This story is from Mark Oldham, submitted as part of our Wisdom From Our Elders collection of self-sufficient tales from yesteryear.
I presently live in the Blue Ridge area of Virginia at the foot of Catawba Mountain. The Appalachian Trail is about a vertical half-mile above our cabin. The trail travels from Georgia to Maine and Appalachia can be found wherever the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains are located. I have spent most of my life in Appalachian country.
I was born in 1947 and grew up in a valley in Pennsylvania nestled next to the Alleghenies. This area had been settled in the early 1800s and the descendents of those settlers still lived there. Many of the farming practices of the settlers had been passed down from generation to generation. Although I did not realize it at the time, I had the good fortune to be practically raised on a farm owned by my great uncle Alfred. I actually lived in my grandfather’s house located in the middle of Uncle Alfred’s farm. “Appie,” as we cousins called him (but never to his face), worked the farm with his brother Charles. Another great uncle, Harold, owned the adjoining farm. Between these two farms I learned how farming was done at the turn-of-the-century. These three brothers did everything the old time way. The only concession to modern 1950s farming was three old gray-bottomed 1930 Ford tractors. Frugal was the best way to describe Uncle Appie. We would take a load of junk to the dump and come back with more stuff than we took (mostly wood to be reused). My job was to take out all the old nails and then straighten them to be re-used. Guess that is why I never throw anything away now that I think can be reused. I could share many stories about the old time farming but this story is about caring for cows in an old-time way.
Cows were very important to the farm and were treated that way. They were cared for up until they were old. Each one had a personality and a name that they would answer to. I got up at five in the morning to walk up the dirt road to do my chores in the barn. It was a large wooden beam barn built in the early 1900s. I climbed up the hayloft ladder and, with a pitchfork, tossed loose hay down onto the barn floor. No baled hay on this farm! I pulled the pile of hay to two long trap doors. They were so long that a pulley and counter weights helped to lift the wooden doors. Underneath was a wooden rack. The wooden rack had been worn smooth from cows pushing their heads into the rack to eat the hay. Normally there were about a half dozen dairy cows to be milked. While the dairy cows were eating their hay I would take care of the beef cows and the large breeding bull.
Water was pumped up from the springhouse for the barn animals. There was one spigot that emptied into an old bathtub the dairy cows used for drinking water. I carried water from the spigot to four stalls that had water troughs in them. I had a hard time carrying the buckets because it meant lifting the buckets up over the stall and pouring the water into the metal trough. I usually got wet! Of course it got easier as I grew older. I was always afraid of the bull because he was mean and nobody ever got into the stall with him! The next job was to take hay to all the stalls. After that I got chop out of the old wooden bin with an old wooden scoop and placed it into a bucket. I took the chop around to all the stalls and put it into a wooden trough made just for the chop. Chop is ground-up grain.
Before I get back to the dairy cows, I would like to share how the bull and other cows had their horns cut off. The old vet usually did this. I doubt if he ever went to college, but he had knowledge that he gained over the years, and knew how to use a hypodermic needle, which pills to use, and how to handle difficult animal birthing. I saw him deliver a breached calf. For cutting the horns he took what I would describe as a large pair of pliers with two sharp edges on the ends and cut each horn with a quick compression of the handles. Blood would flow freely until he grabbed a handful of spider webs that hung from the ceiling beams. He stuffed them on the horns and the blood would stop immediately. On top of that he smeared roof tar as a dressing to protect the horn from flies. Once in a while the tar would come loose and more would be applied. I have heard that soot was also used to stop the bleeding.
Photo by: Fotolia/Dave Allen
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