Volume VI, No. 2, Winter 1978
A LOOK AT OLD-TIME FARMING METHODS
Narrated by Warren Cook to Tracy Waterman and Kathy Long. Illustrated by Patsy Watts
The subject you had in mind was the change of farm life, farm style and practices and so on. We might understand it a little better if we backed up a little bit to see what caused the changes and what was happening at the same time and at the same way all over the region. I think the basic answer to that is to some extent where the people that settled in the given area or neighborhood originated from for they brought their practices with them. It happened that I was born on a farm in Newton County. A goodly number settled in that area came via Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky. Then the other thing that made the difference was the terrain and the cover of the area which the people settled, because the soil and the cover--the growth that is there--had something to do with the farming that they would do regardless of where they originated because they had to fit their activities to the land.I would like for us to spend a little more time in trying to visualize what this southwest Missouri area looked like when our people came in here. Now remember that the whole country had some kind of cover, either woods or prairie grass out on the prairie section, but in the hills and rolling terrain it was woods, but it was not the type of woods that we see today. When my family in 1836 moved to the old place I grew up on, they could see for a mile or a mile and a half through the timber. Savannah, in other words, open timber, large timber, good timber--walnut, white oak, black oak, post oak, chinquapin, with good grass cover under it. In some areas further south from where you people are from and from here even, there was pine. So the clearing of the land then was an altogether different approach than we have now.
The accomplishments they made here show how frugal our forebearers were, how they improvised and how they were real good conservationists, although we think about it now, saying, well, they slashed the forest down. "They actually didn't destroy very much of the wood. They utilized most of it for houses and furniture, fences, fuel and even tools.The reason we have this brush and weed trees, that I call it, in our woods now is that the big trees were removed, and they didn't try to replant and kind of tree in place of it. Then by intense cropping year after year, they depleted the soil. Trees that will survive on less fertility than the big oak trees and walnut trees and so on will move in--that's the blackjack, post oak, scrub post oak. We call it scrub post oak because some of the land is depleted to the point that it won't even grow a good post oak tree now because it's washed away or overcrowd or burned over--all of those things have happened to it.
By the time I came along in the early 1900's, all the bluestem grass which grew under the big trees here was gone. We just never saw any until out on the prairie just west of here. One specie of bluestem is short bluestem called prairie hay, and they harvested that for a long time. There was no bluestem grass in the hills where I grew up. It had been overgrazed or burned over.Of course, now, we're trying to bring it back. What I'm trying to say is that we are trying to make adjustments, and we're going to have to make a lot more of them in order to get enough food and fiber out of what soil we have left to support the population that now exists. That's the reason I'm a tree farmer. I think there is an advantage in double using the land--grow some tree crop on it and underneath grow grass or some other crop that will produce food like nuts, or fiber one, that can be used by people and animals. I'm trying to get my land back to the way it was--big trees with a grass ground cover, something besides poison ivy and saw briars and sting weed that harbor the ticks and chiggers. We're going to have to learn to utilize our soil.
Getting back to early times, what do you think would be the first problem fac--ing a settler that was moving from Kentucky back in 1830 and going to land in this area? What, as the head of the household would be the first thing that he'd have to do? Build a house, of course. What would he build it out of? Trees. Now that had a double advantage. If the settler was alert, he would cut his trees where he thought the soil would produce some crops, because he'd need the land cleared rapidly to start growing something some food stuff and grain for his family and stock.
But, anyway, we've said what he needed first was a shelter, and, of course, he built the first one out of oak logs probably. Then when he got flush enough, he'd get out and get some pine logs off his neighbors to saw into boards. Another thing they had to provide was a garden. They didn't run to the supermarket and buy garden stuff. They learned to improvise and to do with whatever they had.
So he would clear the land that he could utilize--use the timber off of it in building his house. He'd have some cattle maybe, horses and so on and he'd need some shelter for them. Second thing he'd have to build a fence around his crops. Now all of the land was open range, they called it. Today, we fence the stock in. We build a pasture fence to keep our stock in the pasture. That day and time they built fences around their crops fencing the stock out to let them roam around through this lush grassland feed. So the settler'd have to split some rails so he would use some more timber. The point I'm making is that you can't say that he went in there and cut the timber down and burnt it all up because people utilized a lot.
