Looking Back

Let There Be Light on the Farm!


Detail from a Delco ad in the April, 1930 issue of Farm Mechanics magazine.

The following events might have occurred on a mid-western farm in the years 1912 or 1915, although it’s doubtful that it was common.

Clyde McFarland had grown up on a farm and still remembered that you harnessed a horse from the left side, milked a cow on the right, that wagon nuts tighten the way the wheel turns, and that a fresh egg doesn’t float.

When young, Clyde had moved to the city, started a successful business, and become somewhat wealthy. He had a daughter married and a boy soon to graduate from college; and both he and his wife were country raised. They had some savings and wanted to retire from business and get “back to the land.” Therefore, he leased the business and bought a farm that would grow enough clover to feed the average dairy herd, with a nice barn, tolerable outbuildings, and a good comfortable house.  

They moved in one fall, and began to get acquainted with the area. This hilly country was still partially wooded, and creeks and streams ran through every valley. Once, water-powered grist mills and sawmills were plentiful along these streams, and a few could still be found in different stages of decay. The railroad had come through, making it easy to haul coal to make steam, and mills began to be concentrated around population centers. Soon the little backwoods mills became unprofitable and were abandoned.

Clyde spent a day with his next door neighbor, Ezra Hawkins, who had given him a tour of the neighborhood and they got in late. The two men stumbled around in the dark, putting the buggy away and getting the horse fed and watered with only the light of a kerosene lantern. They went inside and ate supper by the uncertain light of an oil lamp.

Next day Ezra was grinding cider at his ramshackle water mill, part of a long ago sawmill, and Clyde went to help. When they had finished, he asked, "How much power have you got here?"

"Thirty or forty horsepower, I guess."

"What do you do with it, besides making cider?"

"Nothing much. Oh, there’s an old sawmill in there that would probably work, but it hasn’t been run since I built my barn seven or eight years ago.”

"Do you use it thirty days a year?"

"Shoot, no; not half that."

"What are you gonna do with it this winter?"

"Nothing, although I’ll let the wheel turn so it won't freeze. I won’t be here as I’m taking the family to Texas to visit my wife's folks for about three months."

"Will you rent me the mill while you’re gone?"

"Sure! You can have it for nothing, if you’ll watch the ice."

"All right; let me know when you come back and I'll drive into town and bring you home."

Three months later Clyde received a letter and one February day he drove to town to bring his neighbor home. It was dark when they got back and as Clyde opened the door of Ezra’s house he reached over and clicked something.

Instantly light was everywhere, in the barn-yard, and shining from the barn windows, while it was the same in the house. Clyde led the amazed family from room to room and in every one he clicked a button and the room became as light as day. He opened the cellar door and “click,” every corner of that formerly dark hole was illuminated.

"How the deuce did you do that?" squeaked Ezra.

"I put your idle water wheel to work," said Clyde; and then, satisfied with his exhibition, he put them back in the sleigh and drove to his house, where his wife had supper waiting.

While the men were putting up the team in Clyde’s well-lighted barn, Mrs. Hawkins went into the kitchen. Her hostess was cooking supper on an electric stove; an electric hot-water tank stood in the corner and hot water was to be had at any hour simply by turning a faucet. In the laundry there was an electric pump that kept the tank in the attic filled automatically by means of a switch operated by a float in the tank. A motor, about the size of a medium pumpkin, operated a washing machine and wringer on wash days, and was also used to turn the cream separator, spin the sewing machine, and work the vacuum cleaner.

Over the dining room table hung the same old shade, but it now contained a 100-watt tungsten lamp whose rays made the white table cloth fairly glisten. In the sitting room, a cluster of electric bulbs glowed from a fancy wicker basket that Mrs. McFarland had fashioned into a good-looking lamp shade.

When supper was over and the men had lighted their pipes, Ezra hesitantly asked, “What’s all this going to cost me?”

