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Food For Thought

On a recent visit to the Amanas, friends and I were driving around the different villages and Madeline, who grew up in Amana, was pointing out interesting sights and telling us some of the local history interspersed with her childhood memories.
What appears to be a large creek running through the town was actually a millrace, a jug-handle from the river that was dug by hand and oxen to provide a source of power for the woolen mill and other industrial needs. Linda said she’d never heard the word millrace before and I reminded her of the old lullaby about the old gray goose dying in the millrace, standing on her head. My companions remembered the song as saying it was the millpond, not millrace. I resolved to look it up in my Bartlett’s book of familiar quotations, but alas, it’s not listed. I still think I’m right– after all, a pond is a more or less stationary body of water that doesn’t flow, so how can it turn a waterwheel to provide power? Maybe I’m wrong about the words of the song, but I’ll never concede the principle.
At any rate, we began remembering some of the songs our mothers and grandmothers sang to us, and “Babes In The Woods” popped into my mind. This was the song I remember my mother singing to me and to my sisters as we snuggled in her lap in the rocking chair, trying to stay awake when it was naptime or bedtime when we were little. This tale of two little children who were lost in the woods was so very sad that it brought tears even though we’d heard it dozens of times and knew that it was only a song. It was set to an extremely repetitive and boring tune, and if the sad story didn’t put us to sleep, the monotonous melody would do the trick.
I’ve never mentioned this to anybody who had ever heard of the song, and I’m beginning to wonder if it was unique to my family. I couldn’t find it in my Bartlett’s either, though it has a lot of other nursery rhymes and song lyrics listed. The melody consists of only about five notes– just about guaranteed to put most kids to sleep– in the same way that “On Top Of Old Smokey” served to send my kids off to dreamland before I got through all the verses. The lyrics follow– I’d appreciate hearing if anyone else knows this song:
“Oh, say do you know how a long time ago / two dear little children whose names I don’t know / were stolen away on a bright summer’s day / and lost in the woods, so I’ve heard people say. / They sobbed and they sighed and they bitterly cried / and the poor little things, they laid down and died / and when they were dead the robins so red / brought strawberry leaves and over them spread / and all the day long they sang this sweet song / Poor babes in the wood, poor babes in the wood / and don’t you remember the babes in the wood?”
It’s a wonder we didn’t have nightmares about being lost in the woods.
While we were in Amana, we visited one of the three remaining Amana churches. So simple, clean, and uncluttered, we got a real sense of the serenity and lack of distractions that characterize the church services there. Then lunch at the Ox Yoke Inn where our catfish dinners left us no room for a slice of Amana’s famous rhubarb pie– much to my regret. After that, we visited the museum– or I should say, one of several of the museum buildings and looked over some of the displays of Christmas decorations, a replica of a room where toddlers and young children were looked after while their mothers were at work during the communal days, a sewing room, and displays of intricate and beautiful needlework. We browsed through the museum gift shop where we found simple toys such as Jacob’s Ladder, the wooden acrobat who does flip-flops when you squeeze two sticks together, and one of those whirling disks on a loop of string. I recall making similar ones using big coat buttons. String is threaded through two holes in the button which is then slid to the middle of the loop. The loop is then held with both hands, the button twirled around several times to twist the string and, when the ends of the loop are pulled, the button whirls around, the momentum twisting it back in the other direction. When a rhythm is established, the whirling button makes an intriguing buzzing sound. I almost bought one just because I’d never had one made of wood before. There are lots of other interesting things to tempt those looking for Amana souvenirs. Books about the history of the Amanas, note cards showing work by Amana artists, and many handcrafted items. We saw only a fraction of the attractions available in Amana, and I know we will have to return many times to see and appreciate it all. The Lily Lake was just starting to show the floating lily pads when we were there about a month ago. Right about now should be a good time to catch it in full bloom.