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 Beautiful Belmont, Part 25 -- The Corn Husking Bee.

by John Salisbury Cochran.

See previous entry: Beautiful Belmont, Part 24 -- Making Maple Sugar.

Corn huskings were notable social events on the farm. These were occasions when the old and young both participated, and marked the winding up, to a large extent, of the fall work. The social cheer at these gatherings took on a more animated spirit than possibly any other occasion. Apparently, the drudgery of the summer and fall work being over brought on a relief which sought expression in cheerfulness. All classes of people seemed to appreciate it alike, and in the earlier settlements this sentiment ordinarily resulted in the jovial old-fashioned "husking bee" in which the whole neighborhood participated. Later on such gatherings became more restrictive, and none came who were not invited.

Many of these more recent "husking bees" were made more pleasant, and at the same time more profitable, by the women having a "quilting party" on the same day. The elderly ladies would come in the morning, quilting all day, when those who could not remain would return to their homes. In the evening the young ladies would arrive to assist in preparing and serving the meal after the husking bee was over, usually about ten o'clock at night, and be in at the "jumping of the cat." The gentlemen, old and young, did not arrive until after supper at six o'clock in the evening, and at once went to the corn pile or field. Near the close of the husking the young ladies came to the corn pile to try their luck at finding the red ear, for which a prize was awarded.

At a typical "corn husking" and "quilting party" held at our farm, we gathered the corn from the field by pulling the ears, husk and-all, from the stalks, hauling them to the sixteen-acre field near the barn, and piling them in a long row of even proportions throughout its whole length. This pile, called a "rick," was separated into two equal parts by making a gap midway along its length. The huskers selected two men as captains, and these drew straws or cast lots for the first choice of huskers. After all those present were selected by alternate choosing, the captains again cast lots for choice of piles. Any husker coming after the contest had begun took his place on the side having the next choice. The owner of the corn was made the judge of quality of the husking. The side first getting through their pile was declared the winner, providing their corn was properly husked. After helping the other side finish, then all kinds of sports and trials of strength and skill were in order for a half hour or more in the open moonlight, before retiring to the house.

First, the two captains tried their skill in a three-fall wrestle, in full view of the huskers. Each captain had the privilege of refusing by furnishing a substitute from his side. In this way the best wrestlers on the ground were generally pitted against each other, and very frequently the best wrestlers were the first choice of huskers, so that if beaten at the husking they could redeem their prestige by being victorious at the wrestling. A victory at wrestling was supposed to offset one at the husking. After these two tests the field was open for general, all-round individual tests, at jumping, hopping, wrestling, shouldering, lifting, hand-springing, throwing the shoulder stone, sledge and numerous other tests, such as "dog wrestling" and weighing the broom handle.

In "dog wrestling," the two contestants lie down on their backs, side by side on the ground with their feet in different directions and elbows next to each other interlocked. They then raise the foot nearest each opponent to a perpendicular position, so as to quickly interlock their heels and cause one or the other to "skin the cat" by pulling him suddenly over on his face, with his head and feet in the same direction as the victor's. This is quite a laughable and surprising wrestle.

In "weighing the broom handle," two parties sit down on the floor with legs extended and the bottoms of their feet touching. A broom handle is held in the center above their toes, and each party takes hold. At a given signal, each tries to pull the other up from the floor. This was more a matter of body weight than real strength, although it was not entirely without its points of skill and quickness of action.

Aunt Tilda was the sunshine of one such evening, and brought mirth and enjoyment whenever she was waiting on the table. Upon returning to the house, the whole company enjoyed a delightful supper of all that the farm could afford, prepared and served by the hands of fair young beauties and amiable dames. How, amid the musty books of the law, and the intricate questions and hard toil of the courtroom, my mind reverts to the work on the farm and the dear old corn huskings! How amid the stilted etiquette of the aristocratic dinner parties and the high-toned revelry of the fashionable banquet hall, has my memory passed back to that well-filled table and honest, happy faces in the old farm house! The faces of father, mother, sisters, brothers, friends and loved ones -- they pass before me now in glad review, as animated and joyous as when I saw them at that supper table so long ago. The distance of years between then and now only adds a brilliant glow to each face and a halo to each brow. Sadly, they are all gone -- all gone -- leaving nothing but their memories.

