Enriched by memories of the poor 'ins'

Let me tell you something. My high school class, l926, had 26 members, the largest class in our little Maine town to that date. In 1927, the number fell back to a normal seven. We were a decent bunch of kids and never blew up a single math class.

One of my classmates was Dorothy Cummings, who was almost as pretty as I was, but in another way. Dorothy was an only child, and her mother always entertained on her birthday with a bang-up party. The entire class came bearing gifts, as well as friends of other connections. The party was unique, for it was held at the town farm. I'm positive I need to explain that.

"Welfare" was a word to come. Taking care of the needy was a local matter then, handled in open town meeting under two articles in the annual warrant, which means two propositions to be brought before the voters. One was "poor out"; the other was "poor in." The town farm was the difference.

Folks who needed merely financial assistance got grocery orders and stayed out of the town farm, but those needing more were "in." In New England, the town government begins with the board of "selectmen, assessors, and overseers of the poor." This was friendly, adequate, efficient, and dripped no gravy. The town farm was the old-folks' haven and truly a farm, with gardens and livestock, and usually a couple who ran the place with kindly understanding.

Dorothy Cummings was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Harold Cummings, the keepers of our town farm. So Dorothy's birthday party was held at the poor house, or old-folks' home. Besides her classmates, Dorothy was saluted by the poor "in."

Mr. Cummings planted crops, kept livestock, and attended horses used for road repairs. The folks who lived at the town farm got fresh vegetables, milk, cream, and eggs, as well as home-cured bacon and ham, berries and fruits. They never knew what American chop suey is.

The big house was really a house, with many rooms and a cellar and attic. Scarlet runner beans climbed strings on the front porch. Dorothy's party was in the kitchen, and the poor "ins" would come from their chambers to sit in rocking chairs along the wall.

I've come to tell you of one party that was the best.

Dorothy was a February baby, and the day before her birthday we'd had a big storm that buried the landscape with deep-drifted snow. Today, that storm would postpone all functions, but in our time we didn't even plow the streets. Farmers sledded.

It was a struggle to get from our village homes out to the town farm, but we wallowed through the drifts and could smell the popcorn balls before we stepped inside. We unbundled in the mud room and found the poor "in" were tidy in dress-up clothes. Mrs. Cummings did the robin 'round introductions. Bruce Libby was there with his Boston Post gold-headed cane as the oldest man in town.

So we played forfeits, spun the bottle, and did charades and button-button. We had the big cake and Dorothy opened her presents and kept saying, "Oh, just what I wanted!" Then it was time to go home, and Mrs. Cummings hit a frying pan with a long-handled spoon and said, "Now bundle up, all, because you're going home in style!"

Then we heard the bells of the town farm team of horses as Mr. Cummings drove them from the barn. He had taken the hayrack body off its summer wheels and mounted it on the winter two-sled used on snow. All we had to do was climb aboard.

This was not a simple sleigh ride. We were two dozen schoolchildren and over a dozen poor "ins," snuggled in the hay in a Nova Scotia rack, behind two noble Percherons about to have as much fun as we were. It was more like a Macedonian raid. Mr. Cummings had the reins; Dorothy and her mother sat up front with him. Bruce Libby, too.

And then young and old together nestled in the sweet timothy and clover hay. You may surmise we lifted a jaunty sleighing song, but we didn't. The flat, frosty team bells were music enough, and Mr. Cummings gave the horses their heads. There was no moon, but the new snow found some way to reflect something. We romped along with the roadside trees in a swirl of snow.

When we gained the village, we gained streetlamps, and went through the town square like a Roman chariot race. We called to people we saw in their front-room windows, looking out to see what in the world was going on. Now Mr. Cummings tightened the reins and carefully brought the horses to a walk. Then he began stopping at homes to let us off.

One by one, we thanked Dorothy and her parents, and we called good night to the poor "ins."

I think about that wonderful party at the town farm often. For five years, my wife and I lived in the up-to-date version of the town farm. But the town did not pay our rent, and there was no loving care from the overseers of the poor. Once a month we had a birthday party for everybody born in that month. It was the sterile consequence of the unemotional activities program, contrived on a computer. Everybody got a balloon on a string. The uninspired cake was from the foundry over-town.

It was too bad, because old folks at the town farm did have their moments.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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