Saturday, June 25, 2011

On the Farm ~ Plowing the Land for Planting

On June 4, 2011 the 8th annual meeting of the Byron Herbert Reece Society met at the Reece Farm and Heritage Center. I wrote about that in my column for June 9. While we met there, many memories of growing up on a nearby farm to the Reece family flooded my memory. I decided to pursue a series of columns with the designation “On the Farm.” These will explore the almost-lost techniques my father and farmers before him in Choestoe Valley, and yes, on mountain farms in general, used in the last century and earlier to cultivate the land and produce crops for family consumption and for market.

Although June is late to write about “turning”—or plowing the land and preparing it for planting—for by this date crops should be up and growing and in the cultivation stage prior to being “laid by.” Nevertheless I will begin this series with a backward look at that very necessary step to successful farming. Why was plowing (turning) the land necessary and how was it done before the days of mechanization of farms?

Until after the end of World War II, most farmers in the Choestoe Valley still followed the practices of their forebears, using beasts of burdens and not tractors as the chief means of powering the farm implements used.

Turning, a term we used for the initial plowing of the land to prepare for planting crops, began as soon as any hard freezes of the land had passed and the land had dried out enough not to cause excessive clodding when the plow went its rounds to break up the ground. If the acres had lain fallow, or if residue, like rows of corn stalks or debris from previous crops were on the land, these were “cut up” by running a drag over the land to lower them. This was a heavy homemade implement to which the mules or work horses could be hitched. This dragging helped to crush the debris of previous crops and at the same time the crushed foliage would itself become a fertilizer enriching the land. Then the work mules or horses were harnessed and hitched up to the “double-tree” two-horse turning plow. This plow was a heavy instrument, and required the plowman to learn just how to maneuver it into the ground to turn a furrow. If the farmer chose to plow in straight rows, turning the loam, he would always begin so that the turned furrow would fall to the right. Then, if he were doing straight plowing, he would angle and turn at the end of the field and return close to the first furrow, thus turning the broken dirt into what was called a “double furrow.” The one handling a plow would proceed in like manner, back and forth, until the whole field was turned (plowed).

Some farmers began to break up the soil by starting to plow in the middle of a field, breaking a short row there, then proceeding outward from this beginning, circling and plowing close to each previous cut through the soil. This “strip plowing” method required the farmer to turn his team by tipping the plow onto its right side on the strip ends and turning his plow and team around, working outward in this way from the center of the field until all the area was plowed. These furrows had to be close together so that the land would be sufficiently broken.

Another important pre-plowing task was to spread manure from the barns or compost pile as a supplement to the soil. This process of scattering the fertilizer preceded the plowing of the land. Farmers interested in conservation of the land and good yields from their crops did not neglect this step in soil preparation.

Plowing turns the soil over, loosens and aerates it, and helps to kill the weeds that would rob the planted crop of soil nutrients. Plowing also makes the soil more pliable and easier to work in as the planting and cultivating processes are done later in the seasonal procedures.

Turning is hard work, both for the farmer and his animals. Rest stops and time-outs are required so as not to exert cruelty on work animals and overdue exertion on the person behind the plow. Two acres was a good accomplishment for a day’s work in turning the land in preparation for planting.

Following turning, the next step in land preparation is harrowing the plowed field to break up clods and smooth the land. A “wire harrow,” or one made with prongs that extended down to break and smooth out the plowed land would be dragged over the land for several times, again using horse power. Then came the invention of disk harrows, implements that cut down more into the plowed ground and assisted greatly in smoothing out the soil.

Much has been written about the invention of the first plow. In ancient times, sticks and stones were used for turning the land. Then some inventive farmer got the idea of hitching a work animal to a stick plow and thus lessening the human exertion the process required. In 1833 in Joliet, Illinois, a farmer named John Lane was credited with making the first steel plow, an instrument more durable as the prairie sod was turned. Four years later, also in Illinois (Grand Detour), John Deere, a blacksmith, made further improvements on John Lane’s moldboard plow. He began to make the instruments in his blacksmith shop. That was the beginning of the famous John Deere Farming Implements and Tractor Company that became such a boon to agriculture throughout America and abroad.

