Diaries of T. N. Smith
Kanona, New York
In this September in Smith's farming operations he sowed the wheat for 1889 harvest, did the initial phase of corn harvest and started to dig potatoes — the latter two very laborious hand jobs. On the social scene, he and his mother went to dinner at the homes of friends and had dinner guests in their home, several times each. They ended the month with most of a week at the "Bath Fair." The dates of the Fair in those days were linked to the maturity of farm produce for exhibition, not the availability of midway bookings, so were more than a month later than now.
A chronology of the month condensed from his diary entries went thus:
1. "Boys draw manure all day." Aunt Ursula and grandson come to dinner.
2. To church with mother. Paid pew rent, contributed to the cost of church music. Were dinner guests of friends.
3. Atkins (the plowing hired man) finished "plowing oat stubble for wheat." T. N. finished harrowing one way. (It would require more.) Morning task was "throw the loose stones out of the road." Not good for a horse to step on and could stop a wagon if lodged under a wheel.
4. Atkins harrows. Colts shod. Entertained visitor.
5. Rebuilds fence.
6. Build fence. Welcomed guests "for short stay." First killing frost destroyed tender crops.
7. Built rail fence enclosing meadow (for late pasturage). Bought 4 sheep. Another frost. "Corn and potato vines show the effects of frost but not killed."
8. Good all-night rain. Odd jobs while things dried.
9. Church. Dinner with friends in South Pulteney.
10. Sow 5 acres wheat with grass seed (which at $3.00 a bushel must have been timothy).
11. Finish drilling wheat, sowing 52 quarts per acre.
12. Drew stone off wheat, rolled field.
13. Begin to cut corn. "Stalks badly frosted but the corn is good."
14. Hired "the Dutchman" to cut corn.
15. Ed (regular hired man), T. N. and "the Dutchman" all cut corn.
16. Rain. Didn't make it to church but got to Sunday School.
17. Rain, lending business affairs; Ed and "the Dutchman" cut corn.
18. "Ed and I chore around in AM, and cut brush in PM.
19. "Ed and I work the highway all day with team."
20. "Ed and I draw 3 loads wood from the woods." Dig some potatoes in P.M.
21. Sold 14 sheep. "Ed and I husk corn, dig 8 - 9 bushels potatoes."
22. "Ed and I cut brush." Democrat meeting in Bath in evening. "Abbott speech was grand and to the point." (I think T. N. liked it.)
23. Go to church.
24. Fair preparations in Bath. Select stall for "Sam" and pen for sow and pigs. Ed digs potatoes.
25. Take "Sam" (who and what is he?) and sow and pigs to fair.
26. "Mother, Ed and I go to fair. Am Committee of Award on milch cows with Mr. Israel Woods."
27. Attend fair.
28. At fair. (T. N. was a fair official whose presence was needed.)
28. Ed digs potatoes. Mother sick.
30. First snow.
On Sept. 13 T. N. wrote "Begin cut corn. Stalks badly frosted but the corn is good." Future references to this task say simply "cut corn." From those words alone it would appear they cut corn and that was that. "That" was not just "that," however. Far from it. There's much more implied in those two words, for as they proceeded in the field they left behind rows of those tepee-shaped corn shocks so long beloved by artists.
The way these shocks were made in this part of the country was with a "corn horse." Visualize a long, tall, light sawhorse with no legs on one end, so it stands like a tripod. In the long member a series of holes were bored through at intervals. You thrust a cross stick through one of these holes at right angles and that gave you a cross at a height resulting from which hole you chose. You chose the hole according to the height of the corn. In the four quadrants of this cross you piled armfuls of corn, standing them up, nearly vertical but leaning inward until you had a shock of the size you wanted. Then you tied it around a little above the middle, withdrew the cross stick, then the horse itself, and went on to the next shock location.
They generally made these shocks large enough to stand solidly but no larger, so that air could move freely through them. Well-made, well-tied shocks would mostly stand through windstorms and remain upright, which best preserved the ears for grain and the stalks for feed.
The fact the corn was "badly frosted" put an urgency on this "cut corn" task, for now they would quickly become brittle, break off and blow away while their green color would fade. The leaves were the most palatable, least fibrous part. It was not known in 1888 that the green color meant carotene from which animals derived vitamin A, but all the farmers knew they were the best part for feed. Once in shocks their substance and color would be protected.
Corn grain with just a very little more maturing to do could finish that process in the shocks. (If it were far from mature, it couldn't.) But Smith disposed of this when he wrote "the corn is good," meaning that in 1888 the maturity aspect was no problem.
The words "cut corn" said all this, very concisely, if you knew how to interpret them — they really did. The next step in the corn-harvest process would be to untie a shock, husk out and crib the ears. The husking was often done in the fields. When it was, the stalks were re-shocked, but into fewer and much larger shocks this time, since they were now fully dried. There they could remain until hauled home to feed or to clear the field for plowing.
If you can visualize a cross between a sickle and a machete you will see a close replica of the implement used to "cut corn" in this region. It was called a corn knife or corn hook.
Other parts of the country had their own tools and methods, but all fitted the description "laborious." The corn that was ground or thrown down before pigs in 1888 was hard won, ear by ear.
Just before starting corn harvest, on the 10th, 11th, and 12th he sowed wheat with grass seed and rolled the field after picking off some stones. The wheat would have been sown with a grain drill and the grass seed at the same time with a separate attachment on the drill. (Clover would be sown broadcast among the growing wheat plants very early the following spring.) The rolling served several purposes. For one thing, it compacted the soil, increasing capillarity to bring up moisture from beneath, hastening and insuring the germination of the seed. It might help the wheat root more firmly against the winter, and it would smooth the field surface to ease harvest, both of the wheat and the hay crops to follow.
This photo shows Stanley Fox standing beside the same identical fanning mill owned by T. N. Smith and used in his farming years. It was standard practice when using their own seed grain for farmers to clean it first in one of these mills. (Seedsmen had larger stationary mills for this.) Not to do so meant sowing weed seeds along with the grain and putting into the drill bits of foreign trash that could interfere with its accurate operation. Nothing could be more obvious than that T. N. Smith would never neglect such a step, whether he mentioned it in his diary or not. We may therefore assume that the wheat sown in 1888 was cleaned in this mill.
This was an exceptionally good mill, Stanley says, because it would separate cockle from wheat, an unusually difficult feat. This mill has been used in recent years and, given a few squirts of oil in the right places, would be ready to work today. It is a testimonial to what care, shelter and lubrication can do for farm machinery.
Ed the hired man did most of September's potato digging. Since no horses or machines are mentioned, it may be assumed he did this with hand tools, either a potato hook which is a tined implement, or with a fork. One man on a small acreage would pretty much pick up the potatoes as he dug them.
Other September farm jobs as set forth in the diary included fence building and wood hauling.
Then there was the Fair. T. N. Smith was a consistent mover in this and, as he notes, one of the cattle judges in 1888. I have heard "old-timers" remark, as they sweltered in an August fair, that the Fair used to be in "coat and sweater" weather.
The final September entry — snow — was a reminder and a portent that winter was inexorably on its way.
© 1995, John Rezelman