THE HICK MYTH
JAMES A. COWAN
There was a time when the gentleman with alfalfa in his eyebrows was supposed to be a typical figure in the life of rural communities, but Mr. Cowan, after exhaustive investigation, has come to the sober conclusion that in Canada, at least, the sole remaining hicks are to be found in the great cities.
THIS is the official history of a great expedition which failed miserably. Its lengthy study of all parts of the Dominion revealed only one useful piece of information. It established definitely the fact that the agricultural districts of this country have long been libelled. For years, the rural regions of all nations have been celebrated in song and story as the native haunt of the hick, the hayseed and the gentleman with alfalfa in his eyebrows. As far as the Dominion is concerned, these songs and stories must now be listed in the libraries with the works of Mr. Aesop. The hick himself belongs with the dodo, the ouija board and peg-top trousers. He must have been merely a passing feature of the early rubber-tired-buggy era for, to-day, he is not among those present. Some explanation is necessary before dealing in detail with the investigation which resulted in the drawing of these conclusions. As there are no standard books of reference on the subject, it is impossible to say offhand what the characteristics of the hick were. From volumes still in circulation, it seems that the hick only became a hick when removed from his native setting. As long as he remained near the barnyard, he was not a hick. He was just a hard-working farm hand and once in a while, but rarely, a farmer. Like the measles, it was only when he broke out that he attracted attention. According to many writers, a trait of all hicks was an instinctive longing for the big city and one could be identified immediately upon arrival because of the fact that he would be seen standing on a corner, wearing bright yellow boots and staring at the higher buildings. Some so-called authorities leaned to the view that the hick usually held in his teeth a sprig of timothy hay, though this seems to have been merely the earlier generation of hicks. Others held that his chief occupation when sojourning in large centres was the purchasing of city halls, bank buildings and gilded bricks. A curious fact crops up here. All these people who wrote about the hick, supposedly experts in the matter, were city dwellers and in some cases, their most definite knowledge of country landscapes had been acquired through the medium of the art galleries.
At any rate, they are unanimously agreed that one outstanding feature of this species of individual was his whole-hearted simplicity. Due to the fact that the word “hick” is most freely and generously used by slang addicts and that this continuous employment has brought about an extremely hazy idea of its exact definition; also taking into consideration the belief of many persons in congested and crowded places that some country-dwelling Canadians could be put in this class, it was deemed advisable to inaugurate an investigation into the whole question. Though the accurate information on hicks in Canada was practically nil, it was obvious nevertheless, that not a few average voters honestly thought there were many of them still residing in rural parts. Anything Else But HAVING decided that something should be done about it, the logical course of action, naturally, was to contront a hick personally, somewhere in the Dominion and, by careful dissection, find out what it was that made him a hick. The discovery of one would give clues to others and the process could be repeated. Eventually, the investigator would amass sufficient data to determine the qualities of the average specimen and perhaps to specify in what parts of the country he was most common. The facts could then be properly tabulated and preserved for the edilication of generations yet unborn. So the hunt commenced. A search has been made from the shores of the broad Pacific to the shores of the also broad Atlantic. But the all-Canadian hick is still to be unearthed. It is highly probable that, scattered here and there throughout the provinces, there are examples of this type of human being but it is also more than certain that a group of factors are rapidly combining to make his future existence a practical impossibility. As an indication of the set-backs attending such a search, it is only necessary to quote a few of the incidents which marked this coast-to-coast hunt. First, there was the case of the man with the whiskers. He was travelling to Lethbridge, Alberta, in the smoker. At first glance, he looked most encouraging. He was chewing tobacco—an encouraging sign, and his general appearance was highly rural. Unfortunately, the rapid approach of twilight made it impossible to see the expression on his weather-beaten face or the shock which followed might have been avoided. He was in conversation with a fellow-passenger. “Yes, I had an analysis made of that top-soil,” he was saying, “and from what I make of it and irom what I know myself, I don’t see that a disc plow is any use at all.” There was more in the same strain, leading into a thoroughly technical discussion of the soil and systems of cultivation, which was far too deep for a layman whose agricultural experiences were confined to growing radishes in the backyard. Finally it dawned on the seeker after hicks that the talker was probably a practical professor from some western experimental farm. He was questioned about it but replied that he was merely a worker in
the vineyard, so to speak, who had been farming here and there in the west for the past seven years. He had now convinced himself that he would soon know enough about this intricate subject to make his occupation a most gratifyingly lucrative one. This, as it may be readily imagined, was most discouraging. The gentleman with whiskers had all the outward and visible signs of the hick but it took only a few minutes to decide that that was what he was anything else but. In fact, this experience was repeated many times over. The climate of the Canadian west must be fatal to the hayseed. Western farmers, in short, are most disturbingly progressive and energetic. Their general attitude is to leave as little to Providence and good old mother Nature as is humanly possible. They make, in hundreds of instances scientific surveys of their properties and of local climatic conditions. They call in expert advice on crops. Furthermore, numbers of them seem to operate their farms with a care to business detail which would make many an efficiency expert return to school for a post-graduate course. On subjects allied to agriculture, they can produce, without warning, terrifying amount of accurate data. Some varieties of Albertans are able to deluge any questioner with facts concerning irrigation projects. A hint is enough to bring forth imposing arrays of Continued on page 46
Continued from page 11
information concerning mixed farming in almost any part of the west. In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the average wheat-grower’s version of the principles and practice of co-operative marketing displays a keenness of intellect entirely foreign to the notable simple-mindedness which the investigator had set out to find.
