[Whittlesey House, $2.75]
Country Lawyer is an unpretentious, highly anecdotal, and entertaining account of village life in Ontario County. New York, during the horseand-buggy era. Samuel Selden Partridge, the author’s father, native of Rochester, looking about for a place in which to start his career, selected the town of Phelps, originally known as ‘ Woodpecker Village.’ He moved there just, after the Civil War during the first administration of General Grant, practised law there for fifty years, and died before the concrete road, the motorbus, the movie, and the radio had entirely changed its character.
Based in part on a cryptic private diary discovered by the author in a secret drawer of the Elder Woodruff desk at which his father had sat for fifty years, it is for the most part an amusing, factual account of cases tried, domestic troubles ironed out, and litigation settled, but its chief interest lies in its picture of daily life, not so much of the hero and his family as of the various picturesque characters who walk, or more often stagger, through its pages. In fact, the reader gets a somewhat less vivid impression of ’Judge’ Partridge, his wife and their eight children, than of several minor characters of whom there are excellent vignettes — such as ‘Old Tick,’the crotchety village innkeeper with his ‘Cymbal’; the miserly Phineas Dodd, who, when his barn was struck by lightning and burned to the ground after the clergyman had prayed for rain and most surprisingly got it, promptly sued the minister for damages; ‘Comrade’ George Borison, with his phantom platoon of soldiers; the agile and ingenious Constable Reedy; pyromaniac Jerry Billings, the Partridges hired man; Oswald Prince, the alcoholic horseman; Clint Cameron, with his ‘one red cow named Bess’; poor Johnny Wright, the total abstainer, who as a mere onlooker at a celebrated brawl in Tug Wilson’s saloon was laid low by a flying bottle and died the victim of mere gossip, a pariah and supposed drunkard; and fat, good-natured Kate Vandenburg, the town trollop, who left her money to the brindle bitch which had been named after her in jest. These are rare tintypes from an old-fashioned album.
To us of the older generation the book brings hack vivid recollections — of the jingle of trace chains, the creak of the oxcart, the shrill of locusts, the reverberating roar of the inn gong, the rusty, hesitating clang of the village clock, the scent of new-mown hay and of timothy, the sweet odor of dried attic timber, herbs, harness leather, ammonia, and the buzz of horseflies.
These towns, like Phelps, that sprang up along the line of the ‘great trek’ from Massachusetts along the Ohio River to the great West early in the last century, were in their day the outposts of New England, and are now its museum pieces. Each had its village square with its stone horsetrough, its hitching block, its ‘deppo,’ bank, and courthouse. Usually there was a tiny law office built like a Greek temple with Doric columns, where the ‘squire’ sat amid his stacks of dusty papers, while the farmers from miles around lingered outside to take their turn.
While Country Lawyer is not a remarkable or important book, it is a valuable factual record of a life that has now practically vanished, set down with salty humor and flashes of genuine sentiment. Properly organized and selected, and presented as a more personal narrative, its material might have made the basis for another David Harum, whose home town was, in tact, not far distant. As written, it is an unobtrusive collection of Americana with little of the literary quality or documentary historical significance of Mary Ellen Chase’s A Goodly Heritage, to which, as a regional study, it may be compared.