Thursday, July 20, 2006

My First Farm Job With Pete & Jake In the fall after the magical summer with Dad, I stayed in town for the first few weeks, going to my aunt's house after school until Dad came to take me home. We soon saw the problems this was causing, as my uncle worked shift work making their schedule somewhat counter to that of mine & Dad's. He had to go on a business trip for two weeks in late September, and one week of that time we had off from school for teacher's convention. For these reasons, that week was selected for a change in residence. Thereafter I was, as per Dad's instructions, to consider the farms and uncle "R" and his family as my home and family. Thus started my years as a "farm kid" versus a "town kid". This lasted for about nine years, until I moved out on my own on my sixteenth birthday, and taught me much of what I know about life. Uncle R had only one child, a daughter who abhorred all facets of farm life except riding her saddle horse. She was never made to feed, clean, or do any of the work normally associated with having a horse as she was what was then considered "delicate". We now have a better term for it: "spoiled only child". She was, from what her grandmother confirmed to me, a "holy terror" with brattiness and tantrums to spare. Her grandmother, R's mom, lived with us and was a wonderful, if stoic, woman who took to me immediately, as she claimed I reminded her of R at my age. It was her suggestion that R treat me as if I were his son as he was raised. This idea appealed to him I guess, as the first few days after she suggested it, he took me with him all day watching, learning, and trying my hand at all he did. He decided after two or three days, that my place was two-fold as far as my main chores would be. I've always been intrigued by anything the least bit mechanical or that moves on it's own. Seeing my interest and obvious, even at that age, knack for all things involving machinery, my main job was to learn and see to maintaining all the farm's many mechanical devices. At first this involved mostly checking fluids, belts, fuel, adding what was needed and greasing all fittings everywhere with the proper lubricant. This part filled me with such excitement and anticipation I was elated as I'd seldom been. Being allowed to touch machines would've been enough, watching them even better, but to actually WORK on them, sheer joy. Then, as I sipped fresh raw milk to help swallow my warm, homemade molasses cookies spread thinly with fresh-churned salty butter, he delivered the devastating details of my other job. It seems uncle R loved his horses, he loved driving them, working them, even occasionally plodding around the farm and his woodlot's rutted roads atop one. He did not, however, like any part of their upkeep. From feeding, cleaning and maintaining them and their tack in pristine condition, to mucking out their stalls. I was now in charge of all aspects of their care. Not only was this a daunting amount of constant, heavy, and tedious toil, but he'd noted my nervousness around the beasties and thought this was the perfect way to overcome my trepidation. Not to mention relieving him of the position he'd held for so many years. These beasties consisted of the princess' palimino gelding, a donkey whose purpose was never made clear other than R's mom "liked" him, an obstinate and mean mule, and three work horses. One old Belgian stallion who was "retired", and two stallions that were mixed Belgian and Clydesdale, sons of the old Belgian and a neighbor's Clydesdale mare. The pictures above are of one of each breed, similar draft horses "pulling" to show their size and power, and similar horses "twitching wood" or hauling logs from a woodlot. The standing growth in the photo is far less dense than our lots. You'll notice I use "our" a lot as I felt as much a bona fide member of the family as any, and more than some who came and went at different times. That's another story though. Our woodlots were so thick with trees and undergrowth that they were only accessable by rutted paths or chainsaw. These photos were taken from the web, as I can find nobody having any of the farm or our lives. I'm sure they exist someplace, I just haven't found the person who has them, so these will do for now. Notice also the heavy harnesses or "tack" associated with these horses. As you might tell from the "pulling" photos, these horses were rather "big", even "Very big" if you consider how they appeared to a somewhat slight, short, seven-year-old boy unfamiliar with animals larger than a dog or cat. All three draft horses were large even for their breeds. Old Tom, the sire, was smallest at over 18 hands and 2200 pounds. For you non-horse savvy folks, that's over six feet tall at the withers, a ridge between the shoulderbones. The "boys" were about the same height, but a bit heavier. I thanked my fairy godmother on my first day learning all about them when I discovered their gentle, even playful nature. I guess that's part of why R trusted them with me, he knew they'd look after the silly little creature pretending to be "in charge" of them. The ass, mule, and palimino, I only ever cleaned and mucked out. The donkey was "retired" from a kiddie ride when R's mom bought him, as she thought he looked tired and footsore. The palimino was finickey as the princess