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Dairy Farming in 1948 A Memoir
In 1947 I transferred from Boston Latin School to Jamaica Plain High School, to pursue college preparatory studies in animal husbandry. I’d decided I would one day raise horses. In June of 1948 I completed my junior year with good grades, but full credit for that year wouldn’t be mine until I had earned my work credits. This meant that, for thirty dollars a month plus room and board, I’d spend the summer at hard labor on a dairy farm in central Vermont. (This was the going wage for cowboys during the mid1800s, and they may have worked as hard as I was about to, but I doubt it.) From a housing project in South Boston to a dairy farm may seem a wrenching relocation, but I’d always been fond of forest and stream. Not that I’d have much time to enjoy them, as it turned out. Aside from a cinder in my eye that felt like a pebble, I recall little of that train trip, my first, but it seems to me I left Boston's North Station on the Boston & Maine railroad, and at some point changed to the Vermont Central. Just after noon the next day, belching soot and hissing steam, the old locomotive chuffed into Randolph station, hauling a motley train of passenger cars predating World War I. This train, Vermont Central's best, was symptomatic of a nationwide fatal decline in railroad passenger service. Sleeping cars were commonly referred to as "rolling tenements." Ninety percent of them belonged in museums. Most of the day-coaches belonged on scrap heaps. Railroad owners blamed the war, but long before 1941 the emphasis was already on freight, the goal a quick return on investment. Only nine hundred new sleeping cars had been built in the last sixteen years, most of them for the private (and presumably business) use of the twenty-five largest railroads. Railroad management refused to invest in new rolling stock for passengers. The shortsighted greed of executives and major stockholders was ruining America's railroads. I detrained and stood gazing at the Green Mountains, which loomed at the edge of town like a verdant glacier. Obscuring the sun with a cloud of stinking black coal smoke, the old locomotive lurched ahead and took up the slack. Crashing blows ran the length of the train and were reflected back to the locomotive, then the train started up the grade, its ancient passenger cars squealing and groaning. Slowly the locomotive gathered speed, its big drive wheels alternately grabbing and slipping, grabbing and slipping, its engine laboring then racing, and steam spurting from exhaust valves with a rhythm sounding for all the world like a soft-shoe dancer doing a sand shuffle. -2-
I watched the train make the grade and chug out of sight around a thickly wooded curve, then I turned and looked over the town. It was a small town, a village really. I inhaled the clean piny air, and watched a big hawk turning stiff-winged spirals high above the tracks. Another boy might already be missing the city, but aside from Billy and Whitey Bulger's beautiful sister, Jean, who for Christmas received a bath powder and cologne set that left me impoverished for two months, there was nothing in South Boston to hold me. On his deathbed my brother told about Whitey Bulger chasing me down the street with a knife. I don't recall this, and Jim was heavily drugged, but if it happened, it may have been because I had the temerity to knock on the Bulger apartment door and gift his sister. Lord, she was a beauty, reminiscent of Eva Marie Saint in my memory. (She’d later be voted the prettiest girl at South Boston High School.) I doubt Jean even knew my name. She accepted my gift, though. A mud-caked jeep pulled into the train depot parking lot. Out stepped a rangy long-nosed man with a red creased neck. He was wearing a peaked cap and bib coveralls, both striped like mattress tick. Sweaty half-moons darkened the armpits of his faded blue shirt. His rolled-up sleeves exposed thick hairy wrists. He raised a hand. "Jerry Gormley?" "Yes sir." I walked to the jeep. "How do," the man said, extending his hand. "Howard MacDougall." The farmer was several inches taller than me, well over six feet. We shook hands. "I was just about to go get a cold drink," I said. "I'm losin' considerable work time as it is." "It was a long hot train ride. I'm parched." "Do tell." MacDougall gave me a crooked little grin and got into the jeep. Now