The following is reprinted from February 2012.

From the late 1940s through 1950, being nowhere near grown, I was still grown enough and stronger than most boys my age and pulled more than my share of the work on our farm. Most of the farmers in our part of the country, including us, worked the fields and pastures with horse- and mule-drawn equipment and machinery. Around the time when I was 12 years old, change was blowing in the wind. A scattering of farmers bought tractors, combines, hay balers and other pieces of mechanized machinery.

In our wheat field, we had to cut the wheat with scythes and tied it into shocks. Within a few days, my daddy bargained with a farmer who had farm machines to come to our farm and thresh the wheat. I well remember the day when we heard the roaring of a tractor coming down the road and turning into our driveway. It was pulling a threshing machine, and the driver was a tall, lean young man by the name of Bill Brauer. He backed the machine behind our barn, ran a belt from the tractor to the threshing machine, and the farm hands, including me, cut the twine from the shocks of wheat and threw them into the threshing machine.

The wheat straw was blown by a large pipe into a pile, and the golden grains were emptied into burlap bags. At the end of a long day, there was a mountain of wheat straw behind our barn, and our grain crib was filled with tons of bagged wheat, some of which was later taken to Hamme’s Mill outside of Warrenton to be ground into flour.

Some of our wheat, along with shelled corn, was fed to our chickens. Daddy kept two metal barrels in the chicken house, one with wheat and the other with corn. There was also a bag of crushed oyster shells, which, several times a year, were put in the chicken feed trough along with the wheat and corn to make the chickens’ eggshells stronger.  

Every morning, when the chickens came off their roosting pole in the hen house, Daddy would dip a few scoops full of corn and wheat from the barrels and pour it into the chicken trough. Therefore, the grain level in those barrels dropped ever so slightly, hardly noticeably, each day. What we didn’t know at the time was that a big wharf rat was coming every night, scrambling down into the barrel of corn, eating his fill, and jumping out. What the rat didn’t know was, as Daddy scooped out the daily feeding of corn and the level dropped, each time it was a bit harder to jump out of the barrel.

Finally the time came when, one night, the big rat could not jump high enough to get out. At daybreak, when Daddy came to feed the chickens, he saw the rat, and the rat saw Daddy. The rat made several attempts to jump out of the barrel, but he couldn’t do it.

Daddy came into the barn where I was feeding the cows and said, “Son, when Percy comes, tell him to kill that big rat in the corn barrel.” Soon Percy arrived, and I told him what Daddy had said. I followed Percy into the hen house to watch him kill the rat.

Percy looked in the barrel. The rat looked at Percy and made several attempts to jump out, but he just couldn’t do it. Percy picked up a stick and drew his hand back. That rat saw the stick coming down toward him and jumped again. This time he jumped, not only high enough, but cleared the top of the barrel by several inches and ran from the hen house. Percy chuckled and said, “That rat didn’t know his true strength until he saw death coming.”

Back in the days when most farmers worked their crops and pastures with equipment pulled by horses and mules, some people made a mistake that sometimes cost them dearly. Back then, a well-trained horse or mule, or both, was a valuable thing. Oftentimes, the difference between a farmer having a good, profitable crop year versus crop failure and being unable to pay his seed and fertilizer bill, much less realize a profit, was a team of good, strong and healthy work horses and mules. Some of the smaller farms had only one horse or mule.

A costly and tragic mistake on the farmer’s part sometimes happened in early spring. Most farmers took real good care of their animals, keeping them well fed and in good physical shape. But in late autumn and throughout the winter when the crops had been harvested, there was little or no work for the animals to do, and like athletes during the off-season, they got out of shape. Then in early spring when it became time to plow and plant the land, the animals were harnessed up and hitched up and put to work just as hard as in late spring and summer. What they really needed was to take it slow and easy at first, giving them time to regain their strength and stamina. But a loyal and gentle work horse or mule would literally work itself to death for its owner, and sometimes, by the time the farmer realized that he was working his animals too fast too soon, it was too late. If the animal didn’t die, its heart and lungs were permanently damaged. It was what the old folks called “bellowsed.” Its strength was gone forever, and it was of no further use to the farmer.

–Continued next week.–