One Second From Civilization
TO TURN to other topics, a resident of the wide open spaces sixty miles from Saskatoon ventured a few opinions on the well-known revolution which now seems to have settled down with permanent headquarters in Moscow. He held that the Soviet shindig had been a great boon to the wheat-producers of the Canadian west. The great Russian export output had ceased and new markets had been opened for Canada. What would happen when and if Russia staged a come-back, he wondered.
Of course, it may be that he read all this in a book. But what of it? To be classed as a proper hick, he had no right to read anything but the almanac. Continued on page 11
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As long, then, as one investigated from the angle of the farmer’s own business, the search for hicks was bound to be a disappointment. But approaching from other angles was not much better. There was, for example, one interesting little bit of western near-drama, which it is best to commence with a sort of scenic prologue.
As far as the human eye could see, it could see practically nothing. The prairie stretched out endlessly in as many directions as there were in that locality. But off on the haze of the horizon it was possible to discover a dim blur, which, as one came nearer, resolved itself into a house, a barn and a small bevy of straw-stacks. In heaven only knows how many square miles that solitary habitation was the one sign of the onward march of civilization.
Everyone, of course, recognizes this description. This is standard western background number three. That having been settled, the story can proceed.
Two men and a woman were seated in the living and general utility room of that lone farm-house early one evening in late fall.
“Let’s have some music,” said one of the men-—and this is where the story begins to leave the beaten track.
The other man positively did not go quietly to one corner of the room and with hands whose trembling betrayed their tenderness, unwrap the horse blanket from about the precious old fiddle. Nor did the woman slip over to the battered little organ which stood against the wall and play softly, “When You and I Were Young, Maggie.”
Neither of these things happened. A voice from another room interrupted with, “Try and get that symphony concert from Winnipeg” and the man who had spoken first, proceeded to manipulate the dials of an impressive radio set.
Geographically, the people on that flourishing Manitoba farm were more or less marooned but actually they were less than one split second away from civilization, as it is customary to term life in the big city. A twist of the wrist could produce for them almost any variety cf entertainment they cared to have and much that they did not.
They have now been radio-catching for approximately one year and though not one of the four had, to begin with, sufficient musical training to operate a harmonica, their present knowledge of this art is on a par with that of an average graduate from any Canadian university.
That radio, in its present improved state, has completely altered one aspect of rural life is as obvious as a wart on a Roman nose. From Victoria to Halifax, the non-urban districts of the Dominion are dotted with thousands of ear-phones and loud-speakers from which issue, day and night, the news of the day and the blues of the evening, accompanied by bedtime stories, lectures, oboe solos, songs that will never be forgotten and songs that will never be remembered— in fact, everything. Mr. Jenkins, of Birdseye Centre, can return from bidding his cows goodnight in time to hear operatic and orchestral selections from Massey Hall, Toronto, the only difference between his participation in the concert and that of his cousin in the city being that the cousin imbedded himself in a boiled shirt and paid three dollars.
How long this sort of thing is to continue, no one can say, but it certainly does not aid in the preservation of our native hicks. It was most saddening to the investigator to discover that this situation now exists in practically every known section of Canada and that radio has even penetrated the Arctic ether. Even the Eskimos are likely to encounter difficulties in keeping their hicks unspoiled.
More Barren Fields
TO RETURN to the details of the search, however, the Middle West was hopeless. The sunset side of the Rockies was just as bad. British Columbia farmers and fruit-growers were inclined to be just as progressive and energetic as their colleagues of the plains and they gave indications of a broad-mindedness which was most disconcerting.
