Feeding Fifty Men Was Not Uncommon on Such an Occasion
Eatables in Great Abundance
by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, N.J.
originally published by the Hunterdon Co. Democrat, July 24, 1930
Note: I have included the punctuation as it appeared in the original article, even though I disagree with the editor’s use of commas, and wonder if that was how Mr. Bush wrote it. Also, when Mr. Bush refers to “the young generation,” he means people born in the late-19th and early 20th-century. Mr. Bush was born in 1848.
The frame is ready and the foundation is ready, so why not invite—wait, a minute. Don’t let’s forget the women in the house. They have been boarding the workmen all along, according to the custom of the day. The laborer was “worthy of his hire,” you know; but he was also worthy of his good, warm meals at the farmer’s table. A real democracy indoors and out; and the women were always ready to do their full share. Anyhow, to “do for a few more” did not seem to make much difference in the days that are gone. But preparing to feed fifty men besides the women helpers, was another proposition and a trying one. But you can safely wager that the housewife said, when asked about it: “Go ahead. We’ll have things ready; and be glad to have it done with.” That was the spirit of the time.
That dinner or supper or whatever it was to be, must be elaborate enough to correspond to the great occasion. A fine lot of choice meat must be provided, but there was probably a calf awaiting the shambles, or kept for this particular occasion. Big as the crowd was likely to be, the whole carcass would hardly be needed. But neighbor Brown was ready to borrow a quarter, to be paid back when he turned butcher a little later. That was the way among old-time farmers. Arrange with the neighbors for, say three quarters of a calf or a sheep, then “dress” the animal, keep one quarter at home and send out the rest of it to be coming back when the borrowers had quarters to spare.
The butcher as we know him did little business among farmers. Every farmer was a butcher, or at least could be for the time and occasion; and all profits to “middle-men” were avoided as far as possible. The custom had grown up out of necessity and a friendly spirit of cooperation among the earliest settlers. Whether in its later days it was either wise or economical may well be questioned. Like many other old customs, it probably outlived the necessity for it.
Sergeantsville eventually got its own butcher shop (see end of article).
Other provisions must also be in abundance, and neighboring women must be engaged to assist with the preparation and the serving. But the capable housewife and her friendly neighbors could always be trusted to manage matters of that kind. So the men went ahead, as emphatically directed, and invited practically everybody for a mile or more around. There was no trouble about finding help for a raising. A man not likely ever to need a return of such favor, would willingly help, perhaps remarking when asked: “I don’t often go to frolics. A man can generally get his work done some other way, but he can’t raise a building without plenty of help. Yes, I’ll be there.”
Whoever had pikepoles laid away in some loft for such emergencies, volunteered to bring them along. And most farmers did have two or more such poles, long, slim and stiff, with good pikes in the larger ends, carefully laid up for use when needed. Now you might scour a whole neighborhood and not find one pikepole. Most people would stare at you when asked for one, and the young generation would want to know what that old lunatic was talking about. But such poles were very useful in their day, in fact, they were indispensable as a safe and convenient means of pushing up the great bent after it had been raised too far to be reached by direct touch.
The men having gathered promptly at one o’clock or whatever time had been set—not standard time of daylight-saving time, but just one o’clock, of which everybody knew the meaning—the work was started by laying the sills on the foundation and securely pinning them together. They were expected to fit the foundation exactly, and generally did; for both had been measured and “laid out” with great care. The “laying out” of the foundation, simple though it may be, was an operation of much interest to a wondering, wide-eyed boy; and possibly it may be of some interest to wiser people.
Whether done by the carpenter or the mason, the process was the same. A short stake was driven into the ground, say six inches from a desired corner in line of what was to be the “face” of the building. Then, for a building 60 feet long, 61 feet coinciding with that face was measured off. The end of a long line was tied to the first stake, stretched taut to the second, wound about it and carried to the third, which was carefully set six inches from the drawn line and back so that the end line, when drawn, would cross the other six inches from the second stake. Then, for a building 36 feet wide, 37 feet was measured off, and the line was fastened to the fourth stake lightly driven. Now the corner must be tested to see if a right angle had been turned. If not, the last stake must be moved this way or that until the test was satisfactory.
