Hardscrabble


by Johnny Lucas


What’s in a Name? Hardscrabble, American Corner, Harmony, Bethlehem, this must be the US of A

When looking for America, where do you start? I was in Lewes, Delaware, so that’s where I started.

It seems that most people haven’t been to Delaware, that in itself is not a bad recommendation for a bit of exploration. The state is on an irregular peninsula shared with Maryland and dangling into the Atlantic south of New Jersey. A major attraction in Wilmington, the capitol, is Winterthur, the 200 room DuPont mansion. I was more intrested in the countryside.

But one can’t just drive around aimlessly, and I had to return my car to Washington D.C. by 5:00 PM. I eye-balled the map looking for inspiration. Next to one tiny circle I saw the name Hardscrabble.

There’s got to be something interesting in a place with that name, right? Pierre (call me "Pete") S. DuPont, who is related to the 200 room mansion and is Governor of Delaware, has seen to it that the highways have lots of signs (many of them with "Pierre S. DuPont, Governor" on them), so I had no trouble in finding all the roads that led to town.

One tiny sign, blackened with age, said "HARDSCRABBLE". It pointed to three houses a few hundred yards off the highway. I stopped at the intersection in Hardscrabble (that is to say the intersection which is Hardscrabble). Luckily for me a gentleman, who is probably 20% of the Hardscrabble population, just then walked out of his house to check his mailbox.

He didn’t know why the place was called Hardscrabble. In his 39 years of residence in Hardscrabble, no one had said anything about the name. End of story.

Fine. Back to the map. I saw that I could pass through another little place over the border in Maryland labeled "American Cor." More farmland, the odd industrial installation to remind anyone that the great east coast conurbation is only a few miles away. Spring and the smells of natural fertilizer were in the air. The countryside was lined with blooming forsythia hedges the colour of buttered, overcooked corn. It looked not too unlike parts of southern Ontario, but every now and then a proud sign declaring the site of the Church of Faith Inc., or a notice that this section of highway had been adopted for litter-clearing purposes by the American Libertarian Party reminded me that I was in a foreign country. I "crossed the line" into Maryland without noticing.

At American Corner I saw no indication that I was in the right place. George and Charles were talking on Charles’ front lawn, so introduced myself. Right away they could see what I was up to. "I suppose this is suburban American Corner. Over there," Charles said indicating a small shrub on the lawn, "would be downtown. That’s there the Post Office used to be."

Charles has the most innocent and clear blue eyes you will ever see. They may be worth the trip to Maryland in themselves. When you look him in the eye you have to blink to be sure that you’re not staring straight through into the sky. Those are eyes that would make Elizabeth Taylor jealous and they’re set in a face that looks as if he’s been using it as a plowshare for the past 70 years.

Charles’ father was born in American Corner 105 years ago "He never knew why it’s called that, at least he never told me." But there’s plenty of other history in the neighborhood. The first wire hay baler in the world is housed in a barn nearby, and I could have seen it for myself if I had time.

The Civil War (1861-1865) is recent history in this part of the world. George & Charles had a few tales of the area from those days. Not far from American Corner is a town called Reliance. There’s a big white house there which George and Charles knew well. "That place was a spot during the war. Word got out that it was a safe house. If you were a Southern prisoner in a Northern jail all you had to do was make it to that house, it’s right on the state line [and therefore on the Mason-Dixon line] and you’d be safe. A woman ran that house and she took in all those Southern officers."

"Long after the war they did some digging on the grounds and the whole place was filled with bones. Not one of those soldiers ever left that house, she killed them, every last one. There was a sale there a few years ago and I bought some fire irons. When I got them home I thought ‘No way, they could be what she hit ‘em with.’ I still got them, but they’re in the garage."

American Corner, according to George, has an importance beyond its size. "We’ve got a great auction sale over in that barn, have had for 25 years. And can you believe that our Christmas party draws 2,500 people? I used to play Santa Claus, but I don’t know if I can this year since I lost 226 pounds. I’ll do it if I can find enough pillows."

I would have been happy to hear more about American Corner and the 226 pounds but George wanted to know about Canada. "You’re our closest neighbour and our best friend and I’ve never been to visit" he said as if he bore a personal guilt for neglecting international relations. "I want to go and my mother-in-law just wants to see Niagara Falls once in her life." "But can I tell you something which I don’t know if it’s true?" "A friend of mine went to Canada and there was a moose in the middle of the road. They sat and stared at each other and he finally tooted his horn - and then the moose charged him and wrecked his car! And he says that they fined him for molesting a moose. So he’s not going back to Canada, and I’m not sure this is all true, but I do think about that."

In my capacity as freelance ambassador for my homeland I assured him that we don’t fine Americans for letting moose wreck their cars, and that Niagara Falls is worth a visit. He seemed reassured to have this word from a real Canadian.

When it was time to go George helped me plan my route to Washington. "You’ve got to see Dickerson’s Tomb - just down this road by Harmony. I didn’t know who Dickerson was, but at this point I would have taken George’s advice on anything. I drove through Harmony, and then through Bethlehem. I found the expressways and lost them coming into Washington so that I drove by rows of bricked up houses and derelict buildings before driving by a White House that looks about as real as a one-sided movie set. There is at least as much of America to be seen in Hardscrabble and American Corner as in the American capitol.

And George, I’ll send you a copy of this article and would be happy to welcome you to visit us, your country’s nearest neighbour and best friend where we hardly ever fine visitors for molesting our moose. You’ll probably see me back at American Corner one of these days too, because I never did find Dickerson’s Tomb.

1,214 words


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Page maintained by Johnny Lucas, Travel@JohnnyLucas.com. © J.P.Lucas. Created: June 24, 1996 Updated: October 6, 1997