|Vol. VII, No. 1, Summer 1993|
by Robert Flanders
Robert Flanders is an OzarksWatch editor
One lovely day in the latter part of October I took Old Betsey [a favorite gun] on my shoulder and started out to kill an old buck."
Thus began, in characteristic fashion, one of hundreds of columns Theodore Pease Russell wrote for the Iron County Register from 1883 to 1898. He wrote about many subjects, most of them autobiographical; but hunting was doubtless his personal favorite. "1 found that there was no subject to talk about so interesting to both old and young, as a good hunting or fishing story," he wrote. "They never seemed to tire of hearing about the early life in the woods. I sometimes feel sorry for the young folks that are coming on the stage, when all of these old times will have passed away, and live in books and memory. Should old times be forgot and never brought to mind? Like old sailors, we old hunters never tire going over our hunting exploits; and after all, I do not know of anything that is more exciting than to sit before one of those great fires and listen to a good story well told."
TPR wrote for young people, but he knew "Old Times", as he called it, was popular with all ages. His "Old times" were as recent as his own youth, only fifty years before. But for him it was another era, an era gone forever. It was the time of the pristine frontier wilderness, with its vast forests, its abundant fish and game, its frontiersmen and pioneers. All were gone, save to memory. He hoped to pass on the excitement and wonder of those "old times" to a rising generation that could never experience them first hand.
One lovely day in the latter part of October I took Old Betsey on my shoulder and started out to kill an old buck. For once I took Old Ring and Old Cuff--the two dogs. I very seldom let a dog go with me when hunting for deer; but I just thought I would let them go, as I wanted to see Old Ring fight an old buck.
I had just got to where Mr. William Thomson's lake is and I saw, about two hundred steps from me, a splendid old ten-point buck feeding along, going quartering away from me. He stood in such a position I could not just tell where his heart was, but I drew down on his side so as to hit his heart. It is very difficult to get a sure aim when a deer is going from you; but I made the best guess I could and fired. At the crack of my rifle that old buck kicked high and ran about a hundred yards and laid down fight under those great oak trees in Mr. Thomson's yard. The dogs wanted to go for the deer, but I told them to just hold on till I got my gun loaded again .... I walked slowly towards the deer. I could have shot the buck again before he could get up, but I wanted to see a fight so I let the dogs loose and before they could get a hold on the deer, he was up and off for the hills. As those dogs followed the deer I could hear Old Ring' s voice as he ran. Soon I heard them make a turn .... In a few minutes I saw them all coming towards me; the old buck was hooking at one dog, then at the other. The dogs did not seem to be trying to catch him, but just driving him to me. As he came I walked over to them; I thought when they saw I was there, they would take hold of him. So I set my gun up against a tree...and told the dogs to take hold of him. And don't you think those dogs walked off and sat down, as much as to say, "Here's your deer, now kill him yourself if you want him killed!"
The moment the dogs left, that deer put down his head and made a jump at me. As he did so I just stepped to one side and as he passed me I caught his left horn with my left hand and jumped astride of his back and clinched my feet together under the deer and away the old buck went and I riding him! I said, 'Good, old hoss! I can ride as fast as you can run.' I tell you he was a splendid riding pony.
He carried me about a hundred yards when he came to a little dry branch that ran across our way. He made a jump to cross the branch, but I was too heavy for him and he came short of the other side and pitched head first into the branch, and I top of him! As he could not get up with me on top, he tried to kick me off with his hind feet; so I stretched myself flat on the deer' s side and stuck my feet against his hind legs close to his body so he could not kick me off. I then pulled his head around---I had never let go of his horn--and with my right hand got my knife out and cut his throat; and I never let up on him as long as I could feel his flesh quiver--until he was dead, dead. I then got up and cut me a good gad and I walked up to Old Ring and took him by the nape of his neck and just gave him a good whipping; and then I went to Old Cuff and served him the same way.
The Iron County Register, Ironton, was a typical county weekly, albeit a good one. TPR (as everyone called him) was not a country correspondent of the Register, however. He was a "columnist," not a stringer for local news. He was a cultivated man of many parts, he had an array of experiences, and he was indeed a creative writer.
Born in Connecticut in 1820 of old Puritan Yankee stock, his father considered sending "Thid" and his brothers to Yale in order to prepare them for professional careers as townsmen. The Russells' rural New England world, two centuries old by the 1830s, was ending. Urbanization, industrialization, population growth, and high-priced land were the new order. In the event, the Russells left New England and took their family to the Ozarks frontier of the Arcadia Valley, then Madison County, to be farmers. The year was 1838.
