Diaries of T. N. Smith
Kanona, New York
The big push in April on the Smith farm was oat sowing and in May it was corn planting. Had Smith been growing dry beans, cabbage and buckwheat there would have been urgency about getting those crops planted, in that order, in June, although buckwheat could even run over into July and still mature a crop.
Since T. N. grew none of these three crops in 1888, there was no longer crop-planting time pressure. June with its long hours of daylight is always an intense time for plant growth, but for the people on Smith's farm it was almost relaxed, as nearly so as ever happens on a farm.
The first entry of June 1 sets the tone for the month, "We do chores around the house and garden"—it had come to where there was time now for those.
It was a time when he cleaned up and emptied his bins and crop storage areas in preparation for oncoming harvest—as on June 2. "We clean up oats in p.m. and put some in horse barn." (Where it would be handy to feed.) Also on June 7, "Sell 200 bu. wheat @ $3." He had held back this much until now, but soon there would be new wheat that would need the bin space.
There was time for tilings like attending "Children's Day exercises" at church on the 17th and a "Sunday School Teachers meeting" in Bath on the 18th. T. N. and his mother were both hosts and guests for dinner with friends and neighbors on several occasions. Mother took a week's trip to Binghamton, traveling by rail, of course. (We can't match that for convenience today—board a train right at Kanona and ride it in comfort to Binghamton.)
On the 15th "we" (T. N. and hired man, I suppose) did their part as "we work on highway." A cultural item—on June 9th he bought "One Thousand Mile Book" on Erie R. R. for $20.00—which is almost as much as you'd pay for a book today.
On June 4 we find the answer to what became of his much-worried-over com planting of mid-May. "We plant in com with hoe." This tells us that enough of the corn he had planted came up to make a stand too good to destroy for a fresh start, but not good enough to leave without an attempt to improve matters. "Planting in" meant walking through the field and planting com wherever there should have been com but was none. For this planting one would use seed of a shorter-season variety than that originally planted, if available, so that the whole field
might mature as evenly as possible. Often no such seed could be found this late, in which case any corn was better than no corn. Green miniature stalks would dry in the shock to make palatable fodder and ears not fully matured—called "soft corn"—would keep long enough in cold weather for pigs to convert them into pork. "Planting in" was an expedient, making the best of a less-than-perfect situation. On June 6 they "finished planting in corn and plaster some" apparently applying some of that "plaster"—gypsum, calcium sulfate—was a practice of his corn growing, for on June 8, "Buy 2 sacks of plaster...at 60 cents each to put on corn," and on June 9 hired man "plasters corn." A couple of 20th Century puns come to mind here, but I spare you.
Stanley Fox came up with this picture so that we might see what his grandfather looked like. This photo was almost certainly taken after 1888, for we believe it was after that that he imported a pair of very high-priced pregnant Percheron mares from France. The horse is thought to be his stallion, the offspring of one of these mares, sired in France. T. N. raised colts from him himself and improved the local work stock by stud service. I find it noteworthy that both the horse and the man look very alert as to what's coming next. The horse, with his ears almost laid back, looks as if he doesn't expect to like it, whatever it is. And Smith, with his short two-handed grip on the halter rope suggests determination that he, come what may, is not going to be caught by surprise.
June seems to have been a month of unusual activity in Smith's lending business, with many recordings of money going out in loans made and payments collected in. It must be everyone found time then to attend to such matters.
The nearest thing to a time-push in June was cultivating all the row crops. Many farmers today have no up-to-date cultivating equipment, relying entirely on weed sprays. It their herbicide is applied at just the right time, if it is the right material for the weed species involved,
if soil moisture conditions are favorable and if a few other tilings, they get very good weed control much easier, if not cheaper, than Smith got his. In his day a fanner rode on or walked behind a cultivator, a horse-drawn machine that stirred the soil, uprooting many young weeds and burying others. If drying weather followed, that was the end of that sprouting of weeds. If rain followed they were merely set back, with many weeds reviving. We have theorized that Smith planted his corn "on the square" and, Stanley Fox suggests, probably his potatoes the same way. Going through first one way and then the other made a double cultivation which very, very few weeds survived, and control would be superlative. Cultivation typically had to be done several times, two or three at least. It continued until the crop plants were ___ large to get through without damage. By that time they would shade the soil and could compete successfully with any weeds for the rest of the season. This was another job that required steady close attention and precise control of the horses. A cultivator gone astray would destroy corn as readily as weeds. They cultivated on June 11, 12, 14, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 and 23 in 1888. That's nearly 1/3 of the month.
I was looking intently as I read June's diary for the date when Smith started haying. So intently, in fact that I leaped to a conclusion upon seeing, on June 11, "We put a load of hay on wagon to go to Bath tomorrow. Sold at $11.00." "This is amazing," I thought; "He's starting haying as early as people do now, even though he had no mower-conditioner to crush the stems and leave all piled high in a lofty windrow for rapid curing, nor did he have the alternative of chopping it into a silo if the weather allowed no complete drying, only wilting.' I didn't keep this delusion long. Not when I saw on the 13th a record of delivering 4 loads averaging 2500 pounds each, net without wagon. Common sense said this wasn't 1888 hay he was selling, it was 1887-cut, or earlier. This didn't seem like new hay at those weights; it was more like hay that had been compacted in the bottom of a mow with tons and tons on top of it for months and months. It couldn't have been baled; a traveling custom hay press wouldn't come for just a few tons, and he'd surely have noted it if it had. He wasn't starting haying for '88, he was emptying out his hay mows of old hay just as he'd done with his grain bins.
This was simply pure and typical T. N. Smith— provident, practical, prudent and profitable. Not for him to skimp too much livestock through the last month of barn feeding, then turn them out hungry and too soon on pastures not yet grown enough to carry them through the season. No, he would balance his livestock numbers and feed supply in the fall so that all had plenty with some left over at season's end. Had he expected a short hay crop in 1888 he would not have sold this hay but kept it over to feed. As it was, he evidently foresaw '88 hay a-plenty so he judged this the time to get rid of it before it grew stale. Crisis control was clearly his management style.
June ended much as it began. On June 25 "We mow weeds along highway" and die concluding entry notes a presumably social visit as "Mother and I drive to Mr. Drew's in p.m."
With hay harvest, wheat harvest and oat harvest all soon up-coming, it appears unlikely their pace of life would be this relaxed again for quite a while.
Compared with today, Smith's crop acreages were small. How, then, could they be as demanding as they were? By harvest time both men and horses were hardened to heat and prolonged exertion—but still, the hand-held pitchfork played a very large part in moving a crop from the field to the barn and within it, and horse muscles, augmented sometimes by gears and pulleys, were the greatest single power source involved. There was no exploding of fossil fuel in a cylinder that could go on indefinitely. There had to be respite, regular breaks for the workers' physical needs, human and animal. Yet is wasn't the work that bore down on them; they could readily handle that. The strain on the farmer came from having to be constantly "psyched up" to make use of every bit of favorable weather, of which there could often be a shortage. Miss one chance and when would you get another? Too late, like as not. We may see that operate come July.
© 1995, John Rezelman