Lost Farm Occupations

Several farm-related occupations, such as rope splicer and bovine midwife, have disappeared in the past few decades.

blacksmith

Blacksmith at work.

Photo courtesy the Library of Congress

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Long ago, someone gave me a book on lost occupations. Most were of the “candlestick maker” variety: long gone by my time. During the time I lived in a city, I saw the iceman, breadman and milkman disappear from the scene, and while on the farm I saw a lot of rural jobs go by the wayside as well. I remember several interesting farm-related occupations from my boyhood years ago.

The rope splicer

They say he mastered his skill while in the Danish navy. When farmers put up their loose hay, his craft could be vital. With several hundred feet of expensive rope in their hay conveyance system, farmers could not simply tie loose ends together if a rope broke: Knots would not pass through a pulley. With the hay cut, raked and laying in the field, farmers called in the rope splicer. In a few minutes his deft fingers spliced broken ends. Only a lighter color revealed the spot where the repair had been made. I do not know what the rope splicer did the rest of the year: perhaps something else he learned in the Danish navy!

The thistle commissioner

I do not know if this job was a county, state or combined job. In any case, this man was on the lookout for Canada thistles. He would warn farmers if they had a bad infestation. Failure to take action could result in a citation, fine or court appearance.

His occupation gave new meaning to Jean-François Millet’s painting, Man With a Hoe. In the days before herbicides, a hoe was about the only tool available to combat those obstinate weeds. Only one time did I see my Uncle Amos use a tractor to plow a section of pasture and, of course, he also plowed up the grazing grass in the process.

The commissioner was an enterprising fellow. He also sold and serviced Pyrene fire extinguishers. I wonder which was more of a threat: Canada thistles or the carbon tetrachloride he handled when charging those extinguishers.

The whitewasher

The whitewasher usually came about twice a year to whitewash the milking section of the barn. He arrived completely covered with whitewash from head to toe. He had a pickup truck with an old hit-and-miss engine, the type that would be a collector’s item today. The engine drove the pump for the sprayer. He also had more than 100 feet of hose to use in spraying whitewash.

After World War II, the whitewasher brought what appeared to be a miracle. From the very beginning, dairy farms were plagued by flies. After the war, the whitewasher added DDT to the whitewash mix. My uncles marveled as they saw flies land on the overhead line and stanchions, and then, in a few seconds, drop dead. Rachel Carson and the government ended all that (the same government also deloused our soldiers with DDT). After the federal ban, we were back to the hand-sprayer and Fy-Tox-type insecticide.

The highline inspector

This wasn’t really a farm job, but the highline inspector helped make sure the power was there when a dairy farmer switched on his milking machine. He was a very debonair character, dressed in khaki, high-top boots and safari-style hat and carrying a pair of binoculars. The latter was used to spot broken insulators and other damage that could interrupt electric power.

The highline inspector was the nearest thing we had to Indiana Jones. We called him “Highline Pete.” Pete knew all the farmers along his section of the highline. He also knew which farm women were the best cooks. He always managed to show up at lunchtime (back then, we called it dinner). Lonely farm ladies were willing to swap a meal for the latest gossip. If he overstayed his time and was confident in his line, he would ask his host for a ride to the next town.

I always thought Pete had the ideal job. But I probably would not think that if I had seen him trudging through snowdrifts in subzero temperatures. Today helicopters and even drones have taken this job over. They will never be as interesting and colorful as Highline Pete.

The bovine midwife

That is not what we called this man, but that is what he was. Without going into detail about his actual job, he had an asymmetry of attire: One sleeve was rolled up to his elbow and the other to the shoulder. While he was not as capable as a veterinarian, he was usually more available and much cheaper. His medicine bag was just that: an old feed sack. It contained such delicate instruments as a block and tackle. With apologies to public television, when a farmer thought he had a delivery problem with one of his cows, it was time to call the bovine midwife. It was also time to send the kids to the house.

Thundering grinder on wheels

While most farmers enjoyed the social aspects of hauling grain to the elevator or feed mill, it was a time-consuming process involving a lot of extra handling. In our area, Jud solved that by bring the hammer mill to the farm. The engine and grinder were mounted on a mid-size truck. Sometimes Jud came early in the morning. If any visiting city folk thought they could sleep in, they were wrong. When Jud cranked up that big commercial engine, the thundering roar could wake the dead. I do not believe it had a muffler, just a straight pipe exhaust.

The harness maker

There were several harness shops in that area of northern Illinois, but Uncle Amos preferred one in Beloit, Wisconsin. For us kids, that was an exciting day trip. Inside the shop there was the odor of rawhide and things the harness maker used to make, repair and polish harness. While farmers could not afford to be sentimental about their livestock, horses were the exception. For Amos’ horses, only the best would do.

The blacksmith

Almost every farm community had a blacksmith. He would do everything from shoe horses to repair broken metal on a piece of farm machinery. Some of these morphed into small welding and machine shops.

My Aunt Inez told a story about the blacksmith in her small village of Lee, Illinois. When the electric utility company at first bypassed Lee, the blacksmith decided to take matters into his own hands: He wired the town himself. While this was no small matter, there were few, if any, codes to worry about. He set up an engine and a dynamo in his shop. I do not know who wired the homes. It was common to find older houses with the wires on the outside of plastered walls, rather than inside of them.

My aunt said it was such a small operation that electric service could not be provided 24 hours a day. The blacksmith would shut it down at about 10 p.m. To warn his customers, he would pull the main switch and flash the lights several times. That meant you should either go to bed or light your kerosene lamp. If you were planning a special event, for about $5 he would leave the power on for an extra hour or two. I do not believe he metered the power; he probably charged a flat rate. Imagine the CEO of a utility company being on first-name basis with his customers!

The mobile cinema

While also not, strictly speaking, a farm job, this one brought movies to small farm communities. Grandfather’s nephew, Vic, was the entrepreneur. He set up a screen in the park. The projector was in the back of his panel truck. When he opened the rear doors, the show was about to begin. Vic solicited local merchants to sponsor the shows. They stayed open during intermission while Vic showed slides advertising their wares.

The movies were mostly B-grade Westerns and cartoons. As with baseball, there were also rain delays. Since Vic had only one projector, he had to stop the show to change reels. I think Vic was faster at this than the big city projectionist who had the luxury of working with two projectors.

When he returned home after World War II ended, Vic did not resume this job. The American farmer had become more mobile and did not mind driving his family to a large city to shop and see Hollywood’s latest. I still think Vic’s movies in the park were more fun.

Old occupations are continually vanishing while new ones appear. For young people starting a lifetime career, the trick is recognizing which is which. FC


Clyde Eide shares memories of farm life in the 1930s from his home in Texas. Contact him at 3801 East Crest Dr., #3205, Bryan, TX 77802.