Happy New Year!

New Year’s Eve at the Farm

Growing up on the farm, we had a few traditions—mostly imported, that we upheld. New Years was a family holiday. Kith ‘n kin visited on Thanksgiving and Christmas. New Years, however, was just Mom, Dad, me and later Grandma.

The farm was located in the middle of coal country in southern Illinois. The population was mostly Scots/Irish/English who brought mining skills learned in the coal mines of England and Wales. During the Union/Mine Owner wars of the early 20th century, many East Europeans were brought in as strike breakers. After the strikes were resolved, the East Europeans—Poles, Hungarians and various Russians, became good union members and added their traditions to those of their predecessors. However, their new traditions were mostly religious holidays than of New Years.

http://www.viewsofthepast.com/photos/hunt/h-camp-017.jpgOne tradition that became almost universal was the tradition of the gift of coal. The tradition came from Wales, northern England and Scotland. The tradition was that the home would have good luck if the first person to cross the threshold in the new year was a dark haired Englishman, Welshman, Scot, Irish (add other nationality here) wishing everyone within Happy New Year and bringing a gift of a bucket of coal to warm the hearth. My Dad fit that job description and since I was the next oldest (only) male in the house, I assisted with the tradition.

Come New Years Eve around 11PM, earlier in some locales, the men of the house would leave with a bucket of coal, their shotgun, and, for those who imbibed, a bottle or mason jar of holiday cheer. In town, they would usually head for the closest bar or other gathering place and wait for the mine whistle to blow the arrival of midnight.

At the farm, we had three close neighbors; John Davis, our neighbor just across the road from the farm, Sy Malone, a friend of Dad’s who had a small farm a quarter-mile to our west, and Ken Shoemaker who lived a couple of hundred yards to the east. All were coal miners or had been. Ken Shoemaker was also a bus driver for the High School. John Davis’ place was the most central of us and he had a heated barn for his heifers. That was our gathering place.

Ken and Sy usually arrived early bringing some ‘shine that Sy made in the woods in back of his house. John would join next. By the time Dad and I arrived, they were sitting around a kerosene heater and usually well lubricated. The men talked and drank. Dad sipped tea from a thermos he had brought. I listened. I heard quite a bit of gossip, bragging and stories while waiting in that barn.

Remembering those times, I’m amazed that with all the drinking that occurred, there was never a firearm accident. I think folks were more used to guns and how to handle them. Many were WW2 veterans such as Ken and Sy Malone. John Davis supplemented his mine income by trapping pelts and as an occasional commercial meat hunter. Dad was a long-time hunter as well. They were experienced folks who acquired gun-handling habits that just weren’t broken even when one has consumed large amounts of alcohol.

In coal country, the time standard was the mine whistle. The whistle blew at shift change each day, at noon, and on New Years Eve, at midnight. The closest mine to the farm was about five miles away. That mine, Orient #2, was on the north edge of West Frankfort. Dad, John and Sy worked there. Ken worked occasionally at Orient #3.

When midnight neared, everyone loaded their shotguns—usually with #6 or #7 1/2 shot, and went outside to listen for the whistle. At the stroke of midnight, delayed only by distance, we heard the mine whistles; Orient #2 to the south, followed by Old Ben #9 to the south-east. Another whistle arrived from the west, followed slightly late by Orient #3 from the north. The men raised their shotguns and in turn fired three times into the air. Nine shots in all.

As the sound of their shots faded away, I could hear the patter of falling shot and the echoes of other shotguns rolling in from surrounding points. In the far distance, I could hear the Sheriff let loose with his Thompson sub-machine gun…a weapon confiscated from Charlie Birger decades before. Charlie Birger was tried for murder and hanged—the last public hanging in Illinois.

As the gunfire died away, each man picked up his bucket of coal, his shotgun and began the trek home to be the first dark-headed man to cross the home’s threshold. In lieu of hair, John Davis wore a dark hat.

It was a short walk for Dad and me, just across the road and up the drive. Dad walked up to our front door and knocked. Mom would answer and Dad would exclaim, “Happy New Year!” and we’d go inside to the warmth. Mom would have coffee or more tea for Dad, a glass of milk for me and either cake, sweet rolls or home-made doughnuts depending on what she and Grandma had made that day.

New Years was a family celebration, but New Years Eve was one for males. A celebration in the cold or in a warm barn. A gathering of men, boys, talk, drink and memories. The communal celebration of the coming year.

A Family Tradition

Times change…and then sometimes they don’t.  I grew up in the Fifties in rural Southern Illinois. Like most of the country, we had our traditions of the Holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years were THE big events of the years for families. Easter was another one but it was more oriented towards faith and many families observed Easter at church and at home.

The big three holidays usually involved traveling for many. My sister and brother-in-law visited us at the Farm most of the time. My brother-in-law was an outdoorsman, a term not often heard anymore.

In the summer, he liked to fish. He and my sister built a home on the shore of a twenty-acre lake. In the winter, he liked to hunt. Ducks and geese had their season. Squirrels and rabbits had theirs.  In the fifties, there was no deer season. They were rare after being almost hunted out during the Twenties before hunting became regulated.

I’ve written about our Thanksgiving hunting tradition in another post. However, there were other hunting traditions, too, during the Fall. The most common was rabbit hunting.

While November and December were Duck and Goose seasons; August and September was Squirrel season, October was reserved for Rabbit Season and was my favorite. When I was growing up I hunted, and trapped, rabbits in a variety of ways. A neighbor kid and I once hunted them with baseball bats in an overgrown gully after a fresh snow. We had also hunted with bows and arrows. But we hunted most often with firearms.

