The Last of the Squires


As I look backward over long years it seems to me that almost my earliest recollection is of the ‘Old Place,’as It was always called, and of its very personification in its master the Squire, my mother’s father, Ira Blake of Kensington. At an age perhaps of four or five years, I seem to have had a sort of dim apprehension of the fact that here in this unity of place and character there was something that set itself apart from the life that was shaping itself around me, something that was even then a rare survival out of an older time, and was even then, as a matter of fact, about to disappear forever. Recovering now something of the memory of those old days, and of the reality that was so stimulating to a young mind, and creative, or at least formative, I know that this was a true instinct and that my grandfather was in a sense the last of the squires.

In this he represented more than a social episode, for the squirarchy of England, and of New England, was the last phase of that feudalism that came into existence as a social necessity after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, with the resulting political and social chaos, and was the social basis of mediæval civilization for a thousand years. And this system with its vitality of human, personal relationship, which had persisted here and there in scattered enclaves, chiefly of English speech, was coming to an end, — had come to an end, as a matter of fact, — giving place to something altogether new, and Squire Blake was perhaps the last representative of an old régime in what his fathers had known as a new land.

It was not altogether a handsome place, this ancient homestead, for it antedated the eighteenth-century mansions of the maturer culture that came of hard-won stability and a measure of wealth. The land had come into family holding early in the reign of King Charles II, and the older part of the house had been built under William and Mary. The estate included many acres of rolling country in what was then the town of Hampton (Kensington was set apart many years later), with some fine old trees, while the house was a standard New Hampshire type of the late seventeenth century, very square and broad, of two stories, with the gigantic central chimney stack, the narrow winding stairway, the great ‘east room,’ the long kitchen and its huge fireplace and brick oven. Later another section was added to the west and still later a long wing to the north, for it was our custom in New Hampshire to divide the homestead into two independent parts so that the old folk might have one section, the eldest son the other, as soon as he took to himself a wife.

During two centuries endless subsidiary structures had multiplied themselves in every direction; barns and stables of enormous size and in prodigal number, smokehouses and dairies, carriage houses and workshops, and quarters for spinning and carding and weaving both wool and flax. The chief loom was in the attic of the main house, a place to us, as children, of wonder and mystery and not a little awe. The old shops were even more beguiling, full as they were of the plunder of generations. One in particular I hold in kindest remembrance. It was gambrelroofed and stood this side of the slaves’ burying ground (the Squires of Kensington were slaveholders down to the Revolution), and was a mine of wealth. Here were old muskets and decrepit military equipment from three wars, flax wheels and snowshoes and dismembered clocks, old sweet-smelling honeycombs, bundles of herbs hanging from hewn rafters, mouldy calf-bound books, cocked hats, little leather trunks full of musty papers, rusty tools of all sorts, moulds for casting bullets and running candles, spring traps, foot stoves, punched lanthorns — in fact such treasure as bulked larger in youthful eyes than the hoarded gold of Spanish galleons.

And the house itself was no less enchanting. It was all so different; its atmosphere was so distinct, so stimulating. I was born in a house my paternal grandfather had built, and it was hardly forty years old when I saw the light. It had no history; love and life and death had had no time to breathe into it the soul that makes old houses living entities. The Blake Place was different; it already had two centuries behind it, and even to a child this was subtly manifest. The east room was typical: very large, with a ceiling so low a grown man could put the flat of his hand on the under side of the huge central beam that spanned the room from north to south; the windows with their tiny panes, the solemn tallclock in one corner and in another the cupboard with its old china and pewter and its cut-glass decanters of metheglin; the curly-maple desk with its secret drawers, the old queen’s arm and the sword with the ivory hilt and the silver lion’s head; the ‘drawn-in’ rugs, and the chairs and tables of curious contours. And the long kitchen was no less engaging, for here was the fireplace, so large that I was told my mother and her sister used in winter to sit within it on either side of a fire of cordwood and look up the great throat and see the stars. One room above I particularly remember — a long and narrow room looking to the west and directly into a vast horse-chestnut tree that in summer filled it with green light. There were great chests along the walls, and not much else in the way of furnishing. There was some mystery about that room, — of this I was sure, — but what it was I never found out. Its atmosphere was curiously mingled of delight and terror; therefore it was delectable.


Such was the Squire’s environment, and he himself was its excellent presentment. Without being extremely tall, he was of very commanding presence. Smooth-shaven, rubicund, with great masses of waving snow-white hair, he looked, with his strongly modeled head, like a handsome version of Henry Clay. To me he was rather terrifying and I suspect he was so to everyone else, including his family. To them he was also the ‘Squire’ and was never referred to in any other terms. I still remember what seemed to me his supercondescension when once he showed me his surveying instruments and told me of their use. As the recognized head of the community by right of succession, it was for him to survey lands when this was necessary, to draw wills and prepare all legal papers. As of right he represented his town in the legislature at Concord, but beyond this his function was far-reaching, for he was the court of last resort in family feuds and domestic difficulties, and to him his townsmen went in all kinds of trouble.