"Nothing," said Clyde. "You furnish the water-power with your wheel, and I furnish the electric installation. I’ve taken the liberty of wiring your house and your barn and your barn-yard. Altogether, you have about thirty lights about the place, and if you were in town, those lights would cost you about twelve cents an hour of use—say sixty cents a day or eighteen dollars a month. That isn't a very big electric bill for some people I know in town—and your wheel is running all winter anyway to keep it from freezing so it might just as well be spinning the dynamo.

"If you think this eighteen dollars’ worth of light you have on tap every month is worth it,” continued Clyde, “we’ll say the account is settled, provided you let me use of half the electricity that your wheel is grinding out with my dynamo. Next spring I’m going to stock this place, and for my dairy I’ll have an electric milking machine. Electricity will also fill my silo, turn my grindstone, saw my wood, and keep water running in my barn. You might want to do the same.

"And just think how it helps the women! When my wife wants a hot stove she presses a button. That's all— no shoveling dirty coal, no carrying out ashes. Ironing and washing are much easier, and there are no oil lamps to fill, no wicks to trim, no chimneys to wash, no lantern to kick over and start a fire. And best of all, no carrying heavy buckets of water from the well!"

Ezra was convinced, the two men shook hands and, just like in the fairy tale, they lived happily ever after, bathed in light—and they prospered mightily.

Uncle Josh on a Bicycle

Cal Stewart in his role of Uncle Josh Weathersby. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

The twenty first century offers everyone endless opportunities to be entertained. Movies, television, computers, smart phones, and even virtual reality devices that put one almost anywhere in the world, performing almost any feat of daring—I once stood in the attic where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis, virtually, of course. A century or so ago that wasn’t the case—folks had to rely on themselves or people around them for entertainment. During the nineteenth century, a revival meeting, a traveling circus, or a lecturer drew large crowds, especially in rural areas. People liked to laugh, so the humorist became popular—men such as Artemus Ward and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) were big draws. They would travel from town to town by rail, hire a hall, put up playbills, and the residents of the town, as well as those from miles around would flock to see their humorous monologs.

Late in the 1800s a new face came on the scene, a man named Cal Stewart who specialized in comic monologs where he pretended to be Uncle Josh Weathersby, a homespun character who lived in an imaginary New England village named, “Punkin Center.”

One of Stewart’s stage monologs was titled: “Uncle Josh on a Bicycle,” and was included in a book called “Uncle Josh’s Punkin Center Stories,” which may be found on Gutenberg.

“Along last summer Ruben Hoskins, that is Ezra Hoskins' boy, he cum home from college and bro't one of them new fangled bisickle masheens hum with him, and I think ever since that time the whole town of Punkin Centre has got the bisickle fever. Old Deacon Witherspoon he's bin a-ridin' a bisickle to Sunday school, and Jim Lawson he couldn't ride one of them 'cause he's got a wooden leg; but he jist calculated if he could git it hitched up to the mowin' masheen, he could cut more hay with it than any man in Punkin Centre. Somebody sed Si Pettingill wuz tryin' to pick apples with a bisickle.