When the tractor became available and farmers could get enough money together to afford one, or purchase it “on time” with future crops in guaranty against the loan, a new day for agriculture came to mountain farms. It was still hard to drive a tractor and maneuver the plows and harrows correctly and required learning and practice. But the hard work and time of preparing the fields for planting were cut immeasurably by this innovation to the old methods of farming.

Farming has changed probably as much as any occupation and has evolved through the decades with new inventions and changes in farming practices. I recently read that many are advocating now that the turning, or initial plowing, depletes the land, causes erosion, and should not be done. But my mind still goes back to the days when my father took great pride in his plowed field, with soil prepared to receive the seeds. As he looked on the acres spread out awaiting their crop seeds, he knew he had done a good job in the spring process of preparing the land for planting.

The poet Raymond E. Weece expressed this pride and joy in his poem, “Walking the Plow”:

“I loved to walk in the furrow

Behind a walking plow,

Watching the fresh earth roll

From a moldboard’s prow.”
c2011 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published June 23, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Summer Daddy Found the Spring (A True Story Remembered)

It was a hot dry summer, much like this May and June 2011 has been. Water was scarce, and crops looked pitiful in the fields. To complicate matters, our well went dry. What were we to do for drinking water?

I don’t remember the exact year, somewhere in the ‘30’s after the economy, too, had fallen in the crash of October, 1929. Times were hard, and to have the well go dry was adding another angst to the already long list of woes the farmers in Choestoe Community faced.

I was old enough to remember, and to think of how serious was our situation. I remember my father, J. Marion Dyer, praying that he could find water as he went on his search.

Remembering this incident, I thought it quite strange that he went out to one of the peach trees near our garden and looked until he found a branch. He cut it, and in his hands he held a “y”-shaped limb.

With the limb in one hand and a shovel in the other, he went walking down the dirt road by our house. I was following close behind him, full of curiosity. When he got to the trail that angled up on the bank, the trail on which we drove our cows daily to pasture, he turned right. I followed right behind him, stepping fast to keep up with him and see where he was headed.

We had a v-shaped walk-through entrance in the fence leading to the pasture where people could enter but where the animals could not get through. Dad went through this entrance, and there I was, following not far behind him. He propped his shovel at the fence and moved on. He proceeded on through the pasture, and after descending the hill we were in sort of a little valley, with a stream, now only a trickle from the drought, providing the only water our cattle had to drink, since our well was dry and we could not fill the watering troughs at the barn.

Daddy made a right turn again, and walked a distance into the glade. On each side of the now nearly-dry stream elder bushes grew. These too, looked skimpy in that hot, dry summer heat. Even in the mountains of North Georgia, the weather was unseasonably hot.

I saw my father grip the peachtree limb by its forked prongs, holding it out before him. In my childlike way, I wondered what he was doing with the limb and why he held it at an upward angle out in front of him as he walked. On he went, gripping the limb and looking carefully down at the ground. He seemed to be concentrating in a very concerned way, and I kept very quiet, not daring to break his reverie or interfere with his strange actions.

He walked on in the low place in our pasture, many paces, the peachtree limb held upward as he gripped its forked prongs in both his hands.

Then, amazingly, the limb tipped over as if by magic, as if pulled by a gravity that defied reason. Daddy let the limb down to mark the spot where some force had pulled it. Leaving the branch on the spot, he went back to the fence to retrieve the shovel he had left there. Bringing it to the location of the peachtree limb, he began to dig.

I stood watching as he lifted shovelful after shovelful of dirt from the ground. He had dug down, maybe a foot or more, when, miraculously, a gushing stream of water came forth, bubbling like a fountain.

He had found a bubbling spring, buried underneath the soil right in our pasture. It was not long until water was flowing out. He dug deeper, smoothing and making a circular opening, and also digging a trench for the water to run away from its bubbling source.

Daddy had found a source of water. Most of that day was spent digging the spring deeper and shoring up this marvelous watering place, building a rock wall around it on three sides. He also went back to the house to get some lumber. He built a large spring box over the stream that flowed out from the bold spring. This spring box would be our “refrigerator” in the days before electricity came to our farm, the place where we would place our jugs of milk to keep them cold. Later, he would replace the temporary “spring box” by a springhouse, a more permanent building with space to set butter and other items, as well as the milk we needed to refrigerate.

The water bubbling out from this marvelous spring was cold and clear, tasteful and pure. I had heard the story of how Moses in the long ago wilderness wandering days had struck the rock and water poured forth. My Daddy had dug into the earth at a certain spot and water bubbled forth.

Another necessary job was to erect a strong fence around the area of the spring so that the farm animals that were pastured in the same vicinity would not break through and trample on or otherwise molest this source for family water. As the summer moved along, he made the new spring an oasis, a beautiful place to go to fetch water, and a quiet, cool place apart where we could go and rest awhile from field labors.

When rains came again to water our valley, our well was restored to its former productivity. We no longer had to carry water in buckets the half-mile from the spring in the midst of the pasture to the house for our daily use. But we kept up the spring, kept the foliage trimmed from around it, and kept the springhouse as the place for our refrigeration until electricity finally came to the valley later on.

Today, with many seasons having come and gone since that bubbling spring was discovered that summer day in the 1930’s, I’m not sure if it still bubbles forth in the midst of that little dell near the elder bushes in our old pasture. In fact, the land has changed and been developed since those long ago days when a family was desperate for water.

In memory I think back to that day when in wonder I followed Daddy as he held his peachtree limb in front of him, and with a prayer on his lips went forth to find water. There was a name for the peachtree limb: it was called a ‘witching stick.’ And the person who held it just so to find water was called ‘a witcher.’ Thinking about it, it doesn’t sound so good, as if the person endowed with such a gift would have some power of a darker nature as bestowed by witches or seers. This method was also used to detect water deep beneath the ground as folks in our community sought to find the right spot to dig a new well. Whatever the power, whether of gravity working on the chemistry in a peachtree limb, whether coincidence, or whatever, it seemed to work.

Now there are technological imaging devices that declare a source of water before well drillers take their machines and quickly get to the source of water. But back in the days of our forefathers, they used what they knew in the ways common to their culture. And, miraculously, these ways seemed to bring the desired results. After finding the spring, we didn’t take water for granted any more. We thanked God for clear, pure water.

c2011 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published June 16, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Preserving Reece Legacy Celebrated at 8th Annual Society Meeting

The weather was already hot, even in the “cool” mountain region in the shadow of Blood and Bald Mountains in North Georgia on Saturday, June 4, 2011 as members and friends of the Bryon Herbert Reece Society gathered at the Reece Farm and Heritage Center just north of famed Vogel State Park for the first annual meeting held at the farm, the eighth annual meeting of the Society.

The weather did not deter the spirit, or even the comfort, of those gathered under the newly-erected pavilion on the grounds of the Reece Farm. It was a day of celebrating and rejoicing. The cool mountain breezes vied and won over the intense rays of the sun, and everyone present knew they were experiencing history—even making it—by being a participant at the first annual meeting of the Society to be held on the Reece grounds.

I heard from participants, “This is a miracle!” And so it was, as earthly projects go, to have come so far in only nine years since the initial organizational meeting of the Society in 2003. The stated purpose of the Byron Herbert Reece Society reads: “to preserve, perpetuate, and promote the literary and cultural legacy of the Georgia mountain poet/novelist, Byron Herbert Reece. In addition to enhancing both knowledge of and appreciation for his writings, efforts will be made to honor his way of life, with particular emphasis on his love of nature and his attachment to farming.” (from membership brochure).

And the miracle of Saturday, June 4, 2011, lay in the fact that we were meeting at the Reece Farm and Heritage Center, still a work-in-progress, but far enough along to be able to see and celebrate the restoration of the Reece family home as the Welcome Center, his writing studio, Mulberry Hall (in progress), the barn and corncrib and other out buildings, a parking lot, pedestrian trails, and the open-air pavilion under which we met down the former cornfield a ways from the house.

At the helm of this nine-year effort Dr. John Kay, first chairman of the Society, and his wife Patti of Young Harris were honored with an engraved plaque thanking them for their selfless and intensive volunteer service during these nine initial years. We all joined in a hearty and rousing “thank you!” At the head of every noble endeavor is a leader who is inspired with a vision, the ability to lead others, and the skill of promoting without being dictatorial. And Dr. John Kay has provided that consistent and quiet leadership, supported always by Patti who shares the same ideals and dreams of the purposes of the Reece Society. We salute and thank them.

