I’m getting older and I’m crabby about it. This summer, for the first time, we had to hire some teenagers to help us with some of our heavy work after I gave myself a day of back spasms and a week of twinges from shoveling too much manure.
First, I went down to Byron’s place to see if he knew of anyone we could hire.
“I remember the first time I worked on someone else’s farm,” he said, “But it wasn’t by choice. In the spring of my 14th year, my Mom took me over to see a man near Yarker about cattle. When she was done, I went to get back in the car and she said, “You’re staying here.”
“That was how I knew I’d been farmed out.”
“I was wearing overalls, a shirt, and rubber boots, and that’s all I had. I was to stay and work for him.
“They told me to sleep in the attic. No bed, no heat, no window. Breakfast was one egg, toast, and tea. Supper was the crusts of bread his kids didn’t eat and boiled potatoes. No dinner at noon.
“I worked hard because I wanted to use my pay, a dollar a day, to buy some more clothes. At the end of the month I asked for my pay and he laughed, “Your pay goes to your mother, not you.”
“So I ran away and lived on the land for the summer.”
“I worked just for board in Camden East that fall and winter for a farmer. He wasn’t a big man, but he never stopped. We both ate our lunches as we went along. We cut cedar rails in the fall and spent most of the winter building fence.”
Well, we have some experience with cedar rails and fencing in the woods, too. It was about this time of year when we were finally finishing fencing our place.
When we moved in, there was high-tensile New Zealand electric fence around most of the pastures, buried in the weeds. We went around and pulled it all up, then cut it off the short posts it was stapled to. That was hot dirty work, digging in the long grass with deer flies shooting up into our faces. But eventually, we got all the electric wire rolled and hung in the barn.
We wanted split rail fences around all the pastures. It took over 2,000 rails and most of the summer. Along the way, we found out that split rail is about the most expensive fence you can build. The local fence yard wanted $3 per rail—way too much for us. We stopped at several farms while driving around the country on various errands, but they all wanted about the same. So we got rails from everywhere: we took down the old fences from a friend for 50¢ a rail and all got poison ivy; there were a few piles around here and a couple of broken-down fences but we needed a lot more.
We built some fence ourselves but, man, we were slow . It would take us most of our lives to build all we wanted – about a mile all together around seven small pastures or paddocks. Our stock would die of old age before we got the fence built to keep them in. So we hired fence builders, a man and his son, and asked them to keep their eyes open for us. They were here fencing with the rails we had and told us about a pile over by Tweed. Susan went straight up to the house and called—less that $1 a rail, that was more like it.
We went to see them the next day, about 1600 rails there, a pile way higher than your head and more than 100 feet long. I said we would buy them all.
“That’s fine,” said the owner, “Good thing you called when you did because someone stopped yesterday afternoon and wanted to buy them all, too.”
Good thing Susan called when she did.
It ended up costing us more to move them than to buy them. First we rented a stake truck and loaded it on one of the hottest days of the summer and nearly killed ourselves. Hardly made a dent in that pile. Then we hired a lumber truck with a “pup” trailer on the back. It took three truck loads and three pick-up loads to get them here.
But it was a lot easier.
The driver of the truck climbed up a small ladder to a little standing cab, then used a hydraulic arm to reach down and grab several rails at a time and load them into the truck. Reminded me of a game at the fair where you cranked a toy crane down inside a glass box to pick up a prize. I won myself a jackknife with a dollar bill in the blade that way once.
I had already spent hours drawing out on paper just where I wanted the new fences to go to take best advantage of the land and preserve the ultralight landing strip we have behind the house. After several false starts I finally had a good plan, so I staked it out on the ground. The lumber truck unloaded several piles of rails in different places so they would always be at hand.
The fence builders worked from 6:00 am to 2:00 pm for $5 a panel (that’s 12 rails and runs about 10 feet). They said in 40 years of fence building in swamps and bush, they had never seen deer flies as bad as here. They were thick as mosquitoes and hurt a lot more when they bit. We all wore hoods and looked like Bedouins without camels.
One morning, I walked out to where they were building and found them looking at the shattered back window of their truck. The son was especially looking sheepish. His dad told me with an edge in his voice that the boy was pitching rails into the truck and pitched a little high. The rail flew through the back window and almost broke the windshield, too.
It was a pretty quiet morning building fence.
When they were done, it was beautiful. Without our modern vehicles, it looked like we lived on a 19th century farm, just as we had hoped. The heat and the deer flies were worth it.
Now, if I could just get my back feeling younger than the 19th century I’d have less to be crabby about.