Stranded on the Manure Carrier

Fun on a northern Illinois farm quickly takes a turn for the worse when stuck in a manure carrier

Plans for dumping manure into a wagon outside a dairy barn

Plans for dumping manure into a wagon outside a dairy barn. These engravings were probably made before manure spreaders became common. The manure would have to be unloaded in the field by hand with a manure fork or shovel.

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Most of my growing-up summers were spent on my grandfather's farm in northern Illinois. While there were many things on the farm to fascinate a young boy, I was especially intrigued by the manure carriers (more euphemistically called "litter carriers"), not to be confused with manure spreaders.

The farm had three of these manure carriers: two in the part of the barn reserved for young cattle and "heifers in waiting," and one for the dairy cattle in the milking section. Each carrier operated on an overhead trolley system, consisting of a long, heavy carrier wire, and two trolley wheels supporting a pivoting hopper. The hopper would invert to dump the load. One end of the carrier wire was anchored inside the barn; the other end was attached to a heavy post about 80 feet outside of the barn.

I often watched in fascination as my Uncle Amos shoveled manure from the floor gutters into the hopper. This was a daily chore in the dairy cattle section. After loading the carrier, he would lean into it like a football lineman pushing a training sled. With a mighty shove, he sent it zooming out the barn door to the end of the line. The wire would literally sing as the carrier made its way to the triplock. The triplock was a projecting piece mounted on the wire. It caught a lever on the carrier and made the hopper dump at a preset spot.

There was a resounding ploppity-plop as the fresh manure splattered on the ground. The carrier would then coast back into the barn by gravity for another load. When the job was finished, Amos would lift the carrier wire over a hook on top of the doorway. This gave the wire enough elevation to keep the carrier outside, where it would not interfere with milking operations.

My intrigue with manure carriers eventually put me and my two cousins, Ted and Marilyn, into a precarious situation. One day, we had the farm to ourselves. With the exception of our Uncle Everitt, who was cultivating corn, the adults in the family had gone to town for shopping. They thought we three cousins were responsible enough to look after ourselves for the few hours they would be gone. Bad assumption!

After looking for something to do, we settled on playing with one of the manure carriers. Using a milking stool to stand on, I was able to unhook the carrier wire in the doorway. The carrier responded by rolling into the barn. After getting bored with shoving the carrier back and forth, we decided to give each other rides.

The passenger sat astride the inverted hopper and was shoved out the barn door to the end of the line. Since the terrain dropped off sharply in the cow yard, the carrier wire was about 15 feet off the ground near the end post. This made it more exciting than a carnival ride!

We finally got the idea for all three of us to ride at once. Since I was the oldest, Ted and Marilyn climbed aboard first. I then gave the carrier a shove, and somehow managed to clamber on board.

The three of us rolled out to the triplock, but at a slow speed. One trolley wheel rolled over the triplock, and then we stalled. The triplock was just enough of a detent to keep the carrier from rolling back to the barn. I tried to push us off the triplock by grabbing the wire, but the carrier would not budge.

Finally it dawned on us that we were stranded. Shouting for help proved useless, since no one was around to hear our cries. We thought about jumping off, but we were too intimidated by the seemingly long drop to the ground.

For what seemed like hours, we squirmed around to find more comfortable positions. This only made the hopper rock precariously on its pivots, making us cling tighter to whatever we could grab. Finally, we spied Everitt coming home with the team and cultivator. We yelled for help. Everitt looked at us and replied in his own inimitable way, "What the #@!! are you doing up there?"

After giving us a brief lecture, he got a long pole and pushed us back to the barn. It was our final ride on the manure carrier. To this day, we three cousins often joke about the time we were stranded on that manure carrier.

I often wonder whatever happened to those contraptions. One thing that led to their demise was that local boards of health and milk processors banned manure piles near a dairy barn. Powered conveyors in the manure gutters gave the carrier system the final death knell. It was much easier to push a button and have the manure deposited directly into a waiting manure spreader.

Carriers came in a variety of types. Some had a chain hoist to lower the hopper to the floor for easier loading. Others employed a rigid overhead rail system instead of a wire. Sometimes these included curved sections, switches and crossovers, just like a railroad track. The system could also transport livestock feed by using special hoppers for that purpose.

I don't know of any antique farm machinery buffs who collect manure carriers, but there must be a few out there. If you ever see an old manure carrier, probably long abandoned, maybe you ought to rescue and restore it. Just don't try to ride on it! FC