I understood what a high school senior had meant when he referred to the compulsory farm work as white slavery. I threw my duffel into the back and got in. We left town on a dusty unpaved road that wound through cultivated green valleys flanked by wooded hills. Each farm we passed looked pretty much like the ones before it; a tree-shaded white clapboard house set back from the road, a raw weathered barn and stable on the opposite side of the road, herds of cows grazing some distance from the buildings, narrow stands of high trees forming windbreaks between fields, and stone walls marking property lines and subdivisions. All at once I missed the sea, its absence more palpable than its presence had ever been for me. Most of all, I missed its cooling breezes and exotic aromas. The train ride had been long, hot and dirty, my shirt was plastered against my skin, my temper was badly frayed, and all I could smell was manure. I commented on this to MacDougall, who flared his nostrils and took a deep breath, as if smelling his environment for the first time. "Oh, you mean the dressin'." "Dressing?" "Manure." "I thought modern farmers used chemical fertilizer." "Sure we do, but manure's free." -3-
"And plentiful, by the smell of it. Any kids my age here?" "Nearest one's a fur piece." "How big a farm do you have?" "Six hundred acres." "How many cows?" "Thutty head, 'bout twenty fresh, t'others heifers." A pickup passed, blinding us with dust. "Ro-ud's gettin' a mite dusty," MacDougall observed. "Time fer anotha oilen'." MacDougall's speech, laced with idiom and farming jargon, was made all the more foreign by a twanging sing-song drawl. I understood barely half of what the man said. I said nothing more for the rest of the trip. We passed a dozen farms, then he parked the jeep under two soaring oak trees and said, "Heuh 'tis." An old black and white collie slunk out from beneath the porch and approached us with head low and tail wagging sheepishly. I knelt and greeted the dog, which wriggled and whined as if seldom petted. "She's a work dog," MacDougall said with obvious disapproval. "Does that mean I shouldn't pet her?" "Jes' don't coddle her." A boy and girl, towheads both, came out of the house and stood staring at me, their faces screwed up against the sun's glare. The boy was about twelve, the girl eleven. "My boy Howie," said MacDougall. Then, like an afterthought, "And this here's Sam." The girl smiled and said, "Short for Samantha." The boy tugged at her halter and said, "Sam wore her new tit holders jes' fer you." The girl giggled. Feigning nonchalance at the boy's language, I squatted in front of the girl and told her she was too pretty to be called Sam. Blushing, she locked her arms behind her and swung from side to side, then dabbed a kiss on my cheek and ran giggling into the house. Her brother said, "Mush," and headed toward the barn. I was introduced to Mrs. MacDougall, a florid sweaty woman of ample proportions, then was shown to my room and given an hour to unpack and change. I hung my good clothes in the old chifforobe, donned a blue denim shirt, dungarees and work boots, then went out to the kitchen and said I was hungry. Mrs. MacDougall, who ended most declarative statements with heh-heh -- "Lunch was over an hour ago, heh-heh" -- fed me a cold baked-bean sandwich and a large glass of what looked like milk. I gagged. "What is this stuff?" The woman gaped. "Land sake, boy, you mean to say you never drank milk afore?" I was accustomed to thinned-down pasteurized city milk. This was whole raw milk, so thick and flavorful that it took some getting used to. MacDougall took me out to the stable and showed me how to harness the big draft mares, Cleo and Cloe. They had to be harnessed with Cleo on the left because she was going blind in her right eye. Cleo immediately asserted herself by standing on my foot. MacDougall grinned as I cursed and grabbed the horse behind the knee with both hands to lift her big hoof. Cleo feigned innocence, then nipped me when I turned my back. -4-