I do not think he ever assumed the status arrogated by my great-grandfather on my father’s side, who claimed such precedence that on the Sabbath day no one could go to meeting until the ‘Leftennant’ had been seen riding down the road on his big white horse, when the waiting faithful were at liberty to fall in meekly behind. Toward the end of his life one sprightly old dame revolted against this enforced subjection, and when Leftennant Jonathan entered the meetinghouse there she was sitting in solitary and aggressive state. It is said that the old gentleman gave one look of outraged dignity, turned on his heel, and went home to take to his bed, from which he never rose again. No, I think Squire Blake ruled and influenced his community without assertion of place and privilege, but rather through personal character and acceptable tradition, and that really he was not as stern and awful as he seemed to be.

Politically he was, of course, a Federalist, though by his time the party name had changed. His admiration for the Adamses knew no bounds, in testimony of which he named his eldest son John Adams. He had scant liking for innovations of any kind, whether political, social, or economic. Down to my own day everything was done at Old Place exactly as it had been since the time of William and Mary. I cannot now recall a single new thing in the ménage. Since my great-grandfather’s time the growing of flax with the sequent processes of carding, spinning, and weaving had been given up, and the spinning and weaving of cotton and wool fabrics, a necessary defection which must have weighed heavily on the Squire’s soul, but still rugs were braided, both of rags and of corn husks, while most marvelous carpets were drawn in by the women of the household and their neighbors. This was a most social and festive process. In the east room the frame and canvas were set up, and here some half-dozen dames assembled to work day after day at some masterpiece of design and color. The more original the pattern, the better, and on one occasion on a gray November day I was dispatched with a cousin to find brown oak leaves to use as a model. Even now I remember that sumptuous carpet with admiration. In a shadowy, far-off sort of way it seems to allocate itself in my mind with those wondrous tapestries the ladies of some ancient castle used to weave in its dim curtilage. The impulse and the method were perhaps the same, but how different, artistically, the result.


So far as I know nothing in the way of food supplies was ever purchased, except perhaps condiments and such alien products as could not be provided in those latitudes. Wheat for flour was grown on the place and sent to Exeter to be milled, and all other grains as well, including oats and buckwheat. Beef, mutton, ham, and fowls the farm provided, and the smokehouse was a fundamental institution. No such ham and bacon and sausage (the latter put up in cloth bags four inches in diameter) ever came out of Chicago, as I very well know! Honey was a staple product. Out by the old slaves’ burying ground was the long row of hives, and golden honeycombs appeared for every breakfast. Moreover, it was from the comb after the liquid honey had dripped away that the metheglin was made. I doubt if there was any place in the world where this seductive beverage was made later than here. You read of it in Chaucer and in pretty much all Middle English literature, but though I remember it in Kensington as late as 1878, I have found no trace of it in England, Scotland, Wales, or the southern American states. It was never made after my grandfather died, for with him the secret was buried, but its fragrant memory lingers with one individual at least, and the thrill that came when as a special favor the decanter was taken down from the corner cupboard and the small wineglass given into the receptive hand. As I recall this metheglin, it looked and tasted like a rather full-bodied sherry, but with an added flavor and bouquet of honeycomb.

The process of making was somewhat mysterious and it is unfortunate that the secret is probably lost, for metheglin would have been a very valuable and lawful addition to the list of stimulating beverages now supposed to be so limited. I only know that the combs of fresh honey were placed in coarse linen bags and hung from a beam to drip their nectar into an earthen crock. After the flow stopped, the combs and what remained of the honey were put into a great copper kettle together with a certain amount of water, and hung over the fire, there to simmer for several days. As the wax rose it was skimmed off for candles (the expensive little paraffin lamps or kerosene, then just in vogue, were not for the Squire), while the honey and water were boiled down to a certain point and then the result was subjected to the two processes of fermentation. I dare say a little experimenting would result in the restoration of a lost but noble art.

