Memories of a War-Time Farm Hand
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.
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