Suzi (k00kaburra) wrote,

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Animal Folk

Since the beginning of July my grandfather has been sending out daily emails, each one a new story about long-gone family members or details from his life on the farm. They're all quite interesting and I love reading them; there's a very authentic reality behind them, and they're my roots! It's amazing to think how much our family has changed over the past few generations.

Here's one that Grandpa wrote about the animals on his farm:

On a subsistence farm with no running water, telephone, or electricity, you lived in a community of other animals who looked to you for their food and support. There were cows who gave you their milk, chickens who gave you their eggs and meat, hogs who gave you their meat and fat, cats which kept the mice down, dogs who guarded the place, and mules who furnished their muscle to do the heavy work. Each of these fitted into the overall scheme and must have thought of themselves as family members with rights and privileges. The hogs and chickens we tried to keep anonymous, but the others had names and places they considered their own. We learned to treat each one a little differently.

The mules of course considered themselves the elite, with rights to harass others. If a cow had horns, mules were very careful not to get too close to them, but they liked to push and shove dehorned cows. We frequently had to yell at mules we saw harassing cows, and even use a whip to stop them. After a whipping or two, a mule would jump when you yelled. Each mule also had its own gait in plowing, and a mule with a fast gait would tire sooner. Ada was our oldest mule and she had a fast gait. For light work, she could do more than any other mule. She was reddish in color and average size, I would guess 800 pounds. Pet was our most reliable mule for most work, average gait, average size, and gentle. However, she was not safe to take to town as she was terrified of locomotives. Pet was gray, nearly white. Tobe was our meanest mule, and he had been reared as a colt from a mustang mare named Maud. Tobe learned to open doors with his nose, so we had to have latches at 45 degree angles so they would fall back in place after being lifted. Tobe had all kinds of quirks for frustrating humans, especially small boys. He was small and red but capable of pulling heavy loads. Blue was a lackluster worker who tended to balk, or refuse to pull heavy loads. However, once out of harness, he joined Tobe in play fighting and mischief. Pat was a brown gentle mule who was given to me as my beginning plow mule when I was 12. I got along well with Pat, but I worked him so hard one hot August day gathering peanuts that he got sick and either died or we traded him because he had recurring colic. I think we traded Tobe and Pat for two small young mules we named Annie and Ida. Dueward was to break (train) Annie and I was to break Ida. Ida and I got along well and she became a reliable work mule. Dueward and Annie did not agree on anything, and at the end of the year, she was as wild as ever. The next year, I had to take her to the Richardson farm, where we had moved, and train her there. I made a crop with her, and she learned enough so that other people could work her. My older brother Harold thought he had a solution to the mule problem when he found a brood mare. We named her Dixie, but she was not smart. All she ever learned was having colts. The first colt was Beck, a black mule I trained on the Richardson farm. She lived most of her life there. The second colt was Ben, who I also trained on the Richardson farm. In my six years of plowing, I trained Ida, Annie, Beck, and Ben. I made a mistake with Beck and made a pet of her. A mule which is a pet has no respect. They tend to think of you as another mule with whom they can play fight, sneak up on, or step on.
One would think that anyone can learn to train mules, but that is not the case. Mules do not trust some people, and I do not know why. My father Elisha and brother Dueward were neither mule people. The mules would rear and resist putting on gear, would run or kick the traces, and do all sorts of strange things with them. Tobe and Blue nearly killed my father one morning when he hooked them to our wagon. They dragged him around the lot until he passed out and let them run. I could put a bridle on Annie, but she turned her tail to Dueward and kept turning so he could not get to her head. So mules had these quirks, likes, and dislikes. You could see how the mules were feeling by watching their ears and eyes. Ada was a generally happy mule whose ears went loosely back and forth as she plowed. Tobe’s ears were generally tightly against his head, letting you know he was ready to take advantage of any mistake you made. Sometimes mules would “run away,” suddenly rearing and kicking and running as far as they could, generally back to their stable or toward their pasture. After such an episode, they would be mad all day, with their ears back and glaring at one and all. It was important to get them back to work immediately, so they would see no reward for “running away.” In caring for our mules, each day we had to curry them, removing the sand from their backs from their wallowing. Monthly we gave them a haircut, really a mane trim, and trimmed their nails, or hooves. We did not shoe our mules, as that was necessary only if a mule spent a lot of time on gravel or hard-surface roads. The mules apparently had some vague understanding about a hoof trim. Even wild mules would tolerate it. I was never kicked by a mule, but I have been kicked-at a number of times. The mule may have been just giving a warning to be careful with those hind feet.

The milk cows were not dairy type cows. They knew nothing about feed lots, stanchions, etc. They did understand their rights to see their calves, morning and night, and gave milk for the convenience of their calves, not particularly for us humans. Our main stock was Jersey or Guernsey, but that had been bred to “range cows” from the open range days dating back to the Spanish cattle released into the Piney Woods. The range cow blood seemed to give a better ability to forage in the woods. But it did not make for quiet milking time. These cows would kick you without hesitation if they did not like your milking technique. We put chains on their back legs during milking. In my earliest memory, our cows were not dehorned. Those with range cow blood had big horns, and those with Jersey and Guernsey blood had more modest horns. One of our horned cows was Lillie, and she lorded over all the others. However, we dehorned all our cows about 1930, and Lillie became just one of the girls. Sometimes she would forget she had no horns and give someone a good butting. However, Lillie had to give way to Big Cow, who may have had some Holstein blood, certainly some sort of larger strain of cattle. She was big and heavy and took no guff from other cows. Big Cow had a gentle disposition and looked forward to being relieved of her load of milk, but Lillie resented giving one drop.

