Oat Sowing Time and Running the Fan Mill

Spring thaw meant running the fan mill and oat sowing time

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On Muddy Creek in those long ago days of my growing up, Saturday was the day Dad had some extra help, and he always had enough jobs lined up that there was little time for us teenagers to get into mischief.

In mid-January and February, the preparations for spring planting were already underway. With sufficient "boy power" available to turn the big Clipper fan mill, one of the first jobs to get out of the way was to get the seed oats ready for the first spring thaw in early March.

Running the several bushel of oats through the fan mill, with its multiple size screens, pretty well sifted out unwanted weed seeds, of which there was always an abundance. Most years Dad took a look at the oats produced on Muddy Creek and decided that they were just too weedy and besides, the yield last year was not really that good, in spite of the back 20 producing nearly 20 bushel to the acre, so he would go "down in Lukin" and get a wagon load of "seed oats" from John or George Moore, who seemed to have the knack of raising good oats. Usually he would have to pay a premium of a dime or so a bushel, but, as he said, "If they give me five more bushel to the acre, the cost is justified." Besides, cockle burrs were not the problem down that away that they were on Muddy Creek, and one pass through the fan mill would get out most of the other unwanted weeds like "stick tight" and button weed.

For those uninformed, I must tell you that a fan mill is a labor-intensive framework with a hopper on its top in which grain or seed is poured. A geared crank on the side puts the machine in motion so that grain flows down over the flat but sloping griddles (or screens) that jiggle and keep the grains moving along. Each size screen winnows out first the trash and larger debris and then, as the holes let oat-size and smaller grains drop onto the next screen, this too is shaken by the revolving crank and everything smaller than an oat grain drops out, so that the relatively clean and even-size oat grains fall into the bin below. But as they fall, they do so through a curtain of air that blows away any dust and chaff that may be present. Not only farm-raised oats, but most other home-grown seed such as clover must be cleaned through the fan mill before it can be planted. One of the great joys of my life was when Dad finally got around to hooking up the Delco light plant to run the fan mill.

Then come some Saturday, along about the middle of March (when the teacher was extolling the merits of Shakespeare's Ides of March), Dad would announce it was "oat sowing time." He would already have gotten the oat seeder down from the haymow, checked the chain and oiled the bearings. Then he would mount the seeder on the wagon bed box by removing the folding end gate and dropping the seeder into its place. The oat seeder had a hopper of about two-bushel capacity with a 10-inch vaned fan on the bottom outlet. This horizontal fan was spun by a chain drive from the huge 2-foot-wide gear that was centered and permanently bolted on the left rear wagon wheel. As the vanes spun, they picked up a steady stream of oats and flung them in all directions so that a swatch about two rod wide was liberally planted with oat grains.

Dad preferred to use the mules, Kate and Jake, for pulling the oat wagon, for they were better "mudders" than Old Doll and Bill. Even though a mule's hooves are smaller than those of a horse, especially a part-Percheron like Old Doll, they were lighter in weight and the mules seemed to actually enjoy pulling the wagon through the semi-frozen ground after the first spring thaw, and that was when Dad picked his oats sowing time.

You know, if you had asked him, he would have denied having a belief in signs. But he always, always, planted his potatoes on Good Friday, even if he had to mud 'em in, and he always sowed oats on the Saturday after the first spring thaw, even if the creek was still in flood. FC

Perry E. Piper's recollections of his childhood on Muddy Creek – "which Iies astraddle of the Indian Boundary Line that old Chief Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison laid out back in 1803" – have appeared in newspapers in Illinois and Indiana for the past 12 years.