You hear about podcasts all the time now.
Everyone listens to podcasts.
You might be talking to a friend
about how to split wood, and he would be like, “Yeah man, I just heard a podcast on the bluetooth in
my truck the other day, about how to split wood. It was cool man.”
I suppose that’s all very well and good, but here’s the deal. Everyone (except me of course) throws
around the term “podcast” like they actually know what it means.
Which, of course, they don’t. (except for me, of course) And except for you, too, now, because I am about to share with you the results of some of my historical research on podcasts.
You see, I have a lot of time to think while I am driving truck, and one day I started thinking about podcasts–what they are, why they are a thing, who makes them, who listens to them, etc.
So when I was sitting at the Seattle docks, waiting to be unloaded, I poked around the internet on my smartphone in an endeavor to find out more about podcasts—what they were, why they were a thing, who made them, who listened to them, that kind of thing.
I learned some very interesting facts and history in the process, and here’s the thing…
Podcasts originally had nothing to do with listening to someone of questionable intelligence spouting
off about something random just because he has nothing better to do and has watched a couple youtube
videos on the subject.
Podcasts are, however, a purely American invention. Back in the mid to late 1700’s, when the British
and the colonists were still drinking tea together, and assuming all was quiet on the frontier, Jared Armstrong (incidentally a great great grandsire of Neil Armstrong) took his wife and his family and packed them into a wagon and hauled them up from Virginia to the wilderness country of the then as
yet largely unsettled land of Maine.
Jared was, in many respects, also a pioneer…always living on the edge of civilization, always experimenting with new things (he invented a minature solar-powered tobacco-dryer at one point shortly before he left Virginia, but that’s another story), and always wanted to be the first in anything possible.
Thus, instead of settling in one of the other sparse communities in the wilderness of Maine, he found a
beautiful little valley about 80 miles from any other settlement and built himself a farm.
It was a beautiful valley; well watered, rich soil, and with a deep river that cut through the the middle of it; and as a result, when, in the next few years and months, whenever later pioneers finally made the pass and looked down on the valley where Jared’s smoke was visible, they too decided on that little valley to
In about five years, there was a fairly large community in Armstrong Valley, the families there often getting together for barn raisings and quiltings and horse races.
Three years after Jared first laid eyes on
the valley, he organized the first county fair in Armstrong Valley, which was slightly ironic, seeing as how there was not yet actually a county, or even a state, in the Maine territory.
At some point during the third afternoon of the fair, things turned slow.
Most of the contests were over.
Most of the cotton candy had been eaten.
The horse races and the foot races and the three-legged sack races were all over.
About the only thing that remained on the agenda was a final singing in the
evening, which most families were waiting around for.
The prize-winning pie and the prize-winning cake had been eaten, the prize-winning jam had been spread on the prize-winning bread and been eaten, too.
This next portion of the story does get a little complicated, I admit. There were two or three different sources that argued about the name and nationality of the man who began it all, and I spent many hours in the dusty archives of the Armstrong Public Library, when I would much rather have been out hiking
in the valley. I did get time the next day to hike, but that’s also another story.
Anyway, from what I could tell of what seemed to be the most reliable account, Azekial Pardervski, a Polish immigrant who had arrived in Armstrong Valley about a year after the Armstrong family, was lying in the grass under one of the giant gray oaks across from the dusty race track, playing aimlessly with a peapod that was left over from his wife’s basket lunch, and kind of flipped it with his fingers and wrist in such a way that it landed about 20 yards away.
Pardervski, according to legend, leaped up with surprising agility for such a warm slow August afternoon and shouted, “Eureki! Dida ye viewify that!?!”
Incidentally, two other men had been gazing in the same general direction at the same general time, and so Azekial Pardervski has gone down in Maine historical lore as the instigator of the peapod-flipping contest. (some argue it was an Italian man named Antonio Piscuitto)
Having nothing better to do, several of the men came around the Perdervski picnic basket to try their hand at peapod-flipping.
“Now see ye here!” Azekial is credited with saying as they came crowding round. “I only got about five o’ them things left and I entend to et at leest three of em. If you’re so all-fired to try yer hand and flippin peapods, you come down to the farm tomorrow afternoon where them peas is growin and we’ll have us a contest o’ sorts.”
They agreed this was a good idea, and so the next afternoon began, according to old newspaper accounts, the longstanding Maine tradition of peapod flippin practice. It was not long before even the most remote hamlets in Maine had their own local pod flippin hero, and by 1760, most county fairs in Maine had a peapod flippin contest.
After 1762, I couldn’t find any particular mention of the contest, although it was of a surety still a common occurrence, for by 1772, Snowham County in upper New York posted its first notice of a “contest wherein individuals sound in minde and bodee shall interact in casting a dried peapod of no more than six inches length as far from himself as he might”.
The winner was to take home the greased pig, so I have to assume that the pod contest was not only one of the last contests held on any given day at the fair, but also that said greased pig was caught.
Curiously enough, even though by then there were obviously rules laid down for the pod contest, evidenced by the strict mention of length, it was not until 1781, by which time the popular event had made its way down to Virginia (quite near, incidentally, Mount Vernon, although it is not known if Geo. Washington ever involved himself in such. He may still have been planting cherry trees…), that in Pontiac County, in its fair of September 1781, that it was actually first called a “podcast”.
Although I drove clear down to Sumpter, Tennessee, a couple weeks later, not only on the quest for how far south the podcast tradition had spread, but also hunting for remnants of the Great Carpet Hoax (to be shared in another post), I was unable to find any mention or even knowledge of podcasts anywhere in the southern Appalachians, and from the resources I studied, it is generally presumed that the Revolutionary War interrupted things enough that it never quite made its way past Virginia.
Indeed, it died out to some degree even there by about 1811, and although I know of a certainty that podcasts were still ongoing in the northeast states, hardly a mention of them was made again until 1924.
This in the form of then-Senator Fowle Wilkins (great great grandson of Nile Wilkins, inventor of the pie iron), who in August of that year sent a letter to President Calvin Coolidge, inviting him to come up to the Wilkins homestead for an old-fashioned hometown party, as the president had seemed ‘over-bored and dreary’ at the last session of Congress. A ‘podcast might just be the thing to liven you up, sir’, penned Fowle Wilkins.
Apparently, the president did just that, for in a 1925 letter to his niece in South Carolina, President Coolidge wrote, “and I had a very heartening time last Fall in Maine, at Senator Wilkins’ hometown, where we engaged in something called a ‘podcast’ which the inhabitants there are very fond of.’
He noted, “I was not too bad myself, making a cast fully as far as that of Senator Wilkins, and almost as far as his father’s. I am somewhat enamored with, and in no little surprise still, that the old gentleman was still so spry.”
However, life moved on, Wall Street crashed, and little more was seen publicly of podcasts.
After tracing that podcast, in Lampshire, Maine, in 1924; finding a record of it the Lampshire Weekly Shade, and finding records of several more the same year, in several of the upper northeast states, I had to leave.
For a few weeks, research was off; I had some long hauling days which required my presence back home; but once the last load of pipes was at its destination, Boss said I could have a few days off, and I promptly booked tickets back east to Maine.
Right before I had left last time, I had had the good fortune to run into an old bearded man at the grocery store.
His long fingers, clearly used to hard work, were clasped around a carton of fresh peas, in the pod.
I had been grabbing some other vegetables for supper, had glanced over and seen him, and at on the spur of the moment, edged over to him and asked him in a very random tone, “Hey did you ever do podcasts?”
The old man looked at me for a long moment, then said, “Well, sonny, you didn’t just ‘do’ podcasts. There’s a sciance and an hart to podcasting, and when I was young, we was champeens on podcastin’, and it were one of the best ways to spend a free afternoon.”
He glanced down at the carton of peas, and then added, “we was pod-casters, son!” There was a glint in his eye as he looked at me.
Well, I was naturally intrigued, and we ended up having supper together at the little Rooster Inn and Dine across the street from the grocery store, and it was there I learned that he was originally from Nebraska, had grown up on a farm, and his whole family, neighbors, and a large part of the surrounding county had all been avid pod-casters.
I was so eager to head to Nebraska after that, I forgot to ask how he had ended up in Maine….I called him at the number he gave me and left a message asking him, but that is another story.
Anyway, after researching at several more libraries through pages of old newspapers throughout rural Maine, I rented a car and drove down through Vermont, New Hampshire, upstate New York, and eastern Pennsylvania, finding occasional notices of county pod-casts up until about 1940. Then they seemed to disappear.
I flew then to Omaha and took a train out to Willow Springs, Nebraska, and rented a room at a small Airbnb from a little old lady, who, incidentally, had known the old man I had met in Maine, and had at one point been in fierce competition with him.
“Hehehehe!” she cackled, rocking back in her chair faster and faster as she recalled the “good ole days”.
“Me and Clim was at it, side by side, throwin’ them peapods as fast as we could grab ’em outa the baskets beside us. He was a faster caster, but my aim was better. Hehehe!”
She stopped laughing abruptly and said, “You know, young man, if more kids these days spent more time podcasting, there would be more healthy kids and a lot of good clean fun, none of this video game stuff.” She shook her head in disgust.
“Why, back when I was one of the top podcasters, it got so I could hardly walk down through this neighborhood without getting hit by several pea pods from aspiring little casters, they would throw so many! Hehehe.”
She wiped her eyes. “I think their mommas were kind of mad at them, no one could hardly make a dish with peas, they was all on the sidewalk!”
Although, from my research and general observations, I had a couple theories as to why the traditional podcasts had died out (the advent of the supermarket played a large part) I was curious if it had been from the same causes in her area, so I asked her what happened, why did they stop pod-casting, and why did she stop?
She looked at me seriously for a long time. “Well, a lot of people left town about 1934, there was too many dust storms. We couldn’t make crops anymore. Not even peas. Then the war came, and everyone got busy. After that, it was all cars and housing developments and supermarkets.”
She sighed a little. A far off look crept into her eye. “So how is Clim?” she asked, abruptly changing the subject.
“Fine, I guess,” I stammered, a little taken aback. I glanced down at my notes. “Are there any other areas that you remember hearing about that held pod-casting events? Near here, or in other states?”
She laughed at me. “I don’t know!” she chuckled. “Our life was in our town. Who knows about others!” She leaned back in her chair and then sat up straight.
“Except for my Great-Aunt Myrtle. She lived in Minnesota, and if I remember right, where she lived, they had a county fair pod-cast every year, and her son won the pod-cast champeenship one year.”
This rather surprised me, as up to now, I had found no traces to Minnesota.
However, she couldn’t remember Great-Aunt Myrtle’s last name, nor the town or county in which she had lived.
I gave her my phone number and asked her if she would please call me if she ever remembered it.
She said she would, and the next day I flew back to Oregon. It was only after I landed in Portland I realized she had never actually told me why she herself had stopped.
Come to think of it, the old man in Maine had seemed to avoid that question too.
Maybe someday I will learn more about the Minnesota podcasts, for they, from what she could tell me, along with the Nebraskan ones, seemed to have been a bit more intense and less scholarly than the ones in the east. Pages of notes still remain to be looked over again, but for now I need to get back to work.
However, there is a connection from those olden podcasts to the ones these days.
About six or seven years ago, some techy vegan dude in San Francisco started doing online podcasts, which have nothing to do with peas; it’s usually someone rambling about something in particular, or, as is often the case, nothing in particular.
Said someones may or may not have college degrees or exact training in the area they are rambling about, so I would be careful about believing much of anything you hear on modern online podcasts.
Rumor has it that this techy vegan dude was eating peapods, with ranch dip, one afternoon in his office, brainstorming with his team on what to call these cool new recorded talking bits, when a pea pod randomly flipped out of his hand and landed on his team mate’s desk.
They all haw-hawwed about it for awhile, “dude, look how far you cast that pod!”, that sort of thing, and apparently it was enough for the techy vegan dude to leap out of his chair exclaiming, “Eureka! We’ll call them podcasts!”
And so the podcast continues.
Perhaps he is Great-Aunt Myrtle’s great-great-grandson, I don’t know.