Sunday at Shiloh


Grandma parked her polished black Chevrolet under the big hickory by the corn field on the east side of Shiloh Church. Inside, Opal Tanner was already playing the piano. Her husband Donald the deacon stood solemnly at the pulpit. He called Sunday school to order at once and we went our respective reading groups. The women gathered in the pews to one side of the isle as the men shuffled downstairs. We young folks congregated next to the windows with old Musa Whitacre. The rest of my class were the two Rogers girls, Carolyn and Blanche, who were prim and quite pretty, though I was too young to be very interested in them. Besides, they were distant cousins.

Mrs. Whitacre was a frail old lady in her eighties, who smelt faintly of lavender or maybe violets. She was calm and patient and was particularly fond of new lambs. She would not have us read from our Sunday school quarterly, but had us read directly from King James. I was not one bit interested in what we read, but I always followed the passages closely out of respect for her and awe at her ability to quote them instead of reading when it was her turn.

When we had finished reading, she waited for us to get quiet. “Now,” she said. “What new things have come about during your lifetimes? What wonderful new things that never was before your time have you seen to come along? Blanche?”

“Well…” said Blanche, fingering the bright fuzzy yarn wound about her boy’s high school class ring, “we’ve finally got our satellite in space now. I’ve also read that we’ll have an oral polio vaccine sometime soon.”

“How about you, Carolyn?”

“Television,” she said, fiddling with the zipper on her white leather New Testament. Daddy and the hired hand just put up an antenna, and now we can get programs almost twice a week.”


“And what has come along in your time, Tom? What do you allow is new under the sun?”

“Oh, self-propelled combines. We saw one a-running north of town, this last fall. And stock choppers that mount on tractors like giant lawn mowers. And everybody’s taking out the hedges, now.”

“Yes. I suppose they must…” she said. “Well. I found this here journal of Mother’s when I was a-rummaging through a trunk. She was born in 1828. When I was little, she would tell how she’d curl up in her momma’s lap a-riding the wagon when they first come to Illinois. They’d pull the wagons together at night and she’d be so afraid when the wolves would set to howling.

“Well. When she had graduated from the eighth grade and had her teaching certificate, she commenced this journal. She tells in here what it was like when they had the first coal oil lamps, and how theah was an improvement come along in gun locks which allowed the men to go out into the wet. Now here, she tells about the first steam locomotive she ever saw… Uh, oh! We’ll do this next time. I see Don’s come up.”

Mom went to the piano. The men filed into the pews in back, whilst I slunk off to the short pew in the corner at the foot of the vestry closet. The congregation hushed. The deacon discussed some trivial matter of church business. I studied the backs of the women and their Sunday hats and dowagers humps, some fanning themselves placidly. I let out a loud snort at the thought of a particular ladies’ aid meeting. I covered my mouth and looked at my shoes as Carolyn turned to scold me with dancing eyes.

“Tough old hens,” I thought. I remembered the meeting where all the old dames were sitting about with napkins on their laps, cookies and saucers, conversation humming right along, when one of them discretely passed the very hairiest gas I had ever smelt in my staggering young life. There was no noise of course, But man! Did it ever stink! How was I to breathe? “Whose mean old behind was that?” I thought, searching the faces in the room for some flicker of stumbling aplomb. But there was none to be found. They went right on nibbling and sipping as if it were merely lavender sachet.

Mom played a song on the piano and then old Reverend Horace Bachelor came to the pulpit. he was tall and very dignified, with white hair and a large face which smiled easily with few wrinkles. He addressed the congregation in a conversational tone which sounded mostly like our Appalachian dialect, except for his rolled Rs, which had not quite vanished in all his years of being minister to rural churches after coming here from the Pennines in England.


He was well into his sermon and had reached a point where he was mostly reading Scriptures. The sashes of the church’s windows were all raised completely. The women fanned themselves. The cardinals and robins outside were singing. A woman clad in a bright yellow bikini drove up near the church and parked her new convertible. She got out and slammed her door, heading for the grave yard. At that, the Right Reverend looked out the window and lost his place.


“Uh…” he said, clearing his throat, flushing slightly. “Uh…” he said again, raising the crook of his finger to his nose whilst glancing up at his parishioners with wide eyes. The moment he commenced reading again in absolutely the wrong place, the congregation roared with laughter. He turned scarlet. Then he looked at us with a smile and said: “Not all the Lord’s miracles are to be found in the scriptures,” and returned to his delivery.

Tom Phipps

That Old Ox Yoke Downstairs


Grandma poured some tea from her cup to her saucer as Grandpa removed his napkin from his collar, all eleven white hairs on his bald head a-fly.

“Grandpa?” I said. “Where did that old ox yoke in the basement come from? It was your granddad’s, wasn’t it? Was it your Grandpa Phipps’s?”

