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"A Pre-Release Story Which Will Appear in the Oct/Nov/Dec 2008 Newsletter" Donna Ryan
REFLECTIONS ON YESTERYEARS
by Phil MacMichael --
February 29, 2008
Giddiuuup Charlie. . . . steady now . . . Geeee a little, OK whhoooa! Now to pull this cultivator around and start back. Haw, Charlie, now Giddiupp and we'll do the next row.
This is 1940 and I'm 13 years old, working on my Uncle Nelson's (MacMichael) farm in Almond. The first one south of town. (The one Don Heers later bought, where Horsetraders Conventions were held for years). I'm cultivating the corn, row by row, walking behind a one-horse cultivator. My uncle is on the other side of the field with his horse, Maude, coming the other way. Each row takes quite a few minutes and quite a few shouts to keep Charlie from stepping on the tender corn stalks, although I have the reins around my neck and shoulders so a quick grab on either one usually reminds him.
But I do remember one incident: We stopped at the end of a row so Charlie could rest (of course, I was still raring to keep going). Charlie would shake his head or swing it back and forth to ward off the ever-present flies and he accidentally caught his bit strap which kept his head turned. Thinking I wanted him to take a fast left, he turned back and stepped through the cultivator blades and fell down on his side. I ducked his flailing feet, and the bouncing cultivator, to sit directly on his head and hold him still while unhooking his tangled bridle. Then we waited for my uncle to come and extricate both of us. Together, Charlie and I trampled down a big patch of corn and I was reminded very strongly to be more attentive to the reins and maybe not give Charlie quite as many “fly” breaks. A similar mistake with a loaded wagon or a mower could have been tragic.
I live down in town next to the Gillettes with my folks. My dad works at the Hornell Woodworking as a draftsman. We were here on the farm during the Depression until I was seven. We lived in half of the house when dad's work in Hornell was so insecure that he helped out here. My grandmother owns it, but my uncle (Nelson “Nellie”) does the farming and hired me for two summers. I got $1 a day the first year but must have done O.K. because he doubled my pay the second year. We worked from dawn till dusk, six days except when it rained. Then we sharpened tools or built fence, etc. but worked a shorter day. He was demanding and firm but very fair. It was a full lesson on “introduction to hard work and learning dependability and responsibility”. Safety, conservation and procedures were priorities. Jobs had to be right and be complete.
Uncle Nelson MacMichael & Ed Kame with '34 Pickup....
My uncle was a powerful man that could out lift Hercules, I was sure, so who would question him anyway? He actually was a wrestler, in that when at a county fair where they had a trained professional, he sometimes accepted the challenge to stay in the ring for “x” number of minutes for “y” number of dollars, if he won. He usually went prepared with clothing for the occasion. And he did win many times, earning some money and the local reputation where many would go and pay to watch. I actually saw him carry a full-sized, kicking heifer that wouldn't get up, back across the pasture and into the stall. It must have weighed 200 pounds or more. He performed many other feats, doing everyday work that amazed us. His shoulder and neck muscles started just below his ears. He actually had no neck that showed.
Turning older sometimes has its rewards and sometimes many anxieties. As we look way back to our childhood, we immediately recognize the differences between now and then and tend to be both proud of our ability to cope at that time, as well as being sorry we lacked the advantages now available. When we were young, our parents couldn't have imagined how much it would vary, but as they looked back to their childhood, they also must have seen what they thought were major changes. In reality, however, it didn't compare to this last 50 or 60 years. Life then involved providing shelter, clothes, food, churches, schools, their family needs and necessities for a pleasant existence but there weren't too many differences except maybe a telephone, the automobile vs. horse and buggy, better schools, stores and comforts like lighting, heat, and movies and new types of entertainment. Farmers added tractors and better machinery, but they didn't have to endure as many of the world's complexities, temptations and woes we now experience. (my opinion)
But currently, due mainly to technical advancements and social behaviors, our habits and needs have put a different emphasis on things our youth do need and how they react. A recent survey listed things current teenagers want most and actually feel are important. The list included: cars, snowmobiles, computers, TVs, TV games, I-pods, cell phones, special clothes, jewelry, hi-tech and digital/mobile everything. Of course, there were other wants but very few stated jobs or money.
At a similar age, our desires couldn't have included many of the above, but we probably would have listed: Hunting/fishing items, model train or toy kits, a bike, a ball glove or bat, new boots or clothes, maybe a watch and probably both jobs and money. Actually, we had very few of these things until we earned and/or bought our own. I remember well buying my first (and only) bike at Sears in Hornell at age 9 or 10. Yes, I paid for all of it out of my work money and maybe a gift or two from relatives. I think it cost about $10 and the money came mostly from mowing lawns.
Which brings me to my main objective about the yesteryears: I don't seem to remember “times” or “years” as much as I do “things” or “moments”, “parties”, “proms”, “bonfires,” etc. -- (happenings). And oddly enough, because although we played and had fun, we also “worked” a lot, both at home and when possible for someone else, to make some money to spend. People in their 50s or older will probably agree and relate positively to my example, but may well upstage these with more dramatic or memorable cases of their own. However, my most vivid recollections are about being quite young, but needing to work, compared to today. People under age 50 may even doubt me, or say -- “Who cares??”
