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

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PHOTO: NORMA MORRIS
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.

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.