“Grandpa Phipps used oxen every now and then for heavy work such as hauling gravel and one thing and another, so I expect he had at least two or three yokes. He died before I was ten, so I don’t know what became of them. A lot of people used oxen back then. A yoke of oxen won’t quite out-pull a good big team on the start, but if it’s a right smart heavy load, a team o’ draft horses will tire out and the oxen will just keep a-going.”

“How much could they pull?”

“Oh,” he said, pausing to wipe his mouth one last time, “you can take one of the tractors with a two bottom plough and break about ten or twelve acres in a day, you know. Now if you hitched a good big team of fresh horses to the draw bar of the tractor, the team could pull the tractor backwards for several rod before they’d give out. That same team and another ‘n’ to spell them off could plough, oh maybe four acres in a day with a walking plough. They wouldn’t be able to keep going with a two bottom, if you hitched them up. But now a team of oxen, I don’t think could pull a two bottom tractor backwards, but they’d be able to pull a two bottom plough all right. In fact, they’d be able to take it and plough maybe half to three quarters of an acre in a day with it. Course, nobody ever pulled a two bottom plough with oxen, at least not in this neck of the woods. Now that’s what that yoke downstairs was used for.” He paused, fiddling with his bib overall pocket, fishing for his twist of tobacco.

Grandma began clearing the table. “What are your folks a-doing this morning, Tom?” she said.

“Dad’s a-pruning apple trees. I don’t know what Mom’s a-doing.”

“You have any more ewes to lamb?”

“One. Joanie. She really looks like a butterball. She always does though, and then has just one lamb.”

Grandpa broke off a piece of his twist and loaded his cheek with it. He pushed back his chair a bit. “Now that’s what that yoke downstairs was used for,” he said. “Grand-dad Balch, he’d ‘ave been your great-great grandpa. Bill Boyd Balch was just a little bit of a fellow. I don’t think he was much over five foot. He had a real deep voice and he had a long white beard which went down below his belt buckle. And he had a brown stain that went the length of it, down from his mouth. He wore a wide heavy belt and his boots went ‘way up above his knees.

“Now you never did get to see the old big bluestem prairie grass which grew all over. Any place theah wasn’t woods it grew. It was so tall that if you stood up in a buggy, you could scarcely see over it. The buffalo had paths tramped down all through it. And when the English first came, everyone would turn his cows out to graze in it. They’d put bells on each of them for to be able to locate them when they’d bring them in of an evening. Everyone had to build his buildings before he could manage to put up fences, so everyone branded his stock with ear notches and turned his animals out into the grass, like a great common.Working on the Land

“Well that’s what that yoke downstairs was used for. The big bluestem sod was heavy and tough, and an ordinary team of horses and a walking plough couldn’t get through it. Grandpa Balch had a great big old prairie plough. It had one bottom with a share which probably didn’t cut more than a foot wide, and it had a big wooden moldboard. It had a beam on it, oh I’d reckon it was twenty-four foot long at least. The last I saw it , it was up again the fence next to the old scales, over on Dad’s.”

“What ever happened to it?”

“Theah was a racket to it?”

“What ever happened to the plough?”

Oh! I wouldn’t know. Your uncle Hen farmed there for pret’ near thirty years. It was just old junk at the time, I reckon.

“Well Grandpa Balch would use it , a-going around a-breaking the heavy bluestem sod for people. He went all over. He ploughed all around here, and between here and Palestine, and he broke ground all around, up north o’ town. He’d plough for someone and hear about somebody else a-needing ploughing done, then he’d go plough for them, just a-hopping around that a-way.”

“Did you ever see him do it?”

“Once or twice when I was real little. He’d have three yolk of oxen hitched to the plough. he didn’t have any lines. He’d just say gee or haw and crack his whip in the air to the opposite side of the heads of the lead team of where he wanted them to go. It was the longest dag-goned whip ye ever saw. It would reach from the back of the plough clean to the lead team. He’d get to the end and stop, and they’d put their heads down to graze, and he’d take the butt of his whip and shove each yoke forward to let the air get to just ahead of their withers whilst they rested. Then he’d give each one of them a real quick pet or a scratch, and then he’d crack his whip to turn them and go on. he’d have another three yolk a-resting whilst he had the three on the plough, and every couple of hours he’d change them and spell off the ones which had been a-working. He’d do, oh maybe half an acre to an acre a day that a-way.

“Now this don’t sound right to people these days, but theah used to be these little rattlesnakes, about a foot or eighteen inches long, which used to be thick in places in that tall grass. I’ve heard time and again that when everyone had first come here, they didn’t think anything at all about killing a half o’ dozen or so of the little cu’ses in the morning, a-hoeing in the garden. Anyway, Grandpa would have to watch right close, ’cause every now and then whilst he was a-ploughing, one of them would grab onto the hide of an ox and just hang there, a-working its mouth. The old ox’d get to kicking and he’d take the butt of his whip and knock it off right now, or it would make a pretty mean sore. That’s also why I’d allow that he always wore them heavy leather boots up over his knees.

