Buying this book was the best dime I ever spent

Years ago, at a country auction, I paid a whole dime for a small book called "The Busy Man's Friend." That is, I bid $5 for the entire library of the late Aubrey Sylvester, whose accumulation of a lifetime was being liquidated. Everything from the RFD box by the highway to the farm itself went to the highest bidder, and Aubrey's books had been packed in wooden apple crates for the occasion.

The auctioneer assured his crowd that the library contained "over" 500 clean books, some of them "scarcely read." Since one's library will betray the man, I took the apple boxes home and found out all I cared to know about Aubrey Sylvester. His taste in reading matter included all the novels of Horatio Alger and 17 years of Gleanings in Bee Culture magazine.

But I also got my prized copy of "The Busy Man's Friend," three books by 19th-century Maine humorist Bill Nye, a Polish-English dictionary, and two histories of the town of Somersworth, N.H. All the others I gave to the high school.

I have consulted my "Busy Man's Friend" often, and know as a result a great many things no longer important. Would you care to know, for instance, how to measure loose hay in a mow?

Published in 1901, it is a guide to success by facts and figures. It shows no price, but does say it can be had by subscription only and was prepared by Prof. J.L. Nichols. It includes legal forms so you can draw up your own will, transfer property, lend money, and make contracts. It has interest-rate tables, and quick-reckoning directions for board feet, shingle bundles, and wheat in a stack. And 10 apple crates in good shape, to boot.

It says, among so much else, that a contract to do something impossible (such as crossing the ocean in one day) is null and void. It tells:

How to collect debts.

How to estimate wallpaper for a room.

Lincoln's sayings ("Beware promises, a cloud doesn't grow corn").

How to endorse a note.

Forwarding freight.

How to make an ice chest.

How to make curves for an arch.

How a married woman should sign her name.

Homestead laws explained.

Statutes of limitations, United States and Canada.

Responsibility for runaway horses. (Ditto for trespassing animals.)

How to detect counterfeit currency.

And so much more! The manual has 255 pages of advice, instruction, warning, and fact, that at its respective 10 cents, I consider it the best investment I ever made.

Now, about measuring loose hay in the mow: Candlemas (Feb. 2) was never a holy day on the farm, or an occasion when woodchucks broke hibernation to foretell weather. It was the midwinter moment when you took stock. "Half your wood and half your hay." If you had enough wood left at Candlemas to keep warm until summer, and enough hay to bring the stock through to green grass, things were just fine. And, if you had more than enough hay you could sell some to farmers who were running short. It was good to get a little unexpected money at that time of year.

Every town had an official public weigher who had platform scales and got a fee. Our public weigher was a storekeeper in the village 2-1/2 miles away. To weigh hay, if we took a load to him, it meant hitching the horses or oxen to the vehicle (summer wheels or winter runners) and going to the village to weigh the empty rig. Then we'd go back and put on the load. Then we'd return to have the rig and load weighed together and subtract.

Both trips came to 10 miles and two fees. Better to measure the loose hay in the mow and be happy with a calculated guess. Look in "The Busy Man's Friend": "To find the weight of loose hay in the mow, measure the mow in feet, length, breadth, and height, and divide by 500." You must make allowance for slopes and humps, of course, but you'll come out near enough.

For example, 20 feet long times 10 feet high times l5 feet wide divided by 500 equals six tons. This worked well enough, because in every hay transaction a neutral estimator would be asked to measure. The estimator would be a respected citizen, usually elderly, who had measured so many mows he could be trusted. It was considered an honor to be asked to estimate loose hay, proof that you were capable and esteemed.

Each town, back then, also had an "inspector of hay and straw" whose certificate of quality was accepted at every haymarket in the land. If he said your hay was No. 1, and you had his slip, then no hay broker in Boston was going to claim inferior quality, which did happen, sad to say. Hay was once big business, and Boston's Haymarket Square depended a great deal on our Candlemas decisions down in Maine.

I did not bring all this forward to amaze you back in February at Candlemas, as I felt that folks would be so engrossed at looking for groundhogs I wouldn't get much attention. By now, however, there may be some general interest in measuring loose hay. You can always count on me for accurate information about anything every boy should know. I have a book.

Coming soon: How to make lamp chimneys from old ketchup bottles.

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