A town once meant as many things as there were people in it

Posted by | February 23, 2015

A town once meant as many things as there were people in it.  For instance, there are noises of the early 1900s that you are not likely to hear again—

A fire engine, belching smoke, and drawn by three horses abreast, racing to a fire; sleigh bells on a wintry evening; the rattle of a doctor’s buggy on the uneven brick street in the dead of night, with only one light in an upstairs window on a dark street to guide it; the roar of a blast furnace coming up like rolling thunder from the south end of town; the soft thud of horses’ feet on new-fallen snow; the tinkle of the scissors grinder’s pushcart; a mandolin player far off playing “Nita, Juanita, ask thy soul if we should part;” the mournful whistle of a steam locomotive echoing through the hills, rumbling across a bridge, and finally evaporating into silence; the band from Barnum & Bailey’s Circus rounding the corner at Fourth and Market, making the blood pound in your ears as it filled the air with the “Stars and Stripes Forever;” a tired voice coming down stairs, with its sleeves rolled up, and saying “It’s another girl;” the rustle of dry leaves on a fall afternoon; a steamboat whistle way up the river: the beat of a toy drum on Christmas morning; a mother’s voice commanding, “Whatever you’re doing, stop it.”

A town was a conglomeration of sensations and smells— the sulphur stench from the Hartje Paper Mill; the overpowering sweetness at a funeral; the acrid odor of a kerosene lamp which lit up the stereopticon pictures of Old Faithful or Niagara Falls; the scent of hay; manure and leather harness and a horse chomping oats; the spicy fragrance of home-made cinnamon rolls; the slippery feel of castor oil, horse-hair sofas, and your father’s well-worn razor strop; the smell of chalk, soggy sponges and the edgy scrape of a slate pencil; the perfume of lilacs after rain.

A town was so many little things you have long forgotten— putting a pan of fudge out in the snow to cool; the itch of measles; the glow of pink candles on a birthday cake; the warm gooey taste of corn meal mush on a frosty morning; the sting of cold blisters, chapped hands, and arnica on a skinned knee.

It was being allowed to stay up late to watch election returns enlarged by a magic lantern on a sheet across the street from a newspaper office; it was being happy, sad, elated, bored and depressed all in one day.  It was going in your bare feet the day school let out, and ice cream sliding down your parched throat on a hot July night.  It was feeling pious and unafraid of the dark when there was a death in the family.  It was the heavenly smell of apple butter being stirred in a huge kettle in your grandmother’s back yard, while your job was to keep the fire burning.

Adding them all up, such vagrant thoughts are like saving string, all the accumulated sounds, sights and smells you picked up along the way, piece by piece, bit by bit, some bright and smooth, some you wanted to save and some you’d just as soon forget, but all irrevocably tied together in an untidy growing ball and stored away in the back of your mind.


“Through a Rear View Mirror,” by an ex-child of the city of Steubenville, OH, George A. Mosel, publ Hamilton I. Newell, Inc, Amherst, MA, 1964; full text online at http://perma.cc/FU9T-TAKV

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