May 18, 2020 — In the early 1900s, a peculiar type of humorous story about “Poison Carrots and the Hired Man” was popular in the Red River Valley. These two characters would go off on ill-fated adventures reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin movies. Here’s one from The Grafton Record in May 1905:

“Poison Carrots and the hired man joined the ‘Sons of the Pasture Fence’ last Friday night. Their petitions had been rejected several times, the ballot having but lately cleared up. Both felt very good when notified to be on hand at the lodge room, which was a root cellar illuminated with ten barn lanterns and eight oil cans. They prepared themselves carefully for the initiation with sapolio, soft soap and other stimulants, and arranged themselves in front of the root cellar in a calm and patient manner and awaited the call from within.

“The hired man presented a post-like appearance in the darkness, and a near-sighted brother tied a spirited pair of mules to him. Poison cut him loose and was rewarded by being kicked by one of the mules, and in consequence one of his legs dragged behind him during the initiation ceremonies and placed him at a disadvantage. The hired man also lamed himself in executing a post hole with the lodge spade, cutting off the business portion of a big toe.

“After the work of the evening had been satisfactorily attended to, refreshments were served and short fights were indulged in, and the secretary of the lodge took a large hand-painted black eye home with him, as a mark of esteem of one of the members, whose dues he had attempted to collect in a polite, county constable style.

“Poison made a speech on the subject of longer days and shorter meals during harvest time, which was objected to by the hired man in a few hastily chosen words, which cost him 75 cents apiece. The meeting broke up at 2 a.m., and the two newly made brothers limped home without exchanging words.”

Here’s another story, by E.H. Pierce, from the Grand Forks Herald: “Poison Carrots and the hired man had a fight one cold day last week, and as soon as the swelling got out of their eyes so they could tell the difference between the stable and granary, they hitched up and came to town to have a law suit.

“Poison held the lines, and the hired man urged the horse with the long binder whip, for both were in a hurry to find who was to blame. When the hired man was securing the horse to a block of frozen down sidewalk, Poison bought a nickel cigar and started to puffing away like a leaky freight engine burning soft coal. He did this to hide a few exclamation points and sudden stops which the hired man’s fists had made in his face.

“After the hired man found out that he hadn’t been mentioned in anybody’s will lately, he borrowed Poison’s cigar to light his pipe, and together they went to a justice office to explain their trouble. After the justice had emptied a hod full of fines into the coal stove, he told Poison, who was still agitating the atmosphere with his vile cigar, to state the case. Poison started to tell how the hired man overworked the fanning mill by trying to clean a harness in it and how, after he had discharged him three times, he wouldn’t quit. He urged him to with a neck yoke. The hired man said he wasn’t mad about being discharged, but he couldn’t stand around and be hit with a neckyoke on Thursday, and he went at Poison and they fought until dinner time, when Poison’s mother-in-law came out and parted them with a pitch fork.

“The justice fined the hired man two dollars for trying to oil a harness with wind. The hired man borrowed the two off Poison and paid his fine, and the two started for a drug store to select a color to paint the granary.”

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.

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