When supper was over, the first sport of the evening was the "jumping of the cat." The house cat was carefully wrapped in the new quilt -- the production of the quilting party -- and the young people -- ladies and gentlemen in couples -- were arranged in a hollow square. A couple from each side of the square stepped to the center, grasped each side of the quilt and running backward to their positions in the line, opened the quilt with the bewildered cat brought suddenly to view in the center. The couple in the direction which the cat jumped, were certain to be those who would first marry. This would be repeated three times so as to know to an absolute certainty the next three weddings -- in their proper order -- to occur in the neighborhood.

In the earlier days, the activities indulged in at these gatherings were quite primitive. The play of "King William" was one of these. A lady and gentleman -- arm in arm -- started promenading round the room, singing:

"King William was King James' son,
And from that noble race he sprung,
And on his breast he wore a star,
'Twas called the royal point of war.
Go choose your east, go choose your west,
Go choose the one whom you love best,
If she's not here to take your part,
Go choose the next one to your heart."

At this point another gentleman selected a lady partner, following in the train of the others. This was repeated until all the company had been added as promenaders. Then the couples divided into two groups, each facing the other in a line that extended down the room. With arms interlocked along each line while simultaneously reaching across to hold the outstreched hands in the other line, a contest then ensued to see which side could pull the other to its side of the room. These sports gave way to enjoyments of a more literary nature as the settlement became more advanced and many of our young people were being educated in eastern colleges.

On the occasion of one husking bee, with the aid of the piano and violins, some fine solos and quartets were well rendered and highly enjoyed. These were followed by readings in poetry and prose, and a couple speeches. I took no part in these, as my duties that evening in entertaining were many. Minerva was a fine reader, and on this occasion she responded to the request of the company by reading "Gray's Elegy" in an impressive manner.

Our brother Robert and sister Lucelia, who were then home on vacation from college, also took part. Poor, tenderhearted Lucelia! She faded and died in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley when the flower of life was scarce entering full bloom. And noble-hearted, dear old Rob now peacefully sleeps under the little hillock in the delightful cemetery which kisses the lake at Toledo, Ohio, the waves of which will forever sing his sweet lullaby. Rob was a noble fellow, and there were few who did not love him. He was the soul of every gathering and full of literary tastes and attainments. On the evening in question he gave a fine reading, as he had been a pupil under Professor Kid, and was a fine reader. In later years he became noted the whole country over for his happy, eloquent Grand Army speeches and after-dinner talks. In this he had few, if any, equals. He was cut off in the prime of life and in the full power of his manhood.

Time of Romance

At the husking bee, I asked Minerva to remain until the main portion of the guests had left, to which she gladly consented. Charlie Chandler and his lady companion also remained, as they all went the same road home. On the way home, I began by congratulating Minerva on her choice of "Gray's Elegy" as her reading for the evening. We discussed the qualities of the piece, some facts of the author's life, his other works, one of which I thought might have been influenced by a disappointed love affair. Minerva found it a pointless thing for men to be so wounded by the fickle nature of women, and I asked if she meant to be disparaging about her own sex. "Not at all! On the contrary I stoutly defend it. I see a great deal of hollowness in the flattering etiquette of my sex, though; so much duplicity." "Do you also see it in men?" I asked. Minerva said she did not, at least not to the extent she observed it in women. She wondered again, however, why men wasted so much of their precious time and talent in courting vain women, when they had great opportunities for success in various career pursuits. "It seems to me they display unpardonable weakness," she responded.

I explained that the love and admiration of women have always entered into the ambitions and achievements of men. They have largely been the mainspring of all noble aims and hopes and much happiness. At the same time, I added, love has been the source of much sorrow. I went on to express the feeling that a truly noble man should have an exalted opinion of women; maternal affection should teach him this, if nothing else. I also felt that there was something planted in man's nature, something he cannot control, and probably would not if he could, which causes him to turn to women for love. Minerva responded that she thought I had misunderstood her; she had not berated all women, only 'vain women,' not all women. "My complaint was against the time lost on them by men of known and acknowledged genius," she explained.

She attempted to make herself better understood by pointing out that men also spent too much time and talent in areas like literature, art, and war, as well as on love and the conjugal affections -- time which might be used in pursuits of more material interest to the human family. Suppose, she urged, that the labor, talent, and money foolishly expended on such things could be directed towards bettering economic conditions and cultivating brotherly love and the extinction of war. "It is hard telling where the human family would have been today under such conditions," she suggested.