The other mare nickered and nuzzled my neck. I liked the oaty smell of her breath and the velvety skin of her muzzle. As with Samantha, it was love at first sight. Having often harnessed the milkman's horse when I helped him deliver milk in the city, I was quick to master the double harness. We hitched the mares to a wagon and rode up a hill behind the house to a potato field where MacDougall told me to pick rocks and add them to a stone wall in progress. He explained how to voice-command the mares. Come up, girls meant go ahead. Come up a step meant just this. Back, girls. Back a step, girls. Haw for left turn, gee for right. Back haw, back gee. And the only familiar terms, stay and whoa. "Don't back-turn 'em too sharp or you'll bust my wagon tongue." MacDougall turned and walked back down to the barn. I soon discovered that the place smelled of a lot more than manure; my nostrils caught the fine Christmas-tree scents of pine and spruce, the semenlike aroma of newmown hay, and a variety of wildflowers combining their fragrances into one fine nosegay. I liked working alone with the mares. Working with horses always established an ancient sense of pace. A few modern conveniences aside, I had stepped back into the nineteenth century. The frost heaves of winter had raised a good crop of rocks. By sunset, which came early in the valley, I had added three wagonloads to the wall, at no time using the reins. MacDougall returned and grunted his approval of the wall's growth, then we rode back to the stable. While I curried and fed the horses, MacDougall stood outside, hands cupped to mouth, calling "Kaboysh," a call evolved over generations from Come bossie. Each farmer had his own version, to which only his cows would respond. This avoided confusion on neighboring farms. From their day pasture a quarter-mile downhill, brown and white Ayshire cattle came head-bobbing up the lane. First came those in need of milking, their udders so swollen that the cows had to walk with hind legs splayed. Next came heifers not yet freshened. The collie was sent after a few heifers lallygagging in the pasture. The old dog circled down through the tall alfalfa, got behind the heifers, and drove them kicking and cantering up the lane. MacDougall said, "That's okay fer heifers, but mind you cain't let 'er run milk cows. Bloodies the milk and we hefta dump it." With cupfuls of nutty mash the children enticed the cows into stalls and closed stanchions around their necks. Most of them seemed to have been waiting for this opportunity to defecate. Their dung, loosened by green fodder, splashed and stank. I wrinkled my nose and grimaced. One cow tried to kick me. Two put the squeeze on me. It took all my strength to push them apart. "They're testin' you, boy. Jes' show 'em who's boss." The next cow that kicked me got a left hook to the rump that made her bawl and favor the leg for a while. MacDougall glared. "I an't ahter sayin' break their goddam legs." We washed the cows' teats, slipped suction cups over them, and by means of a vacuum pump drew the milk into a stainless steel collector, which we emptied -5-
through paper filters into big milk cans, which were refrigerated for pick-up by the creamery truck. Each cow gave some fifteen quarts morning and night. The machine milked two cows at a time, but left in each a quart or two, which had to be stripped out by hand. I stripped out only seven cows to MacDougall's thirteen, yet at dinner my fingers were so stiff that I could barely use knife and fork. Mrs. MacDougall's cooking was, like herself, plain but abundant. Each week's culinary high point would prove to be Saturday evening franks, baked beans and brown bread, eaten on the porch from paper plates so that the Missus could get a head start on prettifying herself for the Grange Hall dance. After dinner I was shown how to care for twenty hens and a young pig, then the children took me up into the loft to see their pet rabbits. To my amazement, Howie asked, "Didja ever see rabbits fuck?" When I said no, he let a buck mount a doe. After a brief but furious coupling, the buck fell onto its side, screaming. Samantha looked up at me, her face the picture of dead-pan innocence. "Sure looks like fun, don't it, Jerry?" I said I was tired and went to my room.
The two-man saw has been around since the middle ages. This is called a 'cross-cut' saw because it’s designed to cut across the grain, for example, to fell a tree. A 'whip saw' or 'rip saw' would cut with the grain to make lumber. Note the combinations of teeth and 'rakers'. The teeth cut. The rakers scrape the cuttings away. Every saw must address two problems; cutting, and purging the sawdust from the cut without binding up the saw in the process. This isn’t easy with a two-man saw designed to cut in both directions.
