Rare Commodities, Rarer Memories

In my two-part post a couple of years ago discussing Walter B. Leonard’s reminiscences of 1870s New York small town life including running a bar and hotel, I linked to his first, 1932 newspaper account. It was supplemented by a much longer, multi-part series published in the late 1940s, as detailed in my posts.

Leonard was a retired showman, having spent years in make-up under lights entertaining Americans far and wide, mostly in small towns of the type that nourished his youth.

Below is an extract from the 1932 story, and immediately one sees the colour and verve in his memoir. The prose has a natural energy that parallels the pace and style he must have exhibited in his years on the show circuit.

As I said earlier, a television or cable series could easily be created around his descriptions a la The Waltons, the 1970s American tv series that offered a rose-coloured (perhaps) version of American pioneer life but was wildly popular here.

I remember when the first lager beer was introduced into the North Country. The young men seemed to favor this innovation, as it was considered more aristocratic than the plebeian beer or ale; however the older imbibers did not look with favor on this newfangled beverage, but continued to drink the old line of wet goods. Champagne was never kept or called for, and but few fancy bottled goods. Occasionally father would order a case or two of Guinnesse’s Dublin Stout ale which was sold for medicinal purposes. My sisters were always anxious to get these bottles which were heavy glazed earthenware. These they would cover with pretty colored pictures of flowers and the like and place them on their bureaus with bouquets in them. Occasionally a whisky agent would present father with some small, flat decanters containing brandy imported from Spain. These had a little artistic handle at the side and a beautiful many colored label representing either a bull fight or a Spanish senoreta dancing to the music of a guitar played by an attractive senor in short pants and bolero. Occasionally, too, a large glass demijohn substantially covered with wickerwork, containing West India rum, would be shipped to my father. All of these rare commodities were of much interest to me as an imaginative boy, coming as they did from the far off romantic countries.

You can read the full 1932 story here, simply magnify and it comes up in perfect resolution. It was published that year in the Republican-Journal of Ogdensburg, NY.

While by the 1860s lager was selling in huge quantities in Manhattan and boroughs, it took time for the German drink to reach the northern fringe of New York State, the “North Country”. I don’t know if that expression is still used, but into the 1970s it was: I recall it on American tv (WPTZ from Plattsburgh!) and seeing it in local advertising and newspapers when visiting there.

Leonard lived in Morley, far upstate and very near Canada although Canada might as well have been the far side of the moon – little mention of it appears in Leonard’s account.

Some would say not much has changed, regarding the Americans’ taking  notice of us I mean. At bottom we’re much the same people, with similar roots in both population and culture. It’s like the cousin you never call but should, they’re still in the family.

Leonard was my kind of guy, anyway.

Note: The print extract included above is from New York State Historic Newspapers. The still image, from the tv series The Waltons, was sourced from the Wikipedia entry on The Waltons linked in the text. The quotation and image appear for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable.