The Deacon’s Masterpiece or The Wonderful "One-Hoss Shay": A Logical Story

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)

“Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay…”

illustration of the one-hoss shay

Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,
That was built in such a logical way
It ran a hundred years to a day,
And then of a sudden it — ah, but stay,
I’ll tell you what happened without delay,
Scaring the parson into fits,
Frightening people out of their wits, –
Have you ever heard of that, I say?

Seventeen hundred and fifty-five.
Georgius Secundus was then alive, –
Snuffy old drone from the German hive.
That was the year when Lisbon-town
Saw the earth open and gulp her down,
And Braddock’s army was done so brown,
Left without a scalp to its crown.
It was on that terrible Earthquake-day
That the Deacon finished the one-hoss shay.

Now in building of shaises, I tell you what,
There is always a weakest spot, –
In hub, tire, felloe, in spring or thill,
In pannel or crossbar, or floor, or sill,
In screw, bolt, throughbrace, — lurking still,
Find it somewhere you must and will, –
Above or below, or within or without, –
And that’s the reason, beyond a doubt,
That a chaise breaks down, but doesn’t wear out.

But the Deacon swore (as deacons do,
With an "I dew vum," or an "I tell yeou")
He would build one shay to beat the taown
‘n’ the keounty ‘n’ all the kentry raoun’;
It should be so built that it couldn’ break daown:
"Fer," said the Deacon, "’t’s mighty plain
Thut the weakes’ place mus’ stan’ the strain;
‘n’ the way t’ fix it, uz I maintain, is only jest
‘T’ make that place uz strong uz the rest."

So the Deacon inquired of the village folk
Where he could find the strongest oak,
That couldn’t be split nor bent nor broke, –
That was for spokes and floor and sills;
He sent for lancewood to make the thills;
The crossbars were ash, from the the straightest trees
The pannels of whitewood, that cuts like cheese,
But lasts like iron for things like these;

The hubs of logs from the "Settler’s ellum," –
Last of its timber, — they couldn’t sell ‘em,
Never no axe had seen their chips,
And the wedges flew from between their lips,
Their blunt ends frizzled like celery-tips;
Step and prop-iron, bolt and screw,
Spring, tire, axle, and linchpin too,
Steel of the finest, bright and blue;
Throughbrace bison-skin, thick and wide;
Boot, top, dasher, from tough old hide
Found in the pit when the tanner died.
That was the way he "put her through,"
"There!" said the Deacon, "naow she’ll dew!"

Do! I tell you, I rather guess
She was a wonder, and nothing less!
Colts grew horses, beards turned gray,
Deacon and deaconess dropped away,
Children and grandchildren — where were they?
But there stood the stout old one-hoss shay
As fresh as on Lisbon-earthquake-day!

EIGHTEEN HUNDRED; — it came and found
The Deacon’s masterpiece strong and sound.
Eighteen hindred increased by ten; –
"Hahnsum kerridge" they called it then.
Eighteen hundred and twenty came; –
Running as usual; much the same.
Thirty and forty at last arive,
And then come fifty and FIFTY-FIVE.

Little of of all we value here
Wakes on the morn of its hundredth year
Without both feeling and looking queer.
In fact, there’s nothing that keeps its youth,
So far as I know, but a tree and truth.
(This is a moral that runs at large;
Take it. — You’re welcome. — No extra charge.)

FIRST OF NOVEMBER, — the Earthquake-day, –
There are traces of age in the one-hoss shay,
A general flavor of mild decay,
But nothing local, as one may say.
There couldn’t be, — for the Deacon’s art
Had made it so like in every part
That there wasn’t a chance for one to start.
For the wheels were just as strong as the thills
And the floor was just as strong as the sills,
And the panels just as strong as the floor,
And the whippletree neither less or more,
And the back-crossbar as strong as the fore,
And the spring and axle and hub encore.
And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt
In another hour it will be worn out!

First of November, fifty-five!
This morning the parson takes a drive.
Now, small boys get out of the way!
Here comes the wonderful one-hoss shay,
Drawn by a rat-tailed, ewe-necked bay.
"Huddup!" said the parson. — Off went they.

The parson was working his Sunday’s text, –
Had got to fifthly, and stopped perplexed
At what the — Moses — was coming next.
All at once the horse stood still,
Close by the meet’n’-house on the hill.
First a shiver, and then a thrill,
Then something decidedly like a spill, –
And the parson was sitting upon a rock,
At half past nine by the meet’n’-house clock, –
Just the hour of the earthquake shock!

What do you think the parson found,
When he got up and stared around?
The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
As if it had been to the mill and ground!
You see, of course, if you’re not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once, –
All at once, and nothing first, –
Just as bubbles do when they burst.

End of the wonderful one-hoss shay.
Logic is logic. That’s all I say.


More poems by Oliver Wendell Holmes:


About The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote The Wonderful One-Hoss
Shay about a buggy which belonged to a deacon. It is said that the buggy
was crafted so well that in needed no repairs for over 100 years. The
problem with the buggy was that it wore out completely, all at once
and fell apart while the deacon was on a journey. Holmes satirizes the
deacon’s position, pointing out that taking "logic" to the
extreme can make a situation worse instead of better.

The following excerpt is from Holmes’ preface in "an illustrated edition."

"The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay’ is a perfectly ineligible conception,
whatever material difficulties it presents. It is conceivable that a
being of an order superior to humanity should so understand the conditions
of matter that he could construct a machine which should go to pieces,
if not into its constituent atoms, at a given moment of the future.
The mind may take a certain pleasure in this picture of the impossible.
The event follows as a logical consequence of the presupposed condition
of things.

There is a practical lesson to be got out of the story.
Observation shows us in what point any particular mechanism is most
likely to give way. In a wagon, for instance, the weak point is where
the axle enters the hub or nave. When the wagon breaks down, three times
out of four, I think, it is at this point that the accident occurs.
The workman should see to it that this part should never give way; then
find the next vulnerable place, and so on, until he arrives logically
at the perfect result attained by the deacon."

About the Photo

Illustration, "The Masterpiece"1858, 1892
Artist: Howard Pyle (1853-1911)
Illustration courtesy of Houghton, Mifflin and Company
The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., USA
Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Co.