The Simple Farmboy
A Pennsylvania German Folktale
The Simple Farmboy was the hardest worker on Old Man Dunkel's farm.
From the gray dark of dawn to the pinky dark of evening, the Simple Farmboy guided the oxen that pulled the plow that helped the crops to grow.
When the sun went down and the day's work was done, the Simple Farmboy took the oxen back to the barn. Old Man Dunkel had painted big round designs on the barn to keep evil spirits away. But the Simple Farmboy wasn't sure the magic circles really worked. So each evening he rushed back to his simple cottage behind Old Man Dunkel's farmhouse and locked the door.
The Simple Farmboy's cottage had one room, one table, and one window. On the table were one spoon, one fork, and one knife. On the wall was one hook, and on the hook he hung his only hat. But even so, life was too complicated for the Simple Farmboy. He told Old Man Dunkel that he wanted to leave the farm and live a simpler life. "I want no walls, only the wind," he said. "I want the sun and stars overhead instead of a roof."
Old Man Dunkel thought this was a ridiculous wish. "You should have a better home," he said. "I will give you a splendid bedroom in my own house."
Old Man Dunkel took the Simple Farmboy to a bedroom with a fancy featherbed, a blanket chest, and a new grandfather clock that chimed the hour and showed the phases of the moon.
"So, what do you think of this room?" asked Old Man Dunkel.
The Simple Farmboy looked around. "It's rectangular," he said.
"What I mean is, wouldn't you love to have it for your own?"
"No thank you," the Simple Farmboy said. "I want fewer things, not more."
Old Man Dunkel owned many things and hoped to own many more. He couldn't understand why anyone would want to have even one thing less. But he said to the Simple Farmboy, "You have been my best worker, and before you go, I want to give you a special gift for your years of hard labor."
The next day, Old Man Dunkel handed the Simple Farmboy a large nugget of pure gold.
"So, what do you think of that?" asked Old Man Dunkel, expecting to be thanked.
"Very heavy!" said the Simple Farmboy. Then, with nothing but the clothes he was wearing, he walked off down the road with the nugget.
The nugget seemed heavier with every step. The Simple Farmboy grew tired of carrying it. Just then, along came a tall man on a beautiful black horse. The animal had five chin hairs, and so did the man.
"Wie bischt du heit?" the Simple Farmboy asked, meaning "How are you today?"
The tall man ignored the question. "Your hat is too big," he said. "It makes your ears bend over like two little old men."
"The hat is just right," said the Simple Farmboy. "My head is too small."
"Where are you from?" asked the man.
"I'm from Old Man Dunkel's. I must have walked a hundred miles and can barely take a another step."
The man could see the Dunkel farm over the next hill, and he figured the person with the bent ears and gold nugget must be very simple. "I might be willing to sell this fine horse," he said.
"Not to me," said the Simple Farmboy. "I have no money."
"I see you are carrying an old rock of some kind," said the man. "I might be willing to trade the horse for that old rock."
"It's awfully heavy," warned the Simple Farmboy as he handed over the gold nugget. But the man seemed delighted as he continued on his way.
The Simple Farmboy was happy to let the horse do the walking. He was even happier to be rid of the heavy nugget. But the horse was slow, stopping to sip water from every puddle along the road. That made the Simple Farmboy thirsty. But he was thirsty for milk, not for muddy water. Just then, along came a girl leading a little goat.
"Does that goat make milk?" asked the Simple Farmboy.
"She doesn't make sauerkraut juice," the girl answered. "By the way, your ears--."
"Yes, I know," said the Simple Farmboy politely. "Would you be interested in trading your little goat for this fine black horse?"
The girl agreed. She climbed upon the big horse and rode off singing happily. The Simple Farmboy led the goat to the cool shade of a tree to milk it.
The Simple Farmboy was about to milk the goat when he realized he didn't have anything to put the milk in. Just then, as luck would have it, a young boy came along with a bucket. He was picking raspberries and putting one berry in the bucket for every twenty that he ate.
"I am in need of a bucket," said the Simple Farmboy. "And I would be happy to trade my little goat for it."
The child had berry juice all over his face and hands. "But there are ten raspberries in the bucket," he said.
"I think I have a solution," the Simple Farmboy said. "Eat the berries and the bucket will be empty again." The child ate the berries, then took the goat's rope and walked off down the road.
The Simple Farmboy returned to the tree with the bucket, then scratched his head. What use was a bucket if he didn't have a goat?
The Simple Farmboy continued on his way with the bucket. Its handle made an annoying squeak with every step he took. So now he was not only tired and thirsty but also angry with the bucket. He was about to throw it in the bushes when he saw an old woman headed very slowly his way.
"Why, I'm guessing you are the Simple Farmboy," she said.
"You have guessed right," he said. He felt pleased that a complete stranger would know him.
"Oh, my goodness!" the old woman cried suddenly. She bent down slowly, her old bones clicking and clacking, to pick up a pebble.
"What do you have there?" asked the Simple Farmboy.
"In my many years I had only seen three of these," said the old woman. "And here's the fourth. A lucky pebble. So long as you hold it tight in your fist, good luck will be yours."
"Well, all I have to swap you is my bucket," said the Simple Farmboy. The old woman thought for a minute, then agreed. And so the trade was made.
