Sept. 29, 2011
By Bill Skiff
September and October are my favorite Vermont months. The bugs are gone, the air is crisp and harvest time is just around the corner.
I enjoyed fall on the farm. It was a time of harvesting and preparing for winter. Even now I look forward to gathering apples and helping with the honey harvest. I like putting up my kayak and bringing down my skis. My leather jacket is beginning to look good again. There is something comforting about preparing for winter.
For my Aunt Lucy, fall meant canning. She fed her family and two hired men, so she needed a lot of food ”put by.” I remember helping Aunt Lucy shuck peas. She would be sitting in her rocking chair — surrounded by five bushels of peas. That’s a lot of shucking!
Going down into Aunt Lucy’s cellar and seeing the row upon row of canned goods was a sight to behold. All the colors of the rainbow adorned those shelves: red beets, yellow corn, green peas, blueberries and more kinds of pickles than you could imagine. I miss her pickled pears, and bread and butter pickles.
The dirtiest job at harvest time was thrashing oats. The trashing machine would be set up and powered by my dad’s tractor. A belt ran from the tractor’s flywheel to the trashing machine. The belt was once twisted to help keep it from flying off.
The men would throw the oats into the thrasher; my job was tending the basket where the oats came out. When the basket filled, I would pull it out, place another under the flowing oats, empty the full basket into a grain bag and do it all over again. All this time the air was blue with dust, chafe, and pieces of oat stocks. At the end of the day it was hard to tell me from a bundle of oats. Sometimes I would pray the thrasher would break down so I could get a rest. To make matters worse, the noise from the machinery was deafening. We never wore hearing protectors, so at the end of the day I was lucky if I could hear my mother’s call to dinner.
One fall, I attended a corn “husking bee,” which was when a pile of corn ears needed to have all its husks stripped off. Everyone participated and at the end of the evening most of the corn was husked. A prize was awarded to anyone who found a red ear. The prize was you got to kiss the girl of your choice. In my youngest years, I always thought trying for the prize was a waste of time because … who would want to kiss a girl? That changed in junior high.
Another exciting fall day was when the men with the traveling “drag saw” arrived. They set up their temporary sawmill and cut up dad’s logs into chunks. The men rolled the logs on to a carrier that moved them up toward the large saw blade; it “dragged” back and forth over the log cutting it into “chunks.” The chunks were as long as dad requested, usually between 12 and 14 inches.
My job was to help split the chunks into slabs, then split the slabs into pieces that would fit into mother’s cook stove. Maple and beech were fun to split — oak was not. Sometimes I would get a chunk with a knot that was impossible for me to split. I would yell, “furnace.” This meant it would be burned in the furnace. Dad made a box that was the size of the furnace door’s opening. For these larger, tougher chunks, all I had to do was chop enough wood around the edge until the box fit over it.
After finishing, we threw the chunks into the cellar and stacked mother’s kitchen wood in the shed. They say wood warms you four times: once when you cut it, once when you split it, again when you stack it, and finally when you burn it.
Harvesting is always dangerous. One day, I almost injured my friend. When the chopper cut up a bundle of corn and blew it up into the silo, I was the one who aimed the pipe to spread the corn around the silo so it piled evenly. For fun, I would sometimes try to bury my friend in the spray of chopped corn.
One day, when a bundle of corn went into the chopper, a steel knife fell in with it. When it all arrived at the end of my pipe, the corn and knife were in small pieces. I decided to spray the side of the silo — it left a row of steel pieces embedded in the silo wall. We never played the burying game again.
An old timer told me he loved living in Vermont because three times a year he changed what he wore, what he ate, and how he “recreated.” I think I’ll check to see if my leather jacket needs a little oil, cook up some new potatoes with salt pork gravy, and look for partridge. Fall has arrived.
Bill Skiff grew up on a farm between Cambridge and Jeffersonville. After a career in education, he now lives in Williston, where he is a justice of the peace and Fourth of July frog-jumping official. In “Places I’ve Played,” he shares his experiences of growing up in Vermont. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.