Mistress Esteem Elliott's Molasses Cake

by Kate Upson Clark

The Story of a Postponed Thanksgiving
Older boys and girls who are familiar with "The Courtship of Miles Standish" will enjoy the colonial flavour of this tale of 1705.
"OBED!" called Mistress Achsah Ely from her front porch, "step thee over to Squire Belding's, quick! Here's a teacup! Ask Mistress Belding for the loan of some molasses. Nothing but molasses and hot water helps the baby when he is having such a turn of colic. Beseems me he will have a fit! Make haste, Obed!"

At that very moment Squire Belding's little daughter Hitty was travelling toward Mistress Ely's for the purpose of borrowing molasses wherewith to sweeten a ginger cake. Hitty and Obed, who were of an age, met, compared notes, and then returned to their respective homes. Shortly afterward both of them darted forth again, bound on the same errands as before, only in different directions.

Mr. Chapin, the storekeeper, hadn't "set eyes on any molasses for a week. The river's frozen over so mean and solid," he said, "there's no knowing when there'll be any molasses in town."

There had been very peculiar weather in Colchester during this month of October, 1705. First, on the 13th (Old Style), an unprecedently early date, had come a "terrible cold snap," lasting three days. This was followed by two days of phenomenal mildness. The river had frozen over during the "cold snap," and the ice had melted during the warm days, until, on the 19th, it was breaking up and preparing to go out to sea. In the night of the 19th had descended a frigid blast, colder than the original one. This had arrested the broken ice, piled it up in all sorts of fantastic forms, and congealed it till it looked like a rough Alaskan glacier. After the cold wind had come a heavy snowstorm. All Colchester lay under three feet of snow. Footpaths and roads were broken out somewhat in the immediate village, but no farther. It was most unusual to have the river closed so early in the season, and consequently the winter supplies, which were secured from New London and Norwich, had not been laid in. Even Mr. Chapin, the storekeeper, was but poorly supplied with staples of which he ordinarily kept an abundance on hand.

Therefore when Obed and Hitty had made the tour of the neighbourhood they found but one family, that of Deacon Esteem Elliott, the richest man in the place, which had any molasses. Mistress Elliott, in spite of her wealth, was said to be "none too free with her stuff," and she was not minded to lend any molasses under the circumstances, for "a trifling foolish" cake. Obed's representation of the distress of the Ely baby, however, appealed even to her, and she lent him a large spoonful of the precious liquid.

That afternoon there was as much visiting about among the Colchester housewives as the drifts permitted. Such a state of things had never been known since the town was settled. No molasses! And Thanksgiving appointed for the first Thursday in November! Pray what would Thanksgiving amount to, they inquired, with no pumpkin pies, no baked beans, no molasses cake, no proper sweetening for the rum so freely used in those days?

Mistress Esteem Elliott was even more troubled than the rest of Colchester, for was not her buxom daughter, and only child, Prudence Ann, to be married on Thanksgiving Day to the son of a great magnate in the neighbouring town of Hebron? And was it not the intention to invite all of the aristocracy of both towns to be present at the marriage feast?

Mistress Elliott accordingly pursued her way upon this Tuesday afternoon, October 19, 1705, over to Mistress Achsah Ely's. There she found Mistress Belding, who, remembering Mistress Elliott's refusal to lend her molasses, was naturally somewhat chill in her manner.

Mistress Elliott had scarcely pulled off her homespun leggings (made with stout and ample feet) and pulled out her knitting work, when Mistress Camberly, the parson's wife, a lady of robust habit and voluble tongue, came in.

"And what are we going to do, Mistress Ely?" she burst out, as soon as the door was opened at her knock. "Not a drop of molasses to be had for love nor money, and Thanksgiving Day set for the 4th of November!"

"Mistress Elliott has a-plenty of molasses," affirmed Mistress Belding, with a haughty look at her unaccommodating neighbour.

