, the New England Cottontail suffers from an identity crisis. It looks so much like an Eastern Cottontail that DNA samples are often needed to confirm that it’s native, not alien.

So even if you see one close-up, it’s tough to tell the rabbit is rare.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Tie Hacking

New England farmers were famous for not wasting time, energy or resources. Even in January and February, when the ground was frozen and snow covered, they were hard at work outdoors.

Mid-winter was the time for cutting down and chopping up trees. Most wood was bound for the fireplace or the stove, but not all.

In the 19th Century many local farmers made railroad ties. Tens of millions of these eight-foot, six-inch logs were needed yearly, not only to support new tracks being laid across America but also to replace existing sleepers, whose life expectancy was only about five years. The ties were cut and sledded back to the farm where were they were hand-hewn into shape. In the spring or summer, they were carted to the depot and sold to the railroad.

Even the bark shaved off the logs was saved and sold to local tanneries, which used bark extract in processing leather.

“Tie hacking,” as it was called, provided useful income to many people, most of whom were subsistence farmers growing little more than was needed for the family. In fact, many farmers earned more from winter work than summer crops.