August 1995

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Diaries of T. N. Smith

Kanona, New York


John Rezelman

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August 1888

When we left T. N. Smith at the end of July he and his were taking an "almost-break." Blessed with near-perfect weather for his harvest endeavors, both hay and wheat harvest were finished. They began oat harvest on August 1 with "Reap oats in p.m." On August 2, "Cut and bind oats. Bind and set up yesterday's cut."

We know T. N. cut his grain with a reaper — his grandson Stanley Fox knows he had one — from which arise his frequent references to "binding." This was a separate procedure after the reaper had done its work, in which one took up and twisted a "band" out of some grain stalks, then encircled with it as much grain as it could confine, leaving enough ends to twist into a "pigtail." (Same as an electrician's "pigtail.") You tucked the pigtail under the band to secure it, and once this "binder's knot" had dried it would stay in place and hold the bundles so made through several stages of transport until they went into the threshing machine. I feel sure an experienced harvest hand could have made several bundles in the time it has taken me to choose the descriptive words and write them.

Does something sound familiar about this? Where have you come across it before? How about Genesis 37:7 where Joseph describes his dream, "behold, we were binding sheaves in the field and lo, my sheaf arose and stood upright…"? "Sheaf" or "bundle," same thing. Thus the practice carried on in Smith's field in Kanona in 1888 was surely not a very new one back in Joseph's day. Actually it was the standard next step for all sheaves to stand upright, though not of their own unaided volition. Note Smith's "Bind and set up" of August 2. "Set up" meant stand them up in shocks, leaning against each other, for further ventilated curing. (All this done by hand, stooped over, of course.)

It you are close enough to today's farming to realize it, perhaps this August 1 oat harvest seems early to you, for here. It is that, in fact, because things are done very differently now. Today small grains are cut with a "combine," as combined harvester-thresher from which comes grain all threshed or separated. Using a combine farmers wait until grain is fully and completely ripe and, they hope, dry enough to be stored or sold direct from the combine without further drying efforts. Had Smith and his like waited for that stage, so much grain would have shattered and spilled out in all the subsequent handling and hauling they did that there might not have been much left by the time it reached the threshing machine.

What they did was cut it still just a trifle green and leave it in shocks in the field a few days to dry out further and complete maturing. That way, it would hold together through the next steps. Sometimes a threshing machine would come to the field and thresh it there. More often in the northeast, however, they stored all the bundled grain in barn mows where it could dry even more through a biological process called "the sweat," in which it heated up a little. That's how Smith did it, he tells us, as they "draw loads." When the thresher came they would set up in or near the barns and thresh all that farm's grain crops at once.

With a horse-drawn reaper in use, why Smith's references to "cradling" grain? It you wonder, next time you pass a near-ripe grain field look (in snatches, of course, between watching traffic) for spots where the stalks lie nearly flat, rumpled and tangled like "cowlicks" in hair. The books call this "lodging," — the farmers call it "going down." Storms trigger it, but one underlying reason can be soil fertility, an elevated level of nitrogen. We know that Smith, unlike many farmers of his time, did not waste manure. He made many references to drawing manure to the fields in this month of August. Since he had good land and cared for it well, there would likely be spots where grain would tend to lodge. These were, and still are difficult to cut with machinery, sometimes impossible. They could be cut clean with a scythe, however, and a "cradle" is only a scythe with a rack of wooden fingers added. Cradling these "down" spots would just be another instance of Smith's waste-not, saving, spare-no-effort ways, and is the only reason for his doing it that I can think of.

A much-condensed summary of the whole month of August follows:

1. Search for sheep in a.m. Reap oats in p.m.

2. Cut and bind oats. Bind and set up yesterday's cut.

3. Cradle and bind oats, Seek sheep.

4. Set up oats.

5. Attend funeral South Pulteney. General Philip Sheridan died. [The two events probably not connected.]

6. Finished cutting oats. Bind some.

7. Finish binding oats.

8. Draw in 5 loads oats.

9. Draw in 4 loads oats.

10. Rake out stubble, draw 1 load, Draw in rakings — finish. Uncles Milton and Oliver go on hill for blackberries.

11. Sold wool in Bath — 220 lbs. from 33 sheep @ 20˘, $44. total.

12. Uncle Oliver and children visiting. No church.

13. Prolonged rain. H. S. Ketcham comes to get blackberries.

14. Discharge hired man Pelham after 4 months.

15. Plow in p.m. [This must have been T. N. himself.]

16. New hired man Charles Atkins. He plowed.

17. Rains, Atkins plows in p.m.

18. Atkins plows all day. Do chores, etc.

19. Sunday.

20. Uncle Oliver goes home. Seek sheep. Atkins plows all day.

22. Do not feel well. Went after blackberries. Got about 30 quarts.

23. Grade lane [smooth out ruts?] Draw manure.

24. We get sheep home. 28 is all we find. Should have been 30. Draw manure.

25. "Politicking" in Kanona. Cleveland vs. Sherman.

26. Church.

27. Atkins draws manure all day.

28. Atkins works only 1/2. day. Sick in p.m.

29. Added hired man, Ed. He and Charles draw manure all day. Weigh Sam [who's he?] 410 lbs.

30. Ed and Chas. draw manure all day. Charles gets boots & tobacco. Harrow with team.

31. Ed & Chas. draw manure all day. Harrow some. (T. N. harrows, goes to mill.)

The weather continued to be kind to Smith. Soon after his oats were under cover substantial rains came. These were welcome now. For one thing, they would soften the ground and thus make easier the next major job — plowing the oat stubble for 1888-89 winter wheat. With actual wheat sowing some weeks away, one man and one team could do this, and the hired man was that man. Off and on through August he plowed and plowed and plowed.

On many of the "off" times they hauled manure from the barns and barnyards and spread it on the fields. (All by hand, with a pitchfork, of course.) Some surely went on the oat stubble, as the wheat could use it. Likely the rest went on the oldest-sod hayfields to be plowed later for 1889 corn. In 1888 the U.S.A. was not far in time from frontier days when one could always move West and take up new land. Land and lumber were very cheap once, while human labor was scarce. This situation created an attitude toward manure as a nuisance, that still persisted into Smith's day and was illustrated by this joke: when the barn became completely surrounded and obscured by manure, the recommended next step was to saw out timber and build a new barn. Smith did not share this attitude. He treated manure with respect as the important farming resource it was.

(My hands remind me here that I remember this job, too. Taking up a solidly-compressed manure pack would sometimes raise a blister on the hardest of hands, and when you have a blister under a thick callus, you've got a real one!)

Some time in late July or early August Smith's sheep disappeared and took to the woods. He did not then follow the recommendation to Bo Peep — "Leave them alone and they'll come home." Instead, as there was opportunity, they searched for them. Since Smith no doubt "docked" his sheep — removed their tails in infancy — they had no tails to harbor filth and vermin, nor to drag behind them on the way home, Bo Peep fashion. As noted on August 24, they eventually recovered 28 out of 30 missing sheep.

The Smith household managed to harvest some of the wild blackberry crop of August. As in June, there was considerable socializing, overnight vistors, friends and relatives, comings and goings. I have not attempted to record names and details here because the people are unknown to me and it is my guess this would not be of broad general interest — but it is plain that, even though farming is always quite steady work, "all work and no play" was not Smith's way.

In his farming program, the end of August finds the wheat ground plowed and manured and settling day by day into just the kind of seedbed that is right for wheat and the accompanying grass seed, when the proper time for sowing comes.

Index to the diaries
© 1995, John Rezelman
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