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History Lives Here Text

Continued frompage 420

Recollections of Ray Nies

 

Ray Nies, the son Jan Nies, who returned from theCivil tsar to begin a hardware store in Saugatuck (now Wilkins), later wrotehis memories of growing up in Saugatuck of the late 1800s.

 

3. SummerSwimming (Continued)

 

Sometimes wecould not spare the time to go over the dunes and across the land all the wayto the great lake and then did our swimming at one of the steamship docks alongthe river in our village when it happened there was no steamer docked there.

 

We couldundress and put on our bathing trunks (compulsory here) in the dock warehouse,and dive off the dock warehouse, and dive off the dock into the deep river. Thedocks were block long heavy planked platforms built high over the top on longpilings and open underneath.

 

Even back inthose days we always had some city summer visitors who spent some of the hotsummer days with us, of course nothing like the crowds who came in later years.Some of these men would idle on the dock watching the kids swim and dive, andthen some of the swimming, innocent, country town, boy slickers would play atrick or swindle on some of these city "hayseed" men.

 

This trickwas for a couple of the boys to start a loud argument as to how long they couldstay under water diving off the dock. One would claim two minutes, the otherwould brag he could stay under five minutes or more. The argument would beginto get hot, the boys claiming more and more -until they began to bet, and onewould bet as much as ten cents that he could remain under ten minutes.

 

The city manlistening to this loud talk, as was intended, and to put an end to it, and toget the boys to swimming again, would bet fifty cents against ten cents thatthe best one could not stay under water eight minutes, let alone ten. The boywould accept the challenge, and with the city man holding his watch would divedown into the deep, dark river, and disappear from sight. Minutes passed, andthe city hayseed began anxiously looking at his watch and then at the water.Four minutes, flue, six minutes passed -and no boy, and now the city man beganto show his concern and look a bit worried. Seven minutes, eight minutes andnow time is up, and up comes the boy from the depths, puffing and breathingheavily. The country boy collects his bet from the city yokel.

 

But how wasit possible for even so good a swimmer as this boy to stay under the water solong? It wasn't, and he didn't. He simply dove down deep into the dark wateruntil out of sight, then turned and swam, keeping out of sight until he gotunder the dock floor planks the victim was standing on. Right under his feet soto speak two yards away. He remained there quietly until his boy confederate,standing beside their victim on the dock gave him a prearranged secret signalthat time was up, whereupon the diver would quietly sink almost to the bottom,swim out from the dock a bit and then come up to the surface about at the spothe dove in -apparently having been under the water all that time. The city sharperwould walk away and the fifty cents would be taken behind the warehouse anddivided amongst those innocent boys. Thus were "suckers" made out ofthe city "slickers."

4, Boyhood Pastimes

 

There wereno "playgrounds" with all sorts of elaborate equipment in those days,nor were they needed. We had the whole countryside for a playground -thestreams, the lakes where we could go swimming or fishing or boating in thesummer and skating in the winter. And there were many games, happily and Ithink beneficially, none of which were supervised. Some of them were a bitrough perhaps as "Duck on the Rock" and "Spanish Fly" butno one was hurt seriously. Arguments were sometimes settled by the strong armmethod. There were few boys of the marble playing age, whose conscience wouldnot allow them to play "for keeps".

 

Then wecould wander to the shipyards and watch the men hew the big timbers for thebuilding of the ships, and the yokes of oxen straining to haul the greattimbers to where they were wanted to be formed up. We could go into one of thesaw mills, and watch, fascinated the big circle saws flashing and biting andscreeching their way through the logs.

 

At times wewould wander over to the steamers tied up at the docks. We would inspect theirmachinery and equipment, and think that maybe we would like to be captains orengineers, and sail all over the Great Lakeswhen we grew up.

 

The boys learned where the sweetest, juiciest, wildstrawberries grew. We learned how the birds feed their young, and where the shyquail made her nest, and how many eggs were in it. We knew where the hungryfishes lurked, and how best to take them, and where the biggest bull­frogs wereto be found, and how good their legs tasted roasted over a near by fire.

 

We learnedwhere the bumble bee laid up its honey, and how to rob it sometimes with muchdiscomfort to ourselves. We knew where to go in our own orchard to find thebest fruit, and we knew what farmer not too distant, that gave for the taking awaymelons too ripe for the market, but of a finer flavor than any market eversold.

 

In thespring we used to go to the sugar bush and help the old man owner collect thesap and gather wood to keep the big iron cauldron boiling. We would drop eggsinto the boiling sap until they were cooked ready to eat. Then, for helping theold man we could eat all the delicious new made maple sugar we wanted. Andwhile we were resting and eating before the blazing fire, the old man, who wasin his young days a 49er --one of those Californiagold seekers -entertained us with exciting stores of his adventures in the California gold diggingsand of his long journeys across the plains and mountains. I will admit now,that on one or more than one of these occasions we played truant from school,and were duly punished therefore with that handy riding crop hanging on thewall, but now -- at this late date, I must confess I believe my school learningsuffered little by those few stolen days in the woods.

 

And howfascinating it was to step into the open door of the village blacksmith shop,and watch the husky smith work on the red hot iron, and see the sparks fly fromit as he hammered it out.

 

We used totake trips up the Kalamazoo river on one of the river steamers in the summertime to the little village of New Richmond, which was our nearest railroadstation, and the river boat was the most convenient way to get goods to andfrom our village to the railroad.

