Tucked away in the northern corner of Pennsylvania's Bucks County, just beyond comfortable commuting distance from New York City, there is a stretch of country dotted by small towns, many of which are smaller than they were 50 years ago. Between the towns there are gently rolling hills composed largely of red shale which, thank heaven, is usually hidden by second-growth timber or crops. In spots the red shale gives way to yellow clay so impervious to water that swamps exist on the tops of ridges.
If we penetrate this pleasant countryside, traversing its twisting roads lined with miles and miles of old barbed-wire fence, we are apt to get lost. But in doing so, we find ourselves in the heart of the donkey country. If we get lost on just the right roads we will see herds of donkeys grazing on the lush greenery of rolling pastures or nibbling at the tall ragweed festooning the hedgerows. Even in the edges of the same towns where we pause to get directions we are likely to see donkeys in backyards.
Here amid these tranquil scenes there has evolved a gracious mode of living centered around donkeys. It is a calm way of life in which people have turned to donkeys as an antidote for the age of speed. Some donkey owners hitch up their long-eared beauties to natty rigs and drive right through town in defiance of the raucous taunts of speed-crazed motorists. Others are content to sit quietly watching the yearlings at play in the meadow. They all join old Samuel Taylor Coleridge in saying, "Poor little Foal of an oppressed race!/I love the languid patience of thy face."
Among members of the donkey set there are many old customs and traditions—traditions going as far back as seven or eight years. One of these is the ritual attendant upon the birth of each new foal. This is one time when the languid living gives way to a fever pitch of excitement. When the event takes place the lucky owner rushes to the telephone and starts calling other donkey owners in the neighborhood. The news spreads like a prairie fire, as it always does where the party-line telephone system is in vogue.
July 7, 1957
Soon cars, jeeps and station wagons are speeding along the crooked roads, all headed for the same destination. Each vehicle has its quota of children, for where there are donkeys you will always find small fry. The two just seem to belong together. The crowd gathers around the fuzzy arrival. It stands unsteadily beside its dam. Its ears are almost as long as they'll ever be. Its tail has a comical brevity. With large, deep-set eyes it makes its first appraisal of the world. At this point the small donkey's world is composed of a ring of ecstatic members of the donkey set.
They admire the softness of its ears; its tiny, pointed hoofs; the solemn expression on its face. Young donkeys are apt to frisk soon after they are born. Each time it gives the slightest frisk, laughter spreads around the ring. This sort of thing goes on until the wives remember the pot roast burning on the stove, and the husbands realize that even in the good life some work must be done. Reluctantly they depart, avowing that this is the cutest donkey ever foaled.
There are few variations to this ritual, although on one occasion a donkey breeder became so proud over the birth of a frisky foal that he donned a yellow necktie emblazoned with a donkey's picture and went around the neighborhood passing out medium-good cigars.
Members of the donkey set are generally interested in all animals, from hoptoads to spring lambs, but their greatest devotion is displayed toward this ancient beast of burden. Their sentiments in this respect were best phrased by Coleridge when he wrote in another outburst of emotion: "Owls I respect and Jack Asses I love."
Another deep-seated custom down in the donkey country is the donkey-viewing cocktail party. At these functions the guests stroll the spacious lawns chatting freely on subjects related to the raising and enjoyment of donkeys. Both men and women are attired with an eye to dignity and casual comfort; the men featuring trousers and open-necked shirts; the women wearing dresses. Occasionally some man shows up with a necktie or some woman appears in cocktail pants but such examples of bad taste are ignored.
As the guests wander the greensward or lean on the paddock fence to watch the donkeys, it is noticeable that each has latched onto a real Old-fashioned Bucks County Deep-dish Martini. The Deep-dish Martini, with its rich aroma of blended gin and oil of lemon skin, is as traditional as the very donkeys themselves. Built along strong lines, this drink must be taken in the leisurely pace that marks this type of living. It is a large drink, constructed to last out a slow walk to the donkey barn, a period of quiet contemplation of the animals there, and a conversational stroll back. It should be consumed while on the move. Those who sit and gulp seldom rise again.
A recipe for this traditional drink of the donkey set follows:
Pour gin into mixer until wife begins to frown.
Add dry vermouth with great flourish indicating more is going in than actually is.
Sock ice cubes with cracking gadget and dump into mixture.
Stir with long spoon until icy cold.
Strain the mixture into large oldfashioned glass containing one olive.*
Squeeze oil of lemon skin onto surface of drink.
