Benton County Pioneer Life

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Pioneer life in the Benton Co. WA area

Peddler’s Back Was Strong/So was His Mind

Tri-City Pioneer
Tri-City Herald, Sunday, 8 October 1961

The pioneer itinerant-peddler was a man with a strong back but by no means a weak head. He had to be strong all over. His job was not for a weakling. It required the power of intelligence as well as strength. He had to be courageous and have the patience of Job. He spoke in many languages including Chinook Jargon.

His pack consisted of two trunks of equal size, each approximately 24 inches long, 18 inches, and 16 inches deep. They were placed on top of each other flat wise and held in this position by strong leather straps. He knelt down to engage his pack, placing his head in a leather brow band and rising to his feet with the pack on his back. When he wished to release the pack, he squatted down until the bottom of the lower trunk reached the ground or floor. He then stepped out of his harness. The combined weight of the two trunks when filled with merchandise weighed over 80 pounds.

The pioneers were always glad to see a new face. They happily welcomed him into their homes. He would enter, disengage his pack, and display his wares. These peddlers were Jewish. All of them came from Hungary. The pioneers believed that they all were members of the same organization because their equipment and merchandise were so similar. They also thought that they studied the business trends of the areas through which they peddled and then reported to their headquarters the best locations for future mercantile stores. Their packs were quite uniform in design and material. One trunk was generally filled with dry goods. The other with notions. The dry goods consisted of handkerchiefs of cotton, linen and silk, laces and embroideries, ladies’ black stockings, gloves, children’s bootees, scarfs, rubber garters, and men’s sleeve supporters. The trunk containing the notions was always the most interesting to the pioneer’s children. It contained toy watches, collar buttons, cheap jewelry, breast pins, finger rings, hair combs, hat pins, jack knives, paper of pins, safety pins, tweezers, small scissors, needles, knitting needles, cards of buttons, spools of thread and metal pen points for writing.

He usually gave some trinket for his meals and if he spent the night a present of greater value. I remember distinctly a visit we had with one of these peddlers in 1889.

We were living on a preemption claim of 80 acres adjoining our Yakima River ranch which was nine and a half miles above Kennewick on the Kennewick side of the Yakima River. The spring and summer weather of that year was extremely hot. The lower end of our claim bordered on a very popular and ancient Indian swimming hole in the Yakima River. It was a deep hole with sandy bottom and gradual sloping sandy banks. A high bluff hid the view of the spot from the old stage road. During the heat of the day, but never in the evening, large groups of Indians and their children would swim and play in the water and sun themselves on the sandy beaches. The high banks surrounding the hole gave it privacy. I wanted to put on my old pair of blue denim pants and join them in their fun. Mother would never let me go. I found out much later the reason. The Indians and their children of both sexes, at that time, bathed in the nude.

Mother had my younger brother Morris, a baby of six months parked in his baby carriage in the shade of the house. Old Ceasar, our faithful dog watched him continually. All of a sudden he barked fiercely as a peddler with a heavy pack approached. The poor man was almost overcome by the heat. He had walked from Kennewick and had made but one call at Rosencrants’ and found no one at home. Mother gave him a drink of oatmeal water. He gradually recuperated. Father and my older brother, Charley returned from fence building. My mother and sister, Lottie, got supper. When the dishes were washed and the chores were done, the peddler showed his merchandise. Afterwards, father loaned the man an old pair of overalls and he, father, and Charley, and myself, similarly clothed, took a swim in the swimming hold. Our house was small so the peddler slept in the hay stack. The next morning after breakfast mother bought several articles from him. He got his pack on his back and trudged on.

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