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TideWriters Tales
Harvest Time
By Catherine C. Brooks

     Harvesting crops in rural Virginia during the era before 1945 was quite a contrast to what today’s farmer achieves in a short time with his large machinery. The farmers accomplished the tasks with horse and wagon, accompanied by hand tools and a few pieces of horse-pulled machinery. In addition to the family garden they raised corn, wheat, clover, alfalfa and soybeans, rotating some from year to year.

     When they threshed wheat, I remember the field looking as if smoke covered the area from dust and husks. During any of the harvesting, when Daddy came to the house, he washed on the back roofless stoop, using basin after basin of water. Then Ivy, the hired Afro-American help, repeated the process, often removing his shirt long enough to wash the wiry debris away from his body, stopping the constant itch. In later years, when tractors and other harvesting machinery made for an easier task, a screened porch sat where the roofless stoop had been. Momma had an older style iron sink installed for the basin to sit when in use. When not in use, it hung low on the wall beside the sink. A soap dish, on the weatherboarding wall above the sink, held both Larva and Camay soap with towels on a rack by the side. During harvest time, Momma often added Johnson’s Baby Powder to the assortment on the glass shelf, hanging from a sidewall, to use for added comfort after the wash.

     Daddy had a metal lined bin, covering the floor in one room of the barn, where the wheat lay stored until he needed it. Some years, he took a portion out, giving it special care. Then he bagged it to go to the gristmill to be ground for flour. Bread made from home-raised wheat was the tastiest.

     A few days after the threshing, when the straw had dried sufficiently, Ivy raked it. Then he stacked it at regular intervals in the field, making coned shaped piles to be used as bedding for the farm animals. Before my day, many used it to make mattresses and pillows.

     The bin referred to above had a divider in the middle of the 12 feet by 12 feet room to accommodate soybeans after their harvest. Known as a cover crop, the animals also fed on the dried plants.

     When alfalfa, clover or other types of hay ripened, Daddy cut it with the horse drawn mower. And after it dried a few days, Daddy raked it into rows with a wide rake the horses pulled. Then they hauled it to the barn, and with pitchforks, throwing the dried foliage above their heads, filled the loft with alfalfa and clover before the other grasses proper for hay. It took two people—one in the wagon and the other in the loft, moving the hay back into place. They made haystacks with what wouldn’t go in the loft. Usually two tepee-like stacks stood in the barnyard, tightly packed, ready for use when needed. Until someone loosened the packed edge of the hay, the cattle left it alone. Other stacks adorned the fields where it had grown until required for use. Have you ever climbed a haystack? It could be an adventure of its own for I never made it more than an attempt.

     Daddy didn’t plant black-eyed peas in the garden, but between rows of corn. When they ripened in August and September, the weather remained hot. Having sensitive skin, I’d go to the house with red itching streaks on my face, neck, arms and legs. It took a bit of love and care before I had any comfort. Shelling those peas, unless they were very ripe, was a tedious and tiring job, but I preferred it to the gathering.

     When they pulled the corn, it went in the corncrib, which had a small crack between the horizontal boards for ventilation. When I had to shell corn months after they stored it, mice ran this way and that. They feared for their lives, especially if a barn cat or two made a dash for the prey, but I kept my distance from them. Daddy kept a reasonable number of cats to keep the mice population under control.

     Some farmers in Mathews pulled fodder (dried leaves of the corn stalks), but Daddy felt it a waste of time. Instead with the Ivy’s help, he gathered the dried corn, and then cut the stalks, with the leaves attached, off near the ground with a sharp curved knife that he called his “corn knife.” It was shaped much like a scythe. He made piles of these corn stalks, and then the two men came back, binding enough together with juke twine to stand in what we knew as shocks. When the cows and horses needed food, other than hay, Ivy went with the horse and wagon, bringing in a load of shocks from the cornfield. Like the housewife, the farmer wasted nothing.

     In later years, Daddy kept posts around the fields without cutting the corn stalks after the ears of corn had been gathered. He ran electric fences on these posts with one strand of wire around each field. Electric current ran through the wires when he connected it to the electric power. Daddy changed the current of electricity from field to field if there were several with corn. Hay fields that had not been disked or replanted also made for good grazing with electric fences. This technique saved hours of labor, especially when Daddy began raising beef cattle.
Towards the end of October or first of November, it was time to make hills for the root vegetables. Sweet potatoes had been dug and laid out to sweeten in the sun; turnips and rutabagas pulled, and any other root vegetables except white potatoes needed to be bedded down before cold weather. Our white potatoes were kept under loose boards in the barn floor, in a bed of hay both winter and summer. It served as a root cellar.
Daddy began the “potato hill” with a pile of soil, placing the potatoes spread out a layer at the time, in the center, more dirt with potatoes or other root vegetables until all were sufficiently covered. Then Daddy packed wheat or pine straw over the entire cone-shaped hill. This task couldn’t be done too soon because the vegetables would overheat and spoil if the weather was very warm. I remember in early spring that he often opened areas for air to get to the buried vegetables.

     When Mother needed vegetables to cook, usually before the weekend, Daddy opened a small area of the hill, filling the bucket with what she requested. Or if the weatherman predicted snow, Daddy would open the hill to stock up on what would be needed should we have a long freeze as we often did after snow fell. He didn’t trust anyone else to do anything to his “ potato hill.”

     Daddy passed away after a bout with cancer in 1953 just before his 51st birthday. I wonder what he’d think of modern farming since he attempted to keep up with any improvements.

© 2003 Catherine C. Brooks. All rights reserved. Contact Catherine Brooks @

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