“Now his great-grandad, James Balch, would tell about when they had the first horse collars. Up to his time, all the ploughing was done with oxen…”


“And I know two fellows, slow as a couple of them,” said Grandma.

“I guess I’d better get to clearing sticks out of the yard,” I said.

“I reckon you’ll see my crocuses and daffodils, but you mind my lilies a-coming up when you go to cutting.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said. And I went out to see if I could start the lawn mower.

Tom Phipps

Horace’s Westley Richards

Westley  Richards Double Barrel Shotgun

One November morning as it was growing light, I could hear Horace Werden’s voice downstairs. “I’m a-trying to break in forty acres of corn I have, and I’m just to damned old and stiff any more to enjoy getting on and off the tractor every two shakes. I could sure use a boy to drive whilst I pick up.” He looked up at me coming down the steps. “Harry with your permission,” he said, “I could sure use the services of a good hired man.”

At last I was going to have a good look at his place. He unwired the passenger door of his car, moved a gunny sack of bean seed, scooted a bucket of rusty nails more to the center of the seat and bid me get in. I tucked a sagging strip of ripped headliner overhead so I could see, and we were off.


Horace had built a huge modern two storey house about a hundred yards back onto his place from his log cabin a couple of years earlier. It never looked from the road as though it belonged there, neatly finished, white and trim, surrounded by sprawling junk and horse weeds. Consequently I felt oddly relieved to find it all smeared with mud by the hogs, as we drove up beside it.

“You get on the tractor, I’ll be out directly,” he said, nodding at his completely rusted machine hitched to a wagon.


I started to unwire my door, but decided to climb over the junk and go out on his side. I eagerly mounted the tractor and fiddled with the controls. I had never driven a John Deere before. From my perch I could see all kinds of enticing curiosities, especially the steam images2engine, ‘way back next to the woods. “Horace?” I said as he came back outside, “Dad said that you used to have an old Fordson.”

“Yeap. It’s on the other side of that shed, yonder. Maybe you’d like to look at it after we’re done,” he said, checking the controls before me. He walked around the front of the tractor, opening a petcock on each side of the engine. He stepped up to the flywheel and gave it a counter-clockwise heave.


“Fuff,” said the old contraption.

He gave it another throw.

“Fuff. Fuff. Fuff. Fuff…” it replied.

He scurried ’round, closing off the cocks, giving the tractor a change of voice: “Fuff. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang…!” He stood on the drawbar behind me, explaining the controls. I pushed forward on the hand clutch and we were off, forthrightly, wagon clattering after.


Breaking in a field of corn meant shucking the outside two rows by hand, all around the field, so that a pull-type corn picker could enter the field without mashing down un-harvested corn. He already had most of the corn shucked and piled, so all I had to do was drive past each pile and wait whilst he threw the ears into the wagon. I offered to jump off and help pick up each time, but he insisted that I stay on the seat. I appreciated the gesture, but without the exercise, I began to think I would freeze to death.


On the last side of the field, Horace got a good look at me and stepped up to the tractor, killing the engine. “I should ‘a’ been a-watching you more closely. You’re about froze, ain’t ye? You run around the tractor and wagon and stir your blood, whilst I go off here and wet.”

I gratefully clambered down to do as he bid.

“All right, let’s get to the house,” he said. “You’re too damned cold to walk. Here! Let’s trot!”

It was a shock, stepping inside his house, for there was no floor between the first and second storeys, and there was a mountain of the previous year’s corn, starting at the Corn-Pile_74238-480x320middle of the house, sloping clean to the roof at the far end. The rest of the house’s enormous single room was a veritable sea of junk, piled about chest deep, stringing up onto the foot of the big pile of corn. In the midst of a cleared space, he drew a kerosene can up to the table. “Here,” he said, rattling coal out of a hod into the top of his range. “Have ‘ee a seat whilst I scratch things together.”

I sat at the table, feigning nonchalance, looking at the flotsam which buried the far end of it. He sat in a swiveling office chair, upholstered with frayed paper feed sacks and masking tape, wheeling back and forth on its casters. “Got everything ye need, right here. Here,” he said, banging a filthy gallon glass jar of cloudy tea before me. “Have ‘ee some tea.” He handed me a plastic measuring cup from a sack of calf milk replacer. Then seeing my hesitation, said: “Oh here. You’re cold. let me heat that stuff.” He poured some into an iron sauce pan.