Each day followed the same hellish routine -- arise at five AM to the blare of radio march music, do the milking and other morning chores, then eat breakfast, then take the horses into the forest and spend the rest of the morning harvesting cedars for a silo MacDougall planned to build. It was back-breaking work, wielding the two-man saw, sledge-hammering big iron wedges into the cut to keep it from binding the saw, then limbing the felled trees with heavy double-bladed axes. The heat made me reel, but MacDougall would suffer no rest periods until a log was as clean as a whistle and ready to haul. The farmer, thirty-five if he was a day, set such a demanding pace, and with such ease, that I was damned if I would let the old man show me up. This seemingly modest man showed a prideful side, an inward yet manifest exultation that -6-
he could perform the most arduous tasks, suffer the worst heat and biting insects, all without complaint. This attitude was common among farmers then. They wore the evidence of their hard life like a badge of membership in an exclusive fraternity. I had no desire to join this brotherhood of sweat and pain, but I suffered in silence just to wipe the gloating grin off MacDougall's face. Each morning we felled and limbed two large trees, skidded the logs out to the road with horse-drawn chains, and stacked them for later transport to a sawmill. Between fellings we visited one of the farm's many springs. Never had I tasted anything like cold spring water, fragrant with leaves and evergreen needles. I often saw deer tracks in the Felling axes moist earth edging the springs. Despite MacDougall's occasional reference to "bars" and a cougar dubbed the Randolph Panther, I felt very much at home in the forest. One morning I could have sworn I saw something watching me from a nearby thicket. I wiped the sweat from my eyes and looked again, but whatever I had seen was gone. Lest I give the farmer gloating license to say that the city slicker would soon be seeing cougars and bears behind every tree, I said nothing. Even worse than logging was haying, for this was done in open fields, in the broiling sun, and would continue through much of the summer, each field yielding two crops of alfalfa and clover. The hay was mowed with a chattering cutter bar, left to dry, then gathered into windrows with a rotating side-delivery rake. Mowing machine, rake, and wagon were horse-drawn. All other work, including mowing with scythes what the machine missed, and pitching the dried hay onto the wagon with four-tined forks, required considerable manpower and sweat. The only powered farm equipment consisted of the milking machine and the jeep. Howie spread the hay on the wagon while Samantha rode on the driver's seat, giggling whenever I looked her way. Each load of hay brought in from the fields had to be pitched again from wagon to haylofts in the barn. It was hot dusty work. The remedy for dust-parched throats was vinegar water, drunk from a common one-gallon jug slung beneath Summer 1948. Me, Dolly (who disliked me), & already antique haying rake. By this time I had the wagon. muscles in my stools, and spoke like a fahmah. As weeks passed and the lower lofts filled -7-
up, the hay was lifted to the upper lofts by a jeep-powered track fork which carried a third of a wagonload. As each big load came rumbling along the track and I yanked a trip line to drop the hay, then spread it by hand, the air became filled with angry wasps. I would spend many hours in the loft, choked by dust, exhausted by heat, and stung by wasps. Almost daily I threatened to quit, but this meant losing credits and having to repeat my junior year, and MacDougall knew it. I had no choice but to stay. One day MacDougall and I helped a Franco-American neighbor, Dubois, geld a draft stallion. "An't enough Duboize bought a stallion," said MacDougall as we drove to the next farm, "he even tried to work it 'longside his mare. Course, with the stallion hellbent on mountin' that mare, Frenchy ended up spendin' more in busted harness than he saved buyin' that fool hoss." We arrived just as the veterinarian was getting out of his mud-spattered Land Rover. He was a balding man with a barrel chest and forearms as thick as a budding girl's thighs. MacDougall, myself and Dubois, a smallish bearded man, hobbled the stallion and held it steady while the veterinarian injected a pint of anesthetic into the animal's neck. The stallion swayed like a drunk, but remained standing. The veterinarian administered another half-pint of anesthetic. The stallion's knees buckled. We pushed him over and the veterinarian loosened the hind hobble enough to spread the stallion's legs. Just as the doctor made his first cut, the horse kicked and the scalpel laid open the back of the man's hand. Bleeding more profusely than his patient, he bound his hand with a kerchief and finished the job, shucking the stallion's gonads like oysters. Awed by the ton of raw male power I felt shuddering under me, I looked down and saw the stallion watching me. I couldn’t bring myself to look the horse in the eye. The stallion revived and was released into a pasture. Immediately he cornered the mare and tried to mount her. "He'll lose interest in a few weeks," said the veterinarian. I felt myself an accessory to a crime against nature. Mrs. Dubois came out and bandaged the doctor's wound. In halting English, Dubois thanked everyone for their help, then went into the house. MacDougall spat. "Least he might do is offer us some hahd cida," he muttered as he revved up the jeep and spun onto the road. "He puts up barrels of it. Damn good, too." Whenever a cow near term failed to show up for milking, the children and I went looking for her. We usually found her at the forest's edge, half wild and jumpy as hell, trying to lead us away from her calf, and charging us when we got too close to it, which of course told us roughly where it was hidden. -8-
Summer 1948. Me with new calf. Gordie with unknown, probably one of his rabbits. Probable photographer, Mona, Gordie’s kid sister.
