Nonagenarian News

Paper’s first-ever reader makes a surprise return to town.


Illustration by Rob Ullman.

Not all time capsules are  buried underground; some of them just walk into town, filled with tales of how things used to be. Which is exactly what happened in 1887, when Sally Strickler Bushong walked a mile and a half from the country into the Shenandoah County town of New Market on her 90th birthday.

Particularly pleased to see “Mother Bushong” were the people at the Shenandoah Valley newspaper. As the paper’s first ever—and its oldest—subscriber, Bushong was welcomed into the office to share a few words of wisdom, where a reporter duly noted down her reminiscences.

“Mother Bushong,” as the story called her, was “hale, hearty, and straight as an arrow,” sharp and a “ready conversationalist.” She reached town “without great fatigue” and said she could “easily walk double the distance” and called on many friends in town.

“She read the paper printed at this office in 1807,” ran the story, “and has been a constant reader from the first day of its publication.” She recalled those early days, remarking on the technological advances in the art of printing. She had seen the grandfather of the writer of the article “pulling a hand press.” In this old method of printing, the type block was hand-inked by means of a small roller, the paper laid directly onto the inked block, and a flat “bed” slid in. An arm was pulled to press the inked block solidly against the paper and its backing bed. “Power presses and steam were then unknown,” the story said.

Bushong’s commentary, dating back nearly to the 18th century, covered the waterfront too. She struck a political stance, expressing the hope that “Democracy may live forever.” She was a “Hickory Jackson” Democrat of longstanding, the story read, the label referring to tough seventh president Andrew Jackson, and “takes the liveliest interest in all elections.” She could recall all the presidents from the first Adams on and remembered Indians stopping at her house en route to Washington, D.C., the women with papooses on their backs and the men precise with bow and arrow.

Mother Bushong’s reminiscences also took a turn on the fashions of her younger years, as she recalled the time when a girl felt lucky to receive each year her one new dress, for churchgoing—“5 yards only,” she said, with a pair of shoes and stockings too coarse to wear all the way to the church but that were carried in hand and slipped on just before the service. At the time, there were no “dudes,” she said, meaning smartly attired young men; prospective beaux wore tow linen—a heavy, coarse version used for work clothes—and rough wool hats—no chic felt for those country boys. People walked or rode horseback, because carriages and buggies were not in use, she said, and the young folks got down at corn-shuckings, frolics, shooting matches, musters and weddings. And food wasn’t much, added the gregarious Bushong: “Bread and meat, mush and milk, and milk soup” made their three meals a day. They thought apple butter was a delicacy. Frills were few and far between.

Having made a full day of her milestone, and though clearly fit as a fiddle, she did opt to stay over that night at a friend’s house in town, where a cornet band “tendered her a serenade” for which she clapped her hands in appreciation. The paper counseled its younger readers to pay attention to Mother Bushong’s recollections of “ye olden times” and the hardships that earlier Virginians endured, as well as the manners and customs of a time when people “loved people for true merit—not clothes, style and money.”

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