In the early 1970s, a quiet, two-hundred-year-old Ohio village called New Burlington was forcibly abandoned to allow the construction of a dam. John Baskin moved into an abandoned farmhouse and lived in New Burlington for its final year, commemorating and recording its residents’ funny and heartbreaking stories. The result is one of the most unique and beautiful histories ever written about rural America.
On its most observable level New Burlington is a collection of stories, disappearing voices, and rural wisdom, a portrait of past ways and manners. But underneath this surface the voices are darkly ambivalent. If there were hymns to harvest labor, there were also men who died working their fields. If the village contained two churches and every house a Bible, it also contained thieves and drunkards. As surely as the land gave, so did drought, flood and spring cold destroy.
New Burlington is the village from which most Americans came. In our time the self-contained American village, like New Burlington itself, is part of a vanishing geography. In its destruction it offers lessons we may learn from things lost. New Burlington and thousands of places like it are, finally, guideposts on our universal quest: for sense of place, for work, and for the durable values in each.
His book is a dream—a dream of a by-gone country, a land we thought existed but could not be sure. He calls it prose; I call it poetry, and I think a better eulogy to real American people has never been written. It reminds me of some of those melancholy strains of MacKinley Kantor; some bittersweet lines in Winesburg, Ohio; a mood of Robert Frost. But most of all, it has the taste, the smell, the sounds of a people which has vanished.
—Harrison Salisbury, The New York Times
The history of New Burlington reads like a Midwestern Under Milk Wood, its frail figures bent into eccentric, often hypocritical attitudes by the pressures of small-town orthodoxies … Baskin’s book is as rich and varied as life itself.
—Paul Zimmerman, Newsweek
The town of New Burlington is gone now, but, in a way, it will never be gone. Its landscape, its people, and their traditions and customs, their experiences, victories, and defeats, and their abiding memories have been given new life in this rare moral document written by an imaginative observer.
—Robert Coles, The New Yorker
It’s some kind of American classic, because it is not like any other book I know, not like Agee, not like any fiction, not like Spoon River. None of that stuff. It is not an “epitaph,” either—but rather an elegy in the classical sense (Greek classical, I mean) … The intentness of it, the dead-level gaze of the eye upon the subject matter: not accusing, not reproachful, not pitying—not even, in the usual usage, compassionate. The quality of listening here is almost terrifying; for although the people speak in sentences almost crowded together, I hear between and behind their words the wild silence of the houses: the mice in the closets, and the timbers creaking with cold, and the tremor underfoot when the water is turned off and the pipes knock … well, New Burlington should be film: in black and white by Ingmar Bergman. And not shown in New York, but only at the Wadesboro, N.C., Public Library …
—Fred Chappell, author and poet laureate of North Carolina
John Baskin has written one of the best works of nonfiction, in both content and style, ever published in America.
—Rich Heiland, Xenia Gazette
New Burlington is so properly done it seems destined to become an American classic.
—Clem Hamilton, Dayton Daily News
What (New Burlington) adds up to is the genuine feel of a society and a way of life that quietly dominated this country for at least a century and a half … these were our bedrock, these quiet, strong, often narrow people who fought wars and plowed dirt and put up food and placated God and sent successive waves of their progeny to build cities and industries and the other things that, for better or worse, have been built here. Plenty of writers have pondered them before, but seldom as calmly and comprehendingly and humorously and, yes, lovingly as John Baskin has set them down here, warts and all. I am grateful that someone with talent and insight has done it while there was still the possibility …
—John Graves, author of Goodbye to a River
New Burlington is rich in character and anecdote, and far more than a documentation of the end of a single village in America. It is a story of a fading way of life that has captured the collective imagination of the country.
—Lynda Stedman Swofford, The Greensboro Daily News
American Library Association’s list of notable books, Book of the Month Club selection,
and theatre productions in regional theatres (Antioch, Chautauqua, NY, etc.)
The carpenter is a religious man although he seldom goes to church. “Do you have to go to church to be a religious man?” he asks. “I consider myself a religious man because I say a blessing before my dinner,” he says, offering himself proof. Sitting beside him, his son does not reply. The son is nervous, pale, visiting from another century.
Let him go on, the son thinks. The television bumbles in a far corner, showing a space launch. The carpenter wants to talk, but his son studies the monotony of space. The carpenter was 24 when the Wright brothers flew. “If they’d busted up,” he says, “we’d have none of this.” At Sunday school, after the first moon shot, the children were fearful. They did not know where God was and thought the rockets were disturbing the heavens. “Who had those first thoughts of the moon?” a neighbor lady demanded almost angrily, talking to the carpenter over her fence.
The son, who regards his father’s house as a church, expiates guilt by periodically driving from a distant city to offer filial communion. The house is old, and deep in the country. It was built by the carpenter and his father in 1901. The furniture is dark, heavy, and vague. Although the son grew up here he can never remember how the furniture looks except that it is dark and heavy. The air, too, is heavy. The son’s eyes begin to water. He is afraid to breathe. There are invisible things in the air. The son tells his father goodbye but the carpenter does not notice him leave. Prompted by the television, he is talking about a trip to New York: “I didn’t think much of it. I’ll tell you why. There were too many machines. I had to stand on the curb thirty minutes to cross a street. All of the machines had been hit. I saw some tough-looking characters in New York. Ahey!”
