Digging Peanuts in the 1930s

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In the early years, peanut growers hooked a horse or mule to this offset two-in-one plow used to cultivate peanuts. Shown with the plow: peanut historian Robert Harrell.
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This shelf with metal tines, part of a vintage peanut picker, separated peanuts from vines.
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This 2-row adjustable lime and plaster spreader was manufactured by the Ferguson Mfg. Co., Suffolk, Va.
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Peanut diggers like this were hooked to a tractor, a huge step up from horse- and mule-drawn equipment.
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Many peanut farmers in Chowan County, N.C., used peanut pickers. Benthall Machine Co., Suffolk, Va., produced the Model F-7.
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Robert Harrell of Edenton, N.C., with a T-post (a pole with a crossbar at the bottom) that peanut farmers used years ago for stacking peanuts. The T-post kept the peanut vines off the ground and protected the vines from weather-related damage and disease.
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Hay balers like this were used at the beginning of the peanut era in Chowan County, N.C.
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Robert Harrell, former executive director of the Albemarle Learning Center in Chowan County, N.C., tours two local students around in a cart pulled by a mule, one of the modes of enjoyable travel often used years ago by many northeast North Carolina farmers and their families.

For many people today, farming with horse-drawn equipment is a quaint practice from the past. For Robert S. “Bob” Harrell, it’s a way of life that should be preserved for future generations.

“The need to remember our history is always there, whether it’s in farming, textiles or whatever,” Bob says. “I don’t think anybody can adequately understand and appreciate the present without some understanding of the past. We just really need to have some level of understanding of how it used to be if for no other reason (than to appreciate) how hard people used to work.” 

Born in 1925 in Edenton, N.C., Bob spent his youth on the farm, lending a hand to the peanut operation run by his grandfather (Joseph M. Harrell) and his father (Rodney T. Harrell). Horses and mules provided much of the power on the 40-acre farm. It is a world that exists today only in memories, but they are clear and vivid in Bob’s mind. 

Cultivating peanuts

The first piece of equipment Bob recalls his grandfather using was an offset two-in-one plow used to cultivate peanut vines. “As a boy, before I was old enough to handle a horse or mule myself, I would just – barefooted – fall in behind my granddaddy when he was plowing that old two-in-one,” Bob says. “I would walk up and down, up and down the rows.

“The animal walked in the middle to the left of the peanut row,” he continues, “and the farmer walked in the middle to the right of the row. It was offset so the cultivator was centered on top of the row of peanuts, but the handles were offset so that was possible. This was before the days of herbicides, so you had to cultivate peanuts at least once a week, depending on the weather, to keep the grass and weeds down. In spite of all that cultivating, usually in late summer you still had some weeds and grass in the peanuts. Then you had to go in with a weeding hoe and chop out weeds and grass by hand.”

A lime and plaster spreader also came into play. The hopper, attached with handles and wheels, was pulled by a horse or mule. The spreader applied landplaster or lime to the peanut vines when they were about one-third to one-half matured. Landplaster delivered much-needed calcium and sulfur, reducing pod-rot disease and brightening hulls, the mark of a quality product.

Digging and stacking

In the fall, when weather permitted, a turning plow with a half-winged metal foot was used to dig peanuts. “They would knock off the row of peanuts by going up one side,” Bob explains, “and then they would come back up the other side. That did a pretty good job of lifting the peanuts and vines out of the ground. It would leave a little ridge where you would still have to go with a hayfork or pitchfork and finish lifting the peanut vines out of the ground and shake the dirt out before stacking them.”

As machinery became more sophisticated, Bob’s father purchased a Farmall Model F-12 tractor on steel wheels. Later, the Ferguson Mfg. Co. in Suffolk, Va., made a tractor-drawn digger with an extended 1-point hitch that hooked into the tractor’s back end. In the digging phase, the vines lifted out of the ground and passed over heavy metal rollers that shook some of the dirt off before dropping the vines onto the ground. “Man, we thought we had died and gone to heaven when it came time to dig those peanuts,” Bob says.

After digging peanuts with the turning plow, the Harrells returned to the field with T-posts or poles with a crossbar at the bottom. The crossbar kept the vines off the ground to prevent them from mildew, and damage from weather and disease. Every six to eight rows, they dug holes with a post-hole digger and stuck the posts on the rows about 30 feet apart. Then they lifted the pod-laden vines over the posts. They stacked the vines, pushing them down onto the crossbars. The vines were left to dry for about 30 days.

Using a peanut picker

After the vines dried, peanut farmers in the 1930s and ’40s pulled out a peanut picker (also known as a pea picker) and rolled it to the middle of the field. They quickly anchored the picker by digging a hole behind and in front of the wheels so the machine wouldn’t roll, because once the picker was started, Bob recalls, it shook like a can of paint in an enormous mixer. Eight men were needed to operate the picker, which was powered by either tractor belt pulley or a hit-and-miss engine.

Next, the poles and dried vines were lifted out of the ground. The Harrells used a pea cart pulled by a mule or horse. The pea cart had swinging arms on both sides. Attached to each arm was a lift and chain. “You looped that chain over the top of the pole and pushed the arm down,” Bob says. “It would lift it right out of the ground.”

