Horse Farming Days

Johnny Shaw’s two draft horses clip-clopped down the tree-lined driveway, past the white farmhouse, down the county road to the field; the old wagon laden with several years of accumulated chicken manure.  My brother and myself, knew what came next.

The wagon had to be unloaded the way it was loaded.  In other words, Johnny didn’t have a new-fangled spreader, like everyone else.  It was labor intensive, the chicken manure handled twice.

Farming went mechanized, during and after the war.  Johnny Shaw didn’t get the memo–or more likely, was just stubborn, set in his ways.

Our formerly white tee shirts, were now shades of gray.  The smell of ammonia was hard to ignore on that hot, humid, summer day.  Riding to and from the field refreshed with cooling breezes.

I don’t remember how many trips were made back-and-forth.  There was no goofing off this time.  Johnny stood watch nearby, he wanted his money’s worth.  Locusts and crickets chirped their afternoon tunes, when around six in the afternoon, Johnny announced, “that’s the last scoopful, the one we’ve waited for all day.”

It was hard, dirty, smelly work for ninety cents an hour–much less than the prevailing wage.  The big lunch had to be worth something–however.  Cleaning chicken houses, was immediately scratched off our career choice lists.


CHESTERPATCH (Dead End Country Lanes)


Misdirected “townies” wandered in our direction one summer day, looking for a place to fish.  As “townies” went, they were among the nicer ones–far different from trespassers.  I could overlook their christening my hometown, “Chesterpatch.”  At ten years old, I knew that equated the real Chesterfield, (population 300), with Granny Clampett’s unsophisticated Ozark hometown of Bug Tussel.

Old timers called our farm, “the jumping off place,” because it was, a mile, past the county road–at the dead-end of a winding country lane, on top of a hill.  It was a white, square, one-story farmhouse, with a wide front porch.

Mother taught school, father farmed, and took care of livestock at the big barn down the hill.  We, older boys, did farm chores after school. Younger ones fed the chickens and gathered eggs.  They were free-range chickens before the term became a buzz word.

My sister was the youngest.  At first, she stayed with Dad during the day.  We three older brothers went to school.  As boys sometimes do–we gave her no privacy, and did terrible things to her dolls.

She endured other assaults to her self-esteem at the hands of her well-intentioned father.  Fixing hair–there were lots of pony tails.  In some pictures, we looked like war-weary refugees.  My sister sported “grandma-ish” head scarves in winter.

Four-mile winter trips to town in the old red Ford pickup were tough.  Three sat in front–two in the back.  The noisy heater blower motor sounded like a stuck “ah-oo-gah” horn with laryngitis.  My sister always rode shotgun, because she was the littlest.  Me and my younger brother rode in the back shivering.  Cardboard over the wooden side racks did little to block the cold wind.

In warmer months, there seemed to be snakes everywhere.  Tippy, “the wonder dog,” kept them, and other stray critters, at bay.  One night, a snake dropped from the rafters, slid across Dad’s shoulders–when he closed the garage door.

Blood curdling screams came from the house on the hill one morning.  Dad scrambled up the hill, not sure what he would find. Out of breath, heart thumping–he threw open the door and dashed in.  There was my little sister, screaming at the top of her lungs in terror,  In the window was a ferocious green bottle fly.  Dad dispatched the offensive insect, calmed her down–went back down the hill.

The farm-house was sturdy, with a full basement.  But, it was a bit crowded for two adults, plus four children.  Us, three boys had one bedroom, mom and dad took the other one; my sister’s bed was in a corner of the dining room.  There was neither running water, nor an indoor bathroom.  It had to have been a big let down for my mother; we’d previously experienced more creature comforts.

This was my father’s “go big or go home” opportunity.  To become a successful farmer on a big scale–not under the thumb of his father. Things didn’t always go as planned.  When told to do something, we knew to obey, or suffer the consequences.  None of it was open to debate–it was a dictatorship.

Something was wrong one summer.  Mom cried a lot, Dad came to her defense when us kids asked too many questions. Mom gave birth to little Julia Jean in early 1962–she died from breathing problems.  Mother and father barely held things together.

There were so many things that happened in the years between 1958-63; it’s difficult to recall them all.  The joy seemed to have run out after 1962.  I was seriously injured in a farming accident during late summer.  Macoupin Creek flooded our farmland during two seasons.

