Written by Melanie Eberhardt
I’ve been thinking about my Grandpa today. Born just after the turn of the last century, he was a farmer. He never owned a farm, he was a tenant farmer. Horses weren’t for leisure, they were tools.
Grandpa worked with other laborers tending to several farms owned by a wealthy, old man who lived in the next county. If you’ve never been there, northwest Ohio is pretty flat. Before it was settled it was heavily wooded. My great, great, great grandpa moved there from North Carolina and cleared 40 acres for farming. Everything is set on a square grid with a line of trees and small groves lining the perimeter of each farm. The tree lines serve not only to define one’s property but also as windbreaks so the topsoil does not blow away. They also provide shelter for wildlife (deer, squirrels, birds, rabbits) that in turn fed the farmers.
No one had money. No one had a car. You got up early and worked your ass off all day. When you got home at night, you ate what you grew in your garden, butchered or shot out back in the woods.
When my Grandpa was a young man working the fields, he did so with a team of horses. On a good day they might plow five acres. When it was time to harvest hay for the winter, the men would take the doors off the barn and hitch them to the team. The horses walked between the rows of cut hay, dragging the big barn door while the men piled on loose hay. When the stack got too big, the second barn door was placed on top of the hay and lashed to the one on the ground. The men formed an “oreo cookie” then walked the team back to the barn. Using the winch, the team pulled the “hay cookie” into the loft then unlashed the two doors releasing the hay. They did this over and over until all the hay was harvested and hopefully the barn was full too. One of Grandpa’s best days was when the old man he worked for bought a used tractor. It changed his life, made farming more efficient, not sure it made farming any easier.
I’ve been thinking about my Grandpa today. I hear folks yearn for ‘simpler by-gone days’ but I don’t believe they were simple. I think those days were incredibly difficult. If you didn’t work hard, your family might not eat. Life was a series of repetitive tasks aligned with the seasons and conditional to your family’s survival. When Grandpa was driving his team back and forth across hundreds of acres of flat farmland, he wasn’t thinking ‘man, I could really use a break. I think I’ll run down the street for a double chocolate espresso from Starbucks’ – a concern on my mind today. He was thinking about the soil, seeds, the meaning of those passing clouds, did his horses need to rest, how many more rows could he finish before it got dark. He walked back and forth in those fields for decades.
No, those were not ‘the good old days’, they were the ‘hard as hell old days’. Romantic me might dream of that lifestyle but practical me kicks in after a few minutes. Honestly, I get annoyed that the microwave can’t thoroughly heat my frozen dinner in under 3 minutes! How could I possibly cope with decades of field walking?
I’ve been thinking about my Grandpa today. What would he think about today’s technology: giant tractors that plow hundreds of acres a day navigated by robotic GPS; genetically enhanced produce; cloned animals and if my Grandpa had one back then, how many steps his Fitbit would count each day walking those flat Ohio fields.