Somewhere in the tall grass near the woods we’d find it curled up, as scent-free and still as a newborn fawn, obeying instincts undimmed by millenia of domestication. And while the children distracted the cow, I’d sling the calf over my shoulders and carry it up to the barn, there to wean it by getting it to suck my thumb in a pail of milk, and then to drink from the pail. Bull calves were sold for veal within weeks. Heifers were nurtured toward annual production approaching ten thousand quarts of milk. When a cow dried up, it was sold for beef to an abattoir and received as its final reward a pointed sledgehammer through the forehead. No place for sentiment in farming. One day it rained hard on the Dubois side of the property line, but not on the MacDougall side. I could literally go from dry to drenched by hopping the stone wall. It was one of the strangest things I’d ever seen. I told MacDougall it was his punishment for enslaving city boys. "Never again will your farm get rain," I said. MacDougall just smiled his crooked smile and told me to get back to work, but I figured the man was superstitious, and caught him casting worried glances as the rain continued to observe the boundary line for another fifteen minutes, then stopped altogether. The farm offered so few diversions that I often spent my free time, what little I had, with the children. We watched the farm's half-wild cats hunt rats in the barn, and bet how many mice would run for cover when we opened a feed bin. We fished for brook trout and watched great blue herons hunt frogs in the brook. We found a fox den and watched the kits at play. Sometimes, just after dark, I waylaid big rats feeding at the chickens' trough. While I dispatched my share with an ax handle and the dog broke backs, the children watched through cracks in the door, and the hens on their roosts looked back and forth like spectators at a tennis match. The record night's toll was ten rats, which I photographed on the lawn next morning with the old collie sitting proudly beside them. The ritual hunts seemed to give the old dog a new lease on life. That Saturday night, I accompanied the MacDougalls to a square dance at the Grange hall. As we entered the hall, I could imagine myself in a much earlier age, for the farm wives presented a colorful tableau not much changed in two hundred years. Wearing girlish hair bows and patent leather dancing shoes, they were dressed to the nines in striped and checked gingham dresses reaching to the floor. The men were attired as if for work, though with overalls and shirts freshly laundered, boots tallowed, and red kerchiefs worn like ascots at the open necks of their blue denim shirts. The work-like dress was appropriate, for the farmers danced as hard as they labored, responding with embarassed extroversion to the caller's chants of Allemande and Doceydoe. By the end of the second set the hall reeked with underarm odor, but this was accepted then, and it smelled no worse than the average city subway car or trolley at rush hour. I checked out the local girls and was hard-eyed by the local boys, but saw nothing worth risking a fight for. The only girl who caught my eye, a darkly pretty thing with horn-rimmed glasses and nice lips, looked barely twelve. The few times I danced, I -9-
The Percheron is a breed of draft horses that originated in the Perche valley in northern France. Percherons are usually gray or black in color. They’re well-muscled, intelligent, and willing to work. They were originally bred for war, but came to be used for pulling stage coaches, and later for agriculture and hauling heavy goods. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Arabian blood was added to the breed. Percherons accounted for 70% of the draft horse population in the United States, but their numbers fell after World War II. T his file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2 . 0
G e n e r i c l i c e nse.
two-stepped with Samantha, who was clearly as proud as punch to be chosen over the older girls.