“Wall, all our boys and girls are ridin' bisickles now, and nothin' would do but I must learn how to ride one of them. Wall, I didn't think very favorably on it, but in order to keep peace in the family I told them I would learn. Wall, gee whilikee, by gum. I wish you had bin thar when I commenced. I took that masheen by the horns and I led it out into the middle of the road, and I got on it sort of unconcerned like, and then I got off sort of unconcerned like. Wall, I sot down a minnit to think it over, and then the trouble commenced. I got on that durned masheen and it jumped up in the front and kicked up behind, and bucked up in the middle, and shied and balked and jumped sideways, and carried on worse 'n a couple of steers the fust time they're yoked. Wall, I managed to hang on fer a spell, and then I went up in the air and cum down all over that bisickle. I fell on top of it and under it and on both sides of it; I fell in front of the front wheel and behind the hind wheel at the same time. Durned if I know how I done it but I did. I run my foot through the spokes, and put about a hundred and fifty punctures in a hedge fence, and skeered a hoss and buggy clar off the highway. I done more different kinds of tumblin' than any cirkus performer I ever seen in my life, and I made more revolutions in a fifteen-foot circle than any buzz-saw that ever wuz invented. Wall, I lost the lamp, I lost the clamp, I lost my patience, I lost my temper, I lost my self-respect, my last suspender button and my standin' in the community. I broke the handle bars, I broke the sprockets, I broke the ten commandments, I broke my New Year's pledge and the law agin loud and abusive language, and Jim Lawson got so excited he run his wooden leg through a knot-hole in the porch and couldn't git it out agin. Wall, I'm through with it; once is enough fer me. You kin all ride your durned old bisickles that want to, but fer my part I'd jist as soon stand up and walk as to sit down and walk. No more bisickles fer your Uncle Josh, not if he knows it, and your Uncle Josh sort of calculates as how he do.”

I actually think Uncle Josh was a whole lot funnier than most of the standup comedians on Comedy Central today. But, I guess that’s just me.

A 1930 Farm Family Christmas

Montgomery Ward prices for women’s coats ranged from $9.95 to $49.95

This fictitious story about Christmas in 1930 was inspired by a Montgomery-Ward catalog in my collection.

The typical farm family in October and November of 1930 would probably have been thinking of Christmas despite the hard times. Mother, Grandma, the kids for sure, and maybe even Dad and Grandpa, would have been looking through the Montgomery Ward's Fall and Winter 1930-31 Catalogue, with Ben Franklin on the cover. The adults would have chosen practical gifts, even though they had some secret desires, while the younger folks were more likely to give in to "the wants," and put too much on their wish lists.

On page three of the catalog, the "Brilliant and Charming New York Society Women Who Now Serve on Ward's Fashion Board" were introduced. These worthies included, Mrs. Morgan Belmont, "one of the best dressed women in New York society" and Mrs. John Harriman, "Noted for her beauty and chic." Also featured were Miss Anne Rittenhouse, "Internationally famous stylist," as well as Miss Ethel Boston, "Ward's stylist, famous for her chic and her knowledge of what the well-dressed woman in New York accepts in fashions."

Our farm wife could only wistfully dream of ordering a black, "All Wool Trico Broadcloth" coat with "thick soft pelts of black, Wolf-dyed Manchurian Dog fur in shawl collar and pointed cuffs.” For $19.95, “milady could follow the example of every chic French woman (who) counts on (the coat) as the 'piece de resistance' of many a charming costume."

Mrs. Farmwife then may have imagined herself looking glamorous in one of the many closefitting, cloche-type hats that were priced from 79 cents to $3.95. Under the heading, "Your Figure Is As Correct As Your Corset," eight pages of undergarments, many with cruel-looking straps, laces and stays, were pictured, as well as pure silk stockings costing from 85 cents to $1.79 per pair. "With a Bow to Paris," Ward's offered frocks ranging from pure silk versions costing $13.95 to a washable cotton housedress for only 98 cents.

Mama may have dreamed of fine dining with a Rogers Brothers silver plated tableware service for 12, guaranteed for 35 years and costing $22.75, to set off a 65 piece set of Heinrich's finest imported Bavarian china for $25.95. After dinner, they could all listen to the Airline, All Electric, 7-tube radio that cost $79.50, without tubes and antenna, or $96.00 complete. “If they could only afford a self-starting Powerlite 110-volt, light plant to make their own electricity,” she dreamed, but it was out of the question at $179.75.

Coming back to earth, Mrs. Farmwife completed her short personal Christmas list. Her one indulgence, a box of Coty face powder at 89 cents, and then she turned practical with a pair of warm, wool gloves at 49 cents, and a polished steel, 12 inch skillet that cost $.62.

