( By Matt Shea )
A parade led by the local marching band was followed by its highly decorated drill team. Floats sponsored by local businesses displayed their colors like a proud peacock. A procession of vintage cars slowly drove down the main street with the reigning beauty queen waving to the community she represented. The mayor smiled and shook hands as he passed out pamphlets.
All clubs were represented with vendors selling memorabilia. The aroma of barbeque ribs, chicken, hotdogs and hamburgers tantalized the hungry crowd. This festive occasion helped ease the tension of this divided town.
The original settlers started a feud amongst themselves that was still unresolved. The cold war of Pioneer Valley consisted between two families: Smith and Cromwell.
It all started when one family named a road after themselves. The other reciprocated in defense. When the railroad tracks were laid through the small town, the community was then divided. The tracks now served as a boundary between the self-named streets and their families. Like a Dr. Sues story; control was the issue with absurd rumors stirring the pot. This town was not without merit though. It was famous for its "Three Berry Preserve". A unique blend of three unique berries that always won blue ribbons at the county fair.
Many theorized on what made these berries different: Some say that the mild climate in the foothills benefited from the pure mountain air. Others claim that the soil was perfected for the berries, since they were the only crop ever grown there.
Folklore credited the historical town for keeping the recipe a secret to honor their heritage. The three berry preserve was often imitated, but the code was never cracked. Once a product of 'Pioneer Valley Three Berry Preserves' was delivered to a store; they sold out immediately. Like the famous 'Copper River Salmon', this was a seasonal goldmine that allowed this town of independent farmers to survive.
The covet berries were not easy to get. The blackberries which represented one-third of this Ozark recipe could be found off of Berry Street, where the train depot was. Acres of bushes graced the station that was the heart of this quaint town. These bushes were respected and shared by the community for the berry season.
Then came the hard part. The much needed raspberries were located on the East corner of town; with the required blueberries on the West side. Regardless of having one-third of the sacred berries on family property; one would have to share the international waters of the train depot, and then have political asylum to gain access to their rivals bushes. The last third of this recipe was always a challenge; whether you were a Smith, or a Cromwell.
Derek Smith meticulously assembled his wooden fruit stand off of Smith Street as the noon train slowly traveled through town. Once the train passed, the obstructed view of Cromwell Street was now exposed; with Albert Cromwell constructing his stand. The two classmates were bonded by wearing their high school football jerseys. The teammates smiled and waved to one another as the berry season approached.
The interaction between locals was not always as friendly. Often, the smug arrogance of one family member would deny hospitality to an opposing family member. Sometimes, the town's lone barbershop would abruptly change the topic of conversation- if the wrong person entered. It was common to see someone leave an establishment to avoid a neighbor from the wrong side of the tracks.
There was a common ground of justice in Pioneer Valley; the retirement home on Berry Street. This old structure housed the wise seniors that once played in that very town. Every family had a relative living here. When anyone had a problem, their last resort would be to make a pilgrimage to this residence and seek advice.
That's what Derek Smith did. His grandfather, Harry, suggested that he wear his high school football jersey so that cross-town students could see that they had something in common. It worked like a charm! Every berry season he would give a five pound basket of raspberries to his teammate across the street- and receive an equal amount of Cromwell blueberries in return. Business was good. When his cousin, Timothy anxiously waited for the annual fishing derby, he became concerned on how to secure the best spot. Derek advised him to visit Grandpa Harry and discuss the problem with him.
Timothy Smith got up early that Saturday and took the short walk to Berry Street to see his grandfather. The frisky old man was elated to receive a visit from his youngest grandson. He was even more touched to discover the young lad came for advice. The thoughtful child presented his grandfather with a homemade card, showing appreciation for his roll in the family. He then hugged the elder, and began to share his problem.
"Grandpa," addressed a somber Timothy Smith.
"Yes, Timothy," replied the caring old man.
"Do you know about the fishing tournament coming up next week?" inquired the child.
"Yes!" answered the grandfather. "I helped dig that pond so that boys like you could fish in it one day!"
"Really!" exclaimed Timothy.
"Really!" said the soft spoken senior.
"Every year we have a hard time getting a good spot for the fishing derby," said Timothy. "What do we do about that?"
"Share," replied the wise old owl. "Why don't you show up early, so that you can be there first? Then you can purposely allow others to claim it, knowing that you could have had it first. They will notice your consideration, and offer to share it out of respect. You will even make new friends!"
Timothy's face lit up with a smile as he saw the beauty of this idea. He then hugged his grandfather, giving many thanks. The enthused youth then excused himself to devise a plan. The proud grandpa leaned back with a smile as he remembered what it was like to be young...
Jessy Cromwell approached his older brother, Albert to ask a question.
"Al, did you ever fish in the fishing derby?" asked Jessy.
"Sure I did," responded the brother. "Every kid in town enters that contest until they're too old."
"Did you and your friends ever have a problem trying to get a good spot to fish?" asked the bewildered little brother.