So TPR came to manhood on a Southern frontier, learning the ways and listening to the stories of its Scotch-Irish-descended hunter-hillmen and its Cornish- and Welsh-descended iron miners. He became a great hunter, not only for sport, but for money. He was a market hunter, shipping untold thousands of his kill to the wild meat markets of St. Louis. He was also an inveterate reader. His family possessed a library and subscribed to newspapers and magazines. One of them, the Youth's Champion, had been in the Russell home from TPR's childhood. Its romantic, juvenile style greatly influenced his writing.
TPR was a storyteller, telling stories he believed boys would love. In telling them, he relived his own youth. His recollection of the trip from Connecticut to Missouri reminded him of their dog "Old Tige;" and he launched out upon a series of Old Tige tales.
[Old Tige] would not only look after the folks and the trunks and wagons and horses, but would lick every dog he met on the whole route to Missouri .... And we had not been in the Valley two hours...before we heard the awfullest racket out in the street by the
teams. On looking out we saw old Tige with a two-year old mule down on the ground. Twice he had that mule by the throat and would have killed it, had we not been in time to get him off. We tried to make Tige let go by whipping him. We beat him with sticks, then with clubs; the more we fought the dog, the harder he fought the mule. Finally, we had to choke him off....
Snakes stood a sorry show if he saw one. Rattlesnakes? He would kill every rattler he came across ....
I remember, one day in wheat harvest, we boys were on the way back to the field after dinner. We heard him commence barking very fierce. We all said, "An old rattler!" We soon came near enough to see one of the largest rattlesnakes I ever saw, coiled up. I tell you he looked wicked ! His head was waving back and forward, his tongue fairly flashing. We boys all stood off. At last Tige made a spring and as he did so, that snake, quick as a flash, struck Tige over but Tige caught him and the way he did shake him for a minute or so; then dropped the snake, who did not seem to have fared very badly. As soon as Tige had dropped the snake it threw itself into a coil again, ready for another charge. Although Tige was badly bit, he would not give up, but still made charge after charge, and at each charge that old rattler would strike him about the head somewhere. Tige became so mad, he just charged on the snake and commenced to claw it to pieces, as he did the mule. All this time the snake kept striking the dog. Finally, we ran up and caught the dog by the hind legs and pulled him away, and then killed the snake.
By this time Tige was past standing. We took him up and carried him home and spent most of the afternoon doctoring him. We turned fat down his throat, boiled cocklebur leaves in sweet oil, and gave it to him. We began to think it was all night with old Tige. The bites would have killed any half-dozen common dogs, but he had so much of the Old Scratch in him, he was hard to kill. How many, many times we boys have had to choke or pound that dog to make him let go of something he had got his jaws set on, I don't know. If you let him go hunting with you and you shot a squirrel, or anything he could get his teeth on, he would chaw it as long as he could hear a bone crack .... The family often when together would talk of that failing of old Tige' s. We often discussed the question, how can we break that dog of that bad habit of killing and chewing everything to pieces so?
One day I had been out hunting .... Way ahead of me I saw a very large homed owl sitting up in a tree. It was a long distance off, but I thought I will try you anyway. So I brought Old Betsey to my shoulder. At the crack of my rifle, the owl came tumbling to the ground. When I saw it fall I was certain I had just broken its wing .... I went up to it. There it stood up as big as life and the way it did crack its beak together and bat its eyes at me, as if to say, hands off! I stood and looked at him for a few minutes and was just on the point of picking up a stick to break its head when the thought flashed in my mind, now for old Tige!
I got hold of the point of the owl's wings and by holding him away from me so he could not reach me with the claws, [I] could carry him. When I reached home, I set the owl down in the yard a few yards from the house. There he stood, nearly two feet tall in stockings, looking as wise and solemn as a judge as much as to say, now what? I called all the family out to look at my bird. I tell you he was a fine specimen. I said to the folks, "I want you to see old Tige fight this bird; he is the most cruel savage I ever saw. He has no mercy on anything he can get his jaws closed on. Now we will see some fun."
I called "Tige! Tige!" At the call of his name how he came, with head up and eyes wide open, ran up to me and looked all around, then up to me as much as to say, "What do you want? Here I am; bring on your man." I said, "Tige, do you see that thing standing out there?" As I pointed at it, he made a half start, then looked at me. "Tige, do you see that?" I pointed to it''Sick!'' There Tige stood all in a quiver--so eager to go! "Sick!"
At the word he made a dash at the owl. As he opened his mouth with the expectation of making just one mouthful of the thing, the owl fell over flat on his back, and caught his claws in each side of the dog' s face fast and hard. You never saw a dog so disappointed and surprised in your life. And all of the high and lofty tumbling and around and around on his hind legs, standing up as straight as a man, with his fore feet trying to break the owl loose; and there he kept it up until he was the worst whipped dog you ever saw. At last he came up to me with the owl still hanging fast to his face and whined--as much as to say, "Please take that thing off. I own up, I am licked."
One of the boys got the owl by the head and one at each foot and unfastened them. As soon as Tige felt himself free, he dashed around back of the house. I took the owl and sat him up again. There he stood, batting those big eyes and snapping his bill, "Fetch on your dogs; here I am !" I called, "Tige! Tige!" After a few minutes and two or three calls, he came creeping up close to the side of the house. As he peeped around the comer, I said, "Tige, you see that thing?" He gave me one reproachful look and dashed back out of sight. Nor could we make him come any more to the show ....
I think that and the snake bites broke his spirit, for he gradually pined away.... Poor old Tige ! One morning the next spring just as the spring flowers were putting out, I went down to the [Russells'] saw-mill [on Stout's Creek]. As I looked down below I saw the body of old Tige lying in the water below the water wheel. He had gone to his long, last home ....
TPR's hunting stories were masculine tales, clearly intended for men. One doubts that women read them (or if they did, one suspects they did so in private). But many of his columns were gender-neutral narratives of family life, of country socials, of memorable meals he had both consumed and prepared--he was an accomplished cook. His paean to corn is a good example.
There is no crop grown on the farm that can begin to take the place of corn, as a crop for food, or as an article of commerce, and then there is no crop that can be used in so many ways as an article of food. It is being preyed upon from the time it is put in the ground until it has gone through all the varied stages of growth and gathered in the crib and finally consumed. Who does not love a good ear of corn, roasted over a good bed of coals of fire---especially after a good night's coon hunt--the fire built against an old log and the corn taken from the nearest field? And who does not love a good dish of succotash, made of corn cut from the cob, cooked with about one-third the quantity of good butter-beans shelled and cooked together--an Indian dish. I have often thought the Indians in the early times of this country's settlement by white men must have had a grand, good old time at their annual corn feasts. How anxious they must have felt as they watched the corn in all its stages of growth until the tassel and silk appeared and how they watched the skies to see if the rains would come to bring out the grains on the cob. How vast a difference a good shower of rain makes in the finishing up of the crop! All the difference in the world.
Hominy! Do the readers know how hominy is made? And do you have any idea what vast quantities of corn are annually made into that one article of food? In old times of this country the early settlers thought the table was not well furnished if there was no big bowl of hominy on the table, with a good bowl of honey or maple syrup to put on it.
Mush: oh how it makes the ribs stick out to fill up with mush and milk or mush and honey, or butter and molasses! When I was a boy I used to hear the neighbors laugh about my grandfather. They said he had a hard fall and broke two of his ribs. When the doctor came he ordered my grandmother to make a big kettle of mush and feed him with mush and milk and it cured him up.
Baked Indian pudding--oh, isn't it just one of the nicest dishes for dessert: so satisfying, so delicious, either hot or cold. Boiled English pudding with suet, raisins, or currants, mixed all through the mass, all put in a good strong bag and boiled in the big pot with corned beef and salt pork until well done. When taken out of the bag on a large platter and a good slice cut offthe end, put in a plate with sweetened cream and--go away !
Corn batter cakes. What is better at breakfast than a good pile of corn batter cakes, well browned with a good bit of nice beefsteak cooked to a turn with gravy to put on the cakes?
Corn pone, baked in our old Dutch oven, the pone cut in big wedges with a good slice of bacon, ham and fried eggs, coffee--oh, it's enough to make one want to hug the cook! How comfortable it makes us feel right under our jackets.
Dodgers! All covered with print of the delicate fingers that patted the dough into its proper shape. As we break off a piece as it is passed around the table, we contemplate those fingermarks and feel we would like to take those fingers in our grasp and look the owner in her eyes once more. Dodgers! They, with a good cup of milk, are food fit for angels to eat ....
Ah, there is so much to corn. It is food for men; it is food for all kinds of animals; it makes fat horses, fat hogs, fat beef, fat chickens and plenty of eggs. Yes; and as the wise men said, it makes our sides burst with fatness.
TPR was a verbal person. He was often the one literate individual in a group, in which case he read aloud--the newspaper, the mail, whatever print was around. He was a noted storyteller decades before he started to write. Indeed, reading his columns we sense an unhurried, loquacious, verbal style carried directly into print.
"Old Times" is in print, again (though heavily edited--the originals comprised some 1100 pages of typescript?). They are in James Keefe and Lynn Morrow, eds., A Connecticut Yankee in the Ozarks Frontier, with an introduction by Robert Flanders; Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1988; 362 pages.
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