I killed more rabbits with a .22 rifle, catching them sitting along a fence line. But hunting with dogs was the best.

Dad raised a variety of hunting dogs. His favorites were Beagles. In October, my brother-in-law Dick Harriss would arrive early on Saturday and Dad  and I would load up a half dozen dogs into his pick-up and we’d head off to the fields.

On this occasion, we went to an area called Beaver Dam, a section of the Big Muddy River that ran through Franklin County, IL. It was a small river than ran through the farm of one of my mother’s cousins, Roy Miller. Roy wasn’t much of a hunter but he did like to eat rabbits. We could use his land for hunting as long as we gave Roy a ‘tithe’ of any rabbits we killed.

Unlike hunting for Quail or Pheasant with dogs, hunting for rabbits with dogs was different. In the former case, dogs were used to find and flush birds. You could only kill game birds while in flight. Rabbits, on the other hand, didn’t fly. Dogs would range ahead of us searching for sitting rabbits. When one was found, it ran with the dogs not far behind.

That day, we had been walking along a fence line towards the river. Dad was on one side of the fence. Dick and I was on the other side. We were silent. The only sound was the crunch of ice ribbons forced out of the ground by the sub-freezing overnight temperatures as we walked with a whisper of wind through the saplings growing along the fence.

Roy Miller hadn’t cleared his fence line in some time. It was overgrown with saplings and briar patches. We were half-way to the river when the dogs flushed a rabbit that took off down the fence line with the dogs running right behind it. The race was on.

Rabbits don’t have much endurance. They are sprinters. They will run a bit and then hunker down hoping whatever is chasing them will pass them by. Beagles hunt by scent and by sight. When beagles lose sight of their prey, they start sniffing. Hunting rabbits with dogs is a series of sprints and pauses.

If the rabbit runs away, how can a hunter shoot one you may ask. It’s simple. Rabbits don’t run in straight lines or directly away. They run in circles. All a hunter needs to do is to listen to the dogs. When the rabbit circles, the sound of the dogs will let you know to keep and eye for a streak of brown running through the brush or a field. The trick is to shoot the rabbit, not the dog who is following close behind. Some hunters never learn that little skill.

On some occasions, the rabbit will circle, return and never be seen. In fact that is what happens in most of the cases. On that morning, I was on the outside, away from the fence line. Dick was on the inside close to the fence, Dad was on the other side of the fence.

We heard the dogs turn on the circle. I was carrying a Stevens, break-open, single shot, 12ga shotgun. I usually carried it open, empty until I heard the dogs approach. Dad carried his Remington Model 11 and Dick carried his 16ga bolt-action shotgun. When the dogs began to circle, I slipped a #4 shotshell into the chamber and closed the action.

At first it seemed the rabbit would come on Dad’s side of the fence. But when the dogs got closer, they switched to our side. Because I was on the outside from the fence, my shooting section was to my right. Dick, closer to the fence, could only shoot if the rabbit appeared to our front. Most often a rabbit would follow cover, in this case the fence. I expected Dick would get the shot.

We continued walking down the fence line with a slightly slower pace. The dogs came closer and I cocked my shotgun. We took a couple more steps and I spotted a streak of brown through the high grass to my right. I brought my shotgun to my shoulder, swung on the target, gave it a bit of lead and fired.

I thought I had missed. The dogs stopped and began to mill about as if they had lost the scent.

http://www.gameandfishmag.com/files/2010/09/ra_0107_06a.jpgI walked over to where I had last seen the rabbit.  The field was a pasture with dead, brown grass rising about eighteen inches over the ground. It was threaded with small game trails and tunnels under the cover of fallen grass stems throughout the field. I walked about fifty yards through the grass when I found the rabbit. There were a couple of blood specks on its fur but it appeared to be otherwise undamaged. I raised my hand indicating that I’d found the rabbit and then slipped it into the pouch on the rear of my hunting jacket.

It felt good swinging in the pouch as I walked back towards the fence. In a few moments the dogs found another rabbit and another hunt was on.

We finished the day with a half dozen rabbits. I got another one late in the day. Dad and Dick split the rest. We gave one rabbit to Roy for his ‘tithe.’ We were all pleased with the results of the hunt.

I remember this day for another reason. It was the day I broke the stock of my shotgun. We were loading up to go home. Dad and Dick slipped their guns into gun cases. I didn’t have one. We were loading the dogs into Dad’s pickup when my shotgun fell to the concrete of Roy Miller’s driveway. It landed vertically on the butt of the stock and the stock cracked at the grip behind the trigger. Its weakest point.

It was an old shotgun, older than me or Dick. It was probably made around the time of WW1 and the woodwork had a bit of hidden rot. It was a cumbersome gun to use. I had to cock it to fire and the hammer spring was so strong that I had to brace the stock on my thigh and use both thumbs to cock the hammer. One time my thumbs slipped and it went off, braced on my thigh and for a moment I thought I’d broken my leg. I hadn’t but I did get a bruise that took a couple of weeks to heal.

Rather than take my shotgun to a gunsmith for repairs, Dad traded it for a 12ga, single-shot Winchester. The Winchester was of a different design and it had a safety and cocked when the action was closed. It didn’t have an exposed hammer like the Steven had.

It was the last shotgun I owned until a few years ago when I found a Remington Model 11 shotgun just like Dad’s at a gun show. It had been re-blued and the stock and forearm had only a few dings and scratches. All  of Dad’s (and my Winchester shotgun) firearms were stolen while I was away at college. I always envied Dad’s Remington. Now I have one just like his.

