Saturday, December 30, 2017

Mr. HilgenWho?

Editors note:  Only a few tangential references to oxen are in this post.  You've been warned.

Mr. Hilgendorf usually marked his tools with his name. The cheap
Japanese saw on the right is mine, but it does work well.
I've been spending a fair bit of time this week with a man I never met, but I still think I know pretty well.

I needed a place to hang my drawknives to get them out of an open tote.  It's not that they want to slice you open, but they are more than willing to if you reach for them, or anything near them.  The hope is that a few pegs on a toolboard next to my tool cabinet will protect the knives and, more importantly, my hide.

This was a quick, little project, sandwiched between other, "real" projects, such as an end table, and a cabinet for oxen supplies (more on that at another time).  But, it gets me in the shop and it's there that I spend time with Mr. Hilgendorf.
Behind the octagonally- handled hammer
is a 5 ounce and a 6 ounce hammer, one with
the hardware store price still on it: $1.69! 

Three summers ago, I spotted an ad on Craigslist for "Tool Cabinet and some hand tools," and when I called, I was told that they were selling their dad's tool cabinet.  His surname was Hilgendorf.

When I arrived to look at it, I found it was a homemade plywood cabinet, pretty nondescript on the outside, but carefully arranged on the inside with hangers for dozens of hand tools and (oh, the joy!) it was still half full of meticulously maintained vintage tools.  When I asked how much they wanted, the couple said it was his dad's (they were in their 70's) and they wanted someone to use the tools, so . . . $65!

Mr. Hilgendorf bought good tools, and
maintained them carefully.
 Even years later, I love going down to the shop to open the cabinet and I marvel at the clever arrangement of the tools Mr. Hilgendorf created.  I've added tools and holders of my own over the years, but more than one spot has remained a mystery to me.  What tool would best fit in this open spot?  How small was his eggbeater drill, that my small one is too big for the holder?  Stuff like that.

But this week, one of his mysteries was solved.

I was hanging up a drawknife on my new rack and it hit me.  I took the knife over to the tool cabinet and it slipped perfectly into the holder Mr. Hilgendorf built into the door, as if it had been waiting for it. He'd even made a blade guard to protect HIS hide.
My drawknife, "back at home" in the
rack that's been waiting for it. (top
right) 


How does this relate to oxen?  We don't all have old-timers to lead us through the process of training and working cattle, but we do have access to their old tools, yokes, barns and other "material culture."   We just need to spend enough time examining the old tool marks, wear patterns, and other clues.  Eventually, the Mr. Hilgendorf's of another age start sharing their secrets.  Keep listening.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Santa Has it Easy


We all agree that Christmas gets extra "cool points" for featuring a bearded, draft-animal-using, wool bedecked patron.  So, now that we've gotten that out of the way, it's time to destroy a bit of the Santa Claus myth.

You see, my father-in-law is Santa.

Honest.

He's also a retired farmer, naturalist, science teacher, and store owner, but now he spends most of the late fall as Father Christmas, and in this role, he speaks with some authority on matters relating to Christmas.

So when my wife says that she was told as a kid that at midnight on Christmas Eve, all the animals in the barn can speak, the word must have come from St. Nick himself.  I've pressed him on this claim myself and he's pretty steadfast.  Animals speak at Midnight on Christmas.

Which leads me to this conclusion:  Santa has it easy.  He simply gives commands to his reindeer in English (or German, or Polish, come to think of it), asks for some feedback from them (in the same language, of course) and they're off to the tops of porches and walls, dashing away and all that.

Some talent, eh?  No wonder he gets away with only getting the big hitch out once a year.

As for the rest of us, there's a little more to it than that.  Our animals don't speak verbally, but they do communicate, and understand, a great deal.  It's up to us to practice our skills at sending the right messages and interpreting the ones we get to get the work done most efficiently.

Either that or head down to the barn tonight at midnight.  Let me know what you find out.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

A bigger boat

In the movie Jaws, the first time Roy Schneider's character spots the shark, he utters the famous line: "we're gonna need a bigger boat," indicating that he feels outmatched by the giant beast.  I feel ya, Roy.

In the past month, Zeus has been hobbled by what is likely a soft tissue injury (sprained ankle or the like) which kept him sequestered from the other two boys.  Then, just when he was feeling good, Brutus had a return of his Colic, which plagues him once or twice a year (see: All's Well that Ends Well in the April / May 2014 Rural Heritage)
For Zeus, my vet was able to come out and examine him at the hitching post.  Zeus wasn't wild about it and wouldn't keep his foot up for much of a trimming, but he tolerated the experience.  
However, both boys required pills or other oral meds.  Having nice, calm animals is a real blessing, but a one-ton animal who'd rather not open up and say "ahhh" is still a handful.  Getting Brutus in his old box stall was easy, but once there, he all but filled it up.  And, he wasn't wild about the balling gun and the large thumb-sized pills.  

I managed to tie Brutus's head up high with two lead ropes and lift his head up to give him all six(!) pills, but it wasn't a smooth process by any stretch.  The first two were the worst.  After that he figured out the routine and went along grudgingly.  

Every time we have a medical issue, it reminds me that a bigger boat would be in order.  It feels like living on borrowed time to have no chute or stocks to put the boys in.  

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Carter Speaks Up

Editor's Note: Jim Whelan's oxen Chub and Jerry- and now Percy and Carter- have independently learned to type and occasionally send guest blog posts to the MODA blog. It seems as if Jim is unaware of this happening. Is the right thing to do to warn him, or should we simply enjoy hearing of their exploits? . . . I guess Jim can fend for himself!
Percy is still sleeping so this is Carter writing this time. Whenever we are at home and bored and not eating Chub gives us lessons on the keyboard. I think I am doing real well so I am trying out my skills this time. I am pretty good with my left toe but my right one does not work too good. Does that mean I am “left toed”?
This summer has been a very busy time. We went to Purdue University to have our feet trimmed early in June. Mr. Jim walked me into this corner and next thing I knew I was laying sideways on this steel table, strapped down and I couldn’t move. When I was finished I got to watch the doctors do the same thing to Percy.
The end of June we went to Tillers in Michigan. We talked about this in our last blog. Our first engagement was at a canal festival in July. They wouldn’t let us ride on the canal boat and Mr. Jim said we were not ready to try to pull the boat on the
canal. That would have been fun.
We were invited to two county fairs in July. We only had a couple of days off between these two fairs. There must have been over a thousand people come to see us at each of these fairs. We were in with a lot of other farm animals. At one fair there was this really mean draft horse housed next to us. He was so big he reached over the pen gate and tried to bite me on the a…. I let him know that I
had horns that could do some real damage. After hitting the side of the pen really hard the horse decided he had better move away. At the other fair we were housed in a brand new barn built specifically for us. We watched as a new calf was born in the barn. We didn’t know that was how we came into the world and never saw this before. Boy, our mothers must have been really sore.
August brought the state fair. Seventeen days is a very long time so Mr. Jim asked Chub and Jerry to come out of retirement for a few days so we
could have a break. They said they had a great time meeting a lot of old friends. A United States senator came to see them and even drove them a short distance. They said that he comes by to see them every year they were there. I think I remember him coming to see us in previous years.
After five days Chub and Jerry told Mr. Jim that the long 12 hour days with three demonstrations a day had wore them out and asked to come home. By this time we were rested so we finished the rest of the fair. We had fun and so many people came by to see us we lost count. We watched a cow get milked twice a day. We never were on our original farm long enough to see that. We worked with the draft horse before and are pretty good friends. Toward the end of the fair we actually did shows with the horse. In September we went to a French and Indian war. Everyone dresses real funny there, even Mr. Jim. Then we finished our year with a farm festival in Ohio. Mrs. Nancy went along and they explained the purpose of oxen twice a day to very interested groups of people.
So now we are back home, we have our own round bales to eat and
there is plenty of water for us. Our summer was lots of fun and we hope we have educated many people about the value of oxen in the history of our country.
To all our ox friends: we hope you and your drovers have a great holiday season.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

In the Dark

At least 150 days a year, I do morning chores in the dark.  To make it to school by 7:15, from
September to May, requires that I am on the road before the sun comes up.  Add in Saturday cross country meets and that means I'm stumbling around in the dark to feed the chickens and oxen. 

I'd been thinking of putting a light somewhere down near the barn to help things a bit.  I have a mercury light (now replaced with an LED) up by the house, but it doesn't shine that far and is on the opposite side of the old granary, so it isn't much help.