Saturday’s event on the farm also featured as our program guests, Dr. Jim Clark and Friends, who have recorded a dozen Reece poems on disk entitled in Reece’s own lines, “The Service of Song.” This professor of Southern Literature and Writer-in-Residence at Barton College at Wilson, NC sang and played his instrument as he and Terry Phillips, guitarist, of Nashville and Katy Adams, guitarist and harmony singer, of Greensboro thrilled us with five renditions from “The Service of Song,” the words of which are Reece’s poems: “I Go by Way of Rust and Flame,” “The Stay at Home,” “Lest the Lonesome Bird,” “Monochord” (a Petrarchan sonnet), and “Mountain Fiddler.” This last poem was included in our packet as a laminated bookmark for us to take home, read and enjoy at leisure.

Prominent in the progress has been chairman of the Reece Farm and Development Committee, Mr. Fleming Weaver who has headed the effort in plans and progress of the restoration and buildings. In his presentation, he gave special credit to Architect Garland Reynolds who designed the complex and gave his time and expertise free of charge to the Society.

Bringing greetings were Mr. George Berry, former chairman of the Georgia Department of Tourism and Trade, who, in his remarks, stated that some remarked it would be a “cold day” when the Reece Center would be developed, but that it is a “hot day” (namely June 4 when we were meeting at the site) for the bold project honoring Reece, for he, his works and his memory are at the heart of the project. Dr. Ron Roach, vice-chairman of the Society, brought greetings from Young Harris College and stated that Reece can hardly be thought of apart from his association with the college and poet-in-residence/teacher there. Nephew of the poet, Terry Reece, in words akin in spirit to those of his uncle, remembered as a child being with his mother, Lorena Duckworth Reece, and his siblings Tommy, June and Connie (a baby on a blanket) in the very spot of the pavilion as they hoed the field of corn that grew where the pavilion now stands. He spoke of the rhythm and flow of Wolf Creek that meanders through the farm and of the majestic hills that form the backdrop of the Reece farm. He thanked the Society for preserving the site for posterity.

Some of the other projects of the Society in its nine-year history have been “Reece in the Schools,” headed by chairman Carol Knight. Present to read her poem was the 2011 winner of the youth poetry contest, as well as Valerie Nieman, poet and novelist, winner in the adult division, who read her poem, “Apocrypha,” introduced by contest chairman Rosemary Royston who coordinated the first poetry contest.

Union County Commissioner Lamar Paris, was prevented by another obligation from being present. His contributions were noted by Chairman Kay, who read a letter of commendation from Mr. Paris for the hard work and progress made to date on the Center, as well as the recent work of Winkler & Winkler, local contractors, who brought the project from a near-standstill when the original contractor could not continue with the project.

After lunch under the tent, served by Sodexo of Young Harris College, tours of the facility arranged by Fleming Weaver and his committee, completed the full and celebratory day. Groups formed at the barn and corncrib, and especially at Mulberry Hall, the restored writing studio Reece built for himself after he erected the “new” home for his parents (now the welcome center). At Mulberry Hall, about-to-be Eagle Scout Tucker Knight calmly and confidently explained why he had chosen restoration of the interior of Mulberry Hall as his project.

Present was Karen Deem, partner in Deem-Loureiro Productions Inc., who headed “Vocies…Finding Byron Herbert Reece,” the video recently aired on Georgia Public Television and now in nomination for an Emmy Award in the category of educational and documentary films. Ms. Deem is working on interpretive educational signs that will be on display about the farm site. Present also were Dr. Bettie Sellers of Young Harris College and Dr. Helen Lewis, a retired Appalachian Studies professor, who headed the interviews for “The Bitter Berry with Friends,” remembrances from people who knew Reece. Mr. and Mrs. John Pentecost were recognized. This couple has donated their extensive collection of Appalachian farm and home tools and household implements to the Society for display at the site.

Since 2003 much progress has been made toward “preserving, perpetuating and promoting the literary and cultural legacy of Byron Herbert Reece.” Highway 129 from the old courthouse in Blairsville to the top of Neel Gap is now the Byron Herbert Reece Memorial Highway, by act of the Georgia Legislature. I, for one, am grateful that I signed on as a charter member of the Society nine years ago in 2003. Go to the Society’s website to keep abreast of progress. In the future (not for a while, for more work is in process) plan to visit the Reece Farm and Heritage Center, or better still, find out how you can help in this bold project. And if you haven’t yet read works of this mountain farmer/poet, find his four books of poetry and two novels and become a fan of this literary genius and his works.

