times gone by

Harvest 1961

It was the last of May in 1961. Twenty of us were following the harvest to make some money for college. In addition there was the supervisor, a mechanic, a gasoline truck driver, and a man and wife team that cooked our meals. The combine outfit was owned by Norman Hamm of Perry, Kansas. His family started the harvest crew in the 1940’s. It was the largest one-man owned outfit going. They called it Hammtown.

 

Johnson City, Kansas

Lined up and ready to move out near Perryton, Texas. We could be loaded and ready to move in one hours time.

 

The harvest equipment consisted of ten new Massey Ferguson 95 self-propelled combines. They were transported on ten shop-made trailers pulled by ten 1959 Chevrolet two-ton trucks. Other support equipment included bunkhouses made out of truck and bus bodies. The diner was a bus body trailer complete with kitchen and a table that would seat fourteen at a time. It was pulled by a truck equipped with a water tank, generator and freezer and other supplies. The diner was supplied with electricity by the generator. All the equipment with the exception of the combines was painted light blue with white tops.

A shower house on wheels with a gas hot water heater and water supplied through a hose connected to the supply truck water tank kept us cleaned up. When we reached our next stop the hoses and drop cords were placed on the ground between trailers. The cooks had their own private trailer. They put in long days cooking for us right there where we camped in the fields. When on the road we ate in restaurants.

 

Hammtown Sleeper

My bunk house, the Hammtown Sleeper. A converted school bus. Yes, that is me.

 

I was already an experienced and licensed truck driver. This put me behind the steering wheel of a truck pulling a combine at the start. Ten of us with combine and farm equipment experience were selected to operate the combines in the field. The combine operators also drove the truck-trailer rig hauling their assigned combines on the road. The other ten guys were assigned the job of driving the trucks hauling grain between the combine and the bins and commercial grain elevators. It was a different time, and I don’t think many of them held a commercial license. Back then it was called a chauffeur’s license.

We left Perry, Kansas early Memorial Day morning and headed south, first on the Kansas turnpike and then on the Oklahoma turnpike, and turned south toward Texas. We made camp somewhere in Oklahoma and arrived at the Waggoner Estates Ranch near Vernon, Texas late the next day. I had read of Dan Waggoner and the ranch’s place in history. At the time it was said to be the second largest ranch in the nation after the King Ranch. I believe it still holds that distinction.

Waggoner Estates Ranch

The main entrance to the 55,000 acre Waggoner Estates Ranch. The Ranch’s famous Quarter Horse Stallion, Poco Bueno (little good one) is buried near the entrance.

 

The first couple days there we were putting the combines in order. Putting the belts on, lubricating and adjusting took up most of our time. We did not get paid for downtime but we got our bunk and meals furnished. The meals were outstanding.

The farmer in me noticed that the wheat was short and thin and certainly looked to me to be low yielding. I asked a ranch employee about it. He agreed, saying that it had been overgrazed during the winter. But, he explained that the management was not concerned, if it yielded enough to pay the combine bill. “After all,” he said, “The ranch makes its money from oil, horses and cattle.” The wheat got better as we got further into the fields.

We cut the wheat in blocks called a land, with five combines to a land. The largest continual field of wheat consisted of 2,200 acres. The Massey Ferguson model 95 combines were considered to be some of the best machines at the time. They were manufactured at Toronto, Canada. On a good day we could cut 750 acres total. We were told the combines cost around $7,500 each. The Chrysler six-cylinder engine was mounted sideways and located under the operator’s platform. Controls were mounted on the platform in front of the operator. The operator was seated on the platform out in the open. There were no air-conditioned cabs. Hats or caps and shirts were advised. Some of us went shirtless as time went on.

We were on the Wagner Ranch about ten days. It rained several times while we were there. Rain, of course, kept us out of the field for a day or two. The supervisors were good to us. They would load us in a truck and take us to town, to a movie, or in one case a county fair. We were warned that if we got into trouble, we were on our own. I drew $20.00 of my pay. That lasted me the entire trip.

