Memories of a War-Time Farm Hand

Discover recollections of war-time farm life, and about the different tractor models, from the John Deere model B to the F-20, that did the job.

| January 2020

As a boy, Wilfrid Vittetoe hauled loads of hay for a neighbor using the neighbor’s Farmall F-20.

In 1943, at age 13, I was helping neighbors. It being wartime, all able-bodied men were off fighting in World War II. In the spring of 1943, after school was out, I helped Norbert Hammes put in crops with the old John Deere Model A hooked to a disc and harrow to get the ground ready to plant corn.

That summer, I helped Chick and Everett Swift make hay. I drove the tractor, pulling the hay rack with the hay loader behind the 16-foot hay rack. Chick was a strong-enough man to load by himself, but if he had help available, two men were on the rack.

I also hauled hay loads from the field to a barn on a hilly dirt road that curved downhill and across a one-lane bridge. I used Everett Swift’s F-20 that had a road gear of about 10 to 12mph. It was always a big deal, but kind of scary with a big load of loose hay swaying behind the tractor.

They hired an old guy to set the fork. Grant W., a classmate of mine, rode old May, a big Percheron mare, to pull hay up into the barn. The long hay rope was threaded through the pulleys up and around the top of the haymow, then down and out the side of the barn to the horse. Everett was in the mow and sometimes I would help in the mow, or work on the rack and set the fork.

Later that summer, the McConnells asked me to help out with cutting oats with the binder. I drove their old John Deere Model B (with a hand clutch) pulling the binder. Old Bill McConnell rode on the old binder, which was originally pulled by a team of horses. The ground-driven bull wheel provided power to operate the implement.

Bill would watch that everything was working and trip the bundle carrier when enough bundles were collected to make a shock. His son, Francis “Hap” McConnell, did the shocking. After we had the field cut, we all helped “Gov” Hammel, the high school janitor and a cousin of our neighbors the McConnells, who came out after school and helped shock, sometimes until dark.


Operation controlled by a piece of string

In one incident I recall, the field was split by several big waterways and we cut each piece separately. This one waterway had tile water running down it. So old Bill told me to let Hap drive the tractor and binder across the ditch through the water. Now Bill was on the binder seat and had taken the binder out of gear to cross. Hap put the tractor in high gear to get across faster, so as not to get stuck. As the binder hit the bottom of the ditch and bounced with old Bill hanging on for dear life, the binder slipped into gear. Since Hap was going three to four times the normal speed, what a noise and clatter!

After the crossing, everybody stepped off the equipment and Hap said, “Gad” – his favorite expression. I wondered what had broken, but nothing seemed amiss, so we continued to cut oats. They tied a string to my overall suspenders leading back to the binder seat. If old Bill wanted me to stop, he pulled on the string.

At that time, Hap lived on the Anderson farm. One evening at the end of a hot July day, we finished cutting and shocking his field. Before he took me home, we went to the old wood shed attached to the back porch of the house. He opened the bottom door on the icebox and way in back, where his kids couldn’t see it, he found me a cold bottle of orange pop. What a treat for a thirsty kid!

Good old days? You decide!

Another time we were helping the McConnells. Everett Swift’s farm land was just across the road south from Hap’s house. That summer, he had put his hogs out on pasture in that field. He had dug a 12-inch-diameter tile well probably 20 feet deep to water his hogs.

A week or so before we cut the oats at Hap’s, Everett’s hogs got to fighting to get to the water to keep cool. In the process, they pushed the cover off the well. As they continued fighting, some fell in. As I recall, they filled the well to the top. Since the water was low, only four or five drowned; those above were alive and Everett was able to get them out. He used a fish spear to pull out the dead ones. He buried the dead shoats (100-pound pigs) along the outside of the fence around the hog pasture.

Over at Hap’s place that summer, their kids’ dog had a litter of pups. At the time we were cutting oats, the pups were good size and I can remember them playing in the front yard. As we came in for dinner that day, Hap said, “Gad, that mother dog has dug up pieces of Everett’s dead hogs.” The pups were laying contentedly in the front yard, chewing on the rotten pieces.

Those were the good old days – or were they? No electricity. No running water. No indoor plumbing. No way to cool off (except under a shade tree). All we had were dusty dirt roads. Hap drove a Ford called a Victoria coupe. Everett “Huppy” Swift had a saying: “I’m going out in the field to feed the bank’s hogs.” FC


Wilfrid Vittetoe lives in Washington, Iowa. Call him at (319) 653-2720.

1/15/2020 9:03:27 PM

I enjoy reading these stories because these are memories I have of my early years being raised on farms

Dan in Jax
1/14/2020 7:23:34 PM

We had a small farm (90 acres) in Jericho, VT. We bought it in Sept.1948, when I was age 9, and the meadows were uncut and gone by, but my Dad arranged with neighbor Johnny Davis to cut and bale most of it, for half the total bales harvested, so it worked for both families, as we were only getting our dairy herd started. That first Vermont Winter, my Dad bought a 1941 John Deere Model B, and spent a lot of time overhauling the engine, on his time off from working as an engineer on the Lake Champlain ferries, a job needed to keep us going before we got any milk checks. We only had 1 cow in a 40-cow barn, so we had to partition it off with hay bales so there would be enough self-generated heat to survive. Our team of bay horses(Pat & Mike) were also in the barn. We had more hay than they could all eat, so my chores included chopping up loose hay for bedding. It had to be chopped short for the manure spreader to work in the Spring. We had a nice sugar bush on the lower 40, and that first Spring we made enough maple syrup (200 gallons) to pay the taxes as I remember. Dad and I spent all winter (when he wasn't working on the tractor) sawing and splitting wood, for the kitchen stove and the chunk pot-bellied stove in the living room, as well as for firing the maple sap evaporator, which took a LOT of wood when boiling sap to reduce 43 gallons to 1 gallon of syrup. My job was to watch the evaporator and flick a drop of evaporated milk into the froth when it tried to boil over. That immediately quelled the foam. When Summer of 1949 came, we did our own loose-haying (no baler).We hired Fred Casey to help out with the mowing and some of the raking, but only for a few days. Dad bought a used horse-drawn mowing machine with a tractor drawbar attachment, so I sat on the mower and lifted the cutter bar when we came to a rock or other obstacle. As a 10-year old, it took all my strength to push the cutter bar up with my feet. That's the year when I got to drive the Model B with its hand clutch that I could barely reach. Driving wasn't so bad, but starting it by pulling with both hands on that big external flywheel when I didn't have much "lead in my behind" was always a chore! Since the oldest of my 3 brothers was only 4, and Dad worked most days on the ferry, Mom and I tumbled, loaded, transported to the barn, used one of the horses on the hayfork, and mowed it away. As I recall, we used a dump rake, but later used a side-delivery rake to make windrows. Its easier to tumble (make pitchfork-sized piles which are easier to load on the wagon) when a dump rake is used. I got so good at this that in 1950 and 51, I earned 50 cents an hour tumbling, loading, etc. by working for our neighbor Carly Shillhammer when not needed at home. I seem to remember that we used the oldest brother Bill as a relay to wave to the hayfork operator to trip the fork load when I shouted "Drop it" in the mow. Then it was a few urgent minutes' work mowing it away so another drop could be made. Sorry this got so long, but Wilfrid's experiences sparked a whole flood of memories - truly the "Good Ole Days"! Dan Carr, Jacksonville, Florida


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