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Turning the Crank, Pulling the Saw and Mowing the Hay

Tuesday October 10, 2006

By Larry Johnson

   My Dad, who would now be more than 110 years old, often told me how his father had taught him to use a scythe. In the early days of the 20th century it was not unusual for farmers to hire French Canadians to cut their hayfields. The Canadians would show up in gangs, sharpen their scythes, and begin mowing hay. Grandpa decided that my father could best learn to use a scythe if he were placed in front of the Canadians. Dad remarked that he had to keep up with the men, or preferably slightly ahead of them, in order to keep them from nicking his heels with their swishing blades. “It worked,” he told me, “I not only learned how to use a scythe, but, more importantly, I learned how to sharpen one.”

I watched my father sharpen a scythe blade many times, until it was razor sharp, by holding the blade upright, with the handle straight and planted butt-end on the ground. He would then spit on a whetstone that he kept in his back pocket, and slide it away from him along the blade, and then, with a snap of his wrist, he would draw the stone back toward himself on the opposite side. This was the method used to touch up the edge while he was cutting. To really sharpen a scythe, however, it was necessary to grind it on a grindstone or, more painstakingly, tune it up with a file. Either method was laborious and time-consuming.

When it came to using the grinding wheel to hone the scythe blade, or, for that matter, any cutting tool, a kid was usually enlisted to turn the wheel and that kid was usually me.  Most farmers had a wheel that could be turned with a foot treadle, but Dad’s stone had to be turned by hand. I think this was intentional. He liked to have company while he was working, because that would give him the opportunity to tell stories, and a great story teller he certainly was.

“A little faster,” he would often say, as I turned the crank. When the sparks began flying off the wheel I’d add a little water and slow it down.

There were other wheels to turn as well. There was the old truck that often needed cranking, and the fly-wheel starter on the John Deere tractor, but the hardest cranking, especially for a small kid, was the crank on the sheep shearing machine.

When I was young we had a flock of about one hundred sheep, and it was generally my older brother Bob’s job to turn the crank for the sheep shears while Dad did the shearing. The crank ran a cable-like drive shaft that mechanically operated the shears. It was a step up from the kind that needed to be hand- squeezed in order to be operated. Turning the crank required a steady hand, no jerking, or the clippers would cut too fast and nip the sheep, and if the cranking was too slow, they wouldn’t cut through the thick, dirty wool.

Another crank that had very little to do with agriculture per se, was the crank on my mother’s washing machine wringer. Mother would feed the clothes from the barrel washing machine through the wringer while a child, often myself or my sister, would turn the crank.

If there wasn’t anything to be cranked, then there was always something to be sawed. We burned 15 cords of sawed, split and stacked wood each year and someone, or many someone’s, was needed in this multi-faceted process. Chainsaws had been invented, barely, but they were large, unwieldy and expensive. Most everyone used a two-man crosscut for “bucking” up the logs into 16 inch chunks. More affluent farmers had a belt-driven circle saw with a moveable bench. The belt was hitched to a tractor pulley that operated when the tractor was running. A log was placed on the bench and then pushed forward toward the whirling blade. When the chunk was sawed, someone was right there to “take it away,” and that someone was usually a kid or an old person who was either too weak or too feeble to do anything else. This labor-saving device was one of the most dangerous contraptions on the farm, and, believe me, there was no scarcity of dangerous machines to deal with. A congregation of farmers in those days would have been a living exhibit of missing digits and limbs. Many of our neighbors and friends had missing fingers or worse; it was the accepted price for being a farmer.  

One summer my Great Uncle Roy Johnson showed up at our farm. He was a man in his early 70s, and a time-worn, weather-hardened specimen who had spent his life in the open, resisting the elements. He and I took an immediate liking to each other. He was a mystery man, indeed, and at that time, nobody in the family had seen Uncle Roy for more than 20 years.  My father, always curious about people, asked him where he had been.

“Up in the Northwest,” Uncle replied.

Dad didn’t let it go at that. “Whatcha you been doing, Roy?” he asked.

“Cutting trees,” he replied.

“Why did you leave?” Dad persisted.

“The trees got to too damned big,” Uncle answered with emphasis, a note of finality in his voice.

Dad put Roy and me to cutting firewood. Not only did I learn something about Roy’s mysterious life, but I learned more than I cared to about operating a two-man crosscut. I discovered that you pull and not push a two- man saw, and I learned that sawing is a lot like hiking up a mountain: you find a comfortable speed and you stick to it, sparing your energy for the difficult spots.

After a half hour or so I would be totally spent and beg Uncle Roy to take a break. Eventually, I would give up my end of the saw and Uncle would continue sawing, in my absentia, as though nothing had changed. It occurred to me that not only had he been doing all of his work, but he had been doing all of mine as well.

I also learned a lot more from Uncle Roy than just how to get up a woodpile: I learned something about ethics and humility. Dad gave Roy board, room and a salary but when he tried to pay Roy, he was shocked when Roy gave him back half his pay. “I’m only worth half of what I used to be,” Roy explained. Every week Dad would try to give his uncle what he truly believed he had earned, and every week Roy would give him back half of it. It was an object lesson that taught me more about life than just how to operate a grindstone or how to saw up a woodpile.


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