St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Wood Cutting

“I’m going to bring along the 22,” said Uncle Archie to Marvin and me as we got bundled up for a trip to cut firewood, “I saw rabbit tracks around the big brush pile.  What do you think about making a rabbit stew Alberta,” he said turning to our Mom, his sister.

 “You shoot it and I will cook it,” replied Mom, who was used to cooking game growing up on the Sterling sand barrens where game was a big part of their meals back during the Great Depression.

  It was 1955. Uncle Archie was out of the Army after a 9 year stint--having joined at age 16 in the midst of World War II.  He was 25 years old, single, and asked Mom and Dad if he could spend the winter with them on the farm at Cushing.  “I want to try something else than the army--need to see if I can figure out something else to make a living at.  Tired of taking orders all the time."  He was a corporal first class, as I recall.  He seemed like a big kid to us.  

  Mom and her 4 siblings had been adopted out after their father died in 1930 in the Great Depression. Mom was 9 years old and Archie 5.   So when Archie asked to stay for a winter with his sister, it was a chance to get reacquainted.  Archie, had mostly forgotten his real parents and big sister, but Mom remembered her young brother and the good days before their father died.  

   Archie, Marvin and I went out to the barn to throw down the silage and help clean the barn before going to the woods. Saturdays during the winter had a routine.  Dad got up early and milked the 20 cows while the rest of us were still sleeping late.  Breakfast was at 8 am, and we all ate our hot oatmeal together with toast and milk.

  “Well,” commented Dad, “Let’s get the chores down this morning and head out to cut firewood.  Gene has some oak tops over across from Bert’s place from the logs he cut last winter.  We can take the Super C and trailer down the road and then cross the field at the top of the hill and let down the fence to get in without getting stuck--got the chains on.”

  While Dad was forking the manure from the gutters to the manure spreader parked just outside the door and Marvin shoving the manure down the gutter, Archie and I climbed up the 20 foot silo and started to work on throwing down enough silage for two feedings.

  “You want to use the pick and try to get some of the frozen silage off the walls?” asked Archie.  I was only 10 years old, but he treated me like a fellow worker, someone who could do part of the job.  The silage fermented and was warm in the center, but an 18 inch ring of frozen silage formed around edges of the silo.   During the week, Archie threw it down ignoring the frozen edges, but with extra help on the weekend we attacked them and whittled them down to the center level.

    “I wish I knew some girls around here,” said Archie as I pounded away on the frozen silage.   
“Yuk,” I grunted, “Don’t care for girls.”   
“Oh, you are too young.  I would like to find one with long blonde hair, and not too skinny or too fat.”       
 “Do you think we will get a rabbit?” I asked, attempting to get him off of thinking about girls.  
   “Dub and I were over there during the week to let the fence down, and I saw lots of tracks around the brush pile.  Saw some squirrels too.  You know, I’ve got a couple of marksman medals for accurate shooting in the Army, so if there’s a rabbit there, I will get him for sure.”
“Did you shoot people in the Army?” I asked.   
“No, didn’t shoot anyone,” he said. He never seemed to want to talk about the Army and I still don’t know if he ever was in the fighting or not.

    Throwing down silage was much more interesting when there were two of us to talk about things and share the work.  The silage was brown green fermented corn with bright yellow disks of corn and cob as cut by the silo filler, not like the mangled stuff that a modern chopper makes.  This was sweet silage; the smell was pleasant--not the bitter smell of today’s silage.  

Our Guernseys ate sweet smelling silage, fragrant loose hay that reminded one of the hot summer’s work; and grain ground at the Cushing feed mill, a mixture of oats and corn from our own fields.  The wonderful aroma of the food passed through the cows and unlike some barns, the pungent smells coming from the manure was ever-so mildly fragrant too--a testament to good food and good digestion.

   The cows had their outdoor walk in the brisk 15 degree weather and snow covered night pasture and eagerly came back in for brunch.  They got silage before each milking.

  Our cows faced each other across a common manger. 
Every two cows shared a metal water cup.  We had old homemade wood stanchions, some of well worn and neck polished 2x4s a few of small round jackpine posts.  The cow stepped across the rear gutter into it’s own spot, sticking it’s head through the stanchion.  Every cow knew it’s place--and if a cow stuck her head into a neighbor’s stall looking for a wisp of hay, a head butt from the owner soon moved it along to its own spot.   When Dad decided to rearrange things to make room for a new heifer or to get a kicky cow away from the walkway, it was a week long battle for the relearning!

