Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Edmisten Farm ~ A Thanks Given Story ~ Part 3

This is Part Three of the stories of Joe Edmisten as he tells about life on the Farm. Our campus is largely being built on the Edmisten land. These stories of his family and the farm where they worked and lived are a part of our New School heritage and Watauga County history.

I learned a lot from the story on "Saw milling". Knowing that this community and region were mostly explored, opened, and populated by timbering folks gives me an insight to the work of settling in this area.

But, the story about the "Value of Horses" is incredibly insightful and beautifully told by Joe. I hope you readers enjoy learning about the working horses.


After Momma's inheritance from her father, Pa Lige Hollars, and after my parents became more prosperous, they decided to build a modern house near the west side of the farm. They also decided to build a new barn. The house they built in 1951 is the one Baker and Dian Edmisten remodeled and expanded. The "new" barn will be torn down to make room for Watauga High School.

The lumber and timber for the house and barn came from our own family sawmill, placed on the south side of the creek, at the base of the hill that joined Appalachian State University (ASU) property. There was a stand of mature, white pines that had grown up after that crop field was left fallow. The trees were sixty to eighty feet tall, with a diameter of two - three feet. Mr. Hill Bumgarner helped us with the logging.

We learned to fell a tree within inches of where we wanted it to fall. To accomplish this, we used a sharp, two-man, crosscut to saw into the base of the tree, about eighteen inches from the ground. This cut was on the side of the tree where it had to fall and was six to eight inches deep.
Then we took a sharp, double-bit axe and cut out a wedge-shaped gap above the cut. The double bit axe head was placed into the gap with the handle pointing out to indicate the direction the tree would fall. The wedge cut could be modified to fine-tune the direction of the "fell."
Then two people with the crosscut saw would saw from the opposite side of the tree to a spot just above the thin edge of the "felling" gap. We usually managed to fell an eighty-foot tree within a few inches of where it was intended to fall.

After the tree was down, we would take the axes to lop off the limbs up to a point where the tree was too small to be of value in the production of planks. Most of the trees in this stand did not have any branches on the lower thirty or forty feet because they had been grown close enough to be self-pruning, due to the shade.

Once the tree had been topped, and the branches lopped off, it was cut into logs of various lengths, depending on the length of the two by eight that would be needed for the house and barn. For example, if we needed sixteen, foot-long, two by sixes for rafters, one would cut the log at about sixteen feet, with three or four extra inches.

Pulling the logs out of the woods to the sawmill, and down to the bottom by the creek, was difficult and dangerous. Two large, claw-like grab hooks, about three inches long, were connected by three- foot chains to a common swivel joint. This swivel would allow the log to roll without twisting the two chains attached to the grab hooks.

Old Bill, our horse, would then be connected to the swivel joint by a "single tree" bar. Old Bill pulled the log out. The driver would have to be careful to always stay up slope from the log in case it rolled. The logs were accumulated into stacks, always uphill from the sawmill, where they would be rolled one by one by a peavey pole onto the carriage, which carried each log into a large, circular saw powered by an old automobile engine mounted on a sled.

First, the log would be "squared up" by shaving off the round "slabs." Each time a slab was removed, the log had to be turned to square off another side. Somebody strong had to do the turning. Also, it was hard work to carry the generally useless slabs off and out of the way.

It took common sense and three-dimensional forethought to envision the planks, two by fours, two by sixes, and two by eights in each log. I am amazed that nobody was killed or injured. It was rewarding to have been part of the process that produced the lumber used in our own house and barn.

It is also instructive to realize that the fields where I once hoed corn are now covered by dense, tall stands of white pines, ready for the harvest, after sixty years. Incidentally, you can determine the age of a white pine by counting the whorls of limbs from the ground up to the tip of the tree, or in the case of self-pruning, you can count the scars on the trunk, where the limbs had been attached.


We grew up within shouting distance of fifteen first cousins. There were four more cousins relatively close by at Aho; seven more in Johnson City, Tennessee.

The close by, "see them every day" cousins consisted of two sets fathered by Uncle Bynum (Swifty) Green. He married Aunt Blanche, and they had Hoy and Mary Kindle. Aunt Blanche died of appendicitis while Mary was an infant. Uncle Bynum then married Blanche's younger sister Lottie. He and Lottie were parents to cousins Conley and Georgie.

Two more of our aunts married and settled nearby in Perkinsville. Aunt Nell married Lloyd Hayes and they had Helen, Farthing, Margaret, Ed, and Ruby. Aunt Lena married Uncle Rob Shull and they had Ruby, Brian, Rufus, Mary Lee, Nancy, and Della.

The Aho branch of the clan was founded when Aunt Lydie married Uncle Marion Coffey. Their children were Bill, Eula Mae, Geneva, and Nan.

In Johnson City, Uncle Wade and Aunt Johnsie had two daughters, Barbara and Gladys, and five sons: John, Mack, Bobby, Ralph, and Larry.

We lived very close to the Greens, Hays, and Shulls when we lived in Perkinsville. We often visited the Coffey cousins in Aho and even rode a bus to Johnson City to spend a week at a time with the six Edmisten cousins in Tennessee.


