Growing up on Muddy Creek

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Fresh horse apple

Uncle Walter and the traveling salesman

Uncle Walter wasn’t our real uncle, you know, but Mama always had taught us youngin’s to never call big folks by their given names.

It was always ‘Mister Griggs’ or ‘Aunt Alma’ or ‘Preacher Sivert,’ and never, never would a progeny dare call his parents by their first names. My, my, oh my!

Well, anyway, when Uncle Water came to live on Muddy Creek, Dad had to teach him the rudiments of farm work. Uncle Walter could expound for hours on the errors in old Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and discuss with old Heddy Jennings the reasons the South had failed at the second battle of Bull Run, as well as give a pretty convincing argument on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. But Dad had to show him how to harness Old Bell and grease a wagon wheel.

Perhaps Dad’s greatest achievement, and the skill Walter – ‘cuse me -Uncle Walter took the greatest pride in, was learning how to milk a cow. Dad was busy signing up members of the new Farm Bureau and often times got home late at night, but with Uncle Walter knowing how to milk, he could stay with prospects till they ‘signed on.’

What I wanted to tell you about was the time Walter – there I go again Uncle Walter took care of a pesky magazine salesman who had targeted him as a prime prospect for the latest ‘combination subscription and life insurance offer,’ and who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

It was just past corn-shucking time, and with the cribs abustin’ and the horses getting restless from inactivity, Dad had put Uncle Walter to hauling manure and cleaning out the horse stalls.

The new barn had stalls for 12 horses, and believe you me, a dozen half-Belgian and half-Percheron horses, all of them a good 16 hands high and weighing in at well over a ton each, can consume a heap of timothy hay. And if you know your roughages, you know that the percentage of digestible nutrients in timothy is not high, so the ‘horse apple’ supply was voluminous (that’s a word teacher Cleo Vanatta taught me).

One of the facts of having livestock is that unless you stay on top, and I mean that literally, of the manure pile, you will shortly find yourself having a task as great as Hercules’ in cleaning the Aegean Stables. Come to think of it, maybe, just maybe, diverting Muddy Creek through the barn might have accomplished the job just as Hercules did with the North Sea.

Uncle Walter had hitched Old Bell and Bill to the new spreader that Uncle Bruce had recommended, the one Dad had brought home last week from Hill Hudson in Olney.

Uncle Walter was using it for the third or fourth time; he had parked the spreader under the east window of the barn, so the manure could be thrown into it without having to use the wheel barrow to wheel it out and handle it several times. Dad didn’t particularly like the idea but since horse manure is different from manure produced by Jersey cows, he tolerated the idea, at least for the present.

This day, he had scooped out the night’s accumulation and added it to the spreader, slipped on his sheepskin, and was getting ready to climb up on the seat, when a Ford runabout pulled in the drive and skidded to a stop right in front of the team.

A fancy dressed ‘dude’ flipped his leg over the door and slid out. He was a typical drummer with a bowler hat and loud, checkered suit. He reached into the back seat and pulled out a yellow cowhide briefcase, poked a ‘seegar’ in his mouth and headed toward Uncle Walter.

Now, Uncle Walter was having a smidgen of trouble holding those horses steady, he was. In addition to coping with them being skittish, he had to contend with this noisy contraption that was belching smoke and sounding like a dozen shivarees all happening at once. But he held them steady and gave the visitor a cordial ‘Howdy.’

The salesman – and I use that term advisedly – started right in on his canned pitch of the great offer he was giving just five residents of the township, ‘a full five-year subscription to the ‘Farmers Compendium and Livestock Management’ for just a dollar a year when the subscriber also signed up for the company’s $1,000 never-pay life insurance program. ‘You don’t want your family to be burdened with the heavy expense of your final rites, do you, sir?’ he chided Uncle Walter. ‘Just sign here on the dotted line and when you die, our company – and it is the soundest company in the whole state of Utah – will give you the finest burial this township has ever seen.’

He didn’t give Uncle Walter a chance to say more’n one ‘No’ when he grabbed the shift lever and reached toward Uncle Walter with that order blank. As he did so, his foot slipped on a fresh horse apple, and striving to save himself, he yanked that shift level.

When it swung into gear, he fell back and let out a yell that scared the team, and they took off like 60, with that spreader’s beater a-whirlin’ and the horse apples a-flying.

Uncle Walter dropped a line, and when he pulled on the remaining one, the team swung in a wide circle. Those catapulted missiles rained down on that prostrated hawkster like chunks of lava from Mount Vesuvius bombarding old Herculaneum.

Finally, Uncle Walter got the team stopped as they both tried to enter the barn door at the same time. That magazine salesman swept a dozen horse apples from the seat of his runabout, threw his leg over the door, slid in and roared down the road toward the big Muddy Creek bridge, and Tom Town. Uncle Walter? Well, I guess he had to pay his own burial expenses.

The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with permission of his family.

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