Then Grampy told about pogies

PAYING $7.99 for a quart of paint was a considerable strain, but I was encouraged when I found they don't call it paint nowadays -- the can said I had ``chemical coatings.'' This elegance is certainly worth all that much more money, assuaging the grief of a memory that goes back to Grandfather's day. Grandfather could buy paint for 25 cents a quart, but since that was a strain on his fiscal situation, he restrained himself and made his own paint. Interesting that the chemical coating for which I paid $7.99 (plus tax) was to renew my workshop after just four years, whereas the paint Grandfather made had its own kind of durability.

Built just before 1800, Grandfather's set of buildings had been painted when new, and a hundred years had passed before there was any need to begin to think about painting again. Close as I can come, I'd say it was about 1916 that I was the barefoot boy around the old homestead and saw Grampy mix his paint in a barrel.

Gramp was a good hand at elucidating for the good of the young folks, and he told me then about all there is to know about paint. That is, about chemical coatings, but Grampy's chemistry was the unconscious kind, and he never knew that oil and water won't mix.

He just went ahead and mixed them. Not a full barrel, but perhaps 25 or 30 gallons -- enough to do the house and barn. He told me about the Paint People. Five thousand years ago our Maine had a forgotten people, and about all we know about them is that they ate a lot of seafood and used red paint.

They left their shell heaps -- kitchen middens -- where we can dig and find some of their relics, and their burial places reveal their mysterious custom of lining their graves with red ocher. Just what superstition caused this is a mystery, but it was a strong influence because sometimes they had to carry the ocher great distances. Ocher, a clay that ranges in color from yellow to red, is used as pigment, and because of their use of red ocher these primeval residents got to be called the Paint Peo ple.

Then Grampy told about pogies. Early Europeans found the Indians using menhaden for fertilizer. Menhaden is an Indian word; today we say pogy. Something like shad and schooling like herring, the pogies were easily available. They had an oily fishiness that made them unpalatable for food, but they would make a garden grow. And somebody figured out that the oil of the pogy could be extracted and used, among other things, for paint.

Grampy extolled the genius who first stirred red ocher into pogy oil and originated the New England tradition of red barns and little red schoolhouses. He added that a dollop of skimmed milk paddled into the ocher and oil would make the stuff ``set'' after it was applied -- which is undoubtedly our first ``chemical'' coating.

Casein paints had to wait for chemists, of course, and the chemists would insist that you can't mix milk (water) and pogy oil. But casein derives from milk, doesn't it? Just goes to show how stupid those old-timers were.

Pogy oil was rich in the fragrance of fish, and it had a permanence. The skimmed milk did have some effect with a ``set,'' but pogy oil never really dried. It would rub off if it got a chance, and 50 years after it was applied it would dry in a summer sun and make a highland farm smell like a clam flat. But it protected wood from weather, and with ocher included, it wasn't all that hard to look upon.

Grandfather, on the occasion I recall, didn't use pogy oil because it had ceased to be readily available. Today about the only pogies we see are used for bait in lobster traps. Linseed oil had become the basis for paints and the pogy-oil business had declined.

And he didn't use red ocher because his local supply was yellow. He went by horse and cart to the bank of yellow dirt by the Sabattus River, paid the man 10 cents, and shoveled in enough yellow ocher. And as linseed oil was priced out of reason, he used kerosene, which he called coal oil. He had 30 cows, so skimmed milk was at hand. I remember well his comment on slapping the paint liberally, because it would soak in and wasn't expensive.

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