Ed Strong and The Great Before

“Every place had a name,” explains Ed Strong, pausing as he stares across the fields that his grandfather cleared, that he once farmed, and that now belong to someone else. “They used to call that Hazzard Corner on account of Hazzard Wilcox lived up the road,” he continues. The corollary to “every place has a name” is every name has a story.

Before Ed launches into Hazzardous tales, he has to confirm the subject’s Christian name to his neighbor’s satisfaction: that it wasn’t simply a misspelled nickname. Turning to his listener, who is half his age, and slowly raising his head, he says definitively, “I can show you his gravestone.” Indeed, Hazzard Wilcox, son of Hazzard Wilcox, died in 1922.

Ed Strong settles back into the chair at the open end of his red barn, next to his 1944 John Deere tractor. After a pause, he begins:

“Hazzard wasn’t too prosperous, I guess. I don’t remember him too well. He always had whiskers and was, well, a pretty ratty looking guy. He cut wood and burned [made] charcoal and farmed a little and kind of lived off the land, and I don’t think he lived too high anyhow. Things had a habit of following him home some. He stole chalk once from Sisson’s Store, and had it all over his pant leg. Sisson said, ‘Mr Wilcox, I believe you have some chalk.’ And Hazzard said, ‘What-what-what-what, I ain’t got no chalk.’ Sisson let it go.”

After another pause, Ed continues, “So Sisson liked to have a little fun with Hazzard, too. He wrote on his charge account, after Hazzard got crackers the second time, ‘ditto,’ you know the ditto marks. He had two or three of those ditto marks on the bill, and Hazzard’s wife asks him what the marks was. Next time he’s in the store, he asks Sisson about them. ‘They’re ditto,’ is all Sisson told him, and Hazzard goes home and tells his wife. And she says, “I didn’t buy no ditto.” So he goes back, and Sisson explains it to him and, of course, Hazzard finally gets it through his head what the ditto marks mean. First thing his wife asks when he gets home is, ‘What was that ditto?’ And Hazzard said, “I’m a damned fool, and you’re ditto!’”

Ed Strong smiles and shakes his head at a tale that is older than he is, a story passed on by his father, Nathan. A gray cat with a white tail whisks by his tan high-top work boots. A late fall gust whips across North Palin, sending tenacious brown leaves sideways. The rain occasionally wisps into the barn, brushing Ed’s two-inch-wide suspenders. His great-grandfather Elihu was the first Strong to settle in the area, and Ed can point out the houses where Elihu lived. “He was a coffin-maker, that was his business,” Ed says, “My grandfather said he drank too much cider. I guess he was kind of a drunk. His wife was named China, and my grandfather used to tell people he’d come from China.”

Elihu Strong was born in 1792 – during George Washington’s first term. He died at the age of 90 in 1882 – just 27 years before Ed was born in North Plain, a stone’s throw from where he lives today.

There isn’t much Ed can’t tell you about North Plain, a little triangle of land bisected by the Eightmile River in the southeast corner of East Haddam. Besides being born and living there every one of his 80 years, he also went to school there until eighth grade, right on Three Bridges Road. He walked across the cow pasture to attend Three Bridges Academy, which was founded in 1775 and is still standing. His brother Bob lives down the way in the family homestead. His son Dave’s home is across the road. The stream behind Ed’s shingled cape is called, not surprisingly, Strong’s Brook.

Ed milked cows in North Plain for 25 years before he gave it up in the mid-1950s and “went out to work” as a carpenter for someone else. He hated to do that, as he hated to sell off the remainder of the family land a few years back. He and Alice, both of whom have health problems, have life use of the house, barn and garden. Fact is, if he couldn’t have stayed he wouldn’t have sold. There is no place on earth that Ed Strong would rather be than North Plain, even with all of the changes. People now live in the barns (remodeled quite handsomely) where he and the Sissons kept their cows. Polo ponies have replaced livestock in the field that gently undulates to the river. Big changes. “Who the hell’s ever thought they’d see anybody livin’ in a barn,” says Ed in utter wonderment.

He pronounces “barn” as “baahhn.” Butcher rhymes with moocher. A pumpkin is a “punkin.” Strangers mistake him for a Down-Easter. “I’ve hardly seen Maine,” says this Connecticut Yankee, shaking his head. He is too polite to mention that most of us sound peculiar to him.

So if a person wants to know something about North Plain and what all went on in the Great Before, they ask Ed Strong. Down Baker Lane, past the defunct Woodmont Industries birch oil mill that his father worked in winter nights, is Peppermint Hollow. Up the Hopyard Road is Hen Roost Mill, hard by Frog Hole, and a mile through the second growth woods from there are the abandoned rock foundations of Parsley Place.

