The Man With the Hoe

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Sherman Moore, at age 82, hoeing sweetcorn (Burpee's Surecross) in the summer of 1949.

On my last birthday, I reached the ripe old age of 66, the exact age my grandfather was when I was born. This is a story about him.

Sherman Moore was born in South Beaver Township, Beaver County, Pa., on a cold January day in 1867, less than two years after Appomattox and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The baby was named Samuel Andrews Ross, all family names, along with Sherman, after Civil War hero William Tecumseh Sherman. When he was old enough to choose, the boy scrapped the first three names and was known from then on as Sherman to his friends, family and acquaintances. There was an exception, though: When the oldest of Sherman’s grandchildren, Peggy Jean Townsend, tried to say “Granddad” as a child, it came out “Nandad.” And “Nandad” he was for the next 40 years to all of us grandchildren.

The baby of the family, Nandad was the only one of the five Moore children to receive an education. He attended an academy, the equivalent of today’s high school, and then taught in one-room schools for about 10 years. Nandad married my grandmother in 1899, and shortly after, returned to South Beaver Township where he assisted his two older, unmarried brothers in running his widowed mother’s farm.

After Great-Grandma Moore died in 1905, Nandad and his oldest brother bought out the other heirs. Nandad and Grandma raised four children: Thelma (who died of influenza at 16), Margaret, Samuel (my father), and Sherman.

Nandad was always active in Republican politics in Beaver County. In 1929, he was rewarded by being appointed superintendent of the Beaver County Home, with Grandma as Matron. His oldest brother had died a couple of years earlier, so the farm machinery and stock were liquidated at public sale. The new County Home Superintendent and Matron then took up residence at the big, brick Beaver County Home overlooking the Ohio River. The Moores’ tenure at the home ran until 1935, when Grandma’s deteriorating health prompted their resignation.

By this time, my father and mother, and dad’s sister, Margaret, and her husband, had taken over the farm. This was more a product of necessity than choice, since both men had lost their town jobs in the Depression, and they needed some way to feed their families. After leaving the County Home, Grandma and Nandad moved back to the farm where they shared the big farmhouse with my family.

By this time past 60, Nandad helped with a lot of the field work. He rode the mowing machine and grain binder, and helped shock grain and stack hay. I’m sure there were many more jobs he did, but I chiefly remember Nandad as “The Man with the Hoe.” He loved to hoe, and would spend hour after hour in the corn fields, chopping out weeds and dragging the loose earth around the base of young corn plants.

Like most farmers of the era, my father and uncle cultivated their corn several times each season, at first with a McCormick-Deering one-row riding cultivator behind Ted and Polly, and later with a Ford-Ferguson tractor and two-row cultivator. This cultivation was never good enough for Nandad: He had to get out there with his hoe and clean out all the weeds between the plants in each row.

Nandad’s summer uniform was bib overalls and a dark gray work shirt over long cotton underwear. The shirt sleeves were always rolled down and buttoned, and the collar was buttoned as well: It wouldn’t do for any sweat to escape. A pocket watch, attached by a leather thong, in the upper overall pocket; heavy work shoes, and a high crowned straw hat with a down-turned brim that sported a green celluloid insert, completed the outfit, which never varied.

All day long, Nandad’s hoe would move rhythmically, as the shining blade swished back and forth, slicing just deep enough under the surface of the soil to kill the young weeds and to loosen and move the dirt around the plants, providing a mulch that helped retain moisture. He occasionally wiped his face with a red bandanna, and sometimes took a drink of water, although the chew of Union Workman tobacco he was seldom without seemed to prevent him from getting thirsty.

During his last years, Nandad lived on part of the farm with his daughter, Margaret, and her family. He continued hoeing, although his targets shifted from field corn to a fairly large sweet corn field and garden. Margaret, who he always called “Tom” (she had been a tomboy as a child), had a large rhubarb patch, and Nandad considered it his special duty to get out early each spring to hoe that rhubarb.

In January 1962, Nandad achieved the age of 95 without ever having been really sick in his life. That April, he got his hoe one warm day, and went out to hoe the rhubarb plants. After a short time, he came back into the house, almost in tears, and told his daughter “Tom, I’m done for!” It seems that he hadn’t had the strength to force his hoe in the ground. Nandad’s words to his daughter were prophetic: He died a month later, on May 7.

In Nandad’s capable hands, the hoe was a formidable weapon in the never-ending war against weeds. We’ll never know how many millions of young ragweed, thistle and pigweed plants fell victim to that well-worn implement. A hoe in the hands of a straw-hatted farmer, methodically working his way along row after row of bright green corn, is something one doesn’t see anymore. Most folks would say “good riddance.” I’m inclined to agree: I was coerced in to hoeing corn when I was a kid, and I hated it.

On the other hand, Nandad’s old hoe was his honest and faithful companion throughout his life, and I know he got much satisfaction out of the good work the two of them did together. FC

Ever since his days as a boy on a farm in western Pennsylvania, Sam Moore has been interested in tractors, trucks and machinery. Now a resident of Salem, Ohio, he collects antique tractors, implements and related items.

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