I met Red Prouty when he was almost sixty and we remained good friends
next thirty odd years. Born Thornton Prouty in Hardwick, Massachussetts
1901, Red managed to live without gainful employment for all but seven
eventual ninety years. He worked at the Barre Wool Combing Company from
until 1942, a year long remembered in town for its violent labor
There were two major immigrant groups in Barre, the Irish who occupied
housing on the south side and the Italians who lived in the cluster of
wood shingled houses known affectionately as the Spaghetto. There was
lost between the two groups to start with. The Irish were the newcomers
to escape the desperate poverty of their native isle. When the Italians
to strike, there wasn't an Irishman among them. When the Irishmen (and
Prouty) tried to cross picket lines, all Hell broke loose. Somewhere in
melee, shots rang out and Red decided that his dedication to Mr. Morton
chairman of the board of the Barre Wool Combing Co., was not worth the
life or limb. Thus ended Thornton (Red) Prouty's working career.
He played the piano and had an old upright, which he tuned himself, in
shack in Old Furnace, Mass. He said that in all other respects his
shack in Florida
and that he didn't need a piano there because those southern folks
hear his banjo better anyhow.
He had in his Old Furnace residence, a Harmony guitar, a five-string
which he played in a traditional 3 fingered clawhammer style, and a
which he first played when he was a boy and had all his teeth and
also had a bathtub, toilet and kitchen sink, each equipped with its own
There is still a pump on the porch rail for watering the 60 foot square
where one would expect the front lawn to be. The well is located under
house and is hand dug about 6 feet deep. Red claimed that the same
got him the only fresh water on the beach in Florida.
The shack itself is tarpaper with a corrugated tin roof, the entirety,
the stone chimney and windows, coated liberally with tar. Attached is a
a half-century of license plates on the door, just big enough for his
and his bicycle.
Inside there were 2 photos of Red on the wall, both on motorcycles. One
1929 Harley, 74 cubic inch pan head with external pushrods. The other
Flying Merkle, commonly called the Yellowjacket because of that single
of color and made most famous by the Keystone Cops. I found the remains
leather helmet and jacket rolled up and tied with string in the closet
Red died and I had bought his place. He had cut parts out when he
piece of soft leather.
Red mainly used the orange VW bug to travel to Florida and back, which round trip
accomplished annually for most of his life in two days without paying
tolls. The VW had flour sack curtains stitched with the same crude wide
and heavy cotton thread that Red used on everything. He slept and got
the same gas station somewhere in North Carolina twice a year for over
half a century. I
don't know if he ever talked to the owner. After all, Red was a Yankee.
On Sundays he would drive around to local nursing homes to play for the
folks. Red said they really liked it, especially the gospel stuff. He
that, "When you go there one Sunday and someone's missing who was there
the week before, you don't ask no questions.” The last year he
did it he was 89
and older than most of his audience. He said he did it because he felt
for those old folks not ever being able to get out of those places.
He used his automobile to go to a few old time fiddle contests,
the one held at the fair in Woodstock,
Connecticut. A young gate
attendant there had the audacity to ask Red to show his ticket. Red had
fiddle and bow tucked under his arm. He held them up an inch from the
attendant's face and said, "Here's my ticket young fellow." I doubt
that Red weighed much over 100 pounds, but his laugh came from his
belly like Santa Claus. "Ho, Ho, Ho," he would laugh at his own
story. His automobile previous to the VW was a 1937 Chevrolet.
Mostly, Red rode his bicycle, a three-speed shifter with an odometer
generator that turns against the tire. One day when he was well into
I found him in front of his house with his bicycle apart. I asked him
problem was and he held up a sprocket with the teeth all worn down to
"Look at this. This sprocket has only got 4000 miles on it and my
has only got 3600 miles on it and it looks the same. They just don't
things to last any more."
When Red was 17, he tried to enlist in the army for the First World
War, but wasn't
accepted because his teeth were too rotten. He couldn't afford to get
fixed so he got the dentist to pull them. When he went back to the
they wouldn't accept him because he didn't have enough teeth.
In the summer of his 87th year, I noticed an open lesion that wouldn't
Red's cheek. I encouraged and cajoled him to go to the doctor but he
By the following summer, the spot was the size of a quarter and quite
looking. I persisted, but Red seemed unmoved by my most logical
told me that the last time he had gone, the doctor told him he had 14
kinds of cancer on his face but Red didn't figure any of them had time
him. One day in June, a couple of weeks before the Woodstock Fair, I
and found Red with a fresh bandage on his cheek.
"Red," I said, "I've been trying to get you to go to the doctor
about that for almost two years and you wouldn't. What made you decide
to do it
"Well you know," he replied, "you can't stand up in front of a
crowd and expect to entertain 'em with a big cancer on your face."
Red never drank anything but water. "God's beverage" he called it. A
doctor once told him that he had sugar in his blood and that he would
take medication for it. Red never went to that doctor again and he
sugar again and he never got any more sugar in his blood that he knew
ate precious little that didn't come out of his garden, but was no
He was one of the healthiest people I have ever known.
One evening the summer before he died, I stopped by to visit. Red had
music book of shodishes and reels which he had been trying to learn all
He was quite excited about the new tunes, and I would play the cords
for him on
the guitar while he worked on the next song in the book. After about
minutes of "Sailor's Hornpipe," he flopped his fiddle down in his lap
"David this fiddle feels like it weighs 25 pounds. This morning I went
town to get a newspaper and a lamb chop, and this afternoon I mowed my
David, this fiddle feels like it weighs 25 pounds."
Each time he said it, he laughed like Santa. The town of Barre was 7
miles away. He had ridden his
bicycle 14 miles that morning. That afternoon, he had mowed his
with a scythe and shucked it up in a big mow in the back yard. Little
his fiddle felt like it weighed 25 pounds. "Ho, Ho, Ho"
That fall, 1990, I stopped to see Red off on his annual migration. He
left before the "big bang, bang shoot 'm up" as he called hunting
season. He had dried peas, onions, and seeds for his Florida garden,
and garlic and such, packed
with an assortment of winter squash in every cranny of the VW. He had
remaining 50 pounds or so of potatoes left in the garden and loaded
them into a
gunnysack, which he had dragged over to the car. Red had started to
potatoes one by one from the bag when I stopped him with one hand on
shoulder, while with the other I lifted the sack of potatoes into the
I said I would go with him if he wanted help, but that seemed absurd; I
glasses restriction on my drivers’ license, Red didn't. Besides,
room. I gave him a hug goodbye and tried unsuccessfully not to cry
He was right about the 14 different kinds of cancer on his face. His
out that winter in Florida.
Neighbors found him passed out on his front yard and got him to a
where Nancy Fijol managed to talk to him on the phone once. He told her
he could just get out of that Florida
and back into that crisp New England
would be all right. He wasn't used to telephones so when Nancy said
goodbye, Red just put the receiver
down on the bed. Nancy
listened for a while. She could hear his slippers slap on the tile
floor as he
walked around the room talking to himself and singing random lines from
Ain't Got No Home in this World Any More."
The next time Red got into that crisp New England
air, he wasn't breathing it. There were 200 people at his funeral. A
of us knew him. That fiddle felt like it weighed 25 pounds.