15 year-old Johnny hated his old knicker suit, especially since the trousers now didn’t nearly reach his knees. He longed for a new suit, like the nice wool and silk, single-breasted with a vest and two pairs of long pants for only $7.69. He could only dream of speeding along on a shiny Hawthorne Flyer bike equipped with a headlight, horn, package carrier and imitation leather tool case for $31.50.  A Springfield, single-shot .22 caliber rifle at $4.29 and one or two Rover Boys or Tom Swift books at 46 cents each were added to Johnny's list as well.

Little Billy hoped for an all steel coaster wagon at $3.00, a Structo steam shovel for $1.00, a Marx wind-up crawler tractor at $.83, and an alcohol burning Weeden toy steam engine for $1.95. He really wanted an electric train but the freight set he liked cost $8.98, and besides they had no electricity to run it. Billy needed a new pen knife too, since he'd recently lost his, and a two-blader with multi-colored handles cost just 79 cents. Then there was the baseball glove that cost all of $2.69, but it had been autographed by Charlie Root, star pitcher for the Chicago Cubs.

Molly, eleven, had pored over the catalog for hours and just couldn't make up her mind; she wanted so many of the pretty things but knew there were limits. She finally decided to ask for an Effanbee Patsy doll at $2.59, a 14 piece, lithographed metal tea set for $.39, a Peter Rabbit paint set at 89 cents and an Uncle Wiggily game costing $.59. A heavy, all-wool shaker sweater and matching cap for $5.87 and a birthstone ring for $3.35 finished up Molly's list.

Grandma thought a half-dozen mercerized, white lawn hankies at $.53 would be nice, along with a warm, full length, ribbed cotton union suit at $.93. She secretly longed for a soft, comfortable, velour upholstered rocker, but it cost $23.85, while a $2.00 bottle of Evening in Paris perfume would be heavenly, although she didn't ask for it.

Grandpa allowed that a one pound tin of Granger pipe tobacco and a flannelette night shirt, each costing 89 cents, was all he wanted, but he’d been eying an Iver Johnson double barrel shotgun that sold for $25.98 and maybe, to replace his old corncob, a fancy Meerschaum pipe at $5.95.

Dad said he could use a new chambray work shirt at 59 cents, a warm, wool dress cap with ear flaps for $1.39, and some new bib overalls for $1.10. Of course, a complete pump jack outfit with a Sattley 1 1/2 H.P. gas engine ($49.85) would sure save a lot of work, and a Richardson steel casting rod and South Bend anti-backlash reel would make it easier to catch that big bass he'd been after for months. Ah well, that outfit cost $9.42.

Although set ten years later, my sister and I did the same as our fictitious Molly, Johnny and Billy, and our extensive wish lists were usually pruned drastically, just as theirs would have been. At the time, I never thought of Mom and Dad having to go without things they wanted, but I'm sure it was so.

Merry Christmas!       

Let's Have a Turtle Frolic

A diamond back terrapin. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When I lived in Ohio, my favorite restaurant was the Springfield Grille in Boardman, not least because they served an excellent turtle soup. While rooting around on the ‘net not long ago, I found this 1891 account of “Trapping the Terrapin. Various Methods of Trapping the Toothsome Turtle” Terrapins are small turtles usually found in fresh or brackish waters of the eastern U.S. Due to over-hunting, terrapins are scarce today so snapping turtle or sea turtle meat is used in soup instead.

But in the 1700s and 1800s, the terrapin population was still large, and folks of that time loved turtle; there are stories from those days of events called “turtle frolics” where attendees were served hot turtle soup from three-foot upturned turtle shells, while there are accounts of John Adams, George Washington and Abe Lincoln all enjoying savory bowls of the stuff. A famous Swiss physician, Samuel Tissot, wrote of the blood-cleansing properties of turtle soup in 1760.

