John W. Blake, esq., our first postmaster, found employment for Jimmie Barnes on a farm owned by Mr. Blake, in the West River district. At this time Jimmie had no family, and he was intensely devoted to the interests of his employer, for whom he had great veneration. He considered the "Esqr." the man, and the only man, fit for office. When asked the question whom he should vote for, for representative, governor or president, the answer invariably was, "Squar Blake." Jimmie remained a single man until he met Sukie at the store of John Holbrook, in the building now known as the American House. This event must have been before 1810, for Mr. Holbrook ceased his mercantile operations in this place about that time.
However much "Barkis was willin'," there was a serious objection, in the shape of a husband, to be disposed of, before Sukie could be honored by the name of Barnes. In all the stores and hotels of that time, customers were furnished with a popular beverage called "flip." This was, we believe, a compound of some kind of ardent spirits, beer, water, nutmeg, sugar, and finished by inserting into the mug containing the composition, a red hot iron. As Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, the husband of Sukie, for a mug of flip, gave up his marital rights to Jimmie, and left him in undisturbed possession of "the charmer." The legality of this affair was never questioned before the courts, and for effectiveness, expedition and economy the transaction has never been surpassed, if equalled, in this town. Jimmie ever afterwards had a weakness for the beverage, and had as many blessings in store for the man who invented "flip," as Sancho had for the man who invented sleep.
A daughter, the eldest from this novel union, married one of the brave tars who served under Com. Decatur, in the war of 1812, and assisted in the capture of the British frigate "Macedonian." It was the custom of that time to use complimentary words in marriage notices, therefore appeared in the village paper, the following: "Mr. J. Freeman, to the amiable and accomplished daughter of James Barnes, Esq., of England."
Our earliest recollections of Jimmie date to the time he was bent with age and went about with a bag upon his back, to carry off -- we were told -- naughty, disobedient children, and especially those boys who neglected to attend school and religious exercises.
The frontispiece in the Westminster Catechism -- a likeness of Satan -- for Sunday, and Jimmie with his bag for the other six days of the week, rendered one motive of obedience sufficiently prominent for juvenile government in this place. But more dreadful than with a bag was Jimmie with a spade -- that implement of his vocation in the village cemetery -- when he covered from our sight forever, Andrew Jackson Shattuck, Willy Fessenden and other of our schoolmates, in the long time ago. The pent up grief, led slowly up cemetery hill by Dea. Wood, often found utterance, when fell upon the ear a hopeless, heart-rending rattle upon the coffin, of gravel from the glittering spade of Jimmie.
There was a pleasure in wishing anything but good for the old wretch who dug the first graves on that hill and made so many people cry.
The catechism can yet be seen, but the old "Scratch," decorated with serpents, who once stood at its threshold, long since vanished with Jimmie and his bag. By the death of Mr. Blake, in 1818, Jimmie lost his most highly valued patron. From that time, or a short time before the death of Mr. Blake, Jimmie took up his abode on the east side of the river. The small dilapidated cottage, where he lived with Sukie and an idiotic child named Olive, was, in 1825, standing near the base of Chesterfield mountain and about opposite the Congregational parsonage. He cultivated some over an acre of ground, about his cottage, but the principal source of his income was this place, where he passed most of his time in varied employments, such as working in gardens, doing chores, moving grain on his back up or down stairs for merchants, and telling big stories.
"The honey bees in England," he said, "are big as the sheep in this country, but the hives are about the same size as used here." "When at work with my axe on the mountain," said he, "I was attacked by a big snake that measured, after I had killed and straightened him out, just sixteen axe-helves long." It was as impossible to get an abatement of one axe-helve from the measure of that snake, as to get from farmer W. a reduction of one bug from the "eight bushels of squash bugs, potato measure," found by him, as he declared, when tearing away an old barn.
