Winter Chores: Oiling Harness

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Harnessed horses

One of the winter chores, and there were always plenty of them to keep everyone busy during the cold and disagreeable “shut in” days, was repairing and oiling the harness.

For those folks who have never wrestled a set of leather double breeching harness off the hook, carried it to the stall, and then swung it over the back of a 16-hands tall mule, it could be hard to appreciate the beauty and complexity couched in that simple act of “harnessing horses.”

A set of harness is about 50 percent leather and 50 percent iron. The tugs are two or more inches wide, three-quarters of an inch thick, and four feet long, with another 15 inches of heavy trace chain attached to one end and the other with a steel hook that attaches the tug to the hame. This is a wood-and-steel contraption that goes around the horse collar and is held together with what else but a hame string or strap. No, no, not around an Edsel grille – this is the real thing: a “genuine” horse collar made of leather, with straw or excelsior stuffing.

The lines were 12 or 15 feet long, of inch-wide leather strips. The bridles and neck yoke straps, the belly bands, and all the rest, will add up to a good 60 or 70 pounds. The leather tended to dry out and become dirty with the sweat and dust, so that it was necessary every fall to “oil the harness.” This was a job that not only entailed repairing any “patched” or make-shift “field riggin’s”, but also rubbing skunk oil into the leather to keep it flexible.

Skunk oil? That was the very best leather treatment. It was the rendered fat from a skunk. It was not as smelly as you might think, because fellers like “Lefty” Conover or Charley Waggner knew how to dispatch a skunk before it had time to turn on its sprayer. They would then skin it out, sell the hide to Toab Petty, and cook the fat down in an old lard kettle to make “skunk oil.” Skunk oil was really in demand for treating work shoes to make them waterproof and pliable, as well as to oil harness.

Neets Foot Oil was, and still is, the store-bought version, and it was known to be pretty good – a little smelly, maybe, but you didn’t notice that much. It sure softened up that leather, but it cost money, hard money, and coin of the realm was in short supply on Muddy Creek.

So, when Dad figured the harness needed to be oiled, he decided that maybe, just maybe, some of that used cylinder oil from the old Titan might be used, since we had none of the other kind, and oil is oil.

No sooner thought of than put into action. We had an old, unused cast iron butchering kettle that had become so rusty that even the sandstone scrubbin’ that Dad had me sweating over for several hours wouldn’t clean it up so it could be used again for rendering lard. So it was dragged out, set in its Model T rim stand, and then Dad filled it with the oil that had been “heat treated” through the Titan tractor and filtered through the brass mesh of an old milk strainer. He filled the kettle about half full with the oil, and built a fire under it to heat the oil a mite, “so the oil will soak up into the harness.” Then he stripped the lines and the tugs from the harness, and pulled out the hame straps and the belly bands and filled that kettle full, and “let ‘er cook for about a half hour to get the oil well through it.”

Well, it sure cooked all right, even though that leather had been made from the tough hide from the old herd bull, Foxes Noble Boy. It softened up in that oil all right: softened up so well that there was nothing but a bunch of metal rivets and buckles and snaps left there in the bottom of the kettle, along with about six inches of cooked bull.

Well, at least it was an idea, even if a bad one. 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” – have appeared in newspapers in Illinois and Indiana for the past 12 years. He has collected the columns in two volumes of memoirs, available from him at 71 Concordia Drive, Paris, III, 61944.

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