Most of the carts hauled four stacks, two on each side, to the peanut picker. A man standing by the picker pulled the poles out of the stacked vines. Then he grabbed a pitchfork and lifted the vines onto the picker’s shelf. Another man (equipped with a stick between his fingers and palm, to protect him from catching his hand in the mechanism) raked the peanut vines into the workings of the picker as the machine’s pulley moved the metal tines to separate and shred peanuts from their vines. The peanuts fell as they were separated from the vines. Meanwhile, dust from the vines was blown out of the picker’s back end.

The picker had a tendency to be finicky. “Like all equipment, the pea picker would break down occasionally,” Bob says. “A chain would break a link, but usually you had extra links available, and it didn’t take but a few minutes to change it.”

In the rear of the peanut picker was a narrow hopper, shaped like a rectangular funnel. “After the machine separated the vines from the peanuts, you put a tin tub there,” Bob says. One tub after another was placed beneath the hopper to catch the crop. A worker dumped the tubs into burlap bags holding about 100 pounds of peanuts each. Once the bags were filled, they were sewn shut. At the end of the day, the Harrells hauled the bags of peanuts to a shelter where they stored them until they were sold after Christmas.

Bob’s mother’s father was a purchasing agent for the Planters Peanut Co. in Suffolk, about 53 miles from Edenton. “After Christmas, my grandfather would hitch the old horse to the wagon, and he would travel all over here (buying peanuts from local farmers),” Bob recalls. “He would leave on Monday and drive his old horse and wagon across the river. He would stay with farmers each night and come back on Friday or Saturday.”

Baling peanut hay

Out of the rear of the peanut picker came shredded peanut vines farmers baled as hay for livestock feed. To bale the hay, the Harrells pulled a hay baler to the back of the peanut picker. A man holding a pitchfork moved the hay from the rear of the peanut picker onto the hay baler hopper. “While you were processing the peanuts or picking the peanuts, you were also baling the hay,” Bob says.

Typically, a hit-and-miss engine or a tractor belt pulley powered the baler. However, some peanut farmers used horse- or mule-powered balers. They attached a revolving tongue from the baler onto the animal’s bridle. The wheels were buried in the ground so the animal could step over it. As the animal traced a 360-degree circle, gears pushed a plunger, forcing the peanut vines through the baler.

Comparatively low-tech equipment was a perpetual challenge for the farmer. But it wasn’t the only challenge. “The quirkiest thing would be the weather,” Bob says. “Back then, it just took so much longer to do everything. You were just racin’ with the weather all the time, because you couldn’t pick peanuts on a cloudy, cool day, with vines wet from a rain the day before, even if it wasn’t raining. All that moisture in the ground made the vines tough. The picker wouldn’t tear them apart.

“But you know what? I don’t even remember anybody fussing about the weather or complaining about it. You accepted it. You knew you were always at the mercy of the weather,” Bob says. “When the sun was shining you worked hard. When it was cloudy, you went fishin’.” FC

Rocky Womack is a full-time freelance writer, editor and publisher in Danville, Va. Contact him at rockyagwriter@aol.com

Bob Harrell is reliving his childhood: literally. The 81-year-old retired minister is doing his best to preserve the horse farming tradition he remembers from his grandfather’s peanut operation. The equipment clearly fascinates Bob, but his grandfather – Joseph M. Harrell – is the entry point into his passion for the past.

“He was a very interesting man,” Bob says of his grandfather. “He never learned how to read and write, but he was extremely intelligent and creative. He had his own little shop at the farm and did all of his own repair work on the equipment.

“He was also – before the word became popular – an environmentalist. He really believed in conserving the soil. I guess you could also say he was an organic farmer. In the spring, when the herring was running in the Chowan River, he would go down to the river with his mule and cart and haul what we called ‘fish awful’ – the heads and the guts they cut off the herring before they were processed. He would use that as fertilizer.

“All that made an impression on me. I never forgot the way he lived and the way he farmed,” Bob says. “So I think it was just sort of natural, as we moved back here in the late 1970s, that I wanted to do something to perpetuate his memory.”

In 1992, Bob established the nonprofit Albemarle Learning Center. As the center’s executive director, he educated children on use of horse- and mule-drawn equipment to plant, cultivate, dig and process peanuts, and bale peanut hay. He did the same with old corn and cotton equipment.

Time was also spent at the learning center teaching children about the environment and area folklore. For three years, teachers brought fourth graders from Chowan and Perquimans counties on field trips.

“I was talking recently with one of the teachers who came on a regular basis during those three years,” Bob says. “She said, ‘Bob, I still run into children who were fourth-grade students during that period, and all they want to talk about was going out to Albemarle Learning Center and seeing the old-time way of farming.’ Evidently it did some good.”

Local farmers have donated equipment to the learning center, and leaders of that group hope to restore and shelter the relics, preserving them for another generation. “The first step has been to get everything under shelter,” says Mike Williams, director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service in Chowan County. That goal was achieved in 2005.

Mike plans to label and arrange the equipment for display. He will lean on the expertise of farmers and knowledgeable historians such as Bob Harrell to identify and describe the use of each piece of machinery. Working demonstrations would be the ideal, Mike says, but that may be a bit down the road. In the meantime, the organization will focus on school groups and scheduled tours.

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