When it comes to old-fashioned farming, Darrell Carter of rural Fair Grove, Missouri, has done it all. Growing up during the 1930s, he helped his dad farm in western Oklahoma, which at that time was the epicenter of the Dust Bowl.
“My job was riding a horse-drawn 1-row corn cultivator,” Darrell, 83, says. “Dad got to ride the tractor.” Darrell had a team – Rex and Maude – for his workmates. Rex sometimes balked at taking orders from a 6-year-old boy. “Every so often I couldn’t make Rex move,” Darrell recalls, “so I’d throw a dirt clod at him because there weren’t any rocks.”
Another of Darrell’s fond memories is working on a threshing crew with his father. In 1917 his dad bought a new 85 hp Case coal-burning steam traction engine and a 48-inch Case threshing machine to go with it, both shipped by train from the factory in Racine, Wisconsin.
“After firing up the steam engine, Dad said he drove it off of the flatcar with the separator attached,” Darrell says. “It took him six weeks to get home, because he threshed people’s wheat along the way. In 1941, he sold it for $500.”
Farming in drought
Dry-land farming was a way of life. Darrell’s dad planted cowpeas and later plowed the crop in. “That was all the fertilizer we used,” Darrell says. “Then we used a lister to plant adjacent strips of wheat, sedan grass and corn in half-mile-long rows.”
To utilize the region’s small amount of rainfall, they used a 1-row horse-drawn ridge buster before the plants grew too tall. That also kept strong winds from completely blowing away all of the sandy topsoil. During those drier-than-usual drought years, Darrell recalls raising fair crops if nothing really bad happened – but sometimes it did. “Once when the wheat was 4 feet high and looking good,” he says, “a hail storm took it all.”
Instead of using the 1-way disc plows most of their neighbors favored, the Carters pulled an Oliver turning plow with a John Deere Model D tractor. People weren’t aware of it back then, but both of those methods were destructive to the land and contributed to dust storms so enormous that the sky was blacked out all day from airborne topsoil.
Returning to traditional farming practices
Eventually, in 1948, the family gave up on Oklahoma. Even though they had toughed it out through the worst of the hard times, the family moved to Missouri in search of cleaner air when Darrell’s father became afflicted with dust pneumonia. Items too heavy for their ’28 Chevy truck were put on his uncle’s truck. Although most “Okies” fled to the west, the Carters went the opposite direction and headed east. It must have looked like the movie The Grapes of Wrath being run in reverse.
When the Carters started farming near Marshfield, Missouri, Darrell remembers most grain being raised and harvested with horse-drawn equipment. By that time, most Oklahoma farmers were using combines; binders and threshers had been retired several years earlier. But in the Ozarks of southern Missouri, marked by small fields full of hills, hollers and plenty of rocks to throw at horses, the latest agricultural methods had not yet been adopted. Many people were still shocking fodder and picking corn by hand.
After the sun dissipated frost and dew in mid-morning, farmers drove horse-drawn wagons into the field. Each wagon was fitted with a high “bang-board” on one side as a backstop to keep ears of corn from being overthrown. The team didn’t actually need to be driven by someone sitting in the wagon. All the horses required was an occasional “git-up” or “whoa,” and before long they would stay up with the pickers, working without spoken commands. They often wore wire muzzles over their noses to keep them from nibbling as they went along.
“Snapping” corn was normally done on very cold days when the husks were dry and easier to separate with a special tool. According to the picker’s preference, a husking (or shucking) pin, peg or hook was attached to his hand and fingers with leather straps. It separated the corn husks to allow the exposed ear to be removed from the stalk by a downward jerk with the other hand before it was tossed into the wagon.
Collecting husking pegs and hooks
Darrell has collected many unique items during his life, including antique hit-and-miss engines, vintage trucks, early cars and tractors, miniature steam engines, old clocks and kids’ toys. However, this article focuses on husking pegs and hooks. These humble devices might be considered the smallest piece of agricultural equipment ever invented. In some areas of the country, they are still produced and sold for use during harvest.
When he began seeing old husking pegs and hooks for sale at flea markets and swap meets, Darrell started picking them up for little more than pocket change. As he came to realize that no two were alike, he decided to buy every one that he saw if the price wasn’t too high.
Although his collection has grown to about 70 pieces, Darrell continues to look for husking pegs and hooks, especially the uncommon ones. Most in his collection have been stamped with “The Boss,” but he also has well-used examples of Clark’s “Corn Queen” and “Mascot.” Some might have cost Darrell as much as a five dollar bill.
The 1915 Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Co. hardware catalog offers 17 styles of husking pegs and hooks priced at 75 cents or $8 a dozen. Darrell has all of them. Hibbard also sold corn-picking accoutrements such as studded muleskin thumb cots, chain thumb stalls for mittens and studded brown muleskin husking gloves ($8.50 per half dozen). Darrell has nice examples of those too. The affluent farmer (and there were not very many of them back then) might have ordered a dozen bottles of Huskum, “effective in relieving soreness and softening and healing the skin,” for $4.99. That product might still find a ready market among farmers today.
Keeping the past alive
Darrell’s display of hand-held, no-moving-parts, one-size-fits-all corn-picking equipment invariably draws a crowd at antique tractor shows. Darrell enjoys talking with people who are interested in his collection.
A longtime member and past president of the Southwest Missouri Early Day Gas Engine & Tractor Assn. Branch 16, Darrell was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2002. He has also been vice president of the Fair Grove Historical & Preservation Society for many years. There might be a few pieces of early agricultural machinery that he hasn’t worked on, collected or restored – but very few.
The number of Midwestern farmers who endured the challenge of raising crops during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years is rapidly shrinking. We should be listening to them and learning from their stories before they are lost and gone forever.
Darrell Carter would happily visit with anyone anytime, and he gets a kick out of letting people pull his whistle string. The string? It’s the one attached to a steam engine he operates at the Fair Grove Heritage Reunion held each year on the last full weekend of September. FC
For more information:
– Darrell Carter, 7142 N. Farm Road 189, Fair Grove, MO 65648; phone (417) 833-4159.
Dan Manning is the miller at the historic Wommack Mill in Fair Grove, Missouri. He works with photographer Ron McGinnis, whose work can be seen at Ron McGinnis Photography.