"Spit and Whittle" benches were a time-honored forum for old-timers to pass the idle hours of the day and exchange gossip. The topics ranged from the appropriate length of women's hemlines to heated discussions on the politics of the day. The "Spit and Whittle" bench in my hometown was situated in front of the only pool hall and beer joint in town. Local farmers would come into town on Saturday night and play dominoes in the pool hall while their wives shopped and visited with other farm wives. But during the late afternoon hours the bench in front of the pool hall was frequented by old men with time on their hands and an abundance of opinions for anyone who had the time to listen.
Along with the "party line" phone, the "Spit and Whittle" bench was the social media of the day. People did not hesitate to voice their opinions and engage in heated discussions with anyone within earshot. Nothing was ever settled here, but there was a satisfaction in being heard. No judgement was passed down and your opinions and views were often forgotten as soon as your spot on the bench was vacated.
Your spot on the bench was often determined by age and prestige in the community. Newcomers to the bench often stood or leaned against a post to engage in the conversation. If they were lucky enough to get a spot on the bench, they were also the first to give it up if a more senior member of the group arrived.
To ignore the group on the bench was to invite their criticism. It left you ripe for their gossip and labeled you as an outsider. These were the elders of the community and they demanded your respect! If you didn't stop to speak, you must at least nod in acknowledgement of their presence.
Unlike the anonymity provided through today's social media, everyone knew the source of the gossip and it was usually easy to separate the fact from the fiction. As small towns disappear and the old-timers pass away, the bench in front of the pool hall is often empty. It remains as a sad reminder of the times when conversations were open and honest and no one really cared who eavesdropped.