We continued to hunt rabbits every weekend in October for several years until I left for college. I’ve not hunted rabbits since. Today, people in Kansas and Missouri prefer to hunt deer and turkeys. My hunting choice was and still is rabbits.

You can go home again…but…

Mrs. Crucis and I decided to make some detours on our way to and from Nashville last week. The two of us are originally from Illinois. I was raised on a farm between Benton and West Frankfort, IL. She was raised in the small town of Waterloo, IL. We met when we attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL.

It had been a long time since I had gone back to Benton and the Farm, over thirty years when my sister and I sold the Farm to an elementary school friend. At the time, he said he intended to tear down the old house and build a new one next to it.

Thirty years. It’s hard to imagine the changes that takes place in that length of time. I expected change. I couldn’t imagine how it would appear.

We left Cass County at 4:30 in the morning in light rain. That rain stopped by the time we reached Columbia. Our route was simple, I-70 to Illinois, I-64 to I-57 at Mt Vernon, then south on I-57 to Franklin County. Benton is the Franklin County seat.

We left I-57 north of town to take Route 37 into Benton. Five miles north of town is the entrance of Benton Lake, the city reservoir and Benton Park. The north entrance lead to a causeway across the lake. I once swam across the lake when I was in high school.

I never saw the entrance. The last time I was on that highway, I could see the lake to the east. In thirty years, trees have grown tall. I continued to look for other landmarks. One of my high school classmates lived at the US Forestry headquarters north of town. At one time there had been a fire tower at the site. I did see a small Forestry sign when we passed the site but the house where my classmate lived was gone as was the fire tower. I really didn’t expect the fire tower to remain. They were being phased out before I left for college. I did expect to see the headquarters and the house. It was built by the CCC during the 1930s and was a local landmark.

Still the terrain had changed. New houses had been built along that state highway where pastures once lay. I remembered some of the older houses that remained but most of others had been built during my thirty year absence.

Benton has four main streets. They are named, unimaginably, North, South, East and West Mains. In the center of town is the county courthouse. Benton has changed little from the northern side of town. The Franklin County Hospital remains. The much smaller Benton Community Hospital where I was born has not. I knew approximately where it should be but saw no trace of it.

We drove around the square. The Barton and Collins furniture store was empty. The Williams Hardware store was gone too. Mrs. Williams was my first through third grade teacher. Her husband ran the hardware store. They were family friends.

On around the square we drove. The old Five ‘n Dime was now a law office, Hart and Hart. Judge Hart was my father’s lawyer and helped me register his will. In the south-east corner where the Capitol Theater once ruled was a fountain and small park. Further around the square stood the Wood building. At one time it was the tallest building in the county. It may still be. Some things still remain. The adjacent Benton Cafe, however didn’t. It is now a tattoo parlor.

We left town via South Main. The old American Legion Post is now a funeral home. The legion post had moved further south and further from the street.

South we continued, south past the Odd Fellow cemetery where my parents are buried. I thought briefly of stopping but didn’t. They are not there.

Route 37 continued south until we reached the turnoff to the Farm. We used to call the road Rabbit Ridge. The road sign now says it’s Forrest Church Road. Forrest Church is a small Missionary Baptist Church a few hundred yards from the Farm. Mom, Dad and I often walked that distance to church in the Spring and Fall when the weather permitted.

At this point I began to experience…a dissonance. It’s hard to explain the sensation. I could see the country as it appeared. But superimposed on that vision was another from my memory. Instead of the asphalt road, I saw the old gravel road I had traveled so many times. New houses had been built where once Holstein dairy cows had grazed. Hill City School where I attended grade school had disappeared among a stand of trees. The school district had dissolved while I was in college merging into the new Benton Unified School district.

Hill City School, in contrast to other school districts of the time, was rich. Ten acres had been deeded to the school early in the 20th Century, and, unlike most of the land in Franklin County, the school owned the mineral rights beneath its property—coal, gas, and oil rights. There were two producing oil wells on school owned property and the school received more revenue from the oil, coal and gas royalties than could be spent.

In the eight years I attended Hill City School, it expanded three times. In that expansion the school built a new cafeteria, a new gym, bleachers and stage. The coal furnace was replaced with an oil fired one—a radical upgrade in a county where most of the heating came from coal. A final upgrade was a ball diamond on a three acre field next to the school plus new play ground equipment. My father was a school board member and later the board president. He felt it was his duty to spend the schools income to make it one of the best schools in the county. If he didn’t succeed, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

When the Benton Superintendent of Schools, eying covetously the Hill City revenues, decided to absorb Hill City School into  Benton’s Unified District they failed to examine the deed closely. It contained a provision where the mineral rights reverted to the heirs of the original property owners if the Hill City School District was ever dissolved. Benton annexed the Hill City district but they didn’t get the money! After several failed lawsuits, they finally gave up.

We continued west. Several of the older homes were gone. Forrest Church, however, remained almost untouched in appearance. One exception was the outhouses that once stood behind the church. They were gone.

When it was our family church, the church building had no running water. No water for the kitchen, no running water for toilets. Whenever we had a church dinner, Dad brought several 10 gallon glass water bottles that he filled from our cistern.

The Farm was only a hundred yards away now. My dissonance continued. The old brick Doty house next to the church was gone. A newer home had been built further back from the road. Closer to home, Kenny Shoemaker‘s place was gone, too. Another stood to the right of his old homesite.

The Farm sat across from the road from Kenny’s old place. The pond remained as I remembered. The barn was gone. It had collapsed not long after we sold the farm. But when I arrived at the site of the Farm, I didn’t recognize it for a moment.