"I'd have you to know, Mistress Betty Belding," retorted Mistress Elliott, "that I have a bare quart or so in my jug, and, so far as I can learn, that is all that the whole town of Colchester has got to depend upon till the roads or the river can be broken to Norwich."

Mistress Ely well understood this little passage-at-arms, for Obed had told her the whole story; but as her baby had been cured by Mistress Elliott's molasses, she did not think it proper to interfere in the matter. Neither did the good parson's wife, although she could not comprehend the rights of the case. She simply repeated her first question: "What are we going to do about it, I should like to know?"

"I wonder if Thanksgiving Day could not be put off a week," suggested Mistress Belding, who had a good head, and was even reported to give such advice to her husband that he always thought best to heed it.

"Such a thing was never heard of!" cried Mistress Elliott.

"But there's no law against it," insisted Mistress Belding boldly. "By a week from the set day there will surely be some means of getting about the country, and then we can have a Thanksgiving that's worth the setting down to."

After a long talk the good women separated in some doubt, but as Squire Belding and Mr. Ely were two of the three selectmen, they were soon acquainted with the drift of the afternoon's discussion. The result of it all is thus chronicled in the town records of Colchester:

"At a legal town-meeting held in Colchester, October 29, 1705, it was voted that WHEREAS there was a Thanksgiving appointed to be held on the first Thursday in November, and our present circumstances being such that it cannot with convenience be attended on that day, it is therefore voted and agreed by the inhabitants as aforesaid (concluding the thing will not be otherwise than well resented) that the second Thursday of November aforesaid shall be set aside for that service."

This proceeding was, on the whole, as the selectmen had hoped that it would be, "well resented" among the Colchester people, but there was one household in which there was rebellion at the mandate. In the great sanded kitchen of Deacon Esteem Elliott pretty, spoilt Prudence Ann was fairly raging over it.

"I had set my heart on being married on Thanksgiving Day," she sobbed. "And here it won't be Thanksgiving Day at all! And as for putting off a wedding, everybody knows there is no surer way of bringing ill luck down than that! I say I won't have it put off! But we can't have any party with no molasses in town! Oh, dear! I might as well be married in the back kitchen with a linsey gown on, as if I were the daughter of old Betty, the pie woman! There!"

Then the proud girl would break into fresh sobs, and vow vengeance upon the selectmen of Colchester. She even sent her father to expostulate with them, but it was of no use. They had known all along that the Elliotts did not want the festival day put off, but nobody in Colchester minded very much if the Elliotts were a little crossed.

Prudence Ann would not face the reality till after the Sabbath was past. On that day the expectant bridegroom managed to break his way through the drifts from Hebron, and he was truly grieved, as he should have been, at the very unhappy state of mind of his betrothed. He avowed himself, however, in a way which augured well for the young people's future, ready to do just what Prudence Ann and her family decided was best.

On Monday morning Mistress Elliott sat down with her unreasonable daughter and had a serious talk with her.

"Now, Prudence Ann," she began, "you must give up crying and fretting. If you are going to be married on Thursday, we have got a great deal of work to do between now and then. If you are going to wait till next week, I want to know it. Of course you can't have a large party, if you choose to be married on the 4th, but we will ask John's folks and Aunt Susanna and Uncle Martin and Parson Camberley and his wife. We can bake enough for them with what's in the house. If you wait another week, you can probably have a better party—and now you have it all in a nutshell."

Prudence Ann was hysterical even yet, but at last her terror of a postponed wedding overcame every other consideration. The day was set for the 4th, and the few guests were bidden accordingly.

On the morning of the wedding, on a neat shelf in the back kitchen of the Elliott residence, various delicacies were resting, which had been baked for the banquet. Mistress Elliott's molasses had sufficed to make a vast cake and several pumpkin pies. These, hot from the oven, had been placed in the coolness of the back kitchen until they should be ready for eating.

