SMOCKS FOR VERMONT FARMERS
Have you ever seen a farmer’s smock?
For the first forty year s of my life it never occurred to me that this picturesque garment could have escaped the notice of anyone born and bred on a Vermont farm. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when in the otherwise normal summer of 1924, I read in a respectable Boston newspaper a tirade on smocks, from a pompous correspondent who had the audacity to sign his name.
“What about these’ ere smocks for Vermont farmers?” he demanded. “I was raised on a Vermont farm and never saw or heard of such a garment. I’m quite sure that no he-man of the Green Mountains would be seen hauling himself into a dressing gown before going out into the hayfield to wield a pitchfork.”
And on he ranted for several paragraphs, unchecked by any timely editorial interruption. The occasion for this eloquent outburst of ignorance and indignation was the report that certain people from Vermont – it matters not whether they were delegates or lookers-on – were to wear brown smocks at the Republican National Convention which was to nominate Mr. Calvin Coolidge for the Presidency of the United States.
These smocks were to be patterned as nearly as possible, both in shape and color, after the smock which was worn by the President’s grandfather a garment then hanging in the Coolidge attic at Plymouth, Vermont. Mr. Blank, whose real name I have forgotten – it richly deserves to be forgotten apparently had never heard that the man who at that time was President of the United States, on his annual visits to his old home, always religiously sought out and wore, for a few minutes at least, his grandfather’s old smock.
Furthermore, this same Mr. Blank, purporting to be a native of Vermont, a product of the farm, expressed surprise and utter disgust at this hitherto unheard-of custom of smock-wearing.
As I have already intimated, I was surprised at Mr. Blank’s surprise. Moreover, I was indignant at his indignation over this picturesque garment of bygone days. My only wonder was that the Coolidge smock was brown instead of blue but I had no doubt that the only available dyestuff in Grandmother Coolidge’s household equipment was butternut shucks, which would account for the color.
While all the farmer s’ smocks which I had ever seen were blue, I refused to rave at Mr. Coolidge because his smock was brown. In other words, the smock’s the thing, not the dyestuff into which it happened to be dipped.
Have you ever heard of Peacham? It’s a charming old hill-top village, about six miles from Fenton’s store, as the crow flies, dreamy, elm-shaded, with a tall white spire thrust upward from among the tree tops. Well, once upon a time it really was long over a century ago – Doctor Lyman Beecher held forth from the high pulpit of the old white meeting-house on the hill in exchange with “Priest” Worcester, the minister. Commenting afterwards on this visit, Beecher remarked, so the story goes, that when he stood up in the Peacham pulpit to offer prayer, half an acre of blue smocks rose up before him and under every one of them an honest heart. Half an acre of blue smocks! And a native of Vermont expressing surprise and disgust at the existence of such a garment:
To be sure, I never saw half an acre of blue or brown smocks in Peacham or elsewhere, but I have seen several of these serviceable garments, three of which in particular, were indelibly stamped on my memory.
One of the interesting events of f arm life in Vermont a generation ago was the annual visit of the sawing machine, which occurred sometime during the winter months. Every farmer would work for weeks rolling together a pile of logs in preparation for the arrival of the machine, when the logs would be cut into lengths suitable for the kitchen stove.
More than once or twice have I seen the tall, solemn-faced sawyer rise from the breakfast table, go out into the kitchen and sharpen his saw with his shrieking file until all our teeth were set on edge.
This accomplished, he would enact a scene of superlative dignity – that of actually “hauling himself” into a smock, to use Mr. Blank’s felicitous phrase.
And he would work in it, too, all day long. At evening “he would haul himself out of it with as much ado as a snake employs in sloughing his skin.
Another wearer of the smock was a certain Uncle John who daily passed by the little rural school which I attended when a boy, and I know of no smock-wearer who had a better title to his garment than this same Uncle John.