 

 

Of the twenty harvesters, most were in their late teens or early twenties. The oldest harvester was a 29-year-old Englishman. The rumor was that he came over on a work or tourist visa. He wanted to see the real United States and somebody in Topeka sent him to Hammtown. Guiles was his first name. I have forgotten his last.

I mean no disrespect, but Guiles was a bit obtuse and most of the time downright obnoxious. He left us about halfway through the trip. He decided he wanted to see Denver, Colorado. They had sent him to the heartland with a bunch of fun-loving youngsters. He left us with a lot of stories to tell. I will share a few of the most humorous ones before I move on. I imagine he has a lot of harvester stories to tell, also.

Guiles was prematurely bald. His head was slick as an onion. The first day we told him he needed to get a straw hat. He had already told us what he thought of cowboys. He let us know in his customary rough language that he was not going to wear a “#@!% bloody cowboy hat.” Even though several of us wore them.

After a couple days of Texas sun, his old bald pate was as red as the combines we operated. We saw him slip a five dollar bill to the cooks and they brought him a straw hat back from their trip to town. He promptly punched the crease out of it, saying he did not want to look like a bloody cowboy.

In that level country, the roads were wide with shallow ditches on each side. Guiles, lacking experience, was assigned to drive a truck to the grain bins at the railroad. Of course, they drive on the left side of the road in England. Guiles just couldn’t bring himself to drive in the right lane. He would drive his truck down the middle of the road. Barreling down the middle, he yielded to no one.

One morning a deputy sheriff car showed up just after breakfast. A tall Texas lawman with his pants legs tucked into his cowboy boots unfolded himself from the car and stated he wanted to talk to us. We gathered around. He reached into the car and got his ten gallon cowboy hat and placed it squarely on his head. He wore a regular western-style gun belt with a holstered sixshooter, ivory grips and all. He put his eyes on every one of us before he spoke.

“Somebody from this outfit has been running people off the road. All your trucks look alike. They can’t tell which one it is, just yet. If he don’t stop it, he is going to get to see what the inside of my jail looks like.” We all knew who it was, and some were watching Guiles. He had an absolute look of horror on his face.

When Guiles pulled out of the field with his first load of wheat that morning, he had mastered the art of driving on the righthand side. I never heard of another complaint about his driving. I think his opinion of cowboys had changed, also.

 

We loaded up and pulled off the Waggoner Estates Ranch on June 10, turning north up the Texas panhandle at Childress. North of Childress we crossed the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River, east of the lower end of the Palo Duro Canyon. On we rolled over the Salt or Middle Fork and then across the North Fork of the Red River. At normal intervals the combines and support equipment took up about a mile of highway.

Perryton, Texas

On the Julius Johns farm at Johnson City, Kansas. The wheat is harvested and we are loaded up, ready to travel on.

 

We went through some country that I vowed I would visit again. The Canadian River area is some of the prettiest country I have seen. Yes, I have been back there to visit. Our destination was Perryton, Texas. We cut wheat southeast of there for several days. We broke camp and crossed into the Oklahoma panhandle. The caravan went through Liberal, Kansas and then west on to Hougoton. At Hougoton we turned north again and crossed the South Fork of the Cimarron River.

We setup camp near Johnson City and cut wheat around there and Ulysses. One of the wheat farmers we worked for at Johnson City had an airplane. We set up camp near the grass airstrip. One day the farmer’s two teenage daughters came out to the plane. It was obvious that they were dressed to go somewhere. A more adventurous youth struck up a conversation by asking them where they were going. They told him that the family was flying to Denver, Colorado to do some shopping. That was the closest big town. Denver would have been approximately 250 air miles.

The early settlers in that part of the country often referred to it as a sea of land. In 1961 it was mostly dry land farming. Now most of the farms are irrigated by sprinklers and ditch.

Having spent my early childhood on the great plains, the area was not entirely foreign to me. My Grandfather Ryan had owned land over the state line in Bent County, Colorado. In 1915 my maternal grandfather purchased a new steam engine and threshing machine in Amarillo, Texas. He moved north, threshing grain virtually over the same route we took almost 50 years later. Of course he threshed bundled and shocked wheat. He took several years to make the trip north. During the offseason he built houses and worked as a blacksmith around Liberal and several other towns. He finally traded his threshing rig for a blacksmith shop in Cheyenne County, Kansas.

On the move again, we crossed the the Arkansas River near Syracuse and stopped at Tribune. The cool weather and the rain had slowed the ripening process. We laid over a week at Tribune to wait for the wheat to ripen. In that dry expansive country each county seat had a park with a community swimming pool. We were allowed to set up our camp at the back of their park and use the swimming pool. The day we pulled in, there were only a few people at the pool. The next day it was swarming with girls. The word had got out that Hammtown was in town!

Tribune, Kansas

Jerry Parnell poses on the fender of his rig, at Tribune, Kansas.

 

Before I leave the subject of girls. I will tell of another humorous guy. His name was Doug Adams. He attended college in Arkansas and was a basketball referee on the side. He was a cut-up, with a gimmick he used. He would approach girls, on a street corner, in a restaurant or store. He would say in his best syrupy Arkansas drawl, “Excuse me ma’am. Do you know Doug Adams?”

Almost always they answered sincerely, “No, I don’t think I do.”

He would stick out his hand and say, “How would you like to meet him?” He always got a laugh and sometimes they actually shook hands.

I have forgotten most of my harvest friend’s names. I wish I had written all of them down. But, I remember the name Doug Adams.

 

We were of many locations and origins. I remember one youngster hired along the way. He was a replacement for a grain-hauler that had quit. He was probably 17 or 18. The young man was of very small stature. He wore a leather jacket with the picture of a wolf’s head painted on the back. He was asked by one prankster about the picture. He explained proudly that it was the symbol of the gang he belonged to. It was called the Wolf Pack. His tormenter said, “You don’t look like a wolf. You look more like a coyote to me. I am just going to call you Coyote!” The nickname stuck. Each time one of them called him Coyote he would get mad and want to fight. The little guy could not fight his way out of the proverbial wet paper sack.

One day I decided to intervene. I stepped in between and told them that it was time to leave him alone. I explained that he was like the rest of us, there because he wanted or needed a job. The same guy that named him piped up, “Listen to Ryan preaching a sermon. I reckon we should just call him Deacon.” For the rest of the tour, some called me Deacon, but they left the little feller alone.

Number 10 Truck and Combine

A shirtless Walt poses with his rig, the number 10 truck and combine, somewhere in Kansas.

 

Next, we continued north across both branches of the Smokey Hill River and cut wheat east of Mt. Sunflower. It is not a mountain. It is just a rise in the prairie. It is the highest elevation in Kansas. We turned east at Goodland and went near Oberlin. After cutting wheat there, we went north into Nebraska. Chappell on the south side of the Platte River was our next harvest stop. We cut on a farm west of Chappell in the Platte River bottoms.

Again, along the Sundown Trail we touch a bit of history: As our combine caravan crossed the main street of Chappell, Nebraska that July day in 1961, furniture store owner Dick Cabela was starting a fishing lure mail-order business just down the street… It is one of those, wish-I-had-thought-of-that moments.

The Sand Hills rose up on the north side of the Platte. Each morning as we sat on our combines waiting to start, we would watch a herd of antelope go to water. They would walk single file down a path out of the hills and proceed to a windmill supplied stock watering tank. They would mill around the tank until we fired up the combines. When the combines roared into action they would run for the hills.

The river bottom area had an abundance of deer and other wild game. To protect their fawns from the coyotes, the does had hidden them out in the wheat. The older fawns would jump up and run, but the very young ones would lay there and let us run over them. We learned to watch for them and jerk the header bar control up as we passed over, to spare them and leave some cover.

From Chappell we went to Lodgepole. When we finished at Lodgepole we traveled through the Nebraska Sand Hills. At Valentine we crossed over into South Dakota. We finished the season cutting wheat on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Normally the outfit would have went on into North Dakota and Montana, but it had been a poor crop year in those areas. We turned Hammtown south and journeyed home a month early.

 

Hammtown no longer exists. They ceased the harvest operation several years ago. Harvest 1961, remains a cherished memory along the Sundown Trail.

 

Group Picture

We pose for a group picture in South Dakota, before heading home. The man and lady on the left kept us fed. The gentleman in overalls was the mechanic. He could repair or make anything for the machines, right in the field. Doug Adams is showing the camera that he wears socks. I am the one wearing the hat. I wish I had all their names.

 

 

Categories: farming, times gone by, travel | Tags: , , , , , | 26 Comments

The Runaway Snowman

Sundown Trail has a guest blogger today – my daughter, Marti Ryan.  She is a musician and video blogger in Nashville, TN.
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I have always loved my Dad’s stories of when he was young. He grew up in a time that I can’t imagine – one room schoolhouses, riding horses, heading off into the woods with his dog to hunt furry woodland creatures . . . those days are long gone, but live on in stories and pictures. I’ve encouraged Dad to write a blog for years, and was tickled pink when he decided to start writing Sundown Trail. He has a collection of short stories called Tales from Clear Creek that will be available as an e-book soon, and he’s currently working on his first western novel.

But I didn’t come over here to write a guest blog to brag on my Dad (although I could spend an entire page doing just that). I thought it would be fun to write a blog about one of MY childhood memories. As you can probably tell from the title – it’s about a snowman.

 

Winter is drawing to a close, and as usual, Mother Nature is keeping us on our toes. She’s been teasing us with beautiful sunny warm weather, and then promptly throwing snow and cold back in our faces to remind us that’s she’s not quite finished with winter yet. I live in Tennessee, and bless their hearts, Tennesseans FREAK OUT when they see a snowflake. Missourians just slow down and plow ahead with their lives, but everything screeches to a halt here in Nashville at the MENTION of snow. Everyone cancels everything, and races to the store to buy milk, bread, and eggs. It’s become a local joke to post pictures on Facebook of empty shelves in the grocery stores when snow is forecasted.

Snow doesn’t last long here, so when we get any kind of accumulation, children rush outside for a few hours in a few inches of snow to have snowball fights, sort-of-kind-of sled, and build itty-bitty snowmen. Last week I opened my back door to an accumulation of snow, and briefly thought of building one of these itty-bitty snowmen as a tribute to the end of winter. After drying off my snowy, muddy doggies, I instead chose to make a hot cup of tea and remember a Missouri winter long ago when I built my very first snowman . . . .

 

 

I don’t remember if it was my idea, or Mom’s idea, but I remember being super-excited as I bounded into the front yard to play in the snow with Mom. My parents and I lived in a little yellow house on a little street in a little town in Southeast Missouri. The front yard was covered in a thick blanket of fresh snow, and I tramped around in the sparkling stuff, fascinated that it was sticking to my boots, and comparing my small bootprints to Mom’s big ones. She showed me that the snow not only stuck to my boots, but it stuck to itself, and I watched in amazement as she rolled a small snowball around the yard and made a large snowball. We repeated this action two more times, and soon had a stereotypical snowman ready for personalizing.

Our little yellow house was heated with a wood stove in the basement, and Mom took pieces of bark from the woodpile and made eyes and a smiling mouth for the snowman. The bark mouth kinda looked like he had teeth, which gave him a whimsical look. She then completed his face with the traditional carrot nose. I remember really really wanting a top hat like I’d seen on the Frosty the Snowman cartoon, but we didn’t have one. Instead, Mom placed one of Dad’s hunting caps on his snowy bald head. I was too little to reach the snowman’s face to help with the personalization, but not to be left out, I took little pieces of bark and made buttons down his front. Mom completed his look with a piece of pink plaid fabric for a scarf.

He was perfect. Or at least, in a little girl’s eyes he was perfect. My very first snowman. I was thrilled. Dad was impressed when he came home from work, and happy to sacrifice his hunting cap for a short while. My snowman was right by the living room window, so I spent the rest of the evening beaming at him from inside the warmth of the little yellow house. I went to bed that night and dreamed happy snowy little girl dreams.

 

The next morning, I bounced out of bed and raced to the living room. Mom was working on something on the dining room table, but I barely noticed her as I raced to the window . . . 

. . . and noticed the curtains were closed.

This was odd. Even as a little girl, I was attune to the circadian rhythm of the household, and the living room curtains were always closed at night, and opened first thing in the morning.

Yet there they were. Closed.

Not to be deterred, I threw open the curtains to greet my snowman. . . and the front yard was empty.

Now I know what you’re thinking.

The snowman melted overnight. That would have been the logical explanation.

However, that would also have been a really boring story. And I don’t do boring.

With glistening, wide eyes, I whirled around to Mom and opened my mouth to ask where my snowman was. No words could come out. I was so shocked he had vanished. Mom was coming around the side of the dining room table with her arms outstretched to administer comfort and an explanation. I sat in a miserable heap in her lap as she told me what happened.

It had gotten bitterly cold overnight, and everything froze solid. Including my snowman. There was a basketball game in town that night, and so all the high school kids were cruising around town afterwards. Mom and Dad woke up in the middle of the night when they heard noises in the front yard. They went to the window just in time to see some teenage boys load my entire frozen-solid snowman in the back of a pickup truck and drive away.

I was positively heartbroken.

Mom gathered up the tearful little girl piled in her lap and carried me over to the dining room table. She was making me a brand new snowman. There was not enough snow to make another snowman outside, so she created me one out of posterboard and construction paper. And this one had a top hat! Also, buttons and teeth.

Me and my Snowman

He was a very cool snowman.

Later in the week, we heard that several people had seen a snowman with teeth in the back of a pickup truck cruising around town. Looking back, I’m pleased to know he had quite an adventure before he reached the fate of every snowman when winter ends. And I’m happy that the boys had so much fun cruising around with my snowman.

A friend of my mother’s who wrote poetry immortalized my snowman in verse, and titled the poem “The Runaway Snowman.” There’s a book published somewhere with my snowman’s poem in it.

 

 

I learned very early the “make lemonade out of lemons” lesson as I played with my posterboard snowman well into the summer. There were other winters, and other snowmen, but my first one – my perfect snowman that I had for less than 24 hours – I will always remember. I hear that seven inches of snow was dumped on Missouri today. I imagine there are hundreds of snowmen in hundreds of yards across the Show-Me-State tonight, happily smiling frozen smiles throughout the night and ready to be greeted in the morning, while little boys and girls are dreaming happy snowy little boy and girl dreams.

 

 

Snowman The 3 of us

 

 

Categories: Guest Blogger, Missouri, times gone by, Winter | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Christmas Snowstorm

It was probably the winter of 1948 or 49. My family had moved from the plains of Kansas to a farm near the Platte River in Buffalo County, Nebraska. We were up in the hills north of the Platte between Elm Creek and Kearney. The Platte River part of the Oregon Trail ran between us and the river. I was absorbing and cataloging frontier history even then. My next youngest sister and I went to school at Midway school house. It was a nice country school with two classrooms and a basement. It still exists at the intersection of Midway and Odessa roads. However it is now a nice farm house with a modern farmstead around it. I cannot remember a Christmas program at that school. I am sure we had them, every school did. At that young age we seem to need something special to tweak our memory.