The lucky pebble wasn't nearly as heavy as the gold nugget. It weighed almost nothing. But the Simple Farmboy got tired of carrying the pebble tightly in his fist, and he was still shifting it from one hand to the other as the day turned to evening.
Just when the red sun was about to set, the Simple Farmboy spied a pond. The water looked cool and clear. He walked to the pond's edge, put his hands together to make a cup so that he could take a drink. And the lucky pebble fell in with a plop.
"What wonderful luck!" shouted the Simple Farmboy. He shouted so loud that the birds stopped chirping in the trees overhead. "Hooray! I no longer have to carry that stupid pebble around. I'm free, free at last!"
Or, almost free. He still was wearing his one suit of clothes. And the clothes were keeping him from walking into that lovely pond and going for a swim.
The Simple Farmboy knew just what to do to. He took off his clothes and folded them neatly. He placed his hat on top. Then he walked out into the cool, clear pond, happier than he had ever been.
Learning about the Pennsylvania German
world of the Simple Farmboy
This story takes place in southeastern Pennsylvania, where religious groups from Germany and Switzerland continue a way of life that is centuries old. Both the Amish and the Old Order Mennonites still speak the language they brought over from Europe and continue to dress in traditional clothing. Some groups will not use newer forms of technology, including television and computers and motorized vehicles. They travel by horse and buggy, or on bicycles. And they work their fields with animal-drawn plows.
It takes a lot of power to pull a plow through heavy soil. A team of oxen can do the work of a modern tractor, slowly but surely. An ox looks like a milk cow that has spent a lot of time lifting weights in the gym. In fact, an ox is a cow-a male cow, trained from an early age to follow the farmer's commands. Gee means "turn right, haw means "turn left," and of course whoah is used by people to control people, too!
Do you believe in ghosts and evil spirits? Some Pennsylvania German farmers may have. They climbed tall ladders to paint large, circular "hex signs" on their barns, like the three shown here. Hex is Pennsylvania Dutch for "witch," and it is possible that the designs were intended to protect farm animals from witches' spells. But modern historians argue that that the Pennsylvania Germans weren't superstitious, and simply used the symbols as decorations.
The Simple Farmboy's cottage was built of stone, as were many houses and barns in Pennsylvania German country. Stone was a traditional building material of immigrants from southern Germany and Switzerland. It takes time and muscle to lay up stone walls, but the materials were free and also had to be removed from the fields in order to plow. If you visit this region of Pennsylvania, you can see that the buildings change color according to the stones lying under the soil. Traveling from the north, gray stone gives way to a red the color of dry catfood, and then to an odd greenish stone as you approach the Maryland state line.
Pennsylvania Germans often decorated their furniture with simple tulip and heart shapes. Even a simple plaster wall might be patterned with lines and dots of paint, such as the Simple Farmboy's cottage on the previous page. Old Man Dunkel was proud of his clock, with its special dial that shows the changing phases of the moon. Some Pennsylvania German farmers believed that wooden shingles should be nailed to a roof only when the moon is getting smaller (or waning) to prevent these thin pieces of wood from curling up and splitting. And it was said that hogs slaughtered when the moon is growing larger (or waxing) would have the best-tasting meat.
The Simple Farmboy's clothing is similar to that worn by Amish and Old Order Mennonites. In these religious communities, people live simply, and that includes dressing simply. Colors are quiet. Fabrics are practical and durable. And fashions are extremely slow to change. Some groups may even refrain from using buttons on their clothing, preferring the hook-and-loop fasteners that were common before buttons were invented.
The Pennsylvania Germans continue to speak a version of German that they brought over from Europe hundreds of years ago. In Germany, the language has changed over the centuries, just as English has. But in the small, tight Pennsylvania German communities, without radio or television, the way of speaking has been preserved. It has been called an "antique" language. That's why Pennsylvania Germans visiting Germany may have trouble understanding what people are saying.
Have you ever had sauerkraut? This is the German form of fermented cabbage, and the food remains popular with Pennsylvania Germans. In homes without refrigeration, cabbage can be preserved by chopping it up, mixing in salt, and then allowing naturally occurring bacteria to do their work. The bacteria consume the sugars in the cabbage (or kraut, in German) and produce acids that keep other bacteria and molds from rotting the food. Sauerkraut is a good source of vitamin C, and that was especially important in a day when citrus fruits couldn't be shipped long distances to northern states.
In the eighteen hundreds, school-aged children were given the important job of picking wild berries for the family table. Large quantities of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries were eaten fresh and also preserved as "preserves," or jams and jellies, in brilliant colors. Like sauerkraut, these fruits were an important source of vitamin C in a cool climate that couldn't grow oranges, lemons, and grapefruit.
In the old Pennsylvania German folktale on which this story is based, the farmboy is made to seem unintelligent for accepting a magic stone. But we also get the idea that he is wise to trade for simpler and simpler possessions: he understands that we can't find true and lasting happiness with possessions alone, no matter how many we cram into our homes.
The miracle of being alive is all we need to be happy. That is the moral of this folktale. It also is a teaching in religious stories from around the world, including Christian and Muslim and Buddhist traditions.
As the Simple Farmboy takes a dip in the pond, we might think about our own happiest moments. Chances are there have been times when we simply enjoyed the sun's warmth, a cool breeze, a quiet walk, or conversation with a friend. But we go around clutching our own types of magic stones-- wishes for more things, more comfort, more popularity. And if you carry around a lot of wishes, they really can become a heavy load!