and I hated riding anyway, even though I'm quite adept at it, if I may say so myself. The mule was occasionally employed hauling something or other, but as R was the only one who could find his "start" button, my task was similar with him. I did harness him up for something on rare instances where R was in a hurry and needed it done for him. Tom was let out each day to do whatever pleased him, which usually involved ambling around the various fields & woods trails and eating. At the slightest provocation such as rain, heat, bugs, etc, he was off for the safety of the barn. To get a picture of the place, the farm of the two we lived on was on the north side of the state highway that separated the two. Although they operated as one farm with two families, they were in fact quite different. While R had a dairy herd, hay & alfalfa fields, and income-producing woodlots, "F", his half-brother, had apple orchards, corn and bean fields, and a truck-garden store in a nearby town for income. Our farm consisted of a huge house, which I'll get to at another time or two, a huge pair of separate but parallel pantries with different uses running north to your left when in the kitchen facing the front, or east, side of the house toward the barnyard. The west side of the yard abutted the three story house, the north the connector shed, to the east was the three story milk barn, the milkroom, and a storage shed. To the north of the milk barn, running at a ninety degree angle from it, was a two story horse barn. Abutting the horse barn to its east was the one story 80 X 35 foot equipment barn. The milkroom was to the south of and added onto the milk barn. I'll get to these various structures in other segments of my ramblings, today we're in and about the horse barn and its denizens. As you enter the place through the milk barn, you find on the left the newer stalls housing the ass, mule, and palimino, running in order south to north. On the right are the larger, and older, homes of Jake, Pete, and lastly Tom. All the stalls are equipped with a feed trough, water trough, and a half-door behind each animal. The far end at the north has a stairway leading to the second floor which housed the tack room and the door to the paddock and fields. All the equipment in this room, which equalled in area the entire stall area below, was also now my responsibility. It mattered little to R that I had no idea what most of the stuff was, let alone how to use or care for it. His response to my saying such was "don't matter boy, ye'll larn soon 'nuff fo' my satisfaction". And so we come near the ending of this segment, and my beginnings as a somewhat hesitant farmhand. The next week and a half of my school fall vacation was thus consumed by learning adventures of a different sort than that to which I was accustomed. First I learned the importance of scouring the stalls clean, followed by spreading new bedding chips and hay throughout. That this was the most important of my tasks involving clean-up duties, was heavily stressed, until I passed the perusal of R's eagle eyes. First, you remove the stall occupant, so naturally I started learning with the smallest and gentlest of the six-pack of equines, the donkey. R wasn't present when I started that first day and had told me to get one animal out to the paddock in the back and wait for him. He was clearly not impressed with my decision, as he said as how I'd've been better off doing the hardest first, when my energy was at its peak. He was so right, and I followed that path of logic starting that very evening. I forgot one small fact here, as R had to tend to other duties and figured this'd take a bit, we began lessons before milking time, which was still a "late" daylight saving time five AM. That put the start of my horse chores at three AM, long before breakfast time, which was after milking, bottling, and delivery truck loading. Did I mention that we delivered raw milk, cream, eggs, and home churned butter to over two hundred homes seven days a week? Bet you can guess at what my third non-school day job was to entail. Anyway, back to horse farming for a bit more, lest you think this was the end. I forgot, we also had pigs, goats, and chickens. My aunt took care of these. Mucking out stalls, I was soon to discover, required critter removal, as I said. This was followed by shovelling/sweeping all the stall floor "matter" into a pile and onto a wheelbarrow as high as it'd go. This, so as to make as few trips out to the manure pile as possible. Usually, what I came to know as the little horses only took two trips per animal. The big boys were another matter altogether. After the solid matter was removed, you hosed down and applied soap to the stall floor and scrubbed mightily with a straw brush on a long handle. This mess was then washed down the drain at the front of each stall, beyond the animal's reach. Then you emptied, cleaned, and refilled the water and feed troughs that were at the front in a "V" shape, to allow the beastie access to each. Then you moved down to the next stall and removed the occupant while the first stall floor dried some. This usually took a few minutes and was hastened along by vigorous scrubbing action using another long-handled brush having far more bristles for generating frictional heat. Then you got the "dry" wheelbarrow you'd filled