The house still stood. IT WAS SMALL! It was now the Hill City Water District office and was closed. If it had been open I don’t know if I’d have had the courage to stop and go inside.

Old_Watson_House-1_20150409It appeared to be scarcely larger than an old army pyramid tent. The maple trees in front and to each side of the house were gone. The sunken area on the east side of the house had been filled in. Superimposed on this ‘new’ building I could still see our TV antenna perched at the peak of the house. It had been held upright by guy-wires anchored at each corner of the roof. When I was in high school, I ran a horizontal loop SWL antenna around those guy wires and another long-wire antenna from the house to the old maple tree next to the barn. The maple on the west side of the house and the cistern under it had vanished, too.

The garage was gone and where the orchard once stood was a grove of tall, forty foot tall or more, trees. The shorter apple and pears trees had somehow been replaced with hardwood trees with a house slightly hidden among them.

The vision of this new landscape, superimposed with the old from memory was shocking. The Farm had disappeared. All the memories of growing up, of our neighbors, of the events that had occurred, were fading away as if they had never happened.  My memory of them remains the only record.

We drove slowly past the farm. John Davis’ home remained, missing only a few trees. Another house now sat further down the road in his old cornfield. Sy Malone’s house down the road remained as well. We pulled into his driveway to turnaround. Behind the house, under an open carport where once Sy conducted his welding business, lay two deer in the shade. I thought for a moment they were decoys until one flicked an ear. They watched us calmly and never moved while we backed out to turn back towards the Farm.

The old adage says you can never go home again. In a sense that’s true. The home I once knew is gone, never to return. My memory remains fresh, however, and as long as it does, the Farm exists as it once was.

Once they celebrated New Years…differently

This is a repost from last year but it has some folks calling for a repeat.

New Year’s Eve at the Farm

Growing up on the farm, we had a few traditions—mostly imported, that we upheld. New Years was a family holiday. Kith ‘n kin visited on Thanksgiving and Christmas. New Years, however, was just Mom, Dad, me and later Grandma.

The farm was located in the middle of coal country in southern Illinois. The population was mostly Scots/Irish/English who brought mining skills learned in the coal mines of England and Wales. During the Union/Mine Owner wars of the early 20th century, many East Europeans were brought in as strike breakers. After the strikes were resolved, the East Europeans—Poles, Hungarians and various Russians, became good union members and added their traditions to those of their predecessors. However, their new traditions were mostly religious holidays than of New Years.

http://www.viewsofthepast.com/photos/hunt/h-camp-017.jpgOne tradition that became almost universal was the tradition of the gift of coal. The tradition came from Wales, northern England and Scotland. The tradition was that the home would have good luck if the first person to cross the threshold in the new year was a dark haired Englishman, Welshman, Scot, Irish (add other nationality here) wishing everyone within Happy New Year and bringing a gift of a bucket of coal to warm the hearth. My Dad fit that job description and since I was the next oldest (only) male in the house, I assisted with the tradition.

Come New Years Eve around 11PM, earlier in some locales, the men of the house would leave with a bucket of coal, their shotgun, and, for those who imbibed, a bottle or mason jar of holiday cheer. In town, they would usually head for the closest bar or other gathering place and wait for the mine whistle to blow the arrival of midnight.

At the farm, we had three close neighbors; John Davis, our neighbor just across the road from the farm, Sy Malone, a friend of Dad’s who had a small farm a quarter-mile to our west, and Ken Shoemaker who lived a couple of hundred yards to the east. All were coal miners or had been. Ken Shoemaker was also a bus driver for the High School. John Davis’ place was the most central of us and he had a heated barn for his heifers. That was our gathering place.

Ken and Sy usually arrived early bringing some ‘shine that Sy made in the woods in back of his house. John would join next. By the time Dad and I arrived, they were sitting around a kerosene heater and usually well lubricated. The men talked and drank. Dad sipped tea from a thermos he had brought. I listened. I heard quite a bit of gossip, bragging and stories while waiting in that barn.

Remembering those times, I’m amazed that with all the drinking that occurred, there was never a firearm accident. I think folks were more used to guns and how to handle them. Many were WW2 veterans such as Ken and Sy Malone. John Davis supplemented his mine income by trapping pelts and as an occasional commercial meat hunter. Dad was a long-time hunter as well. They were experienced folks who acquired gun-handling habits that just weren’t broken even when one has consumed large amounts of alcohol.

In coal country, the time standard was the mine whistle. The whistle blew at shift change each day, at noon, and on New Years Eve, at midnight. The closest mine to the farm was about five miles away. That mine, Orient #2, was on the north edge of West Frankfort. Dad, John and Sy worked there. Ken worked occasionally at Orient #3.

When midnight neared, everyone loaded their shotguns—usually with #6 or #7 1/2 shot, and went outside to listen for the whistle. At the stroke of midnight, delayed only by distance, we heard the mine whistles; Orient #2 to the south, followed by Old Ben #9 to the south-east. Another whistle arrived from the west, followed slightly late by Orient #3 from the north. The men raised their shotguns and in turn fired three times into the air. Nine shots in all.

As the sound of their shots faded away, I could hear the patter of falling shot and the echoes of other shotguns rolling in from surrounding points. In the far distance, I could hear the Sheriff let loose with his Thompson sub-machine gun…a weapon confiscated from Charlie Birger decades before. Charlie Birger was tried for murder and hanged—the last public hanging in Illinois.

As the gunfire died away, each man picked up his bucket of coal, his shotgun and began the trek home to be the first dark-headed man to cross the home’s threshold. In lieu of hair, John Davis wore a dark hat.