Monday through Saturday, I worked from dawn until well after dark. Even on Sunday I had morning and evening chores, but the rest of each Sunday was my own. My first -10-
day off had been a day of rest, but on the next I packed a lunch and rode Cloe bareback into the forest. As the trees closed in behind us, I felt a keen sense of escape. The air beneath the forest canopy was dark and cool, fragrant with evergreen and mellow with birdsong. The horse's scent must have masked mine, for many animals let us approach quite close. The old mare moved like an overweight Arabian, head and tail high, ears pricked and nostrils flared to catch every sound and smell. Clearly she was loving every moment. Before long we were in deep timber. Great trees soared, some a hundred feet tall and as straight as temple columns. Between them slanted brilliant sunbeams, through which flashed birds and insects of every description. I saw many white-tail deer. In the cover of deep timber the deer seldom broke into a run, but instead skulked from tree to tree. At one point a prime buck, antlers in velvet, paused in a shaft of sunlight and licked his nostrils to get a better scent of horse and rider. All morning we wandered logging roads and any smaller trails that Cloe could negotiate. When the sun stood overhead, we came to a stream where a doe and her fawn were cooling themselves. The deer bounded off into the forest. I stopped at the stream and stripped to the waist. As I sat on the sun-dappled bank to eat my lunch, the mare moved to higher ground and entered a nearby meadow to graze. Black-capped chickadees appeared and accepted food from my fingers. A chipmunk flitted and flowed along the opposite bank, then crossed the stream by way of a tree branch to feed from my hand. Even at the peak of summer's bounty, peanut butter seems irresistible to many forest creatures. I shared my last bit of sandwich with the animals, then cooled myself in the brook and lay against the steep grassy slope to dry myself in the sun. A blue heron descended through a gap in the canopy, waggling its great wings to avoid branches. The bird alighted and began stalking frogs and crayfish in the stream. I watched the heron for a while, then retrieved the mare and continued riding along the brook, which I suspected, rightly, would lead us back to the farm. MacDougall decided to shell out some cash and have the last crop of hay baled. That baling machine saved us a lot of hard work. It consumed windrows of hay like a monstrous animal that excreted blocky pellets as it grazed. The next-door neighbors Bruce and Dubois helped us get the hay into the MacDougall barn. Each bale of hay weighed 65 pounds. MacDougall and Dubois together would stab a bale with their pitchforks and lift it up to me in the loft, where I grabbed the bales with hooks and stacked them. Bruce was so strong that he could stab a bale with an extra-long pitchfork and lift it all the way up to me. By the time we finished, my forearms were raw and bleeding. In August I became friendly with the Bruce family, who owned the farm adjoining MacDougall's on the other side from the Dubois farm. They had a college-age -11-
daughter named Sally, pie-faced but lavish of body. I wasn’t attracted to Sally, but became totally smitten with Estelle, her college chum who came to visit for the last two weeks of the summer break. Estelle was petite, dark, and lovely. I was painfully shy and barely seventeen, and she a worldly college woman, but she encouraged my adoration. I was so tongue-tied I could scarcely ask for seconds at supper, and I was invited to supper a lot. One evening we all played hide-and-seek, and it was chilly so I lent Estelle my shirt and when I found her hiding in the barn she felt my muscles and let me kiss her and touch her through my shirt and next morning I saw her driven off by her fiance. But that's another story, and this ain't the place fer it. So much for farming. I reverted to liberal arts, studied electronic engineering and engineering management in college, founded an advertising agency, and later became a writer of books and articles. Go figure.
-- THE END –
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