Wednesday, December 29, 2010

When Men & Horses Farmed the Land

I cherish one of my first Christmas presents, The Farmer at His Work, a book that “Nana and Poppy”—Jennie and Walter Dickson, my maternal grandparents—gave me in 1943. I have to smile because Nana inked a greeting and used “L” as my middle initial. That was my dad’s. Mine is “W.”

The Farmer is an early example of a children’s book based on photographs. As an adult slowly crawling toward my second childhood, I am still fascinated by the black-and-white photos of the way it used to be.

I have drafted two postings about this treasure. In this one, I’ll show you some of the photos and nearby text and focus on how farming has changed since the 1940s. In the second posting, I’ll comment about several subjects that would be presented quite differently in a children’s book today.

Published in 1933, The Farmer bridges two eras—farming by men and horses and farming by men and machines. The book’s cover (Photo 1) shows the old way—a farmer planting corn with a planter drawn by a team of white horses. Poppy was a farmer, and he had a team of horses. One of my memories is of standing tiptoe on the bottom half of a stable door and looking out over a field and seeing Poppy driving his team from a distant field through a tree-shaded lane toward the barn—a brown horse and a white horse.

Photos 2, 3, and 4 illustrate how much grain harvesting has changed over the generations.

Photo 2 shows a farmer shocking wheat. I suppose kids today would consider “shocking wheat” to be some kind of electrical accident—or an explosion in their cereal bowls. Imagine the manual labor involved as farmers stood up bound bundles or sheaves of ripened grain and topped the shock with grain stalks so rainwater would run off and not spoil the grain. How many people would it take today to shock wheat on a thousand-acre wheat farm?

Photo 3 shows what most would consider the big annual farm event—threshing day. In this photo, a Case farm tractor powered the threshing machine, not an earlier steam engine, but a team of horses still stood ready to pull away a load of bagged grain. All the shocks of grain, of course, had to be carted in from the fields to be threshed—more hard work.

Photo 4 shows the newer generation of farm equipment—a combine. The text explains that the farmer and his son now could do all the work. “Farmers working together” were becoming a thing of the past. Shocking grain was no more. Hauling it to the threshing machine was no more. One machine cut and threshed the ripened grain where it grew in the field.

Photo 5 shows how grain used to be sown, and it’s hard to imagine a broadcast sower being used today except for spreading grass seed on the front lawn. One late afternoon in the late 1940s, I was coming up out of the meadows with my dad from a pheasant hunt along Alloway Creek on the farm of a great-uncle, Raymond Dickson, near the town of Hancock’s Bridge. I was just a little kid and was so tired I could hardly lift my feet after a couple of hours of dragging my boots through sucking mud and stumbling through brambles and over furrowed land.

But I stopped thinking of how tired I was when Dad said, “Here comes Uncle Raymond.” I watched as my uncle walked toward us across a newly harrowed field while seed sowing just as Photo 5 illustrates. How many acres did Uncle Raymond “walk” that day? How long did it take?

How farming has changed.

Next posting: Women, Poison, & Pork Chops.

1 comment:

  1. What a great column, Bob! I always enjoy a trip into the past, and you've made this one so interesting. Thank you!