Working with Steers

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I recently found an old book titled History of Pioneer Days in Texas and Oklahoma, by John A. Hart. Mr. Hart was born in Kentucky in 1850 but his mother died when he was 2 and he and a younger brother went to Indiana to his grandmother’s. His grandparents moved to Texas in about 1855.

Hart tells the following stories (which I’ve edited somewhat) about working with steers, or oxen, that I found quite interesting.

Work steers were like all other animals, they had different temperaments and different dispositions and some steers if treated kindly were easy to get along with while others didn’t appreciate kind treatment

A young man told the experience he had hauling water on a lizard with a single steer. A lizard as we called it was a forked tree cut down and the fork of the tree was the sled. Boards were fastened across the two forks on which to set the barrel, and four standards to hold the barrel put in place. Put a half yoke on a steer and hitch it to the lizard and you were ready to haul water. The young man hitched the steer to the lizard and with the assistance of his sister drove half a mile for water. It was a warm day and by the time the barrel was filled they were both very tired. They drove about half way home when a heel fly struck the steer on the heels. A steer is very sensitive about a heel fly when it tackles a steer’s heels so it was good-bye steer, lizard, water barrel, water and all. No use to try to stop a steer when a heel fly gets after him. The water was all gone, the barrel at one place, the lizard at another, and the old steer down in the creek bottom in a thicket looking very innocent.

My grandmother was a great hand for making soap. One day she had filled the ash hopper with ashes and poured water on them until the lye had begun to drip, but had run out of water. So Grandma and one of the girls hitched a steer to the lizard and were off for another barrel of water. Grandma carried the bucket and the girl drove the steer. Grandmother was a large fat old lady, and it being a warm day made the trip hard on her. The steer brought the water back to the yard gate all right and Grandmother went to open the gate so the girl could drive through. About the time the gate was opened, a heel fly, just to be friendly with the steer, visited his heels. Away went the steer, tore down the gate, ran against a stump, upset the barrel of water, run against the ash hopper and tore it down as flat as a pancake. The steer backed up in the shade of the smoke house and looked as though he had made a great victory.

Two oxen hitched to a load of lumber. At least he won’t have to worry about heel flies in the winter. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In plowing corn with a steer you might work him for a week all right, but before you could take time to think he would run away and tear down the width of two or three rows of corn. It seemed the steer had all the fun and the driver all the trouble. Nothing ever pleases a boy more than to see a steer and a woman get in a mixup together. Some people may think a steer has no sense but this is a mistake. If a steer was properly broken to work and kindly treated, you scarcely ever had any trouble. But you always had to be careful in heel fly time because a cow or steer so poor they could hardly walk would run from a heel fly when nothing else could hardly get them to move.

One time Judge Embree concluded to go to Weatherford to the mill. He hitched a yoke of oxen to the wagon and put on two or three sacks of corn to be ground. Mrs. Embree went with him to market with some two dozen eggs and four chickens to barter. They got about half way to town when the heel flies got after the oxen and they left the road on double quick time. The eggs, chickens, corn, Mrs. Embree and the Judge, and the cart and steers were all scattered. The Judge got the cart and oxen and gathered up the corn, but Mrs. Embree lost the eggs and one chicken in the runaway.

When I was a small boy I drove from four to six yoke of oxen to a freight wagon. In those days ox teams were all the go, but now that the oxen’s days of labor are over I cannot help but have a kind feeling toward them. At the word of command I have seen a yoke of oxen at the wheel hold back and stall five yoke of oxen.

I wasn’t familiar with the term “heel flies,” but learned that it’s another name for warble flies, large, hairy flies that look a little like bees. After mating, the females locate cattle on which to lay their eggs, which are attached to the hairs of the cow’s legs. The larvae burrow into the skin, causing much irritation before burrowing through the animal’s connective tissue, finally reaching the cow’s back and forming a warble, or swelling, on the skin. The grubs grow inside these warbles until emerging through the skin, becoming adults, and beginning the cycle again.

Cattle will often panic when attacked by heel flies and run wildly to get away from them.

– Sam Moore

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