Mom sometines helped with the outdoor chores
 When the cows got their heads in place, Marvin walked down the both rows sliding the moving side of the stanchion closed to lock the cow in her stall.  Cow’s heads are much bigger than their necks, so there was plenty of room for comfort while keeping the cow from backing out.  

  While this was going on, Archie and I were up in the haymow above with the pitchfork and hay knife sawing off a ledge of hay from the huge loose mound.  I liked to saw and Archie was stronger to pitch.   
“That should be plenty,” Dad hollered up to us through the hole in the floor at the end of the manager, where metal ladder steps came out from the blue cinder block barn walls below the mow.

   Below, the hay was spread out evenly down the manger so each cow could reach plenty.  Guernseys were fussy eaters--they wanted good quality hay and turned up their big wet noses at thistles and weeds -- alfalfa, timothy and brome were OK.  A few years later, Dad got a Holstein bull and began the process of cross breeding to end up with Holsteins.   

“They give a lot more milk, they eat a lot better, and they seem to be more profitable,” he told us having compared his Gurnseys with neighbor Leonard Noye’s Holsteins for many years and talked it over endlessly with his farm neighbors--much like the discussions over John Deere’s Farmalls, Chalmers and Case tractors.  

  Neighbor, Leon, who was not a very prosperous farmer and had a bunch of rag-tag mixed breeds that always looked skinny said. “I don’t think that alfalfa hay has much food value.  When I feed it to my cows they eat it up and are hungry for more.  When I feed them the swamp hay I cut out on the marsh, there is always some left in the manger in the morning--more nutrition in it!”

   By the time the barns were clean, the cows and calves fed, it was time for our own dinner.  Dinner on the farm was at noon, and a substantial meal.  Frying meat or hamburger from the steer we butchered after cold weather set in so it could be kept frozen in packages in the unheated porch; potatoes from the large garden with some home canned peas and apple sauce from the orchard with whole raw milk straight from the milk can brought in every morning in a large pitcher.   

To the Woods

  “Get your sleds ready,” said Dad, “and I will pull you along behind the trailer to the woods.”    Now this was exciting!  Byron, was too young to come along, but Everett, Marv and I all had two runner sleds.  We found some braided twine ropes (we made our own from binder twine to tie the calves).   Everett was small and although only 15 months younger than me, mostly tagged along with his older brothers so as not to be left out--wasn’t quite as useful to do work as we big boys were.

  The wood tools loaded up included the old Wards Chainsaw that Grandpa and Dad bought on halves--quite expensive in the early days of these saws.  A double bitted axe, a splitting maul, several old iron wedges, and gas and oil for the saw.  We always had a homemade trailer from an old Model T or other axel that came with a history.   “That axel came out of the back of the Whippet I traded Glenn Malone the shotgun with the bulge in the barrel, “ reminisced Dad.   

  Dad had, like all farmers in those days, his iron pile.   
In it were the pipes, rods, angle irons, and pieces to repair and build the things used on the farm.  Most farmers were somewhat metal workers, having an old anvil, forge and some hammers to tinker with things. 

Dad would look at his scrap pile “That rusty old pipe there is from the oil well on the Barrens.   Old Arnett, you know Uncle Rick’s Mary’s father, always figured there was oil out there on the Carnes homestead. He was sort of a self-taught geologist. He saw the oil slicks on the swamps and figured there must be oil not too deep below.  He and Ray Carnes got some pipe and an old well drilling rig and figured they would find oil and get rich.   Didn’t get very deep and just found water.  When they quit, Gene pulled up the casing and saved it--I got a piece of it too.”

  “See that iron that looks like a chunk of railroad rail? That came from the gold mine on Trade River.  Old Poeshel found gold on one of the banks up across from the Tollander place-- where Uncle Chan lives. Poeshel put a washing sluice in the river and made a short rail line from the bank where the gold had settled when the river was young.  He dug the sand from the bank, shoveled it into his little railroad car until it was full, then let it coast to the river where it dumped into the sluice--then he drug it back up for another fill.   Didn’t get rich from it, and back when Roosevelt made gold illegal to own, sort of took the steam out of everything.
\When it was abandoned, Uncle Chan “borrowed” a piece of the rail to cut off an chunk for an anvil."  

