On the Farm, Part 1

Grandpa owned a small grain farm in partnership with his ‘Pa’, Great-grandpa Alfred. The farm, just 160 acres, consisted of several hillocks with wetlands winding between them. It was located about a half-mile west of Westbury where my mom grew up and about 4 miles north of Grandpa and Grandma’s place on Cozy Cove Road. The soil at the farm was rocky and pretty thin on the hilltops. The farm never made much money, but it provided an income for Great-grandpa and Great-grandma Almie to supplement Social Security. Looking back now, I don’t think Grandpa Ray wanted to be farming, but kept the operation going for the sake of his parents. Farming was all they knew, and the old farmhouse was their home.

I started working on the farm when I was about 10, mostly picking rock, running for tools or parts, and helping feed Great-grandpa’s hogs. Grandpa Ray taught me how to do basic maintenance on the equipment, like greasing the myriad pulleys on the combine, replacing shear pins on the cultivator and pumping up tires. As I grew older, I learned how to operate the equipment.

I took a lot of pride in being able to hook up the plow or cultivator and head out to a field to work on my own. I usually drove Grandpa’s John Deere 720 Diesel, the biggest tractor on the place. We had another older John Deere, a Model ‘A’ that was Great-grandpa’s favorite. He taught me how to start it by turning the flywheel. Great-grandpa seemed to look younger and stronger when he sat on that tractor.

Grandpa Ray’s favorite seemed to be the Allis Chalmers WD with the narrow front. It was the one tractor he never taught me to drive. I was a little scared of it, remembering the story Grandpa told me about my uncle Tom breaking his arm trying to start it with the hand-crank in front.

The WD was Grandpa’s go-to tractor for particular jobs, like harrowing, seeding and raking hay. The latter chore was fascinating to watch. Grandpa would pull the rake in high gear at full throttle, creating windrows on the fly. The rake itself was an almost fanciful contraption, with large wheels full of tines mounted at an angle and spinning rapidly. The WD could turn on a dime, and Grandpa was expert at the maneuvers needed to create windrows of the proper spacing and volume for baling. Watching him rake a field of alfalfa on a late summer evening was like watching a ballet.

One of my favorite memories from the farm is how much I enjoyed Great-grandma Almie’s cooking.  By how much I mean I ate a lot of it!  We started out very early each morning with coffee and homemade cookies or banana bread and then went out and got the machinery ready to go. Then we came back in for breakfast, which was usually ham and eggs and coffee and pancakes and more coffee.  Sometimes we came back in for a coffee break mid-morning and ate more baked goodies. Lunch was another big meal, after which Grandpa Ray would take a nap.  After at least one more coffee break in the afternoon, we worked late and came in for supper, somehow hungry for more.  Great-grandma cooked for threshing crews when she was younger so she knew how to make good, rib-sticking food and lots of it.

I enjoyed working on the farm, except at harvest time. Grandpa planted at least half the acreage in barley every year. Unlike wheat, heads of barley have a heavy beard, which becomes a cloud of itchy chaff as it is combined. Early on, the farm had a combine that was pulled by a tractor. Later, Grandpa bought a self-propelled combine, which I considered to be the height of farming technology, even though it did not have an enclosed cab. I rode the combine with Grandpa until I was old enough to operate it myself.

Harvesting barley was the dirtiest and itchiest job in the world. Perched above the noisy “pickup”, a short, wide conveyor that pulled the windrows into the combine for threshing, the operator was smack in the middle of the dust cloud billowing up. To make matters worse, we always harvested during the dog days of August, with temperatures above 90 before noon. Sweat made the dirt and chaff stick to the skin. Like most boys entering puberty, I was probably reluctant to start showering. But nothing felt better than a hot shower after a day of riding the combine.

Another dirty job was shoveling grain into bins. The farm did not have any of the shiny grain bins the bigger farms had. Instead, we built make-shift bins in unused areas of the barn and in the old feed shed. Some grain was also stored on Grandpa’s place using old farm buildings the same way. The bins consisted of old boards nailed up to enclose doorways and form up sides. Because these were usually odd-shaped configurations and the roof was low, my job was to climb into the bin and shovel the grain into the corners and level it out as it came out of the auger. This meant trying to shovel while knee-deep or on my knees, breathing hot air full of dust in the mostly enclosed bin until the load was emptied or the bin was full. Grandpa always kept an eye on me in case the heat and dust got to be too much, but I hung in there until the job was done.

Harvest time seemed more fun when I was younger. I can remember riding to the grain elevator in Callaway with Great-grandpa in the “grain truck.” A ’42 Ford one-ton with a hydraulic lift and a wooden grain box, the truck seemed as ancient as Great-grandpa. And like Great-grandpa, the truck smelled of Copenhagen snuff. He always had a pinch in his cheek, and spat through the hole in the floor boards of the old truck. Other times I rode with Grandma, who drove the pickup with boards mounted on the sides of the box. If I was lucky, I got a bottle of pop while the elevator man dumped the load through the grated floor. I loved to watch Lyle, the manager, work the grain sorter that helped him calculate dockage for weed seed and debris. But we didn’t dawdle – we had to get back to the farm right away so Grandpa wouldn’t yell at us.

Grandpa wasn’t as much fun to be around on the farm compared to when we were out on the lake. Between the equipment breakdowns and bad weather, getting everything done was always stressful for him. He yelled a lot. He yelled at Grandma, he yelled at Great-grandpa, and he yelled at me. I did a lot of things wrong, and sometimes Grandpa would get upset, but for the most part he was patient with me. He wanted me to learn.

What usually got me in trouble was not paying attention. I was a daydreamer, staring off into space thinking about who knows what while Grandpa was yelling for a 5/8″ socket. More than once I incurred his wrath while sitting on the tractor in a reverie as he was frantically waving from the overfull combine for me to bring the gravity wagon. Sometimes I would forget to follow through on an assignment he gave me and then I would “catch hell.” Fortunately, Grandpa didn’t stay mad at me for long, and he would patiently put me back to work.

Recently, I asked Grandma Arleen why Grandpa didn’t seem to like farming. She told me a story about farming in earlier days.  The events in that story shaped our family’s future.  The story also gave me a better understanding of Grandpa.  I’ll share that story soon.

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