Regional Ramblings, (2). The Pied Piper of Pepperell

Raymond J. Harding

Pepperell, MA 01463


Regional Ramblings,

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.



Illusion vs Reality

Have been thinking a lot lately about our current, unique, I guess historic political situation, wherein objective facts and genuine social concerns seem to fade into the distance, having been smothered over by personal attacks, smoke and mirror allegations, confusion and mistrust, and sight and sound bites that only serve to stoke the fires of emotional discontent and provide little in the way of practical solutions to very serious problems.

Discouraging. At times downright farce-like. A populace that too often responds in like manner to the senseless hype with long suppressed anger and frustration while faced with political leadership that appears increasingly devoid of substance or statesmanship, wallowing in outright short-sightedness of personal and party corruption, lies, and bigotry, at a time when we need circumspect, compassionate, enlightened men and women to bring reasoned solutions before the voters.

Will it happen? Will they appear?  We can only hope.

I’m not about to propose my own solutions. What does occur to me is that we have in many ways created our predicament simply by our active participation in the taken-for-granted traits that lie within our cultural assumptions. American greatness. American heroism. American ideals. While some want us to mourn the demise of the American Dream, others wonder, just what is that American Dream?

In my old age and advancing cynicism I believe I have seen through the Dream portion and observed the mechanisms behind the curtain where the Wiz (and friends)move the levers and manipulate the audio, handing out ersatz gifts of our hearts’ desires and plastic medals and ribbons with which we prove our personal worth. Mental Munchkins that we are, we take our news and “information” from the presentations of the Wiz, not bothering with in-depth analysis (which is conveniently available within these same presentations), make a simple “Vanilla or Chocolate?” choice so that we can resolve the tension of indecision and move on to more stimulating, immediately gratifying pastimes. The carrot dangles eternally just a sniff and a lick away.

We are a consumer culture and are moved to choices by reason of slick advertising which we know to be “questionable” at best but still thrive in our denial of facts in favor of what appears to be in our own best interests. To acknowledge what lies behind the dream is almost impossible, as it means that not only have I made an enormous error in choosing an ideal to believe in, but it forces me to acknowledge that there just might be nothing at all out there for me to pin my hopes on.

Me, Billy and the Troll

Once again and coincidentally, I had this illusion topic in mind for some time, but it has become my custom to post not only my random “peckings and droppings” but also post at the same time what WordPress describes as Pages. I have made several of these double postings (anyone remember the ice-cream cones with two tops on one cone?) so that I can offer you both chocolate and vanilla in the same posting, or one delicious lick.

To that end, please see the short story by my favorite author and older brother, Ray J. Harding, entitled “Me, Billy and the Troll”, (click the underlined title above). It provides some literary relief to my current posting, should you find that to be a little too far off my little path. I did not plan to put the two together. Serendipity is one of my favorite things.

Happy Hump Day to all….my it be a truly rewarding experience.





A Child’s Introduction to the little things in life

I’m paraphrasing a story I read many years ago that for some reason has resurfaced in my memory store.

A young girl was staying with her grandmother who lived in a somewhat rural location that the child had no experience with at all. In an effort to keep the child from getting bored and bothersome, grandma would create little “important” jobs for (let’s call her Annie) to do.

Grandma’s house sat a long distance from the road and if nothing else, Annie could get exercise walking, running, skipping or happy combinations of all 3 things, back and forth between house and mailbox. It was indeed a fun, daily thing to do. But chore, converted to fun, eventually reverts to a chore, sooner or later as one’s personal priorities begin to change.. Before long Annie’s anxious questions of “is the mail here yet?” and “when is the mail truck coming?’, and “I wish he came all seven days of the week”, shriveled up to “I’ll go later, after I put my toys away”, or ” grandma, it’s really far and I’m very tired. Can I wait ’till tomorrow and do 2 days at once?”. And so the fun was in danger of disappearing forever.

But Grandmas are rarely lost for solutions and recognize how a problem can become an opportunity.

“Annie, today, when the mail comes, I’m going to give you Grandma’s favorite, hand-made basket to put the mail in when you collect it. But before you get back, I want you to look at the path down to the mailbox very closely. I want you to look very carefully and see if there are some things on or near the path that you never even saw before.”

“Like what, Grandma? I’ve seen that path a hundred times since I came here. There is nothing new there at all.”

“But Annie”, said Grandma, “I know there is some new grass growing near the fence post since the last rain. I know there are some tiny flowers neat that big boulder on the side of the house that were just tiny buds the other day. And I know there are squirrels and blue jays and cardinals that fly around out there and I’ll bet they leave some feathers here and there, or acorn shells, or maybe even pieces of egg shells from when their babies hatched.”

“I want you to look really hard, but don’t take too long, and find 3 things to put in your basket to show me when you come home with the mail. Understand?”

“Three things, Grandma?’, protested Annie. “I have to get all the mail and look for three things I’ve never even noticed before? How about just one…or maybe two? It looks like it might even rain pretty soon.”

“I’m very sure,” Grandma replied, “that you can find 3 new things and still get the mail back here with plenty of time to play with your toys before supper is even ready. My basket isn’t very big you know. Besides, I want to have time to look at your treasures while you tell me all about what they are, how and where you found them. When we are done, maybe we can have some milk and fresh-baked cookies, ok? I don’t want you to get too tired out.”

Still not sure this was a really good idea, Annie gave a half-hearted “ok” and a little more enthusiastic “can I have the basket now, to get it ready?”  “Of course you can” a smiling grandma replied. The mail will be here pretty soon and you should be ready. You can even go out early.” “No, that’s ok Grandma. I’ll wait ’till I see him get here.” This was a new task-thing to be done and there was no point in getting to it too soon.

The mail that day was only a couple of sales flyers, one small card with no envelope about some new show coming to town and some unimportant looking things in brown envelopes. Not enough to even fill half the basket. Annie was puzzled now. “That’s a lot of room to have to fill up with 3 things she thought. But grandma didn’t say how big things should be so maybe 1 large rock that was hardly visible behind that bush would be good. Haven’t seen that before.  There’s also that big leafy plant-thing that always looked like it was a weed but now seems to have some buds on it and maybe grandma can put it in a pot and make it grow in the house. And sure enough, there’s a neat blue and white feather that must have come from one of  those blue jays that are always making a racket outside the back porch.  Well, the basket is almost full already and Grandma might be happy with what I found. I wonder if she knows what kind of plant that is that I got for her?

Sure enough, Grandma was more than happy to interrupt her cookie baking and examine the new discoveries with enormous excitement and praise. Annie, in turn, was so excited that Grandma was so happy with her that she began to plan her next trip to the mailbox. In fact, she already knew of a couple of weird-looking things that she could investigate tomorrow, even if the mail never came that day at all.

And so it all grew and grew. The basket got a little bigger.

Trips to the mail box got more frequent. Sometimes only to check in case the mail came and no one saw it or the little flag didn’t get changed.

Basket contents grew to 4 or 6 or as many as could be found in one, slow, trip.

Eventually Annie and Gram decided that Annie was big enough to just observe new things and not limit her observations to only the path, The fields beyond, the trees, neighboring animals, birds, even cloud formations became things to be remembered, logged in journals, talked about while Annie and Gram made cookies, and pies and canned veggies and roasted chickens.

Everybody grew and everybody benefited from a child’s efforts to enrich a simple task by attending to things often missed completely or taken for granted and thought to be of little value: the simple joys of everyday life.

Happy path-walking. RD