Windham Life and Times – October 5, 2018

The Scotch-Irish and the Potato

Harvesting Potatoes on the Campbell Farm in Windham NH

When I was a kid in the seventies, I used to drive up Route 28 in Derry, past an ancient looking farmhouse that had a large sign in front of it facing the road. It declared that the Scotch-Irish settlers had brought the potato to America and that they were first grown at this farm. As a lover of French fries, back in the day when they were fried correctly, (in the “bad” stuff) and tasted delicious, this was an intriguing boast.

It wasn’t until I started writing today, that I found that the potato in fact did not originate in Ireland. This tuber is in fact a native plant of the Americas. According to, “In the ancient ruins of Peru and Chile, archaeologists have found potato remains that date back to 500 B.C.  The Incas grew and ate them and also worshipped them.  They even buried potatoes with their dead, they stashed potatoes in concealed bins for use in case of war or famine, they dried them, and carried them on long journeys to eat on the way (dried or soaked in stew).  Ancient Inca potatoes had dark purplish skins and yellow flesh.” In the sixteenth century, (1500’s) the Spanish conquistadors encountered potatoes being grown by the natives and began to return with them to Spain. “The potato was carried on to Italy and England about 1585, to Belgium and Germany by 1587, to Austria about 1588, and to France around 1600.  Wherever the potato was introduced, it was considered weird, poisonous, and downright evil. In France and elsewhere, the potato was accused of causing not only leprosy, but also syphilis, narcosis, scrofula, early death, sterility, and rampant sexuality, and of destroying the soil where it grew.” Some historians state that the explorer Walter Raleigh brought the potato to Ireland in 1589 and planted them at his Irish estate at Myrtle Grove, Youghal, near Cork, Ireland. The Irish, never wanting to give credit to an Englishman, say that the potatoes came to Ireland via a shipwreck of the Spanish Amada off the Irish coast in 1588.

The potato and the Scotch-Irish have a very long history.   Rev. A.L. Perry states, in The Scotch-Irish in New England that, “First of the European countries, the potato had been found by Ireland, to which it had been brought from Virginia by slave-trader Hawkins in 1565; an invaluable resource of food for the poor; and each and every company of Scotch-Irish brought with them to New England, as part of the indispensable outfit, some tubers of this esculent, which they prized beyond price.” So how did the potato get to Ireland? states that, “Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake and John Hawkins, have all been credited with introducing the potato into Ireland. Indeed, the early history of the potato is obscured by often contradictory stories, many of which can be relegated to the sphere of romance.” A.L. Perry says, “The pine lands of New England, which are always sandy, are adapted to the potato; and if there were no suffering from hunger in those large families during the first years of their sojourn, it should doubtless be put to the credit of the easily cultivated, much-multiplying potato.”

Edward Parker in his History of Londonderry, talks about the potato. “They (the Scotch-Irish) introduced the culture of the potato, which they brought with them from Ireland. Until their arrival, this valuable vegetable, now regarded as one of the necessities of life, if not wholly unknown, was not cultivated in New England. To them belongs the credit of its introduction to general use. Although highly prized by this company of settlers, it was for a long time little regarded by their English neighbors: a barrel or two being considered a supply for a family. But its value as food for man and for beast became at length more generally known, and who can now estimate the full advantage of its cultivation to this country! The following well-authenticated fact will show how little known to the community at large the potato must have been.”

During the first winter of 1718-19 with no place to settle, some of the company of Scotch-Irish were taken in by residents of Andover MA. Upon leaving the place and in appreciation of the hospitality of their hosts, the Scotch-Irish left a few potatoes with them for seed.  “The potatoes were accordingly planted; came up and flourished well; blossomed and produced balls, which the family supposed was the fruit to be eaten, They cooked the balls in various ways, but could not make them palatable, and pronounced them unfit for food. The next spring, while ploughing their garden, the plough passed through where the potatoes had grown, and turned out some of great size, by which means they discovered their mistake.”