"Not at first," replied Albert. "When I was your age, that pond had two docks. When we got older, the city had to remove one; I never knew why."
"Every year it gets crowded, and sometimes we arrive too late to get our favorite spot," said Jessy. "What can we do about this?"
Albert gave a long pause, and reflected on a past experience. "I once had a similar problem. I didn't know how to get raspberries to make three berry preserves for my fruit stand. I finally addressed this predicament to Papa Cromwell and he gave me a solution!"
"What did he say?" asked an intrigued Jessy.
"Papa told me that everyone always has something that someone else needs," explained the big brother. "He told me to share my berries with someone who needed them and had the berries that I needed. My friend, Derek, needed some of my berries, and I needed some of his. We both realized that we were classmates and played football together. That made him a friend the whole time, and we now supply each other during the berry season. You need to visit Papa Cromwell and get his advice!"
"When can we visit him?" asked the excited boy.
"How about after dinner?" suggested Albert. "When your homework is done; we will walk to where he lives and ask him."
Jessy smiled and quickly ran to his room to finish his school work.
The time was now six-o'clock with, one hour left for visitation. The brothers walked the five minute journey to Berry Street to visit their wise grandfather. Such visits were always special, as the grandsons would bring their mother's homemade cookies as a gift.
Clarence Cromwell was pleasantly surprised to see his two favorite grandchildren pay a much welcomed visit. 'Papa' just finished his own dinner, and would enjoyed the chocolate chip cookies his daughter made as a desert.
The big man hugged the boys with emotion. He then asked, "What did I do to deserve seeing you two today?"
Albert spoke first. "Papa, we need to get your opinion about something."
"Why sure!" replied the honored senior.
Jessy then asked, "Papa, do you know about the fishing derby coming up?"
"Yes!" exclaimed the elder, "that event has been a part of this town for over fifty years!"
"Did you ever catch fish there?" asked the younger grandson.
"No," replied Papa Cromwell. "That pond was only meant for children. But, I have taken your mother there many times, and she has caught lots of fish."
"My friends and I can't always get our spot at the derby," explained Jessy. "The other boys usually get there before we do and take it." Then with a concerned look on his face, he asked his mentor, "What can we do?"
The crafty old man thought for awhile and slowly began to display a huge grin as he thought up a remedy. "I know!" he proclaimed with enthusiasm. "Your mother's cookies will get you that spot!" said the elated elder as he displayed a chocolate chip delight and ate it. "Ask your mom to bake more so that you can share them with the boys that have that spot. They will love them, just as I do. They will know that you are a friend, and allow you to fish with them!"
Jessy grinned at his brother, acknowledging his sound advice. After a brief visit, they ran home to coordinate this peace-offering with their mother.
The following Saturday was the much anticipated fishing derby. Timothy had a slumber party at his parent's house, with his fishing buddies attending. Derek would chaperone the anglers to the derby after their sunrise breakfast. Their earlier-then-normal departure had, once-again granted them their favorite fishing spot. However, they had agreed to leave it vacant to show diplomacy to their competitors.
Moments later, Jessy's group arrived- running to the unclaimed territory. As they approached the dock, Timothy's party was spotted; obviously allowing them to claim the place of choice. Both knew that the first arrivals showed courtesy, not to hoard the lone dock. They also brought cookies as a barter to share that very location. Time passed as the 'ball was in their court". Timothy's group waited for the consideration to be reciprocated. The boys on the dock huddled in conference. Finally one left the pack and walked toward the others.
A hand was extended as the messenger introduced himself. He pointed out that there was enough room for both parties and invited them to join. The boys cheered in appreciation and accepted the invitation. Timothy had brought a large thermos of hot chocolate with extra paper cups. His friends introduced one another as the hot drink was shared. Chocolate chip cookies from Jessy's household were handed out, as the boys watched fish jump. The derby was to start in an hour with the groups uniting and starting a new tradition.
The fishing derby was a success with all the boys receiving prizes for the most and largest fish caught! Jessy and Timothy would secretly have their mothers prepare a trout dinner for their wonderful grandfathers. This would serve as a gift for teaching them a valuable lesson about life.
The berry season was to start in a few days. This was the time of year where all members of the community had to 'bury the hatchet'. It was crucial for each side of the tracks to have a port in the other: You can only make hay when the sun is shining. The berry harvest was projected to be the highest yield in years; with the good will of gift-giving underway!
The school kids were the first wave of battle. They were the ponds that would take small plastic bags of homegrown berries to school and trade them with anyone who didn't share their last name. From there; one adult member of a household would contact the family whose child thoughtfully gave their child a sample of the precious fruit. The smuch anticipated calls came next to give thanks. Eventually, visits were arranged, where larger quantities of the homegrown produce would be exchanged as gifts.
The competition of giving provided the necessary 'third' to produce their own three-berry preserves. Local restaurants benefited from these acts of diplomacy and church attendance would reach its yearly high. This modern-day rendition of Easter egg hunting and Halloween trick-or-treating seemed to be a ritual all within itself. But it did supply the demand.