Apropos of the bees, it is known that they have little liking for a house of unhappiness and are also sensitive to slights or unfriendliness. Always, therefore, they were ‘told’ the moment there was a death in the family — that is to say, strips of black cloth were draped along the fronts of the hives. Where this is done promptly and properly the bees will stay, and so they stayed when the Squire died, for they were considerately told. Some years later at the death of my grandmother, my uncle, who was more of a modern in his sympathies, disregarded this precaution, and every bee left the place. I am sure my grandmother would have wished otherwise. She was a very wonderful old lady, — a Sanborn, with all that means of intense individuality, — with piercing black eyes and black eyebrows. She had a great fund of old English folk songs and would sing them to us children with immense gusto. There was a mild version of the ‘Derby Ram’ and another that, for the first two verses, ran as follows: —

Oh, I have a master and I am his man
(Galloping dreary on),
Oh, I have a master and I am his man,
I ’ll marry a wife as soon as I can
With my haley-galey, gamborary,
Higgledy-piggledy galloping, galloping,
Galloping dreary on.
I met with a friar and asked him the way
(Galloping dreary on),
I met with a friar and asked him the way;
‘By jinks!’ said the friar, ‘you’ve both gone
astray! ’ With your haley-galey, gamborary, Higgledy-piggledy galloping, galloping, Galloping dreary on.

Years afterward I found a completely distorted and corrupt version of the first verse in a nonsense anthology by Carolyn Wells where it had place as a meaningless jumble of words — which it was not, but a song that had come over from England with the first Colonists and that dates back, I suppose, to pre-Reformation times.


It was the annual Thanksgiving Day that fixed the reality of the Old Place and the Squire in youthful minds with indelible alchemy. Whenever my father was home from his pastoral charges at this season, we, with all the others of both families, forgathered under the patriarchal roof for this greatest of New England feasts. There was the long anticipation; the three-mile ride, if the winter came early, in the box sleigh, well wrapped in buffalo skins and to the clash of bells, up over the hills to Kensington. Tables were put end to end in the east room, covered with linen woven many years before, and loaded after a fashion that was paralleled only by some of the scandalously unrestrained menus recorded of the Middle Ages. There was nothing on the table the farm had not produced except pepper, salt, and sugar, but there was everything from turkey, duck, and chicken to (of necessity!) three kinds of pie, mince, pumpkin, and apple, while cider and metheglin were the accepted — and acceptable — drinks.

At the head of the table sat the Squire, his highly colored face with its crown of tumbled white hair rising magnificently from his high old-fashioned stock. Around him were his sons and daughters, sonsand daughtersin-law, and grandchildren — twelve or fourteen in all, no more, for his was never a prolific line; but all were there, for none died before him. Now the name is extinct, since neither of his sons had issue, and after almost three hundred years there are no more Blakes in Kensington and strangers hold the lands and the ancient house.

For some reason the memory of breakfast at the Old Place holds more firmly than that of the great festivals. The waking in the early light with dim sounds from the poultry yards and farm, the smell of bacon from the kitchen below mingling with that of lavender and old linen. The long kitchen with its vast fireplace and the table between the windows with its ‘sprig china,’ thin old silver, and the curved knives and two-tined forks with their buck-horn handles. Probably the food was better than anywhere else; it certainly seemed so, for the ham and bacon were cured over smouldering corncobs; the cheese — made, of course, on the place — was as good as Stilton, though milder; the honeycomb crunched lusciously between the teeth. The ‘rye drop-cakes’ and the cream toast made from these now forgotten delicacies take, however, first place. These affairs were baked in the brick oven on a layer of corn meal, and were unquestionably food paramount, especially when they were served toasted with a sort of butter sauce. I do not remember that the New England tradition of pie for breakfast was adhered to, but it would in any case have been an act of supererogation.

It was all a lingering episode out of the eighteenth century with no single intrusion of the then fast developing factors of the imminent social and economic revolution that has brought in a new world. I am thankful indeed that I have known it and been a part of it; have swung my scythe in the echelon of mowers pacing in the dew at dawn around the field; have taken my place on the staddle in the salt marsh to dispose the forkfuls of salt grass thrown up to me, so fashioning one of the great pyramidal haystacks, and, when all was finished and the sedge ropes lifted and fixed over the bounding top of the resilient stack, sliding down headfirst by means of one of the long poles used for ‘poling in’ the marsh hay.

It was a life of singular peace, serene, wholesome, and strong, as I saw it from time to time during school holidays; and in the Squire, what he was, did, and stood for, there was something of that normal life of human society that took its form, I dare say, among the Minoans and the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom and in Ur of the Chaldees. Cnossus, Athens, and Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople, Paris, Berlin, New York, create from time to time a vivid, violent, and predatory seeming of supremacy that submerges the old institutions under the turbulent flood of great achievement. Then each passes; the earth receives the shards of the temples and palaces and strongholds as it once had yielded them building stones. The glory of a sudden greatness perishes and is forgotten, and after ‘the tumult and the shouting’ of victory and defeat have died away, the old life of human relationships and human scale emerges once more and establishes another period of dominance.

I dare say that in process of time even a technological civilization may pass, and the old life come back when Wall Streets and Woolworth Towers and Leagues of Nations have become one with Tyre and with Babylon. For the moment, however, Squire Blake and the life he embodied have become no more than a memory.