Windham Life and Times – September 14, 2018

Old Sayings

Rattling Around the Brain; Longing to be Set Free!

If you’re like me, something will come out of your mouth, that sounds so bizarre and archaic, that you wonder how it ever ended up rattling around your brain. Yet out it comes, in all of its high sounding peculiarity.  Of course, I am speaking about the old sayings we all pick up as children, that remain with us throughout our lives and rear their ugly heads at the most inappropriate moments. “Did I really just say that?” These sayings are casually passed down from one generation to the next, with no concern for where they came from or whether they should continue in the lexicon of the English language. Here are just a few for your enjoyment, and their origin according to the knowledge keepers of the internet.

This is the one that set this column a flight, and I actually can’t believe this came out of my mouth; and you can blame my father’s side of the family. “You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s (pigs) ear.” From “Being unable to turn something ugly or inferior into something attractive or of value…This expression was already a proverb in the mid 1,500’s.” Wow, from the 1500’s!

One of the best known of these English sayings is “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” says: “This proverb is one of the oldest and best-known in English and came into the language in the 16th century, probably imported from other cultures. It warns against taking unnecessary risks – it is better to keep what you have (a bird) than to risk getting more and ending with nothing (two birds out of your reach).”

Do you know what a “coot” is? Well neither do I but I do know they are both crazy and old. “Crazy as a coot,” of course derives from waters birds, such as “loons” which is also another name for odd. An “old coot” is a foolish or eccentric person, a stupid fellow, a simpleton.

“Fit as a fiddle” is another one of those phrases that sometimes passes the lips at odd times. says: Of course the ‘fiddle’ here is the colloquial name for violin. ‘Fit’ didn’t originally mean healthy and energetic, in the sense it is often used nowadays to describe the inhabitants of gyms. When this phrase was coined ‘fit’ was used to mean ‘suitable, seemly’, in the way we now might say ‘fit for purpose’. Thomas Dekker, in The batchelars banquet, 1603 referred to ‘as fine as a fiddle’ ”

One that recently came out of my father’s mouth that gave me and a couple of twenty-somethings a chuckle was, “as easy as Joe’s girl.” In the context he said it the meaning was that the job to be done was going to be an easy one. We all can imagine why Joe’s girl was known as easy.

According to my internet knowledge keepers, “the whole nine yards” is the most asked about phrase. “Although we have good documentary evidence of the expression’s existence in the USA in 1907, it appears it wasn’t in wide circulation before 1961. Why? In May 1961, the American athlete Ralph Boston broke the world long jump record with a jump of 27 feet 1/2 inch. No one had previously jumped 27 feet. This was big news at the time and widely reported. Surely the feat cried out for this headline: ‘Boston goes the whole nine yards’ And yet, not a single journalist worldwide came up with that line, which is missing from all newspaper archives. The phrase may have been coined before 1961, but it certainly wasn’t then known to that most slang-aware of groups – newspaper journalists. The earliest known example of the phrase in print that I know of is from an Indiana newspaper The Mitchell Commercial, 2nd May 1907: This afternoon at 2:30 will be called one of the baseball games that will be worth going a long way to see. The regular nine is going to play the business men as many innings as they can stand, but we can not promise the full nine yards. It appeared again in the same paper the following year, on 4th June 1908: …Roscoe went fishing and has a big story to tell, but we refuse to stand while he unloads, He will catch some unsuspecting individual some of these days and give him the whole nine yards. The meaning of ‘the whole nine yards’ in the above citations is clear, that is, as we use it now, ‘the whole thing/the full story’.