They could clear only a small patch a year with hand labor, and with the ground covered with stumps, they couldn't get very far with big machinery like the reaper, so they harvested with the grain cradle. Though much mechanization--the Industrial Revolution, the invention of the steam engine and the cotton gin, the sewing machine and so on--though this all happened considerably earlier than the time I'm talking about. But this area couldn't use some of these equipment pieces and some of the inventions and methods of power that they had because the land wouldn't lend itself to it. Even my wife and I arrived in this area early enough that there was not very much mechanized farming going on. I like to think about it as carried over from the Industrial Revolution in our area when steel and power other than horsepower came into use, they were able to put these to work in industry, but it hadn't gotten over to the farm yet where everything was hand labored and horsepowered and get it done any way you could. In this area the starting of the mechanization of farming began in our childhood days.
Now it's true that down in the southwest corner of the state where we grew up, it was slower getting industrialized or mechanized on the farm. There's several factors that caused that. One of them was that the fields that we had were too small for the most part for tractors and heavy, wide and bulky farm equipment. Our forefathers first of all had to get the land cleared to grow some crops to feed the stock that they were going to work and to grow food for the family. The farm mechanization moved pretty well up to the binder and just the beginning of the combine. But the thing I'd like for you to think about is that this mechanization, such as it was, was only the forerunner of much greater change, and I'd like you young people to understand the transition--for you might not recognize it--but you're in the beginning of some kind of a revolution and are faced with problems that are more complicated than our forebearers had to contend with. They had to contend with the trees, get them out of the way. They also had to contend, of course, with no roads and little or no information.
For instance, all the weather information came out of the almanac. They had no weather forecast. They had to be their own weather guide. Even in my time I can remember when we lived out in the rural areas, and the daily paper, which was from Joplin, was always a day late, and, of course, the weather forecast in that was just a matter of checking to see if they hit it or not. We had a system though that we particularly depended on in the fall of the year when we were ready to harvest cane to make molasses. You have to strip the leaves off the stalk before the frost hits, otherwise it damages the taste or the quality of the syrup. Well, we lived ten miles south of Granby, which was one of the first mining centers in that area, established in 1850. They smelted and refined the lead there, so the old-timers would go out in the morning and sniff the air. If they could smell the sulphur and fumes coming out of the smelter, then cold spells were coming from the northwest. Then I could get out of school, come home and help strip cane till dark to try to save it.
The settler or the owner of the land always cleared up the bottom land first. It was the best, also the stumpiest. And then he'd move into the floors of the little valleys that came in from the side and eventually cleared the hill if it wasn't too steep, but that took time.
Even after he had cut down his trees, hauled them off to build his house, barns or fences, he still had to contend with the stumps. Nobody ever heard of a bulldozer then. You just had to wait for mother nature to rot the stumps. We could take a plow--the kind of plow we plowed with when we had to plow new ground. They had two or three names--we called them grub plows. They're basically what was called Georgia stock plow or bull tongue plow. The first one that I knew anything about was a wooden one--a four by four white oak beam that set about twenty to thirty degree angle and then had a tongue mortised into it and braced. It was always a marvel to me how they could do all of that work by hand and get those parts to fit. They didn't have the saws or the tools. They'd chisel a slot out to put the tongue in. On the end of that they would put a wide bit plow--just a piece of steel with no curve to it--pointed like a triangle at the end, and the handles, of course, to hold it, and they could go through the new ground. Now I'm talking about why we had to plow that way on land we cleared up after 1904. There simply was no other way to get stumps and vines and so on out.
We had to have a tongue in the plow because we're plowing along with this beam and a blade on it and we run under a big root. How are we going to get that big plow out? Well, we backed the horses up and using the neck yolk as an anchor or support for the end of the tongue, lifted the plow up to get out from under the root. That gave a leverage to get the plow out of the ground and over the stump. We weren't straining against ourselves. The Georgia stock was designed for breaking up the ground to a degree.
Basically, one of the first crops early settlers planted on new ground was corn. New ground means ground that's been recently cleared.
