One-Way Ticket to Kansas, the autobiography of Frank M. Stahl, as told and illustrated by Margaret Whittemore. University of Kansas Press, 1959. Transcribed by John D. Meredith
III - Farm Work
My youth was not spent entirely in play. I learned early how to handle the wood-saw and axe, and by the time I was twelve, I could do most of the farm chores. Our crops were chiefly corn, wheat, oats, and hay. The orchard produced peaches, pears, plums, and many varieties of apples. I can still shut my eyes and tell by the taste or smell the difference between Maiden's Blush, Winesap, Sheep-nose, Bellflower, Seek-no-further, and Rambo. Wild plums and grapes, blackberries, raspberries, and gooseberries could be had for the picking.
Timothy grass and clover provided good hay to be cut with the scythe and gathered with a rake. Farming tools were crude. Shallow furrows for corn were laid out in rows across the field with a one-horse shovel plow. Then we were ready for planting. The same rig crossed the first furrows, two men dropping the corn, three grains at a time, at the intersections. Then two men or women with hoes covered the seed. Five men with a horse could plant six acres in a day, if they kept at it. Cultivating was done with a single shovel plow drawn by one horse. The rows were perfectly checked and could be plowed one way as well as the other.
A common custom was to top the corn, while the leaves were still green, cutting the stalk just above the ear. This provided winter feed for cattle and left a beautiful field, showing nothing but ears.
Fallow ground made the ideal seed bed for wheat. Seed was sown broadcast and harrowed in. Our only implements for harvesting were the cradle and the sickle. Professional
cradlers took great pride in their work, and usually expected their employer to treat with a bottle of whisky. Father was the only man in his community who refused to serve intoxicants to guests or helpers.
One day we had four cradlers working in the field, swinging in unison and leaving the wheat in straight rows on the ground with even butts. I followed behind them with a rake, bringing the stalks into bundles for the binder. From time to time the men exchanged a few words in muffled tones. Ill-humor was written on their faces.
"We'll soon make Mike Stahl serve whisky, or else!" one man asserted sullenly.
The others mumbled their assent.
They put down their cradles and approached Father. "If you won't give us whisky, we'll leave the field," they announced.
The wheat was dead ripe and the need for cutting urgent, but Father was adamant. He would give them good cold water, but no alcoholic beverage. That was final.
The men left in a huff and things looked black. Mother hurried down from the house in her sunbonnet. "I'll help you," she said. "We can finish the harvesting ourselves."
Father took the cradle, while Mother and I raked and bound. We worked until evening and were at it again early the next morning. Immediately after lunch, to our great surprise, the four cradlers returned.
"We'll finish the field for you," they said, and each took over the job. They even praised Father later for his firm stand on the liquor question. This incident gave me the courage to hold to my convictions later in life, when faced with similar problems.
After harvesting came the threshing. Wheat sheaves,
unbound and laid in a circle on the threshing floor, were piled about two feet deep with heads all pointing one way. Four horses then trampled out the grain, going against the heads.
Another method was the flail process. It was a real distinction to be a good flailer. Two nicely dressed sticks, one about seven feet long, and the other, four feet, were tied together end to end, with a strong leather thong. The longer stick was the handle, while the short one was the beater. Two experts, working together, would alternate their blows, striking the same place on the sheaves in rapid succession without touching each other's flails.
Every farmer had a small flock of sheep to provide wool for warm winter clothing. Washing the sheep in a nearby creek was a gala occasion, and again called for whisky. No one touched liquor, however, when Mike Stahl's sheep were involved. After washing came the shearing. Then the wool was washed again and taken to the mill and carded.
There was a spinning wheel in every household. Mother was a good spinner, twisting and winding the thread on spindles by applying her foot to the treadle. When the spindle was full, she rolled off the thread onto a reel until there was enough for a skein. The skeins were taken to a weaver who turned out all the cloth, bedspreads, and blankets we needed. By 1854 machinery had supplanted the work of the hand loom.
Mother made all of our clothes, using wool for winter and linen for summer. Linen thread came from flax grown on the farm. A certain bleaching process, known only to her, left the linen snow-white, ready for towels, sheets, and tablecloths.
Father's skill as a cobbler stood him in good stead. Footwear in those days was all custom-made to fit the individual. Each farmer in our neighborhood had his own leather for the purpose stored in our shop. After butchering his beef, the farmer had taken the hide to the tanner on the south edge of town, who did the work on the fifty-fifty plan. It required one year to tan a hide. By watching Father at work at his cobbler's bench, I early learned the trade and could make a fairly respectable pair of shoes or boots by the time I was thirteen.