The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Papa's Farm Tools

By Grace Cash © 1991

Issue: March, 1991

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

Papa farmed with mules and plows and numerous hand-tools during the eighty-six years of his life. In 1903, when he was twenty-one, as was the custom, his father gave him a mule, which set him up as a farmer with a right to a portion of land to cultivate on his own. He lived on at the homeplace, the eldest of nine children, a responsible family member till his marriage in 1909. He carried nothing into the marriage except the mule, but during the years of farming, and on into retirement, he acquired-and cherished-a collection of farm tools. He died in 1969, marking sixty years as a farmer in his own right.

Farm born, farm-raised, I didn't become poignantly aware of the reason he loved the soil, and his farming tools, till the summer of 1990. After a secretarial career in the city, I set up residence on an acre-square on Papa's last homeplace. In the land transaction I came into possession of a log barn, comprising a fodder loft, four stables and a dividing hallway which Mama used for milking her cow. There was a crib nearby, of more modern build but rotting at the sills, and the floor crashing through when set-upon with heavy-shod farmer's feet. On the other side of the crib there was a shed, suitable for housing an A-Model Ford automobile and built for this purpose by a former owner of the farm.

Goaded on by the threat - and actual habitation of termites - and the possibility of a quick, uncontrollable fire, I had all three buildings demolished. But before I did so, I had to empty the buildings of Papa's tools, claimed by family members who had added to the collection during their own years as tenders of a thriving chicken ranch, established on the homeplace farm. Like a prophet who has nothing, but sees all and worries about everything, I decided to write down the tools Papa had collected over six decades. I was at last fully appreciative of the part tools have in furnishing food, not only for the farmer's table, but for the nation itself.

Like all farmers in the old days, Papa made some tools himself, hammering, chiseling, hand crafting gates, latches, milking bench, wooden troughs for feeding and watering stock, wooden shingles for roofing and hamper baskets. He made riding boards for the wagon and side-planks for raising the wagon bed high enough to accommodate a 1300-pound load of seed cotton for hauling to the gin, which was turned into a 500-pound bale of lint for sale at the cotton market. He made wooden handles for hand-tools, and a wooden platform to be used on the wagon for harvesting hay and fodder. Wheat, oats and peanuts called for the hired services of an itinerant farmer who came with his threshing machine and crew to the farm and charged a portion of the peanuts and grain output for his services. Threshing day was a delight for farm children - the humming importance of the machine and a laughing bunch of sun-tanned young men slyly winking and flirting with the farmer's daughters. The following list is based on the memory I still have of Papa's farming at the various farms where we lived in the 1920's and the 1930's.

1. BARNLOT: Home of mules, cows, turkeys, geese, guineas, ducks, chickens, a place for chicken roosts and rows of wooden upraised boxes for laying and setting hens. Also indispensable was the corn crib, the cottonseed house and the chief barn, cut off into stables, milking hallway and a fodder loft.

2. BLACKSMITH SHOP: If a farmer didn't have his own blacksmith shop, as Grandpa Cash did, he depended on the village blacksmith to heat plows to a high, red pitch in the bellows, fed by coal. Then he would beat and shape the plows on an anvil, using a sledge hammer. The blacksmith shod the feet of mules and horses, nailing on iron shoes, a curving iron rim fitting the outer sides of the feet. Without shoes, which happened when a mule lost his shoe, or wore out a shoe, the animal suffered severe hardening and limped, causing him to put his weight on the other three feet. Papa worried as much about his mules' feet as he did about his children's feet, often trimming the calluses himself.

3. BLINDERS: Leather mufflers (similar to ear muffs, attached to the bridle, kept the mule from seeing the green growth on either side of the row, and prevented nibbling and topping the plants).

4. DISTRIBUTOR: Mule-drawn like the plowstock, the wooden vault was filled with guano (or whatever fertilizer used, and the plowman strewed the fertilizer from the spout into the furrow, running ahead of the COTTONSEED PLANTER and the CORN PLANTER, which operated in like manner as the distributor.) Sometimes corn was dropped by hand, especially in "roast'n-ear" patches and gardens. Papa called out the whole family to step off two or three feet between the hills, into which we dropped three or four corn seed.

