Articles & Stories

Recalling The Days Of Farming

Before Modern Equipment

Raising Livestock And Growing Crops Were

Year-Round Jobs On The Herald Farm In Breathitt County

By Imogene Herald - November 2012

Fanny Reynolds is shown in the doorway of the barn located at her farm at the mouth of Long's Creek, ca. the late 1940s. Standing by the sled is Fanny's son, Beecher Herald, and her grandson, William Robert Amis, with Fido. (Photo courtesy of Imogene Herald.)

William Robert Amis prepares for a ride on Little Nellie at his grandpa's farm at Long's Creek in Breathitt County, ca. late 1940s. William is the son of Mitchell and Flora Herald Amis and grandson of William McDaniel and Fanny Reynolds Herald. Mitchell Amis, who lived at Buckhorn in Perry County was killed early in WWII.
(Photo courtesy of Imogene Herald)

By Imogene Herald - November 2012

Another year is winding down for farmers and some of them already may be planning a vacation. At
least, that might be what city folk believe (if they don't come from the farm and know better). On a working farm, there are few holidays, certainly not when my father, Wilburn Herald, and his cousin, Buck Herald, were growing up in Breathitt County, Kentucky, in the mid-1900s. The work might ease up during the winter, but there was always the livestock to be fed, milking to do, firewood to be cut or coal to be raised, farming tools to be mended, hogs to be slaughtered (when it was cold enough), lard to be rendered, tobacco stalks to be scattered over the fields, barns to be cleaned and the manure spread over the fields, and seeds to be saved for the next year. This was before Burpee catalogs flooded everyone's mailboxes. Daddy's and Buck's fathers, Sigel and Rob; their uncle, Ned; and their cousin, Will Turner (son of Arminda and James "Cann"), often logged in the fall so they could take the logs down the river, when it got full enough, to Athol or Beattyville in Lee County, or even Frankfort in Franklin County. Anyone planning to build something would saw out the timber and let it season over the winter. Come spring, it was time to start all over again.
By late April, many were clearing new ground or plowing old fields. The other day, Dad and I stopped at a feed and seed store with fall decorations out front, including an old wooden plow. I asked if he'd used one like that. He said, "Yes," and that it was a turning plow, but the handles were wrong; they didn't curve down. I've learned a lot about plows since then.
A turning plow was a big, heavy plow good for bottomland but not hillsides. The blade was cupped, so it made the soil turn over as it cut through. Since it only turned the soil one way, one plowed in a square, going down a row, across the ends, and down the other side. Going down a balk (row), turning and coming back in the same row would have produced a ridge of soil. The shovel plow was smaller than a turning plow and could be used on bottomland or hillside. In both fields, one had to plow a balk three times, down the right side, back on the left and then back down the middle. A shovel plow was a multi-purpose plow, but it took more work.
A bull-tongued plow had one big blade used to lay off deep furrows for such crops as potatoes. Hillside plows had a double-pronged hook you could push when you got to the end of the row. The blade would roll over to the other side when one turned the plow. It made a ditch, then on the return, it would fill that ditch and smooth it. One started at the bottom of the hill, back and forth, row by row.
A rastus plow had three small, side-by-side prongs set at an angle and attached to a cross bar under the plow beam. To the right of the prongs was a wing that could move up and down over clods; it protected the stalks of corn. Plowing one direction tore up half of the balk. Coming back tore up the other half. Buck says the rastus tore up the soil so well, one only had to hoe a little between the stalks. Then, farmers began to lay off the fields in grids and plant the corn where the lines intersected, so they could plow both directions. Thus, little hoeing was needed. The rastus was not a heavy plow and was easy to pull and lift. Unlike the turning plow, it didn't have to be lifted to swing around.
Daddy bought his first hillside plow for $35 from Jack Callahan's hardware store in Jackson after WWII. He also bought his first rastus there for, he thought, $13. He said the rastus made plowing a pleasure (I'm skeptical about that idea). His father, Sigel, must have agreed. When Dad got the plow, Pa Sigel told him "Son, you can't plow. Let me." He soon got one for himself.