 

At times the steamer's engineer would allow favoriteboys to operate the engines and ire the boilers with four feet long ire woodaboard, and stow it away on the deck. It was no small job for a trip took nosmall amount of wood, and our bare hands gathered plenty of slivers. A greatevent of this trip was to stand by and watch the fast mail train speed past usthrough the village, and see how well the trains unerring, mechanical armsnatched that suspended mail pouch without slacking speed.

 

But not theleast of my boyish pleasures was to go to my Father's store on winter evenings,and quietly listen to the conversation of the men gathered around the big stovein a cloud of tobacco smoke. There were lake captains, ship owners, engineers,fishermen, lumbermen and a farmer or two. Many of these were to me then, oldmen, Civil War veterans. Certain of these men never messed an evening'sattendance.

 

There was acircle of chairs and upturned nail kegs around the stove; the place was a sortof social club without dues or officers, and the conversation covered justabout every topic of interest.

 

5. The FirstPhonograph

 

About thistime the first phonograph made it's appearance in the village. It lookedaltogether different from those which, a few years later were seen in every home.This early machine was procured by one of our enterprising, real "downeast" Yankees, who had a small store building where he kept a small stockof clocks and jewelry. He repaired watches, kept the telegraph office, with thetelegraph key handy on his repair bench. He put up homemade corn salve and"New England" tonic.

 

In the roomat the rear of his small store building he had a photograph gallery, where hetook "tintypes," "cabinet" photos or group pictures offamilies. He had half a dozen other callings that I can't think of at themoment. The addition of the new phonograph to his other enterprises was tofurther diversify his callings and increase his income. You had to pay tolisten to it, and it was so cleverly arranged that even if you stood rightalong side of it, you could hear none of the sounds unless you were one of thepaying customers. It cost each listener five cents to hear a short tune. Themachine was of the cylinder type, and not very large, and the mechanism was allencased in thick glass. Instead of a horn for the sound to come out of, therewere connected to the machine, six or eight rubber tubes about the thickness ofa pencil, and perhaps six feet long. These tubes branched into two tubes at thefar end of about eight or ten inches long like a capital letter "Y",and these branches terminated in knobs which just fitted one into each ear.

 

You paid your money, picked up the tubes, and holdingthe knob ends into your ears, the operator started up the machine, and musicactually came out of it and was conveyed through the tubes into your ears; theothers could only stand by and watch, some enviously. Only those who paid forthe privilege could hear it,

 

I mustconfess that when I first heard it, I was amazed. It seemed a most wonderfulthing, and was so fascinated by it, and with the music, of a kind never beforeheard in our small village, that I did not leave until my entire capital, sometwenty five cents, was spent, which luckily, was enough for me to hear aboutall the records on hand. The device must have been fairly profitable

to theowner, as the number of customers for some months in the evening was onlylimited by the number of tubes. It was very entertaining.

 

In those old days nearly every summer one or more"medicine shows" accompanied by a doctor would come from somewhere,and appear on one of the main street corners of the village where a free showwould be given nightly for a week or two, on a wooden platform or stage erectedfor the purpose, and lighted by flaring, flickering flames of smoky torches.

 

As soon asdarkness fell the torches were lit and the show began. The program consisted ofsome sentimental or humorous songs of the then popular kind; tap or clogdancing both accompanied by banjos or other instruments, and possibly somejokes would be sprung quite similar to those of today. The whole program wasgreatly enjoyed, especially when the subject of the a joke was well known as alocal personage, mentioned by name, who had peculiarities, and about who theperpetrator had previously made some discreet inquires before the show began.Sometimes the troop would have some Indian members, who in their nativecostumes would entertain with arrow shooting, "William Tell" type,and with war and other dances and native songs.

 

After thecrowd was duly amused and entertained, the "doctor" from his platformbegan the serious business of explaining about the miraculous medicine about tobe offered for sale. If you never had a sick moment in all your life, after youlistened to the "doctor's" eloquent talk for fine minutes, you wouldbegin to think perhaps you were afflicted with all the diseases that a humanbeing could have and never suspect it, and that his medicine would cure whatailed you. It was "guaranteed" to cure rheumatism, neuralgia, coughs,colds, corns, harelip, knock-knees, toothache, backache, bellyache or any kindof ache; ingrowing toe-nails lameness, bunions, baldness or tape-worms. A"thirty foot" one (they said it was) in a glass jar was exhibited to "prove"it. The medicine did not cure these diseases directly, no it cured sick nerves,(or was it the sick blood?) Which, when cured and healed made the whole bodywell, every part of it, as blood and nerves went to every part of the body.

 

After themusical program, which had gathered a crowd of people around, and the doctor'swonderfully eloquent speech the sale of the medicine began.

 

"Now,my friends, who wants a bottle? Only fifty cents! That gentlemen over there?All right, my friend, fifty cents please. Here you are Sir, and thank you.What's that? You say you found a dollar bill wrapped up with your bottle? Youdid? Well, keep it, You gentleman down there-you'll take a bottle? All right,my friend, there you are, fifty cents, please. Thank you, Sir. What say? Youfound a dollar bill too? Please keep it, my friend, if you found a ten dollarbill it would be yours. What's that? The tall man over there with the prettylady, you want two? Yes sir, here you are my friend."

 

The doctorcould by now hardly hand out the bottles fast enough, but strange to say, onlyafter demand slackened at bit would a dollar bill appear again from under abottle wrapper, and then sale speeded up again. Are there any of these"medicine shows" left in all American?

 

(To be Continued- page 433)