Away up on his hilltop farm which was swept by all the winter winds from Camel’s Hump to Mount Washington, he lived quite independently of the rest of humanity. He raised his own sheep, he washed and sheared them, and he carded his own wool. Aunt Maria spun the wool on her own spinning wheel and wove it into cloth on the kitchen loom. Then she dyed it a rich blue that would have been the envy of Della Robbia.
A few slashes with the shears, a few stitches with the needle, and Uncle John had a garment that would outwear any three or four of your fuzzy modern sweaters. The third Vermont smock-wearer of whom I have a vivid recollection was my own grandfather.
His smock had an embellishment which some farmers’ smocks may or may not have had – a pocket on the left breast. I have seen Grandfather wear his smock on diverse occasions but the ones most clearly in my memory were when he went down to the sugar house to “bile” the sap, and out to the barn to “fodder” the cattle.
On one occasion, after the increasing heat of the March sun had thawed the hens to the egg-laying state, (they always went on a strike during the winter months), Grandfather called in at the hen house on his way back from the barn. Finding two or three precious eggs – the first fruits of the season – he chucked them into the breast pocket of his smock. Going into the house by way of the woodshed, he instinctively gathered up an armful of wood and planked it firmly against his breast.
Being somewhat deaf, he was quite oblivious to the crunching protest of the eggs, and realized not what he had done until after he had deposited the wood in the kitchen woodbox.
I next remember a humble and contrite grandfather standing demurely by while an infuriated grandmother dipped the raw custard from his pocket and cleaned up the mess as best she could with a wet sponge.
But Grandfather had to wear his smock with a stiff and discolored pocket until Monday morning when a bucketful of water heavily charged with homemade lye soap, and a long-handled pestle, wielded by a grandmother still mildly indignant, restored the smock to its accustomed blueness.
Mr. Blank: may have been right in saying that no he-man of the Green Mountains would wear a dressing-gown when wielding a pitchfork in the hayfield. Neither would a he-man, or indeed any man with even less pronounced masculinity, go out to work in the broiling heat of the hayfield dressed in coon-skin overcoat and fur-lined mittens. “There is a time for everything under the sun,” wrote a very wise man of long ago. That word “everything” is sufficiently comprehensive as to include smocks. The time for the farmer’s smock is when one is foddering the cattle in winter, or washing the sap buckets in the first thawy days of March, or gathering apples or pumpkins in the golden autumn, or husking corn by lantern light in the old barn, with the long row of cud-chewing kine as spectators.
The custom of smock-wearing among Vermont farmers has become almost obsolete.
It took its departure with the flail, the grain cradle, the sap yoke, the whale-oil lamp, and the doctrine of infant damnation. So far as I know, the only true-blue Vermonter who has ever worn a farmers’ smock in the last twenty years was the late President of the United states; and even his brief yearly period of smock-wearing was in the nature of a religious exercise, a tribute to the sterling virtues of his rugged ancestors.
All the other Vermont smock-wearers are the summer Vermonters, the inhabitants of the artists’ colonies, whose smocks are not farmers’ smocks at all, but artists’ smocks, made not of brown or blue wool homespun, but of more fanciful, if less durable material. Vermont should welcome these city artists to her silent old mountains.
They are indeed an asset to the state, and should be allowed to choose for themselves the color and quality of their smocks. But to one whose roots are deep down in the heart of the Vermont that was, there is, at times, a genuine longing for the simplicity of the good old days when Grandfather “biled” sap, husked corn, and mended the pasture fence, dressed in a genuine farmer’s smock.
Would that some other worthy sons of Vermont, who love the traditions of their native state, might follow the example of the late Mr. Coolidge, and search the attics of their ancestral homes for their grandfathers’ smocks. And should they find any of these old-time garments, let them please come out into the open, wearing their smocks, so that no young up-start with literary propensities, claiming to be a native of Vermont, shall ever again ask, “What about these ‘ere smocks for Vermont farmers?”