Remembering the hard work of clearing fields

On New Year’s Eve 2013, the Old Men of the Mountain met at the Middleburgh Diner in Middleburgh.  Winnie, one of the waitresses at the Middleburgh Diner who has been waiting on the OFs for many years, decided she had had enough of us and thought now would be a good time to retire, and she did.

Now the OFs at the Middleburgh Diner have to break in another waitress — or in some cases breakdown. The OFs wish Winnie well in her retirement and hope she enjoys it as much as most of the OFs enjoy theirs.

In the town of Berne, a new sewer system is being installed, and, in the village of Cobleskill, the sewer and water is being extended along Route 7 towards Central Bridge. One thing these contractors are running into in both cases is rock — deep, solid rock.

The OFs talked about the machines that are used to break up this rock so the pipes can be buried. In the town of Berne, it is this solid rock that many of the homes are built on. The pounding by these machines actually follows the rock and vibrates the homes.

The OFs think, by the time this is done, these same homes will have doors that don’t shut and windows that won’t open, and these windows will leak air. One OF thinks that the dust in their attics is now in their cellars.

So the conversation continued along the rock line, and how the hills of the Helderbergs are basically rocks. The most miserable spring farm job, for many of the then-YFs was using the stone-boat and picking rocks.

Before quick disconnects on plows were invented, plowing back then and snagging a large rock would bring the front of the tractor right up in the air.

“When the OFs were YFs,” one OF explained, “we learned quickly to hold on the wheel of the tractor with both hands so, when this happened, we were not tossed off the tractor.”

It was like riding a bucking bronco, plowing with a two-bottom plow, an old (back then not-so-old) steel-wheeled Fordson tractor. When the OFs plowed with horses before they got tractors, they would just plow around the big rock.

Then the “young-uns” on the farm would get bars and roll the rock to the top of the ground and this rock would eventually be rolled on a stone-boat (whether it was brought up with horse or tractor) and hauled off the field to the rock pile, or stone fence, along with the rest of the picked rocks.

The OFs continued to talk about rocks and stone-wall fences. Not only in the Hilltowns of the Helderbergs but in many farming communities in the Northeast stone-wall fences can be seen running through the woods. The OFs said that, at one time, these stone fences were an indication that on one side or the other — or maybe both sides — of the fence there must have been fields.

Think of the work. The trees had to be cleared, the land had to be worked, the stones picked, the fence built, and then the land could finally be used for crops or pasture.

One OF wondered how many pinched fingers and sore backs were encountered by our founding fathers after all this work. Now these fields have long been abandoned and nature has taken over with more trees, brush and vegetation, but the stone fence is still there, meandering through the woods to nowhere.

Nature prevails

The same vein of conversation prevailed with the OFs saying it will not be long before all the hard work we do as humans (if left unattended) is quickly taken over — grabbed back by nature.

One OF said, “Just look at your own driveway; how soon the ants have worked their way through four inches of blacktop, or how soon weeds starts showing up in a parking lot that has not been used for a little while. It doesn’t take long for the larger brush and trees to take over after that.”

A second OF opined, “There is a lot of power in one little acorn.”

Another OF said, “That is the case in many areas of the world where there is plenty of moisture.  This causes the plant life to get started.  However, in other areas, where it is dry, the process doesn’t start and that is why archeologists can find dinosaur bones, and remnants of ancient civilizations.”

What makes the floor move?

Many times, the OFs talk about how they worked when they were younger and why the OFs are even here. Some OFs maintain we all should have been dead long ago.

This time they were talking about how they used to climb on ladders and scaffolds, and go 40 to 50 feet in the air and think nothing about it. Building chimneys, working with hot tar on roofs, the OFs doing their own roofing on barns and sheds and their own homes was normal. So was climbing up the slippery ladder of the silage chute to get to the top of a freshly filled silo and throw down the ensilage and then climb back down.

“Not now,” one OF said. “I think twice before stepping on a stool. It must be the inner ear that let us do all that climbing without even thinking.”

A second OF said, “I have such trouble hearing I think that is what makes me think that sometimes the floor is moving.”

“Nah,” another OF said. “It has nothing to do with your ears, the floor wouldn’t move so much if you spent more time being sober.”

The OFs never attempted to sing “Auld Lang Syne” and that was a good thing. The Old Men of the Mountain wish all a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year.

The OFs who braved the cold and made it to the Middleburgh Diner in Middleburgh, and started breaking in a new waitress were: Roger Chapman, Roger Shafer, Mark Traver, Glenn Patterson, Jim Heiser, Harold Guest, Steve Kelly, Mace Porter, Robie Osterman, George Washburn, Don Wood, Bill Krause, Ted Willsey, Jim Rissacher, Mike Willsey, Gerry Chartier, Elwood Vanderbilt, Harold Grippen, and me.

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