October 31, 2014

Places I’ve Played: Dick and the buckle

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Molly and Maude pull the Skiffs in a sleigh. The author and his father stand outside the sleigh, while his mother and cousin Martha take a seat. (Observer courtesy photo)

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Bill Skiff continues to follow Dick’s bridle around—now in the form of a belt buckle. (Observer courtesy photo)

By Bill Skiff

July 25th, 2013

When Dad moved onto our farm in the fall of 1938, he found that a team of workhorses came along with the purchase. Their names were Mollie and Maude and they were a matched pair. If it weren’t for a few white hairs on Molly’s forelegs, you would have thought they were twins.

They became willing workers and family pets. Each was a handsome black, very strong, gentle and well trained.

Molly and Maude would start every load with equal effort. They never slacked when it came to work. They never let each other down when the work called for equal effort.

They also possessed plenty of horse sense—while riding with Dad atop the dray through the winter woods, all of a sudden the two horses would turn to the side of the logging road and then back into the middle. Coming back with our load of logs they would do the same thing in the same spot. Neither Dad nor I could figure out why.

The answer came in the spring when we drove a wagon over that same road. At the exact place they had turned out of the road were two big rocks in the middle. They had been covered with snow and thus we had not seen them. But Molly and Maude had remembered them and prevented us from damaging our dray.

One fall morning when Dad walked into the horse barn, he found Molly dead in her stall. She had turned 20—we figured she just did not want to go through another Vermont winter. Now Dad was faced with how to form a new team.

He decided he would try the only other horse we had. Now, Dick was a horse of a different color. He was a light brown, strong as an ox—but lazy as a hired man on payday. Dad wondered how Maude and Dick would work together, but he had no alternative.

When starting a load, Dick would hang back until Maude got the load moving and then he would step into his harness and begin to pull his share. Dad could never break him of that bad habit, and Maude was too proud to let this young buck think she was weak. Sometimes I think I heard Dick give her a horse laugh, or at least a toothy grin.

Dick worked best when he worked alone.

One of my jobs during haying season was to drive Dick behind the scattering rake. In those days we were haying the old-fashioned way, tumbling the new mown hay, then throwing the tumbles onto the hay wagon. That left a lot of loose hay in the field. All hay was useful, so Dad had me picking up the loose hay with the scattering rake. I would harness Dick, using his bridle with the two silver disks on each side. Dick and I spent many sunny afternoons crossing back and forth over the meadows collecting loose hay.

Dad sold the farm in 1998. He had lived there for 60 years. Mother had died and the place needed repairs—and Dad needed to live closer to family.

On the last day, before he closed on the farm, I took a memory walk through all the familiar buildings. Each held a favorite memory from my youth: from getting sprayed by a skunk in the woodshed to almost hanging Uncle Art in the hay barn.

When I stepped into the horse barn, I spotted Dick’s bridle hanging on a rusty nail. It had not been used for over 40 years, but there it hung. It was covered with mold and the leather was brittle. As I looked at it more closely, there on each side of the browband were the two silver disks I had polished so many times. I cut them from the bridle, put them in my pocket and brought them home.

Several months later, I discovered them in the bottom of my jewelry box. After polishing them to their original luster, I took one to a jewelry store and had it made into a belt buckle. I attached the buckle to my best cowboy belt.

The silver disk continues to give me pleasure as I remember the many hours I followed it around while driving Dick during our scattering rake days. Now with it serving as my belt buckle, I continue to enjoy following it round.

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 [email protected]

 
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