If they were late getting the new ground patch cleared, and it was time to plant corn--when the oak leaves got as big as a squirrel's ear, why you were supposed to plant your corn in that day and time--they went in there with the plow and barred it off. Barred it off meant that they simply cut a straight furrow as far as they could through the ground parallel with the side of the field, moved over three feet or whatever distance they wanted between the rows, plowed another row there and repeated that process until they cut it off in straight rows. Then they went to the opposite direction, plowed across the other way with the same process. It made a nice cross there in which to drop the corn. The boys could do that better than a man, for they were closer to the ground than a man. They didn't have to go back and pick up the grain they missed. Someone came along with a hoe and covered the corn up. We thought we had to plow our corn both ways because nobody ever heard of a herbicide to spray to keep the weeds and the grass and cockleburs down, so we had to be able to plow both ways. We went ahead and planted the corn, and then as we had time, we'd work out the middles as they'd say--break up the rest of the new ground. Of course that wasn't the ideal way because later we had all the roots and all that stuff to burn somewhere to get them out of the way.
The stumps were where the trees had been cut off. You wouldn't believe the roots that we pulled up with that old grub plow. We could pull around the stumps. But we tried to keep the row straight, because there was a certain amount of pride in having straight rows. Do you know the old cliché, that more corn grows in a crooked row than in a straight row? Well, the reason is there's more crooked rows!
We could work our team around the stumps for generally we cut them low enough that a team could walk over them, but when we went around stumps, we would have to swing the plow around. The thing that kept us wide awake on that especially was plowing in where there were post oak trees that have an immense root system and are just as contrary as they can be. We'd go along and the plow would catch a root as big as a hoe handle and it would stretch way out there, maybe a foot before it would slip off of the bull tongue plow blade. And where do you reckon it stopped? Back against the ankle! So we stayed wide awake.
I remember that the walking turning plow was still widely used in our area when I was a boy because we didn't have another thing to use in the type of fields we had. We couldn't afford to buy a gang plow--one that had several blades. Out on the prairie they used it where they had enough room and the ground was level enough they could hitch six horses to it and plow a wide swath. We couldn't afford to buy a gang plow if we only had an acre patch.
Another simple handmade piece of farming equipment was the A-harrow, the first type of harrow that I remember that we used. As the name signified, it was simply a long wooden triangle. The legs and the base of the triangle were about four by four white oak timbers. The teeth that were available at the time were square teeth, and they bored the right sized round holes in each one of two sides of the trianble and drove the harrow tooth down in it. Hopefully, by driving a square peg in a round hole, the tight fitting would make it stay there. But in dry weather they didn't always stay, and sometimes we'd have to get one out, find an old shoe and cut a piece of leather to stick in the hole and then drive the tooth back in. We hitched a team then to the apex of the triangle. They'd pull it across the field and since the teeth were running at an angle, they had a tendency to dig and smooth as they went along. But the problem was that worked all right in the old fields where there were no stumps or roots to bother with, but you just haven't had fun until you've tried to lift one of those A-harrows over a stump and get the horses to go and to stop when you want them to.
So somebody developed what we called a jumping harrow that was made out of white oak, if we could get it, and used the same principal putting the teeth in, though I remember the one we had had round teeth. I don't know how that happened, probably because we could get forged steel that was stiff. If we hit the square teeth hard enough, they would break, but the round ones that were tempered steel were stronger.
There was a sort of a double hinge made out of rods between each one of the eight foot or six foot bars that fit into a metal bracket that you fastened to the bar. The harrow was flexible. We could adjust the angle of the teeth by a lever. So when we came to a low stump, that tooth was leaned over--or as the old-timers say, it was lent over--it would just ride up over the stump and go on down and then straighten up again and the next one would do the same thing. That's why we called it a jumping harrow--we could jump the small or the low cut stumps to work the field without all this business of carrying or lifting the big old A-harrow over. When it wore out, we just got some more oak timbers and made a new harrow.
Getting to the actual mechanized equipment, I think we should start with the invention of the reaper in 1831. The reaper was one of the first machines on the farms and it was nothing but a sled with a sickle bar on it to begin with. It was pulled by horses, of course, to harvest grain. The guy ran along with a rake, pulling the cut grain off to make the bundles, for it didn't have the ties or canvasses and all that stuff in the original one. Why, they could grow enough wheat that way to have some to sell from their crop. Of course, when machinery became available, the prairie people didn't have to wait for the stumps to rot out of their fields in order to grow wheat. That was a big change to southwest Missouri. Now the interesting thing about it is, the best that I can find out, the reaper was not used in southwest Missouri till the Civil War or after.
