My Years as a Horse: Hauling Logs Manually on a West Virginia Farm

The author recalls the work he and his brothers put in hauling logs by hand on their West Virginia farm in the 1940s and the appreciation he developed for the lark's head knot.

061 my years as a horse

The author's son contains his excitement as he demonstrates proper pulling form. Note that to prevent slipping the rope is placed several inches back from the end of the log. INSERT PHOTOS: Larks head knots secured around the hauling stick and a tree limb.


Content Tools

Though I've never been trained in Eastern religion, I'm a firm believer in reincarnation . . . because I actually spent many of my younger years as a horse!

I was converted from boy to beast during my family's own little energy crisis in the mid-40's. Back then, we got all the "home power" for our West Virginia farmstead from one of the small natural gas wells that pocked our remote valley. One fateful morning, however, that well ran out . . . and our lights, stove, and heater just up an' died. Of course, electricity wasn't available in our rural area, so my father had a choice to make: either move the family out, or start moving wood in.

Now if your notion of a wood-fueled household is based on less-than-personal experience, you may think that wood gathering is simply a matter of stepping out the back door—to a neatly stacked log pile—and picking up a convenient armful of billets.

Unfortunately, that's not "the way it was." My father, three brothers, and I had to make weekly forays into the hills to cut trees and snake the felled timber out through thick and bumpy woods. At that time, most folks used a draft horse to haul their timber. However, such a beast cost too much in feed to pay its own way (at least on our modest farm), so my father hired a neighbor with a steed when the time came for hauling logs.

But then—on the day that changed my life—the Morris mastermind took an especially long look at the four husky sons he'd been afattenin', realized that perhaps he could quit wasting money on rented horsepower, and—in less time than it takes to say "the tinkling of the trace chains"—put all four of us youngsters in harness!

That's when I became a horse.

Actually, each harness rig consisted solely of 15 feet of half-inch rope tied into a loop, plus a three-foot stick about two inches thick. Yet—in the years that followed—my brothers and I used the primitive work gear to transport a veritable forest into our woodlot.

To shut one of his "steeds" into this harness, Father simply used lark's head knots at opposite ends of the rope loop:

He hooked one of these fastenings around the to-be-pulled log, and the other hitch around the three-foot hauling stick (called a "singletree" by workhorse handlers). Then one—or two—of us dobbins would extend his arms behind his back, take hold of the stick, and dig in his hooves until something moved. (We horses pulled singly or in tandem depending on the size of the log, the slope of the terrain . . . and the degree of our exhaustion or laziness.)

I detested that hard tree-toting work (I still shudder like a horse with flies when I think of it), but I did admire the versatility of the harness arrangement. The larks head knot—because its grip increases under tension—squeezed a bundle of small wood pieces together much more tightly than any conventional tie could do ... yet could still be loosed with ease. The singletree could be thrust vertically into the ground and used as a lever whenever a particularly heavy load had to be inched over difficult terrain. And—of course—both separate components were quite useful objects in themselves: The stick made a nice walking cane between loads, and the rope could be hung up as a swing . . . when we got the chance to indulge in such tomfoolery!

All four of us horses spent a lot of time "hooked up and hauling" over the years . . . until we each grew old enough to set out for college (or some other prolonged misadventure). In fact, "harness labor" became so ingrained in us that—even today—we can't go back home to visit without suspecting that Mother will ask us to drag in some fuel for the wood stove (even though these days she also has both electricity and natural gas).

And sometimes—when I tell my own children to take out the garbage and the citified critters fall into paroxysms of self-pity—I set the slowfoots down and retell (for the umpteenth time) the story of my years as a workhorse. You know, from the way those youngsters look at me during such episodes of instructive nostalgia, I'm sure they believe a particular portion of that horse remains with me still.