Hillmount Farms on Edwards Hill Road was made of many rolling hills. The Ranger’s team of horses was his companion for many days of labor. The team drew the plow over the hilly terrain. There were several kinds of plows used by the farmers, such as the side hill plow, flat land plow, and sulky plow. The Ranger used the side hill plow most, for plowing deep furrows, turning the sod to the right as he went up and around and down a field. The next furrow overlapped, falling into the path of the one just plowed.
Long wooden curved handles were fastened to the plow for the farmer to hold onto. It was difficult for the teamer to hold the lines, so he tied them together and threw them over his shoulder. They dropped to his waist, leaving him in control of the plowing. The horses were well trained with “gee” to turn to the right and “haw” to turn to the left. The horses understood these words.
Ranger Bowback, as my father John Dalaba liked to call himself, was the name of the farmer. He spent many hours plowing the gardens and fields. It must have been tiring with the hot sun beating on his head. Papa shielded himself with a wide-brimmed hat, usually straw in summer. He wore felt in winter.
The rocks could hold the seeds to be planted. They could even be a seat for the farmer for a brief moment of rest. The farmer did not take a long break at his work.
Some fields were furrowed out for potatoes after being plowed and dragged. Papa liked the potato rows to be even. It was important to him to have a nice field of potatoes. He must start at plowing time. He liked to work in well-prepared fields. The furrowing wasn’t as deep as the plowing.
Often, plowing brought angleworms to light. We children followed the plow and picked them up. The Ranger didn’t go fishing often, but there were a few times. The Ranger’s wife, my mother Hester Dalaba, cooked the fish he caught in one of the large family fry pans—the one often used for frying pork.
The Ranger carried his fishhooks as attractions on the band of his hat. In those days of saving and salvage, his hat was where he put his gum between chewings. Gum was a luxury. Sometimes the Ranger found a stand of spruce trees, and he would collect spruce gum for himself and his family. It was the only gum the Ranger’s wife considered chewing. Spruce gum is tasty. Some records tell of the men who went gumming. The spruce gum was even boxed and sold. It was an aid to digestion. We also chewed the bark of the yellow birch, which had a taste similar to wintergreen.
I remember the sowing of buckwheat, oats, or grass seed like a pretty picture. From the pail carried on his arm, the Ranger would dip his hand into the grain and go up and down the field to broadcast it. He knew how to make it sift from his hand a few seeds at a time and when to hold it back. This could be compared to the farmer’s wife with her spinning. She must have the feel of the wool and know how much to let leave her hand as she spins. So with the farmer, but his wife has a long needle on the end of the distaff and a wheel to turn. The farmer walks back and forth, back and forth as he sows the grains.
It was best not to sow the grain when there was much wind. With the buckwheat and grass seed especially, it was good to drag it in before the birds swooped in for a quick and easy supper.
The Ranger also planted great fields of corn. This called for a watchful eye because the crows seemed to know when he had planted. In those days farmers often tarred the seed corn, mixing on some tar before planting. Even after the corn started to grow, the crows still pulled much of it.
Sometimes the Ranger used his rifle to kill a few crows. Sometimes he made scarecrows to fool the crows into thinking someone was there. How much was tradition I do not know. Perhaps it helped. It is interesting to see the scarecrows in the fields. Even if it is superstition, it shows ingenuity, and is a cornfield complete without at least one scarecrow?
Much of the buckwheat was for family eating after it was ground. Some was for the animals. A buckwheat field in blossom is beautiful and smells sweet. As we come close to the field we hear the hum of the bees. Buckwheat honey is good. The Ranger watched closely as the little grains of buckwheat formed. It must be cut at the right time and not left so long that it becomes dry and falls off.
Early, while the dew was still on, the buckwheat was cut, dried, and laid on the barn floor, which had first been swept clean. The flail was knocked off the grain and then shoveled up and put into the fanning mill. As the crank turned the dust fell away, and the good buckwheat was saved. The straw was used for bedding the animals.
The Ranger took the buckwheat to the local gristmill, where Wilbur Hitchcock ground it into flour. Even the “canal”, as old timers called it, was saved for grain and mixed with other seed. Both Frank Allen and his son Delbert had mills, too. This buckwheat flour was quite yellow and made pancakes a rich yellowish-brown. The Dalaba family ate a lot of pancakes—made with freshly churned buttermilk and a little sour cream. We didn’t use much baking powder with fresh buttermilk, just adding salt and baking soda.
