The Turnspit Dog

By Eileen W. Newkirk

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    A turnspit dog! Before last week Jonathan had never even heard of a turnspit dog. Though the morning was cold, Jonathan was snug and warm in his homespun suit. Pulling his sled, he followed the snowy trail that led through the sparsely settled New England woods to the Sewell’s cabin. As soon as he heard that Mister Sewell had sent to Philadelphia for a turnspit dog, Jonathan’s curiosity would not let him rest until he had seen it.

    In the early 1700s the settlers’ usual way of roasting meat was to put it on a spit, a long piece of metal supported between two andirons in front of the fireplace. It was a tiresome chore to turn the meat by hand, so someone had hit upon the idea of training small dogs for this work.

    On his way to the Sewell’s, Jonathan passed Mistress Clark’s cabin. He noticed that no smoke curled from the chimney. Mistress Clark was a widow and very old. She’s probably still sleeping, Jonathan decided.

    Finally Jonathan reached his destination.

    “Why, it’s young Master Jonathan Adams!” Mister Sewell cried heartily. “Come in!”

    Then Jonathan saw the turnspit dog. He had not known quite what to expect, but surely not this!

    The spit, holding a joint of meat, was attached to a set of wheels that in turn was attached to a treadmill. Around the treadmill was a railing, inside of which was a little dog—running, running, running. As he ran, the treadmill engaged the wheels of the spit and slowly turned the savory meat.

    Suddenly the dog looked up at the newcomer, and Jonathan thought he had never in his entire life seen such sad eyes. “Please rescue me!” the little dog’s eyes seemed to be pleading.

    Then Jonathan saw with horror that Mister Sewell held a long switch that he occasionally flicked in the direction of the turnspit dog.

    Jonathan knew at once that he must do something to help the wretched little animal. He felt sure his parents wouldn’t mind if he had a dog, so, turning to Mr. Sewell, he pleaded, “Sir, will you sell me your turnspit dog?”

    Mister Sewell burst into laughter. “Tell me, just how do you propose to pay for my trained dog?”

    It was a fitting question, for Jonathan had no money.

    Jonathan left the Sewell cabin feeling heartsick. The way homeward led down a gentle slope, but Jonathan found no fun in gliding down the hill on his sled. How in the world can I rescue that little dog from such cruel slavery? he agonized.

    When Jonathan reached Mistress Clark’s cabin again, he saw that smoke still didn’t rise from the chimney. Worried, he went up to the door and lifted the knocker.

    “Come in,” called a feeble voice.

    In the cabin Jonathan saw that Mistress Clark’s fire had gone out during the night. Now, shivering with cold, she was vainly trying to start another fire.

    “Oh dear,” she sighed, “my son in Philadelphia sent me this tinder wheel but I cannot make it work.”

    “I know how to work a tinder wheel,” Jonathan offered. “Let me try.” Jonathan began spinning the small steel wheel, using the piece of cord that was attached. It was much like spinning a humming top. As the wheel spun, it struck a piece of hard stone or flint fixed in the side of a little trough filled with bits of old linen that served as tinder. Paper was far too valuable to be used to start a fire.

    Finally Jonathan produced a tiny spark. Blowing softly, he nursed the spark into a small flame that fed on the tinder. Quickly he gathered wood shavings to use as kindling. In a few minutes a glowing fire burned in the fireplace.

    “Thank you, thank you!” said Mistress Clark. “My son is always sending me newfangled things I cannot use. Just last month he sent me this roasting kitchen.” She pointed to a metal box with an open side that would face the fire. A spit, turned by a crank on the outside, ran through it from end to end.

    Suddenly Jonathan had an idea.

    “If you have no need for the roasting kitchen, will you let me have it?” he asked excitedly. “In return I will stop by each morning to start your fire if it has gone out. I will also fetch your water and run your errands!”

    Mistress Clark smiled. “Yes,” she replied, “take the roasting kitchen. I will be grateful for a little help.”

    Mistress Clark and Jonathan put the roasting kitchen onto the boy’s sled, and he began to climb back up to the Sewell cabin.

    “What have we here?” asked Mister Sewell as he helped Jonathan set the roasting kitchen onto the floor of the cabin.

    Jonathan saw that the little turnspit dog was still running on his treadmill. How tired he must be by now! he worried.

    Jonathan turned to Mister Sewell. “Sir, I have come to make you a trade. I will trade you this fine new roasting kitchen for your turnspit dog. Notice how it stands on legs to make it even with the fire! See how the little door in back can be opened to baste the meat!”

    “It is true,” said Mister Sewell, “that I could enjoy such a new roasting kitchen. Yes, perhaps it would be a good trade—if you really want the dog.”

    “Yes, yes, I do!” cried Jonathan.

    He had only to whistle once and the little dog jumped over the railing of the treadmill and into the boy’s arms.

    “You are my dog now!” Jonathan said joyously, and the dog bounded along at his little master’s side as they set out for home.

    Illustrated by Dick Brown