Volume 3, Number 3-4
The Banner Lick may yet be heard in rare and few places, far off, away from the modern trails that carry the busy, fast traffic through so fast. Few people along there see or know they are passing so near to pioneer habits and customs followed by the natives since the first settlers built their log cabins and cleared the ground for planting corn and wheat.
If you are a stranger there, unless you are told, you would not know that you were so close to people who have changed very little from pioneer days of a century ago. The greatest noticeable difference is in clothing. Not so much fur and buckskin to be seen, and the homespun "Linsey Woolsey" is gone. Few looms and spinning wheels are found.
The habit of speech, religion and methods of making a living are changed but little.
Due to character of ground fit for cultivation, modern farming tools can't be used. Ground surface is too rough, too steep and rocky. Modern reapers, combines, riding cultivators, tractors, and such, are only heard of, seen by few and used not at all.
In July and August, when the grain, wheat or oats is fully ripe and ready for cutting, it will be done by neighbors "swapping work" with each other. As many as eight or ten different farm owners with their boys who are big enough to help, and quite often girls, also, will gather early on the day set to start cutting grain, at the farmer's field whose grain is ripest and most ready.
The grain fields on those rocky ridge farms are quite small, usually from two acres to ten, seldom larger. Some stumps are still standing and rock, of all sizes, pretty well covers the ground in places.
The ones owning cradles bring them, to use themselves, or for use of others that can swing one. They are quite heavy, from 9 to 15 pounds, depending on length of blade.
The larger men who are "tough and husky" use the heavy cradle and can lay down more grain in a day's work than the smaller ones. Having a longer blade, leg and arm reach, they can cut a several inch wider swath.
Five cradlers "line out". The man with the reputation of being the most tireless and fastest is leading, cutting his swath straight down the middle of the field, splitting it in two lands.
The other three start as soon as the leader gets ahead far enough for safety. The binders begin picking up the grain that has been laid down; heads all in one direction, in neat little piles, of one or two strokes to the pile.
The binders have to move fast collecting an armful that they will tie into a bundle about ten inches in diameter, using a handful of straw, splitting the handful, when tying double binds, separating and tying by a tricky twist over the left thumb to make a longer band. Unless the twist knot in the straw is tied just right it will slip, when the binding knot is drawn tight and tied with a twist and under self, knot.
At times the younger boys and girls double up behind a cradler and, with two working, they can keep up very well, if a quail or rabbit nest doesn't distract them too much, or often.
All are once around the land and are a bit warmed up. They comment on the weight of grain, sample the heads by rolling in double hands, dropping the grains from one hand to the other while blowing the chaff away. Several mouthfulls, well chewed, makes a tasty eating and all the younger folks like the fresh, meaty taste of wheat.
After cooling off, getting cold drinks of spring water from sweating stone jars, and going over the neighborly business and gossip, the cradlers start wheting their blades with a whetstone, or sharpening stone, about three quarter inch thick, one and a half wide, by eight or ten inches in length.
"Whetting" requires a skilful stroke to pre vent the blade being nicked and the sharpener's hand from being cut. The regular stroke starts at heal of blade, which is upended on knee of cradle frame, alternating each side with a full stroke of the stone, regular and even, letting the blade slide through the left hand as edge is gone over, on out to point. If too dull, the nicks have to be gone over again to grind them out. Usually one time over leaves the edge keen and even.
All of the cradlers sharpening up at once makes quite a racket, but a new "clatter" comes in, a ringing-drawn out, double stroke-that brings grins, and a gleam in every eye; they all recognize it instantly, for instead of the stone going one way from the whetter, it also comes back in contact with the blade alternating in a single stroke from side to side, making a double beat of sound, very fast, the sparks flying and, how that hand moves so fast back and forth along that razor edge of blade without touching it is a mystery to the uninitiated. It can only be done by practice over long years of cradling. All of them can show scars from cuts received while
The leader moves out, and the others are close behind, all stretching out in a tempo much faster than the first "round". The rear man is gaining and is on the heels of the cradler in his immediate front. He yells-"Make way, one side, I'm going through all of you"! And, by his action, he seems to mean it. While I doubt if the cradler in front of him is in any real danger, the blade of the rear man is swishing within inches of his heels. He doesn't look around, but he can feel and hear. He is not fast enough to keep ahead and knows it, so he swings out of his swath to left; out of the way. The faster cradler moves up and continues in the slower man's swath, who now takes the rear one. And, so it goes, first one man, then the other gains the lead. By the time they are half around, every one of them are wet with sweat; it drips from noses and chins with no time to wipe it off. They take a sheer delight in their art, for art it is; to take wide clean strokes one swath, faster and faster, with not a mistake, over rock, around stumps, evenly, not touching any thing but the grain and leaving not a stalk standing, with the stubble evenly cut. They are proud of their skill, their physical ability, and well they may be. Theirs is not a job for weaklings. Even some of them who appear fit at times suffer heat strokes; while seldom instantly fatal, it has been known to prevent further work of that kind for the rest of the victim's life.
Three of the cradlers slow down to the regular pace, two fast, husky ones refuse to quit, their cradles, are things to watch. The blades sing. The grain is a continual rustle of sound, as it is gathered from the cradle fingers at the end and top of stroke while cradle is in motion to right of swath at beginning of next stroke; most of re turn swing being done with right hand, while left is busy lining the grain from each stroke up on ground behind. In real heavy grain it is some times "swathed" or, in explanation; the cradler does not turn loose of cradle at end of stroke, but brings the cradle around to his left, with blade pointed directly back parallel with the ground, lowers cradle fingers enough to catch grain it holds on the stubble of cut grain; moves cradle forward and around in front to right, and beginning of next stroke, leaving the grain in an even windrow or continuous piIe, almost as straight as a string. That, also, takes skill, acquired by practice, and some can never do it properly. The "Winner" of the round gets congratulated. He is champion for the season-and well he earned it-he went around cradlers that were no slouch at the job. Then, another longer breathing spell, under the shade trees.
The cool jugs go around, gurgling. Brows are swabbed off. Friendly "chiding" comes in. The binders are not quite so fast, they too have earned a breathing spell, they have the satisfaction of knowing that they are good at their binding job. Also, yet, they are very glad that they will not again, this wheat cutting season, hear the wild clattering challenge of "The Banner Lick".
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly