NO END OF FUN. How the Norwich, Conn., Boys Celebrate Thanksgiving.
They Go About the Town Gathering Barrels, and Then After the Turkey is Eaten What a Thanksgiving Bonfire They Have.
ROAST turkey and fixin's!
Take a run around New England and ask all the boys you meet what they think of it. Whisper Thanksgiving in their ear and hear them howl. When you come to Norwich - that quaint Connecticut town - what will the boys tell you there!
"Roast turkey and fixin's," you will say, and the boys will look at you and grin. Then you go up to them softly and whisper Thanksgiving - and then:
That's what it is. Barrels. Turkey first and barrels afterward.
As early as the first day of October the Norwich boy begins to make plans for Thanksgiving day, and his first and central fancy turns to barrels. From that time on to the festival no man's barrel is safe in Norwich.
An evil spirit seems to possess it. If a boy passes it in the soberest style in the world, if he so much as casts one coquetting sidelong glance that way, instantly the barrel begins to dance and rattle, and if no one is watching and the youngster rubs up against it, it gives a sudden hop, topples over on its side and scurries away. Of course the boy has to follow it to kick it straight when it gets askew on its rumbling course and to keep it from prancing against pedestrians; and it invariably happens that the boy has to drive it into its lair before it will submit to government. There is little use of attempting to control a barrel after it has contracted the Thanksgiving fever, and the owner looks forward resignedly to its inevitable desertion from him. It looks very singular to a stranger coming into this town at this season of the year to see barrels rolling off in every direction, and the staid citizens skipping nimbly and good humoredly out of the way of the procession. He cannot account for the phenomenon.
Perhaps he is curious enough to try and find out. But the Norwich boy is up to snuff.
"Say, sonny," the stranger asks, "what's up! Where are you going with all these barrels?"
And the boy replies, innocently:
"Nothin's up, mister. The barrel don't b'long to nobody or nothin'. Found it loose up the street and run it in. Say, there, Jimmy, give her a lift. Let her go, Gallagher!"
And with a whoop the whole company are off, kicking the whirling things swiftly into the darkness of a side street.
These youngsters are systematic.
The work of collecting the booty is marked from the opening of the campaign to its finish by thorough discipline and organization and a hearty respect for the rights of each squad. First, all the boys in town array themselves into about a dozen independent brigades, and each force is duly empowered to look after the barrels in its own precinct, and an unwritten law that is at least 200 years old forbids the bands to trespass on territory not assigned to them. The largest squads are thus placed: One at Bean Hill, the ancestral home of President Cleveland, whose grandfather was a barrel burner; one at Norwich Town, two at the Falls, two at the West Side, one at Jail Hill, in the center of the city, one at Laurel Hill, one at Greenville, and the rest are scattered about in the suburbs. Each band has a hiding place for its collection, called the "Home Base," and to each it is assigned the hill on which the stacks are to be burned. The preliminary arrangements completed, the boys go to work with a will to get their barrels together.
Suppose they had to do this. How they would growl.
The custom of burning bonfires on Thanksgiving night is peculiar to this town, and its origin is lost in the obscurity of early colonial tradition. It was old when Benedict Arnold was a boy, and into the sport he entered with characteristic impetuosity and willfulness. It is mentioned in the first chronicles of Norwich; and Miss Culkins, a local historian, describes a fiery encounter between Benedict and a solemn constable who undertook to rob him of his barrel, in which Arnold stripped off his coat and dared the big man to fight. Many attempts have been made by local antiquarians to trace the custom to its source, but vainly; the only plausible explanation essays to connect it with a practice that prevailed in the hill towns of the Massachusetts colony of burning brush fires early in November to celebrate the miscarriage of the Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot. It was suspected that as Thanksgiving was appointed at that period at about Nov. 5 the custom attached itself to Thanksgiving, after its original intent was lost, and that it was imported into this town by the first settlers a little after the middle of the Seventeenth century.
