My Favorite Worst Job: Digging Post Holes

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

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.

Occasionally, I get the urge to start a collection of old abandoned diggers showing the ingenuity of a tired farmer or cowboy looking for an easier way to dig a post hole. I can imagine their dreams of building a machine to do the job, eliminating sore backs, throbbing shoulders, stinking sweated clothes, worn-out gloves and blisters on both hands. I can see them dreaming of merely pushing buttons, working levers or programming their inventions to move along and dig.

Then I remember how heavy that old equipment can be and all the work it would take to assemble into a show display. Then I get the faint smell of coal oil in the air as I recall the time when a post-hole digger left its mark on my toe. Naahhh! I best just write about post-hole diggers! FC

Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; email:

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