By Mervyn The Hired Hand
My mother’s father was a wiry old cuss, more elf than Santa but for one thing: he was a story teller. I guess he had to be, raising ten kids on an old dairy farm in the rocky hillsides of middle upstate New York during the Great Depression. He had an amazing ability to sit down with children and spin a bedtime story out of thin air on the spur of the moment, sometimes starting with something mundane that had happened the same day, but never telling the same story twice. We kids were spellbound as we listened quietly—probably the only quiet time during the day—to Granddad tell his bedtime tales. Ah, what I would give for a book of those stories today!
This was no sentimental softy charming the children. He had a grip of iron when he squeezed your knee, and his word was law when settling squabbles. He had been a lumberjack, a plumber, a furniture re-upholsterer, and eventually a dairy farmer to feed his kids while others stood in bread lines. Skinny as a rail and tough as nails, none of my larger uncles would stand up to him. But he had a soft spot for kids, and an imagination to rival Mother Goose.
He also had an old red dog named Fritz. Nobody knew what kind of dog Fritz was, but he was about the size of a border collie, covered head to toe with long rusty red hair, and his tail held up like a flag. This was a farm dog: twice a day Granddad would make a small hand motion telling Fritz to go get the cows. That sleepy red dog would suddenly tear out of the yard like a tornado, streaking down the hill, across the creek and up through a distant pasture. A half hour later, he’d bring 60 dairy cows slowly into the barn for milking. Fritz was an amazing dog, quick to find the cows, but never rushing them to the barn, so they never lost their milk. And he never left one out to pasture, bringing in every stray.
One cold, stormy Christmas Eve, Granddad told a bedtime story about his forgetting the cows had been shut in the barn all day due to the weather, and sending Fritz out to bring them in for milking by mistake. Fritz was off like a flash, skidding around the corner of the barn to find the cows. He was gone an unusually long time.
After awhile, Granddad remembered the cows were still in the barn. He began to wonder what was taking Fritz so long to figure it out and started milking, when suddenly there was a loud commotion at the barn door, which remained open about a foot. Granddad looked up to find a mob of every goose, chicken and barn cat on the farm squeezing through the door opening, carefully herded by that red dog Fritz.
Not finding any cows in the pasture, Fritz had done the best he could, bringing everything else he could find into the barn. Apparently Fritz had a rather strong herding instinct, and wanted everyone to be included. We kids all laughed and marveled at this story of the red dog with a determined but gentle Christmas spirit. Then we went quietly to bed.
By Mervyn The Hired Hand
My mother’s Dad lived on a small dairy farm in the hilly country of southern upstate New York, and there was an old one-room schoolhouse on the farm where kids of all ages from nearby farm families were taught by my Grandma. Over the years, the schoolhouse fell into disrepair, and the local school board met repeatedly to try and figure out how to fix it.
As usual, the principal issue was money. Nobody wanted to spend any more than they had to, so when one of them proposed to build a new schoolhouse, that idea came in the front door and went out the window, as Grandma used to say. This happened repeatedly, until a vote was taken by the school board turning down the proposal to build a new schoolhouse.
Eventually, the school board had a showdown. Meeting in the schoolhouse on Christmas day, discussion among school board members was opened by one of them complaining that the roof leaked, saying it needed repairs. Arguing if they couldn’t have a new schoolhouse, at least they should keep the kids dry, Granddad made a motion to repair the roof. After lengthy discussion of the least expensive way to do this, a vote was taken and they agreed to shingle the roof.
Spying a glimmer of opportunity, Granddad noted many of the windows were cracked or broken, causing heat loss in winter and making it difficult to keep the kids warm. A motion was made to repair or replace all the cracked or broken windows. After lengthy discussion, a vote was taken and they agreed to repair the windows.
This lead to discussion of the inadequacy of the old wood stove used to heat the one-room schoolhouse. Noting the hinges on the door to the stove were broken, Granddad moved to replace the old wood stove with a new coal burning stove. After some discussion, a vote approved this proposal.
Looking down at the old, worn wooden floor of the schoolhouse, one board member noted the cracks between the boards were getting large enough to let bugs and mice in, and a lot of heat out in winter. A motion was made to replace the floor of the schoolhouse, and a majority voted in favor of it.
Next the wooden board and batten walls came under scrutiny, because the old newspapers that had been pasted across the gaps between the boards were peeling off as the wood shrank and the gaps got wider, allowing cold winter air in. A motion was made to insulate the walls and cover the insulation with drywall on the inside. After lengthy discussion, a vote of the school board approved this motion.
The entryway to the schoolhouse was through a small mudroom with an old, cracked wooden door hanging from one hinge so it was hard for kids to open and close securely. With kids coming and going, the door was often partly open, letting heat out and cold air in. Granddad moved the entryway be enlarged and a coat room added with a new double door, and the motion was passed.
The hour was getting late when Granddad reviewed what the schoolboard had done during the meeting, totaled up the estimated costs, and suggested all the repairs might cost more than building a new schoolhouse. Then he made a motion to build a new schoolhouse, saying it would be less expensive to build a new one than to repair the old one. The motion was passed unanimously. Eventually, a new schoolhouse was built. My grandparents and most of their kids are long deceased, but the little one-room Christmas schoolhouse where my Grandma taught my Granddad to read still stands.