Oats also were cut when the dew was on the field. The horses drew their food to the barn. What they or the cows didn’t eat could be used as bedding.
As we think back to these old fields, we see the cultivator used in the potato fields and cornfields my father called “chunks.” Only one horse was used to draw the cultivator, which went between rows to destroy weeds and work the ground for easier hoeing. Each potato plant, each hill of corn must have individual attention besides the group therapy given by the cultivator and shovel plow. How these fields were like people! At harvest time the lovely shocks of corn were cut and bound with a corn leaf. These stood in the fields, beautiful for the eye and for the eye of the camera, but I had no camera in those days.
Weeding is hard work and helps form the bowed back. No wonder my father called himself Ranger Bowback. He had so much corn and potatoes planted. It took so much of his time to care for them. He was industrious. He liked his beautiful cornfield and his fields he called potato “chunks.” They were made by his plowing art, his weaving of our Hillmount Farms fields, his beautiful artwork. There were different kinds and colors of potatoes—red, white, even purple. The Ranger dumped them into bins in the cellar where he often invited visitors for a look. Sometimes the Ranger would weigh potatoes alone or by the basket. He would leave them handy for his wife to cook for regular meals. Potatoes were served from one to three times a day.
When it was time to cultivate the corn, the Ranger had his girls ride the horses. That was the horseback riding we had. As the Ranger guided the plow, the girls chosen for the job would sit astride the horse, one leg on each side and dangling. Yes, in a dress. Up and down the rows trying to direct the horses. It got tiresome.
One day stands vivid in my mind. After what seemed like hours going up and down the rows of corn by the “Snake Rock,” after a few tangles in the yellow birch tree, Papa asked me. “Do you want to ride to the barn or get off and walk?” I made the wrong decision. “I’ll walk,” I said. Certainly I was tired enough from riding. Mind you, this was not in a saddle or on a riding horse, just a big workhorse. I hadn’t realized how my legs would rebel. The walk down the hill was all I could take. Could I have looked like I had been bent into a bow, ready to shoot an arrow? How I ached! If I hadn’t hurt so badly I would probably have soon forgotten the experience. This seems to be how we learn our lessons in life. The hurts help us remember.
Now there’s no Ranger Bowback – and no cornfield and no cultivating to do. The deep nostalgia still hurts, for the lessons I learned from the Ranger, and how we all shared together on the farm when we had him, our Papa.
Two rows of potatoes were dug, and as we looked up the rows, the potatoes were pretty. Not just the usual rounds and ovals, but, to us, potatoes with arms and legs, even looking like animals. I am sorry for the children who only know store-bought potatoes. Even if these irregular potatoes were not easy “peelers,” they were interesting.
We enjoyed watching our father working, and he was pleased when we stopped by on those long tiring days. How lonely he must have been. As a family of mostly girls, we learned to help with the farm work. We helped in the gardens, in raking hay, in “making load” and “mowing away” the haymow. We helped bring in the sheep, turn the crank for shearing, and we helped “getting” the cows. Many times we took meals to the Ranger, so he could have hot meals in the hayfield.
The lumber wagon was used as an all-purpose farm wagon. In the fall it was used to bring in the produce from the gardens. The shocks of corn were loaded on the wagon, and it took many trips to bring the corn to the barn floor. There it was stored for husking at night after the chores were done or on a stormy day.
Pumpkins, which were so picturesque among the cornstalks, were hauled down for home use, many to be cooked for the hogs. Doesn’t fresh pork, corn-on-the-cob, homegrown boiled potatoes, and milk gravy sound good? Then top that with Mama’s pumpkin pies from farm fresh eggs and milk or cream! Most farm wives knew how to put it together. Jack-o-lanterns with their happy faces could be recycled for pig food. Even the pumpkin skin was reusable.
The farm wagon brought in the burlap bags of potatoes, maybe 50 or 60 bushels, which would feed the family during the winter months and still leave some to sell. Along with the fruits and vegetables in the cellar, there should be enough.
On the Willey Place and our other back areas on Hillmount Farms, the lumber wagon with its high wheels and iron rims jostled and rumbled over the country trails. Many bushels of apples were collected, Queens, Ben Davis, Snowflakes, Wolfe Rivers, and many more varieties. These were used for pies, jelly, applesauce, cider vinegar, and snacks for the family. We didn’t have potato chips and corn chips. Candy was a Christmas treat.
