Spring on the Farm on Muddy Creek

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Illustration from a 1948 Massey-Harris wall calendar

No matter how mild or severe the winter, the appearance of a robin redbreast hopping about the front yard, or the spying of a tiny crocus bloom, makes the heart beat faster and the spirit leap in anticipation of the advent of a new season. The arrival of seed catalogs in the mailboxes weeks ago only whetted the appetite for more spring-time fare.

In the days of my youth, while growing up on the shores of Muddy Creek, the rings of the woolly worm were religiously consulted for the severity of the season, and on the second of February, Punxsutawney Phil would be ceremoniously roused from his deep slumber to project the length of the remaining days of winter.

In any event, spring on the farm was welcomed with reservation. Spring thaws meant knee-deep mud and oat sowing and manure hauling and sore muscles and wild onions and cows with the bloat and calves with the scours and colts to break and harness to mend and plows to scour. But then spring did have its blessings, too: fresh asparagus, dandelion greens, snow peas, Sassafras tea and rhubarb pies. Fish would bite on most any bait, and an early morning task was the gathering of dew worms. The post office was alive with the cheeps of baby chicks in transit, and the off-beat rasp of the new mother hens learning to cluck rather than cackle blended with the crowing of roosters and braying mules, all heralding the onset of spring.

“March winds do blow and we shall have snow and what will the robin do then, poor thing. He’ll sit in the barn and keep himself warm and tuck his head under his wing, poor thing.” So goes the memory work from Spring Hill third grade, while the Swamp Root Tonic almanac from Scott’s Drug Store advised that “If March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb.”

By now, all the salt pork was gone, the huge 10-gallon sauerkraut jar empty, and the last of the hickory smoked ham and sides of bacon have been cut down from the smoke house rafters. It is spring, and the Jersey cows are so anxious for succulent green growth that they will unerringly find a carelessly closed gate to break through and clandestinely feast on wild onions and perhaps the ankle-high winter wheat.

Consequently, the bouquet of their breath and the aroma of the milk is so rank that even the old Hampshire sow refuses the unexpected bonanza of several gallons of tainted drink.

The apple hole stands empty with the last of the Ben Davis and Mackintosh long ago fried or stewed into applesauce. Most of the hens are in molt, so fresh eggs are in slim supply and cornmeal mush and scrapple are the menu of the day.

Dozens of coffee cans filled with spindly, anemic tomato and cabbage plants have pushed aside the Christmas cactus from the kitchen window in an attempt to garner a bit of sunlight, and Dad has already enlisted our help in cutting two bushel baskets of seed potatoes into one-eye laden pieces, pending a Good Friday planting, “even if they be mudded in.”

Fish bite well in the early days of March and April using dough balls or pork rinds for bait. Surprisingly, the sweet and firm flesh of the lowly and abundant carp is mighty good eating for a short time in the spring while the water is fresh and cold.

With the first warm days of spring, there is a rush to see who is the brave soul who will shuck his elk hide shoes and long cotton stockings to go au natural. Those of us who venture to do so are careful that we are well out of sight of our mothers, and we religiously replace the shoes and socks before we arrive at home. Strange how mothers will ignore the fact, but insist that feet be washed before bedtime, a dead giveaway that mother’s wisdom and All Seeing Eye has once again asserted itself. By April Fool’s Day and the last day of school, all of the boys and most of the girls at Spring Hill will be barefoot.

One of the experiences most every farm boy has is the daily chore of bringing up the cows on a frosty morning when, sans shoes, the boys trudge out into the cow yard and hop scotch between cow berths where the grass is still warm and, in rare instances, step carefully but swiftly between steaming cow piles to warm up their feet.

Last fall during com picking time, the better appearing ears were tossed into a box on the side of the wagon, and later struck onto wire racks and hung in the haymow to dry. Now these are brought down and each ear is given a number. Three grains are pried out with a jack knife, and placed on a numbered cloth that will be moistened and stored in a dark, warm place for a week. Only those ears that have two or three grains showing sprouts are used for seed. All of the misshapen tip and butt grains are then shelled off by hand before running the ears through the hand corn sheller. This is because our new John Deere planter has plates that take only the flat grains.

Spring time is mushroom time. A huge platter of deep fried fungi is indeed a meal fit for a king. The big lies that fishermen are noted for pale into insignificance when two or more mushroomers get together. No hidden trove of treasure is guarded more zealously than the location of a bed of Morel mushrooms. Even a devoted family man, a man who would never think of lying to his wife or kicking the family dog, becomes an unbelievable bore every spring, should he be a dedicated mushroomer. FC

Perry E. Piper’s recollections of his childhood on Muddy Creek – “which lies astraddle of the Indian Boundary Line that old Chief Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison laid out back in 1803” – appeared in newspapers in Illinois and Indiana for the past 12 years.

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