Vancouver and Victoria, visited in the vain hope that it might be possible to snare a hick who had wandered inside the city limits, only complicated the problem. Both cities, at that particular time, were meccas for sons of the soil, ranchers and
farmers in general, hailing from points as far east as Brockville, Ontario. When placed in the witness box, metaphorically speaking, they explained that they had merely slipped out to the coast for a winter holiday, giving, in many cases, their reasons for preferring it to California where they had been one, two years or five before and adding that it was their custom to meander about a bit in new scenery at the end of each harvest, provided that their finances justified it. The outlook became dark indeed when two agriculturalists on a farm near the city were discovered tentatively taking up golf and the climax came when a rancher from somewhere near Edmonton came down to dinner in a Victoria hotel, dressed in a tuxedo and looking exceedingly well, thank you. That was the end. What was the use of wasting more time?
Northern Ontario also turned out to be a barren field. The whole southern section of that territory is tinged with the romance of mining, goldfields, silver strikes, cobalt, fortunes made over-night and the possibility that much possible cash may be lying under one’s very nose. If this is not enough, the attitude of the inhabitants toward industry should be convincing. It is wholesale. They talk casually of pulp mills employing two thousand men and mammoth hydro-electric enterprises and, one and all, exhibit tremendous faith in a magnificent future. Decidedly, this atmosphere is not suited to the breeding of hicks.
In the agricultural districts of the extreme north, the situation, insofar as the hick is concerned, is equally depressing. Nearer the home of the reindeer and the aurora borealis, the investigator encounters a race of inland vikings. There the settlers grow to an unusual size. The farms are peopled with blonde Scandinaavians of highly intelligent appearance, sufficiently powerful to make an average ox look helpless. Interesting individuals, but not hicks.
In older Ontario, unique difficulties were constantly cropping up to hamper the seeker after the simple-minded. There was the little matter of that province’s late government. As many will remember, Ontario was ruled for some years by a parliament largely made up of agrarians and one never knows these days, while traveling up and down the townships, when one is about to bump into an exM.P.P. or possibly an ex-cabinet minister.
To call upon an unknown farmer and be greeted with, “Hon. Mr. Blank has just driven off with a load of hay,” is upsetting to the last degree. And the ordinary ballot-casting, rural resident, due to the recent legislative prominence of himself and his fellow workers, has peered closely into the dark processes of government. The interest thus kindled, he still retains. All this, it is easy to see, is bad for the hick business.
Farmers Patronizing the Theatre
THEATRE managers in Ontario and in the maritime provinces revealed another unsuspected state of affairs which threw the expedition into greater depths of gloom. Within the last few seasons, there have been added to their regular expenses under the heading of advertising, considerable sums for new mailing lists.
“The farmers are turning into better theatre-goers,” said one manager, in explanation of this, “but there is this about it. You can’t bunco them. On big attractions, a large percentage of our business comes from the country. In this part of the world, the farmers are the people with the money and, having developed the habit of spending quite a portion of it, they have become quite interested in us. I have a list of several hundred names, families who live from five to forty miles from here, and all of them have asked me to notify them when I have something particularly good to offer.
“You can wager your last cent that I only send announcements to these people when I’m sure that what’s coming is outstanding enough to warrant it. My motto is that fifty dollars next season is better than one dollar in the box-office now on a doubtful attraction. I don’t want to hurt one of my best sources of revenue by exaggerated boosting.”
It is actually true that a great many moving picture and road-show houses all over the Dominion, but especially in Ontario and the Maritimes, are definitely attempting to cater to the country trade Continued from paae 50
Continued from page 48 —and theatres do not cater to hicks. Carnivals featuring the old reliable threeshell game and expert short-change artists used to do it, but carnivals of that type have been finding the going extraordinarily rough.
Following the New Gypsy Trail
THE reason for the farmer’s increasing attention to the drama and the art of the celluloid is primarily the motor car. The farmer is now a very mobile personage. He flits about the charming countryside on balloon tires. Like other motorowning mortals, his car fills him with ambition to go somewhere in his spare moments, if any, and as visits to the theatre often prove both amusing and entertaining, he drops in to be amused and entertained.
The motor car, indeed, ranks as the most popular of hobbies for Canadian agriculturalists. Most of them now know their way about an amazing stretch of country. In the slack season, they go on pilgrimages which make those historic trips in covered wagons look like walks around the block and this pastime is growing with such rapidity that it seems reasonable to suggest that motor-tripping is gradually developing a gypsy strain in the blood of the grain-growers and stock raisers.
There is no section of the country without its quota, and the touring habit is more contagious than walking influenza. Let one man roll home with his family and the usual repertoire of road experiences after a two weeks’ voyage, on wheels, and numbers of his neighbors will be slightly unhappy till they have done something similar.