It so happened that Miss Hitty Belding's sharp eyes, as she passed Mistress Elliott's back door, bound on an errand to the house of the neighbour living just beyond, fell upon the rich golden brown of this wonderful cake. As such toothsome dainties were rare in Colchester at just this time, it is not strange that her childish soul coveted it, for Hitty was but ten years old. As she walked on she met Obed Ely.

"I tell you what, Obed," said Miss Hitty, "you ought to see the great molasses cake which Mistress Elliott has made for Prudence Ann's wedding. It is in her back kitchen. I saw it right by the door. Mean old thing! She wouldn't lend my mother any molasses to make us a cake. I wish I had hers!"

"So do I!" rejoined Obed, with watering lips. "I'm going to peek in and see it."

Obed went and "peeked," while Hitty sauntered slowly on. The contemplation of the cake under the circumstances was too much for even so well-brought-up a boy as Obed. Without stopping to really think what he was doing, he unwound from his neck his great woollen "comforter," wrapped it hastily around the cake, and was walking with it beside Hitty in the lonely, drifted country road five minutes later. The hearts of the two little conspirators—for they felt guilty enough—beat very hard, but they could not help thinking how good that cake would taste. A certain Goodsir Canty's cornhouse stood near them in a clump of trees beside the road, and as the door was open they crept in, gulped down great "chunks" of cake, distributed vast slices of what was left about their persons, Obed taking by far the lion's share, and then they parted, vowing eternal secrecy. Nobody had seen them, and something which happened just after they had left Mistress Eliott's back kitchen directed suspicion to an entirely different quarter.

Not two minutes after Obed's "comforter" had been thrown around the great cake a beautiful calf, the pride of Mistress Elliott's heart, and which was usually kept tied in the barn just beyond the back kitchen, somehow unfastened her rope and came strolling along past the open back door. The odour of the pumpkin pies naturally interested her, and she proceeded to lick up the delicious creamy filling of one after another with great zest.

Just as she was finishing the very last one of the four or five which had stood there, Mistress Elliott appeared upon the scene, to find her precious dainties faded like the baseless fabric of a vision, leaving behind them only a few broken bits of pie crust. A series of "short, sharp shocks" (as described in "The Mikado") then rent the air, summoning Prudence Ann and Delcy, the maid, to the scene of the calamity. Let us draw a veil over the succeeding ten minutes.

At the end of that time Prudence Ann lay upon the sitting-room lounge (or "settle," as they called it then) passing from one fainting fit into another, and Delcy was out in search of the doctor and such family friends as were likely to be of service in this unexpected dilemma. It was, of course, supposed that the calf had devoured the whole of the mighty cake as well as the pies. It was lucky for Obed and Hitty that the poor beast could not speak. As it was, nobody so much as thought of accusing them of the theft, though there were plenty of crumbs in their pockets, while the death of the innocent heifer was loudly demanded by the angry Prudence Ann. It was only by artifice and diplomacy that Mistress Elliott was able to preserve the life of her favourite, which, if it had really eaten the cake, must surely have perished.

The wedding finally came off on the 4th, though there was a pouting bride, and nuts, apples, and cider were said to be the chief refreshments. Prudence Ann, however, probably secured the "good luck" for which she was so anxious, for there is no record nor tradition to the contrary in all Colchester.

Nothing would probably ever have been known of the real fate of the famous cake if the tale had not been told by Mistress Hitty in her old age to her grandchildren, with appropriate warnings to them never to commit similar misdemeanours themselves.

Little Obed Ely, the active agent in the theft, died not long after it. His tombstone, very black and crumbled, stands in one of the old burying grounds of the town, but nothing is carved upon it as to the cause of his early death.

The story of the Colchester molasses famine, and the consequent postponement of their Thanksgiving, naturally spread throughout all the surrounding towns. It was said that in one of these a party of roguish boys loaded an old cannon with molasses and fired it in the direction of Colchester. How they did this has not been stated, and some irreverent disbelievers in the more uncommon of our grandfathers' stories have profanely declared it a myth.