A spade's a spade

It was probably around the first of May when the spring blooms and their mixed fragrances filled the urban air. Crabapple and other fruit trees in the area along with the early flowers let you know that the dull days of winter had finally passed, and spring was finally here.

Directly across the street from our house on Elm Street — a couple of blocks north of Keene’s Central Square — Bernard A. Streeter had a large lot with plenty of room out back to have a garden. B. A., who owned a local grocery, said we could use the space, so Dad asked Mr. Fish to plow and harrow a large section to use.

Mr. Fish lived on the east side of Elm Street two or three houses north of North Street. He and his horses plowed many a “Victory Garden” in and around Keene.

As the ground hadn’t been used in quite a while Dad told Mr. Fish to spread a good load of horse manure before he plowed, and, if he had enough, spread another load after he harrowed. We would rake it in before we planted.

Heavenly Father forgive us for what we did.

One Sunday morning while everyone was in church (from 9 till noon) Mr. Fish came down with his team of horses and a full load in a large manure spreader. My brother Hollis remarked that it must be a foot deep, and my brother Len said that he’d have to find his winter boots. Mr. Fish said that he’d be back Tuesday to plow and harrow it if it didn’t rain, and he’d be back later in the week with a top dressing.

The area to be plowed had been mostly grass with a few holes where, from time to time, people had dug up the soil for potted plants. A small 4 x 4-foot area close to the barn looked like it had been used within the past two or three years to grow garlic, chives, dill, ginger and such. In another area we found a 10- or 12-inch rhubarb root that was being crowded out by grass, and here and there were little horseradish roots poking their leaves up out of the grass.

As kids we used to pull three or four sticks of rhubarb, remove the leaf and the white part at the bottom where it was pulled from the ground, peel the skin off, add some salt and sit on the porch and have a really tart snack.

But back to the manure. Late on Sunday a light rain wet things down. On Monday the barnyard fragrance was noticeable, but everyone went to work, so not much was said. As the neighbors came home that evening some of them asked Dad about the garden, and he told them that it would be plowed the next day, so everyone seemed satisfied.

Tuesday was foggy and cool with a few light showers in the evening. The lack of any movement of air left quite a smell.

Wednesday’s cool start belied what was in store for the area the rest of the day. By noon it was close to 80 degrees, which was unusual for early May, but the cloudless sky allowed the sun to cook the wet mixture that, although it had been plowed under, was almost bubbling like a pot of boiling soup.

By nightfall everyone was indoors with windows closed tight.

On Friday Mr. Fish delivered the manure top dressing, and that night you could almost walk on the thick sultry air. I had been around a lot of farm animal waste, but this one took the cake.

From Washington Street west to Court Street, everyone was looking for a dead animal that probably got run over by a car. The residents from Cross Street south to Vernon Street said that they had never encountered a skunk like that before, and those who lived close by thought something must be wrong with their sense of smell. The fire department had laid its hoses out on the incline in front of the station to drain and dry. They thought the smell was coming from their hoses until a farmer among them told them what the smell really was.

In case you’re not familiar with farming, a sunny afternoon breeze fetches a still night, and the smell of fresh manure can seep through cracks in a house that you never knew existed.

Early Saturday morning, around 8 a.m., three or four disgruntled neighbors were knocking on B.A. Streeter’s front door, and by 8:30 a.m. it became a crowd of a dozen or more that migrated to our house.

Ed Fairbanks, who lived about 100 feet from our outside chicken coop, noticed a gathering in our dooryard so he came over to listen to what was being said.

Evidently he could see that this meeting was going to last awhile, and he started counting heads. He sent someone to his store — it was the Elm Street Market — with a note in hand, and when they came back they had bottles of Pickwick Ale, some potato chips and soda for us spectators. Ma brought out some pickles and Dad brought out the wooden wheelbarrow, some boxes and old vegetable crates to sit on and everyone had a good time just gabbing about this, that and the other thing without a word about the ugly spring breeze that had brought them together in the first place. But we soon found out they wanted that stinking mess removed at once.

Someone said the smell reached two blocks away on Vernon Street. That’s right! People over on Court Street can’t even open their windows! Yeah! You can’t stink up the whole city! If he don’t fix it, put him in jail! At one point they spied the rabbit hutch and chicken coop by our house, and they yelled it was against the law to have animals in the city!

