Diaries of T. N. Smith
Kanona, New York
March's end saw Smith's clover seed get sown in a timely fashion. April 1888 started with, on April 1, T. N. and his mother attending church, paying their "pew rent" that day. A new hired man from the locality came that evening to start work at $14.00 per month. His last name was the same as his predecessor's, so it does not seem likely any serious labor troubles were involved in this change.
April's end did see Smith's oat crop get sown, too, but it took a month-long struggle to do it. Oats can stand a lot of cold and damp in their early lives and they yield best in a cool growing season. Therefore they were the first annual crop to need planting; the sooner, now, the better. We can assume it was the shared wish and hope of Smith and his neighbors for the soil to get fit to work promptly now that it was April, with enough drying and rain-free days for them to get their oats planted without unduly long work days. Their horses mostly had not worked many full days in the fields since last year, and the loads of firewood and manure they had hauled since then, along with maybe some logs and produce, were not enough to keep them fit and in top working condition. Harrowing fall-plowed ground was hard work. Therefore they had to get accustomed to longer work days gradually with time for rest and refreshment meanwhile. Get the oats in and the horses hardened up as soon as possible—that's what the farmers wanted. This was not what they got from April 1888, however.
April 2 - 9 were filled with work not directly related to oat sowing. They "tag sheep" on the 2nd. This does not, I'm sure, mean they attached tags to them—rather, they removed them, cutting off "tags"—locks of wool so loaded with manure or tangled with burdocks as to be unfit to go into the wool clip, in preparation for later shearing. The new hired man "trimmed the orchard" (dormant pruning) and cut wood in the swamp. Must have been too wet in there for his footwear, for he got an advance of $2.50 for boots on April 4. There were visitors, thundershowers and some hopeful signs as T. N. noted, eagerly, "mud dries up rapidly," "frost nearly out," revealing his hopes and concerns.
They weighed the new bull at 1235 pounds. How?
Didn't say. Led him over some produce dealer's wagon scales at Kanona, most likely. On the 5th they did "clean some oats" as well as "shell some corn." Cleaning oats meant running them through a fanning mill, a hand-cranked devise of screens and sieves and a big wooden rotary fan that removed foreign material, weed seeds and underweight grain, preparing the oats so cleaned for use as seed.
On the 9th he wrote a heading on the diary page—"Begin Spring Work." They spread some manure, got a horse shod and "harrowed oat ground." It was a beginning, but that's all it proved to be. On following days there was a funeral, they drew in coal, shelled corn, hauled "goods" (household, someone moving?) and spread more manure. No oat sowing.
On the 12th, it was harrow again. (He must have plowed all this oat ground the previous fall.) On the 15th he consoles himself with "Roads muddy, but mud not deep." "Please, please dry up," I imagine him thinking. His eagerness shows through the 107-year-old writing. They do other odd jobs, including removing the "banking," (strawy manure piled around the house foundation for warmth). Then, again, hired man "harrows in p.m." I can imagine T. N. going out to the field after "dinner" (noon meal) and feeling a handful of soil, studying the furrows, then either returning disappointed, or else telling the hired man, "Better hitch up and drag." (He writes of "harrowing," but I think he said "drag." That was farmer terminology.)
They sold a heifer. Sold some corn (two bushels of ears. Must have been for seed next month. That quantity would have planted a typical small acreage.)
At last, on the 19th, "Begin to sow oats"—really, truly putting them in the ground. "Pelham" (the hired man) "harrows and I drill 51/4 acres of oats." That was the division of labor to be expected. Hired man walks behind the harrow; the boss, the farm proprietor, walks behind the drill. Drilling was the more consequential job of the two. For one thing it required precise horse driving with constant attention. Run one drill wheel precisely in the last hoe mark of the trip before and everything came out fine; even, regular, perfectly spaced. Let your attention wander and get off course and there would be spots and streaks of bare ground when the crop came up. They would stay conspicuous, even after they became weed-covered, as long as stubble was visible. Passers-by would say "T. N. Smith can't drill straight," and you can't have that. Don't think they wouldn't notice. They would. The drill operator could watch where the seed hoses entered the drill shoes for a steady flow of grain and correct any problem at once if one appeared. If also sowing grass seed, he could similarly watch the grass seed runs. Probably Smith wasn't sowing grass seed with his oats, not if they were going to plow oat stubble for wheat after oat harvest, as was often done. He sowed his clover seed in March, remember, presumably on wheat, where the timothy seed was sown with the wheat in fall 1887. But whatever, he did his own drilling.
The scenario so far in April was often re-enacted. It was the lot of the animal-powered farmer. Ben Franklin said, "He that by the plow would thrive, himself must either hold or drive." Smith and neighbors held themselves all through the adverse days of April; then, when it became possible, they drove, all they could, but there were distinct limits. Their horses were flesh and blood, who needed food and rest on a regular basis and may still have been shedding the remains of a sweat-inducing winter coat of hair. Today's farmer with a tractor can, if he chooses, fill the fuel tank, switch on the headlights and keep going until the job is done. He has that option. The animal-powered farmer didn't.
Following this oat sowing there was rain, then snow squalls (which wouldn't hurt the sown oats a bit). They shelled corn, they repaired a horse stall, they "fix fence." On April 22 he notes "we have had no warm weather." On the 23rd, "very cold, freezes at night." Nevertheless, undeterred, he bought "10 bushels Western oats for seed."
On the 24th, "opened potato pit" (so that's where he stored them!) These were shallow pits, dug out, lined with straw, filled with potatoes, covered deep with straw and then with dirt, mounded into a rain-shedding convexity. They kept potatoes well, usually. "Took 43 bushels to Home." ("Home"? That must have been the "Soldier's Home," our present V. A. facility. What other Home could accept that many potatoes in one delivery?)
On the 25th, "Drill in 10 bu. oats, Weather clear and warmest of the season." That would have been about 3 1/2. to 4 acres.
On the 26th, "Finish sowing oats." (Oh, yay, hurrah, huzza and all such! Smith didn't say that. I did, feeling for him.) He just wrote, matter-of-factly, "Finish sowing oats."
27th "Plow the garden." An old-time farm wife would have appreciated this entry, or at least understood it. Traditionally, women wanted the garden plowed early so they could plant peas and like crops, but, by an even firmer tradition, the men would not consider it, however small a task it might be. Not until the oats were in. Any and all work in the soil could be directed only to oat planting; that was the proper and traditional order of things, with some kind of mystique about it.
But now—"Sure, we'll plow the garden. Do it this afternoon." See how it worked? Smith did it.
28th Delivered more pigs. Sometime in the single-minded push of April a sow or two had weaned her litter of pigs and they'd been going to new homes all month.
30th "Harrow garden, plant potatoes."
Hired a Mr. Oxx to "do some grafting in five apple and one pear tree, (Flemish Beauty pear)."
"Grafts to be counted in July and none paid for except they live and if any others die within the next year he is to set as many free of charge." (I wonder how much he got per graft giving a guarantee like that one?)
With this day, April is over. The clover sown in March will be growing among the wheat by now. The oats are sown. Come May, corn and potatoes will be next. The cyclical rhythm of a farmer's work goes on—tasks in abundance, punctuated by focused efforts to meet seasonally-imposed deadlines.
© 1995, John Rezelman