By BRICE STUMP
The Daily Times of Salisbury
PARKSLEY, Md. (AP) — It was 60 years ago, and Otho “O.W.” Mears, 88, remembers an experience that has stayed with him all these years.
“I have always been a hunter and when I started back in the 1950s, goin’ everywhere, I met some very congenial farm-type people,” he said. “Down near Cedar Hall, I got to know some people, met a typical farm family livin’ off the land. One day in late March, I was in Pocomoke City, and wondered how my country friends were makin’ out. So I went to visit them.
“It was around 4 in the afternoon, on a typical cold March day, wind blowin’ sharp. When I pulled up, I saw the old lady in the woodpile, splittin’ wood with a double bit ax. I figured she was in her mid-70s. She had on a World War I overcoat and it was shredded from the waist down, a thousand tears in it, all the way down to her feet,” Mears recalled. “We made small talk about the cold weather. She said she was buildin’ a fire. She said `I’m chilled to the bone. I’ve just come off the marsh, I’ve been to my traps.’ After all these years that has stuck with me, that a woman in her mid-70s was trapping the marsh.”
Mears stayed in touch with the family over the years. “Besides the old lady, Annie Groton, there was her husband, Walter, and son, Darcey, living on the farm. When the parents died, the son came down to Virginia and didn’t get married until he was about 60 and he passed away recently and they had a sale of his things some time ago,” he said.
“A few weeks ago I visited a friend, and in his workshop he showed my a daily farm ledger that went from 1937 through the 1950s. He found it in a box-lot be bought at auction,” he said. “I opened the ledger and saw that it was the old lady’s journal of her trapping operation. It listed every day she went to the marsh, what she caught and what she sold them for. I thought it was ironic that I stumbled on this. I asked If I could copy it and the guy said I could have it because he knew I collected traps.”
The ledger, which may have followed others, listed the business transactions of the family farm along the Pocomoke River. It is a seldom seen look into rural life on Delmarva in the 1930s and 1940s. There is a blend of self sufficiency, independence, self motivation and enterprising ventures, and the many hats country folk often wore to make ends meet.
“Sometimes I’d go in their house and warm-up from my huntin’ trips while they were eatin’ dinner,” he said. “It was no palace, just a basic house. There weren’t even rugs on the floors, just as bare as they day they were laid.”
That he personally knew those mentioned in the journal brings them to life as his eyes move down the list of transactions.
“It took hours to go through it and everybody marvels at the descriptions of items,” Mears said. “Even though it was handled every day, the cover is not soiled, and there is not a single page that is bent or torn. I couldn’t believe it. The trapping part encompasses January, February and March of each year and in between is what happened on the farm.”
At his kitchen table, with the steady hum of his refrigerator purring behind him, the former auctioneer reviewed special entries into the book. He has been through every single page, looking for the unusual now, that was the usual then. There is much to be found, things that makes one think, smile and even laugh.
In 1939, Darcey caught just 15 muskrats. For the trapping season his mother noted he sold “one ‘coon hide for $1.79, two `possum hides for 50 cents and one weasel hide for 25 cents.”
“A weasel is a little squirrel-type thing that can go in a hole about the size of a quarter. If he gets in chicken house, you’ll find a lot of chickens laying around dead. He drinks the blood right out of the neck,” Mears said. There are a number of entries noting weasels being caught. “A weasel hide isn’t much, not very big. Maybe you could make a coat for a mouse out of one weasel hide,” he said with laughter.
Groton wrote that she sold “88 muskrat hides and one coon, $119.70,” and sold “two raccoon hides $7.” In 1944 she caught 18 rats for the season. In 1945, she was paid got $78.75 for “38 rats and hides,” and was able to sell “12 ‘coon meats for $2.05.” The hides of small, young muskrats, called “kitts,” sold for 40 cents apiece.
There was also one novel entry. Annie sold “one mink, $6, 2 `coons at $2.75 and a fox $2.” “It’s very rare but the occasional mink still shows up today among trappers,” Mears said. In 1941, Annie sold “15 ‘rat hides, skunk and half a mink, $21.40.” The journal suggests she also skinned, cleaned and stretched hides. She also notes shed sold “one 12 pound turtle sold for 50 cents.”