5. HAND TOOLS: Hatchet, axe, rake, ladder, shear, scoop, spade, trestle, screwdriver, pliers, claw hammer, sledge hammer, tack hammer, pickaxe, field and garden hoes, and a heavy sprouting hoe.

6. HARROW: A heavy frame with iron teeth or upright disks. Papa used a harrow to break up plowed ground into finer pieces or to cover seed with earth.

7. HARVESTER: A threshing machine for wheat, oats, peanuts.

8. LISTER: A lister is similar to a plowstock, to which several geewhiz teeth are attached. The rounded geewhiz are sharp-toothed, used to soften the seed beds for planting.

9. PASTURE: Corral, rail fence, barn lot - as necessary to Papa as his own house for keeping the cattle comfortable.

10. PITCHFORK: Various tools, such as a pitchfork, were used to load hay on a wagon, or to cure freshly-mown hay in what was variously called a HAYMOW or a HAYRICK or a HAYSTACK.

11. SCARECROW: Making a long-legged scarecrow to ward off hawks and crows was Mama's job. She rigged several as needed in the garden and the corn fields, dressed in a man's baggy overalls and a long-sleeved red shirt, and a wool hat pulled down over the wooden head. The purpose of a scarecrow was to make crows and hawks (chicken thieves) and buzzards (dead animals, any discarded meat) think the tacky monstrosity was a man with a gun in his long outstretched arms.

12. TURNING PLOW: The ultimate device for opening up the soil for planting seed. Plows of various sizes were bolted on the plowstock according to the need. (When a farm boy, usually at nine or ten years of age, put his hands to the plow handles and clutched the plow-lines, calling "Gee" and "Haw" to the mule plodding out the furrows, he had taken his undisputed place of importance beside his father.)

13. WAGON: A wagon was comprised of wheels, axles, singletrees for hitching to a mule-team. A wooden bed was outfitted with a coach whip, a riding seat and a running board. Most farmers in the 1920s and 1930s had a buggy and/or a surrey used for driving to town, community visiting and church attendance.

14. WELLS: All farmers had a well (or wells) operated by a windlass to draw up a bucket of water from the well cavern. When the well had to be cleaned out experienced well diggers were called in. Papa made his own windlass from trees on his farm. He also made the well curb, needing to purchase only the rope for the windlass.

15. WINDMILL: A mill or machine worked by the wind. Windmills are generally used to pump water.

16. SHOELAST: Perhaps the most important tool the farm family possessed was the SHOELAST and the TACK HAMMER. Papa bought a square of tanned leather and from this he would cut out half-soles to fit the shoes of family members. He molded the shoe over the iron shoelast (the top form large, the base form small) and nailed on the half sole with tack hammer and tacks. His repair work was strong enough to support a child's walking three miles through the woodland and over the creek to school and church on Sunday. (If a tack worked lose, Papa readily fixed the flaw on the shoelast. Footwear in the 1920s was shoes with the tops covering the ankles, and fastened on the side with round bead-like buttons, which required a buttonhook, hanging on a nail on the door, when dressing for school or church or play.)

17. STEELYARD: An iron hand-device for weighing cotton in the field, especially when we hired out to pick cotton, which occurred only when Papa's fields were blackened, awaiting the second or third or fourth whitening again, when the remaining green bolls opened. Cotton harvesting called for jute sacks and hamper baskets to empty the picker's cotton. Mama made our pick sacks from coarse meal sacks and she padded the shoulder straps, which would cut a whelp in the flesh when the cotton weighed the picker down before reaching the end of the row.

18. THE COUNTRY STORE: Papa traded at the country store for food not raised on the farm, for cloth, overalls, straw hats. Mama bought our pencils and tablets from butter-and-egg money, but the bulk of our farm supplies were purchased at BRASELTON BROTHERS, in a little farm town ten miles from us wherever we lived. This big general store stocked seed and fertilizer, Sunday and field clothing, miscellaneous farm tools, including hoes bought in graduated sizes to accommodate a child down to six years of age.

The Early American farmer had to be a man-of-all-trades. This hardihood and native ingenuity was passed down from generation to generation. Papa belonged to the last generation of farmers whose tools were mule-drawn and hand-operated. America's farm land has become a solitary place since the passing of the mule and the farmer who called "Gee" and "Haw" to him day after day in the fields of cotton and corn.