I apologized for misunderstanding her meaning; I added that I had thought that Minerva had no objection to true love, from a true man to a noble woman -- one without vanity. She understood the personal nature of this remark. "There now," she responded, "you are abandoning the broad field of generalization and making your arguments entirely too personal. A moment ago it was the whole world. Now it is you and me." I observed that since the defense had withdrawn from the case, I would ask for a judgment in my favor. "The court does not know herself, and is not ready to announce a decision tonight, so we will call the next case," Minerva said laughingly.

Minerva then told me that she would be leaving the following Saturday to visit her sister in Jobetown for a week, and asked whether I would come to her sister's house on Sunday with my buggy and take her to the yearly meeting of Friends in Mt. Pleasant. I said I would be delighted to do so; I also gave her a gift I had ordered just for her -- a book of poems -- which I hoped we could discuss when we met again. Minerva seemed very grateful and gave me a look of appreciative tenderness. Arriving at Minerva's home, we stood at the gate talking until my friend Charlie had walked his own date home to the old Weeks mansion by the cemetery, then returned to walk with me the rest of the way to Charlie's house, where I was to spend Sunday. We exchanged a few last pleasantries, and with a tender pressure of the hand, Minerva and I parted.

On our way across the field, Charlie and I sat on the stile [a stepped platform allowing people to walk over a fence, but still confining livestock] a few minutes to take in the beautiful surroundings and enchanting moonlight. Charlie said, as he removed his hat to catch the genial, soft autumn breeze, "I have long suspected that you and Minerva love each other. I do not wish to intrude, and probably it is indelicate to mention it, but you and I have been good friends for a long time, and I felt it would be pardonable to say that I hope I am correct; if it's true it would fill me with happiness." Charlie said that he felt that both Minerva and I were such nice people, and perfectly matched as a couple. He said that all the young men in the neighborhood and in town were in love with her, but they all knew that she paid no attention to anyone else when I was around.

"Charlie," I said, "there is nothing hidden between you and me, never has been, except this one matter; but now I am free to talk to you about it, so far as my own feelings go. I do love Minerva, and have since I was a child; but this is as far as I can go, because I do not know that she loves me. She has never told me so." Charlie looked astonished, and I then related to him my declaration of love, and Minerva's postponed reply to it. Charlie assured me that Minerva had done the right thing, but was also sure that Minerva loved me with her whole heart. "There is no mistaking that," Charlie said, "the trouble is, she is too young and bashful to acknowledge it, and you are too young and fearful to see it."

I thanked Charlie for his encouraging words, and expressed the hope that he was right. Charlie spoke with confidence: "Why, do you not know that everyone says she loves you and you love her? As recently as tonight, when Aunt Tilda slyly told Minerva that she hoped the cat would jump toward you two, she said that you were 'the best fellow in the world,' I noticed Minerva blush deeply; and when she replied, she said 'Those things never jump our way, auntie, and I'm afraid to try.' After the shaking out of the quilt I heard her say, 'Now, Aunt Tilda, what do you think of that, he never asked me to try my luck with the cat.' 'Never mind, honey, he loves you all just the same, guess he was afraid, like you.... 'Fraid de cat wouldn't jump toward you.' You know how Minerva took your part at the apple paring, and how she has always done so. You and Minerva will be married, and I'll be the best man and dance at your wedding," Charlie concluded. Then we rose and slowly made our way to Charlie's home.

See next entry: Beautiful Belmont, Part 26 -- The Fun of Hand-Me-Downs.

For the table of contents and first entry in this series, see: Beautiful Belmont, Part 01 -- Table of Contents and Brief Introduction.

This entry is adapted from Bonnie Belmont: A Historical Romance of the Days of Slavery and the Civil War, by John Salisbury Cochran, which was published originally in 1907. The book has been reedited extensively for inclusion in the Pierian Press Fulltext eBooks database, and is included on the Stratton House Inn Web site by special permission. This special edition of Beautiful Belmont is licensed for use ONLY on this Web site. It may not be copied or downloaded, but may be used for educational purposes and personal pleasure under fair-use provisions via this Web site. Please note that this Stratton House Inn iteration of the book does NOT include the subject headings assigned each chapter for use in the Fulltext eBooks database.

CO-AUTHOR: Wall, C. Edward. (Editor)
CO-AUTHOR: Schultheiss, Tom. (Asst. Editor)

DATABASE: Fulltext eBooks: Copyright (c) 2000 The Pierian Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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