The senior women of the valley seemed to have the best approach. Several months before berry harvest, a well- coordinated quilting party would meet once a week. The weak spot on the opposite side of the tracks would be graced with a hand-made quilt that would match the victims wallpaper. Berries were also given to set the stage. Knitted sweaters, chords of wood, rides to town and a multitude of compliments were all used as arsenal. The town was in a friendly battle to get full use out of every last berry.
Orders as far away as Europe, Asia and Denmark patiently waited for the seasonal jams, jellies, syrups, and pies that only came from this part of the world. This limited supply of three-berry preserves came from the happy American town of Pioneer Valley!
Sunday evening was the eve of harvest; the calm before the storm. Derek Smith had an early dinner, and walked through the quiet town to visit his grandfather. As he approached his quarters, intense laughter could be heard coming from the room. He slowly pushed the door that was partially opened. He was amused to fine his grandfather in hysterics with Clarence Cromwell. They were laughing at the news on television that showed the local merchants preparing for the up-coming berry season.
"What's so funny?" asked the puzzled teenager.
"Well, we have to tell somebody!" laughed Harry Smith.
"Can we trust you with a secret?" bellowed out Papa Cromwell.
A curious Derek slowly responded with caution, "What is it?"
"What do you know about this town's history?" asked his grandfather.
Derek paused and said, "I know that we are one of the oldest towns in the country."
"Anything else?" asked Clarence Cromwell as he fought back the laughter.
"You mean the feud?" asked the somber young man.
"Yes!" cried out the family elder.
"What's so special about this time of year?" asked Clarence.
"The berry harvest." answered Derek.
"What makes it so challenging?" asked Harry Smith.
"We have to respect everyone in order to make our three-berry preserves." answered the inquisitive visitor.
Then both men yelled, "That's right!" and doubled up laughing for the next minute.
Derek looked with astonishment and asked, "What's wrong with that?"
The men yelled back, "Nothing, it should always be that way!" Their violent laughter continued for several more minutes.
Derek couldn't understand their comments and asked, "Why?"
"Derek, do you know what we did for a living before we retired?" asked his grandfather.
"I only know that you both worked for the city," he replied.
"We were like you and didn't like the feud either, said his grandfather. "We decided to get involved with city legislature and planning. We did an 'inside job' to fight this problem. Do you know why the berry bushes are spread apart within this town?
A confused Derek answered, "We were taught in local history that the berries would not survive if they were planted too close together. They each attracted different insects that would kill the other two species. They had to be far apart in order for all three to grow.
"Son," remarked his senior father figure, "that was a wives-tale. We conjured up that rumor to separate them on opposite sides of this town."
"Why?" asked the confused high school student.
Harry Smith continued, "We initially had all the berry bushes concentrated on Berry Street; the same area that now only has blackberries. When the feud started to escalate, the berries were becoming the first casualty. There was no respect for one another, and the natural resource of this town was being hoarded by neighbors working against each other. We had to intervene to allow those berries to grow. We conjured up that story as a ploy to force this town to cooperate for survival.
Derek smiled as he understood the logic. He then asked if there were any more secrets.
The men looked at each other to gain approval, then Clarence spoke. "There are a few more. That fishing hole that holds the derbies used to have two docks. We altered our weight limit on fishing docks, so that only one could legally be there. I think you know why. At one time this town actually had two high schools. We modified the budget so that only one could exist here. We looked at the mascots of the former schools; the 'Panthers' and 'Tigers'. We blended the logo to 'Wildcats'. The red colors of one school and blue of the other were mixed to give us the purple and white we now have."
Grandfather Smith yelled out with pride, "And every time a Cromwell scored a touchdown there was a Smith blocking for him! We have had our share of State Championships since the schools merged."
The visit was momentarily interrupted by a knock at the door. Derek opened it and was surprised to see Albert Cromwell's aunt. "I thought that I saw you coming in here," she said in a polite tone. "My sewing club made this nice blazer. We think that it would look beautiful with that blouse your mother wears to church. And before I forget, here are some blueberries from our garden. We think your family will like them."
"Thank you, Mrs. Cromwell," said Derek. "My mother will appreciate this very much. I will give this to her tonight, and have her call you."
"Oh, I would love to hear from her!" exclaimed Nora Cromwell. "Bye!" The sweet neighbor from the opposite side of the tracks left the room with a smile on her face.
Derek was dumbfounded now that he knew the towns real history. He stared at the floor absorbing the shock, then looked at the life-long friends, and smiled.
The wise old men looked at the young man holding the gifts and nodded in approval.
Derek said his good byes and walked home consumed by what he had just learned. The town he lived in seemed to be one big dysfunctional family; and it was. Like any wedding, or holiday celebration; many incorporate a facade' to endure what was necessary. He couldn't understand why the town couldn't accept everyone simply the way they were; like he and his friend Albert did. Then he realized that they bonded based on the cleverness of their grandfathers. The enlighten youth could only shake his head laughing at everyone, including himself.