The rest of that piece is here (I think it is still behind the barn, probably grown a foot down into the sod).

  Loaded up with a block of wood in the trailer for Archie to sit and watch for our safety, Dad headed down the driveway, three sleds trailing behind.   Everything running smoothly, he turned west, put it in road gear, and off we headed the ⅓ mile trip to the field.  How exciting it was to be pulled along lickety split down the snow covered dirt road.  We were on our bellies holding on to the sleds tightly -- not wanting to be rolled off and have to hike part way over.  

 Things went along wonderfully, with just a few intentional crashes into each other as we neared the field turnoff.  However, once in the deep snow of the field, Everett and I turned over and off went the tractor, trailer and Marv across the field.  The tractor, now in third, with big agressive farm chains churned slowly across the field as we ran to catch our sleds, jump on and soon tumble off again, lacking Marv’s powerful grip.      

Back in the woods were brush piles and tree tops from Gene’s last logging a year earlier.  He and Dad each spent a winter cutting trees and getting out logs for building projects.  In the spring, Bergstrom brought in his big circular saw unit on the truck bed and sawed lumber.  Need at least 3000 board feet to make it worth while, he had told Dad. They had about twice that. Dad used his to build a youngstock barn--mostly out of green elm.      
Logs waiting to be sawed along Wolf Creek at Marv's place

This year the tops were dry and ready for fire wood, and they had the new chainsaw!   Dad had cut out his logs with an Swede saw and axe.   The Swede saw as a large bow saw with a thin blade, that if kept sharp, made cutting the smaller trees much faster than the big old two man lumberjack saws.    
Portable sawmill at Eugene Hanson farm on Wolf Creek

We always had lumber from the sawmill 

Dad shoveling snow

Dad began sawing the wood into chunks right in the woods. Previous years, he cut poles and brought them out to be buzzed with the portable buzz rig and crew that neighbor Bert Brenizer had on his John Deere A.   Each fall the crew went from farm to farm buzzing each big pole pile.    Two or more people carried the big poles to the buzz rig.  Another man helped steady the pole on the buzz rig table as the sawyer, always Uncle Maurice -- who was very careful and had all his fingers after 60 years of sawing, pushed the pole and table forward into the saw cutting off a chunk of wood     
Marv and Russ by Grandpa's Rumley Oil Pull -- belt tractor

An old timer ‘threw away.”  When a farmer’ s knees or back got too bad to lift the poles (which were often more like logs), they moved to the saw and lifted the freshly sawn blocks of oak, maple or other hardwood away from the saw.  Having done this myself (when Dad got his own rig, we boys were the crew one year).  Some chunks were big.  If there were small ones, Maurice might run three through at a time--making a scramble to catch all three pieces.  If it was a heavy one, gravity made the job easier.  As the block fell from the saw, you held it in your two hands and guided the fall with a swinging turning motion, guiding it to the pile nearby, boosting it a little at the end if it was not too heavy so it would fall far enough away to keep room as the pile grew.  If the pile got too close, then it was time to advance the saw rig a few feet to continue the pile.   
Marv and Russ and the big sled

Great Uncle George always threw away.  “I’m not much on my feet anymore, but I can still hold my own on the throw away at the buzz rig,” he said smiling at age 80.   Long after we gave up buzzing turning to the chainsaw, Uncle George still brought in pole wood to a pile by his house on the Old River Road.   He had a small bow saw and cut up a few poles each day.

“I’ll bring down the chainsaw and cut it up for you some afternoon,” offered Dad.   “No, I need to get out and do something every day to keep me limber--I’ll let you know when I need help. Thanks.”    When he was 87, came a cold spell and he decided to start up his oil heater to help the wood stove.  Mom got a call, “I don’t feel good--can’t breathe, can you take me to the doctor.”   
Dad and Russ buzzing wood with the Super C  Farmall

 Dad and Mom drove the mile over.  The house was filled with oil smoke and barely breathable.  After a stay in the hospital, and health that really never recovered until his death the next summer, George came home. In the meantime we had found his oil stove chimney had a wood duck nest plugging it up, the cause of the carbon monoxide and smoke.  “If I’d of stuck with my wood I’d be a lot better off,” said this old pioneer after he was back home.

