Dad never bought a tractor. He loved his team of horses – rather, his two teams of horses. In the 1920s and 1930s, a three-horse team was used to pull many of the farm implements, such as the grain binder. But Dad also did a lot of work around the farm by using a single horse, Tom. Tom was a beautiful sorrel gelding with white mane and tail. The walking plow, the stoneboat, the cutter in winter and the buggy in summer, Tom was dependable for pulling each one.
Some of my first memories are of riding on this favorite horse of Dad’s, hanging onto the hames, while Dad walked behind the plow. The reins were tied together and went around his shoulders and under one arm, while his hands guided the plow by its two handles.
In the spring of 1927, when I was 4, I felt really special to be riding. Dad always reminded me, “Hang on tight now.” I sat on top of the harness. Once in a while, my skin was pinched a little when the leather straps moved back and forth with the horse’s muscles. I didn’t dare complain, because then Dad would say, “All right, time for you to run back to the house now.”
When we’d been plowing for some time, Tom got sweaty and my overalls got wet from his sweat, but I never remember being embarrassed about it. I was having too much fun.
In early spring, the maple trees were tapped. Tom pulled the stoneboat over the crunchy snowdrifts in the woods, and Dad collected sap from the buckets which hung from spiles in the tree trunks. He poured the pails of sap into the empty cream cans on the stoneboat. I knew a little about gathering sap from being with my grandfather the two years before.
But Grandpa had died a couple of months after my fourth birthday, so now Dad had taken over the maple syrup operation. Tom obeyed every command Dad gave him, without the reins. He stood patiently and then walked steadily ahead. Still, Dad was cautious. “Hang on to my jacket pocket,” he said, “so you don’t fall off when we start off.”
The inevitable day arrived when I was to start school. We lived a mile and a half from the little two-room school-house, a long walk for me. On occasion, Dad took pity on me. “I’ll have Tom hitched up in no time,” he’d say. So, in the cold Wisconsin winter, I shielded my face with a heavy horse blanket as Tom trotted along, pulling the cutter. I’d peek out to see where we were, and bits of ice kicked up by the horseshoes would spray me in the face.
On a Saturday before Christmas, the businessmen in our small town arranged for Santa to come and hand out candy to the children. I was so excited. I knew it was to be my dad driving Tom around town, carrying Santa and his precious load. I waited in front of the post office. One little boy close by asked his parents, “Where do you ‘spose Ray Armstrong got hold of Santa Claus? That’s his horse and cutter.”
In a few years, I was able to drive the horse myself. Chokeberries, pin-cherries and wild plums grew by the line fence. If I stood in the buggy, I was able to reach up to pick them. Meanwhile, the horse lazily ate grass, chewing even with the bit in his mouth.
In the summers, Dad took his team to the horse pulling contests at the county fair. Tom and his partner, Maggie, were so loyal they’d almost pull themselves apart for my dad. It was difficult for me to watch: I couldn’t see why they had to prove themselves for anyone anymore. Many people already knew what good pullers Ray Armstrong’s team were: they remembered the time when the school bus got stuck in the mud on the dirt road running past our farm. Dad hitched Tom and Maggie to the bus and pulled it out of the mire. And they’d pulled the bobsled loaded with cordwood to St. Croix Falls, 11 miles away. Tom was there during all of my growing-up years. I guess he was a few years older than me, but a horse doesn’t have a real long life, and finally he was put out to pasture. Dad had gotten three black horses in the meantime, and continued to farm with horses. The day Dad came in to get the rifle, he stared at it without moving.
“What are you planning to do?” Mom asked.
“Old Tom is down and can’t get up,” he answered.
That had to be one of the hardest days of his life… his old friend and faithful companion, gone. FC
Lucille Anton is a freelance writer in Circle Pines, Minn., where she is at work on “Lucy, Wisconsin Farm Girl in the 1920s,” a memoir of her childhood in Cushing, Wis.