34. Stone Fence

5 Oct

“Connecticut has 50,000 miles of stone fence, and a great deal, too, that is measured by the gallon.”

Cincinnati Commercial Gazette; reprinted in “Sparkling and Bright”, New York Times, 28 April 1888.

“May I ask,” I inquired when my feeling of nerve-tension had vanished, and I felt as if I were treading thin air, “just what is in a stone fence?”

“Well, what do you think?” he asked slyly.

“I think the very devil is in it,” I replied.

“Well, mebby,” he admitted. “It’s two-thirds hard cider and one-third whisky. It’s a healthy, hearting drink and yet it had a leetle come back to it—a sort o’ kick, you know.”

— Belle Kaniris Maniates, Our Next-Door Neighbors (Boston: Little and Brown, 1917), p. 118

One of the most venerable of all American mixed drinks, the stone fence is as old as the nation itself. According to Washington Irving’s satirical history of New York (although the remark does not appear in the original 1809 edition), it was the bibulous colonists of Maryland who, when they weren’t enjoying mint juleps and apple toddies, laid claim “to be the first inventors of those recondite beverages, cock-tail, stone-fence, and sherry cobbler” (A History of New York [New York: Puttnam, 1853], p. 395). And the tipple had already caught the attention of the British traveller Frederick Marryat on his visit to the young republic in the late 1830s. “To run up the whole catalogue of the indigenous compounds in America,” the good captain observed, quite correctly, “from ‘iced water’ to a ‘stone fence’, or ‘streak of lightning’, would fill a volume” (A Diary in America, vol. 1 [London: Longman, 1839], p. 112). (Iced water! Still a thing of wonder to many in the British Isles.) The name supposedly derives from the “fact that the man who drank it was likely to seek the lea of a stone fence to sleep off his potation” (Farm Journal, vol. 37 [1913], p .104), but in some parts of the country it was also known, rather ominously, as “kill-devil”. That makes perfect sense, since its effects resemble those of an exorcism, but the brew works just as well on the better angels of our nature. Incidentally, this refreshing draught should not be confused with the similarly time-honoured “stone wall”, which combines whiskey (or brandy) and soda water.

Unsurprisingly, given the antiquity of the stone fence, a recipe for it is included in the first published bar manual, Jerry Thomas’ How to Mix Drinks (1862). Originally, this cobweb-clearer consisted of cider laced with rum or applejack; at some point in the nineteenth century, however, whiskey or brandy began to be used instead, and Thomas’ formula bears witness to the change:

Take 1 wine-glass [2 oz.] of Bourbon or rye whiskey.

2 or 3 small lumps of ice.

Fill up the glass with sweet cider.

 Sweet cider? That’s odd. In America, sweet cider is a non-alcoholic beverage, more or less apple juice. Is that what Thomas means here (rather than “sweet cider” in the British sense)? Most subsequent bar manuals simply state “cider”, and other contemporary descriptions explicitly mention “hard cider”. As so often in life, the harder the better.

There’s disagreement, too, about what glass to use. Thomas specifies a “large bar-glass”; Thomas Stuart says “whisky glass”(Stuart’s Fancy Drinks [New York: Excelsior, 1904], p. 68) and James C. Maloney recommends a champagne glass (The 20th-Century Guide for Mixing Fancy Drinks [Chicago: no pub., 1900], p. 46). The latter is obviously ridiculous: the stone fence is a simple drink, the drink of New England farmers, and a simple glass will do. On this matter Thomas is indisputably correct.

The stone fence is, as I’ve already suggested, powerful stuff; it’s wastes little time in getting to know you better. This humorous poem is spot on:

Mingling of rural cider

With metropolitan whiskey,

Why dost thou make thy devotees

So most uncommonly frisky?

Child of the country meadows,

Child of the harvest field,

Why dost though make thy imbiber’s legs

Like a broken-back hinge to yield?

— “Hugo Dusenbury”, Puck, vol. 15 (7 May 1884), p. 147.

Let’s close with an obscure American political joke about the twenty-third President of the United States, Benjamin Harrison:

The reception of the news of Mr. Harrison’s renomination recalls an incident of the day in 1888, when the long convention of that year in this city came to an end. The Times’s correspondent happened to be in the lobby of the Grand Pacific Hotel a few minutes after the announcement of the nomination of Mr. Harrison was made. A man elbowed his way through an excited crowd surrounding an Indiana man, who had mounted a chair and was making a speech.

“Who’s nominated? Who’s nominated?” he shouted.

“Ben Harrison,” answered somebody.

“Hooray! Hoorah! Shouted the new-comer. We’ll take the hard cider of his grandfather’s campaign and the free whisky plank in this one, and that’ll make stone fence. Hooray! Hoorah!”

— “Chicago Took it Coolly”, New York Times, 11 June 1892.

Geddit? No? Well, Harrison’s grandfather was William Henry Harrison, the ninth president (and incidentally the man who holds the record for the shortest time spent in office: he died 32 days into his term, after contracting pneumonia during his inauguration speech). In the 1840 election the elder Harrison, who ran as a Whig, embraced the (false) image of him as an elderly frontiersman, the “log cabin and hard cider candidate”, and successfully used both log cabin and cider as campaign symbols to connect with the common man. In 1891 the younger Harrison had infamously been gifted a barrel of Dewar’s whiskey by Andrew Carnegie; the president was criticized by the press for favouring a foreign brand of whiskey and not American bourbon or rye. Cider + whiskey = stone fence. Rimshot.

From: Isaac Rand Jackson, A Sketch of the Life and Services of General William Henry Harrison (Washington City: Jacob Gideon, Jr., 1840), p. 16.

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