It was a short walk for Dad and me, just across the road and up the drive. Dad walked up to our front door and knocked. Mom would answer and Dad would exclaim, “Happy New Year!” and we’d go inside to the warmth. Mom would have coffee or more tea for Dad, a glass of milk for me and either cake, sweet rolls or home-made doughnuts depending on what she and Grandma had made that day.

New Years was a family celebration, but New Years Eve was one for males. A celebration in the cold or in a warm barn. A gathering of men, boys, talk, drink and memories. The communal celebration of the coming year.

 

Crunch…crunch

In many areas of the country, it’s hunting season. I saw a notice warning hunters to prepare for severe cold when hunting deer this coming weekend. The progressives are still waiting for global warming to appear. The rest of us look at the sunspot cycle and, seeing little to no activity, know that solar heating will be less. That means a cold winter…and snow. The Kansas City area may receive up to four inches of snow this coming weekend.

When I was growing up on the farm, we didn’t have long term weather forecast. Our long-term weather prognostications came from the Farmer’s Almanac. I don’t remember how accurate the Almanac was. Dad’s only interest was when to start planting in the Spring.

We looked for our first snow, or sleet, or some form of frozen precipitation, around Halloween. I remember numerous times when plans to go Trick ‘r Treating went awry because of snow and/or sleet. Starting with November, I seem to remember one snowfall after another until March and occasionally in April. One of my least favorable memories was Easter Sunrise services, outside, while it snowed. The point to my ramblings to this point was that hunting in the snow, was the norm for the 1950s and early 1960s.

Our farm was in three segments. The original part, around the house and barns, was about 30 acres that included a one-acre apple orchard and a three acre woodlot along the backside of our acreage. The other two segments were leased. One was a large fifteen acre field a half mile away from the home patch, but within walking distance. The third portion was a bit over a mile away bordering the wooded Big Muddy river bottom. With the leases came exclusive hunting rights.

During the Fall through the Spring, we ate a lot of wild game. Dad had at least a number of rabbit traps scattered around and one of my duties, when I got home from school, was to check the traps…regardless of the weather.

I didn’t mind that little chore. I liked walking around outside, as long as it wasn’t raining. Usually, the temp when I got home hovered around the freezing mark. There may have been a little thawing during the day, but in the late afternoon, whatever had thawed was refreezing. When I took a step, it was always accompanied by a ‘crunch’, the crushing sound of stepping on ice and snow.

Frequently, whatever I retrieved from the traps was what we ate for supper, that day or the next. With six traps scattered around the farm, it was an unusual day when I didn’t find one trap, or two, sometimes three, occupied.

Dad’s traps were hand-made from scrap 1X4s. They were about 2 1/2′ to 3′ long, 7″ on a side with one end plugged and a falling trap-door on the other. Towards the plugged end was the bait, usually some vegetable (carrot) or dried fruit on a stick that ran up through the top of the trap. The stick was attached to the trap-door release by a piece of string or cord. When a rabbit entered the trap and nibbled the bait, the movement of the stick caused the trap-door to fall. Simple.

When I got home, I would change clothes into some old jeans, plus a sweater, lace-up boots, coat with a hood and gloves. I would take my single-shot Stevens .22 rifle along in case the trap contained something other than a rabbit or squirrel.

I usually got home from school by 3:30pm and was outside heading for the traps by 3:45pm. Dad worked in the mines and would be home by 4:30pm, Mom, teaching school in another small town, would get home around 5:00PM. Grandma lived with us at the time and she was fixing supper and often was waiting for me to bring home the entree.

Crunch…crunch…crunch. I don’t remember being cold outside. My face would sting a bit when the wind picked up. My nose, too. My eyes would water when I walked into the wind but I loved being outside.

When I neared a trap, I could easily see if it had been sprung. If it was, the trap-door would be down. It the trap-door was still up, I still had to check to see if the bait was still there. Sometimes, if the bait wasn’t firmly attached to the stick trigger, the animal could get the bait and back out of the trap without causing the trap-door to drop.

If the trap was sprung, my chore could get interesting. How? Well, you see, I never knew what was inside the trap. Dad’s later traps used a heavy wire door on a hinge. In those traps, I could see what was inside. But his more common trap had a wooden door and that was what made the chore…interesting.

The conundrum was that the trap had to be big enough to allow the game to enter, but small enough to keep predators out. The problem was that a trap big enough for a large rabbit, was also big enough to trap a ‘possum, raccoon, or a skunk.

I had some heavy leather gloves that I used to extricate the game. If it was a rabbit, I’d grip the rear legs in one hand, the head carefully, rabbits can bite, in the other, a quick twist and into the bag with it. I’d do the same if the trap contained a squirrel.

But, if it didn’t? Ah, that was the interesting part. In our area, it wasn’t uncommon for a predator to find the trap with a rabbit, or whatever inside, and think it was going to be an easy meal. It was not unusual to check a trap and find it empty but with the remains of a rabbit or whatever scattered around the trap amid many tufts of fur. Some raccoon found it easy to lift the heavy wire door and get at the rabbit inside. Sometimes that lead to the ‘coon being trapped with the remains of a rabbit or squirrel.

More than once, I’d receive an order from Grandma to bring back a raccoon if I found one. Grandma had a recipe for BBQ’d ‘coon that was very good. A bit stringy, perhaps. Stewed, a raccoon was indistinguishable from a strewed rabbit or squirrel.

If the trap contained a ‘possum, I’d just open the door, kick the trap a few times and let the ‘possum escape. I’d do the same if it contained a skunk. The difference with the skunk was that I’d step further back and have my rifle ready in case the skunk decided to do some retribution for being trapped. In that case, I’d have a skunk-hide drying on the barn-door the next day.

