From Kings 4:26, “And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen.” Solomon may have had thousands of horses in his stable, but three horses were housed in the barn on the 238-acre Scheckel farm outside of Seneca in Crawford County, Wisconsin, in the 1940s and 1950s. I witnessed the transition from horses to tractors.
Horses did a lot of our farming. Over the years we had horses named Sparky, Lightning, Sam, Queen, Prince, Dolly, Dick, Nipper, and Nancy. Queen and Dolly were huge black horses. Dick came from out West and had a brand on his bronco rump. Sam was a wild horse and did not play well with other horses. To take the spunk out of Sam, Dad hitched him with Dolly. The team pulled a sled wagon through snow drifts. Prince was a reddish roan color. Dad bought Prince at a sale north of Mt. Sterling. Prince was led home to the Scheckel farm by holding onto the rope from out of the car window. Prince dutifully trotted along the side of the car. That was a sight to see!
When I was a little tyke, Phillip, Bob, and I would go out in the fields where Dad was using the horses for farm work and call Dad for dinner. For city folks, dinner on the farm is at noon. Dad would unhitch the horses from the machinery. The horses had to be fed and watered at noontime.
Dad would set Bob and me on one horse, and deposit Phillip on the other. I would grasp the brass hanes that set atop the horses’ collar and ride back to the farmhouse. What a great thrill to be riding so high! Felt like a king sitting atop the throne.
When my two brothers and I approached the teen years we rode the work horses bareback, no saddle, just a bridle for “steering.” Phillip rode Prince bareback, galloping at full speed, over frozen ground that was as hard as concrete. I loved riding Dolly. She would simply walk, not run or trot, and that was fine with me.
We asked, no, we begged Dad to buy a saddle or two. Even showed the pictures of saddles displayed in the Sears and Montgomery Wards catalogs. But Dad would not have none of that idea. Saddles on workhorses don’t make money, was his retort.
In the spring, summer, and fall, the horses were put out in the pasture. If the horses were to be used that day, it meant going out in the field with a bridle, armed with some sweets, or sugar to bride the beast, and when they got close, slap the bridle bit in the mouth, and lead the horses back to the barn for harnessing.
The 1940s and 1950s were decades of transition on farms across America. When I was a kid on that Crawford County farm, horses were being replaced with tractors. The Scheckel family had an Allis Chalmers U tractor, and later a Massey Harris ’44, but we also had three horses. Tractors didn’t always start in the winter, but no problem getting Dolly and Prince to move!
It always amazed me that from the beginnings of man, through Roman times, the Middle Ages, all the way up to about the middle 1800s, the fastest that a human could travel would be by horse. Then came the harnessing of steam and the steam train. On August 30, 1830, a horse-drawn carriage, with passengers aboard, challenged the Tom Thumb locomotive engine train to an impromptu race, near Baltimore. Both carried passengers. The horse won. A belt slipped off the blower pulley and a pop-off valve broke. But the writing was on the wall. Steam beat out horseflesh. The Iron Horse took over.
The routine to prepare the land for sowing oats was plow, disk, and drag. The Allis Chalmers U, with steel lugs, did the heavy work pulling the McCormick Deering two-bottom 16-inch plow and the Moline 9 ½ -foot tandem disc. A team of two horses could handle the three-section Linsay drag.
The 7-foot Van Brunt grain drill, with grass attachment, was big and heavy and we farmed in the hilly Driftless Area where the fields are not Iowa-flat. For many years, the trio on the grain drill were Prince, Dolly, and Sam.
The John Deere 999 corn planter was a two-horse operation. Same with the McCormick Deering 5-foot No. 9 hay mower, the McCormick Deering side rake, and the McC-D corn binder. Prince and Sam did not complain pulling the hay wagon with the New Idea hay loader behind. Dolly was reserved for pulling the loose hay into the loft of the barn. Haying was an all-horse operation.
It was back to three horses on the 8-foot McCormick Deering grain binder. Horses hauled the oats bundles to the threshing machine, belt-powered by the Allis Chalmers U and later the Massey Harris ’44. The Scheckel horses performed much of the farm work, but the tractor pulley powered the 22-inch McC-D threshing machine, the Rosenthal 4-roller corn shredder, the Gehl hammermill, and the saw rig.
Time does not dull the memory of Dolly and Prince pulling the hay wagon with the trailing hay loader. Straining into the harness, heads bobbing up and down, tail swishing bothersome flies, some slobbers around the bit and mouth, and yes, sweating.
Crows cawed in the distance. Meadowlarks, with their distinctive black V on their yellow belly arose and alighted on stronger twigs, and killdeer running off with a fake broken wing. Grasshoppers popped up, motored a few feet, and landed. Bellowing white clouds floated across an azure blue sky. The fragrance of cured hay mixed with oiled harness, wind whipping the tops of the hay fields in undulating waves. Those sights and sounds stay with a farm boy forever.
I recall the times when we rode on the wagon pulled by the horses. Dad used “horse talk” commands. A slight “tsk” sound that rolled out the side of the mouth, was the signal for the horses to move forward. A “whoa” was the verbal indication to stop. There was no need to hold the reins.
At times, we Scheckel boys teased the horses. In a very low volume guttural tone, we would do the “tsk” sound to see if the horses heard it. We watched for the ears to perk up. Sometimes one horse would hear it and the other would not. That horse, usually Prince, would move forward, whereas Dolly stood flat-footed. This horse-teasing went on until Dad told us to “cut it out.”
If a horse didn’t do what we wanted, we would mention the words “glue factory” close to its ear. Supposedly, old horses were taken to a glue factory where they used the horses’ hoof to make glue. We also heard that horse hooves were used to make Jello. We never knew if any of those stories were true. But that did not stop us from believing them and passing them on to the horses. Our horses never seemed to be impressed with these veiled threats!
I think even the horses had a sense of what was going on here. I just imagined they knew that their sweat equity was paying off, that they were harvesting the food they would chow down in the winter.
The horses chewed grass in the pasture after working hours. They were led to the water tank next to the cow corral. Turned out to pasture, they would go down on all four legs, roll around in the dust. We would curry comb the horses. A curry comb is a brush that combs through the horse’s coat, especially important in the areas where the collar rested on the huge beasts. If not currycombed, horses could develop sores. Good farmers took care of their faithful servants.
Horse owners experienced real sadness when one of their faithful work horses passed away or had to be sent away for disposal. A long-time workhorse was considered part of the family, as much as a pet dog or cat. Work horses had personalities, responded when called by name. Tractors and other farm machinery came and went, but a good workhorse was remembered and talked about for years.