Yesteryear Rifle

Discovery. It’s enticing. A mission. A search. A chase. An addictive game. Connecting can be euphoric. Especially when an answer comes out of nowhere. Totally unexpected. Slaps you upside the head like a branch in the woods.

Which brings us to a peculiar, 8½-inch, black, pointed, ground-stone object I purchased years ago among a collection of 19th-century powder horns, bullet molds, wedges, and powder flasks and pouches handed down as family relics to the late Lucius Nims of Greenfield. He said the miscellaneous items could be traced back to his great grandfather Hull Nims, a Revolutionary War veteran and prosperous Greenfield Meadows farmer.

The stone’s peculiarity arose from the fact that it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the collection. Like that lonely little petunia in an onion patch, it stuck out. Didn’t belong. Looked like a Stone-Age, Native American artifact. Perhaps a hide-scraper. Maybe a woodworking gouger, knife or chisel. Possibly even some sort of a stabbing, bludgeoning weapon for hand-to-hand combat, although I had never seen anything that compared in reference books. It looked and felt more like some sort of tool.

During my innkeeping days, I had on many occasions shown the interesting object to whomever I thought would possibly be interested and may even be able to identify it. Tucked away in the bottom drawer of an 18th-century, tiger maple, Chippendale blanket chest with a Hampshire hills provenance and likely Northampton origin, I’d fetch it as a post-breakfast table conversation piece. I showed it to many without giving my thoughts and the unanimous opinion was that it was a Native American artifact. Likely, someone from the Nims family turned it up from their rich Meadows acreage – today Butynski Farm – with one of those old, two-handled, V-shaped, walk-behind cultivators pulled by horses. 

Enter veteran anthropologist/archaeologist Mike Gramly, who, though I didn’t know it at the time, is a card-carrying Indian-artifact appraiser. I met him in September 2013, when he was leading a week-long archaeological excavation of the “Sugarloaf (or DEDIC) Site” along the Deerfield-Whately border – one of North America’s richest Paleoindian treasure troves. Finding myself in the company of many lithic scholars with decades of experience uncovering and identifying artifacts, I brought my worked-stone curiosity to the site for inspection. If it was of Native American origin, these folks would know.

With the crew tidying up the site down the stretch during Saturday-afternoon cleanup, I retrieved the shiny, pointed, black stone from my truck and passed it around among four or five experts. They examined and handled it, and their consensus was that they were not familiar with the form, but suspected it was not an Indian artifact.

“Show it to Mike,” said one of them. “He’s good at this stuff.”

Overhearing the conversation from nearby, Gramly soon joined us. The man holding the stone object handed it to him for examination. He held it up to the sun, pondered the shape, the edges, the point and the round handle and said, “What you have here is not an Indian artifact. It’s a scythe-sharpening tool, and a pretty rare find at that. Even rarer are the cattle-horn holsters farmers carried them in. Hard to come by these days.”

How about that? It just so happened there was just such a cattle horn in the Nims collection. Though I hadn’t associated it with the stone tool, it came with it, and did indeed fit when tested. With a piece chipped from the rim, I had surmised without giving it much thought that maybe it was an incomplete powder-horn blank that had been broken and kept for future reduction. But, no, it belonged with the stone sharpening tool used to keep grass-cutting scythes sharp for the hayfields.

Back then, hay was not baled; it was cut with scythes, piled in thatched ricks for drying, stored loose in barn hay pits and lofts, and pitchforked into stables and stalls. Nowadays, you only see hayricks in oil paintings, photos and films depicting earlier times. How nice to have this relic from a neighborhood with an agricultural legacy.

But the story doesn’t end there. Nope. It gets better.

Fast forward five or six years from the Gramly ID and, quite by chance, I discovered the old name for scythe-sharpening stones. They were called rifles. Try Googling that and finding it, even when you know what you’re looking for. I don’t believe you’ll find it. The only place I didn’t check was the Oxford Dictionary. It could be there, but I have my doubts. The word was probably colloquial and/or vernacular. Perhaps of New England origin. Definitely obsolete. How did I find it? By reading. Better still, following a scholarly footnote. Let me explain.

Reading “A Walk to Wachusett” in Henry D. Thoreau Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer, Yale University Press (2013), there it was on Page 49. Thoreau and companion Richard Fuller (Margaret Fuller’s brother) were walking through Acton and Stow at daybreak during their famed four-day walk from Concord to the top of Mount Wachusett in early July of 1842. Breaking into a settled clearing from the cool Acton woods, Thoreau captures the essence by describing fenced meadows, tree lines, and dimly lit houses and outbuildings.

Of the tranquil, bucolic, dawn scene he writes: “It was solitude with light, which is better than darkness. But, anon, the sound of the mower’s rifle was heard in the fields, and this, too, mingled with the herd of days.”

Fortunately, Editor Cramer uses footnotes to clear up a couple of obsolete words that could cause confusion among even sophisticated contemporary readers. No. 1, the “mower’s rifle” is not a long gun used for hunting and protection but rather, “An instrument used after the manner of a whetstone for sharpening scythes”; and 2), the final word “days” does not refer to days of the week but instead is a “Variant of deys: dairymaids or milkmaids.” So there. Has anyone ever told you it’s wise to follow footnotes? Well, here’s a perfect example, a luxury indeed when reading dated prose.

And so, the search continues. You can’t understate the importance of reading and conversing when chasing information and solving vexing unknowns. If there’s a moral to this example of exciting intellectual discovery, it is this: Never ignore cumbersome footnotes, even if you have to chase them all the way to the back of the book. That was not necessary in this case. Cramer’s footnotes were listed in the right margin of each page, a convenience that surpasses even placement at the page bottom.

Had I been lazy that day while reading something I had read before in an earlier publishing, I’d probably think that farmer fired his rifle at a woodchuck, whose hayfield holes were capable of breaking horses’ legs. Not so. Just sharpening his scythe in daybreak still.

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