The trials and tribulations of youth on Muddy Creek were many and certainly varied, but one of the most perplexing ones was the constant battle with mud.
Yes, MUD – spelled with capital letters. In today’s society, nothing can compare to the ordeal of attempting to travel an unpaved dirt road in the spring after the early thaw. Mud affected all travel whether it was by foot, horseback, buggy, wagon or in a newfangled motor car. In any case, the going was tough, for mud was mud.
Dirt roads we would now label as ‘arterial’ were little more than well-traveled cow paths in my early years. A few such roads occasionally can be found in remote parts of our communities where traffic is rare and mostly restricted to farm machinery too massive to pass along the public thoroughfares. However, traffic is so light and infrequent on these byways that the soil is seldom beaten into the powder that hangs in the still evening air for hours after a passing vehicle or a man on horseback has stirred it.
Webster defines mud as ‘a sticky, slimy mixture of solid material mixed with water.’ He must have been familiar with Red Hill mud because there was never a more slimy or sticky mixture than the mud that clogged wagon wheels and produced a high-pitched sucking sound when horses pulled their feet from the belly-deep gruel along the thawing slopes of the hill.
As late as 1935, I took my city-bred, soon-to-be wife to the farm to meet the folks for the first time. It was spring. The pussy willows were popping, the Johnny Jump Ups and May apples were spreading their leaves along the foot of Red Hill. The birds were singing, and love was in the air.
Then we drove off the ‘slab’ of concrete onto the unpaved but lightly graveled road that led around Red Hill – the highest point in southern Illinois. The frost was thawing out of the red clay banks, releasing spring water that would soon cause old Muddy Creek to flood. Yes, that water had to cross the road on its way to the creek, and yes, we got stuck.
Being stuck in those days was a far different predicament than today, when a cell phone call to AAA will quickly bring a tow truck.
We struggled to rock the car out of the mud hole, but it only wedged deeper. After giving up, I climbed out, rolled up my trouser legs as far as possible, moved the suitcase to the front seat and raised the back seat cushion to get out the canvas bag of tire chains. Then I struggled to get the chains on the wheels only to find the ruts were so deep that the car was sitting on the frame. Giving up, I waded, yes waded, through the knee-deep mire to the nearest house, hoping that someone was at home and not at work over at the refinery.
That day, Dee Griggs was home and he brought a team down and pulled us out. And yes, it was well into summer and after a long dry spell before we visited my folks again.
Mud and farms go together like salt and pepper or love and marriage. Someone once said that if you want to buy a farm be sure and buy it during a muddy spell. It will be cheaper then, much cheaper.
Fred Westall would agree that Ball Band rubber boots were the best seller all year at his big store in town. Ball Band outsold Red Goose and Buster Brown children’s shoes combined by a large margin. ‘Gum’ boots were the only footwear some farmers owned. The name came from the early days before Firestone perfected the rubber vulcanizing process.
The farmers wore them year-round, even to church, where the pant legs were pulled down over the knee-high boots instead of being tucked in at the tops. A pair of heavy-cotton moccasin inserts were worn to absorb moisture and cover any holes in the socks when removing the boots at the kitchen door. An unwritten law of the land stated ‘no rubber boots in the kitchen,’ so the moccasins did double duty.
In those days, there were three anticipated stages in a boy’s growth to manhood. The first was when he got his first Barlow knife. The second was when he graduated from knee britches. And the third was when he got his first pair of ‘gum’ boots. Then he was a man.
Mud was even more of a thorn in my side being raised on a dairy farm. The constant traffic of the cows and the concentrated heat of their massed bodies kept the barnyard in a loblolly that was anywhere from a few inches to well over knee-deep, even in the dead of winter.
Just let Old Bossy step off the cement and, kerplunck, I had to get her clean enough to milk.
‘Course, the strainer took out most of the solid material, but then we drank the milk too. Dad always said, ‘If you wouldn’t drink it yourself, throw it out.’ I must say the cats did very well in muddy weather.
– 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 the permission of his family.