Life on the margins in the long ago

Life on the margins in the long ago

One more Thing

Back in the 1950s in the time before meaningful zoning regulations and long before tiny houses were chic, there were shacks and cellar holes. Smithfield had its share of them. It also had the men who lived in them. Yes, they were almost exclusively occupied by men. Some were veterans. Most were divorced or had never married.

The after-effects of the Great Depression and World War II lingered, and for a variety of reasons, some sociological, some personal, these were people who felt more comfortable subsisting in isolation. Back then they were commonly referred to as “shack-dwellers.”

Not exactly recluses, they could more aptly be described as “loners,” individuals who sought out social contact on their own terms and only in their own good time.

Typically, the places they went were the local taverns and bars and the occasional diner when they sought out the blue plate special.

They made their livings, such as they were, picking apples, digging graves, hauling trash, mowing lawns, milking cows, gathering eggs, serving as carpenters’ helpers, and the like.

Some, though, were “hired men,” regular employees at local businesses, and some were itinerant hands working as day laborers.

At this time of year their living conditions were especially trying. Winter challenged their ingenuity when it came to staying warm and keeping clean.

One among them had the luxury of a two-room shack, a small storage area having been added to his former chicken coop. It proved a fine place to store his groceries and libations and to hang a very large, cured ham. From it he sliced dinner portions as needed. He kept the ham dangling by a rope for several months during the cold season, scraping mold off it as it aged, until he eventually finished it.

This was the same fellow who made a ritual every year of donning long johns on the day after Thanksgiving, vowing to wear them without changing them until April 1 of the coming year.

As far as anyone knew he was not joking. The cuffs of his union suit, which crept from under his shirt sleeves and pants cuffs, seemed to validate his assertion as they grew ragged and grimier with each passing day.

He was descended from a family that came to Rhode Island with Roger Williams and was a gifted stone mason, but he preferred farm work and solitary living. Rumor had it that he had been married and had a son who worked in one of the large department stores in Providence, but no-one pried into his business.

His good friend and drinking buddy also lived in a chicken house not far away. This man’s go-to meal was hot dogs and canned beans, which he sometimes referred to as “Boston beaked banes.”

Neither man drove. Many years before, the bean-eater had walked from Brooklyn, Conn., to Smithfield, a trip of some 30 miles, looking for seasonal work during harvest time. He found jobs on the local apple farms and never went back to Connecticut.

His first home in Greenville was a shell of a cabin on a peninsula that extended into Slack’s Pond. It was mostly submerged, giving the impression that it was floating. After a rainstorm he couldn’t get from his door to dry land without taking off his shoes.

Both men heated their makeshift dwellings with wood stoves on which they also cooked. Hence, they were adept at cutting and splitting firewood, a task they performed in small installments each day in the good weather. Neatly stacked in cords, the fruits of their labor were displayed against the side walls of their homes.

It was impossible to know just how much wood they would need, but they based their estimates on the previous year’s consumption. If they came up short, they knew which trees they could cut in a pinch. White birch was the first choice because it could be burned green without creating too much smoke. Sometimes they would stash split white birch logs in the oven and dry them out as they burned the last of their seasoned wood in the stove’s firebox.

They knew any number of practical tricks, today we would call them life hacks, to solve everyday problems, such as submerging their canned malt beverages in a deep brook or spring to keep them cold in the summertime. They knew how to pickle hard-boiled eggs to extend their shelf life. They also cut their own hair, shaved with straight razors, and used horse liniment if they strained themselves lifting heavy logs or boxes of apples.

The mason demonstrated how to get the most out of a large chicken leg at a dinner shared with a local family. He chewed on the bones until they cracked, stuffed them in his cheeks, like a chipmunk with a large nut, and proceeded to suck the marrow out, smiling in oblivious self-contentment while conversation at the table swirled around him.

A third cohort of theirs who enjoyed a convivial glass or two with the others from time to time lived in the workshop of an undertaker whose funeral home was in the village. He clearly thought himself a rung above the country fellows, as he assisted in the solemn tasks associated with the funeral business. He wore a derby hat and well-shined, high-top shoes at times, however, he rarely, if ever, trimmed his fingernails.

And then there was the other friend and tippling companion who lived in an abandoned cellar out beyond the orchard country. He had covered the three-sided stone rectangle with a tarpaulin to make a roof, installed a kerosene heater, and built a wall along the open side with plywood. There were bets about whether he could make it through a winter there.

Like the other two, he picked apples, but he had no overalls, showing up to work in frayed suit pants, a graying white shirt, and worn patent leather dress shoes instead. He also sported a battered homburg hat. Because he had an old heap of a car, it was thought he had a small army pension or some other steady income. Whatever the source, it made him good for rides to town.

They were all old enough to have lived through the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Clearly, keeping a social distance came naturally to them and being isolated was their preferred circumstance. If they could survive the way they did in 1955, wearing the same underwear for four months, COVID-19 wouldn’t phase them one whit.

(Contact me at