On rare occasion I’d find something else in the trap. Feral cats weren’t too unusual. I’d let them go like I did with the ‘possums. On one occasion, I found the frozen carcass of the neighbor’s dog inside a trap. I don’t remember if anyone told him what happened to his dog.

Dad used to trap the year-around. That is until he found a bull snake inside a trap with a squirrel half-way down its throat. He stopped trapping after early Spring after that.

One winter, on a weekend, I think, I was checking the traps on the land down near the river bottom. The trap was one of Dad’s older ones, all made of wood. It had snowed overnight and when I approached the trap, the area around it was covered with blood and bits of fur. The trap was completely torn apart. The fur lead me to believe the trap had contained a raccoon. The tracks around the trap looked like those I’d see from time to time, a bear. A small bear, likely a black bear that had traveled up from the Illinois Ozarks fifty to sixty miles south of us. Dad and I had seen bears tracks but few, other than our neighbors, believed us. The county conservation agent didn’t. Regardless, whatever had torn the trap apart was bigger than a raccoon or a wild cat. Dad’s traps were build strong.

When I heard the forecast calling for snow this weekend, and that it was hunting season, I thought of the farm. I remembered walking through the brush and fields of the farm, the crunch that accompanied me as I walked along on the frozen ground, the snow and utter stillness of the land, silence everywhere except for the wind and me.

I don’t care for the cold anymore. Cold makes me ache but the memories of being outside, face stinging, eyes watering, walking along the fence-line to the next trap, keeps me warm.

Crunch…crunch…crunch…

Snow Day

Today’s forecast for six to ten inches of snow reminded me of an unplanned snow day I had when I was in grade school. I grew up in the 1950s on a small farm in Southern Illinois. The roads in our area were maintained by the county and, for that time, well kept. They were gravel with three-foot drainage ditches on each side. Every fall, one of the county graders would drive down our road clearing those ditches in anticipation of the Spring runoff.

Those nice deep ditches made drivers in our area very careful. Frequently, we would have someone knocking on our door at all times of the day and night, asking Dad to pull them out of the ditch with his tractor. Often, because Dad was working in the coal mines, I drove the tractor, set the chains and did the deed. Imagine today, a ten-year old boy driving a large tractor, hauling chains, climbing underneath a car, truck or another tractor and pulling it out.

Well, those were different times. Parents expected more of their children and more often than not, the kids met those expectations. No helicopter parents then. They were too busy working, feeding their families, providing shelter and taking care of familiy and friends.

On this occasion, a storm had dumped a foot of snow across the county. I rode a bus to school, traveling over ten miles each way to school. The school was three miles away from the farm and during warming weather in May and September, I would walk the distance or ride my bike. In winter, I was glad to ride that heated bus.

I stood inside watching the road for that yellow bus. It usually arrived a few minutes after 7am. Dad had left for the mine an hour earlier. With the snow, he caught a ride with our neighbor who owned a war surplus jeep, the only 4-wheel drive vehicle in our area. Mom would usually be teaching but she was snowbound too. Her 1949 Plymouth was stuck in our driveway, failing the passage through a three-foot drift that blocked our drive.

By 7:30am, we were getting a bit worried…no yellow bus. At 7:45am, the phone rank—long-short-long. Our ring. We were on a party line. Mom answered. It was the school. My bus had slid into a ditch a mile from our house. The other bus, whose route covered the district on the other side of the highway, was blocked. It needed to pass over railroad tracks to reach our school. The railroad was ten feet above ground level. The bus couldn’t climb the rise. Under that foot of snow was a sheet of ice.

No school today! What every kid wants to hear. For me, it was even better. If Mom hadn’t been blocked in our driveway, I would have had to go to school with her. Today, we were both off!

I soon realized that put me in a situation. Mom was one of those who always had to be busy. She started planning her day: bake some pies, a cake. slow roast a chicken…clean house!

I didn’t mind helping her with the baking. I could get a few of the trimmings, lick the icing, get a nibble here and there, but cleaning the house? No, I better have a plan of my own.

The storm arrived in mid-November. Thanksgiving was still in the future. Some of Mom’s cooking was in preparation of that holiday. What could I do? The thought struck me—it was still rabbit season. That was my out, I could go rabbit hunting.

I told Mom my plans. I thought she might say no, but she and Dad liked rabbit, especially rabbit stew. If I brought home a rabbit before noon, we could have rabbit stew for supper instead of roasted chicken. Truth be told, I preferred rabbit stew over the chicken, too.

 Bundling up took planning. Start with long-handled underwear, smooth cotton socks, the first layer. Next came wool socks, flannel-lined jeans and flannel shirt. Over my shirt cam a wool sweater. Outer wear was a canvas hooded coat. Mom had dunked it into a new product (whose name I’ve now forgotten) that waterproofed the coat. Inside the coat was a quilted liner. Add a wool scarf, wool gloves within a leather shell, a hat with foldout earmuffs, rubber insulated boots and I was set.

Now, you may think that was all too much, that I’d be like the proverbial snow-boy with too much coverings to move. It wasn’t. First, the coat was two sizes bigger than I needed. That gave me flexibility and air-space between the layers. It it was too tight, I’d get sweaty, not good at sub-freezing weather.

Out I went, a .410 single-shot shotgun in hand with three shells in a side pocket. Rabbits were easy to find in snow. They would find a place out of the wind and sit. The snow would drift over them and when covered, the only sign was a ‘blow hole’ in the drift from the rabbit’s breath. If you were observant, you could see their breath steaming from the hole.