But, in any case, when a farmer can spend his rest periods during the fall plowing discussing traffic congestion in Montreal or some equally metropolitan problem, you can’t very well paste the label of the hick between his shoulders.
In the general search through Ontario, however, there were a score of odds and ends of happenings, all of which served to dampen the ardor of the investigator. One farmer was an expert bee-keeper with an income of over ten thousand a year. A Niagara fruit-grower was reading many and varied works on biology because his son happened to be a professor in that particular subject. A Kent county farmer announced that he was building up a personal export business in seed corn and had had some of his finest on exhibition at Wembley. An eastern Ontario stock-raiser was temporarily absent from his holdings to attend the directors’ meeting of a financial corporation in which he held a large interest. Another Ontarian talked for an hour about Naples and seventeenth century Italian jewelry on which he was evidently an authority. And so it went. Had a hick, built according to specifications, turned up at this point, he would have been passed up as some city citizen trying to palm himself off as a tiller of the soil.
There was practically no use considering Quebec. If Quebec’s farming population is largely habitant, as generally conceded, then the province is a total loss as far as hicks are concerned. The hick is a comic. To look at him is to laugh, according to the legends, and that rules out the French-Canadian farmer. His own sense of humor is too keen to allow himself to appear essentially comic. He may be funny, yes, but that is an entirely different thing. And since a fairly general characteristic of the habitant is simplicity, that means that he could scarcely be simple-minded. For simplicity and simple-mindedness have long been divorced—on the grounds of incompatibility. Finally, the Québécois tends to be picturesque and that is the finishing touch. It is doubtful if he could even qualify as an entrant in the race for hayseed honors.
Where the Bank Presidents Come From
THERE were, lastly, the people on the edges of the Atlantic to investigate, but their resemblance to the Ontarian, in many respects, handicapped them at the commencement. Added to this, statistics show that the Maritimes ship into the cities and into other parts of Canada, a large percentage of the country’s bank presidents, university presidents, authors, Continued on page 52
Continued from page 50 preachers and experts in a multitude of lines. These same statistics show that many of these leaders hail from the country and that they begin to do active leading at a very early age. It is worth noting, too, that their powers of leading are also very lasting. These facts were quite sufficient to indicate that the localities from which these men come are not likely to produce many individuals with clover in their hair. This last supposition proved to be entirely correct.
One further characteristic of the farmers in the bluenose and surrounding country was enough to clinch the matter. They have a flair for argument probably unequalled anywhere on the continent. They can, for instance, take a stranger into camp on a debate concerning church union, wind him around himself and tie him into knots with a rapidity that is astounding. Their skill in cross-questions and involved answers can come only from long practice backed by much natural ability. Politics is another subject on which no tyro should ever enter into argument with an easterner unless he has first had legal and other advice in the matter. A Maritimer may suddenly quote a large section of the British North America Act or some such document, quite offhand and without apparent effort, to support his contention of the moment. An ordinary individual, in such circumstance, is at a distinct disadvantage, for it is impossible to say whether the arguer is repeating the clauses word for word or had merely made up something on the spur of the minute.
These traits and others doomed the hunt for hicks in the far east. From the prosperous potato-raisers of Prince Ed-
ward Island to the apple-growers of the Annapolis Valley, the maritime farmer is of little help in a crusade of this sort.
All in all, therefore, the transcontinental search wound up in deep despair. The much-sought-after type may exist in the Dominion but the haze surrounding his whereabouts and present-day doings still remains to be cleared away.
Contrasting the information on hand at the beginning with the results of the prolonged investigation, one fact stands out plainly. The real and original hick was distinguished from those around him because his eyes were longingly cast in the direction of the brilliant lights and he was constantly yearning to see the sights.
But to-day, life among the hills, valleys and level spaces is changed. Motors, magazines, radio, good roads, improved' methods of cultivation, education, transportation an more organization, as well as fifty other contributing causes, have done it. The lure of the congested centres has been toned down. The attractiveness of the rural regions has increased correspondingly.
To the farmer, too, the city is no longer a sweet mystery. He is a frequent and even casual visitor. He drops around often and is familiar with all its attraction. Whether familiarity breeds contempt is a question, but it, at least kills curiosity.
The underlying reasons for the creation of the hick having been rather completely removed, -this peculiar mortal may have vanished almost entirely.
If a definition of the word “hick” is needed, however, to end the discussion, it is more than likely that the 1926 model hick is a person who believes that most of the residents of rural Canada are hicks.