A cow I reared from birth was Spot, a small cow who was a good milker. She was mostly Guernsey. We sold her to the Royals (or Rawls) family. I was only an emergency milker. Cows were particular about the person who milked them, and preferred someone whose technique just fitted their teats. They did not like my technique, and would not release their milk. So others typically did the milking while I geared up the mules, I being a mule person. Of course, every new calf was a delight to us children as well as to the mother cow, and we made the mistake of naming each calf and making pets of them. This gave us grief when we had to thin out the herd and harvest the young steers for meat. The care we had to give our cows included dehorning and castrating. We learned to dehorn with a caustic chemical stick when the calf was a few days old. We also did the castrating while the calf was young. When a cow got sick, we took her to the veterinarian at Weathersby. He was an excellent black doctor, a graduate of the University of Iowa at Ames.

We had a stream of housecats who kept down the mice and at least restrained the rats. They all had fanciful names and belonged to one child or another, but all looked to my mother as their guardian angel and source of food. They never lived in the house but took up residence in the chicken house or barn or under our own dwelling house. At supper time, they waited patiently outside the kitchen door for their bowl of milk and left-overs. In the country, cats would be wiped out every few years by some disease, either of domestic cats or from wild animals. Then we would start over with new kittens.

We did have guard dogs from time to time. Our dogs came to grief. One favorite was Sharp who was with us most of his life. My father had purchased him from Mr. Jim Meadows, a neighbor, and he was my pal at the time Clifford was born, and I was 2 and ½ years old. A few weeks before Clifford was born in August, my father and older brothers had caught up with the farm work and had gone fishing on Cohay Creek, several miles to the north. Sharp and I resented being left behind and decided we would go fishing as well. I can only remember one incident from the trip. We came to a fence ¼ mile from home, and we looked for a place to get through. Sharp found a place he could slip under the fence to the other side. Then I followed. After that, we must have gone about another ¼ mile where we spent the night in a brier patch. The next day a neighboring negro family heard a child crying and came looking because they had heard there was a lost Hough boy.

Sharp would allow no one anywhere near, when the negro man recalled that Sharp had formerly been Mr. Meadows’ dog. They went and got Mr. Meadows, who got Sharp calmed down and was able to rescue me from the brier patch. Of course, I was all messed up, so Mr. Meadows took off his shirt, wrapped me in it and took me home. Later, I remember that Sharp, a Collie, got psychotic and began attacking the mules in their stables. I can well remember the last trip with Sharp down into the Hollow, where my father shot him, and my brothers buried him there. I could go to the place today.

Our next guard dog was Bob, who was a mixed breed, with something like Doberman blood. I do not recall how Bob joined us. Bob tolerated children, but he did not view them as his responsibility. He liked adults and adolescents who could take him hunting. He learned neighbors had goats, and he had so much wild dog instinct that he began to stalk the goats. Then he began to attack and kill them.
My father had had his own troubles with neighbors over their sheep-killing dogs, and he did not want to be accused of harboring a goat-killing dog. He and my brothers took Bob to the far end of Smith County, some thirty miles by road, and gave him to a family seeking a guard dog. About a month later, my brother Dueward was walking down the road on a moon-lit night when he saw a shadowy-creature in a nearby fence row. He was sure it was Bob. He came home, set out some food, and called Bob. Nothing happened. The next morning the food was gone. This continued a few days, and eventually Bob would come when someone called. In effect, he had to be re-domesticated. We were not allowed to play with him again. My father had told our neighbor with the goats, Mr. Tommie Amason, to kill Bob if he ever touched another goat. One day, Bob disappeared and we never again saw or heard of him. We believed our neighbor had shot him.

Our next dog was a puppy named Fannie brought to us by Aunt Donie Garvan. I do not recall where she got the dog, but it was something she had picked up from someone she had visited in Smith County. We had Fannie about a year. We children did not know how to train her. She caused a number of near accidents. Some time after my father died, I had our mule Pet hooked up to do some plowing when Fannie attacked and frightened her. This was dangerous business, as Pet “ran away,” but as we were just going through the barnyard gate, Pet soon turned around and ran back into the barnyard. However, Clifford, Donald, and Roland had to run to get out of Pet’s way. I grabbed an axe and killed Fannie on the spot. Then I took her down into the field and buried her. So that was our last dog. Then, after we moved over to Grandpa Richardson’s, he had terriers for digging out rats. These had special house privileges and could come in at will and sleep under Grandpa’s chair.

Now, the animal folks were also residents of our farm, and depended on us running the farm in such a way that they got their fair share. More than half our land was in corn and hay, mostly for them, though we shared in eating the corn. We also grew peas and beans and harvested the vines for our livestock. Half the total quarter section of land we had was in woods and pasture, shared by the livestock. All the grazing animals wanted salt, which is the main thing we bought for them in town. It was like a candy treat to them.

One has to remember that when you run a subsistence farm with animals furnishing the power, it is not just humans you have to worry about, but a whole community of interdependent animal folks. It is a far cry from the commercial farms of California, with their single crops, corporate ownership, outside power sources, and transient labor.

Recorded by Granville Hough, 14 July 2005, former President, Mississippi Future Farmers of America, 1942-43.

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