And where there were places there were people, too. Sam Babcock ran a sawmill by the Eightmile River and lived where the Kashanskis do now; his son William sold the place to Tony and Mary Sidel, who were Polish immigrants. “Tony was all right and Mary was a corker, by God,” Ed recalls. “A lot of folks wouldn’t cahoot with ‘em. Mary couldn’t talk the best, and back in those days, you know, because you was a Polack, well, you was a Polack, that’s all. Folks said to hang with ’em. Mary would come over and visit with Alice and she and Alice and Dave would go up the side hill huckleberrying. They picked some huckleberries, I guess, and they talked quite a bit.”

Ed continues: “They hit it off good. Tony used to drink some, back in the days of moonshine. He went through the woods to see his friend Mike Housha, who lived where Goodwin does now. Housha made moonshine. I guess they got pretty well loaded because Tony never got home that night. ‘Twas in the fall of the year and he walked down through the woods, heading home, and he got down somewhere. Fell down and couldn’t get up. Tony spent the night in the woods. I guess he got pretty well cooled off by morning. Mary did the milking and headed up through the woods and met him a coming, I guess kinda one foot over th’other. You couldn’t get Tony to admit he got drunk. He smoked a pipe and he said his pipe knocked him down. And you know, he never smoked afterwards. Said his pipe knocked him down.”

Tony Sidel told his version of “a night in the woods” to the evening gathering at Sisson’s Store, where the Strongs, Maynards, Hydes, Waldens, Lens, and the rest sat around and palavered. Sisson’s was the capital of North Plain. You could get just about anything there, from bolts to salt codfish, from big stories to financing.

North Plain was more or less defined by the people who got their mail at the post office inside Sisson’s and the stories they told there. Sam Hyde, a black man who lived down Baker Lane, was among the regulars. He worked as a farmhand in the summer and trapped in the winter. “I remember they were talking in the fall of the year once about raisin’ punkins,” Ed says. “And the more they talked the bigger their punkins got. And Sam was a great fellow to talk, but he set there pretty quiet, didn’t say much. Somebody said, ‘Sam, didn’t you raise any punkins this year?’ And Sam said, ‘I kinda had to give it up.’ And we all said, “Why’s that, Sam?’ Course, Sam was waiting on us. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘My punkins grow mighty fast. Fact is the vines grew so fast this year they dragged all the punkins over the rocks and wore ‘em out.”

Just the Sisson barns remain, painted a peculiar and sickly moss green. Sisson had taken all the paint he hadn’t sold over the years and mixed it up in a big barrel, stirring the strange brew periodically for several weeks. With the result, he had all his holdings painted: store, barns, and two houses. “Some of it was so hard we had to dig it out of cans with a crowbar,” Ed recalls, adding after a pause, “well almost.” The people who now live in the former Sisson barn faithfully repainted it the same odd color.

Ed Strong is too sensible to allow sentiment to cloud history. He knows that there is a difference between good stories and good times, and the times he remembers were as hard as Sisson’s unsold paint: “I think I missed one day of milking in 25 years. I was sick, so damned sick I couldn’t get to the barn. Somebody milked for me, don’t remember who. Oh, God, nobody should try it alone. I milked cows when I had the flu, the grippe, and every damned thing. Could hardly lift the bucket of milk, couldn’t tell which ones I’d milked and which I hadn’t, staggering round that barn. But I don’t think I would ever have quit but, you know, we used cans to put the milk in and then they went to bulk. I couldn’t see it. The investment was too big and I hadn’t prospered that much, and I couldn’t see it.”

Of course, hard times sometimes bring people closer together, in a place where the main roads were dirt and that didn’t get electrified until World War II. “In the winter we filled ice houses and we all did it, “Ed recalls. “When we got one filled we went to the next one. Nobody got paid, they just all came, brought their horses or what was needed. If you were filling Sisson’s they provided the dinner.”

And when you feel like you belong to a place like that and the people who live there, leaving isn’t an attractive option: “I don’t want to go; I’m happy to stay here. If I went somewhere else, I wouldn’t know anybody. And nobody would help me, so I don’t want to go.”

The old people in the stories are gone, but Ed cahoots with the newcomers fairly well. Andy and Linda Schroeder, who are half his age, go grocery shopping with Ed every Tuesday in Colchester. He also stops at Maria’s Bakery – just up the hill, in the front of the Panfili’s house – to sit and talk from time to time. He once sold an ancient truck to one of Maria’s children in exchange for four muffins. He taught Rob Whatley how to run farm equipment and raise a big garden. North Plain newbies sometimes come calling to pass the time if they see Ed about his barn. How else would they know where Paradise is?

Down on the bottomland of the Eightmile River is a little patch of alluvial wash called Paradise. It got its name way back, when the rocky, unyielding fields of North Plain were worked with horses. Ed remembers walking behind a team, following the sun across the land, dodging the plow after it struck a particularly perverse boulder. “The rocks in that one spot, down there by the river, were no bigger than the tip of my little finger,” Ed explains grabbing the nub of his right pinky with his left hand. “So they called it Paradise. And it was.”