This test was made by the simple but good old rule of “three-four-five,” but the dimensions were always double. The boss had no five-foot pole for measuring the hypotenuse, but he did have a graduated ten-foot pole for all long measurements. The helper held one end of this pole exactly at the crossing of the lines, while the boss stuck a pin through the line at just 8 feet from the crossing; then they measure 6 feet on the other line and stuck in another pin. The helper then took his end of the pole to one pin and the boss took his end to the other pin. If the distance between was just ten feet, all was right; if not, the correction must be made by moving the fourth stake. With careful measurement of distances and proceedings at other corners as before, all corners must be correct without further test or change. But the “diagonal corner”—diagonally across from the one tested—might be tried “to make assurance doubly sure.” You will understand, of course, that the six-inch distance is optional. Any distance may be used instead; but some fixed unit is desirable if not imperative; and some setting back is necessary to prevent interference with the stakes when digging.
After the placing of the sills, the next thing was to carry the timbers for the “bent’ at the far end. These were all fitted and pinned together.
You may be wondering what a “bent” was. I found a good explanation in a book called Barns; Their History, Preservation and Restoration, by Charles Klamkin (1973), in which the author wrote:
With the sills and floor beams laid it was then time to erect the barn frame. Instead of installing the upright posts one at a time into the sills and then tying them together with bracing, this heavy framing was done in sections on the ground. These frame sections, called bents, are analogous to ribs in an animal. The bent was a complete unit of framework, fully braced and extended from the sill to the point where the roof was attached. The bent was as wide as the width of the barn and from eight to sixteen feet high. Constructing the bents called for the only real skill and precision in the barn-building process.
From the way Mr. Bush described the laying out of the foundation, I would say it took almost as much skill as constructing a bent. He continues:
Then for the real raising of that bent. A man with an iron bar was stationed at each corner. Using the mortise in the sill for a foothold for his bar, he kept the post from slipping as the bent was raised. Other men each with a fence post or other piece of timber, stood ready to “scotch” the bent at every lift and hold what had been gained. But the bent soon became out of reach for either the lifters or these scotchers. Now the pikepoles began to be needed, the shorter ones at first and longer ones as the work progressed. For scotching, the “temple poles” are now beginning to catch hold.
These temple poles, as you may recall, were flattened at the larger end and bored through with a big auger. A similar hole had been bored through every post near the top. At these points the two poles were fastened, each by the king bolt of a farm wagon—locally the “shamble bolt,” though nobody knew why. The bolts were tightly wedged at the inner side of the post to prevent working out, and the poles came dragging, ends on the ground, as the bent went up. Great helps these poles were, both as safeguards and as means of control in shifting the first bent to a perpendicular, there to be securely fastened by boards nailed from half way up the posts to equal distance along the sills. This done, the temple poles were “kicked off” for use on the next bent. This literal kicking off was looked upon as a dangerous operation for both the kicker and the men on the ground. But due notice was always given, and men were usually well out of danger. Yet we were told of one carpenter, Daniel Pierson, son of Daniel Pierson of the Croton vicinity, who was seriously injured in spite of all precaution. He was helping with the raising of the frame for the Baptist Church at Cherryville in 1850. The falling pole was said to have struck him—probably it struck something else which “flew up” and struck Daniel. It was thought for some time that he was killed; but he rallied and finally recovered.1
Somebody might wonder how the movements of the men were controlled in a way to produce safe and effective raising of the great weight. But men at a raising were as much under control of the boss as the men of a military company are under control of their captain. Nobody was to lift or push without the command, which was given in this way: “H-e-a-v-e- O! h-e-a-v-e ‘e-r up!” This was long-drawn and skillfully modulated to secure the force and rate of motion desired. The men worked by his voice, halted at “up,” and waited for the repetition.
The end bent being up and secured, the inter-joists or short beams between this and the next bent, usually about 12 feet long, were inserted, pinned to the posts and left resting on their braces while the next bent was prepared for raising. And thus the work went on, each additional bent being pinned fast to its waiting inter-joists, until all were in place and properly secured.
The long plates were now shoved up and laid on the upper cross-beams just inside of the posts. Then they were taken up by men working on scaffolds reaching from beam to beam, set upon the posts, each mortise slipping down over its waiting tenon, and the whole plate pinned fast, there to remain, barring mishap by fire, for several generations. Now for the rafters—No; word has been sent in that the men are about ready for supper. Let the rafters wait for another day.
Was there no whisky there? Not during the raising; too much was depending upon steady nerves and steady heads and steady hands. Now that the danger was past, whiskey was plenty for everybody—perhaps too plenty for some. But who, in those “good old days,” would ever think of raising a big barn without providing liquor for those of his kindly helpers who wanted it, as most of them did. Some wanted very little, being almost total abstainers, but they did “like to see it around.”
We do not hear of raisings now. We never hear about pikepoles, temple poles or big “girts.” Two or three carpenters put up a frame one piece at a time—and skimpy little pieces they are. Pins are out of fashion. All the better, perhaps. If driven as oak pins were driven into oak timbers in the long ago, they would split the flimsy modern timbers into slivers.* The “good old days” may be largely fictitious, but the good old barns were certainly best—or would have been if the important matter of convenience had not been so generally disregarded. Or possibly they were best anyhow for their times and purposes. Who knows?
* Mr. Bush was aware of how much the quality of wood in the mid 19th-century had deteriorated by the 1930s. If he saw the kind of wood that is used in construction today, he would be aghast.
About twenty years ago, Charles Jurgensen wrote some essays about Delaware Township history, including the following one, which seems apt.
The Butcher Shop and Slaughter House at Sergeantsville
by Charles Jurgenson
Until the early 1900’s, butchering was a farm operation performed by a farmer and his family, occasionally with the aid of an itinerant butcher who furnished the equipment and skill for slaughtering the animal and sectioning it for preservation in a brine solution which was often followed by a few weeks exposure in a smoke house operated by Theodore Warman in Sergeantsville.
It is not known when butchering became a commercial operation in Delaware Township. There is some evidence that it began about 1911 when James B. Rittenhouse acquired land on the outskirts of Sergeantsville to provide a more suitable lane to a slaughter house that had been erected on the John Miller property. The slaughter house was approximately 20 feet square and raised off ground level to accommodate wagon height loading. Adjacent to the slaughter house were holding pens and auxiliary buildings for storage of hides.
The Sergeantsville butcher shop (not to be confused with a slaughterhouse) was erected on a narrow piece of land between the Rittenhouse residence and George Green’s barber shop. Today the butcher shop serves as the Sergeantsville Post Office. In the rear of the shop was a “walk-in” ice box, cooled by large blocks of ice that had been harvested from Grover’s Pond at Headquarters. In it “sides of beef” were suspended from an overhead track that extended from the loading area to the cutting block in the butcher shop.
Rittenhouse continued his butchering business until 1920 when he sold out to Edward Venable. He also sold his residence and adjoining farmland and buildings to Jacob Wilson, who had closed the Sergeantsville Hotel following the enactment of Prohibition. In time, Venable moved the slaughter house to his farm just south of the Sergeantsville main intersection. Clayton Miller (son of John Miller) continued to do the slaughtering and Otto Maresca took over the butcher shop in the post office building.
Today fresh meat is still available from the Maresca brothers who constructed a butcher shop near the site of the discontinued fire reservoir south of the village intersection.
Note: 1) Originally, access to the Miller tract (which was land-locked) was via an easement that provided an exit near Headquarters on the Sergeantsville-Ringoes Road. It is recorded in the County Clerks Office in Flemington, N.J., that James B. Rittenhouse purchased a strip of land 18 feet wide extending the full length of James B. Fulper’s farm for the purpose of creating a private lane to the Miller tract and the slaughterhouse. (1) It is recorded that the sale was made by James B. Fulper on March 30, 1911. The land in question was located along the east border of the Fulper farm. Reference to this purchase is also recorded in the property deed issued to Christian A. Jurgenson when he acquired the Fulper Farm in May 1913. (From a survey map of Christian A. Jurgenson’s farm.)
Note 2: The Maresca brothers and their butcher shop are now a part of the Township’s history. Their store is vacant at this time.
- Daniel Hebron Pierson, born April 2, 1826 to Daniel Pierson, Esq. and Anna McPherson. Mr. Bush wrote about this family in his article “Croton and Vicinity,” published in the Hunterdon Republican on July 22, 1896. Daniel Pierson, Esq. was a well-known carpenter in his neighborhood. His son Daniel married Hannah Chandler Buchanan on January 15, 1853, and lived in Franklin Township until sometime between 1870 and 1880 when he moved to North Plainfield, Somerset County to work as a builder. He died there on March 26, 1881, quite possibly from an accident as he was only 54. ↩