Monthly Archives: November 2011

Old Man Out

G’wine jine the runny man

G’wine jine the runny man

G’wine jine the runny man

Else runny man gwine jine me –Traditional Barretsville rhyme

Many areas of America have region-specific traditions around or on October 31st. In Detroit, there is “Devil’s Night” where cars are overturned and arson is frequent. Various cities have brought back the “traditional” celebration of Samhain, or some other harvest festival. Yet none of these matches the peculiar tradition of a quiet little burg in Vermont.

Barretsville was founded by a factory owner, John Peter Barret, in 1856 on a bet. The little shanty town grew over time, enough to incorporate nearby hamlets of Hillsboro and Skyving. However, the town population, even in its boom years, has never risen past the thousands. It is, at heart, a small town with a deeply engrained tradition.

There is no solid record of when the tradition started, some of the earliest mentions in the public notaries office can be dated back to the latter half of 1890’s, though it is contested that some secondary sources reference it before the township was official. Barretsville was enjoying a minor economic boom, as a small but integral cog in the industrial revolution. But in the summer of 1894 a boiler exploded, killing factory workers and maiming countless others. This is when the tradition of leaving “one for the old man” became popular.

Like many workers dependant on a system with few failsafes, the factory hands were deeply superstitious. They attributed the industrial mishap not to simple bad luck, but to the figure of an elderly gentleman who brings pestilence wherever he goes.

In no account, secondary or otherwise, has there ever been a description of the old man. His power to “wither harvests on the vine” is attributed to his gnarled hands, his “glance like a knife” to eyes like “hollows in a rock.” His powers vary with the teller, the only constant is that even laying eyes on him is a sign that things will take a turn for the worse.

No matter what methods Barret, now well into his sixties, undertook to stamp it out, the fires of rumor spread within the ranks of his workers. Rag-dolls were made to set at crossroads, so that the old man would mistake it for a lost child and drag his attention away from the townsfolk. People painted their houses with milk paint mixed with salt and saliva, so that he could not see inside. Panic was reaching epidemic proportions when, from whatever source, a ritual was devised.

The ritual itself does not have a clear root in any particular theology or culture. The Barretsville workers were a mix of fourth-generation Scotch-Irish, newer European transplants, and itinerant workers from out of state. It owes just as much to Haitian voodou as it does to Celtic fire ceremony or the Eucharist.

The ritual starts with a family gathering at the supper table. Each member, aside from the head of the household, wears a cloth napkin draped over their face. The head of the household, be it father or eldest brother or (in more recent times) matriarch, wears every article of clothing backwards. They walk backwards around the table, touching each member in turn on the top of the head. Once they have circled back to the head of the table, they remove the tablecloth that has been covering the settings.

On the family’s largest platter, there is a cloth imitation of a leg of lamb. This has evolved from cruder times, when a mixture of sweetbreads were gathered in a sack and left to stew for a few days before serving them up. The cloth replica is usually rendered in cheesecloth, with pokeberry dye standing in for the viscera. The family members each in turn take their “helping” of the lamb, pretending to scoop out a portion on to each plate. They then pretend to masticate it while the head of household sings songs, tells jokes, and rambles nonsensically for however long it takes the family to finish. The head of household then puts each member into a corner of the room, leaning their foreheads against the wall. It must be the corners of that particular room and, if they are too many, the family members have to share.

The head of household then hangs the cloth lamb from the tines of a pitchfork and carries it to the front door, whistling all the time. They are not allowed to stop for breath. If they run out before they reach the door, the ritual is considered a failure and the family is vulnerable.

There is a single post in every front yard in Barretsville, and this is the only night it is used. The head of household nails the lamb to the post and then drapes it in a scrap of red velvet. The rest of the family’s job is now done, and they retire for the night. The head of household must remain outside until just before dawn.

No record explores the hours between dinner and dawn, what is “supposed” to happen, what actually happens. Barretsville folk are notoriously closed-mouthed about the process. But come sunrise, if you have performed it correctly, you have protected your family from a visit from the old man. The protection can be expected to wane throughout the year, so prophylactic measures are taken. Families will regularly bite fingernails or pluck out hairs to throw to the fire. A mug of beer is set up in a south-facing window, supposedly it will go flat in his presence.  A sheep is slaughtered in the spring and the meat spread out upon the roof, sometimes rotting until the gutters are awash in an offal stew. The head is peeled and hung by ropes from the barn door jamb, entrees are expected to touch it and then kiss the hand as a blessing.

Well into the twentieth century, Barretsville continues to have one foot in the past. A self-enforced curfew means very little night-life, there are no bars or theatres of any kind because they “invite the old man out.” The same goes for many more modern comforts, though the city caved under pressure from other counties and accepted the minimum legal requirement of telephone poles. Barretsville remains a town apart, as it has been from the day in 1896 when the factory reopened, and John Peter Barret disappeared without a trace.

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