For the farming community in this part of Pennsylvania the planting season should be about over, and the growing season should be underway. It has been a difficult season for most farmers due to the continuing rainy days blended among the dry days that have kept water puddles in the tractor tracks. Local Amish farmers had a special advantage where their horses could stomp through the soft ground without getting stuck. If we had only known, we did have a special advantage this year with no late-spring frost to kill the blossoms and buds. It should turn out to be a good year for tree fruit.
Last month I received an invitation to share some of my old-time farming experiences with other people with similar backgrounds, along with interested persons at the Taylor Memorial Museum in Brockway. About a half-dozen former farmers were invited to participate, but only retired agriculture teacher George Miller agreed to appear besides me. George brought out a table – full of agriculture implements that he’d used over the years. As expected, he gave a very interesting talk about their uses and colorful stories that accompanied their histories.
I had collected together a set of photos from life on the Grant farm – a set that grandson Dan Hicks had transferred a few years ago from old slides and antique photos into a digital form that are now available for viewing by the modern computer. Much of my talk centered on the planting and harvesting of small grains. I turned to the history books to consider how the process has developed.
To get most grains started, it has been necessary to scatter seeds over the ground. Early farmers accomplished this by taking handfuls of the desired seed and flinging them into the wind. We have read what could have happened from the Bible, in chapter 13 of the Gospel of Matthew which says:
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop – a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
That’s the way planting actually happened around here, too. Farmers soon learned that it was necessary to cover the seed someway to protect them from the sun, the wind, birds, and weeds. The first known seed “drill” was patented in 1566 in Europe and a more advanced machine was developed by Jethro Tull in 1701 during the Agricultural Revolution in England. Early grain drills were pulled by a single horse. Once steam tractors, and later gasoline tractors, were invented, they made it possible to use larger and more efficient drills to seed larger and larger tracts of ground.
I have no idea where our grain drill came from in my youth, but I learned how to use it. That drill consisted of three separate hoppers: one for grass seed across the front, one for seed grain in the middle, and one for the fertilizer at the back. The grass seed fell free to the ground in front of a line of hoes, called coulters, which worked it into the fresh soil. The seeds of grain and the fertilizer was metered by changing the gear ratios of little disks inside each hopper that emptied into tubes that deposited that material into the ground through the coulters. I found a picture of my Uncle Charley planting oats with that drill pulled by his team of horses.
We had an on-going problem with the coulters collecting debris from the plant life leftover in the field that would mess up the planting. We mounted a platform on the back of the drill where I would stand with a metal rod in my hand, with a little hook at one end and a handle at the other. When a clump of material collected on a hoe, I would lift the hoe to pass over the debris. Eventually, I bought a brand-new Ontario (the brand name) drill that imbedded the seed, etc. under a disk that never plugged up.
Once the seeds were firmly planted, the waiting game begin – and eventually harvest time came at the end of the season. I’ve seen paintings of people, usually women, gathering bundles of grain that they had cut with a sickle or big knife. Those grains were probably threshed or beat from the stalks by pounding on them over a flat stone. An improvement in cutting was made with a “cradle” where a lightweight rack was attached to the knife which would collect the bundles of grain. I remember using a cradle but, by my time I got serious about cutting grain, a horse-drawn “binder” had arrived on our farm and had been adapted to tractor power.
The binder had a cutter bar and a knotter to tie a string around the bundles of grain. Our binder had an arm that would pick up the tied bundles, called “sheaves” and toss them on a collection rack ... which worked well unless the sheaf came untied and the stalks of grain would be scattered all over the field. The bundles were then “shocked” in sets of 6-8 to air dry with one sheaf spread out over the top to shed the rain. I had a picture of my dad with his binder and our field with shocks. It looked just like an Amish oats field in today’s world.
Once the grain had dried sufficiently, it was time to hand-load the sheaves onto a wagon and take them to the “threshing machine” where it was located. You know about “bringing in the sheaves”! Some farmers threshed in the field and formed a straw-stack right there while others, like us, threshed in the barn with a crew collected from the neighborhood as we all worked together. Somehow as a young and strong young man in those days, I was usually given the job of carrying the threshed grain to the bin – a steady and dusty task.
In later years, when both the threshing machine and the threshing crew wore out, we bought a “combine” which did all the cutting and threshing of grain in one trip over the field. It became a regular chore to haul the grain to town to the Anderson Feed Store, later known as the Brockway Farm & Home Store, owned in turn by Ed and Lereve Anderson, Gene Edgington, and finally by Terry Felt before the building on Main Street became the NAPA Auto Parts Store. Sometime along the way, Ron Muth of Luthersburg came into the picture with his mobile grinder truck, and he came right to the farm. We could just bag up the grain and he turned it into “chop” for the cattle.
We continued to raise our own oats, and corn as well, until the harvesting equipment wore out and the combine and corn picket were retired to Paradise – home of Royce Sprague between Reynoldsville and Big Run who used them for parts. For a while we bought processed cow feed but eventually reduced our livestock population to four barn cats. Thus, the end of the story and the whole era.