Drop in one smallish piece of ice so drink will remain cool while viewing donkeys.
People from the outside who sometimes are brought to these functions by guests are often mystified. At some point during the afternoon they will sidle up to a donkey owner and say, "Why do you keep donkeys?" A smile of genial tolerance comes over the face of the donkey owner. He takes a deep sip of his Deep-dish, pauses reflectively and finally replies, "Why does anyone keep a Rembrandt painting?"
To really find the answer to this question we must visit some of these old donkey farms and meet some of the donkeys as well as their owners. A prime example is Bonnie Brays Donkey Farm, near Erwinna. Set back from the road amid old shade is the manse, Burro Hall. This charming structure with its front veranda and its back stoop stands beside a babbling brook, although in late summer the brook ceases to babble.
Crossing a bridge over the brook we meet Joseph Meyer, the master of Bonnie Brays. Tall, lean and grinning, he advances toward us with outstretched hand.
"Hello," he says in the easy manner of donkey owners. Soon we are strolling beneath the old shade out toward the barn. The outbuildings of Bonnie Brays include this barn, painted a tasteful red, a corn crib and a hog pen, empty since the donkeys came. On top of the hog pen roosts a lone muscovy duck. The other ducks were gotten rid of because they ate up the garden, but the master has been unable to catch this bird.
"Most elusive duck I've ever seen," he explains.
The Pride of Bonnie Brays
On the way to the barn we are joined by Shirley, the charming wife of the master, who is a great help to her husband in the operation of Bonnie Brays. Rounding a corner of the barn we come upon a wide, sloping pasture enclosed by the traditional barbed-wire fence. Ambling up the field is Jackson, prize jack, or stallion, of Bonnie Brays and sire of the young stock. Jackson is being ridden by Philinda, 9, eldest of the three Meyer daughters. She slides to the ground, and Jackson stands quietly while the master pulls the bridle over his ears.
Jackson is a magnificent animal. Well muscled and with lungs of iron, his color is gray with a dark stripe running the length of his back. Another stripe crosses this one at the shoulders. His face is broad, the eyes large and deep-set. In that face lingers all the wisdom of generations of donkeys. Jackson's eccentricity is that he likes to get through fences. The master seldom is able to keep him fenced for more than two weeks at a time. Jackson will hunt until he finds a loose strand of barbed wire. Then he will set to work, pushing and straining until he has a hole large enough to crawl through.
Meyer built a heavy wooden gate for the barnyard and thought he had Jackson outwitted. The next morning he found the gate unhinged and lying 15 feet away. He replaced the gate, and the next night he saw Jackson poke his head through the gate, lift it off the hinges and then extricate himself without injury, a remarkable feat even for a donkey. Meyer also claims that Jackson will go through the fence and then go right around and open the gate from the outside to let the other donkeys out. But the master is so proud of Jackson that he is apt to embellish somewhat.
Now he gives Jackson some oats as a reward for the ride. At the rattle of the oats bucket a small herd of donkeys comes around the barn. There is Jennie, Mary, Miss Tillie and Kate. Kate is a fawn-colored foal only a month old. The master gives them each a dab of oats just to keep everybody happy. If we are lucky he has already suggested a Deep-dish and we sip the aromatic drinks as we admire the herd.
"Watch!" says Meyer suddenly. Although they have just finished eating, it is obvious the donkeys are beginning to feel their oats. Jackson, holding his head high and braying mightily, charges down the field. His clarion notes serve as a starting gun for the rest of the herd. They take after him in a reckless dash down the pasture, the young stock kicking in high glee; old Jennie moving at a more sedate pace. They disappear over a rise of ground.
"Ears coming over the hill," shouts Meyer. Here they come again, running wild and free. Now speedy young Kate has the lead. On they come; ears high and tails awiggle. They wheel and start running in a circle, making an occasional playful pass at each other with a hind foot. Again they streak down the field, and it is easy to tell how Bonnie Brays got its name.
"They're wonderful," Meyer says, as though musing to himself.
With this pastoral scene in mind we take leave of our charming host and hostess of Bonnie Brays. A few miles away we enter the town of Perkasie, where we pay a call on B. S. Moyer, a small, round man with a round face and a round laugh. Moyer is a man with nine donkeys and a dream. His dream is to hitch up those donkeys in as many different ways and to as many different rigs as he can devise.