And I do have a memory to share. My family had been invited to a Christmas program at a neighboring school several miles east of our community. It was a different world back then. Rural areas had no electricity and no communication except radios powered by six volt car batteries. Weather was reported on as it happened. We went to the school program. We watched skits, listened to students sing Christmas carols and thoroughly enjoyed the evening. Suddenly people realized there was a full blown blizzard in progress outside. You don’t mess with a Nebraska blizzard. You get to a shelter and wait it out.

The Nielsen family lived near the school and they invited several families to stay with them. They were family friends and they were probably the ones that invited us to the Christmas program. My folks’ 1936 Chevy sedan was helpless in a foot of snow and visibility was down to a few feet. The folks gladly accepted their invitation.

The Nielsens owned a farm and ranch operation. They lived in a large frame house surrounded by various livestock buildings. When everybody got inside they started getting out cots and beds. It was a typical farm house, some rooms were heated and others were not. The women and small children would sleep in the heated rooms and the men and boys would sleep in the unheated rooms. Mrs. Nielsen went to her wardrobes and trunks producing sheets, blankets, and quilts. Dad and I drew a tall leather covered settee that folded out into a bed. We had sheets and a blanket, but by that time she was to the bottom of the trunk.

She pulled out a hair-covered lap robe, obviously left over from the horse and buggy days. It was a tanned hide with a quilted ticking liner that smelled slightly of mothballs. Dad and I slept warm as toast under it. We awoke to the sound of female chatter and the smell of pancakes and bacon frying in the pan. It had stopped snowing. . .

I thought it was a buffalo robe and called it that. In later years Dad said he thought it was a horse hide. I have never seen a horse with that much curly hair. Buffalo robe or horse hide robe, it gave an eight-year-old boy a Christmas snow storm memory and warm feeling for good neighbors along the Sundown Trail . . .

Merry Christmas! I hope the weather is just right for you wherever you are.

Categories: Nebraska, times gone by, Winter | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Lymon and the broken windshield

It is cold outside.  Snow and ice are not far behind.  This kind of weather always triggers memories for me: Christmas programs at tiny one room schoolhouses, frosted window panes, and the warmth and comfort of the old wood cook stove.  Later memories of ice storms and miles of downed lines and the crews that worked through the days and nights to put them back up.

When the windshield starts icing up, I always remember an old timer named Lymon.  I was working as a service station attendant, my first real job in life.  At one time or another every person that owned a car or truck in our small community came through that service station drive.  They were as different as the patches on an old country quilt.  It was a good place for a seventeen-year-old to learn and observe.

Lymon drove a ragged old 1937 Chevy coupe.  This day I put in his customary ten gallons of gas (at 30 cents per gallon, by the way) and started to wash the windshield.  To my surprise there was a hole the size of a football right in front of the steering wheel.  I inquired and Lymon told me the story.  He had been in town to buy groceries and shop, but he took a little too long.  A fast-moving winter storm descended and his heater and his windshield wipers didn’t work.  About a mile out of town he had to stop because he couldn’t keep the ice off his wind shield.  Finally in desperation he took his hammer and broke a hole in front of the steering wheel.  “It worked fine,” he said.  So he left it that way.

The rest of the story came later.  After a “fix it or else” conversation with the local state trooper, Lymon took the old Chevy to Shorty’s Garage to have the driver’s side windshield replaced.  Shorty put in a new windshield, and while he was at it he put in a new thermostat and reattached the vacuum hose to the wipers.  Lymon went home happy.

Today when winter arrives and the snow blows, in my mind’s eye I can see Lymon driving down the road peering through that hole in his windshield with the ear flaps on his old cap fluttering in the breeze.

Figuratively speaking I have pulled a few Lymons.  I have seen others do it, too.  It is just part of living.

In the first year and a half I worked at the service station, all kinds of personalities and people came across that service station drive, the young, the old, the good, the bad, the ugly and the pretty.  The pretties did not pay too much attention to me.  But. . . then one day I installed a new battery for a pretty girl while she waited.  I tried to make conversation.  But she was not interested in talking to a guy with a toothy grin and grease smudges on his face.  Several years later we began dating and she eventually became my wife.  We celebrated our forty-ninth anniversary earlier this year.

