November on the Farm

by Henry Swain

As near as sixty years ago, Indiana was an agrarian state consisting mostly of small farms of eighty to one hundred acres. Small town communities grew to serve these farms, spaced (as they were) eight to ten miles apart, to accommodate the pace of horse-drawn vehicles.

Crops were determined by the farming practices of the farmer. During the Great Depression, most farmers turned to subsistence farming out of necessity. They usually had horses, some cows for milk, some hogs for butchering and sale. They had fields planted for hay, oats or wheat, and of course corn. These crops supplied feed for the above mentioned livestock.

Farmers seemed to choose autumn as their favorite season. It was the time when most of the harvest was completed. November was the month of pause and rest before the daily winter barnyard chores performed by lantern light. It was the month when time was spent in the woodlot cutting firewood to be stacked to season for the next winter, and for bringing in the previous year’s seasoned wood to stack by the kitchen door.

I was usually called to help our neighbor shuck corn in November. The team and wagon would “hiccup” down the cornrows as the shuckers bared the corn to toss ears into the low sided farm wagon. One side of the wagon had a higher sideboard so that the shucker would not over-throw the ears off the other side.

The hardware stores always had a supply of two-thumbed canvas gloves designed for shucking. Pulling the shucks off the ears wore out the thumbs way before the fingers developed holes. When one thumb wore through, we would turn the glove over and “presto” a new thumb was ready for the task.

As we moved down the corn rows, a well-trained team would move forward a few paces at a voice command, then stop, allowing the shuckers to glean the corn at hand before moving on. Shucking was a time for conversation. Bantering and tall tale telling was part of the ritual.

When the wagon was filled it would be driven to the corn crib for off loading. Most farms had wooden slatted cribs with spaces of an inch between the boards for air circulation to dry the corn and prevent mold. Our crib was a drive-through with cribs on either side. A high window on the inside of the drive-through allowed corn to be shoveled into the crib for storage.

A few prosperous farmers were converting to more mechanization. With tractors and conveyors the corn rode up a moving belt and dropped into the crib from the top. Silo-type steel cribs were coming into fashion that would replace the wooden cribs. The sides of the cylinder were perforated with punched out slots for ventilation. A conical steel roof with a trapdoor section allowed the conveyor to dump the corn in from the top eliminating laborious scoop-shoveling work of off-loading the corn into the crib.

Thanksgiving was one of the favorite holidays for farmers. The harvest was in and any profit for the year was tallied. Even if the income was disappointing, and it often was those lean years, they usually had enough put by to take them to the next planting season.

One of the winter barnyard chores was shelling corn for the chickens. A corn sheller was a tall narrow device with a large crank handle. Drop an ear into the slot in the top and turn the handle, that was all there was to it, except for the labor. Shelled corn would come out one orifice, and the cob spat out the other. The suggestion that the cobs were used in the outhouse is nothing but an urban legend. The Sears-Roebuck catalogue, old edition, was often placed in the outhouse.

Some housewives kept an open jar of kerosene in the kitchen and used cobs for starting the cook stove in the morning. She would dip two or three cobs into the kerosene, then deposit them in the firebox. A match would have the fire going briskly almost immediately.

Progress since those early farming days has brought much more convenience and efficiency to farming. The farm wife no longer endures cooking on a wood stove in the summer heat. An air-conditioned kitchen with an electric or gas range is quite a contrast.

The fifteen hundred acre farmer with his air-conditioned tractor is more productive than the fifteen farmers with hundred acre farms he replaced,

Progress always seems to carry losses. Today’s farmer may chat with his neighbor at the tavern on occasion. Not much time for tall tales or conversation that came naturally while shucking corn with neighbors in the past. Those delightful moments of neighborly interchange have become the victim of progress. I would not want to go back to the old days of farming, but I wonder what kind of memories today’s farmers are storing that they will look back on with nostalgia in their retirement years? What will they think they might have lost something in the inevitable march of progress?