The cellar was filled with the aroma from the apples. Boxes and bins were sorted over and over to remove any rotten apples. A bad apple could spoil a whole bin of apples.
“As one rotten apple put into a barrel of good apples will tend to destroy the whole barrel of apples; therefore, if we keep company with evil, we become evil.” The Ranger’s wife found many suitable teachings for everyday life. From the Bible: “Wisdom is better than weapons of war; but one sinner destroyeth much good.” (Ecclesiastes 9:18).
Because we used wood stoves at our house—sometimes three or four—woodcutting was a continuous job. This was when axes, crosscut saws, or two-man saws were used, before Papa had a chainsaw to lighten his labors on the farm.
The Ranger was selective in cutting. He needed trees for logs and pulp as a money crop as well as for firewood. He needed the maples for his maple sugar business. There always have been dying trees because of age or circumstances—whether insects, maybe from ice or snow damage or high winds and lightning. Worms make inroads, and blight hits and destroys. The dead and damaged trees needed to be taken down to make more productive forests. Some good, living trees were cut to provide long-burning, “holding” fires.
Papa knew how important it was to have plenty of dry wood and kindling, which is better for whittling. A match touched to this kindling starts a fire quickly even without kerosene. It saves on the kerosene smell, too. “You should never use more than a tablespoon of kerosene to build a fire,” my mother used to say.
The farm had many lots of hardwood. There were beech, yellow birch, white birch, maple, elm, cherry, ash, and ironwood, also called hardtack. Fruits of the apple, plum, cherry, and crab apple trees went into jellies. Softwood trees included spruce, pine, hemlock, and balsam.
When the large loads of wood were to be hauled, the Ranger used log chains to secure them. The horse also drew the “jumper,” a sleigh-like wagon used in spring for surgaring, drawing the gathering tank for gathering sap, or bringing the maple syrup to the house. One style of jumper brought firewood to the sugarhouse.
One time the Ranger even used the farm wagon. My sister Rose and I were working inside the sugarhouse helping with boiling the sap while Papa did some hand gathering from the buckets on trees near our sugarhouse. He left the horses still hitched to the wagon. I looked out to see horses eating close to the rock. I was afraid they would get a wheel on the rock and tip over the wagon. I went out to guide them from the rock. I must have pulled the wrong way, wouldn’t you know it? Right over the rock!
One spring Papa had to stay late at the sugarhouse to keep with the boiling. He let Rose and me bring the horses to the barn.
“Do not let the horses go through the Lane together,” he fully counseled us. “When you get to the gate, separate them and just let one go through at a time. Wait, then let the next one go through, while you hold the other.” We drove the horses, minus the wagon, to the gate, as instructed. There we unhitched them from each other. We let each go, holding the other. Both were in a hurry as all animals are at night, hurrying to the barn for night feeding. Maybe we were tired, too, because we had walked behind the horses. We stood by the gate opening and looked ahead.
“The Lane” was one big drift of snow even though this was spring. It got a big sweep of wind and drifted full. The snow was about as deep as the horses legs—if they were touching bottom. The lead horse went through about halfway, about by “The Rotten Egg Rock.” She was trying to make it through and looked like she was hopping. The barn offered the challenge because they were spurred on by hunger and perhaps fright. When the first horse was halfway through, we decided she would be through by the time the next horse came, so we let the second horse go. In great strides, in spite of the snow, she went faster and caught up with horse number one. Both seemed to try for the same foothold. Side by side they were soon together and their harnesses caught. They kept going and broke their harnesses.
What a shame! This was during such a busy time. Rose and I felt so bad, but we did not have the experience equal to adults that could help us know what to do.
The Ranger came home at the end of boiling the maple sap, so tired. Then he had the harnesses to repair for the next workday. What hours of toil for the farmer. What long days! Papa said he had told us to wait until the first horse was through. We explained, and he was so patient. I do not remember any scolding. We had tried to obey but didn’t wait long enough. Sometimes our reasoning can lead to trouble. What a lesson for life!
Reverend Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen wrote these essays as a part of her 1997 book Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack Farmer, about life on a farm in Baker’s Mills in Johnsburg, NY in the early 20th century. Selections from the book are published here with the permission of the Allen family. Special thanks to Kjerstia Allen, Ed Zahniser, Evelyn Schaefer Greene, and Jan Reelitz for making this available for publication. To order a copy of Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack Farmer, send $10 to Kjerstia Allen, PO Box 47, Bakers Mills, NY 12811.