The Crooked Lake Review

Summer 2001

 
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The Era of the

Drover

by

Richard Palmer

The drover has earned only occasional mention by local historians. Cattle, sheep, hogs and birds were driven hundreds of miles from Ohio and the midwest to Albany, New England, New York City and other centers of commerce. Most of the major highways in the area were once trod by drovers and animals.

The mention of drovers conjures up visions of a cattle drive making its way 1,000 miles across the plains. But at a much earlier time, drovers were at work in Central New York coaxing an array of livestock down the long dusty roads to eastern markets. Such was the case between about 1800 until the coming of the railroads.

A story was once told of a wager made between two drovers. The turkey drover was sure his long-legged, quick-stepping birds would win. But the more seasoned drover of geese knew better. As the evening approached, the high-stepping turkeys, although far out-distancing the plodding geese, would move no further, and roosted on the fences and in the trees for the night. No amount of persuasion could coax them to go on. Soon, the geese came plodding by. The geese drover collected his bet and went off into the night.

The roads in the early days were thronged with droves of not only geese and turkeys, but cattle, sheep, hogs and horses as well. The drovers shared the roads with the stagecoaches, pedestrians, covered wagons, huge freight wagons, tinkers and peddlers. While the general flow was westward, the drovers were generally headed to eastern markets.

In its November, 1852, issue, the Wool Grower and Stock Registered noted:

"in years back, before the construction of railroads, the driving of cattle was a large and tedious business, the journey often extending over hundreds of miles. From this State they were generally driven to New York, Brighton and Philadelphia on the old turnpikes; during the fall, the droves used to extend for miles and public farms with pastures for cattle as well as food and drink for the drivers were to be found within sight of each other.
"The loss on the cattle driven to market, depended of course very much on the traveling, the quality and quantity of feed, and the care exercised in driving. But these old times have passed away and the occasion for long journeys either for men or cattle by land, no longer exists."

This and other evidence indicates farmers along the main roads rented their pastures for cattle and catered to the drovers in "bed and breakfast" fashion. There are many old farmhouses which have the reputation of having once been drovers' inns. Still locations, such as a flat area adjacent to a stream were overnight rest stops for weary man and beast.

In late winter and early spring, before pastures were green, corn was sold to drovers in huge quantities. One record book shows 5,620 hogs passed eastward to market on one road in about two and a half months. The same farmer sold 715 bushels of corn at 25 cents a bushel to passing drovers.

Turnpike tolls for drovers were minimal. For every score of cattle, a charge of six cents was levied on drovers. Every score of sheep or hogs was three cents, and the same in proportion for a greater or lesser number.

But to avoid any toll, drovers often used secondary and parallel roads. This was commonly referred to as "shunting." It is said that drovers often avoided the heavily traveled routes as well-trod routes were hard on the feet of both animals and drovers. Of all the animals driven on the roads, turkeys were by far the most unmanageable because of their chicken-like excitability and tendency to panic and run wild. The birds were collected during the fall and brought into the villages by the farmers, and sold to the drovers.

When a sufficient number had been accumulated, the feet of both turkeys and geese were tarred as this was the most vulnerable part of their body. The tar acted like shoes. To prevent them from flying and consequently losing them enroute, their wings were clipped. A drover usually followed his flock with a wagon to carry the necessities associated with the business. Birds that strayed could be carried in the wagon.

A drover might employ from four to six men or boys as drivers. They were equipped with long birch rods to which were attached long leather thongs to poke the birds back into the roadway. The drovers traveled by foot at the sides of the flocks to keep them aligned. Bird driving was slow and tedious, the average speed being seven to 10 miles a day, depending on the size of the flock, and, of course, the weather. A man on horseback rode in front of the flock, scattering corn in a trail of kernels which the birds unerringly followed all day.

The farms which catered to drovers and provided overnight lodgings were provided with corrals containing roosts, as turkeys must roost high to keep their feet dry and to protect them from predatory animals. Skunks especially found them juicy morsels.

The pens for the geese and turkeys being driven to market were stocked with feed and had water troughs at the overnight stopping places. Animals had to be well fed along the way to prevent them from losing too much weight. In some cases, cattle were fed salt as they approached market so they would drink a lot of water to inflate their weight. The practice is where the term "watered stock" originated.

There are indications of cattle droves in upstate New York as early as the 1780s. Cattle were driven from New Jersey to Niagara. One drover, Silas Hopkins, wrote: "In all my journeyings in those early days we were well treated by the Indians. They had a custom of levying a tribute upon the droves, by selecting a beeve [sic] from each drove as they passed through their principal towns. This they regarded as equivalent for a passage through their territories; and the drovers found it the best way to submit without murmuring."

After the coming of the railroads with their obvious advantages of speed and handling, droving became a thing of the past. By the 1850s, the Erie and New York Central railroads were transporting most of the livestock long distances. At certain locations, the train would stop, the cattle car doors were opened, and the animals allowed to devour feed and water at the "circulating pens." Live cattle continued to be shipped by rail until the 1950s.

Long gone are the clouds of dust occasioned by cattle, sheep, turkeys and geese winding their slow way "on the hoof" from the western pastures to market in Albany, New York or Boston. Since these flocks and herds were a lucrative source of income for the turnpikes, they too faded away once the railroads took this business. Toll road revenues dwindled rapidly as the railroads also took away most of the stage coach travel.

It was only a matter of time before the turnpikes went out of business and the old turnpike roads were left to the taxpayers to maintain.

2001, Richard F. Palmer
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