Hay inspectors, hog reeves, and other essential jobs

Not long ago The Associated Press, often reliable, offered its membership a cutie story about archaic public offices in New England, the home of the only town meetings. If the AP had done its homework, the story would have been better and different, somewhat as follows, to whit and to whom:

These town offices are by no means archaic. It's just that times have changed. If the need for a fence viewer arose today, his services are available in any New England town from unorganized East Overshoe up to the great City of Boston.

Today, fence viewers are seldom named. Instead, the selectmen appoint themselves and officiate as needed, if. I was a fence viewer for many years. I never viewed a fence, and was always fearful I might have to.

There are many minor town officers, appointed by the selectmen, who are elected, and while they were all important in Colonial days, they slumber now in desuetude. Some of them were: hog reeve, field driver, inspectors of hay, of bark and wood, of lumber, of hoops, staves, and shook, public weigher, inspector of vinegar, dog officer, and - in certain localities - others, depending on circumstances.

While the Pilgrims were still in Holland, a thriving barrel business developed in Maine at Pipestave Landing on the Piscataqua River. (If you think Piscataqua is an Indian name, it is not. It derives from classical Latin and means "fish-water.")

A pipe is a barrel, and pipestaves were sawn from white oak abundant in that area. Barrels were big business, used for containers of about everything, from fish peas to corned hake, and even rum. They gave Einstein a prize for minor achievement, but no awards to the genius who computed barrel staves so a coopered pipe held exactly 60 gallons. Think about that.

"Reeve" derives from the same root as the "riff" in sheriff, and a hog reeve rounded up stray hogs. He turned them over to the pound keeper, who fed them until claimed by the owner, who paid set fees. Some towns still name the latest bridegroom as hog reeve, and he serves until a successor is qualified, a pleasant custom.

The fence viewer is not a surveyor and is not concerned with the location of a line. He, or the board of three, looks at the line betwixt neighbors to decide who takes care of his half. An attempt is made to divide the responsibility equally, as fencing over rock ledge is more difficult than fencing meadow land. Most such decisions were made in Colonial days, and have not needed review since. The rule was that a line fence must be "hog tight and horse high." Good fences did make good neighbors, but good neighbors made good fences, and back when everybody had livestock it was equally important either way.

The right number of staves to make a barrel, with hoops and heads, was tied with a string and called a "shook." The inspector of shook kept the pipe-stave mill from defrauding the cooper as well as giving assurance that the quality was honest.

The inspector of vinegar assured the acetic-acid content and measure. The scaler of wood, bark, and lumber measured piles for cubic content and boards and timbers for dimensions.

The inspector of hay was important. Cities bought hay because they had no meadows to mow, and most farmers cut more hay than they fed. Fire and police horses, dray horses, and even driving horses still kept by city folks needed fodder, but hay brokers were not always reputable.

One "trick" was to refuse to accept perfectly good hay shipped in because it was "inferior quality." They'd offer to take it at a lower price, or the farmer could pay the freight and have it returned. Once bit twice shy, so after being stung that way a farmer used the hay inspector in his hometown, who certified weight and quality and usually charged 25 cents. The city broker couldn't go behind the hay inspector's signature, and that was that.

The Associated Press should have asked me, and I'd have told them about the Gott Island hay thieves association. There used to be a good penny in salt hay. On tidal shores there is a heavy grass, almost like a rush, that was used in packing crockery, such as a barrel of dinnerware. Cut on the ebb tide, it was stacked on little post platforms called "staddles" to cure and dry. Later it would be loaded on a sloop or schooner and sent to market.

On Gott Island off the Maine coast, a lot of salt hay was cut and shipped, and suddenly there came some hay thieves who stole hay right off the staddles and could not be apprehended.

The inspector of hay was baffled. This was back in Colonial days, so the General Court of Massachusetts had jurisdiction, and a commission was sent to look into the matter. The only residents on Gott Island at that time was the Gott family, so it came about handily that the three Gott boys - Gerald, Leslie, and Wallace - were named special hay inspectors to identify and arrest the hay thieves of Gott Island.

Nothing came of this, because Gerald, Leslie, and Wallace were themselves the Gott Island hay thieves, and they just spent the Massachusetts appropriation and didn't find anybody. However, the AP may care to know, a membership card in the Gott Island Association of Hay Thieves Apprehenders is much prized and hard to come by in Hancock County today.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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