Folk Wisdom

A proverb can be defined as a short saying that illustrates a truth. Typically rural in origin and part of oral tradition, they represent the homespun wisdom of a people. The 16th-17th century Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes put forth – in proverb form – that “a proverb is a short sentence based on long experience.”

Animals are often used metaphorically in proverbs to impart folk wisdom. Given the fact that the region around Sharon Springs has been farm country historically – we wrote in our last blog about the Schoharie Valley as “the Breadbasket of the American Revolution” – domestic and wild animals both make for good examples of proverbs as local wisdom, and we have collected some.

We cannot state that the proverbs below are derived from or were even recited exactly as presented in the Schoharie region. In fact, although, some proverbs are known to be of specific nations or a people, they traveled with populations and their origins cannot be traced with certainty. Who knows, for example, when and where the familiar proverbs “Don’t count your chickens until they’re hatched,” “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink,” and “The early bird catches the worm” were first spoken or if the original versions were even in English? But they sure spread far and wide.

Some proverbs do typify a particular people’s philosophy, such as the reportedly Native American, “The frog does not drink up the pond in which he lives” and “Every animal knows more than you do”; or the supposed Chinese “One dog barks at something, the rest bark at him” and “A bird does not sing because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song.” The proverb, “A prudent man does not make the goat his gardener,” reportedly Hungarian in origin, sure sounds like it might derive from Beekman country. In any case, the practicality of one rural people parallels that of people on other continents, and from the list below one get a sense of what was on people’s minds in local hills and valleys in earlier centuries and even today.

Enjoy these words of wisdom from the country:


“A still sow gets the slop.”

“It is not the horse that draws the cart, but the oats.”

“You can’t sell the cow and have the milk too.”

“Better to drink the milk than to eat the cow.”

“It is the part of a good shepherd to shear his flock, not to skin it.”

“Don’t lock the barn door after the horse is stolen.”

“Farmers work on Sunday if the ox is in the ditch.”

“The wagon rests in winter, the sleigh in summer, the horse never.”
“Even an ass loves to hear himself bray.”

“It’s a sorry ass that will not bear its own burden.”

“A sheep that bleats loses many a mouthful.”

“Young pigs grunt as old pigs grunted before them.”

“It is better to have a hen tomorrow than an egg today.”

“The sleeping fox gathers no poultry.”

“No matter how high a bird flies, it has to come down for water.”

“Every bird likes its own nest.”

“A donkey laden with gold is but a donkey.”

“An ass burdened with books thinks himself a scholar.”

“A new net won’t catch an old bird.”

“Little by little the bird builds its nest.”

“When the snake is in the house, one need not discuss the matter at length.”

“Curses, like chickens, come home to roost.”

“If you were born lucky, even your rooster will lay eggs.”

“Laws catch flies and let hornets go free.”

“Caution is not cowardice; even ants march armed.”

“A smart mouse has more than one hole.”

“A wild colt may become a sober old horse.”

“The raggy colt often made a powerful horse.”

“If two men ride a horse, one must ride behind.”

“Don’t bargain for fish which are still in the water.”

“Give to a pig when it grunts and a child when it cries, and you will have a fine pig and a bad child.”

“A barleycorn is better than a diamond to a rooster.”

“Judge not the horse by his saddle.”
“Don’t change horses while crossing a stream.”

“It is useless to flog a dead horse.”

“The only free cheese is in the mouse trap.”

“If you call one wolf, you invite the pack.”

“When the fox preaches, beware of your geese.”

“Wherever a goat goes, a kid follows.”

“One swallow does not make a summer.”

“You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

“Do not remove a fly from your friend’s forehead with a hatchet.”

“A house without either a cat or a dog is the house of a scoundrel.”

“Three things it is best to avoid: a strange dog, a flood, and a man who thinks he is wise.”

“With foxes we must play the fox.”

“Neighbors watch more closely than foxes.”

“The wolf loses his teeth, but not his inclinations.”

“The greatest love is a mother’s, then a dog’s, then a sweetheart’s.”

“A man in a passion rides a horse that runs away with him.”

“If you play with a cat, you must not mind her scratch.”

“Keep a tree green in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come.”


…and a final word of folk advice:   “Use books (or blogs!) as bees use flowers.”


 What is your favorite proverb?  Tell us in the comments section below.  Share some of YOUR country wisdom.


The History Boys are

Chris Campbell has made his permanent home in Cherry Valley, NY. The Campbell family dates back to 1739 in this town, situated about eight miles from Sharon Springs. Some family members were captured by Tories and Iroquois allies in the Cherry Valley Massacre of 1778 during the American Revolution and taken to Canada, released two years later in Albany as part of a prisoner exchange. Chris is a rare book and map collector and has had a lifelong interest in history, especially relating to upstate New York and colonial land patents. He was the founder and first chairman of the Cherry Valley Planning Board and has worked as a surveyor and realtor as well as a researcher for the Otsego County map department. His hobbies include Ham radio.


Carl Waldman, also living in Cherry Valley, is a former archivist for the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. He is he author of a number of reference books published by Facts On File, including Atlas of the North American Indian and Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, both originally published in the 1980s and both in their third editions. He is the co-author of Encyclopedia of Exploration (2005) and Encyclopedia of European Peoples (2006). Carl has also done screenwriting about Native Americans, including an episode of Miami Vice entitled “Indian Wars” and the Legend of Two-Path, a drama about the Native American side of Raleigh’s Lost Colony, shown at Festival Park on Roanoke Island in North Carolina. His hobbies include music and he works with young people in the Performance and Production Workshops at the Cherry Valley Old School.

by History Boys

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Diana Binkowski

Having traced my family in Schoharie Valley back to the original German Palatines and Dutch, I’ve heard lots of proverbs. But also some Native American thrown in. My favorite is “We did not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we’re borrowing it from our children”. Also “Take what you need and leave no footprints’. I now live in East Tn. but come back home every year and love to come to Sharon Springs since my aunt lives there and I get a nice bed to sleep in….lol

Sherri Pate

How do you find the date these were written? I need to know when “if you chase two rabbits you wont catch either one” was written?

Mary M

Some from my late mother:

If you lift a calf every day for a year you can lift a steer.

If you never learn to milk a cow, you'll never have to.

(On seeing a handsome man) Even if you're not going anywhere, you like to see the train go by!

sally neslon richmon

Some of my Grandma's favorite quotes were: "The less said the better" and "live and let live". She always liked my choice for a husband and she would say, "Guys like him and few and far between"

Nancy Pfau

My grandmother, Elsie Cross Madison, who was born in Sharon and lived her whole life here, was fond of quoting proverbs to me — here's one of her favorites: "When a person's honesty breaks down, there is no place to go for new parts!"


When my children were in school and the other kids would tease them I would remind them: "Empty heads make the most noise".

Joan Marshall

On cold days my mother would say, "It's colder than a witches tit."