Last Darning Needle
An Oregon Folktale
retold by S.E. Schlosser
Folks traveling the Oregon Trail looking for a new life left almost everything behind them when they made the 2000 mile journey in their covered wagons. As the trail grew harder, the valleys steeper, the mountains more treacherous, they started abandoning furniture and luxuries of all sorts by the wayside to make it easier to move the wagons. Many of their horses and cattle died on the trail. And many lost family members to sickness or accident.
By the time the settlers reached Oregon, the few goods they had were precious indeed. And so it was for the people who made their new home in Pass Creek Canyon. The tiny settlement was so isolated that the villagers had no access to manufactured goods of any sort and had to make do with what they brought with them. And so, it turned out, they were soon down to their very last darning needle.
Now darning needles, in those days, were used to sew clothing and darn socks and mend buttons that were torn off. For a whole community to have only one darning needle was a major concern. The settlers were very careful to keep the needle safe. They passed it from family to family, and for two or three days at a time, the women in each family would sew and darn as quickly as they could before passing the needle on to the next household.
Then one day, little Jimmy Chitwood was assigned the task of carrying the needle to Grandmother Drain's cottage over the hillside. To keep the darning needle safe, his mother threaded it with bright red wool knotted firmly through the eye of the needle. Then she stuck it into a potato and gave the precious needle to her small son.
As the little boy walked along the trail, he heard a rustling in the bushes. Ahead of him, a Mama bear and her two cubs ambled into view. Alarmed, Jimmy ducked behind a serviceberry bush, hoping the Mama bear wouldn't notice him and attack. He sat very still, trembling from head to toe, until all sounds of the bears had ceased. Then he crept back out onto the trail, checked carefully in both directions, and continued toward Grandmother Drain's cabin. And that's when he realized his hand was empty! He'd lost the potato with the precious darning needle stuck into it.
Little Jimmy looked everywhere, but there were many serviceberry bushes, and he couldn't find the exact place where he'd left the trail. Soon the whole village turned out to look for the potato with the darning needle stuck into it. They combed the hillside for hours, and it was the despairing little Jimmy who finally caught a glimpse of red wool in the bracken and swooped inside to rescue the darning needle.
But all good things come to an end. With so much heavy use and so much time spent stuck into the juice of the potato, the needle grew weak and it broke in Grandmother Drain's hand the day after it was found in the woods. The whole village was upset by the loss, but no one blamed Grandmother Drain for breaking it. It could have happened to any of them. But all sewing and mending in the village ceased from that day, and clothing grew tattered, socks and stockings had gaping holes in them, and folks shook their heads, wondering what to do.
Little Jimmy Chitwood blamed himself bitterly for the loss of the darning needle. If only he hadn't lost it. If it hadn't been stuck so long in the potato, it might not have broken in Grandmother Drain's hand. He fretted and fretted about the lost darning needle, and nothing his parents said could comfort him.
At that time, a young man in alifornia decided he wanted a life of adventure. He came north to Portland Oregon, set himself up with a mule and wagon full of goods, and started roaming the mountains and vallleys, visiting villages and mining camps and farming communities. It so happened that a month to the day after the breaking of the last darning needle, he wandered into Pass Creek Canyon with his peddler's wagon.
News of the peddler spread like wildfire through the community, and soon the young man was surrounded by families fingering his wares and talking excitedly. The young man soon learned about the last darning needle from Mrs. Chitwood, and he watched little Jimmy stroking the horse's mane and pretending not to listen as he mother talked of losing the needle when the bear appeared, and finding it again, and then losing it again when it broke.
"Well, son," the young peddler said to Jimmy. "Do you intend to give your family and friends Christmas gifts this year?"
Jimmy looked up from patting the mule, startled by the question. He hadn't thought about Christmas until that moment. He nodded uncertainly.
"Well, son. How about you and I give everyone their Christmas presents a little early." He knelt down beside the lad and took a small packet out of the pocket of his coat. "Why don't you give one of these to each of the ladies in your town as an early Christmas gift?" And he handed the child the packet full of darning needles. "I think there are enough here for every family to have one."
And so there were. Little Jimmy passed the needles out to each family, his face beaming with pride. And the peddler refused to accept a penny for the needles, insisting that they were a Christmas gift from Jimmy to the town.
After that, Pass Creek Canyon became a regular stop on the peddler's route, and the farmers and settlers in the community began to prosper and do well in their new home. Never again did they run out of darning needles, which was a blessing to all!