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.
“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.