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What Do We Know About Their Skills?…

What Do We Know About Their Skills?…

So, I imagine you have seen the TV program entitled “How it’s Made,” right?  So, if you can watch each episode, you will get a look at the past, with a bit of a spin from today.  I am going to give you the past without today’s spin, ok?  I am going to start out with the cooper…hmm.  What you might have learned, over the years with us, is that a cooper was a barrel maker.  Such an important occupation as foods and drink had to be secured in a tightfitting vessel, large enough to hold a week’s worth of grain and rainwater for the cleansing of dishware and iron cooking cauldrons…we often call them kettles but that is a different “animal” all together.

Although a farmer could hollow out a tree trunk to make a barrel, it was a long and tedious job.  A cooper, working with wood, spans a myriad of functions but none are more interesting than that of the barrel.  This wonderment of his craft was more often made of oak having a large portion of trees to choose from and the handcrafting of barrels took years to master.

The wood is first seasoned either in a kiln or out in the yard allowing the wood to evaporate and dry out leaving the wood ready for any household purpose.  The wood is then milled and cut into rounds for the bottom and the top while long slats are shaped to run vertically to the rounds and grooved to fit into each other.  No glue is used in a good constructed barrel.  Once the staves are in place a ring holds it together while the barrel is “toasted” to make the wood soft.  Using a mallet, the finishing bands are hammered around the softened barrel and it’s ready to sell.  By 1800, iron hoops began to be used but before that the hoops were made of thin strips of wood, mostly from hickory or chestnut.

If this cooper kept to the barrels, what was called a “white” cooper made the small items such as grain measures, sieves, firkins and boxes.  A firkin was also used for liquids and a common one measured 72 pints of liquid and could be used as a measure for beer and ale.

Cloth had two places to come into being in our early American history.  One is the mill for wool and the other is in the home.  Linen, the most common material of the early colonies was a labor-intensive process starting out with the flax plant…yes, a plant.  In order to retrieve the fibers within the plant the woody stem must be rotted away.  To do this the flax is laid in a brook where it is constantly wet until the fiber within can be taken away from the stem.

It is then taken by a handful and run, along a series of nails in a board called a hatchel…this is a nasty looking tool but needed to separate the fibers.  Those fibers are then spun on a flax wheel, similar to a spinning wheel but set up with a cage-like holder called a distaff.  Most of the linen worn and used in the United States comes from foreign lands.  It is said that linen from Belgium is the finest with that from Scotland and Ireland not far behind.  There is no significant commercial production of linen fabric in the United States.

The cultivation of linen goes back as early as 3000 B.C., being processed into a fine, white fabric for the wrapping of the Egyptian Pharaohs.  The ancient Greeks and Romans valued it as well and due to its value, flax was introduced into Northern Europe and, of course, to the New World.

Both wool and linen were important fabrics and flax is an easy plant to grow but the process, oh the process, all done by hand, all of it.  The preparation was only the beginning…the threads had to be woven which meant a loom needed to be involved.

Now this was the easy part.  Once the thread was spun and wound onto spools, an itinerant weaver could be hired to set up his loom in the barn, weave whatever was needed, seek payment and take down his loom and move on.  Since settlers were urged to plant a small plot of flax as early as the 17th century, it is not surprising that linen clothing and household items exist in museums today.  With wool becoming the fiber most easily processed by New England textile mills, linen production was mostly abandoned in the US.  However, some New Englanders of Scotch and Irish background continued to cultivate some flax for domestic linens such as bedsheets, towels and tablecloths and if she so desired, the weaver could put the two fabrics together, resulting in what is called linsey-woolsey.

What has become a staple at the Bryan-Andrew house is the iron cooking pots with the ever-present life of the blacksmith that made them.  We have one with his initials carved into the long handle leading back to the tell-tale rat’s tail at the end.  A sure sign of its age.  It is said that the blacksmith was the most important of the American artisans because few men had the ability to do the work.  A forge or oven was built of stone, more often than brick with an opening for the intense fire using bellows to keep the fire hot and then some.

After heating the iron, getting it red hot, an anvil, a heavy mass of iron was fastened to a large chunk of log secured in such a way as to withstand the blow of the hammer, the shape of which can be seen after continual heating and hammering.  So, the blacksmith could make utensils, tools, pot hooks, trivets, toasters, broilers, and handles of every kind.  But who made the iron pots and the spiders?  These items are formed, to specifications deriving from its intended use.  Iron ore is melted to remove the oxygen and in this mouton stage it is poured into a mold and thus cannot be bent into shape but to take on the shape of the mold of compacted sand.

One particular artisan appears in most towns but passing by a cemetery does not elicit the question, who were the carvers of gravestones?  The staff of the Orange Historical Society has cleaned* over two dozen stones, noting few differences except for the extensive wear on some verses others.  Each stone, cleaned had over 200 years of crud and vegetation, obscuring the life of the deceased while water and a toothbrush gave “life” to them, not to be forgotten.  These stones memorialize both the people and the ideals of their day and we forget that who they were is obliterated by time.

The cemetery was created in 1805, before the Congregational Church was built and to our sadness, a little boy, Joseph Treat was the first to be buried there at the age of 4 months.  This is the part of our job that is sad and Mary Clark, 1 month old wasn’t a pleasure to clean either but I felt she was remembered as I read her name, Mary A.  Using church records we found that her middle name was Augusta, daughter of Treat and Sarah Clark.  In comparing the monuments, more young people are buried in New Haven’s Grove Street cemetery giving rise to the health conditions surrounding children changed by the time Orange Cemetery was created.  Other stones are fascinating.  While cleaning off a very cruddy stone we found John Gunn, a Revolutionary soldier.  His epitaph is no longer legible and rubbing with tissue paper is no longer allowed in any cemetery, to my knowledge.  I know where to find Civil War veteran, Joseph Casner, just a few yards from one of the roadways.  I will be cleaning his stone so he will be recognized as folks pass by.

Unlike the stones in the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven, the decorated, top portion of most of the stones, here in Orange, are pretty much the same, a willow tree and sometimes with an urn.  We have seen a hand with a finger pointing upward which means the pathway to Heaven with an angel meaning the same.  There are four Merwin Andrew stones, side-by-side for his children died within days of each other from the dreaded diphtheria epidemic of 1859.  Each stone has a different design at the top.  What seems to be common among the stones cleaned so far is the willow and urn or just the willow.  That meaning, according to sources is the ability to live, a symbol of immortality.  The urn together with the willow is the soul will journey to heaven.  Both have Greek and Roman interpretations.

So far, we have not seen a signature of a carver but research tells us that Frank Andrew has an open book which could mean the Divine Word.  Keep in mind, however, the book could have been another meaning to the family.  Charles Andrew’s stone has hands clasped which means farewell and the hope of meeting again.  Artists in a world of sadness but in the 21st century a history lesson.

*The cleaning of the monuments is vital to the preservation of the inscriptions and adds to the history of the Town of Orange.

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