Mud time down on the farm.
COLUMN: ALBERT B. SOUTHWICK
Down on the farm 80-plus years ago we welcomed the occasional warm days in March. Although Old Man Winter wouldn't give up yet, he was plainly in retreat as the sun rose daily higher in the sky and the snow drifts around the old stone walls shrank to nothing.
The animals loved the sunny warmth. The horses released from their stalls did their exuberant spring exercises by rolling on the ground, feat in the air. The cows bellowed and butted each other and milled about in the barn yard, looking for some tasty green shoot to supplement their winter diet of dry hay. The chirping of birds arriving from the south was heard in the land. Evenings still occasionally turned brisk and raw, stiffening the thawing ground momentarily, but Winter could not do anything but fight a delaying action.
Farm chores had slacked off through the winter, but there still was plenty to do come March. Even a farm without electricity had to deal with mechanical contraptions. Nuts and bolts on Yankee rakes and manure spreaders had to tightened, gears and plow points had to be replaced, disk harrows and cultivators readied, wagon wheels greased, mowing machines updated with new pinion gears. It was all work for my father and older brothers, but we youngsters kind of enjoyed watching the adults banging out repairs to various gears, wheels and gadgets.
We had lesser repairs to make as well. Hammers, axes, rakes, hoes and picks sometimes had cracked or loose handles. Harness had to be repaired, mostly by bolts and rivets. My father was a master at such things. We never, as I recall, ever had a new harness. More than once, under the stress of a heavy load, the leather tugs or the whiffle tree connections would give way, sometimes almost throwing the straining horse on the ground.
Spring also meant mud. Mud in the dirt road in front of the house - mud so deep and viscous that passing cars got mired in it and had to be pulled out by our horse. Sometimes they paid, sometimes not. I remember one driver was so pleased when we pulled him out of the sucking mud onto drier land that he gave my father a 10-dollar bill. Real money in those days.
The farm yard was a sea of mud. The cows sometimes sunk almost to their waists when they tried to snag some green bit of grass just off the boundary of the barn yard. Water trickled and gushed from a thousand places. Little brooklets would form in the fields, in the barnyard in wheel tracks. The rivulets, boosted by other rivulets, became a streams, then brooks, then torrents cutting grooves in the soil.
In the chicken yard the hens and roosters scratched industriously in the mud, seeking grimy tidbits or an occasional kernel of corn.
Small boys don't mind mud. They love it. March was a time for playing in puddles, creating small dams and watching the water course down the gutters of the dirt road. In the adjoining woods, brooklets and bigger streams foamed over rocks and barriers in a cacophony of silvery, frothy spray. Down at the dam at the big pond beyond our farm was a thunderous marvel of a waterfall.
We could play for hours there, sometimes just gazing at the remarkable patterns of the flowing water molded as if in a glass Many sticks played the role of great ships going to destruction over the falls. Water, whether inert or thunderous, fascinates.
Down below, maybe a hundred feet from the roiling falls, the churning water would flatten out and course more calmly, bearing globs and clunks of froth and foam which quietly dissipated on its way to the ocean.
But the big excitement of March came when my older brother determined that it was maple syrup time. That meant getting out the hundreds of metal buckets and spiles (this was before the era of plastic tubing) and tapping the sugar maples. We tapped the big ones along the county road in front of our house and at various places in the vicinity. We put out as many as 2,000 taps some years. On a warm day the sap almost spurted out of the tap holes and made a steady ping-ping-ping as it dripped into the buckets. A day or so later we would gather the clear sap and take it to the big tank at the sap house where the big evaporator, 16 feet long, in a white boil, sent up clouds of steam. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of maple syrup, and more to make sugar, so you can see that the sap house was one busy place.
So those are some of the sweet memories I have about March down on the farm. It was a special time at a special place.
Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.