My Favorite Worst Job: Digging Post Holes

Delbert Trew not so fondly remembers the post-hole digger and work that came with it.

| April 2018

  • Post-hole diggers can bring back unpleasant memories for old timers.
    Photo by Delbert Trew
  • Post-hole diggers of all designs and sizes were invented and patented by survivors of the Civil War.
    Photo by Delbert Trew

Among all the tools, “big boy toys” and old and modern equipment I own today, the most respected and revered tool of all is my tractor-mounted post-hole digger. If you have ever stood on the prairie, any prairie, with the old-fashioned two-handled post-hole digger in hand, and stared at a line of potential post holes to be dug, you know what I am talking about. Of all the labor required to operate a farm or ranch, this one job has to rank high on my list of least favorable tasks to perform.

My aversion to hand diggers might be traced back to 1939, when as a 6-year-old barefooted boy I attempted to help my mother dig a hole to plant a rose bush. A miscue split the side of my big toe. With doctors miles away and expensive, we wrapped the split toe and I soaked it in coal oil twice a day for a month until it healed. Today, when I trim my toenails, I can still smell the odor of coal oil in the air.

Tracks Moore, a friend of the past, was once posed in a painting, leaning on a pair of post-hole diggers in the hot sun, staring at a nearby prairie dog digging a similar hole. You can almost see the gears turning in his sweating head. “How can I train this critter to dig holes in a straight line?”

Like most of the farm and ranch tools of today, post-hole diggers of all designs and sizes were invented and patented by survivors of the Civil War as they returned to their homes after the war ended. There seemed to be a pent-up desire to get on with their work and they often built the tools they needed in their own blacksmith shops. Smith-made details remain visible in many diggers.

The number of patents issued from 1865 to 1920 is phenomenal. For example, the Devil’s Rope Museum has an aisle some 80 feet long with patented post-hole diggers lining the walls on both sides in every size and design imaginable. We have witnessed old timers who had used such tools in the past leave the “horror alley” sweating and shaking from recollections of the past.

Strangely, I have attended many farm collectible shows and seldom see post-hole diggers on display. Yet in visits to junkyards and old equipment graveyards, I see homemade diggers run by belts, cable and chains. Some are mounted on the rear of the tractor; some are on the front. I have seen diggers mounted on trucks, pickups and an Army jeep. Looking closer, other designs are lying in piles along with other salvage iron designated for the scrap industry.


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