But the Massachusetts rite differs importantly from the Norwich spirit in that brush was burned instead of barrel stacks. There is nothing unique about brush bonfires, which were common among the ancient Britons and Scots, but a barrel fire is an elaborate and startling creation, a product of the juvenile genius of ancient Norwich.
Boys, think of it. Think of hunting, hunting for days together, for barrels. Think of the work, and it takes work. But then, it's great fun, you say.
So it is.
To make a lofty and successful barrel bonfire demands native tact, talent and constructive abilities. The first thing to do is to get the pole about which the barrels are to be strung like giant beads, and this usually is cut and peeled a few days before the forthcoming ceremony. A slim, straight hickory, free from knots, and not less than fifty or sixty feet high is selected in the forest, and, after it has been trimmed and denuded of its bark, it is trailed into town at the heels of a dozen sturdy boys. On Thanksgiving day morning it is drawn to the apex of the hill on which it is to do duty, whereon scores of citizens have gathered to lend a hand in erecting the staff or furnish the necessary advisory remarks to the workers.
The barrels are quickly hung about the pole, and then comes the hard and delicate task of lifting it into the dug hole which has already been prepared for it. With long ropes and steadying guys, a hundred eager hands to help, the great hollow stack goes slowly up, the barrels creaking and rumbling loosely about its staff, and the pole is left swaying threateningly at the toiling pigmies at its base. At last it reaches the balancing point, slips easily into the cavity with a heavy muffled "kerplump," and the worst of the struggle is over. The loose earth about the rim of the hole is shoveled in and tamped solidly down, and the boys and spectators walk off six rods and inspect the structure. Next cans of kerosene are emptied over the bottom barrels; shavings, saturated with oil, are piled inside; a few parting pats and shakes bring refractory barrels into position, and make the funnel straight and symmetrical, and then everything is ready for the evening fun.
And what fun! The boys can hardly wait in patience for the coming of dusk. But it comes at just the right time.
It comes after the turkey is eaten. You know it's turkey first and barrels afterward. Poor fun it would be to watch a bonfire on an empty stomach. But think of stuffing yourself so full of turkey (it's allowable on Thanksgiving) till you almost feel as if you could gobble, and then going out and watching a nice big blaze on the hill. It usually comes about an hour and a half after dinner, when the lamps have hardly been lighted in the houses, the quiet, dusty street have barely grown gray in the obliterating twilight, and the four solemn faces of the big illuminated city hall clock glow like four dim moons through the tree tops. With a jubilant rush and yell the bands are off like the wind to the hilltops. Having reached the grabs each band forms in military array about its stack, the leader silently and with an air of conscious self importance advances to the bottom of the pile; he scratches a match on his trousers and applies the tiny torch tot he shavings, and ---
Gracious! Did you ever seen anything like it?
Instantly there is a flash as the oiled kindlings catch the flame; a great volume of dense black smoke belches up; then a magnificent gush of fire that reddens the whole hillside and the faces of the excited company wells up the tall column, and the conflagration is off. The combustion is furious, and the pillar of roaring flames, sparks and whirling smoke is a miniature cyclone on fire. The barrels writhe and twist, the staves gape asunder, and the bursting hoops leap out from the pile, as they come down, scatter sparks and glowing cinders on every side. The conflagration is too rapid to last long, and it is hardly two minutes after the match has been applied before the splendid pyre sinks from its soaring height a mass of shattered black embers, and the lurid brightness of the hillside gives place instantly to the impenetrable darkness. Barrel burning, though it is short lived, is the undiluted essence of intoxicating sport.
The Norwich girls have a similar though tamer kind of sport with which to taper off the day's pleasures. As fashion forbids them to roll barrels and burn stacks, they collect spools instead, which they string on wires, arranging them in fanciful designs, squares, circles, pyramids and names, saturate the creations with oil or turpentine, and meet at the house of the leader of the band and burn them. Some of the devices are very ingenious or beautiful, and they make a brilliant though unpretentious bonfire.
It's great, isn't it!
Painesville, Lake County, Ohio
Nov 29, 1888
For more stories about Norwich and the ancestors who lived there, visit Norwich, New London, Connecticut