The other day, a few days before my birthday, I got home from school in the afternoon and noticed tire tracks leading to the big barn.  This isn't that unusual; My dad often comes over and does jobs around the house - everybody needs a hired man like him, with a salary of $0 and a willingness to be on call at all hours- so I didn't think much of it. 

Later, when getting hay out for the oxen and straw for bedding, I noticed a ladder had been moved, but that still didn't register.  A couple of tools in different spots made no impact either.

However, upon getting ready for bed and shutting the lights off in the house, I glanced out the back window and had a Genesis moment. . ."Let there be light," and there was light:  on the barn, on the oxen, on the ground all around.

"Happy Birthday," was the hired man's response when I made inquiries later. 

Three takeaways:  Get yourself a hired man like mine, use an LED barn light to make chores so much more enjoyable, and don't call on me to investigate your crime scene.  I obviously can't process the evidence.  I remain metaphorically, although thankfully now not physically, in the dark.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Holiday Gift Guide

Santa, with Jem and Scout in 2013.  Jem wasn't wild about those
flowing "Father Christmas" robes.
I've gone Black Friday shopping twice in my life.  The first time was 15 years ago, when Black Friday started on . . .Friday.  I bought a TV and lived to tell the tale, vowing to never go again.

In 2012, I was back at it, with better results.  On the day after Thanksgiving that year, I met Dulcy out at Tillers and we loaded up Brutus and Cassius, who were 6 months old at the time.  (Full disclosure:  we tried to get them loaded, but they'd been running with the herd their whole lives and in the wind wouldn't be persuaded to go into the barn, where they could be loaded.  Dulcy and John Sarge got them in the barn that night and Black Friday became Black Saturday.)
Cassius and Brutus, a month after Black Friday
2012, settled down well.

So if you're like me, shopping doesn't inspire you unless it involves oxen, or oxen 'stuff.'  In no particular order then, here are a few recommendations for stocking stuffers.

As always, the standard disclaimers apply:  I'm not employed by any of the companies mentioned here, don't make a dime from the recommendations, and if I haven't tried it I won't recommend it.  So here we go:

A rasp cuts bale strings like butter, but
leaves fingers alone.
1.  A large wood rasp, or hoof rasp.  The brand doesn't matter and you gain many bonus points for picking up a used one.  Leave it in your barn.  It makes the best string cutter for hay bales, particularly when you have cold fingers.

2.  Chairmaker's Notebook.  See this blog post for a full review, but here's the gist of it:  Yoke making is like making a Windsor chair- from splitting, to carving, to steam bending and finishing- and Peter Galbert is a master teacher.  It's not cheap, but few books on woodworking even come close.

3.  A membership to MODA.  $20 a year and our mission is: To promote the use of oxen to our American youth as well as to those in foreign lands, so that all may be shown their diversity and skills, even in this modern world. We do this to keep our American heritage alive and to educate those who can benefit from our experiences.​  Plus, we'll send you the newsletter.  


4.  Why Cows Need Names.  There are lots of good books on oxen, but you probably own those already.  Randy James' wrote this beautiful little book about being an ag extension agent working with small farmers in Plain communities in Ohio.  It's worth your time.  

5.  A Gift Certificate to Tillers International.  Tillers does as much to promote oxen as arguably anyone in the world, mainly to help small farmers lift themselves out of poverty.  Classes at the learning center in Scotts, MI help pay for some of that help.  And you can learn a new skill, such as blacksmithing, in the process.  

When you're composing your letter to Santa, drop me a line as well.  I'd love to hear what's on your list. . . as long as it's not a TV.



Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Shouldering a load

I tried the other day, while out at Tillers pulling firewood, to capture a photo of what a nice, tight bow looks like under load.

Often times, when the oxen are pulling a heavy load and they stop, they will simply hold it where it is.  Often times, that is, but not last Saturday.  Just as I got ready to snap the photo, Pollux stepped back a bit. 

What I was trying to capture was the way that the shoulder of the animal passes outside of the bow.  Seeing it once really drives home the point about a yoke that's too small being better than a yoke that's a little too large.  If the yoke is too large, the shoulder bone pushes against the bow and it can be painful for the animal, akin to walking across the floor on your elbows.

Anyway, this fine video by Tim Harrigan explains yoke fit better than I do.  Watch and learn.