The 1891 article points out that the terrapin is a swift and strong swimmer unless, being a cold blooded reptile, he is sluggish from cold weather. When the beasts are active, a trap made of coarse netting with an inward pointing funnel-like entrance at one end is used. Fish bait is put inside and the turtles enter through the funnel and can’t find their way out again. Part of the net trap must be above water so the turtle can surface to breathe air.

In the Chesapeake Bay area terrapin were hunted with dogs, of all things. A well-trained terrapin dog was said to be worth $100 and took at least six months to train. The dogs were used during the turtle spawning season when the critters left the water to lay their eggs. The dog would follow the water’s edge until he sniffed out a fresh turtle track, which he would then follow to the nest under some grass or bushes. When the dog located the egg-laying turtle he would put a foot on her back to hold her in place and bark loudly. The hunter would run up, grab the unfortunate amphibian and drop her in a gunny sack. The story claimed that “as many as fifty terrapins have in this way been caught by one dog in a single day.”

In some places hunters dug long shallow ditches in the marshes in the fall and, while the tide was out, stirred the bottoms of these depressions into a soft mud, into which the turtles would burrow, thinking they had found a good safe spot to spend the winter. When cold weather arrived, the hunter took a pitchfork and probed the mud. He could tell the difference between hitting a rock or a turtle shell and if it were the latter he dug it up, and into the bag it went.

Sometimes in winter when the turtles were sleeping peacefully beneath the mud under dead grass, cat-tails and reeds, the grass was set afire. The fire warmed the mud, causing the poor deluded terrapins to think spring had come early. They would burrow out of the mud and were summarily grabbed and popped into a sack.

In the Maryland and Virginia coastal area, during the summer terrapins lived in deep holes along the creeks. Several hunters in a boat would drift silently to the edge of one of these pools and suddenly begin hammering on the side of the boat with wooden clubs. Apparently, turtles are as curious as cats or cows and numbers of them would come to the surface to see what all the fuss was about. Of course the hunters were armed with long handled nets and scooped the hapless creatures into the boat.

Marketable terrapins were divided into three grades according to size. “Counts” were those whose undershell measured more than six inches. “Heifers,” also called “Scanty-Backs,” had shells between five and six inches, while “Bulls” or “Half-Backs” were less than five inches.

The article describes the only successful “Terrapin Farm” at that time, which was located at Roanoke, Virginia. There was an immense pond into which the tide ebbed and flowed through a screened sluiceway. Four to five thousand turtles were kept and were fed eight or ten bushels of fish and crabs twice a week. Early in June the females would leave the water and deposit anywhere from eight to twenty eggs, carefully covering them with sand. Some of the eggs hatched in around three months, although many waited until the following spring.

The hatchlings are described thus: “On his first appearance in the world a baby terrapin gives but little promise of his future epicurean greatness. He is half an inch in diameter, dirty, soft and helpless. He will not even venture to wet his toes in the water until several weeks old. The first winter of the little fellows’ lives they are packed in loose chopped straw and kept in a warm, dry place where they doze until awakened by the blue birds. In the spring they have each grown to the size of a quarter of a dollar, and are then turned into the pond to learn from the older fellows their future usefulness. Terrapins grow an inch a year, a Count being at least six years old.”      

I don’t know why eating turtle has so fallen out of favor — when I had my turtle soup at the Springfield Grille I’d sometimes get one for my family to taste it. They always said “Yes, that’s good,” but none of them ever ordered it for themselves. Possibly it’s not eaten because it’s not available at most places, and that may be due to the fact our ancestors ate so many of the critters that they’re now scarce, and expensive.

