Halloween Antics At an Old Poor Farm
Here's Halloween again, and the previous time I read ``Tam o'Shanter'' to the wee bairns, the only one I frightened was poor me.
`Tis a terrible thing even in fancy to see that poor Maggie, gaining the bridge just in the old nick, so to speak, but her tail sacrificed to Tam's foolishness, and Kate waiting at home with her wrath on fire. I tell you honestly, as age comes on and my tendencies soften, I've had to give up reading Tam on Halloween, and limit myself to pleasanter things like Little Orphan Annie. Boo!
As fine a Halloween as I ever had was at the poor farm; and as poor farms became no-no's many decades ago, this was in my youth. Not knowing they were inferior citizens, the guests, or inmates, or poor folks, attended the party with all the expectations of the younguns who came to observe the occasion. The political do-gooders, who fomented the illusion that being poor and relying on public aid was some kind of disgrace, were abusing the facts to some extent.
Here in Maine, every township had a poor farm, and living there was not always an unhappy experience; nor did it necessarily entail whatever it was the political reformers found objectionable. To begin with, most small-town folks then lived on farms anyway, and the poor farm was as often called the ``town'' farm - the one farm in town that was owned and operated by the town.
The ``keeper'' of the town farm would be a man whose wife was accounted a good cook and housekeeper, and willing and able.
Now we have homes for old folks. But in town-farm days, we had ``poor in'' and ``poor out.'' Every year at town meeting, the voters would make two generous appropriations to care for poor folks in the town farm and for those who were not quite so needy and lived at home, or perhaps with relatives.
The keeper of the poor farm was paid wages, but he was also expected to operate the farm on something of a paying basis. His gardens grew food. Then he might also ``work out'' with his team of horses, doing road grading for the town, or perhaps yarding firewood for neighbors. The way towns kept books on such matters, a town-farm keeper, and sometimes incumbent selectmen, would boast in the annual town report that the community ``made money'' in caring for its indigent citizens.
And it so happened that the father of a schoolmate was appointed keeper of our town farm one year, and he performed so successfully that he was reappointed and held the job for a decade or more.
The schoolmate's mother, now custodian of the town's ``poor in,'' was a good one for holding parties for her only daughter. For birthdays and other suitable excuses, we'd assemble for games, and refreshments, and fellowship, and in my recollection nobody ever staged better parties than Dorothy's mother.
So for a few years, we met at the poor farm and enjoyed the company of the six or eight ``poor in'' who lived there and couldn't very well be sent away while the young folks frolicked. Comes to mind now the year Miss Elvina Larkin joined in our Halloween antics and bobbed for apples in a wooden tub, dousing her head to her shoulders to come up with a Nodhead. Miss Larkin was 92 that fall, and the town held a birthday party for her in the Grange Hall.
Then Auntie Carmelle Bachelder, one year, recited Little Orphan from the way she memorized it at Grove Street School 84 years ago. Youngsters and ``poor ins'' shook the town-farm rafters when it came to: ``An the Gobble-uns `at gits you, Ef you Don't Watch Out!''
Then we always had special local fun with the Dead Ship of Harpswell, and just about anybody in town, old or young, could repeat those verses:
The ghost of what was once a ship is sailing up the Bay.
The hawksnest model of the Private Dash hung, and still hangs, in our town library, so Whittier's poem was one we had all memorized for Friday afternoon school recitals. Built in the Brewer shipyard, she sailed as a topsail schooner, but for speed was rigged square sails forwards and schooner sails aft, with a ringtail off her main boom. She knew no equal in speed, never took an enemy shot. In several voyages as a privateer in the War of 1812 she sent in 15 prizes.
Then she disappeared in a squall with her captain and 62 men, never to be seen again.
Except, of course, as a ghost ship, celebrated by poet Whittier, and great stuff for Halloween parties in her hometown. Sometimes, even when it is not Halloween, `tis reported that she comes silently into Casco Bay on the edge of a scud of sea or a bank of fog, only to be gone when you look again.
Then we had a carol party at the town farm one year, with a new fall of snow and a clearing full moon, and after a last carol and the last popcorn ball, the keeper of the farm brought out his pair of bays, with a hayrack body on his two-sled.
Guests of the party and guests of the township, all one and the same, went jingling all the way about the village until everybody except the town farm folks was home. Then they went home, and they might have been embarrassed at being underprivileged and victims of social indifference, but they didn't show it. Not that I noticed, anyway.