All our plowing, logging, cultivating, and hauling was done with horses. In addition to Old Bill, a sorrel gelding, we had Dina, a mare. Even though Dina was about 200 pounds lighter than Old Bill, they pulled a loaded wagon or a large plow in perfect balance.

I spent many days working these horses as a team and even more days working them individually when plowing between the rows of young corn, potatoes, cabbage and tobacco. Most of the time, I only needed verbal commands to control them in the delicate job of plowing within inches of the young plants.

"Gee" was for the right, and "Haw" was for an adjustment to the left. A gentle "Gee" signaled the horse to make a slight adjustment. A loud and repeated "Gee!" resulted in larger adjustments to the right. The same subtle animal communication worked well to go left.

The long leather reins leading back from the horse's mouth were tied together around the back of our necks, as we held the handles of the six or eight plow-bladed "cultivator." In retrospect, now sixty years later, it is impressive to realize what efficient communication was achieved between two widely different mammal species.

We used the horses as a team to pull the large wooden wagon with steel-rimmed tires. (According to legend, that was the same cabbage-laden wagon that slid through "Greasy Corner," marking the last time in history that a legitimate freight wagon passed through Boone.)

We needed our horses for plowing, disking, and harrowing the fields in the spring. It took the combined strength of two good horses to split the ground with a large, shining plowshare. It was rewarding to see and smell the renewed earth while walking in the eight inch-deep trench that revealed the moist, black soil beneath.

After breaking the ground with the plow, we pulled a disk over the freshly plowed earth to cut the soil into smaller pieces. Most disk machines had a seat on which the operator rode. Finally, we broke up the soil into smaller and smaller crumbs with a harrow. Soil is made up of various-sized particles of stones, gravel, sands, silts, and clays. A good soil has enough organic matter to cause these materials to adhere, giving the soil structure. The best soils have a crumb structure, which is what we tried to achieve.

In addition to their labor and strength, our horses provided the manure that was important for the soils to hold water and nutrients. Each spring we used pitchforks to clean out the manure and straw bedding that had accumulated in the two barns during the winter. We loaded the manure and bedding onto a wagon and spread the rich, stinking mixture over a field before plowing, disking and harrowing it. In later years, we used a mechanized manure spreader that ground and spewed it out as horses pulled the machine over the field. The value of our horses' contributions on the farm was inestimable.

The recipe for Tiger Stew starts with the phrase, "First, catch a tiger." Before a horse could be useful, we had to "catch it." As a twelve-year-old, skinny, wormy, eighty-pound boy, I found it daunting to be asked to catch and harness one or both horses.

They always wore halters with a lead ring under their necks. The trick was to get the snap of the leather lead strap into that ring. Once that lead was in place, the horse "thought" it was under control. I took an ear of dried corn in one hand and the lead strap in the other.

I repeatedly signaled the horse by whistling a simple two note--high, then low--call. The horse had been conditioned since a colt to associate this call with food. As he took the ear of corn, I snapped the lead line into the halter and led the horse to the barn to harness it. I could write a long essay on how to harness a horse. In fact, Mark Twain did just that.

The short version of harnessing a horse called for first putting a padded collar on it before you threw the large, complicated harness onto the mid-section of its back and clamped its two wooden "hames" to the collar, one on each side of the horse's shoulders. The long hames were critical parts of the harness because all of the force needed to pull a plow or cart was transferred from them via two chains. You pulled the harness back, then over and under the horse's tail.

Once the horse was harnessed, the chains could be attached to a cultivator plow, or a log, or any single horse device. For example, the device might pull a cabbage cart while six rows were cut, or we could plant corn seed using a "drill" that dropped the seeds out of a hopper, while fertilizer was dropped from a second hopper. We found the one-horse rake to be a real labor-saving device.

We grew the hay our horses ate. After harvesting it, we built stacks by sinking into the soil a carefully chosen pole with side branches, made from a young locust tree. We placed split rails around the bottom of the pole to keep the hay off the ground. Having scraped the hay together with pitchforks, we carried it on top of two slender poles to the stack pole and foundation, where I received and shaped the hay as it was pitched to me and also caught by the branches of the stack pole.

I rose with the haystack, continuing to receive the hay, shaping it into a rain-shielding, stream-lined structure up to twenty - thirty feet- high. A well-constructed haystack, properly capped, with its raked sides, was a work of art. I took pride in its symmetry before sliding down the side of the itchy monument.

We usually fenced off the stacks with split rails so cattle could graze the field for a month or more before winter. And, if the weather was mild during the winter, we fed the cattle from the stacks instead of in the barn.

After the horses had spent a leisurely winter, the sudden and intense work in spring and summer resulted in sores and blisters on their shoulders, under the padded collars. The abraded areas soon healed with the salve we applied after each work day, and scars and calluses formed to protect the horses through the hard work of summer and fall.

The horses must have felt great relief after finishing a day's work, when their harnesses were removed. They would trot to a level spot near the creek, drink deep and long, and then roll on their backs in the grass.

1 comment:

Carey said...

Between inter-mammalian communication, harnessing a horse and haystack-building, that's some pretty facinatin' lore.
Carey Rowland, Hardin Park TA