We have much to be thankful for this holiday season.  Best wishes and a Merry Christmas from our house to yours.

Categories: times gone by, Winter | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Dull Knife, Dull Feller . . . Sharp Knife, Sharp Feller

I can’t remember when I first carried a folding knife in my pocket.  A good pocket knife was an essential tool for a farm kid in the forties and fifties.  It was used to cut the ties on fodder bundles and hay bales.  A sharp Case, Schrade or Barlow, and you were ready to skin a squirrel or clean a mess of Clear Creek bullheads. 

 
 

I was instructed in safety measures early on.  Such things as always cut away from your body, and don’t run with with the blade open.

 

At school we played Mumbley-peg during recess.  It was a gentler time.  No one questioned the right or reason to carry a pocket knife to school.  No one was ever hurt or threatened by a pocket knife at any of the rural schools I attended.

One of my most prized possessions during the fourth grade was a pair of high-topped lace-up boots equipped with a snap down knife pocket sewn on the side.  I wore them until they came apart from wear.

 

As a teenager while finishing high school, I worked at a feed mill on Saturdays grinding and mixing feed.  Most of the bags of grain and supplements we handled were one hundred pound size burlap bags.  They were tied or sewed with heavy cotton string.  To drop the contents into the hoppers the ties had to be cut.  Pocket knives were left laying on the scales or some other handy place ready for use on each bag dumped. 

One old timer I worked with never lacked for good old country humor and sayings.  He would pick my knife up and run his thumb across the dull edge, shake his head and say, “Dull knife, dull feller.”  Well, I did have trouble sawing through the larger cords.  I went to work on the knife with a sharpening stone.  I did not think much about it.  A few days later I turned around just in time to see him pick up the knife and run his thumb over it before I could warn him.  It must have bit him just a little.  Harry grinned and said, “Sharp knife, sharp feller.”

 

Today I carry an electrician’s knife in my pocket.  It has a large drop point blade and combination screwdriver burr reaming, lock open blade.  I also carry a pair of regular old slip joint farmer’s pliers in the plier pocket of my yard overalls.  Both tools are the handiest tools a man could carry.

These tools were made in America by craftsmen who knew what a good tool is.  When I am done with the knife and pliers, they will still be solid enough for another generation of handymen.

 
 

Categories: lessons learned, times gone by | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Alma’s Fire Shovel

Alma Ewing was my first grade teacher at Highland school in Benkelman Township, Cheyenne County, Kansas during the 1945-46 term.  Highland closed down at the end of the school year.  The school house was sold and the small number of pupils shifted to other schools.  For the second grade I went to Mt. Zion, another one-room school, three or four miles east of our sod-walled home.  Alma taught there, too.  Sometimes I rode horseback, but most of the time the folks delivered me in the A-Model Ford.

My older brother Wayne had graduated from the eighth grade at Highland the year before I started and Alma had been his teacher, too.  He told me that she was a strict disciplinarian.  He claimed she used a fire shovel to administer spankings.  When things really got rough, so his story went, she stuck it in the stove to heat it first.

Fireshovel

This is similar to Alma’s fire shovel

I was young, but I had already caught on to my brother’s mischievous nature.  I didn’t set much store by his fire shovel tale.  That is, until one cold wintery day at Mt. Zion school.

This day the students were more fractious and noisy than usual.  Alma warned us several times to quiet down.  Soon the din would return to a low roar.

Finally she had enough.  Alma walked to the back corner of the room, removed the fire shovel from the coal bucket, opened the stove door, and placed the shovel in the fire box with the handle protruding out the door.  Silence fell over the room.  It seems the story had been told by others, also.  Alma had heard the story too!

The morning ground on in silence.  Finally the noon hour came.  We went out for recess and when we returned the shovel was back in the coal bucket.

Alma left her mark on me.  I’m happy to say that it wasn’t with a fire shovel.

