A model-train maker has come out with a whistling billboard that captures the wail of the Oil Belt Railroad locomotive as it announced its approach to the community of Applegate, in those long-ago days along Muddy Creek.
The Oil Belt line meandered down across the Ambraw from Oblong, skirting the Dark Bend and then slipped past Kings, Cranston and Applegate before it finally arrived in Bridgeport. The short-lived line ran within two miles of our farm and because of the train's unpredictable schedule, its passing was marked as somewhat of a milestone.
The sounds of the wailing whistle, the click-clack of the slightly unround wheels on the uneven track and the throb of the old 4-4-2 engine as it labored up the Millerville grade etched themselves into my memory.
The oil boom produced a number of sounds like those linked to trains that are lost to modern technology. Another such sound was the peculiar exhaust of the huge one-cylinder pumps. Farmers were always altering pumps by using various-sized tin cans to give their engines a recognizable sound - so they could check them by ear without going out into the cold.
The 1 ft.-wide, 200 ft.-long leather belt slapped as it turned the 10 ft.-wide bull wheel to pull the shackle rods and pump the oil. In spite of various crude applications, the wooden rod supports sang a shrill song with every beat of the well pump: they seemed to say, 'A dollar more...a dollar more...a dollar more.'
Other country sounds lay dormant in my memory bank until occasionally triggered, often by some completely unrelated event. The deep-throated 'It's a Booick, it's a Booick' of old Uncle Bull Frog recently was captured and broadcast on TV by General Motors. When I heard it, I immediately recalled the high-pitched, broken-record voice of the Guinea hens' cackle, 'Caddiac, Caddiac,' seemingly advertising Uncle Bull's competitor. Those of us who grew up in the country were exposed to many sounds foreign to our city cousins, including the crowing of the cock, which announced the dawning of each new day. Charley Brookhart's old Rhode Island Red cockerel usually started the concert with his 'Cock-a-doodle-do.' Next, came Lloyd Peple's old Chanticleer running his musical scale, and finally MaMa's grand old Barred Rock rooster, a family pet with two-inch-long spurs, whose dignified call completed the morning ritual.
Chickens, apart from roosters, use a language all their own: the business-like cackle of an old hen as she proclaims to the world she has produced an egg; the instructive 'cluck cluck' of a mother hen as she guides her young brood through the first lesson in worm hunting; and the 'peep peep' of baby chicks - especially 'in concord' from several shipping cartons, each containing 100 or more two-day-old, hungry young 'uns, entrapped and awaiting their new owners at the local post office.
Many farm sounds of our youth have all but disappeared. The sharp thud of a solid ear of open-pollinated corn hitting the wagon's 'bang' board and the metallic ring of horse shoes on frozen ground come to mind. So do the squeaks of a well-oiled leather harness mixed with the rattle of trace chains and the snorts of the horses; the 'hee haw' of an old Jack sending out his challenge to the world; the clatter of wagon wheels and the beat of horse hooves as they trot across a wooden plank heard any of these sounds will never forget them. Having been raised on a Jersey farm I also am quite conversant on bovine sounds: the bellow of the old herd bull, the contented moo of a mother as she nuzzles her grunting newborn, the musical echo of hand-drawn milk streams hitting the bottom of a tin milk pail. Uncle Walter claimed he could play 'Yankee Doodle' in three pitches while milking old Doon and then would proceed to demonstrate the act, thereby indelibly printing those rhythms onto my memory too.
The hunting season arrived in mid-November along Muddy Creek, and even though laws protected the foxes from being shot, they still could be chased. As a result, the baying of foxhounds was heard almost without cease each Saturday night for a time as the sport's devotees enjoyed themselves. My Uncle Clint was one of those diehards who thought more of Old Blue than he did of his family. He knew every variation of pitch in Old Blue's voice and, along with his cronies, would sit around a bonfire, sipping Old Man Catterson's 'painkiller' while the fox led a dozen or more hounds on a noisy but fruitless chase up the valleys of Red Hill and down through the breaks along Muddy Creek. The dogs' baying still ranks high among my favorite rural sounds.
But most memorable of are those that most those of an Advanced Rumely steam engine running under full load and of a particular one-cylinder gas engine pumping water for thirsty cattle. Before that engine arrived, water for the herd had to be pumped by hand, so having it 'pop, popping' along was, to me, truly the sound of 'livin' right!'
Chanticleer running his musical scale, and finally MaMa's grand old Barred Rock rooster, a family pet with two-inch long spurs.
- The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, have appeared in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.