photo by Chrissy Alspaugh
~by Chrissy Alspaugh
Dean Manuel is being very literal when he describes his employees as workhorses.
His trio of Percheron draft horses are his muscle—whether the day’s work entails hauling thousands-of-pounds logs out of clients’ woods to his portable sawmill, or just pulling a sickle bar mower to cut grass on the family farm.
“It does take a bit longer working with horses than tractors, but it’s just a more enjoyable, peaceful way of working,” Manuel said. “And they absolutely love to be in the harness. They get pretty antsy just grazing out in the field. Every morning, they’re ready to go pull or plow or whatever the day’s chore is.”
For generations, his family’s chores have been aided by equines. He readily shares stories of his ancestors’ lives in Brown County since the Civil War, using horses and mules for farming, logging, and working in coal mines. The work was significantly harder back then. Manuel recently received an ancestor’s tally book from the late 1800s, detailing the number of railroad ties he hand-sawed and drove by horse and wagon to Brownstown to sell to the railroad.
photo by Chris Gustin
Manuel’s story comes full-circle with his wife, April, now running a large sawmill in Norman, Indiana that cuts a great deal of railroad ties. And several of their five adult children are involved with their horsepower-driven farm, running the portable sawmill, working at April’s mill, or helping clients turn freshly-cut lumber into heirloom furniture.
Today, tractors stand to make much of Manuel’s work nearly effortless. But that efficiency comes with a price. Many property owners who have had larger-than-life logging equipment raze their forests are left with land that is devastated for decades.
In contrast, Manuel’s horses nimbly weave logs around surrounding saplings, and the only evidence the team leaves of being in a woods are some footprints, slight marks where they dragged logs, and, inevitably, some manure.
“We definitely fit a niche with people who don’t necessarily want the fastest crew but the best care of their land,” Manuel said.
Lee Rodgers, a part-time farmer in Johnson County, said it’s refreshing to work with someone like Manuel, who practices a way of living and working that largely has been discarded in today’s fast-paced world. Rodgers’ family first met Manuel and his horses at Brown County State Park, where the team transports campers to and from Horseman’s Camp Christian Church on Sunday mornings. Before they knew it, Rodgers was helping Manuel launch a new wood-boiler stove, and Manuel was helping Rodgers to brainstorm about solar power generation and cut lumber for four new hay wagons.
“He’s just a really unique, neat guy,” Rodgers said. “Sometimes it seems like the little guy helping the little guy makes the whole world go around.”
When Manuel looks at the world, he sees a great deal of beauty worth savoring: helping a family turn a beloved tree into the table where they will gather, or their property’s timber into beams that will build a barn.
In fact, turning logs into ready-to-build kits for barns and garden tool sheds is some of Manuel’s favorite work. He sees that playing a big role in his future. The 51-year-old said he knows the day will come when his body won’t be able to withstand rigging giant logs through the woods on a daily basis. “Horses don’t always respond correctly, and you have to be alert so you don’t get stepped on or rolled over. You just have to work smart and watch everything.
I’m sure there will be a day when I won’t want to be out there every day,” he said.
But for now, Manuel still enjoys a great respect and appreciation for the people and animals who make it possible for him to be part of preserving Brown County’s timber.
“Thankfully, we have a lot of people who are very concerned about our environment and who share our deep respect for our wonderful natural resources,” he said. “I just can’t describe how rewarding it is to get to work together with a team of animals who make what we do possible.”
Manuel can be contacted for work at (812) 345-1642.