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Kountry Life Memories

Growing up on a Small Farm in the 50s and 60s
I was born in 1950 on a small farm in central Michigan. My Dad worked full time night shift at a factory, and farmed 120 acres during the day. We usually had a few head of beef cattle, and off and on, some hogs. We raised cattle feed in the form of hay and corn, and rotated between wheat and soybeans, and occasionally oats as a cash crop.

I started helping out around the place by the time I was 7 or 8. It might be something as simple as watching my baby brother while Mom was busy canning, but it grew to whatever tasks I was big enough to handle. The earliest jobs I can remember are picking tomato worms, picking and shelling peas, snapping beans for canning and helping Mom blanch tomatoes and peaches for canning. Nothing quite like a kitchen full of steam on a July afternoon in Michigan!

As I got a little older and stronger, my chores started moving outdoors. At first it was weeding the garden. I hated that. No tillers back then, just a hoe, elbow grease and sweat. Our land was a heavy clay loam, and when the sun dried it out, it was like hoeing rocks. When I moved up to mowing the lawn with a 22' power mower, that was fun for about two times. Then that 2 acres of grass started looking more like work than fun!

By the time I was in my early teens, all my older brothers had married and moved on, or were in the military. As a result, I got assigned more responsibilities. You should understand at this point, I am addicted to machinery. If it's got an engine, or wheels and gears, I'm immediately fascinated by it. I would gladly spend an hour loading a manure spreader by hand with a pitchfork for the simple joy of firing up the tractor to spread it on the fields! Our beef critters were housed in an old milking parlor that had been stripped, and the doors were too small to get a tractor in, so everything came out the hard way.

We shared farm jobs with the neighbors who rented Grampa Fox's old house across the road. They had (eventually) 8 kids, 6 girls and 2 boys. One or another of the girls was within a year or so of each of our boys, which had both advantages and disadvantages. Marv's girls were every bit as good a tractor jockey as any of us boys. More on this in a bit.

Our neighbors had a 51 Ford F100 pickup that was the workhorse on the farm. A major privilege was to take it and a corn knife out to the fields and chop a load of fresh green corn for the cows. Again the work was a small price to pay for the pleasure of driving that old truck. Another use for corn knives was not so pleasant; Chopping the 'volunteer' corn out of the soybeans.

We had a four-row cultivator mounted on a John Deere B. The first trip over just-emerged beans or corn was done at half throttle in first gear, with the shields on, and required constant attention to avoid covering the tender plants. A reasonably healthy three-year-old could walk faster than that tractor traveled under those conditions. Another of my less-than-favorite jobs.

Haying time was joy unalloyed. All the tractor driving you could stand, and the smell of fresh-mown hay thrown in for good measure. Marv would mow with a sicklebar behind a Co-op E3. When he figured it was ready to rake, he'd referee the inevitable big fight over who got to do the raking, with an old steel-wheeled side delivery behind his JD A. Then there'd be the usual tension waiting to see if it would be ready to bale before it got rained on. Several neighbors shared an old Allis-Chalmers round baler, and we'd get it, hook it to Marv's A and he'd go to work. The baler dumped the finished bales on the ground, and we’d take turns loading them on to a big flatbed wagon pulled by either the Co-op or our JD B. The deal was, you rotated from on the ground throwing up bales, to on the wagon stacking them to driving the tractor. Another crew was at the barn, unloading into the elevator and stacking them in the mow. The haymow job was the worst, but everybody took a turn.

Combining wheat was another favorite time. Early on, we had an Allis Chalmers pull type combine that we pulled with a McCormick Super W6. There is absolutely nothing like the smell of freshly combined wheat. The combine was retired before I was old enough to operate it, but I spent many an enjoyable hour hauling wheat in gravity boxes behind our B. It was about 2-1/2 miles to the local grain elevator, and you can't imagine how proud I was the first time Dad let me make the trip alone! One of my other jobs at that time of the year was greasing the combine every morning and at lunch break. The first couple of times, I got a little carried away with the grease gun, and over-greased a slip clutch, and Dad spent an extra hour taking it apart and cleaning it so it worked properly. Not a happy camper, but he just showed me what I'd done wrong, and explained very carefully how unhappy I'd be if I did it again!

Chopping ensilage was a great time too. We always hired that done, as we didn't have the equipment. A neighbor from several farms over would haul all his equipment over, set up and go to it. He'd show up with a JD 80, chopper, two or three self-unloading wagons and a blower. That JD80 was the biggest tractor I'd ever seen. It was a pony start diesel, and I'd stand there open-mouthed watching him go through the starting drill. It went something like this; turn on the gas, pull out the choke, start the pony motor (a little gas V4 tucked up under the tank). Once it was running cleanly, pull back on the main starting lever and start rolling that big ol' diesel over. Once she started thumping regularly, let go of the starting lever, and shut down the pony motor. I simply could not imagine any more manly a task than starting that beast. The smell of freshly chopped corn is another of my all-time favorites.

A little side note; a few months back, I was on a business trip down state here in Maine. What farm country there is around here is mostly down that way. As is my habit when time permits, I was travelling via the two lane back roads. I happened to spy a rig out chopping corn. This corn was a bit past it's prime, the stalks had turned mostly brown, but on impulse, I stopped the car and watched for a bit. I don't mind telling you; the smell brought back memories so strong, I had tears in my eyes as I got back in the car.

Picking corn was another favorite. We had an old Minneapolis-Moline two row pull type. I'm pretty sure we ran it with the SW-6, which was our biggest tractor, and it had to run the picker and haul a gravity box behind it. It was usually November, and cold enough to be seriously uncomfortable, but once again, my love of machinery outweighed my discomfort, and I'd volunteer for any job that came along. Unloading gravity boxes into the elevator was the worst…the corn would jam in the gate, and you'd have to kick and stomp and pick at it to keep it flowing. Usually, ear-type wasn't the only sort of corn flowing at that time of year, if you catch my drift…

By the late sixties, virtually all of these tasks had disappeared as our equipment wore out, and Dad decided it was cheaper to hire it done than buy new. About the only thing we still did for ourselves was bale hay, and we'd moved up to a square baler, which certainly made the haymow end of that job easier. Corn, beans and wheat were custom combined and our end of it consisted mostly of trucking it to the elevator in town. Even then, I was a little sad over the loss of the old ways.

Farming with that equipment is no longer practical, economies of scale and hardheaded business decisions are mandatory to have a hope of making it today. But, if I hit the Megabucks, you can bet I'd buy and restore the necessary equipment, and farm that way til I ran out of money!

Paul Fox, from ME, entered 2000-01-10

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