with dry sawdust and wood shavings and spread the stuff throughout the stall. This was followed by a generous serving of hay for bedding down and occasional munching on when it was still fresh and clean. Now the first beastie was rounded up, not always an easy task on nice days now that he had a playmate in the paddock with which to run around in mock races. When he was finally in the barn, you brushed & washed him as needed before re-installing him in his castle for about half a day, whole routine was repeated twice daily, three hundred sixty-five days a year, excepting leap years when you got an extra bonus day for your efforts. Did I mention that we had no electricity excepting the milk barn and milkroom which were serviced by a diesel powered generator as needed? That meant no running water with which to hose out the stalls until the rooftop tanks were filled. If you were lucky, it'd raind a bit to help you out. If you were me, usually drought conditions were prevelant. Assuming that mother nature had co-operated by filling the tanks one quarter full, you only had to pump the lower tank full and then use the hand cranked rotary pump to fill the upper tanks. As this was all the water available for cleaning, you made it do the whole task to avoid pumping more than the minimum amount needed. The lower tank was left full to use filling the pails for the water troughs, as the hose water from the upper tanks wasn't clean enough . The tanks were open-top style to gather rain, but collected other things as well. The monthly cleaning of the tanks is a story in itself, horrible undertaking. Even that first day, I got an insight into what my life as a team driver was to be. After cleaning the stalls of the three draft animals, I watched Tom and Pete add to the mess in the paddock in the form of their own brand of fertilizer. They then trotted docilely over to me when I called them. What a thrill that was, these great masses of muscle trotting eagerly to me at the sound my youthful, squeaky voice. They then got in place on their own for me to groom them, and when I finished they moved gingerly into their respective stalls. Thus leaving Jake for last. I called him, and when he refused to acknowledge me, let alone respond, I got the rope as R instructed me and ventured into the muck and manure filled paddock. After chasing him while slipping, sliding, and falling until I needed a good cleaning, he stood still, snicker-snorted, and lowered his head to allow me to put the rope around his neck and "lead" him into the barn. He stood perfectly still while I brushed and cleaned him, after some washing-up of myself. Then he traipsed into his stall, looked at me, snickered and shook his head and, as I closed the half-door, proceeded to "fertilize" the stall I'd just mucked out. Then R, laughing 'til tears ran down his cheeks, informed me to never scrub & refill Jake's stall until AFTER he had his little "joke", which he pulled on me virtually every day. He wouldn't do it on rainy, snowy, or exceptionally cold days as he didn't want to go back outside while I recleaned the stall. This was my introduction to horse humor, a trait abundantly plentiful in Jake and a bit also resided in Pete's inner mental programming. Later on, after I became more familiar with the requirements of farm life and, using a bit of ingenuity, there came to be various homemade contraptions to make life easier, mostly my life. For now, we'll leave the equipment as I found it, and save working the tack room and "driving" the team while pulling logs, rocks, wagons, and competing at county fairs with them in pulling contests for later. Those contests remain a huge part of farm life here today. Some people look at these contests as cruelty to animals, but I can tell you from experience, these animals are at their happiest when showing off what they can do. The folks who raise, tend, and compete with these horses and oxen treat them as valued members of their families. More horsey stuff next time as I'm all typed out for now. Any errors, mis-spelling, etc are purely the result of my continuing lack of any computerized typing skills. Take care.

3 comments:

Mies said...

Very good writing, I could almost see the horse chuckling at you over the stall cleaning..lol...You also gave us a not-so glamous side to horses, one that you don't often read about...
Reminded me of an old picture I recently aquired of George's grandfather in the early 1900's, standing in between his two favorite things in the world...His team of work horses, all hitched and ready to go...They were certainly very important members of the family in those days, he being an old South Dakota farmer....
Thanks for another entertaining and well written story....see ya on the GB.....

Sarah said...

See jogging the horsey memory was a good thing.It got more stories from you.They're beauties but I can see why the memories you have of them were because you had to work & care them.All memories contain sometimes good thoughts even if they didn't seem good at time.Another job well done in life and on this page.

Mar said...

Ooooops, I'm already tired after reading this post, wow! I admire you, people, who survive to hard times and big efforts. Mike, you really know how to write a story to get people interested and wanting more. Thank you again. See you later, pal ;-)