The clock ticks. The furnace hums. Sunlight crashes onto the lawn. The carpenter sits in a corner chair, so that he may look equally over the room. “Come in if I know you!” he shouts. His dogs do not look up.
When the weather is bad, so is the carpenter. Winter is a communicable disease which fills the lungs. The winter he is 90 he enters a rest home. The nurses are young, large, concerned. In the Xenia Gazette the carpenter reads about a man who lived until he was 117. “Why did he live so long?” asks a nurse. The carpenter is surprised. “Why,” he says, “he just didn’t die ...”
The son comes. “Five years ago,” the carpenter tells him, “I could have walked home from here. If it was warm enough I could sleep out and make four miles a day. It would take me three days. I think there's only one thing wrong with me: I’m full of piss and it makes me move fast. I’ve pissed 400 gallons. I can put it out for the nurses. How’s that?”
When the son leaves, the carpenter says to a nurse, “The old man is left to root for himself.” He outlines a new life to her: “When I get home, I won’t work anymore. I have relatives in two cemeteries and pines on all their graves. I keep them up and decorate them on Decoration Day. I’m going to cut this down to my wife’s grave because I’ve decided the others don’t know much about it. I won’t mow the lawn, either.”
When the nurse asks him how he feels, he says, “I’m tough as a buffalo and I’ll butt you about as quick.” When the supervisor asks him about the nurses, he says, “I fill them full of Texas bull in the Ohio manner.” Each afternoon the carpenter walks in the corridor. He moves very slowly, looking like a thin bird on precarious footing. He uses a handcarved cane which was given to him by Jemima Boots, who died at 91. Before that, the cane belonged to Henry Spray. The carpenter tells the nurses his cane is 200 years old. On his walks, he surreptitiously studies all the doors and back in his room makes elaborate diagrams which he hides in a drawer under his chewing tobacco.
The chewing tobacco is a gift from a nurse. The nurses like the carpenter. Between their fondness for him and the spareness of his demands, they have given him corn flakes, tobacco, and clothes. “I have the nurses eating out of my hand,” he tells a man in the hall. “They are nice girls. Some are single and some are married. I’m only afraid I’m walking around in a dead man’s clothes. I don’t know whether I like that or not.”
Sometimes the carpenter thinks of the widows who live around him in the country. There is Mrs. Snook, Mrs. Lewis, Mrs. Starbuck. He tells the nurses about them. “Mrs. Starbuck,” he says, “was handy with a corn knife. She and he, she eight rows ahead. I said to my wife, ‘I’d work like hell before I’d let you pass me with a corn knife.’ Mary Snook has 200 acres of land. ‘I have a notion,’ she says, `to rent that all to some farmer.’ I say, ‘Then what?’ She says, ‘Get me a house trailer across from you.’ I say, ‘No use in that. Just move in with me.’ She says, ‘When I was raising my family alone I’da jumped at the chance. Now I don’t have to.’
The carpenter thinks a moment. “That Mary Snook,” he says. “She always was a plain-talking woman.”
The carpenter shares his room with another man who sleeps most of the time. He sits in a chair by the window, asleep in his own urine. The urine is the same color as the February afternoon sunlight. Next door, a man shouts incessantly at a wall clock. “I can still hear it!” he cries to the nurses, who grow impatient. “It has to be stopped!” Only he sees or hears the wall clock. His roommate is a farmer whom the carpenter has known for sixty years. The farmer is fastened to a chair, which is tied to the wall. His hands make arcane gestures. He is working in his fields. When the sun heightens, the farmer removes his pajama tops. Once he hit a nurse while he was working, in his chair fastened to the wall. He is still very strong. Although the old farmer is next door, the carpenter does not visit. The carpenter tells the nurses limericks. “I saw this one on a tombstone,” he says.
Here lies the bones
of Marcy Jones,
for her death held no terrors.
Born a virgin, died a virgin,
no hits, no runs, no errors.
“Is that a little spicy?” he asks. He tells a man in the hall, “I’ve felt about ten nurses’ butts since I’ve been in here.” The man gives the carpenter a pamphlet answering the question, “If God is really interested, why do so many prayers go unanswered?” He is inexplicably depressed. He sits in his room all afternoon. At dinner, he says to the nurse, “As soon as my son comes, they told me. I don’t know whether that will be this year or the next. I said, anyone’s son will do to take me out of here, and if he’s a good driver I guess they won’t catch us.”
When the weather is some warmer, the son comes and takes the carpenter to the country. “If I make it to May,” the carpenter tells the son, “I may make it to December. Ahey!” On certain days, a lady comes to cook and clean. “At one time,” he tells the lady, “I could have eaten a whetstone. I was alright until I was 80.” Neighbors pass on their way to work and blow their horns. I am not afraid, the carpenter thinks.