Beggars can’t be choosers is a phrase from the Proverbs of John Heywood. Again, from we learn that, “If you request something to be given you should not question what you are given. This proverbial phrase has much in common withdon’t look a gift horse in the mouth‘ both in meaning and by virtue of having been first recorded in print by John Heywood. Both phrases were coined well before any form of organized state support for the poor and express the widely held medieval opinion that if you asked for and received a gift you should be grateful for it. The ‘gift horse’ proverb was recorded first, in Heywood’s 1546 version of A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue. ‘Beggars should not be choosers’ didn’t appear until the 1562 version of ‘Proverbs’. Beggers should be no choosers, but yet they will: Who can bryng a begger from choyse to begge still? The proverb is more commonly expressed these days as ‘beggars can’t be choosers’. This leads to an ambiguity in meaning between ‘beggars are unable to be choosers’ and ‘beggars ought not to be choosers’. Of course, the latter is the original meaning.”

Well I am finding myself between a “rock and a hard place,” and the “devil and the deep blue sea,” since I am fast running out of space to continue. This phrase originated in the USA in the early part of the 20th century. It is the American manifestation of a phrase that exists in several forms in other cultures. The dilemma of being in a position where one is faced with two equally unwelcome options appears to lie deep in the human psyche. Language always reflects people’s preoccupations and there are several phrases that express this predicament. The first of these quite literally conveys the uncomfortable nature of the choice between two lemmas (propositions), that is, ‘on the horns of a dilemma’. Other phrases that compare two less than desirable alternatives are ‘the lesser of two evils’, ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea‘, ‘between Scylla and Charybdis’, ‘an offer you can’t refuse‘ and ‘Hobson’s choice‘. The earliest known printed citation of ‘between a rock and a hard place’ is in the American Dialect Society’s publication Dialect Notes V, 1921: ‘To be between a rock and a hard place, …to be bankrupt. Common in Arizona and California in recent panic of 1907.’”  The phrase may have a mining connotation.


Windham Life and Times – August 30, 2018

Have a Great labor Day Weekend


These workers at Seavey’s Mill in the Windham Depot. were from left to right, Mr. Scott, Mr. Butterfield and Mr. Easton. One of these workers died on the job after the photograph was taken, being mauled by the giant circular saw at the mill. George Seavey was one of the most prosperous men in Windham at the turn of the last century. Office jobs have there place, but there really is nothing as satisfying as working with your head and hands.



Windham Life and Times – August 24, 2018

A Tribute to Flowering Vines

So I have recently become enamored with flowering vines. It used to be very common to find homes with vines trailing along the exteriors and around entrance ways. This old photograph shows the Wilson farm, in the Depot, with a variety of vines accenting the exterior of the old homestead. They certainly must have enjoyed them as much as I have!

    The reason why I have come to like flowering vines is because they are incredibly easy to grow, if you know which ones to choose. I faithfully, every summer, used to purchase morning glory vines, and in August would be bitterly disappointed with how poorly they were doing. I am happy to report there are much better choices out there! I have recently planted a vine wall which enjoys only morning sun. The vines have thrived there!

The plant that turned me on to vines is Mandevilla. I first planted them outside my office in containers and was impressed by their growth and continuous, abundant blooms.

      This summer I planted “Moonflower” vines (Ipomoea alba) along with other vines on the blank wall under my bay window. I have nurtured them, watering regularly and tying and guiding the vines as they grow upwards. Wow, the “Moonflower”  vine is voracious, covering the whole front of the wall and leading my wife to dub it the “Little Shop of Horrors” vine. That is just fine with me, because I am happy if anything I plant actually grows and thrives. After patiently waiting all summer, last night three white blooms appeared, filling the air with a beautiful fragrance. It was worth the wait.

    By far, the most spectacular vine on my wall garden is the Passion Flower vine (Passiflora) with 4,000 species. The complex blooms of the Passion Flower Vine are said to represent The Passion of Christ; the central stamen representing the cross, various parts representing the apostles, and more.  So give vine gardening a try; it’s easy, if it wasn’t, I couldn’t pull it off! Ah next year, maybe add, Climbing Snapdragon(Asarina) or Cup and Saucer Vine (Cobaea scandens) or search for a different variety of Passion Flower vine.