What a great day of celebration was June 4, 2011!

c2011 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published June 9, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

June 6 ~ Anniversary of Normandy Beach Invasion, World War II

Many months and much secrecy went into planning maneuvers of the Normandy Beach Invasion of France. D-Day, June 6, 1944, has been termed “the longest day” as well as D-Day, the day on which a planned operation of warfare was to be implemented. Some like to call it “debarkation day,” the day when the actual offensive was launched.

General Dwight Eisenhower had been made Allied Supreme Commander of the forces planning for D-Day. Allies were lined up and included Great Britain, Canada, the United States, Free France and Poland. Parts of France had already capitulated to the Germans in 1940 and were occupied by the enemy. At least six months of intensive training, assimilation of forces and war materials, planning and top secrecy went into the preparation of this massive invasion of the Normandy Beachhead of France. The English Channel was the division line that had to be crossed from England to the beach on the French coast.

Operation Overlord was the overall name for the offensive attack. Two major phases were planned. The airborne assault was to land 24,000 British, Canadian, American and Free French troops shortly after midnight by parachute. The amphibious divisions were to land 195,700 naval and merchant naval personnel from over 5,000 ships. These soldiers and sailors were to cross the English Channel from the United Kingdom and were assigned specifically to a fifty-mile stretch of Normandy Beach. Due to inclement weather the assault had to be delayed, but still the weather played an important role.

General Eisenhower’s message sent to all the Allied Expeditionary Forces stated: “You are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months.” In his pocket was another note to be read if the invasion failed. Fortunately for the allies, that note did not have to be read. June 6, 1944 arrived, and early in the morning airborne troops were the first wave, followed by seaborne troops at 6:30 a. m.

June 4 had been set as the launch day, but weather and tides delayed the operation two days. A full moon was needed for illumination and a spring tide was necessary for landing along Normandy Beach. The Germans thought the weather would prevent any invasion and had let down their guard somewhat, but chief allied meteorologist Captain J. M. Stagg, General Bernard Montgomery and Chief of Staff Walter Bedelle advised General Eisenhower to proceed on June 6. The German army was scattered and was only about 50% strong at the time of the invasion. This did not mean that the enemy was not still formidable; they were. But weather conditions, surprise and strength of the offensive contributed to the victory at Normandy.

The British Second Army with 83,000 troops landed at Sword, Juno and Gold. The US First Army with 73,000 soldiers, including 15,600 paratroopers, landed at Omaha Beach and Utah Beach. Omaha Beach was the most strongly fortified of any of those attacked. General Omar Bradley thought of abandoning the attack, but decided to stick with it, reinforce and expand operations, and struggled for survival and rescue.

At Utah Beach, the troop landing was off course and instead of debarking at Tare Green as planned, they went westward to Uncle Red and went ashore at a place they called the Victor sector. Maybe the name was prophetic, for we lost fewer troops at Utah Beach than any of the Normandy offensives. Only 197 Americans lost their lives there. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. said, upon finding they were not at their targeted landing: “We will start the war from right here.” And that they did. They had great success in conquering the Utah Beach section of Normandy.

The story was somewhat sadder for Americans at a place called Pointe du Hoc. German gun placements were atop 100-feet high cliffs there. They had to scale the cliffs in the dark with ropes and ladders at 5:30 in the morning. After two days of hard fighting, 60% of the men who had landed were among the dead.

The fighting from June 6, 1944 through June 30, 1944 required great bravery. In 24 days the allies gained a firm foothold in Normandy. In all the annals of war history, the Normandy Beachhead landing was the largest amphibious and air landing before or since in history.

The casualties were extremely heavy for Americans and Allied troops. Many tourists now visit the beaches of Normandy to view the cemeteries with white crosses marking the graves of those who lost their lives and noted battlefields where thousands fell. Streets in towns are named for battles. A Museum of Peace is located at Coen. And in memory we recall the ultimate price for freedom thousands paid at the invasion of Normandy on D-Day in Operation Overlord.

c2011 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published June 2, 2011 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.