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Old Bergen

Chapter LVI.

Daniel Van Winkle

Published 1902

Web version, edited by GET NJ
Copyright 2002

CUSTOMS AND HABITS.
DURING the winter months the young people likewise enjoyed candle making. In those early days as a rule, lard lamps and tallow dips were used for illuminating purposes, but sometimes clam shells were filled with melted lard in which a piece of cotton cloth was inserted, and the oil being then allowed to harden, the shell lamps were laid aside for future use. When needed, the wick was lighted, and the heat from its flame kept sufficient of the surrounding lard melted to ensure a continuous feeding, thus furnishing a somewhat dim and flickering light.

The tallow dips, requiring no special expense, were in very general use, and were made as follows: Cotton wicks were cut in the required lengths, and hung in the middle over a rounded stick, which was sufficiently long to accommodate twelve or fifteen of them. When a number of these had been prepared, they were in turn plunged into a vessel of melted tallow, and whcll encrusted with the grease, were withdrawn and placed upon a frame to cool and harden. This process was repeated frequently, and as the candles grew larger with each dipping, they soon became the required size, when they were hung in the garrets for use as needed.

After the emancipation of the slaves, so attached had they become to their masters, that many of them absolutely refused to accept their freedom in the sense of self dependence, always regarding themselves as part and parcel of the old home. Some of them, addicted to the roving, careless life that seems to have been transmitted to them from some far-off ancestor, roamed with their descendants through the woods and swamps in search of blackberries, huckleberries, or the "snapping turtle," which, under proper manipulation, was considered a choice and dainty dish, rivalling in toothsomeness the terrapin of the South; while others devoted their energies to the capture of the frost fish or "killies" that at certain seasons swarmed in the Hackensack River and the neighboring marshes. Mushrooms abounded in the fields, and were sought after during the early morning hours by others of the black folk, and the appearance of the "Rovers" with a full supply at the "back kitchen" door was hailed with delight. Others again engaged in business transactions. The sonorous and melodious voice of "Old Yon" as he cried "fresh buttermilk," carried in the same churn from which the butter had been taken, was familiar to all, while "Lame Tornachy," with his solitary ox, warranted sound and kind in double or single harness, was an unique figure in the early days. "Old Betty's" chickens and eggs possessed a peculiarly appetizing flavor, and her culinary accomplishments were especially appreciated by the younger generation when carried by their wanderings beyond the dinner hour of the home.

All throughout the territory bounded by the meadows, from Bergen Point to the northern limit, were to be found nut-bearing trees, their fruit being highly prized for household use. The cool, crisp air of early winter was eagerly longed for, and at the first indication of frost, expeditions were organized to gather the nuts that had been rudely shaken from their downy beds by the wintry blasts. Hickory nuts and chestnuts were the most abundant, the trees growing in groups; and many of these were regarded, by a sort of unwritten law, as the special property of different coteries of boys, usually of those living in their immediate neighborhood.' Sometimes this custom was infringed upon by the more lawless, and fierce fights resulted, during which the poles intended for knocking down the nuts were employed by the rival bands in knocking down their opponents. This was, however, only an occasional experience, as the right of "preemption" was generally recognized.

In various parts of the territory were scattered black walnut trees, many of which were left standing for ornament or shade, after the clearing away of all the others ; and their leafless branches studded with clusters of black balls tossing against the wintry sky, formed a unique feature of the landscape. These walnuts were, however, avoided by the more fastidious, as their gathering imparted an almost indelible stain to the hands, that could be obliterated only after persistent effort.

A favorite custom of the boys during the fall months, was to gather on Saturdays in "The Cedars," where, with the combined plunder gathered throughout the week, in the shape of eggs, coffee, or whatever material in the culinary line that could be secured, they would imitate the feasts indulged in by Marion and his men. Sometimes, the rations thus collected being inadequate, surreptitious visits were made to the neighboring fields and their products confiscated. Tubers were so artistically separated from the sweet potato vines by burrowing under the side hills, that the. sparseness of the crop at harvest time suggested to the owner the wisdom of discontinuing their cultivation.

After these feasts, the cooking utensils were again secreted in their accustomed hiding places, and then hunting for hornets' nests was sometimes indulged in. When a nest was discovered, the boys' experience taught them to institute an elaborate and carefully considered plan of attack. Ammunition, in the shape of well selected stones, was gathered, branches of cedar trees suitable for defence were conveniently placed and the bearings of the nearest ditch carefully studied. This latter was a precautionary measure that was taken advantage of only in the direst extremity. The common belief being that an angry hornet would dart toward the spot from which a stone was thrown, a simultaneous attack from different points, was usually determined on, so that the hornets' idea of locality might be somewhat confused, and thus afford an opportunity of escape to the attacking party. At a given signal the plan was carried out; at the first jostling of the nest, out poured the enraged insects in swarms, and away scampered the marauders in every direction in their endeavors to escape from the wrath to come. Sometimes an agonized shriek, accompanied by a frenzied waving of branches, would indicate that some infuriated insect had inserted his business end under the coat collar of his victim, and was plying his art with all the vigor of which it was capable. At about this period of time the location of the ditch was eagerly sought after, and the fun was over.

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