Hunters used two tactics hunting rabbits in snow. One was to stomp around, making a lot of noise to flush the rabbit. This wasn’t wise because usually the rabbit took off long before you got close enough to shoot. The second was to sneak up on the rabbit, stepping slowly to get withing ten to fifteen feet of the rabbit. You had a choice at that point—shoot where you thought the rabbit lay, or flush it and take a shot at the running rabbit.

Another tactic if you had a well trained dog was to have the dog flush the rabbit towards you. I preferred that method but Dad didn’t want me to risk one of his prized dogs hunting rabbits if he wasn’t there.

My favorite hunting area was a large corn field behind our house. The field had been harvested earlier in the Fall. The remaining cornstalks provided cover for small animals feeding off the spilled corn remaining from harvest. Rabbits preferred more cover, cover like the brush-filled fence line.

Dad and I would clear the fence line every few years, but in between clearings, briers would soon return accompanied by blackberries, raspberries and other brush useful to conceal rabbits and other larger predators.

It was quiet in that field. The snowfall had increased. The temperature, in the low twenties according to the large round thermometer next to our back door, had risen a few degrees since dawn. Instead of the small, dry snowflakes from early morning, they were now large, fat flakes. I could almost hear the ‘thud’ when they fell to ground.

I had the hood of my coat up over my cap. The only exposed skin was my face. My nose and cheeks tingled when exposed to the slight wind. Otherwise, I was fine.

The field was a mile long ending in a wood-line and a small creek. http://us.123rf.com/400wm/400/400/ohotnik/ohotnik1011/ohotnik101100036/8355385-winter-hunting-for-hares-on-the-first-snow.jpgI slowly walked down the fence line, looking for that tell-tale plume of steamy breath from a hidden rabbit. Halfway down the field I found one. When I crept closer, he ran…across the fence-line into the neighboring field. No shot.

Crunch…crunch…crunch, step by slow step, I walked down the fence-line. In normal conditions, I could walk that fence-line in fifteen minutes. Today, it took over an hour.

A hundred yards from where I had flushed the rabbit, I surprised a fox. He ran down the fence-line until he was just outside of shotgun range and stopped, looking back at me, daring me to shoot. There was a bounty on foxes and a fox pelt was worth a few dollars. It was tempting but I remembered I only had three shells of #6 shot, two my pocket, one in the shotgun. The shot was too light for foxes. It was almost too light for rabbits. I normally preferred #4 shot but I didn’t have any. Besides, shot-shells were too expensive to waste. A box of twenty cost nearly five dollars.

I reached the end of the field. The snow was still falling steadily, the depth approaching a foot by this time.  The trees, though bare of leaves, blocked some of the wind. I dug into my coat for a handkerchief to blow my running nose.

I had planned to circle the field following the fence-line that would eventually bring me back to the farmyard. But the morning was still young, only 10 o’clock. I had no rabbit and if I returned too soon, I’d still have to help Mom clean. That was the whole point in going hunting, to escape from Mom’s addiction for a clean house. At ten years of age, I had better things to do.

I wasn’t cold…except for my face. I remembered Mom’s warning about frostbite. I had a wool scarf around my neck. I raised it to cover my mouth, nose and cheeks—like a bad-guy in a western, I thought. Soon, the tingling stopped. The only exposed skin now was my eyes and an inch or so above them not covered by my cap.

Some of the trees in that woodlot still had a few brown leaves; a few that failed to fall in the previous weeks since the beginning of Fall. As I stood there, listening to the wind and distant sounds, something fell, striking twigs and branches in its fall to the ground. I looked around on the snow covered ground and saw cracked acorn and hickorynut shells littering the base of the tree…shells too fresh to be covered by the falling snow.

Squirrels! If I couldn’t bring home a rabbit, a squirrel or two would do as well.

Squirrels are skittish creatures. If anything strange moves in their area, they freeze in place. Once they’ve identified the source of the noise or the location of an intruder, they will move to keep the trunk of a tree, or limb, between them and the possible predator.

During squirrel season, I would hunt squirrels with a .22 pistol. Squirrel season was in late August through September. My method was to find a tree containing squirrels. I’d then lay on the ground next to the tree trunk, raise the pistol and rest my arm against the trunk of the tree and wait for a squirrel to appear. In a few minutes, if there was no more movement, they would creep out, curious to see where the predator had gone…right into my pistol sights.

Squirrel season was long over. But—I was still on our farm. It was open season for everything on your own property. I chose to use a variation of my usual squirrel hunting tactic.

I moved to the trunk of a large hickory tree. The snow surrounding it was littered with cracked hickorynut shells. I raised my .410, held it vertically in front of me, and leaned against the tree trunk to wait.

It seemed like forever.

After 15 minutes I heard something scampering in the tree-limbs above me. I kept still. More scamperings. Finally, I heard what I was waiting for, a falling nut shell.

I slowly looked up, looking for the squirrel. Then I saw it move, a large fox squirrel, almost the size of a rabbit. I slowly raised my .410. I paused whenever the squirrel stopped chewing on a nut, until I had it in my sight. That bronze bead on the tip of my .410 never seems so small.

Bam!

Squirrels scattered. There must have been a dozen in that tree and its neighbors…squirrels I’d not seen. I looked for the fox squirrel.

At first there was nothing. Then, I heard it, the thump, bump of the squirrel falling down through the tree-limbs. It fell to ground a few feet in front of me. I picked it up in my gloves, checking for fleas and other parasites that indicated a sick squirrel. It was clean. No obvious blood either except for a small trickle from it’s nose.

