Farm Collector

WATER BOY

D.D.S. 401 South Adams Street Boswell, Indiana 47921

Of all the unsung heroes of the big threshing rings of other
days, no mention or due credit is ever given the water boy, and we
are of the opinion (and we know others will agree) that his job was
just as important as that of the engineer, separator man,
bundle-hauler, pitcher or grain hauler. The water boy had to be
able to do almost a man’s work, yet he usually was a local farm
boy, perhaps the son of one of the members of the ring, perhaps ten
to fifteen years of age. Any boy over that age would certainly be
doing a man’s work during the threshing season with a team and
wagon. Actually, a good water boy was one not inclined to play, but
realized what fresh drinking water meant to the men who performed
their various jobs during the day.

An enterprising farm boy who wanted to earn approximately 50c a
day always made the rounds of the farmers in the ring as early as
possible in the summer and lined up as many jobs as he cared to
handle. There was always competition, for most neighboring farmers
also had sons or relatives who also wanted to earn a little pocket
money. Of course, the job on Dad’s or the home farm was always
‘for free’, but in my case there was one uncle who had two
daughters (girls never hauled water), two other uncles had no
children, and another uncle had a son (my cousin) but he was old
enough to run a bundle wagon. Also there was the possibility of
getting a few jobs from other farmers in the ring.

Dad was very generous and he gave me the free use of his best
driving horse and our second best buggy. But I also received some
very strict orders from him and I knew I had better follow them to
the letter or receive the consequences. There was to be no
‘fooling around’ at any time, up at 4:00 AM, off to the
threshing job at 6:00. All jugs and kegs were to be emptied
completely and filled with fresh, cool water each time after I had
made the rounds of the pitchers in the fields, scoopers, bundle
haulers, and always a fresh jug of water at the engine and another
at the separator. And that went on continually all day long. If
not, then we ‘heard’ from Dad and there were mutterings and
louder complaints from others that ‘that so and so water boy
isn’t worth a d—–‘ But the average farm boy knew and did
what was a good job. After all, his pay, reputation, and future
jobs were at stake. Usually it was the ‘town boys’ who
never quite seemed to want to work too hard or who never understood
just what fresh water meant to tired, sweating threshermen on a hot
August day.

This is a picture of the Hamilton Corliss engine which supplied
110 volts direct current for the village of Brooklyn from 1903 to
1925. The man is George Green the owner and manager. . Electricity
was then used principally for lighting, so the plant was started
each day at dusk and operated until midnight, when the towns people
had better be in bed or have the kerosene lamps lighted. Mr. Paul
Totten of Brooklyn, who gave me this picture, told me that when
they were having a dance in the hall that was adjacent to the power
house, they would sometimes take up a collection and give the
operating engineer a few dollars to keep the lights on for one more
hour.

I remember watching in fascination this engine run, and how they
kept the power house spick-and-span and the engine polished. It was
broken up for scrap about 1934. Courtesy of Ralph Donaldson, 10275
Case Rd., Brooklyn, Michigan 49230.

Here is one of the first fruits of my recently begun search for
photos of local threshing activity. The original is very sharp and
clear right down to rivets and buttons and it copied nicely too I
think. Fortunately it is front labled, leaving no doubt as to its
whereabouts and Walt McQuiston, a newphew or cousin who gave me the
print also showed me the barn which is still standing and looks
very much the same. Walt was a well known thresherman around this
area [Southern Lawrence County] for many years and is very
interesting to talk to on the subject at the age of 93.1 would say
the engine is obviously a Frick. Would you agree?. Courtesy of
Thomas G. Downing, Route 1, Box 181, Ellwood City, Pennsylvania
16117.

No right-thinking water boy was ever presumptuous enough to
crowd in and eat at the ‘first table’ at noon. He may have
‘washed up’ with the first men to the house, but he always
stood to one side and let the men eat first unless there was that
rare ‘one chair left’ which he could have. This is one
reason I shall never forget an aunt of mine. Knowing I was hungry,
all the chairs being filled, she called me around the side door and
I sat on the steps and ate a marvelous meal from a plate piled high
with the finest food and all the lemonade I wanted to drink.

Dad always admonished me to go on about my work and not to hang
around where some of the threshing crew might be waiting to unload
bundles or do their various jobs, for there were always ribald
jokes, swear words, gossip, vulgarities, wherever the men
congregated. Besides, the water boy was usually the butt of all
jokes, had to listen to all complaints, grumblings, and in general,
everybody ‘picked on’ the water boy. Here again he had to
rise to the occasion, take his abuse and not get mad at his
tormenters. I can truthfully say that I always shrugged it off –
all except once -when a pitcher in the field put what I thought was
a small snake down my shirt and I had my clothes off in nothing
flat, only to find that it was a field mouse. But in the heat of
the torture, I gave him such a tongue-lashing and
‘cussing-out’ as he had never heard before from a 10 year
old boy, and believe me, no genuine farm boy ever grew up who did
not acquire a few choice words for his own work-day vocabularly! Of
course Dad never heard them, for we knew better! But most of all
the ribbing and joking, was as it was meant – in fun and it was
forgotten – unless someone told of an amusing incident in later
years. But the water boy also came in as an assistant or
jack-of-all-trades at threshing times. The housewife might
‘draft’ him to hang out the clean towels at the well, or
put out soap, combs, mirrors and tubs of cool water under a handy
shade tree for the men as they came to the house to ‘wash
up’ for dinner. Other duties might include carrying various
messages to the men, maybe a quick trip to town, helping someone
brace the next bridge down the road that the engine and separator
must cross. Then, after all threshing was finished in a day or two
came ‘settling-up day’ among the members and it was on this
day the lowly water boy rose to true stature when he went along
with Dad to the meeting, for on this day he was paid by the various
farmers for whom he had worked. On that day he would go home with
several half-dollars in his pocket and that meant money for the
County Fair, maybe a new fish-pole or it was perhaps to be added to
other savings to buy something later of more importance. Also,
‘settling up day,’ usually meant a good supply of
watermelons or homemade ice cream on hand and it was free and there
was no limit as to how much you wanted to eat!

So, the water boy finally grew up; others came along to take
over his duties while he may have taken on a new job, handling a
team, may be pitching bundles, or any of the many threshing-time
jobs that were handled by grown men. There still are a lot of us
left who remember the booming cry of ‘WATER BOY!’ as some
thirsty pitcher or helper in the field wanted us to speed up
‘Old Punkin’ and bring them a drink of fresh water
first.

If you ever heard that cry, you will never forget it as long as
you live or as far as you travel it will stay with you always, and
beyond a doubt contributed its share to that well known quip (or
proverb) ‘You can take the boy from the farm, but you can’t
take the farm from the boy.’

  • Published on Nov 1, 1973
© Copyright 2022. All Rights Reserved - Ogden Publications, Inc.