Though I don't know definitely when the reaper came in the Ozarks region on the type of land that most of us are familiar with, I do know that my dad, who was born in 1871, remembered when the first binder came into his neighborhood. This wonderful machine cut the wheat, wrapped it up in bundles and tied it with a wire. That was really something to see, so the neighborhood turned out to see this machine. Well, as luck would have it, the machine broke down, as farm machinery will do, but they finally got it fixed and went on with the cutting. They asked the operator what was wrong with the machine. He didn't know, but he wanted to appear knowledgeable. He said, "Well, I think the josh pin fell out and fell into the clucking box and broke a spoke out of the siz wheel!" What had really happened was that they had a wheel under there that was not turning.
The problem with the first binder was that the gates weren't big enough for them to get the binder through. They'd have to take the fence down. Later binders improved in design so they could be pulled endwise through the gates.The hay baler was another machine that changed our farming practices a great deal. Before the time that hay balers came into wide use, we had to stack the hay. Then it stood there till wintertime. When we started feeding it, we had fun when we got up on that stack, trying to tear that loose and get it off and haul it out to feed the cattle. You just couldn't throw it off with a pitchfork if it was a legume hay like cowpeas. So that's where the hay knife came in. It was a sword-like knife with two handles on it. It was between three and four feet long, I'd say. So we'd get up there and start on one end of the stack, about four or five feet back and start sawing with this hay knife as deep as we could. That'd cut it off into flakes four or five feet long, and we'd throw it out. Of course, that was a waste because we handled the hay two or three times and knocked the leaves off of it. One could drive along the road and see a hay stack that just looked like somebody had sliced a loaf of bread. Well, that's exactly what they had done. They used this hay knife to cut it so we could handle it.
The first baler I saw was the old horse-powered balers that were in use when I was a boy. The horses go round and round in a sweep. I had the biggest foot of any of the boys, so I usually got the job of feeding the thing. I sat up there and shoved the hay down with my fork. We always used a fork. That kind of held your foot up so you didn't get hung up in that. I never saw anybody actually get their leg cut off, but it could cut it off. Usually we'd get the horse stopped. The plunger came in to press the hay, and it's a little rough on your leg. You'd lose a pitchfork once in a while--break the tines off of it.
Then somebody developed a self-feeder arm, powered also by the horses, which would push the hay down in there, and it would clamp the hay so that the arm always got out of the way before the plunger came in. But anyway, that was an improvement and made it possible to store more hay. Of course today, now they've gone to the huge roller bale, which no one can handle without power equipment.
Soybeans were not developed to the point that they would produce like they do now. We grew more what we called cow-peas, which was in the same family. It's a long vining pea, and that's where we needed that hay knife. Cowpeas would be harvested usually in September, and it was a big chore to put it up in windrows. Because all the vines were hooked together we used to say that if you were stout enough, you could stick your fork in the end of a windrow and if you pulled hard enough, the other end 200 yards away would wiggle. The vines were so interlocked it was hard to pitch them in the field. But we managed to get them loaded. We used a fork and cable stacker, usually stretching the cable between two trees. They used the same kind of a trolley that the farmers used to have in their barns when they put loose hay in the barn instead of baling it.
We used a cable-stacker like you see the hay fork that went in the barn. We'd tie a cable up in a tree and usually we would have to cut tripod poles, then put the opposite end of the cables in, and then put the regular fork up there like those in the barn, except it had wheels on it that would hit a cable instead of a track. That's the way we stacked these cowpeas, because if we managed to get them on a wagon, that was about all we could do. To try to get them off of the wagon, and pitch them on the stack, and form a stack out of them--we just didn't have enough manpower to do it. Now dropping that hay down off the stacker which was twelve or fifteen feet high, we could never get it pitched off if we didn't have a hay knife.
If we let the peas stand until the pods were practically mature on them, well, then we had an old-fashioned separator that we converted into a pea huller by taking some of the concaves out and some of the teeth. We couldn't run it fast like for wheat, or we would crack the peas. We would thresh the peas out and sell them for seed, and the straw that was left was still good feed because peas are a legume crop. After we threshed it, we would most of the time bale the straw up. It made better hay than Johnson grass.
Again, of course, all of these things have helped to deplete the fertility of our soil and let a lot of it wash away. That's why I keep talking about we're going to have to change our system of farming to try to hold some of this land that we have left, plus build it up organically and through growth of legumes and so on.