The Chicken Thief
If this is July Douse will sit inside the covered bridge over Anderson’s Fork and eat his lunch from the pail which is still bent from the time Ed Brown’s jersey kicked it when Douse tried to fill it with milk before returning her home. Douse is the village herdsman. He takes the cows out in the mornings and grazes them along the roads leading in and out of the village. Late in the afternoons he brings them back to the pump in the cross streets and after they drink they each turn away and walk by rote to the stables and small pastures behind the houses filling the air with great gusts of their sweet breath. And little moons in irregular orbits up the street in front of the cobbler’s shop for Thomas Haydock’s customers to dodge with their new boots. And if not to dodge then to curse Douse.
Herdsman is Douse’s job but not his art. When someone new in the village asks about Douse the villagers say, “0, that’s Douse. He’s a Civil War veteran and a chicken thief.” They say this matter-of-factly, as though they are describing a man’s business. Some of them might mention as an afterthought that Douse is also a herdsman.
It is now after midnight and Douse is in Jessie Compton’s chickenhouse. He is just inside the door where he has stopped to look over the tiny room which is filled with the dusty acid smell of chicken manure. The smell is pervasive. It affects gravity, bleaches the hair of the nose, warps weatherboarding. Perhaps the chickenhouse will at any moment explode and hurl Douse to an eccentric death. To be found near Jessie Compton’s barn covered with feathers. Douse’s eyes widen. They suck in the insignificant light until he can see as well inside the chickenhouse as if he were downtown at Trevor Haydock’s store choosing confections from a glass case.
The chickens are roosting on several tiers of horizontal poles which have been worn glass smooth by generations of chickenfeet. But the white leghoms stand out and obscure the poles. They are luminescent. They seem to float before his eyes as if they are buoyed by the darkness. He admires them all. He will take this one here. The plump young pullet there. He moves so expertly that the chickens are not disturbed. In the village they say Douse knows each chicken on a first-name basis.
He does not hear the outside bolt as it drops into place. He does not notice anything but the chickens until Jessie Compton’s voice says: “Tell me who thee is and I’ll let thee out.” A chicken clucks drowsily under Douse’s arm. For a moment he is frozen into place, a statue of a man holding a chicken, rising from a pedestal of chicken manure. Then he moves. “Jake Scammahorn!” he shouts. And dashes past Jessie even as the old Quaker farmer is still holding the lifted bolt.
Afterward, Douse is undisturbed. Someone is always locking him away in one tiny place or another. One Sunday, Emma Blair comes home early from church and finds Douse in her cellar taking stock of her freshly made peach preserves. She locks him in then goes upstairs to carefully put her Sunday bonnet away. Then finds the broom and stands by the cellar door and whacks Douse with it as he runs up the steps and into the yard.
There are even rare times when events occur in village chickenhouses which Douse does not promote. One night George Hosier hears a noise and he sneaks outside in his night shirt where he peers over his shotgun into the chickenhouse door. And his collie places her nose on George’s bare backside whereupon he fires both barrels through the doorway. And half his chickens are gone.
Once in William Mills’s chickenhouse Douse frightens the chickens and the racket awakens William who pokes his shotgun out of the upstairs window and fires at the chickenhouse as Douse is leaving. The next morning William finds the shot has sprayed the little house and also the man who was leaving; a man in flight is outlined by the pellets. William takes visitors to the chickenhouse where he points this out. He refers to it as the “Portrait on the Chickenhouse Door.”
Douse does not come after the village cows until very late in the morning. He has walked to Spring Valley to have a doctor pick the pellets out of him. This is the same doctor who attended Babe Grimes when Jesse Hill fired into his chickenhouse one night and caught Babe bending over a sack of chickens. Several days after Jessie Compton locks Douse in his chickenhouse, Douse is sitting in the back of Trevor Haydock’s store with several of the village men when Jessie comes in.
Everyone recognizes Jessie even at a great distance because he always wears felt boots and a corduroy coat. He sits down with the men. “The other night,” he says, “I heard someone in my chickenhouse and I went out to see and when I got there I decided to bolt the door. ‘Tell me who thee is and I’ll let thee out,’ I said. The fellow said he was Jake Scammahom but when he ran past he looked very much like Douse.”
Jessie laughs but he does not look at Douse. The other men are laughing, too. Douse does not move. He pretends that he does not hear anything at all. He is unmoved, stoic, serene. He is still sitting there when they have all gone. It is as though he is exalted by failure. He wears it like a decoration.
When Ruby Smith returns to the village to teach school, each morning she plays a game with the children. “This morning,” she says, “we will play Show-and-Tell.” One of the children waves his hand in the air. “Do you have something to tell, Jack?” she asks. “Yes’m,” he says. “Yesterday I went home and I couldn’t find my mother anywhere and finally I went upstairs to her room and she was playing Hide-and-Seek. She was hiding under Douse.”
When the villagers hear what the child has said in Ruby Smith’s classroom they shake their heads knowingly.
“Ah, Douse,” they say, “Caught in the henhouse again ... ”