Aug. 18, 2011
By Bill Skiff
Hired men have been as important to Vermont farming as cows — well… maybe not quite, but darn close.
Farmers have always needed good help. Many of them raised theirs, but they have a tendency to grow up and leave to start their families. In the end, every farm needs a hired man and good ones are hard to find.
As a kid, I found my dad’s hired men to be endless sources of information and entertainment. They all had a unique skill coupled with interesting personalities. The trick was to learn how to get along with them.
Take Martin, for instance. He had been in World War I and was a victim of a mustard gas attack in Germany. His lungs were damaged, as a result, and he would get winded if he worked too hard. He never could keep up with me when we went after the cows. But I never heard him complain.
Like all hired men, Martin had a skill. He was an excellent woodsman. He could do things with a double-bladed ax that would keep me entertained for hours. Martin could chop down a tree and have it land exactly where he wanted. He would walk along one side of a downed tree while cutting off its limbs on the other side. He said, that way, you would never chop off your leg.
As he walked along limbing the tree, at the top of his swing, he would twist the ax — causing the second blade to make the next cut. That way, he used both blades evenly and kept each one sharp. His ax was so sharp that I bet he could have shaved with it. He never let anyone touch it and spent a lot of time sharpening it on the wet stone he carried in his shirt pocket.
When Martin chopped down a tree, my dad said he could make the chips fly in whatever direction he wanted. He always thought Martin aimed them to fly by his face, just to aggravate him.
My dad was not much of a woodsman. One day — when he was trying to chop down a tree — he kept chopping around it. Finally, Martin could stand it no longer. He came over and said to him, “Glenn, get away from that tree and let me finish it. I can’t have people in town thinking I’m working for a beaver.”
My uncle Walt had a hired man they called “Squeaky” because of his high-pitched voice that was very hard to understand. Although he was not a very good-looking man, all the girls loved him because he was a great dancer. He was the hit of the Hen House in Underhill on many a Saturday night.
One winter morning, uncle Walt was wondering whether to let the cows out and he yelled to Squeaky: “Check the thermometer and tell me how cold it is.” After checking the barn thermometer, Squeaky replied, “It’s three scratches below the hole.” Thus, it was three degrees below zero. Another time, when they were building a milk house, uncle Walt set up a plum-bob to make sure things were lining up right. He yelled, “Squeaky, is it plum?” Squeaky replied, “It’s plum some but it’s not plum plum.”
We all liked Squeaky; and his special talent was with animals. They seemed to know he understood them and was always there to help them. He was one of the kindest hired men I ever knew.
My uncle Charlie was another of my dad’s hired men. He did all the boiling at sugaring time. One year, he set the record for most gallons (60) made in a day at the farm. It was all done the hard way — using horses to gather the sap, the wood we cut for fuel, and boiling sap along with the rainwater.
Uncle Charlie had an old-fashioned work ethic and a great deal of pride in everything he did. One of the things he prided himself in was being the first one to wake up in the morning. He slept on the third floor in a back room, facing the neighbor’s barnyard. When he got up, he always looked over to see if anything was happening. One morning, with winter approaching, Uncle Charlie woke up and found a light on in the neighbor’s barn. This upset him because he wasn’t the first one up. That night, he set his alarm a half-hour earlier. Next morning, the same thing happened. He kept setting the alarm a half-hour earlier until one morning the light was on at 2:30 a.m. Uncle Charlie got up, dressed, and marched over to see “who the hell was up before me.” All he found were some hens busy laying eggs — the light told them it was morning and time for them to go to work.
Then there was Jute. His talents were milking cows by hand and baking blackberry pies. We kids would pick the berries and Jute would bake the pies. Man, were they good. He made better crusts than most of the ladies. The trouble was, Jute looked like an early hippie. He lived in an old shack and was not always a picture of cleanliness. My aunt Lottie tried to keep us kids away from him. Even though Jute was a little “different,” we thought he was the greatest.
Sometimes I miss the farm and all the things a boy could learn from watching and listening to a group of characters called “hired men” — the backbone of Vermont farming.
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@example.com.