A double-shovel plow was heavier than a rastus and had a big blade with a smaller outer blade close to the corn. By the time one plowed a balk both ways, the big inner blade had torn the soil up very finely. On many of the later ones, the central beam was stainless steel, adding to the weight. Plows weren't useful on new ground. They couldn't cut through roots and sprouts and rocks that were not thoroughly cleared out yet. It might take three to four years for roots to rot enough to be plowed. Until then, one dug in the seeds with hoes (hewed it in).
Daddy was the oldest in his family so he helped his father, and sometimes uncles, plow. In Buck's family of nine living children, the oldest five were girls. Three of them, Rachel, Burnette, and Annie, often plowed like men. Buck can remember his sister, Rachel, with the plow lines around her neck and one shoulder behind the mule, Old John, who sometimes took the notion to stop and ignored Rachel's efforts to get him going. But, her father, Rob, could holler, and Old John would start. He was a small mule that could pull a turning plow all day, but at his chosen gait only. When Mom and Dad moved to Ohio around 1960, the plows and mule were left behind until we returned. After 11 years or so, they finally bought an acre, a house, and a rototiller. I remember watching Daddy walk along behind, guiding it with one hand. He said it was easy. One summer, he had emergency surgery, and it fell to me to plow the garden. It was not a pleasure! It was not easy! That tiller was as cantankerous as any mule ever dreamed of being. I often thought of Rachel, Burnette, and Annie and quickly decided I was not cut from the same bolt of cloth. I did provide my father with some good laughs.
I could handle (with blisters) a goose-neck hoe and a shovel. The hoe got its name because the stem, that attached the blade to the handle, crooked like a goose's neck. A grubbing hoe didn't have the goose neck attaching it to the handle and did not have as wide of a blade. It was sturdier and could cut sprouts and roots. The goose neck was more likely to snap if used to grub. A mattock had a sturdy double blade, one for digging and a sharp one for cutting. The handle was as sturdy as an ax handle. It was also used to cut sprouts and to dig graves or wells. Then, one had coal shovels and dirt shovels. A coal shovel was wide and used to scoop. A dirt shovel was sturdier, smaller, more narrow, and cupped, with a sharp point to cut into soil. I have dug holes and potatoes, both Irish and sweet, and lived. I never had to gear up a mule and hook it to a plow with a single tree or two mules to a rake with a double tree. I never used a corn planter or a tobacco planter, but I remember watching Dad and my maternal grandfather, William M. Herald. I could drop the tobacco plants into the well and help refill the water tank on the planter. I could put more corn seed into the planter box, which could be set to release two or three kernels at a time. To paraphrase an old family saying, "I got above my father's raisings."
Daddy learned to use the planter when he was about 12 and often helped his uncles-sometimes for pay, sometimes for free.
Not every farmer had all these tools. Some poor families had to hew their crops in. Notice, Daddy didn't get two of his plows until after he returned from WWII, got a wife, bought a farm, and enrolled in some government farm programs. Tools might be loaned or the owner hired to come help. Of course, such tools often broke or just wore out. In Daddy's neighborhood, at the mouth of Turner's Creek on the Middle Fork River, Sol Baker had a blacksmith shop and could fix nearly anything. He devised a plow to work new ground by creating a new, sharper blade to add to the bull-tongue blade. If something was too worn to repair, he could turn it into smaller things such as fishing gigs and tobacco spears; that is, until he decided to disappear for nearly 20 years. Ed Strong and Buck's and Daddy's cousin, Will Turner, were also skilled.
So, there was not much time for a vacation, maybe just a few hours before a warm fire with good company and home-grown popcorn. Buck said nearly everyone in the community raised a small patch.

Imogene Herald, 3635 State Route 222, Batavia, OH 45103; 513/797-4733; [email protected], shares this article with our readers.