If I Had A Hammer

Cheney and Maydole ads from the January, 1936 issue of Hardware Age magazine

Almost every one of us has used a hammer (or a wrench, a pair of pliers, or even a rock in lieu of one), but who ever gave a thought to the history of the ubiquitous little tool? Not me, I know. Of course we all have vague images of crude stone hammers in our heads, but we’re accustomed to the really good ones available today. When a fellow uses a modern one all he has to worry about is hitting his thumb (I worked as a carpenter’s helper for a while as a teen-ager and one of the old-timers told me that a man couldn’t claim to be a carpenter until he’d lost his thumbnail three times) and not that the hammer head will fly off and bonk a co-worker on the noggin.

A couple of hundred years ago if you wanted a new hammer you went to the local blacksmith and had him make one for you. Depending upon his skill the hammer may or may not have been well balanced and/or tempered properly. Then it was up to you to whittle and fit a handle and secure it somehow to the hammer head, not an easy task.

It seems there are two men, both of them blacksmiths, who vie for the honor of being the first really good hammer makers in this country. One, David Maydole, was born in Scoharie County, NY in 1807 and was apprenticed to a blacksmith when fifteen. Maydole made his own hammers and while using them in his shop noticed that the heads would sometimes fly off the handles, or they would be too soft and mushroom, or else be too hard and split. He worked and experimented and finally by the early 1840s had solved these problems. He’d learned how to properly temper the heads for both strength and resilience, and after contemplating the extended eye of an adz, applied the same principle to a hammer by adding a tapered neck to the head that allowed the handle to be firmly wedged inside the head.

Now Maydole’s shop was in a small town with not much of a demand for hammers until, according to Maydole Company lore, a crew of carpenters came to town to build a new church. One of them had forgotten or lost his hammer and asked the blacksmith to make him “as good a one as you know how.” Maydole asked him if he’d be willing to pay as much as that good of a hammer would cost and the guy said he would, so Maydole made it. The carpenter paid and was thoroughly satisfied with his new tool, resulting in all the other carpenters coming to Maydole wanting similar hammers. The word got around town and before long a local shopkeeper ordered some to sell. The fame of the Maydole hammer spread, demand sky-rocketed, and by 1845, the Maydole Hammer Factory was in operation.

By the time David Maydole died in 1882 his company was said to be the largest hammer manufactory in the world and it continued to make hammers and edge tools up until 1957 when a fire put the firm out of business.

No such romantic story exists about the other hammer maker, Henry Cheney, who was born in 1821 in Otsego County, New York. He learned the blacksmith trade, developed a superior method of tempering steel and started to make handled hammers about 1845. Ten years later the factory was moved to Little Falls, NY, where it continued to make tools under the Cheney name, although under several different owners, until 1954.

Cheney’s main claim to fame was the nail-holding hammer for which he was issued a patent in 1867. The Cheney Patent Nail Holder had a small socket at the back, between the claws to hold a nail in a position to start it with a single blow. This innovation eliminated the need to hold the nail between the thumb and forefinger of the other hand, thus removing the risk to that vulnerable thumbnail and preventing the air from becoming blue around the job site.

I don’t recall what brand of hammer I used during my brief stint as a carpenter’s helper; however about 1960 I bought a Stanley Steelmaster straight claw hammer that I still have, and that has never shown a sign of the head loosening. Of course on the Steelmaster the head and handle are forged from one piece of steel and then the handle is wrapped with neoprene to give a cushioned grip.

Ain’t history fascinating?

What Bill Nye Knows About Farming

A Texas toad. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) 

In 1885, two of the existing farm implement papers at the time, Farm Implement, published by E.J. Baker, and Farm Implement News, merged under the editorship of Charles W. Marsh who, along with his brother William, invented the celebrated Marsh harvester. The first combined issue was that of April, 1885, and, even though humor was a rarity in the farm papers back then, it contained the following more or less humorous story.

During the past season I was considerably interested in agriculture. I met with some success, but not enough to madden me with joy. It takes a good deal of success to unscrew my reason and make it totter on its throne.