  As Dad cut the wood into blocks with the chainsaw, Archie and we three boys hauled them to the trailer with the usual competitions of who could lift the heavy ones.   We took turns whacking away at the big blocks with the maul and the smaller ones with the axe.   Growing up on a farm, we were quite practiced at an early age in using axes and mauls and during our years of growing up around axes, saws, buzz saws, and a sawmill, none of us lost a finger, or even had more than flesh wounds needing less than 5 stitches.

   The crotch pieces took the maul and wedges.   Archie had not used a maul since his days of growing up on his uncle’s farm before the Army.  He was pretty good with the axe and maul.      Archie was a slim, young looking fellow.  He was active--in the flush of youth and vigor, and loved to be out doing things on the farm.  

When we got the first load done, Archie started the tractor, we jumped on our sleds and off we went to unload at home while Dad kept on cutting.   Archie didn’t look back to see if we were along--we held on grimly knowing he would go wide open down the road and if we fell off, we were in for a long walk.  Making it to the house, we quickly unloaded into a pile right next to the house by the basement window that had the wood shoot down to the furnace. The basement was for canned food and firewood.

   After we got back and loaded up the second time, Dad stopped for a break. “Who wants to try for a rabbit?” he asked. Archie, wanted to shoot, so giving him strict instructions not to shoot unless he was absolutely sure he wouldn’t hit one of us, Dad handed him his Remington 22 bolt action loaded with shorts.

   “You Russell, go tromp up and down on the brush pile.  The rest of us will go around it so the rabbit heads out by his trail.  Archie--you stand over here by the pile.  The rabbit will run out away from the pile and stop, look around and then take off.  Be quiet and you will get a good shot while he is looking around.”  Dad and his 5 brothers were expert trappers and hunters having wintered along the St.Croix on grandpa’s land back in the depression when they couldn’t get jobs--making a living off of furs, wood cutting and eating squirrels, rabbits, and an occasional beaver.

   I jumped up and down on the big brush pile and a cotton tail scooted out, stopped about 30 feet in front of Archie, who took a shot. The rabbit, untouched dashed off into the woods.   

“Don’t know how i missed him?” said Archie quite excited, “it was an easy shot.”    

“Got rabbit fever,” grinned Dad.     We tried a couple more brush piles, each having at least one rabbit jump out, and each time Archie missed.  “Just can’t seem to aim at him.  In the Army we shoot targets from a rest position--this is sure different.”

  We gave up shooting to let the rabbits take a rest and hauled two more loads. By then it was darkening as late afternoon arrived.  

“Can I try shooting a rabbit?” I asked.  I had a beebe gun and was deadly with it in the haymow shooting sparrows.  I had never tried a 22, being only 10 years old, and 11 being the age for 22's in our family.    

“Ha Ha,” laughed Archie, “I’ll jump on the brush pile for you, but you be careful not to shoot me.”   
 Sure enough, a cottontail came out, stopped a little way off. Dad had given me the basics of shooting his 22. I aimed, just like I did with the beebe gun, squeezed the trigger the same way, and the rabbit tumbled over, dead right on the spot shot through the head.

Archie was dumbfounded. “How did you do that?” he sputtered as he picked up the rabbit and saw the clean shot right through the head. “Not even any meat spoiled.”   

 Marvin got a chance next and got rabbit too. Everett knew he was too young to ask.  Archie tried and missed again--he never did shoot a rabbit all that winter, and it was a sore point so we didn’t tease him about it.

Archie stayed with us until spring. "I just can't figure out how to get along without someone telling me what to do. Guess going from being told everything by Uncle and Auntie on the farm, and then to being in the army, I never learned how to be my own boss. Guess I will sign up for the army again."

Uncle Archie is 88, and lives in Madison now. He spent most of his career in the Army becoming a sergeant eventually and later marrying a girl with long hair and having some children and grandchildren. He is the last one of Mom's siblings still alive as far as we know--don't know what happened to her younger sister. Saw him last several years ago at his brother's funeral.