As I sat there wondering what was next, he caught me eyeing three or four old soot blackened guns, leaning against the wall by the door. “This here one’s my favorite,” he said, handing me the longest one with exposed hammers.

“I’ll be darned. It’s got engraving on it.”Westley  Richards Double Barrel Shotgun

“It’s an old Westley Richards twelve gauge. It takes the old short ca’tridge. Hard as the very dickens to get any more.”

“How old is it?” I said, handing it back.

“Oh, sixty-five or seventy years, anyway. Now you don’t tell no one, but I reckon ye won’t, that gun’s worth two cars, but I ain’t sold it because I can hit with it right smart. You know, a shotgun’s got to fit you right to hit with, and that one’s the only one I’ve got that does.”

He slid a greasy skillet over the fire box. “Got everything ye might need right here,” he said, slicing up a huge hunk of Bologna sausage. Each time he turned to flop some slices into Rat_agoutithe skillet, a rat would peer out from the junk, darting back in as he turned back to the table. The room began to smell of scorched rancid fat. He set out some grocery store white bread as he turned the meat with his pocket knife. Whilst he was busy, the rat grabbed a piece of bread the size of one’s thumb and returned to his hiding place, disregarding me altogether.


“Here ye be,” he said, handing me a sandwich.

I took tiny bites, swallowing them with my tea.

“Want another ‘n’? Got plenty. Don’t be bashful.”


I was relieved to be back in the field. This time, I managed to stay warm. He had not shucked the last through beforehand, and there was enough space between the fence andcorn-on-the-stalk-small__4241987678 the corn to drive the tractor. He shucked two rows at once, going just a bit slower than the tractor could crawl, so I’d stop here and there and shuck ahead as he caught up.

“All right Tom, let’s leave the wagon by the house. I’m a-going to run in and count my money and one thing and another, and whilst I’m a-doing that, you hike ‘er over to the steam engine and the old Fordson and look ‘ee all ye want. I’ll be out directly.”

I was standing by the Fordson, drinking in it’s primitive elegance when he found me. “How long has it been a-sitting here?” I said.

“I think since just before you was a baby.”

“Ever think about selling it for iron?” I said, glancing at the money in his hand.

“Mercy no!” he said. “That’s a good old tractor. I could have ‘er running in half a day.” He gave a shove at the drawbar with his boot. “Well half a month, maybe. But ye know what I mean, once a fellow lets go of something it’s gone for good.”


Years later, Horace had a sale. I had heard that he had been in and out of the hospital with uremic poisoning. I rode over on my bicycle in spite of the cold wind out of the northwest.


The crowd swooped in, settling in huddles about the hay wagons, picking at his things. The auctioneer rasped and crackled over his electric horn. They were bidding on the old Westley Richards. They were unaware of its worth, trying to sell it in one lot with some junk, but I couldn’t make myself bid on it. “I don’t see anything I want,” I said.


I found Horace standing off by himself , stooped, looking at the trees. He was wearing a smartly tailored tweed suit and overcoat and gumboots wrapped with tape and twine. His eyes watered from the raw wind, his face red and swollen with uremia. “Well, if it ain’t ol’ Jesus Christ hisse’f!” he said with a snort and a grin as he eyed my beard and shoulder length hair. He grabbed my hand with a shaky eagerness that put a lump in my throat. “Tom, it’s been many a sore long winter.”


Tom Phipps

Re: Mom


 I enjoyed your “”.  The lead photo brought back some memories.  I remember when the picture was taken.  I think the tractor was sitting about where Joyce’s and my house trailer sat.  The picture was taken to feature farm women who were helping in the war effort.  I don’t think the picture was taken the year that we moved to the farm [which you grew up on] (1943), so it likely was taken in 1944 or before the war ended in 1945.  I thought it was dumb that they had Joan and me climb on the tractor with Mom.  I guess that Mom was supposed to be taking care of her kids and farming at the same time.  Dumber yet was that they had me wear my “soldier” outfit.  The neatest part of the outfit was the hat, which they made me remove to better show my face.  I think the left part of the field in the background became the orchard and the little building in the background was the original part of the first hen house. 

You gave a very interesting description of Mom and the Sweet Williams.  I also brought Sweet Williams to Mom.  I don’t recall tying it to Mother’s Day; I simply did it when the Sweet Williams were in flower.  It seems to me that I started it when, one year, she didn’t have a chance to get over to the section of the woods that had a big patch of Sweet Williams, so I brought a bunch to her.  I remember doing this on more than one year, but I really didn’t make it into an annual affair.

I thought it was neat when I learned that you were bringing a bunch of Sweet Williams to Mom as an annual event.  Even so, I wondered if you might have started your annual event as a result of sentimental ol’ Mom having mentioned that I had, on occasion, brought her Sweet Williams when they were in flower.



[Dr. Richard L. Phipps]