Agriculture has a charm about it which I cannot adequately describe. Every product of the farm is furnished by nature with something that loves it so that it will never be neglected. The grain crop is loved by the weevil, the Hessian fly and the cinch bug; the watermelon, squash and cucumber are loved by the squash bug; the potato by the potato bug; the cabbage and tomato by the cutworm; and so forth and so on, so that no plant need be a wallflower.

Well, I began early to spade up my angle-worms and other pets to see if they had survived the severe winter and found they had. They were unusually bright and cheerful—oh, the potato bugs were a little sluggish at first, but as the ground warmed up they pitched right in and did first rate. Along in April I had not seen a cutworm and began to fear they had perhaps perished in the past winter’s extreme cold.

One morning late in the month, however, I saw a cutworm come out from a cabbage stump and take off his muffler and ear muffs. He was a little stiff in the joints but he had not lost hope. I saw at once now was the time to assist him if I had a spark of humanity left. I searched agricultural papers, the encyclopedia and the almanac to see what farmers feed their blamed cutworms, but nary a word. I feared that I had brought but one cutworm through the bitter winter and now I was liable to lose him unless I could find what to feed him. I even askes my neighbors, who jeered and spoke sarcastically. Apparently all their cutworms had died last winter and they couldn’t stand to see me get ahead.

All at once I had a brain storm! The worm had wintered under a cabbage stalk; ergo, he was fond of that food. So I bought him two dozen red cabbage plants, at 50 cents a dozen. I had hit it! He was passionately fond of these plants and would eat down two or three in one night. He also had several sauerkraut festivals for his friends and I had to buy three dozen more cabbage plants.

By this time I had collected a large group of common scrub cut worms, early Swedish cut worms, dwarf Hubbard cut worms, and even some registered shorthorn cut worms, all doing well, but I thought, a little listless and bilious. As my squash bugs, currant worms, potato bugs, etc., were all doing well without care, I devoted myself almost exclusively to my cut worms. They were all strong and well but seemed melancholy with nothing to eat day after day but cabbages.

I therefore bought five dozen large tomato plants that the worms ate at the rate of eight or ten each night. In a week the cut worms had thrown off that air of ennui and languor that I had formerly noticed and were gay and light hearted. I got them some more tomato plants and then some more cabbage for a change. On the whole I was as proud as any young farmer who has made a success of anything.

Then one morning I noticed a cabbage plant still standing unmolested, and the next day it was still there! I was thunderstruck! I spaded up the whole patch but there wasn’t one worm. Just as I had become attached to them and they had learned to look forward each day to my coming, when they would almost come up and eat a tomato plant out of my hand, someone had robbed me of them. I was almost wild with despair and grief.

Just then I saw something move at the corner of the garden. It was bumpy and mostly all stomach but it had a foot at each corner. My neighbor said it was a warty toad. That critter had eaten up my summer’s work and had swallowed all my cunning little cut worms. I tell you, gentle reader, unless some way is provided whereby this warty toad scourge can be wiped out, I for one shall relinquish the joys of agricultural pursuits. When a common toad, with a bad complexion and no intellect, can swallow up my summer’s work it is time to pause.

I don’t know who Bill Nye was, but he told a pretty clever story.

Didja' Ever Watch An Ant?

Twain’s ant busy with his ancient grasshopper leg. (From the book A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain)

Did you ever watch an ant? I mean sit for a quarter hour or so and closely watch an individual ant at what he probably considers to be work—and work he does, although to my human eyes his strenuous efforts seem aimless and futile.

In 1880, Mark Twain published a book titled, “A Tramp Abroad,” about his travels in Europe. In it, he told in his inimitable way of watching an ant. I’ve edited it a little, but here’s Twain’s story, with which I agree entirely.