"Hitch 'em up and drive 'em," he advises all children who keep donkeys as pets. "You'll have oceans of fun because there is no limit to what you can do with donkeys."
He is ready to prove the latter statement and leads the way to his compact barn at the edge of the frisking lot. Although donkeys have the reputation of being a sedentary species, they become quite frisky under the careful ministrations of the donkey set. First Moyer hitches four small donkeys abreast to a rubber-tired cart. With a shout he is off, the team stepping briskly as he guides them through town traffic. Strangers apply the brakes and stare, but local residents to whom Moyer and his long-eared steeds are a familiar sight, favor him with the smile that one gives to a happy man.
A Matched Team
Back at the barn Moyer hitches up a large, gray donkey to a racing sulky. With a glad "Halloo!" he is off again for another turn through town. Next he hitches a quick-stepping team to a shiny black buckboard and invites one of us for a ride. Soon we feel the joys of riding behind a matched team of lively donkeys: the rush of the breeze, the patter of unshod hooves on the pavement and the envious gaze of machine-age victims.
Next Moyer saddles a large donkey, leaps aboard and is away at a smooth canter. On the return the gait has changed and the rider bounces gaily.
"How do you like this single-foot?" he calls. "I used to carry this one around when he was a baby and look at him now!"
Moyer is eager to show us still more of hitching donkeys but the shadows are beginning to lengthen, and we have more calls to make.
"This is how we have fun around here," he says as we thank him. "I hope you enjoyed it, too."
Our next stop is at the nearby town of Dublin where Elmer Meyers is sure to be fooling around with his donkeys. Uncle Elmer is a huge, hearty man who holds forth in the cool of the evening in a rocking chair beside his barn. There he receives the families who come to look at his stock. Uncle Elmer believes that the future for donkeys lies in the production of smaller animals adaptable to the small plots surrounding modern homes. He is almost fanatic on the subject.
"Breed to that small stuff, man," he says. "It's the coming thing in donkeys."
Uncle Elmer shows us Minnie, his pride and joy. Minnie stands only 32 inches at the shoulder and is heavy with foal. Her last offspring seemed hardly bigger than a jack rabbit. In the corral next to Minnie there is a tiny pony stallion, even smaller than Minnie. After Minnie has her foal Uncle Elmer plans to breed her to this pint-size stallion. His aim is to produce the world's smallest mule.
This has caused considerable difference of opinion among members of the donkey set. Some feel that donkeys should be bred only in their pristine purity. Others side with Uncle Elmer, holding that breeding the world's smallest mule would be something of an achievement.
Leaving Uncle Elmer at his chores, we head back into the hills. Now and again we pass an establishment where only one or two donkeys graze with horses. This represents the fringe element, those who try to squeeze into the donkey set by acquiring a single animal. At last we come upon another true donkey farm with a stone house standing amid young shade. Donkey owners lean toward either young shade or old shade. This establishment is known simply as The Swamps, a name suggested by the nearby wetlands.
One distinctive aspect of The Swamps is great gray boulders rising in the lawn and fields. The original settlers had a lazy habit of removing only the smaller rocks. Instead of taking out the big ones they plowed around them, a custom that is followed to this day.
At this point I must admit that this is my donkey farm and that I am a confirmed member, a leader, in fact, of the donkey set. Here at The Swamps we see more yearlings grazing beyond the old barbed-wire fence. We see Cookie, foundation dam of the herd, and Mr. Bones, a month-old jack and one of the friskiest donkeys on record.
The children bring Mr. Bones out, and he begins to tear around, leaping boulders with reckless abandon. He charges into a mass of snapdragons, and Gladys, the lady of The Swamps, yells, "Get out of that flower bed, you!" The children just laugh, for to them there is no lovelier sight than a young donkey cavorting amid snapdragons.
Evening shadows find us sitting in a group on the lawn dawdling over a last Deep-dish. We chuckle over the time a fat woman almost fainted upon seeing her first donkey. With cheerful tolerance we recall the jibes of the slaves to the speed craze; like the time when Moyer was driving his four donkeys only to have a man lean out of a big automobile and yell, "Look at the five jackasses!"
Members of the donkey set take such taunts in their stride. They know they have found the good life and they know donkeys to be creatures of noble nature. They all join Sam Coleridge in the sentiments he expressed when he wrote, "I hail thee Brother—spite of the fool's scorn!"
*Some prefer using same olive for a second drink. To try it a third time is dangerous.