Diaries of T. N. Smith
Kanona, New York
April finally, in its last days, let Smith get his oats sown. Next on the planting schedule came corn, with potatoes either before or after corn planting, depending on the farmer's preference about as much as anything. The first week of May was too early to risk planting corn. They plant it here that early or earlier today, but Smith grew open-pollinated corn (there were no hybrids yet) and planted seed untreated, except perhaps for "crow dope,"—not today's hybrid corn with decay-resistant chemical treatment.
Thus there now was no great urgency about planting corn; they worked steadily but did not hurry. Harrowed some on several days; he must have had much fall plowing done, for plowing is not mentioned. The weather did not favor corn planting either. The early part of May went thus (condensed):
May 1 — "Cooler, rain. New posts in line fence. Draw wood from swamp."
May 2 — "Cool, north wind. To mill. Sold 2 bu. wheat." (another one of those flour lots?) "To concert in Bath in evening."
May 3 — "Cold. Froze quite hard. Harrow fields below house. Attended lecture in Bath with Mother." Corn was much better off unplanted than planted in such weather and soil conditions.
May 4 — "Bought ton of plaster." In that quantity this was not building material but gypsum, calcium sul-fate, an early liming material to sow on the land.
May 5 — "Sow plaster on corner lot in clover and timothy, also orchard." My question—how did he stretch one ton, 20 cwt., over more than 18 acres? Using the fertilizer attachment on a grain drill is the only way I can imagine. It seems a mere token amount to apply. But it is my impression of Smith so far from his diary, that if he did something it was according to the best farming practice of the time, the best they knew. "Cool and windy," he writes. "Seems like a drouth. Hope it will rain soon."
More condensed entries follow:
May 6 — "Church, need rain. Road dusty."
May 7 — "Harrow corn ground and mark for potatoes." 'Mark' meant to go over field with a horse drawn marker, laying out parallel crop rows.
May 8 — "Rains moderately. Get horse shod. Furrow ground and plant some potatoes." 'Furrow' meant follow the marks with a shovel plow and open furrows, to be closed later with a hiller after seed potatoes were dropped in them.
May 9 — "Orrin harrows and I mark some land and Orrin plants some potatoes."
May 10 — "Rained some. Finish planting potatoes." Not a big acreage if they did it in parts of three days. "Began to plant corn in forenoon. Two day helpers. Plant about '/2 field of corn. Warm, very growing time." There were various ways they could have planted corn, a grain drill seeming most likely, but the fact he hired two helpers suggests they did it by hand, probably with planters called 'stabbers.'
STABBERS — Both Stanley Fox and I, noting that T. N. hired two extra men by the day for corn planting, agree that they probably used hand corn planters like these. The one on the left is a two-handed slide-plate model with hoppers for seed and for fertilizer. The other is a one-handed rotary-plate model, a little the faster, but it handled only seed. With these, farmers could plant "on the square," in the corners of a checkerboard grid previously marked on the field. This allowed cultivating in both directions, giving almost 100% weed control—superior to the faster planting method of using a grain drill with runs closed off to space the rows. There were wire-guided horse-drawn planters that could plant "on the square" too—but they were common in the Corn Belt, not the Northeast.
May 11 — "Finish corn planting." May 12 — "Collected SI943 for railroad damage." May 13 — "Church."
May 14 — "Repair fence. Grass and wheat growing fine. Cold for corn." May 15 — "Made line
May 16 — "Cold, frost, repair fence." If it was still dry, posts were hard to drive. Drove easier in wet soil. May 17 — "Repair fence."
May 18 — "Witness in RR damage case. Heavy rains."
Sheep shearers came and sheared 33 sheep. Smith rarely mentions sheep, but had some. Perhaps they were not his favorites. "222 pounds of wool." That is a reasonably good clip, depending on what kind of sheep they were. Probably classed as 'crossbred natives.' Wool yield neither surpassingly high nor strikingly low. "Good quality," though, he writes. Remember those 'tags' they cut off in April? They surely helped by being absent. "Pay the men $1 each for shearing." Now what does that mean? It is a mystery to me. One dollar per head seems much too high for 1888, yet $1 per man seems too low for such skilled work. (If you know, tell the editor.) "Bought quart of tar." That would be pine tar for treating shearing cuts on the sheep.
May 20 — "Cold." Smith is getting worried about his corn. Did he plant too early this year? "Fear corn will rot and not come up."
May 21 — "4 bu. wheat sold" (more flour?) "Repair fence...Sell 2 bu. ear corn" (more seed?) White frost last night, froze ice."
May 22 — "Many errands. Neighbors planting corn." Will their later planted crop be better than his? He surely wonders. May 23 — "Orrin helps neighbors." May 24 — "Sold corn."
May 25 — "Plant popcorn." (Pages for 26 and 27 are missing.)
May 28 — "Plant popcorn, peas and beans." May 29 — "Rain. Draw wood," May 30 — "Orrin cuts rye out of wheat." There was rye mixed in his wheat, not an infrequent occurrence. Left to ripen, it would reduce sale price. Easy to identify, as rye would be about twice as high as wheat by now. With a sickle he cut out all the rye stalks. This was often done. In fact, when there was enough family labor, I have seen this done in much more recent times.
There was a feature of Smith's life on his farm that appears in his diary about every month of the year and should be explained somewhere in this series; perhaps May is as good a time as any. That was his private, personal money-lending business. He was, Stanley Fox says, "Kanona's banker," unofficially. There were banks in Bath that loaned money, but surely not with the flexibility and informality that Smith did. If you had to pay some men for shingling the barn roof before you could store hay in it, and no farm products were ready to sell yet, you could hunt up T. N. without changing your muddy overalls and there would that day be a diary entry like "Jas. Totherfelow called and I let him have $60.00 on note for six months." Cash also flowed in the other direction, "Peter Hardup called and paid $100.00 interest on his mortgage which I hold. He still owes $35.00 on last year's interest." But fourteen days later he "paid $35.00 balance due for interest on his mortgage." Another day Bear Lee Solvent "called and I let him have $60.00 on note lor 10 months." Then Zero Blank wanted his due date extended 10 months to which, upon payment of interest, "I consented and charged him $2.00 for the accommodation." Stanley Fox says T. N. did have that important requirement, the ability to say "No" when that was called for, without unduly antagonizing the person so answered. This equipped him to last for years sharing his funds with the community as a convenient source of credit.
I wondered at first if these diary entries were his only record of these transactions, as they contrast so sharply with the systematic records commonly kept by financial institutions. Reading on, I came to conclude they well might have been. After all, he was not accountable to Internal Revenue, Board of Directors, Bank Examiners or anyone else. With a little effort, which he was probably seldom called upon to make, he could reconstruct any transaction for his own purposes from these notes—so what more did he need? For himself, of course, he wrote in actual names, but in quoting him I have used fictitious ones to retain the proper cover of confidentiality which he no doubt carefully observed.
As May ends, the conditions of his corn crop, now three weeks planted, is still in question. There was probably a pale shoot poking through here and there, but it will now be June before the outcome can be known.
© 1995, John Rezelman