Not everything was bad–there were plenty of good times.  I learned how to fish in the muddy pond–just north of the house. I watched wild deer, feeding with our cattle.  I befriended a one-eyed, stray gray tomcat named “Bash.”  I took long walks in the woods, searching for fun things to do–sometimes to just think.

There was the time my younger brother and co-conspirator, fell into the livestock watering tank.  He survived unscathed, weighted down by a heavy wet woolen overcoat, and didn’t freeze to death.  We built two clubhouses in the chicken yard–one with discarded carpet walls; the other one, our version of a jungle hut.

My generation was supposed to want ponies.  And deprived of such–we would have low self-esteem and other personality disorders.  We never had ponies–or ever felt entitled to them.  But, we did have an 860 pound, gentle giant, Duroc boar hog named Jack.  He was, as big as, a Shetland pony.

The spinet piano, that was played so joyfully, from the back of a friend’s pickup truck, upon our arrival, was moribund–somewhere in a trash heap.  Freight train horns, from the distant CB&Q railroad, mourned the day’s events.

My feet were numb from subfreezing cold.  With most of the furniture and draperies gone–voices echoed in the old house. When was the moving truck going to return?  I later learned, that my mother cried, at the thought of returning, to the drafty, ramshackle, Queen Anne house in town.

Summer Vacation

I grew up in the rural Midwest.  We lived four miles from the nearest small town.  The tallest building in town was the Farmer’s Coop Elevator.  Every year I dreaded the first day of school.  “Wake up!” “You don’t want to be late for school.” “…especially on the first day.” Mom hollered up the stairwell.  I brushed my teeth, got dressed and walked to the bus stop.   I felt like a  condemned man walking the long hallway to face the executioner.  What was the cause of my consternation?  Summer vacation was over, but that wasn’t the issue.  It was the essay, “What I did on my summer vacation.”  Every teacher was the same, “Now class, I want you to write a one page essay about what you did on your summer vacation.” I was a shy kid and the next part was the final nail in my coffin.  “When everyone finishes, I want each of you to stand in front of the class and read your essays.” What if I just blew off school that day and played hooky?  In my small town, Dad would know of my truancy before I got home.

Farm kids didn’t take vacations?  They had too many responsibilities.  The only places I’d been that summer were the county and state fairs.  That paled in comparison to exotic places like Disneyland or the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago.  This would take some extra effort, I didn’t have much to work with.  Maybe if I went into great detail I could expand my essay to one page.  I could write that I rode on the tilt-a-whirl, got sick and threw-up.  At least that would be realistic.  It could even get a few laughs.  I was no longer a little kid and not yet an adult.  The “Fun House” was no longer that much fun.  The “House of Horrors” didn’t seem to be that scary.  Some of it seemed quite cheesy–especially the red lights and fans blowing tissue paper to simulate flames.  The so-called “World’s Heaviest Man” at the “Freak Show” was sweaty and disgusting.

I was the only guest of honor at my own pity-party.  Why did this bother me the way it did?  Was it a “city kid” vs. “farm kid” thing?  Somehow, I felt non-farm kids had it better.  The family farm was sold many years ago.  It went the way of most of small  farms in this country–swallowed up by mega-farming operations–in the name of efficiency and higher profit margins.  Many people are concerned about the quality of the food they eat.  Have we sacrificed quality for quantity and profits?  I’d like to think our old-fashioned methods are similar to how organic foods are grown now.  Mom and Grandma raised chickens.  The young males were butchered first since they didn’t lay eggs.  Mom gave them milk clabber as a supplement.  The milk came from our two dairy cows.  Maybe that’s why her fried chicken tasted so good.

Here’s what I really did on my summer vacation.  I helped work on our family farm.  It was a cooperative effort.  There were plenty of amazing things going on.  My brothers, sister, and I had as many critters as Elly Mae on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”  We watched life and death go full circle.  Our Hereford bull sparred every day with young males for dominance.  Sometimes deer joined our cattle when they ate.  We doctored and cared for our animals when they were sick.  I helped my Father plant, cultivate, and harvest crops.  We had a large garden to maintain.  The whole family helped prepare vegetables and fruit for canning.  I was part of something bigger than myself.  I had responsibilities, they came first.  There was still plenty of time for fun.  So to Mrs. “B,” my eighth grade English teacher, (wherever you are).  I have plenty to say.