Several years ago I was returning to Missouri along Interstate 70 from a vacation out west.  I learned that the Tri-State Threshers Association was having their annual get-together and steam engine show at Bird City in eastern Cheyenne County.  I turned north at Goodland and went about 40 miles to Bird City to visit the Association’s fairgrounds.  The steam engines were puffing and the whistles were sounding.  I was browsing the flea market, enjoying the displays including the Charles Lindbergh display.  Yes, there is Charles Lindbergh history in Cheyenne County, Kansas!  But that is another story in itself, for another time.

I stopped to look at the old schoolhouse display and realized I was looking at old Highland, District 66 school building.  After it had closed it had been sold to a service station owner who moved the building to St. Francis and used it for tire and automotive products storage.  The Threshers Association had obtained the school and restored it.

Highland School

Highland School in its new place

 

There it was complete with schoolmarm and class in session.

Highland School inside

A modern day schoolmarm pretends to teach class at the new school location during Tri-State Threshers Association’s annual get-together in Bird City, Kansas.

 

Highland school had traveled from its Buffalo Grass and sagebrush-covered hill on the western side to the flat land eastern side of Cheyenne County.  Alma Ewing would have been proud.

Walt at original Highland School site

Walt at original Highland School site – District 66 Cheyenne County, Kansas.

Categories: lessons learned, times gone by | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

Close Encounters With Creatures of the Crawling Kind

The grizzly bear, the black bear, the wolf, and finally the mountain lion left, first the Midwest and then the High Plains at about the same time that the so-called civilized man moved into those areas.  With those top of the food chain predators gone, you would think that the outdoor people would have nothing to fear.  Wrong!  Those of us raised on the land know differently.  There is one creature we walk in constant fear of.  A creature that the mere sight of causes the hair on the back of the neck to stand up and the skin to crawl.  I’m talking about snakes. The poisonous kind of snake!

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

On the high plains of Kansas and Nebraska where I spent the first ten years of my life, the most common reptiles of the snake kind were the colorful bullsnake- a harmless and beneficial rodent hunter, and the deadly diamondback rattlesnake.  Both types of snakes were common on the farm we lived on in Cheyenne County Kansas.

I had my most memorable encounter with a diamondback when I was about six years old…  We had a rogue cow that had learned that she could stick her head through the fence and push over a weak post.  Once done she had easy access to the adjoining corn or grain field.  Dad looked over west toward the field of young corn and saw the cow out.  He laid his posthole diggers, a shovel, a post and tamping tool across the back bumper of the old A-Model Ford.  I came running out of the house barefooted wanting to go along.  He agreed to let me go if I stayed in the car.   

Down the lane we went into the pasture.  The cow had been through the procedure so many times that she readily went back into the pasture with a little encouragement from a switch.  Dad unloaded his tools and set about changing out the broken post. 

I was an active kid, and I soon reneged on my promise to stay in the car.  First, I moved to the running board and in an attempt to keep my bare feet off the blazing hot bare ground, I started jumping from clump to clump of the short, curly, and soft buffalo grass.  About the third clump I heard the warning buzz of rattles and felt an old diamondback move under my bare foot.  I went ballistic, screaming and jumping as high as my young legs would carry me.  Dad came running around the car yelling, “Did it bite you?!”  Of course I wouldn’t stop hollering, and he jerked off my overalls looking for fang marks on my legs.  When he did not find the bite marks and I calmed down enough to tell him how it happened, he deduced I was not bitten.  The poor old rattler lost its head to the posthole diggers anyhow.  It had no doubt curled itself tightly around the clump of grass to take advantage of the sparse shade.  This fact probably kept it from striking and saved me from a bad experience.            

Here in the Ozarks we have many harmless snakes, the most prevalent being the black rat snake.  But the ones to give a wide birth are the timber rattler, the cottonmouth moccasin, and perhaps the most hard to spot and thus avoid is the copperhead.  

Snake stories, I have told one or two.  I could tell a dozen.

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