Page after page reveal the diversity of business interests on the Groton farm. “You don’t hear this term anymore, but people use to call white potatoes `cobblers.’ She bought a bag for seed, $3.75,” Mears said. In addition to also selling potatoes, there are entries for selling feed bags, “10 pigeons, for $2, two pounds of homemade butter for $1, basket of pears for 45 cents, corn, half a cord of wood for $5, 6 and a half pounds of homemade soap $1.35, two pounds of sausage for 80 cents, and a bushel of turnips for $1.”
In 1941, the Grotons sold “four pounds of bacon, 35 cents; six pounds of scrapple $1.50 and four and a half a pound of loin roast for $2.25, nine pounds of hog jowl for $1.35.” They sold ten hogs to Pocomoke City butcher Simon Helig for $205. “Annie’s calf, born Jan. 24 1939 sold at 185 pounds for $31.29 in 1945.”
“This will make tears in your eyes,” Mears said. “They sold `Buttercup the Cow,’ that weighed 935 pounds, for $263.64. It looks like she also sold another cow for $25 and `Lily’s calf, 204 pounds at 17 cents a pound, $31.36.’ ” On July 31, 1947, the family sold “Julia, the mule, for $25.”
Though some farm commodities were produced in small numbers, they nevertheless brought in income. They Grotons sold “four pounds butter and one gallon of milk $2.88, one Hereford bull $130, and six buckets of grapes $3.60.” Mears found several entries for feather and down sales. “Sold, two pounds of goose feathers, $1.20, four pounds of goose feathers at 60 cents a pound,” Annie wrote. She also sold 27 pounds of wool at 40 cents a pound.
“They lived on Pocomoke River,” Mears said, “and apparently charged people to pasture livestock on their farm or marsh for $12.”
There are also notes in the journal in 1937 about how many times a day Annie fed the farm mules. Besides selling, the farm family were also retail store customers. Automobile tags in 1944, cost them $8.87. They bought several goats at $10 each, two pair of shoes — one pair for $3.98 the other for $1.89. A hunting coat cost $6.08, and three dozens traps, $14.85. The Grotons had to pay for gas, an entry notes they paid $8.35 for 50 gallons of gasoline. A horse collar was $7.80 and the cost of vaccinating one horse was $3 and $4 for three hog.
In 1944, the Grotons bought “four trucks loads of chicken manure for $60.” The purchased “two new suits of underwear and socks $2.73. One black horse $125. One pair work shoes for Darcy, size 7 and half, $3.98 and American Legion dues $3.” Groceries, by the month in 1942, varied from $7.38 to $4.64. A new mattress set them back $16.10.
A new Farmall tractor, in 1947, cost Walter and Annie Groton $1,350. Blacksmith work done on wagon wheel was $1.50 and a rear spring for a 1938 car, in 1947, cost them $1. In 1937, a carpenter worked for 15 hours and his bill was $18.75. “They also paid for seven hours of labor for `Ned and Richard.’ One got 60 cents and hour, the other 50 cents,” Mears explained.
They sold hogs, 11 old hens for $22.62, five sheep for $48.85, four dozen eggs fetched for 96 cents. They also sold cabbage plants and clover seed. Fourteen geese brought in $26.98. Annie noted that “33 pullets, 13 roosters, young, sold for $31.50″ in 1936 and, in 1937, Mrs. Groton sold 377 pounds of geese (28) for $60.32, one Leghorn rooster for $7.83 and 30 young chickens for $34.50. “Settin’ hens sold for $3.25 apiece,” Mears said. One goose sold for $3.30 and a gander, 14 pounds, sold for $4.20.
“She kept records of the smallest details” Mears said. “In 1939, she wrote that she had six hens setting on 36 goose eggs, then had an inventory of the number of geese setting and how many eggs under each individual goose.”
“Walter had trees on the farm and had them cut and sold the lumber. “He paid $5.20 to have 10 logs milled,” Mears said.
“I have never seen any book like this, it is incredible, and I had been around for a long time,” said Mears, “and I enjoy history to no end. To finally come across a daily ledger in immaculate condition in perfect handwriting with all this detail is just remarkable.”
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)