Helping with the harvest
Above: Shelling corn at L.M. Best’s.
My introduction to farm labor came when Dad decided it was time for me to learn to drive the team of mares, Lady and Queen. My first job was to drive the sulky rake. Dad cut the alfalfa with a 5-foot sickle mower. A few days later, I took the mares and the sulky rake and put the hay in windrows. Because there was always a little hay left after I tripped the rake, I got disgusted at the mares. It seems the rake didn't get back down in time to prevent a skip. What I didn't realize was that when the rake was in the air, the load was off the team and they'd speed up.
Once the windrows were complete, then I'd go down the rows to put the hay in little piles. After that, we used pitchforks to make a decent shock, which helped shed water off the hay when it rained.
To get the hay from the field to the barn, we used a hayrack with three-foot sides. It was like a bundle rack. Two men with four-tined pitchforks pitched the shocks. If they got on each side, they could, by putting their forks in, lift an entire shock up into the rack at one time. It was a good idea to look down immediately to see what had been hiding under the shock … it might be a mouse, looking to crawl up your pant leg, or it might be a prairie rattler. Pitching hay over your head ensured that the leaves would fall down your shirt collar, and with seasonal temperatures in July, the leaves stayed there all day.
It wasn't long until it was my turn to move hay from the rack to the barn. Our barn, which was built in 1927, was a big one, about 30 feet to the peak. The bottom 8 feet was tile, with lumber above. It had a Louden track and carrier mounted on the ceiling, and we used a grapple fork to take up the hay. My job with the team was to pull the rope that was fastened through the Louden equipment and the grapple fork. When the fork, with its load of hay, reached a predetermined spot, Dad pulled the trip rope, dropping the hay, and then he'd pull the fork back down for the next load. I knew that when he tripped the rope I should turn the team around and come back next to the barn.
The hay piled up in the middle of the barn, so we had to spread it out to make room for more. Sometimes we had as many as five cuttings, so we'd load the barn about every month. It was essential to ensure the hay was dry, or you might have a barn fire - alfalfa can get very hot if stacked while too moist.
Dad's first tractor was a Fordson; I believe he bought it in about 1925. Before long, he sold it to my grandfather who lived about a half-mile away. In the winter, it seems the grease was too heavy to let the gears slow down, and we could often hear Granddad trying to get it in gear so he could move it. Sometimes it took a while.
Later, Dad bought a 1928 John Deere Model D … the one that made smoke rings out in front. He ran that one until 1935. That year I helped him with the combining. We had a 12-foot Gleaner Baldwin. It had the good lugs that shook the whole tractor if the ground was hard, and kicked dust in your eyes, too. When I turned 11, Dad thought maybe I could drive the tractor when we cut wheat. Before that, he hired a fellow who came down from Nebraska each year. I don't remember his name, but I do remember this: One day it had rained and we were waiting for the grain to dry. Yellow jackets were getting a drink by the well. The hired man said that if you held your breath, the wasp could not get his stinger into you. To prove it, he caught a yellow jacket and held him by the head. That wasp ran his stinger all around the man's fingernail but didn't sting him. I never had the nerve to try it myself.
When the fork, with its load of hay, reached a predetermined spot, Dad pulled the trip rope, dropping the hay, and then he'd pull the fork back down for the next load. I knew that when he tripped the rope I should turn the team around and come back next to the barn.
If I helped all through the harvest, which lasted about a week, it reduced labor costs. Although I was proud to be able to help my dad, I also remember it was very hot in the afternoon sun. We hauled water in a gallon stoneware jug wrapped in a wet gunnysack to keep it cool.
The Model D burned kerosene. It had a little tank of gas to use in starting the engine. I don't remember what kerosene sold for in those days, but I do remember having gasoline delivered for five cents a gallon. Dad thought he got more power by running on a mixture of gasoline and kerosene. If the tractor was warm, it would start on that blend.
We finished our field, and then Dad's brother wanted us to cut his wheat. We were doing good until we got stuck on the side of a hill. My uncle had a John Deere too, so he went to get it. Both tractors were on lugs. I tried to back up, with no luck. My uncle hooked his tractor to mine with a log chain. When Dad signaled, we were to start together. The plan would've worked if I hadn't forgotten that my tractor was still in reverse. As it was, neither of us moved; in fact, we actually dug in deeper. So much for my first year cutting wheat.
Back in those years, a lot of the land was listed. It was faster, and didn't leave the land exposed to the wind. Later in August, a ridge buster was used. That left it fairly rough, but it made a good seed bed when you went over it with a harrow. The Model D only had two gears that I remember: slow and slower. I do remember the day that Dad took the wheels to a blacksmith and had new rims welded on. Finally, we had rubber tires: Montgomery Ward knobbies, I think.
It was a wonderful idea. And the state thought so too. If a tractor had rubber tires and was used on state roads, it had to have a tag. So we had to buy a tag and install it on the tractor. That didn't last too many years. Dad used that tractor until about 1939 when he bought a new Model D. Wow, what a difference! It had another gear, so it traveled faster and pulled more. He used that tractor into the 1950s.
Since we had acquired another farm and it was some distance away, we needed something to use to take fuel to the farm. Dad removed the top of an old Model T he'd bought for $10 from a neighbor and made a 4-foot bed from lumber. It was a good way to haul fuel, which we put in 10-gallon cream cans. That little Model T was very nice about starting in the summer when it was warm. If the engine stopped just right, you could come back in an hour and just turn the key. With a bang, it was ready to go. It didn't always do that, though. You had to be careful about cranking, or you might break an arm.
Lyndel Biby is a Farm Collector reader from Oklahoma.