Raymond J. Harding
Pepperell, MA 01463
Or Local History as it Really Was (2)
The Pied Piper of Pepperell
I was inspecting the ruins of my garden the other day, and I noticed a small grass snake coiled up, waiting for me to pass. I didn’t disturb him since he was the only thing still alive in the garden, but he did remind me of one of my ancestors, old Amos Hardinge. (Old Amos spelled the name with an ‘e’. Sometimes he spelled it with three ‘e’s, which was usually a sign that he had been sipping the gin jug, and those particular entries were not always to be trusted.)
I made my way through the mess in the attic, found and dusted Amos’ journal, and started thumbing through it. This chronicle is the only record of the true account of those early days in Pepperell. Or maybe the section that Amos lived in was still Groton then. Whichever, the town fathers went to great lengths after Amos departed for points west, to make sure that the name Amos Hardinge was removed from all official and unofficial records.
The date on Amos’ version of those troubled times isn’t too clear, but I figure it had to be before King Philip’s War in 1676, and it had to be after 1655 when the town of Groton was incorporated. (An interesting footnote to this is found in Amos’ own hand. Most people assume that Groton was so named in honor of one of the founders, Dean Winthrop, who hailed from Groton, England. However, Amos, who was quite fluent in all the dialects of the local Indians, claimed that the name was taken from the word ‘groos-ton’, the name given to an incredibly large buffalo chip, dried and used as fuel by the Indians.)
By the time the settlement really got going, a strange series of events took place. The first event was an unexpected explosion in the mouse and rabbit census. Think about it! All those nice, snug houses with their dirt floors, filled with seeds and crackers and all kinds of other goodies! And the gardens—bunny heaven! Foxes and owls, and other predators waxed fat and lazy, but they hardly made a dent in the revolting little rodents.
That’s when the second event took place, the great rattlesnake plague. Yes, rattlesnakes. Today if you want to see a rattlesnake in Massachusetts, you’d have to go to the Blue Hills or the Berkshires. In those days, all you had to do was to step (carefully) out your back door. Drawn by the bountiful supply of mice and bunnies, the rattlers really began to move in. Some say they were drawn to the area from as far away as Ashby and Lunenburg which is quite a ways to crawl for a meal.
Wherever they came from, they were a nuisance. Even the Indians were quite upset with the settlers for having, as they saw it, let the neighborhood get into such a condition. Both the town of Pepperell and the town of Groton put a bounty on the critters, but not too many people wanted to earn money that way. It got so bad that people had to watch where they were stepping in their own gardens. One also had to be careful of where one sat in the great outdoors, or if they weren’t, as Amos put it: “Ye wood sune find who thy friends be!” (That was Amos’ line, not mine.)
People’s nerves were understandably on edge. It was recorded at the time: “At a wedding reception held at the home of Sarah and Goodman B. . . . . , one infant, Tully G. . . . . . ., aged nine months, did vigorously shake his toy gourd filled with dried beans.” In the resulting chaos three individuals were most seriously injured when they tried to dive through the same window, simultaneously.
When winter set in that fateful year, the snakes slithered off to their dens to sleep out the frigid months. Both settlers and mice breathed a sigh of relief. Prudent people that they were, a meeting was held in January to discuss the problem and to prepare for the inevitable coming of spring. For one thing, the bounty wasn’t working. One enterprising youth had spotted a den along the shore of a local pond. In mid-December he built a great bonfire near the ledge. The rock warmed up; the snakes, thinking that spring had arrived, swarmed out in droves. The young man waited until all the snakes had crawled about twenty yards from the fire, and then the sub-zero temperature hit them. He stacked them up like cordwood, threw them into a gunnysack and dumped them on the meeting house floor.
“How many you got there, son?” One selectman asked.
“Three-hundred,” the youth replied, lying of course.
“Why, that comes to over £30! We can’t pay a bounty like that!” Another selectman shouted.
“Pay him, and get those snakes to hell out of here before they thaw!” Said the first selectman quite wisely.
Amos had been present (he says) during this incident, and it gave him an idea. At the January town meeting, he offered to solve the town’s problem and rid them of the revolting rattlers forever for the mere price of £400. After much discussion, as is typical of town meetings, it was agreed that if Amos could do the job, £400 was cheap enough price to pay.
Amos immediately sent a letter off to a friend in the East India Shipping Company, and then he sat back smugly to wait for spring.
On a warm day late in March, both spring and a large crate from Boston arrived together. Those unsuspecting symbols of Satan were just beginning to stretch their legs (figuratively speaking) as Amos uncrated and unleashed his secret weapon, twelve pair of mongooses.
Those furry little beggars went to work immediately. They really took to the New England climate. By July it was estimated that the rattlesnake population had been halved, and the mongoose population had more than doubled. By the end of August, you couldn’t even buy a rattler, but the mongooses were everywhere. When they finally ran out of snakes, they started in on chickens and geese. The townspeople were divided into two camps: those that thought Amos was a genius, and his feat was well worth the fee. The other group wanted him run out of town—these, of course, were the owners of the chickens and geese.
In October Amos promised a special town meeting that he would now begin his final campaign and drive the mongooses out of the area. Now, Amos’ one great weakness was his fondness for the bag pipe. Amos was tone-deaf and hard-of-hearing. He thought that his music was superb. No one else could stand it. His neighbors (three miles away) had filed several complaints in the past. Even aficionados of the bag pipe will admit that in the hands of a novice, the instrument becomes an instrument of torture.
Night after night from just before sundown until the meetinghouse bell struck nine, Amos paraded up and down the highways and byways, plying his caterwauling bag of screeching air. People complained. One, it was reported, was driven mad, but Amos never relented. Finally, one cold night at the end of October, Amos showed up at the town meeting for that month and announced that his work was done; he had driven the mongooses from Pepperell and Groton and he was here to collect his fee. There would be an end to the problem. The mongooses had eaten all the rattlers, the rattlers had eaten most of the mice, and now things could return to normal. There were some cries of protest from the chicken farmers and the goose girls, but the general feeling of the population was that Amos had done what he had contracted to do, and that he should be paid—only if he would retire the bag pipe. (A few were heard to mutter that the whole thing smacked of witchcraft, but more about that later.)
Amos took his money and his bag pipe and left town the following day. Some say he went to Philadelphia to set up a print shop, but I think the timing for that was wrong. In any event, it’s probably just as well he left before the townsfolk figured out that they had been had. The bag pipe had nothing to do with the demise of the mongooses; the cold weather took good care of that. Amos knew all along that those cute little weasels from India couldn’t survive a New England winter; he just capitalized on the fact.