April 1991

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A New Home: Who'll Follow

Life in the Clearings


Caroline M. Kirkland

First published in 1839
Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.

Chapter 41

A Mill Raising

Wilder and rougher grew our winding way after we lost sight of the fawns, and I began to think Constantinople must be farther off than we had supposed, when our wheel plumped suddenly into a great dry hole so deep that it brought our steeds to a stand still. They, like ourselves, had been unprepared for anything of the sort, for the track had been as smooth, if not as level, as a bowling-green. It was green too, for it had not been enough travelled to destroy the original sward. What could be the meaning of this pitfall?

It was vain to question the trees or the chipmunks, and our own wits offered no satisfactory solution; so we drove on. A few yards more, and we came to a similar trap, and from this time onward they became more and more frequent. They were the oddest thing that could be, in this out of the way place, seeming freshly dug and without conceivable aim or purpose. We discussed the point without arriving at any satisfactory conclusion, till we became sensible of a new wonder—a distant sound of "Yo heave!" recurring at regular intervals, and transporting one's mind at once to the borders of the well-beloved sea, whose various music was far more familiar to our youthful ears than the murmur of the forest.

"Yo heave! Yo heave!" the mingled sound of many voices, became more and more distinctly audible as we ascended a high bank broken everywhere by the holes I have mentioned

When we reached its summit, from which the road descended suddenly into a deep, woody dell, a scene of strange beauty met our eyes, and explained all. Over a small stream in the bottom of the dell—a mere brooklet as it seemed from that distance—some eighty or perhaps a hundred men were erecting the frame-work of a large mill—an object which seemed almost as much out of place in this primal solitude as would the apparition of a three-decker upon the stocks, which indeed it much resembled. Nothing could be more striking than the contrast between this intricate specimen of human skill, and the majestic simplicity of nature around it. The trees which had been felled to make room for it, lay in their yet unfaded green on every side, and so scanty allowance had been made for the gigantic intruder, that the still living forest hung over its symmetrical spars. An immense beat was about to be raised, (borrowed learning this,) and as many men as could find hands-breadths on its edge were applying their united energies to the task, bringing to mind inevitably the sleeping Gulliver under the efforts of his Lilliputians.

As the huge mass left the ground, poles and handspikes assisted its ascent, and the "Yo heave!" was repeated as a signal for every fresh effort, as on shipboard. When it had reached it place high in air, it made one's heart stand still to see men perched upon it, and leaning over to drive its corners home with heavy mallets; those below tossing up the requisite pins, which were caught with unerring precision.

When we could withdraw our attention from this part of the scene, we found much to attract it below. The spectacle of a "raising," though so commonplace an affair elsewhere, is something worth seeing in the woods; and accordingly there were almost as many boys and idlers as efficient hands present on this occasion. These were making the most of their time in various games of skill or strength—wrestling, running, leaping;—and shouts of merry laughter mingled with the cheering song of the workmen. Not a few lounged around the door of a temporary building or "shanty," as we say—erected for the refreshment of the guests; for be it known that on these occasions neighbors one and all leave their own business, if possible, and lend their aid for love and not for money—excepting only some good cheer, and in case of need a reciprocation of the kindness.

Where the country is settled but little, the assembling of so many able-bodied men is no small undertaking. I have no doubt the company before us cost several days' hard riding. And there were probably many there who would not have been hired to quit their own affairs to work for anybody. It is considered very churlish to refuse in such cases, and nothing would make a man more unpopular than the habit of excusing himself from raisings. Indeed few are disposed to offend in this way, for these are considered in the light of friendly visits, and constitute almost the sole attempt of merry-making in which the men of the countrty take part.

The work went on rapidly and well. Everything fitted, and the complicated structure grew as if by magic aid. When one thinks of such undertakings, it seems wonderful that terrible accidents do not often occur—but when we see the operation, it is more natural to ask how it is that they ever occur, so great is the amount of skill, care and accuracy employed. The master mind, clear-headed and keen-eyed, stands by, calmly directing the minutest movement; and so complete is the confidence reposed in him that his commands are implicitly obeyed where the least mistake might cost many lives. This person took upon himself very properly the right of repressing, with some sternness, the jokes and laughter of the younger portion of his assistants; who, preferring of course the highest and most perilous parts of the work, yielded to the excitement of the moment, greatly increasing their own risk as well as that of all concerned.

"Ta'n't play-spell, boys!" said the "boss."

"Law! I tho't 'twas! I seen the master out o' doors," replied one of the pickles.

"Well, now you know it a'n't, you'd better keep your teeth warm," shouted the master in return; "put your tongue in your elbow, and then may-be you'll work!"

And under such auspices it was not long before the last rafter found its appropriate place, and nothing was lacking from the huge foundation stones which had left such yawning cavities in the wood, through which we approached the scene, to the apex of the airy pile, which showed its outline with beautiful distinctness on the heavy foliage around it. This was the moment of triumph. The men, who had been scattered in every direction throughout the frame, giving it the appearance of an enormous bird-cage, rather aviary, now ranged themselves along the beams, and gave three thrilling cheers, presenting the most perfect image of the beautful manoeuvre of "manning the yards" on board a vessel of war, that can possibly be conceived. With me the illusion was complete for the moment, and I found my eyes filled with tears—the tears of ancient and well-preserved memories,—in spite of the great old trees and the deep lonely dell.

Nothing now remained but to name the structure according to the formula invariably used on such occasions, let the terms suit as they may.

Upon this plain
Stands a fair frame—
Who'll give it a name?

To which a voice from a distant corner responded, "we'll call it 'the miller's delight,'—To take toll all day and count the cash at night." This again reminded me of the ceremony of naming at a launch, but if there were libations on this occasion they were not poured upon the ground.

The whole company now adjourned to the shanty, where abundant refreshments were provided. We were very politely invited to partake, but the day was waning, and the scene had already beguiled us of so much time, that we declined anything beyond a glass of excellent spruce beer,—a luxury which we of the woods know how to appreciate.

Sir Walter Scott observes that he always found "something fearful, or at least melancholy, about a mill." He had never seen one "raised," I am sure. Perhaps he owned one when wheat, having stood at twelve shillings, fell to six—and after some fluctuation settled at four. This would account for his impression.

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