John Caughey, a New England Centenarian, Part One
Only one American in six thousand lives to the century mark. Fewer than that make it in style.
John Caughey, my maternal grandfather, did.
Born on 7 March 1874 to hardy Yankee stock, he attended a one-room schoolhouse commanded by a stern lady the kids privately called “Old Piecrust.” His first job was making wheels for horse-drawn wagons, but he found better pay as a stone mason and then a contractor with as many as 50 men in his crew, building fine homes all over New England. He did most of the stonework himself—granite chimneys, slate patios, stone bridges, mortar-less field stone walls. After years of strenuous ten-hour workdays, he would have laughed at the idea of gym membership. He was not a big man, never weighing more than 160 pounds, but he was strong, and he earned a wide reputation for quality work and iron honesty. Living in Waltham, Massachusetts, he fathered and well supported five children who all turned out fine. I’m one of his fortunate 15 grandchildren. If he had not fathered my mother, I would not even be here.
Early in his career he built a stone bridge for a man who wanted it to support one horse and buggy. Several decades later he happened to be doing another job for a different owner of the same estate and watched as a loaded concrete truck crossed the old bridge. “Told the man I’d built it,” he said, “after that truck got across.” In 1949, at 74, he married a wise and funny lady named Hattie, having lost his first wife in 1946. Also in 1949, he helped my father build our house on a hillside in the village of Williamsburg. I was eleven when I watched him chisel and fit the granite blocks that cover the front, and set the mortared chimney from salvaged cobblestones, and choose and place the field stones for a dry ten-foot-high driveway retaining wall that has not budged an inch since. I remember his patience and the perfection he demanded of himself as he measured and cut with his self-sharpened hand saws the studs and joists and rafters. I remember his rough hands, the split nails and callused fingers covered with granite dust, hands that could whittle a fine sliding willow whistle for me while he ate sparingly from a black tin lunch pail.
He set his last stone at 86. He and Hattie traveled a bit and laughed a lot for a happy time. Then, at 88 and twice widowed, he took up a new career, patiently teaching himself over months and years to create fine oil paintings in the rustic studio he built near Antrim, New Hampshire, using the rough side of inexpensive Masonite to simulate canvas, and framing his scenes in natural weathered silver oak. Soon people sought him out to buy his work. In his early nineties he began taking on commissions. As a special project he decided to paint scenes of as many aging covered bridges as he could as a way of preserving them and he had me drive him all over two states and take photos he could work from. He called them kissin’ bridges, perhaps remembering a time or two he’d stopped his buggy in the shade of one for some nineteenth-century romancing. I wrote an article about him for New Hampshire Profiles magazine.
He’d built a 40-foot clock tower of brick and granite in 1942 for the Canton, Mass., School for Crippled Children, who took to calling him Uncle John, and that’s how he chose to sign his paintings.
His secrets for longevity? Like the rare doctor who managed to get a look at him, I can only guess. He worked hard in all seasons, as was the normal and expected New England custom back then, never smoked or took a drink, did not believe in doctors or their medicines with all their harmful side effects, ate a bit of everything for nutrition and not for recreation, and though always mild mannered and never stressed from worry, he had an infernal stubborn streak. Well into his later years he retained a full shock of white hair and a mustache, used only a magnifying glass to read more easily, and took daily walks through the woods in search of saplings he could whittle into canes and sell to “old duffers,” though his own cane, awarded by town officials for being the oldest guy around, hung unused on a wall. He split his own firewood to heat the studio.
One night in his hundred and third year, he went to sleep and did not wake up. But for me and the thousands of others he touched throughout a century his passing changed nothing. He’s still an ineradicable part of us all.
One of his paintings, a fine winter scene with a horse-drawn buggy, a red barn, snow-laden conifers, and a frozen brook, hangs in our dining room.
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