St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Dynamite on the Farm

        I lit the too short fuse on the stick of dynamite and jumped on the idling snowmobile.  Dad climbed on behind me and I gunned it hoping to be far away when the fertilizer-dynamite charge we had just set in the middle of the cattail swamp blasted it into a duck pond.  I swerved to miss a clump of cattails spilling us onto the ice and tipping the snowmobile over on its side, killing the engine with only seconds to go before the explosion. “Let’s get out of here!” exclaimed Dad.  I had never seen him so excited.

            Farmers used dynamite to break fields out of cutover land filled with stumps and rocks.  Stumps had to be pulled, grubbed or blown out of the ground and then burned. Dynamite was often the quickest way to break their tenacious hold to the ground. Farmers blasted drainage ditches, created waterholes, went fishing,  and cracked rocks with sticks of dynamite.
Does this need dynamite to open a pond?

            After World War I (1919) with a huge surplus of explosives left over, the government began promoting dynamite to clear stumps.  For a few dollars one could buy a case of dynamite with fuses and caps.  Dynamite was promoted as the easy way to clear your land for farming.

            Too many obituaries of the time read like this one “William ______, of Clark County, Wis., was instantly killed May 9th, 1912, while at work in a field dynamiting stumps. He had just placed a charge under a stump and it did not go off as soon as he expected it would, so he went back to the stump and on his arrival there the charge went off, blowing off his head. He leaves a wife and family.”  Others lost hands, arms and eyes.   The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture working with the University began safety training sessions for farmers.  

            Uncle Maurice was the dynamite expert in the Hanson family.  He did most of the stump blowing. Grandpa’s farm had over 100 acres of huge white pine stumps to clear when he bought it in 1905.   Maurice did the blasting while his brothers piled the stumps and roots to be burned.  He became very experienced and very careful!

             Dynamite came in half-pound sticks. They were a little larger than an ordinary candle and were wrapped in heavy yellow or red paraffined paper.  Dynamite required an explosion from a dynamite cap to set if off.  A length of fuse was inserted into the cap which resembled a large 22 shell and carefully crimped to hold it.  One end of the dynamite paper covering was opened to reveal the explosive material. It was a fine damp sawdust dough like material.  A wood dowel was used to poke a hole in the dynamite and the cap inserted and the paper folded back over the end to make what looked like a huge fire cracker.  Dynamite fuse burned at a constant rate of 40 seconds per foot. 

            Instructions for dynamiting stumps:  “Deep oblique holes are too be made with a round crowbar under the stump singled out for execution. This hole should be as nearly horizontal as possible and directly under the stump so that all the explosive force may be expended on the wood and not on the earth between the dynamite and the stump. The earth acts as a cushion and the natural tendency of dynamite to exert force downward is counteracted.”     
The pond we tried to make with dynamite that did not work later was dozed out and a beaver dam restored to make a nice pond.  

            The ponds in our cow pasture all dried up one year in the 1950s.  The west boundary of the pasture was Wolf Creek.  One hundred feet of  boggy shoreline prevented the cows from getting to the stream to drink.  Uncle Maurice said 100 sticks of ditching dynamite would blow a channel to the creek and create a waterhole at the hard bank. 

            Dad and we boys went to J. B. Hanson’s hardware at Siren to pick up 100 sticks of dynamite, a foot of fuse and a dynamite cap.  Dynamite was available to people who JB thought were responsible people over 21 years of age and had cash (dynamiters were not good credit risks).

            On a nice sunny day we boys with Dad, Maurice and Uncle Chan (who lacked excitement in his life) carried the dynamite back in the pasture.   Maurice planned to place the sticks 1 foot apart in a long row from creek to hard ground.  At that distance each stick would set off the next to make a single explosion and create the ditch.  He poked a fork handle down into the bog making 90 holes in a row putting a stick in each.  At the bank he made several more holes together to get a water hole.  He prepared one stick by inserting the cap, and a 40 second fuse (1 foot long).    

            We watched from a few 100 yards away up the hill to get a good view.  Maurice told us to keep our mouth open to equalize the pressure.  We boys opened them wide with visions of exploding heads.  He lit the fuse and ran to join us.  In 40 seconds there was a tremendous explosion with mud flying high in the air.  We went to the creek and sure enough, there was a nice 4 foot wide channel coming from the creek to an 8 foot wide water hole at the hard bank rapidly filling with water.  The cows had their waterhole for less than 100 dollars cost. 

             Since I had seen how dynamite was used by watching Uncle Maurice carefully, I assumed I too was qualified to use dynamite. They were just big fire crackers!  Some years later Everett and I wanted a water hole on our sand land.  I drove up to J. B. Hanson’s and being 21 by then, bought 25 sticks of dynamite, 2 feet of fuse and 6 caps.  I put about 15 sticks in a bundle in a hole 3 feet deep in the marshy bottom of extinct Sterling Creek, put a foot of fuse and cap and lit it and ran off.  The result was a nice little pond 15 feet in diameter and 2 feet deep.  Nothing to it at all for us expert blasters!    

            At this time the federal government was encouraging farmers to make wildlife ponds by blowing holes in cattail swamps to get standing water.  They used a stick of dynamite to set of nitrogen fertilizer specially treated with fuel oil, much cheaper than only using dynamite and much more of an explosion.   Having the dynamite already, I talked Dad into trying it on a cattail swamp. We waited until winter when we could walk out to the center.  We knocked a hole through ice and into the muck below.  We poured our specially prepared fertilizer down the hole and topped it off with a stick of dynamite, cap and fuse.

             We had only 6 inches (20 seconds) of fuse left so we had our escape planned by snowmobile to get far away quickly from this huge explosion. Nervously we sped off.  I  swerved around some cattails spilling us onto the snow.  We righted the Skidoo, jumped back on, got it started in one pull and were just clearing the swamp edge when we heard the roar. 

            It was a miserably small explosion and barely widened the hole we had made scattering the fertilizer rather than exploding it.  We hadn’t gotten the instructions right.    We had mixed feelings.  Dad was happy it didn’t go off with us still uncomfortably close.  I was disappointed it failed.  The only effect was really lush cattails next summer.

            Dynamite and fertilizer were used in 1970 by a radical to blow up a building on the Madison University campus protesting war research.  After that dynamite was limited to licensed blasters and so ended the explosive years for farmers.  Like my Uncle Chan, I too sometimes feel the need for excitement.  I miss the days when a trip to Siren and a few dollars bought the chance to improve Nature with a big bang!