"Christmas on the Farm"
Chamber pot etiquette
by Laura Bien
The Waterloo Area Farm Museum's "Christmas on the Farm" offers a mesmerizing blend of historical hogwash, patinated beauty, and just enough ghosts under the eaves like a wooden wheelchair in the attic that hints at the agony of former resident Dan Realy, whose legs were both broken by horses to thoroughly hypnotize visitors.
Wondering what the Realy family would make of a twenty-first-century urban biker chick pulling blue hospital booties over kick-ass black leather boots before gingerly padding through the farmhouse, I opened the creaky screen door.
A modest $2 later, a tween girl in period clothes in the parlor informed me that the tiny red mittens under the austere Christmas tree festooned with clip-on candles wouldn't have been wrapped no wrapping paper back then. The mittens accompanied a little hat and a wooden train, a spare array of gifts.
Upstairs in a bedroom, two giggly girls asked me if I knew why the ceramic chamber pot's lid bore a crocheted cover. I didn't. The cover helped muffle clatter, so one's siblings sharing the room wouldn't be awakened.
The girls pulled back the bedding to show the woven rope platform underneath. "When guests would come, they'd tighten the ropes, and that's where we get 'Sleep tight,'" said one. "And this [tick] was filled with chicken feathers, and sometimes they had mites which would bite, and that's where we get 'Don't let the bedbugs bite.'"
Suspicious of these apocryphal-sounding claims, I later found that "Sleep tight" comes from an old use of tightly to mean "soundly," and that the bedbug phrase is younger than the farmhouse. One website linguist sniffed that tour guides "constitute one of today's major 'vectors' or carriers of unfounded etymological 'urban legends'" or rural legends.
Minor quibbles aside, I found lots to fascinate me: the attic with its bass drum from the erstwhile Waterloo Band, the cozy kitchen's huge cast-iron stove on which bean soup was cooking (free samples),
and an artificial tabletop Christmas tree made of goose feathers dipped in green paint, with strands combed into pine-needle-like clumps.
Aside from the farmhouse, the site offers a spartan 1840s log cabin, icehouse, bake house, workshop, windmill, milk house, corncrib, and granary (now gift shop) to explore, all restored by volunteers. When the farmhouse was up for auction in 1960, it had rotting shutters, crumbling plaster, and a yard of waist-high weeds.
I stayed till dusk revealed how dimly the fragrant kerosene lamps once lit the farmhouse. Leaving, I paused to gaze at the buildings. With ghostlike suddenness, a bonneted girl ran gleefully from the workshop to the farmhouse. I watched her pass and disappear into the gloom.
"Christmas on the Farm" is held Saturday and Sunday, December 3 & 4.
[Review published December 2005]