Child labor on the home farm

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There aren’t many of us left – people who grew up when farming was done by mule power and human power. But there are a few.

Take last Sunday, for example. Fellow Chambliss and I got to talking about those years, and first thing you knew, a Mister Shell – I’m told he is an expert on catching white perch in Yellow Creek – butted in and claimed that he, too, remembered those times.

After that, the discussion went downhill. But we did all share some common experiences. The main thing we got out of this was the question: how did anybody survive?

We didn’t think about it at the time, but, as some old radio program said, “Danger lurked around every corner.”

Just being around livestock can be very dangerous. Try loading a 2,000-pound steer onto a pickup, for instance. I remember when brother Jack and cousins Charlie and Tom  were all roped and ready … and the steer, ordinarily quite docile, was slinging them around like so much stove wood. I guess if Charlie hadn’t gotten his rope around a tree, the steer would have dragged them all the way to the lower pasture.

And everybody knows that a Jersey bull is one of the most dangerous animals in the world, wild or domesticated. Cousin Bailey had one, but he strictly knew how to handle it … very carefully.

And then there were our farming tools. I’ve often wondered how Daddy came up with what we needed. Maybe he got some at auctions, where the farmer had died or gone under with debt.

We had a Chattanooga steel beam slat-wing turning plow, a middle buster, a Georgia stock and several lead plows and sweeps to go with them. We had a Gee-Whiz (a side harrow), and a top harrow. We had a John Deere planter, which could be fitted with any one of several plates that would regulate how thickly you wanted the cotton or corn or soy beans or what ever to be planted.

And there were hoes to chop and hoe cotton and thin corn with. Oh, what horrible thoughts.

We had a stalk cutter. After the harvest, we’d chop up the stalks so they’d return to the earth and maybe add a little substance to the red clay.

Then there was the haying equipment. There was a sickle-bar, mule-drawn mower, as dangerous a vehicle as the most twisted mind could  imagine. We shudder now to think of running that deadly thing. We’d cut hay with it, of course. But we’d also use it to cut off the pasture, where there were stumps and stump holes and yellow jackets.

And yet we thought nothing about running that thing when we were 10 or 12 years old.

They talk about child labor on farms. My goodness. Of course there was child labor, from the time you were chopping cotton with a little down-sized hoe. By the time you were 10, you were a full-fledged farmhand … and thinking nothing about it. Kids had to work.

There was haying. Wagons (where did Daddy get ours?). Wagons would be spread out with hay frames. We’d mow the hay, then rake the hay into windrows, then into piles. Then load it onto the wagons … higher and higher and higher, the guy on top keeping it spread out and level.

If you were the guy on top, the driver, by the time the loading was done, that is, they couldn’t reach any higher, you were way up there, looking down at the tops of the mules. And at the yawning ditches – almost gullys – on each side of the road. If there was a lot of oats or sedge in the load, it could slide off at any moment, along with the pitchforks.

Then to the barn and into the loft, where you would swear it wouldn’t hold another forkful.  But it would.

And where do you think fuel for heating and cooking came from? We sawed it and split it and hauled it and stacked or piled it.

How did any of us survive? Well, here’s one reason: Daddy wouldn’t let us ride our bikes to town (population 759) because the traffic was too dangerous.

Bob Sanders is a veteran local radio personality, columnist, author and raconteur of note. He can be reached at bobbypsanders@netscape.com 

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