Carlton Gillette and I sometimes dug graves at Woodlawn and got 25 cents each. Occasionally it was harder than we thought as we had to put boards along the sides when the sandy soil would cave in faster than we could dig. Mowing a lawn would pay about a dollar but we did some for free or for candy when a lady we liked couldn't afford more.
We worked hard and may have been a bit naïve, usually doing what we were told without questioning it, but we had fun and seldom complained unless it was about the blisters or our painful muscles.
On the farm, as a very young kid, about 6 or 7, I was expected to help in the garden weeding and then harvesting. We had a large strawberry patch, maybe five acres, and paid people to come and pick berries at about 5 or 6 cents a quart.
My sister (Marilyn MacMichael Lockwood) and I not only picked, as a chore, but learned to sort and pack them for shipment plus selling them at a stand out in our front lawn by the road. Actually that part was fun sometimes and we met a lot of nice people. My sister was older than I and provided some very good help and advice. My dad also had 30 to 40 colonies of honey bees which we both helped with by packaging the honey and also selling it out front and at the farm market in Hornell on Saturday morning. (Also provided a chapter in math, salesmanship, etc.)
Driving the horses to water at the culvert was an awesome chore but surely honed my skills and senses with big animals. I can even remember driving the team on the rope that pulled the hay-fork up to the mow as they were unloading wagons. The memorable part was turning them around while I held the whippletree, to go back for another load. This was a team of very big horses for a 7-year old. Then there was always the chore of feeding the chickens and gathering eggs. I was small enough to be able to go back on the roost ledge where they would oocasionally lay eggs – and of course, this was a quick duty, but a rather “messy” trip. The good memories were the raccoons we kept in large wire mesh pens behind the house. We had about 40 and some were pets. We had to feed them, but what fun it was to be there when people came on weekends to watch. We also had ducks and geese running around which we learned to respect. Have you ever had a gander chase you round and round with his feet and wings?? He was faster and it seemed, much bigger than me. I wonder what today's 7-year olds would think about having their dad tell them to do some of the above tasks every day. Maybe they would be thrilled, or maybe they would just grab their “remote” and somehow, have the work done “digitally” in minutes.
Now back to 1940 doing the rest of the farm work. We finished the cultivating. We kept Charlie and Maude quite busy during haying season and wheat harvest. We had horse-drawn mowing machines to cut the hay. Horse-drawn rakes to windrow the hay. Horse-drawn wagons to bring it back to the barn. Most of the wheat was cut by hand with a bit scythe (similar to the one carried by the “grim reaper”) and rolled into bundles. Then the bundles stacked into shocks to repel any rain and actually dry out in the field. When dry, the next day or so, we loaded them onto the wagon which required a “specialist.” My uncle hired old John Welch for this, a nearby neighbor who knew how to load a wagon or build a stack that wouldn't slip apart or tip over and would also repel the weather. He was an expert. But he was a little cantankerous and self-centered and demanded we did things his way. My uncle also hired Johnny Reynolds to help me when it came to this backbreaking work. He hired Johnny quite a few times for extra jobs. Johnny and I would drive the horses and wagon along the rows of shocks and throw each bundle on with our pitch forks. Mr. Welch would carefully position each one so we could make a huge load that would survive the trip back to the barn safely.
Oddly enough, it didn't look like he had to work very hard so Johnny and I contrived to throw them on so fast it would almost bury him and not give him time to build a good load. So working from one side, we drove the horses a little faster and threw the bundles on as quick as we could. We worked up a good sweat ourselves but looked forward to the time we could just sit down and laugh. But it seemed he was keeping up with our hard labor without showing much sign of distress. Then we stopped and looked back. He was simply pushing them off the other side as fast as we were throwing them up this side. And he, with his own sly little smile, simply said: “OK boys, turn around and we'll go back and start over.” Needless to say, we slowed down and were very sore and tired that night as we licked our wounds. (Another lesson I have never forgotten.)
And there are quite a few more stories that Johnny and I could divulge if there were enough room here. Ask John about learning to drive my uncle's '34 Model B Ford pickup. It's the same truck I learned to drive, going around the fields to pick up hay, etc., and also occasionally to go for feed at Witter's Store. Yes, I was only 13 years old, but fortunate for the opportunity to learn about driving where accuracy and judgment counts, but mainly in the fields, when and where no one was watching.
In the last two summers during high school, I first worked for Milt Hamlin who paid me much more. He and his father had a lawn care business in Hornell doing work mostly for doctors and lawyers. I loved this and took readily to mowing well-kept lawns and trimming shrubbery. This, too, added very useful training while earning better money and meeting many interesting people. I don't believe I ever thanked Milt properly for what developed to be one of my best experiences. Thanks, Milt, if you ever read this!
Then even better luck brought me work with the Asplundh Tree Company for two summers where we trimmed right of ways for electric companies all over Steuben and bordering counties, earning even much better pay. It was very hazardous work and very physical. There will were no such things as lift/bucket trucks and still no chain saws. We learned to use one-man cross cut saws while high in a tree or standing on long ladders. Rest assured, there were many exciting days we shared on that job. For this, you might ask Dorr (Scoop) Ewell or Doug Decker. I'm not sure who all the “players” were on that job. Just can't remember!!
Work was hard, days were long and hot, but amazingly the time flew by. We toiled for our money but we laughed a lot and were proud that we could brag about it. Somehow we don't see those traits very often these days, but it simply may be the sign of the times. Who's to blame?