As we heard all of this we were getting a little worried that Dad might go to jail, but he was, as usual, cool as a cucumber.

Somewhere along the way the group of neighbors had picked up two of Keene’s Finest. One of the police officers left to check the code books at the police station, and as he was returning the crowd yelled, “Now we’ll find out what’s gonna happen! Right!”

The police officer got out of his car, and he had to push the crowd back before he could say a word. It got real quiet as the officer said that Mr. Whitney is indeed allowed to keep chickens and any other farm animals he so desired. Among the groans someone asked about the smell from the garden. What about that? The officer explained that, as long as it is intended to be fertilizer for a garden, he can use whatever he desires.

At that point Dad spoke up to say he was sorry. He said that the garden would be raked off in the morning and that should help.

Eventually, the gathering disappeared one or two people at a time. It was evident that the ale from the Elm Street Market had helped make a difference. There seemed to be a smile on everyone’s face, and as Hollis said, they all had a hop and skip to their walk as they left.

Everyone left knowing that there was nothing anyone could do to clear the strong barnyard smell that was gripping such a large area. Mother Nature had created it, and she was the only one who could clear the air.

By 1 p.m. everyone was gone, and the porch, the barn floor, the dooryard and even the few front steps were left for us to clean up.

I don’t recall the actual count, but there must have been more than 30 glass Pickwick Ale bottles, 20 soda bottles, six cigar butts, a few cigarette butts, a bag of potato chips scattered around the yard and bottle caps we had to pick up with a magnet. Even Dad had to chuckle at the mess. There were three or four unopened bottles of ale left that would last him a month.

The empty bottles weren’t returnable and would have to be thrown out. There were too many of them to put in our two trash barrels, and since the city picked up trash left at the curb only twice a year, all those bottles would take up too much space.

Dad thought a bit and said take them up to Mr. Fairbanks’ store and put them in the store’s trash barrels. The store paid to have its trash picked up probably every week by a commercial hauler who took it to the city dump, so they would have plenty of room.

We ended up with two small grain sacks that were so full that we had to wire the tops closed. Len, Hollis and I were off to the store with the sacks in the wheelbarrow when we were stopped near Cross Street by a guy we’d never seen before. His truck had Massachusetts plates and was full of scrap metal, bottles and an old washing machine.

The driver could hear the bottles rattling in the sacks so he asked where we were going. We told him we were taking them to the store.

The driver, apparently thinking that he was dealing with a couple of dummies, said he’d save us a trip and give us 50 cents for the lot. Hollis said the grain sacks were worth 10 cents each, but if he’d give us 60 cents he could keep the sacks and we wouldn’t have to dump the bottles individually in the back of his truck.

The man liked the idea, so we put the two closed-up bags of bottles in his truck. Hollis, Len and I collected our 60 cents, and as soon as he drove out of sight we headed for home since we knew that the sacks of bottles were worthless — they were no-deposit bottles. The man had assumed that they were 5-cent bottles.

Dad gave us 25 cents for doing such a good job cleaning up the yard. We told him we already got 20 cents each for the bottles. Dad closed one eye, shook his head and said we’d been dishonest.

We assured him that we hadn’t lied, and all the time the junk collector thought he had cheated us. Dad advised us about making dishonest deals as they can sometimes backfire. He knew what we had done. The money wasn’t a lot of money by today’s standards, but at that time the 45 cents we each got would take us to the movies with a box of popcorn and a candy bar two times, with one cent left over.

Our garden’s smell hung on until the Fourth of July, but at harvest time we had vegetables all over the place.

Green and yellow beans by the ton. Squash and cucumbers by the bushel. Corn didn’t do too well, but there was enough. The harvest was so good that we could share things with the same people who had questioned us in the spring. And B.A. Streeter had been taking what he wanted all summer long.

When clean-up time came in the fall we needed two fires to get rid of it all. We took six wheelbarrow loads of chicken manure over there and raked it in for the next year.

Mr. Streeter said he’d have to buy some more land and have us grow vegetables for his store. But he said that we’d have to use commercial fertilizers that didn’t smell bad.

Maury Whitney grew up in Keene. His memories of life in the area during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s have been recorded in oral history films produced by the Friends of the Keene Public Library under the series title “Reflections.” For some years he also was a regular contributor to “Keene Insights,” a local history talk show on Cheshire TV. This recollection is about an event in 1942 when Whitney was 13. He still lives in Keene.