People didn't have an adequate supply or couldn't afford to buy sugar, so raising sorghum cane was a necessity. They called it long sweetening. I don't know what short sweetening was--sugar, I guess since it was short in supply. We grew sorghum cane frequently, but not every year. My uncle had the sorghum mill and I guess when we didn't have cane, we got molasses from him. But anyway, that was quite a chore to put out and take care of the cane crop. We would work the ground and lay it off with one of these single stock plows like we were talking about. We didn't put the crosses in because we grew the cane in a row. We would get to where we could take a long necked bottle, regulate our thumb over the mouth of the bottle and just walk along to sow the seed in the row. We'd lift our thumb up and the cane seed would fall out. We got to where we were fairly deft to it. We always had to go back and thin the cane later anyway because the seed is so small.
We had to cover it lightly. We tied a rope around our waist, then found a chunk about four inches around or a little bigger, tied the rope to it and as we walked along and sowed the cane, the chunk would drag through and cover the cane deep enough for it to come up. I've dropped a lot of cane that way.
When the plants came up, we had to thin them because we planted extra seed, not knowing how many would germinate. We wanted to get a good thick stand. So along in the spring of the year, we went through there after the cane got up and would start thinning it out and throwing it away to try to get the stalks spaced even.
Then the big rush came in the fall of the year when we got ready to make molasses. We wanted the cane to get as ripe as it could because the sugar content would be greater in it the nearer it was to maturity. The problem was if we waited too long, then the frost would bite the leaves that hadn't been stripped off and that made the sorghum bitter--it wasn't good tasting sorghum molasses. So we had to strip it. We most usually just took a thin board about eighteen inches long, hooked notches in it, and then walked up to a stalk and whipped that side and on to the next. Anyway, we stripped all the leaves off by running the stick right down along next to the stalk and Pulling it so the teeth would catch and pull the leaves off. Then, of course, we had to cut the cane, cut off the head, haul it to the mill, run it through a grinder or press, press the juice out, and then, if you knew how, you could cook it until it was good sorghum. It wasn't just anyone that could make good sorghum because it took quite a bit of skill.
The sorghum varies from year to year, I suppose because of the difference in the sugar content in a wet year and a dry year. But that is another change that has come. Nobody grows sorghum or makes molasses anymore. I don't know why. Probably because it is a lot of work. There is another thing that's happened to us. We've all become so conscious of creature comforts that we don't want to do anything that takes too much effort.
I want to talk a little bit about the use of the timber that we took off of the land. Now unfortunately a lot of good fuel wood was burned up because they didn't need all that they were tearing down. Sometimes we'd sell a little bit of wood, but there wasn't a big sale for it. So we no doubt wasted some timber that we wish now we had in this energy shortage.
Going back, my great-grandfather built his first log cabin out of white oak logs which he hewed with a broadax. That's the one that's got the off handle in it--the curve in the handle-so you could stand up on the log to hew, if you were a good hand, or if not, you would cut your toe off. But I never tried to use a broadax, so I've got all of my toes, but I understand some of the people got their toes hacked off in that process.
About the changes and the things we worked with and so on, it is interesting that the style of the ax for example changed. The pre-Civil War ax was just a straight handle. Then somebody was smart enough to realize that on a single bitted ax, if it had a curved handle, you could use it a lot better. So some of the changes came about by improving the old tools that we were using.
We had a sawmill which was part of the way of living in this area. Everyone needed the sawmill because most of our buildings were constructed out of oak, even the framing and the siding was made out of oak. You can go off down in the hills here and still see those old oak boxed houses standing there.
The logs were on public land and the people would cut them down. At first people were the power for pit saws. And then later on they developed a crude saw mill and then finally somebody came out with a big circle saw that they pulled by a belt. It would rotate and they rolled the log on a carriage through the saw which sawed it into boards.
I don't suppose you ever saw a pit saw? They dug a hole in the ground and they put this guy down in the bottom on the other end of the saw. They sawed on the down stroke to rip off a board. The fellow in the pit had to wear a big hat to keep the sawdust off of him--keep the sawdust from going down his neck, so the history says. Later they developed a kind of a saw where they could saw both sides and put it up on trestles.
In my time we also worked up the timber we cut. By this time we had a tractor there which was not suitable to pull a plow, especially in the small fields, and they rigged up a buzz saw to it. We'd use it to cut stove wood lengths and for other jobs we needed done. We learned to improvise like that and to do the best we could with whatever we had. Have you heard this old saying, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without?" Today we haven't learned to do without. We're going to have to learn to do without some things that are exhausted or are on the point of being exhausted. So, I think we learned that from our ancestors.
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