Jimmie claimed to be a native of old England, and he evidently felt superior to the natives here who were laborers like himself. In hair-bredth escapes and thrilling experiences he rivaled old Sinbad, of Eastern romance. There was an air of earnestness and seriousness in his manner, when relating the events of his life, that would doubtless have generated more faith in the minds of those who listened to his narratives if he had regarded the old admonition,
The history of his advent here will be best given, as well as we can remember, in his own words:
"When some weeks on the voyage from England to this country, our ship was leaking so badly we could not save her, and to save myself I got inside of a large hogshead. The cooper headed me in and the waves cast me ashore. The bung of the cask loosened by sunshine and I pushed out and grabbed the tail of an ox. The frightened animal dragged me over a ledge, the cask broke open and up jumped Jimmie."
His wife, Sukie, made mops, husk doormats, and told ladies' fortunes to order; but she was a poor financier. Her price for reading the book of fate was a small package of green tea. When the summer was in prime many small packages, wafted by white dresses and enclosed by jewelled fingers, passed over Chapin's island to the shrine of Sukie. To the Brattleboro fair of doubtful age, feeding on blue clay and the illusions of hope, there was an unaccountable charm in the ugly, pox-marked, tripe-like face of their oracle. Her eminence in ugliness constituted, perhaps, her popularity as an oracle. A company of quite plain looking girls never appeared so attractive as when standing beside old Sukie. We will allow them credit for sagacity transcending their aspirations of receiving light from Sukie's yellow teacup. The cunning creatures understood the value of comparison; willingly did they accompany eligible and desirable young beaus to this little cot on the mountain, who would "look on this picture and then on that."
In 1833 some people then living in this place caused the erection of a new building for Jimmie and Sukie. Col. Paul Chase, proprietor of the old stage house, and Mr. McKean, the first high school teacher, especially interested themselves in this matter, and Mr. McKean went over the river with his nail-hammer, to help shingle the house. A few years after this event the house was destroyed by fire, and from injuries thereby received, Olive, their idiotic child, died. At this time age and infirmaty had nearly finished their work upon the aged couple; but Col. Chase did not desert them in this extremity. With his own carriage he brought them to this side of the river, where his personal superintendence was given to their wants, and every needful provision made for their comfort up to the last moment of their lives.
Henry Burnham, Brattleboro, Windham County, Vermont, Early History, with Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Citizens, (Brattleboro: Published By D. Leonard, 1880) pages 167-169.
Whenever a person died it was customary to toll the church bell. When the tones of the bell told of a departed spirit the furrowed face of Sukey would, it is said, brighten at the thought of her husband having a cash job, which meant a replenished demijohn. Sukey earned many a dollar braiding mats and telling fortunes. The village maidens were her best customers. Her terms to those of her sex were great seriousness and half a pound of the best hyson. Jimmy on one occasion, according to one who knew him, undertook the task of carrying two bushels of corn to a second story ladder, in which the rounds had been loosened. He succeeded in getting a good start, but although he worked diligently he got no higher than the first round. Both Jimmy and Sukey must have died at least 60 years ago.
Brattleboro Reformer, February 3, 1893.
An extract from "Jimmy Barnes and Sukey," by Major Frederick W. Childs.
Reprinted from Springfield Republican, "A Curious Brattleboro Couple," January 21, 1893.
Olive Barnes died January 29, 1837, aged 36, and was buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery, named as the daughter of "J. and S. B. Barnes." The "half a pound of the best hyson" refers to hyson tea, also called hyson skin tea, or young hyson tea in those days. Hyson tea was then worth one dollar a pound.
Henry Burnham first told these anecdotes, in his inimitable style, in a lecture for the benefit of the Episcopal Church fund, in February 1858. When he published his history of Brattleboro in 1880, he omitted at least two anecdotes. The succeeding Brattleboro historian Frederick W. Childs, writing an article entitled "Anecdotes of Old Brattleboro" for the Springfield Republican, signed on February 2, 1901, gives these recollections.
Jimmie, in his occupation as gravedigger, once asserted that he covered up one woman so old that the tongue of the bell wore a hole through the peal when the sexton tolled her age. Concerning Sukey, "it is related that in every step of her lord and master she always followed at a uniform distance behind, her sloping eyes intently fixed upon his pathway in loyal reverence and affection".