My hunting mission was accomplished. Should I wait and see if another squirrel would reveal itself, or go home? Waiting for another squirrel would take time; time for them to quiet, a half hour at least, and it was now after 11am.

The snow had continued to fall, another inch accumulating since I had left the house and it would only get deeper. The lure of a warm home, maybe some canned chicken soup for lunch and hot tea, won the mental coin toss.

 It was a good morning spent in the woods even with the cold and the snow. The wind had created some drifts that were waist deep as I retraced my fading footsteps back to the farmyard. By the time I reached the barn, those earlier steps were gone, covered by wind and blowing snow.

The barn was heated by a few electrical heaters. Our four horses were in their stalls feeding on oats and hay that I had placed there before sunrise. On the other side of the barn, behind a wooden plank fence, were our few head of cattle, glad to have a shelter out of the wet, snow and wind.

I had one more task before going home, clean the squirrel. That was one inviolate rule of hunting, clean what you shot, be it a rabbit, squirrel, duck or goose. It didn’t take long. There was a water line in the barn for the stock with a faucet. After washing the cleaned squirrel under the cold water, I was finished.

The barn was a hundred yards from the house, one last trek through the snow to warmth. I gave the squirrel to Mom when I was inside. As I expected, she accepted it in lieu of the promised rabbit. I left my boots and coat next to the back door, still dripping from melting snow. Up a few steps from the back door was the kitchen.

I made a line to our family’s favorite spot when returning from the cold outside—the heat register. Our house was heated by a coal furnance. Dad, being a miner and union member, was able to buy home heating coal at a ridiculously cheap price.

It wasn’t forced air heat. There were no fans on our furnace, just convection heating. I remember Mom standing on that same register, the rising hot air making her dress bloom.

It was farm life in the 1950s. A good day, a snow day well spent, cakes and pies in the over and a squirrel stew simmering on top. Life couldn’t be better.

 

 

More Memories from The Farm

A facebook friend and our local state Representative Rick Brattin had to chase down an escaped bull over the weekend. When I read his wife’s post, I had a flashback to a similar escape over fifty years ago.

I grew up on a small farm in Southern Illinois. Dad was a coal miner and part-time farm, or it could have been the other way around with all the UMWA strikes in the fifties. Mom was teaching school. As I remember, I was around twelve.

The time was in the Fall. My Grandmother had moved in with us a few months before. The Farm mostly raised crops but we did have some hogs and a few cattle: a bull, three cows and a couple of yearling calves that were destined for the market or our freezer.

I rode the bus arriving home around 3:30pm. Grandma greeted me with the news that our bull had escaped. He had broken through a 2×4 fence and tried to get to the cows, it being that time of year. He failed to break into their pasture. From there he wandered off looking for more female companions.

I called our neighbors, told them of the escape and asked if anyone had seen the bull. No one had, but one, our neighbor a half-mile down the road, said he’d seen some tracks along his fence line.

Some farms put halters on their bulls, a halter being easier to lead cattle…when cattle, the bull in this case, is cooperative. Our bull didn’t wear a halter. I found some half-inch hemp rope in our barn, told Grandma where I was going and took off after the bull.

Usually this bull was docile. But, in some circumstances, he had a stubborn streak. It took me an hour or so before I found him grazing in a meadow about a mile back in the woods on another neighbor’s farm. He had broken through a number of fences and was scratched up from the barbed wire. He wasn’t in a good mood.

I tried to make a rope halter to lead the bull back to our farm. He didn’t cooperate. The most I could do, at that point, was to keep him in the meadow instead of wandering off deeper into the woods.

I finally heard Dad and some neighbors hollering, looking for me. I answered and in a few minutes they arrived. Dad took over, tried to make a rope halter and after several failed attempts gave it up as a bad idea. He made a lasso instead, put the rope around the bull’s head and attempted to lead him off.

That didn’t work either. The bull liked that meadow. Even with all of us pulling on the rope, the bull wouldn’t budge. Another neighbor arrived in a jeep. One neighbor had the idea of tying the rope to the jeep and forcing the bull to follow. Everyone agreed it was a good idea.

Dad tied the rope to the jeep’s bumper. Our neighbor put the jeep into double low and slowly moved off. The bull got stubborn. He didn’t want to go and dug in his hooves. The jeep inched forward, the bull resisted, the rope tightened, the bull’s hooves dug deeper into the meadow’s loam.

All that suddenly changed. The bull collapsed. The jeep dragged it a foot or so before stopping. The bull was dead. In his stubbornness, he had strangled himself with the rope.

You can imagine the scene. Dad and some of our neighbors turned the air blue. The neighbor driving the jeep was apologetic. Dad acknowledged it wasn’t the neighbor’s fault and besides everyone had agreed on the tactic.

Dad sent me off with our jeep-driving neighbor to get our tractor and wagon. I returned a while later to find the bull strung up from a block and tackle being field dressed. We lowered the bled out bull on the wagon. Dad thanked our neighbors for their help and we rode home, Dad driving the tractor, our neighbors riding with me and the bull in the wagon.

We dropped off our neighbors along the way home. Dad was fuming. The bull was registered Black Angus and Dad made quite a few dollars in stud fees from it. I was smart enough to keep quiet. Obviously, Dad wanted to be mad at someone but he had no one except himself. I learned a lesson that day. Some times it’s better just to keep you mouth shut…among learning other lessons.

At home, we switched the wagon from the tractor to our pickup. Dad took the bull to our closest meat locker where the bull was turned into steaks, roasts, sausages and hamburger.

We ate well that coming winter. It was a costly lesson for Dad. There were some things in this world, the bull in this case, who were more stubborn than him.