Thursday, July 16, 2015

More Than the Daily Grind

The mill stood, three stories about the rushing creek, the turning waterwheel the only moving constant in a landscape of milling people, modern cars whizzing past a hundred yards away. It is one of very few grist mills that do not lie in ruins and the only one recognized as a historical landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The Graue Mill and Museum. Inside, a modern day miller is doing a demonstration of the milling process using 150 year old buhrstones. Outside of the cash register for purchasing grain and some souvenirs, the inside of the mill has been authentically restored to look as it did, so many years ago.

On the second floor, among the many collections of tools, a lovely woman in period costume named Susan demonstrated the art of weaving from flaxen thread to make linen, as well as the meticulous process by which the strands of soft flax emerged from a course stalk.
The third and top floor had several rooms that depicted life of 1850 to 1890 in early Fullersburg, the town in which German immigrant Frederick Graue settled, though his family actually lived in the beautiful house that stood behind, a fine example of Italianate architecture, restored in 2002.

One of the room depictions in the grist house, which included a kitchen and room where the spinning wheels worked, was a little girls room. The furniture was adult furniture, carefully crafted in miniature, the bed, one in which her parents would watch her sleep, praying  that she never knew fear or hunger. On the bed was a doll, a small, clothed artifact of that innocent corridor that is childhood.
Susan had given us a vivid storytellers description of life, not just in this dwelling, in those days, of once a week baths in a shared tub, of clothing made not just by one's own stitches but often ones own fabric, pressed with an iron  that carried with it a burden that was more than weight.  In picking up one of the irons, I  realized that these women, even young girls that did such tasks, would be in physical shape that we all run to gyms to achieve.

On wooden pegs on the wall, hung several female garments.  Much of the material was plain in color and rough in texture, yet there were colorful cottons, formed by as much as six yards of fabric, the material expanding as the body would change in pregnancy.  As I traced one delicate floral design with my fingers, I could picture a  young woman standing in sunlight, the skirt billowing around her, a flash of color, not on a dance floor but among a swirl of chickens as she went to gather eggs.
What dreams did the women that wore these dresses have, there above the looms and irons that engaged them, the children they bore until they often died in doing so? Were they happy or was it a merely a cradle to marriage bed to casket rotation of spent youth and grief, dreams born too late and yet too soon? What stories would they tell had they the time and means to tell them?

Life for the men was no easier. It was a time where if one didn't work, one's family didn't eat.  But it was also a time that even if you did work hard, there was no guarantee you would eat, the grain and its grower subject to the hour and urge of weather, the root bloom of the lands frailty. The tools used for food and life were heavy, sweat and limbs playing a clumsy accompaniment to the music of metal, wood and stone. The work was not only physically hard, it could be dangerous.
I remember the story of my own grandfather, a lumberjack who suffered an accident of tree and ax. There were no emergency rooms, no trauma teams, simply a man brought home to the bed that recently bore his children, bleeding out while his wife could only stand by him with brooding awareness of that pending inscrutable inheritance that is early widowhood.

Yes, the lives of past history are seldom easy, but there would be riches of experience we can not see, the accomplishment of crafting something that would last for generations. There is the pride in your teaching your own family. You teaching, not a school, not a "village", teaching the skills they would need to not just survive, but to prosper beyond the scope of your life. There was also the saving, not perhaps love or riches, but what is left behind in a human spirit when everything else has been taken away.
Need and necessity sometime have ways of obliterating from our conduct various scruples involving compassion and honor. In looking around the mill, I saw a family that had much more than most people did back them.  I saw a family who could have enjoyed it, drank it all in, filled their belly with it, then passed quietly into history, their forms put into the earth and covered as if they had never been.

But they did not.
In the basement, there was something that made me stop and quietly think. A room that at one point was part of the Underground Railroad, a runaway slaves stop on the way to freedom in Canada, by a miller who himself sought freedom in our country, leaving his native Germany long behind him.

How many slaves did Mr. Graue shelter there in the basement of his gristmill? How many people passed through this room, putting their trust in a strangers hands, hesitant perhaps to take hold, as a hand too near the stove remembers pain. How difficult must that have been, trust replacing the whip of whistling air, the blow.
On the walls were pictures of some of the slaves, their eyes all projecting something, not words to be spoken but rather a profound and distracted listening for something they know exists, but do not yet know  its sound. I paused as I looked at the photos, one of those prolonged moments that contains the distance between this place as it was, and what it is now, everything that has been evoked or dared to bring us both to this place.

As I walked up the narrow stairs from that small and once dark place where women and men ran for their freedom, out into the light, an echo spoke which was not mine but rather all of the lost immutable "should haves" which haunt all dwellings, all the enclosed walls of home or heart. It lingers in the air as a hand takes mine to guide me safely away.

I left the mill with some bags of grain, but even more, with a renewed sense of thankfulness. Not just for my lightweight iron and the luxury of a long, hot, solitary bubble bath, but for something else.  I left with a sense of enduring hope for that which is the human spirit, the recognition of a life lived by ones own hand and choice.

6 comments:

  1. Most of us will never truly know how hard, how demanding the lives of earlier generations were. Thank you for a glimpse into one part of our shared past.

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  2. When I was a kid there was an old house nearby that was said to be part of the underground railroad. Since it was in the process of falling down, it was far too dangerous, even for a foolhardy teen, to venture into. I wish that I could have gone in, perhaps to have a similar experience as yours.

    Merle

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  3. There was an old stone barn in Lawrence KS, that used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. Dring my lifetime, it was restored and turned into a city fire station. It has since given up that duty, and remains a building owned by the city.
    http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g38836-d268001-r145453778-Fire_Station_No_4-Lawrence_Kansas.html

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  4. You have done it again. Your carefully crafted words take me to a realm of thoughtfulness. I love old things and old ways. My mother grew up on a northwest Georgia farm back in the 1920s. Life could be difficult far from urban safety and ease, but the rustic beauty and sense of self sufficiency made the inconveniences worth while. I loved her sharing fond memories of her young life with me. She gave me an appreciation of what is required to focus on and enjoy our beautiful natural world. I am passing these things on to my children and grandchildren.

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  5. Beautifully done... And a tribute to a different 'world' than we experience.

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