Now and then, while we rested, we watched the laborious ant at his work. I found nothing new in him—certainly nothing to change my opinion of him. It seems to me that in the matter of intellect the ant is strangely overrated. During many summers I have watched him, when I ought to have been in better business, and I have not yet come across a living ant that seemed to have any more sense than a dead one. I am persuaded that the average ant is a sham. I admit his industry, of course; he is the hardest-working creature in the world, but his leather-headedness is the point I make against him. He goes out foraging, he makes a capture, and then what does he do? Go home? No—he goes anywhere but home. He doesn't know where home is. His home may be only three feet away—no matter, he can't find it. He makes his capture, as I have said; it is generally something which can be of no sort of use to himself or anybody else; it is usually seven times bigger than it ought to be; he hunts out the awkwardest place to take hold of it; he lifts it bodily up in the air by main force, and starts; not toward home, but in the opposite direction; not calmly and wisely, but with a frantic haste which is wasteful of his strength; he fetches up against a pebble, and instead of going around it, he climbs over it backward dragging his booty after him, tumbles down on the other side, jumps up in a passion, kicks the dust off his clothes, moistens his hands, grabs his property viciously, yanks it this way, then that, shoves it ahead of him a moment, turns tail and lugs it after him another moment, gets madder and madder, then presently hoists it into the air and goes tearing away in an entirely new direction; comes to a weed; it never occurs to him to go around it; no, he must climb it; and he does climb it, dragging his worthless property to the top. When he gets up there he finds that that is not the place; takes a cursory glance at the scenery and either climbs down again or tumbles down, and starts off once more—as usual, in a new direction. At the end of half an hour, he fetches up within six inches of the place he started from and lays his burden down; meantime he has been over all the ground for two yards around, and climbed all the weeds and pebbles he came across. Now he wipes the sweat from his brow, strokes his limbs, looks around to see which is not the way home, grabs his bundle and starts; he goes through the same adventures he had before; finally stops to rest, and a friend comes along. Evidently the friend remarks that a last year's grasshopper leg is a very noble acquisition, and inquires where he got it.

Evidently the proprietor does not remember exactly where he did get it, but thinks he got it "around here somewhere." Evidently the friend contracts to help him freight it home. Then, with a judgment peculiarly antic (pun not intended), they take hold of opposite ends of that grasshopper leg and begin to tug with all their might in opposite directions. Presently they take a rest and confer together. They decide that something is wrong, they can't make out what. Then they go at it again, just as before. Same result. Mutual recriminations follow. Evidently each accuses the other of being an obstructionist. They lock themselves together and chew each other's jaws for a while; then they roll and tumble on the ground till one loses a horn or a leg and has to haul off for repairs. They make up and go to work again in the same old insane way, but the crippled ant is at a disadvantage; tug as he may, the other one drags off the booty and him at the end of it. Instead of giving up, he hangs on, and gets his shins bruised against every obstruction that comes in the way. By and by, when that grasshopper leg has been dragged all over the same old ground once more, it is finally dumped at about the spot where it originally lay, the two perspiring ants inspect it thoughtfully and decide that dried grasshopper legs are a poor sort of property after all, and then each starts off in a different direction to see if he can't find something else that is heavy enough to afford entertainment and at the same time valueless enough to make an ant want to own it.

I’ve watched many ants go through the same seemingly useless performance as Twain describes, although I once saw a group of carpenter ants that were actually cooperating and getting something done. They were digging a new hole in an old wooden framework behind my barn. As the digger ants cut out grains of sawdust and kicked them out of the hole behind them, a crew of bearer ants grabbed each grain in turn, carried it to the edge of the plank where it was dropped overboard onto the ground, and then returned for another load.

I reckon those carpenter ants had a good foreman.

Sam Moore


Farm Collector April 16Farm Collector is a monthly magazine focusing on antique tractors and all kinds of antique farm equipment. If it's old and from the farm, we're interested in it!

Save Even More Money with our SQUARE-DEAL Plan!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our SQUARE-DEAL automatic renewal savings plan. You'll get 12 issues of Farm Collector for only $29.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and send me one year of Farm Collector for just $34.95.

Facebook Pinterest YouTube