The View From Massies Corner: Things I miss most in Rappahannock

There are things I miss about Rappahannock County and things I don’t. This article will deal primarily with what I miss the most.

First and foremost, I miss hearing the old-timers speaking Elizabethan English. They used words that were similar, if not the same, as words that Shakespeare wrote. An example that one might from time to time still hear in Rappahannock is the word holpe. Modern English has changed holpe into help.

It is not just the old-timers’ speech that I miss, it is the old-timers themselves, many of them having been raised in what is now the Shenandoah National Park. In the movie, “A River Runs Through It,” there is a close-up scene of Norman Mclean’s fingers tying a fly. Watching this, I had an immediate flashback to me as a small boy on the farm watching the older men pulling out from the top pocket of their bibbed overalls a can of Prince Albert Tobacco and then dexterously rolling their cigarettes with their thick work-hardened fingers. Tobacco was very important to people back then. When someone committed a crime, an old-timer might say, “They ought to lock that SOB up and take his tobacco away from him.”

A major event every fall was hog killing. The first long cold snap in November would result in many of the kids being absent from school. Mrs. Biggs, my sixth-grade teacher at Washington Elementary School, taught us the importance of punctuation by telling us of a note she had received from the mother of an absentee. The note said: “Johnny will not be at school today because he is going to help butcher his mother.”

Kids in Washington and Sperryville, and in the old, old days, Flint Hill, could walk to school. On Friday evenings a parking place was difficult to find in the villages as most people did their weekly shopping at Baldwins’, Lee’s and the Cash store in Washington, the Corner Store in Sperryville, Bradford’s and Rector’s in Flint Hill, Hackley’s store in Amissville, and Burke’s Grocery in Woodville. Most of the gas stations also sold cold beer and provided a room with tables and chairs where the beer could be consumed. Many of these places were not referred to as gas stations but rather as beer joints.

Although I would not wish for Rappahannock to have the modern-style car dealership, in the old days a new Plymouth could be purchased at Russell Bros. in Flint Hill and a new Ford at the Merrill Motor Co. in Washington.

Although the grain harvester known as a combine had been invented decades earlier, in my youth, many of the farms still used threshing machines.

The harvesting process began with a tractor pulling a machine called a binder through the field. The binder would cut the crop, bind it into bundles, and then dump the bundles into small piles. Kids would then form the bundles into shocks by standing them upright (stalk down, seed up) and then tying them together with a few stems pulled from the bundle. After the proper amount of days for the grain to ripen, three-pronged pitchforks with long handles were used to place the shocks on a wagon, which was then hauled to the stationary threshing machine where the grain, or seed, was separated from the straw. (For reasons unknown to me, orchard grass straw was not referred to as straw but rather as pug, and sometimes as plug.)

Even a city person can understand why a machine that combines the cutting and threshing processes is called a combine. To be true to my roots, however, I must point out that I have never heard anyone say the word thresh, rather it was pronounced thrash, and a thrashing machine was simply called a “sheen.”

One can still see hay fields dotted by small square bales. Mostly, the farmer making hay this way is selling it to horse owners. In the old days, before the round baler, all hay was made this way. With the round baler, nowadays one person can harvest a good-sized hay crop. The hard work done by grownups and kids is no more. The comradeship of everyone enduring a tough job is what I miss.

Progress is inevitable and Rappahannock has not missed out on it. Here, progress is measured differently then it is in other places (think “Hoosiers,” the movie). To someone in Fauquier County, progress may be a new shopping center. To me, progress is . . . the Round Baler.

Yes, there are many things I miss about Rappahannock, but because of the way we still measure progress, we are all so very lucky to live here.