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The Drummer's Prayer

There is a lot of texture to historical life on the prairies that gets glossed in historical memory. As my old friend John Helgeland used to say, doing History is mainly a matter of leaving things out. That is how a historian, academic or popular, tries to get at the essentials and make a manageable, useful story.

I find myself, and this is the folklorist in me, most of the time going back to re-insert the stuff that has been consigned to the cutting room floor, to complicate and vitalize our experience in the land. Much of that forgotten texture has to do with transients, people who passed through, who never got a section in the county history. Hobos, harvest hands, hired girls — drummers.

That word, “drummers,” you may not know what I mean, which testifies to their omission from our memory. Commercial travelers, they liked to call themselves professionally. In past generations they traveled by rail, bringing goods and pitches to any place with passenger and freight service.

Drummers stayed and dined at inexpensive hotels near the depot, which not only offered room and board but also made available a display room for their goods, and a parlor for their relaxation. Willa Cather offers a glimpse of their liminal lives as local color in her novel, My Antonia.

Drummers had a certain reputation, much of it self-inflicted. They also, as outsiders wherever they went but insiders among their peers, had a certain underdog attitude. This generated a common lingo and lore.

I have located multiple versions of a set piece entitled (the title may vary a bit), “The Drummer’s Prayer.” It got caught from the air and published in prairie newspapers again and again. Its clauses reflect the concerns, character, and attitude of the drummers.

One Sunday in 1882 a pastor was holding services for the drummers in their hotel when one of the commercial travelers rose to pray in solemn tones. “Thou Great First Cause,” he began in nice ecumenical terms, “bless the head of this hostelrie, give him a capacious stomach, such as will enable him to devour all of his own hash. May his bill of fare be large, and his bill of charges small to the commercial traveler.” (Food quality, or the lack thereof, was a recurring concern in drummer’s prayers.)

“May the pains and penalties of lying in his own beds be his [the hotel-keeper’s] punishment for growling when the commercial man flirts with the blonde cook.” (Now we’re getting at the nub of the drummers’ notoriety, their predatory pursuit of local women.)

“May the milk sour, the water become impure, the ice melt, the meat taint, the dishes break, the gravy spill, and the lamp chimneys burst, when he locks the doors while the drummer is promenading with the pretty dining room girl, on her ‘regular Sunday off.’

“And for these choice blessings of life we shall ever thank thee. Amen.”

Other iterations of the Drummer’s Prayer over the decades catalog additional grievances: buyers who demand deferment of payment until the next month; grimy roller towels as fixtures in dining rooms; beefsteaks “cut from the neck where the yoke worked;” having to share hotel beds with other drummers; fleas and bedbugs.

But always the prayers come back to the situation of men traveling without women and going into hotels staffed by them. One prays, “We ask Thee to keep our feet in the straight and narrow path which goeth from the hotel to the depot.” Perhaps a suitable petition for all of us.

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