The Crooked Lake Review

Summer 2001

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A Tense Incident

up the Dug Road


John Rezelman

Index of articles by John Rezelman
This is the story of a settler here who didn't know what he was doing but did it anyway. As a rule, that's a sure-fire formula for inviting trouble, but once in a while it can prove to be just the right thing to do—like this occasion.

When I made trips all over Steuben County for Farm Credit I used to like to make use of the noon hour to save time. You could pretty well depend on it that when noon approached farmers would head for their houses, there to refuel themselves for the afternoon's work following a breakfast that had been hearty but long ago. If I was there, too, then I would not have to hunt for them. I used some judgement, of course, as to where I did that and could usually side-step invitations to join in the meal either by saying I had eaten, or—they liked this one—that I just didn't work hard enough to need food just then. With this stratagem I could sometimes dispose of two missions in that one hour. The food had nothing to do with it—that would have been fine. It was time I was aiming to save.

Now that I think of it, one incident particularly stands out, relevant not to my main story here, but to the noon-hour practice. At that time we were conducting a drive to get our farmer members to buy additional stock in the Credit Co-op to retire the last bit of the Federal Government's investment in it and make it 100% farmer-owned. Where I stopped that day the farmer, three stalwart brothers and an uncle—the entire work force—were seated at a table loaded with attractive food while their mother and sister flitted about making sure no one lacked anything. With their permission I began my sales story. They must have heard something about this before. I had hardly begun when the eldest brother, still chewing, paused between bites to growl two words—"Fi'hunnerd." I got the messages, spoken and unspoken, and shut up immediately. I went away with his signature on a $500 stock subscription and left them the association's thanks for it.

I was pleased with that—this was a larger than average subscription—and I think they were, too. If they weren't happy with it, I never heard about it or saw any sign of it. The whole thing hadn't taken over ten minutes.

My next stop was not in any way equal. There the farmer was not home. He had carried his lunch, his wife said, because he was combining grain on a rented farm several miles distant. She gave me directions: take this road, then that road and just pass so-and-so's place cross the field and take the dug road up to the hilltop. He'd be up there somewhere.

The dug road. Now there is a piece of history, a local institution that I will explain here. In Steuben County, as elsewhere in the Southern Tier, the earliest settlement followed the stream valleys. Even if the streams weren't big enough and dependable enough to dam for water power, they still eased the grade up to the hilltop. In many Southern Tier areas those hilltops were not productive. They were quite level, but the soil was so shallow, acid and poorly drained that after a few years from being cleared they were abandoned and allowed to revert to the forest that is again up there now.

Not in Steuben County. Here the hilltop soils varied from fairly good to very good. They were productive of small grain, potatoes and timothy hay, all marketable produce. The land in the valleys was good but limited, so the settlers continued to farm the hilltops, too. To reach these fields each farm had a "dug road" made, angling across the steep slope separating the valley and the hilltop, often wooded but never cleared, using all the room that was there to ease the grade. This was simply a shelf dug out of the steep hillside, wide enough for teams and wagons or sleighs. Original "dug road" making was by means of stump pullers, horse-or-ox-drawn slip scrapers and much pick-and-shovel work. The farmers maintained them, with cross-ditches called "thank-you-ma'ams" easing the water down. They widened them in time, to allow passage of wider farm machinery and generally kept them usable. You can see them still on the hillsides as you drive the valley roads. When lime-spreading trucks that could get on top of the hills by one means or another were developed this gave the hilltops a boost in productivity and increased the need for the dug road.

I found this particular dug road and traversed it to the hilltop. As soon as I was up there where it leveled out the car quit. Stopped dead. I could not start it again. Raising the hood and looking around gave me no clue. I considered my options. They weren't attractive, in fact I found them alarming. I could walk back to the valley, but what then? The car would still be up here. In any case, it didn't look as if I'd get any work accomplished. Now and then by listening hard I could hear a tractor working in the distance. The man I sought, probably. But just where, and how far away?

Somehow I had the feeling I would very much like to look at the underside of this car. But I had had it impressed on me that crawling under a car supported only by a bumper jack was a foolhardy thing to do. All I had was a bumper jack. After further thought I nevertheless decided to risk it.

I chocked the rear wheels, front and back, with suitable stones I found. I put more stones where I thought they might hold the car up if it slipped off the jack. Then I raised it and with trepidation aplenty crawled under. The first thing I saw was a wire hanging down from somewhere above. That didn't look right. Then my eye caught a bright glint of copper from a little post on the transmission housing—clearly a fresh break. I examined the end of the wire. Fresh break there, too. Ah! I had no idea of what the wire was for, but managed to strip enough insulation from its end to wind and twist it around the post. Hopefully, I crawled out. Once out, I was grateful I myself was still intact. I disposed of my stones, lowered the car and tried starting it.

A tense moment—but it fired instantly, and better still, it kept on running!

With that development, I drove over the track through fields with the tractor sound getting closer. I found my man and accomplished my purpose. I found out more, too. It is a good thing when you're lending money to people to know them more than casually. I found out how kind and caring this fellow was when he unhooked his tractor from his combine and announced he would follow me back down to the base of the dug road, a safer place to be.

From there, I went on my way and found a mechanic. He told me what had broken was the power wire to the automatic transmission. This make and year of car was prone to that, he said. They hadn't fastened the wire snugly along it's route and loops of it could catch on something in rough terrain and do just what this one had done. He fastened it up better for me and did a proper job of connecting it to the post, replacing my makeshift one.

I'm not recommending acting in ignorance as a practice, just relating what happened this time. During the rest of my use of that car, this never happened again.

2001, John Rezelman
Index of articles by John Rezelman
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