Hillside Farming and the Hawkbill Knife
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by Frank Shortt
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To run a hillside farm without modern contrivances, sparse water, the encroaching forest,
and the inevitable visits of ground hogs, rabbits and chipmunks took a lot of hard work. Such was the life of our family on the hillsides
of Buchanan County Virginia. Not a day went by that we didn’t spend countless hours making sure that mom’s kitchen was provided with
wood for the stove, vegetables and fruits to can, and potatoes to bury under the floor to be used for the winter.
My brother, Wendell, and I would spend many hours on top of the ridges and in the deep hollows trying to find suitable dead trees
to cut up for firewood. When we first moved to Shack Ridge, numerous dead Chestnut trees were in evidence. Chestnut wood was the easiest
to saw, to split and easiest to set on fire. “Blight” in the forties had literally wiped out the wild chestnut population leaving
only the monumental dead, bare snags as evidence that they had ever existed. Needless to say, we were very happy when we came across
one of these bonanzas. We could saw one down, split it, stack it and fill mom’s woodbin before she knew what happened. The sad part
is that chestnut remnants became less and less as the days went by. Soon they disappeared completely, to our utter dismay.
To this day I cannot figure out how we stayed in one piece considering the tricks we pulled trying to get wood to the bottom of the
hill. First, we would cut the tree down, trim off all the branches, to insure easy sliding, and then we would attempt to slide the
trunk down the hill so we didn’t have to carry it so far. Sometimes the front end of the trunk would become so buried in the ground
after a long, speedy slide, that we would have to saw off a portion in order to get it going again. If we happened to be riding on
the log, the danger of being thrown off and possibly run over, was ever present. As I was smaller than Wendell, I got to ride more
often. If it happened to be winter, the dangers increased because the ground was usually frozen as were our gloveless hands.
Potatoes were easy to grow, except for one hazard; potato bugs!! As soon as the tender shoots appeared in spring, the plants were
overrun with a horde of greenish, black spotted creatures that had no mercy on our crop. Wendell and I have spent many backbreaking
hours trying to pick off as many of the parasites as possible. We were very glad when dad would go to the Farm Bureau and return with
the potato dust insecticide. Of course, this took a lot of work to dust each plant by hand. As I said, our farming was decidedly backward.
For some reason we had to do everything the hard way. Our potato patches were on the steepest hillsides possible, weeds and insects
loved our crops, and if the summer storms didn’t make it over the local mountains, all was lost. I’m sure there was a better way,
but up until I left for the Service, those ways were still hidden.
Growing corn was also
a challenge due to the steepness of the hillside that dad chose to plant the crop. I have had to literally dig myself a standing spot
to keep from sliding down to the next row and damaging the corn I had already hoed. We owned no tractor and even if we had it would
have been useless because of the steep terrain. Weeds invariably tried to take over the crop, so we spent all our waking hours hoeing
these weeds and probably cursing each one under our breaths. By the time the first hoeing was finished, the second hoeing was due,
so the process was repeated. This went on until the tassels appeared, then some well earned rest. When the ears were fully ripe, all
the blades were dying, and the stalks had become tough as pine knots, the harvest began. This was a hazardous time for boys with no
gloves and not much experience in harvesting. The blades became razors to cut our bare backs and arms and the husks, as we pulled
them off could easily cut into our hands. The stalks and blades were left to be cut later for fodder for the cow. Nothing was wasted.
One consolation I have from all this work: the cornbread made from freshly ground corn has no equal in taste. Ah, to be able to have
just one more bowl of stone ground cornbread in fresh buttermilk, what a treat!!
remember our fruit trees producing very much. I can only remember small, knotty looking fruit that were worm infested. The trees were
never pruned and were allowed to grow as tall as they chose. Most of the apple and cherry trees required a very tall ladder to get
to the best fruit. This was not too inviting for a small boy, but we climbed them anyhow, sometimes ending up on our backsides because
the limb we were standing on suddenly gave way. The one thing that always left a lasting effect upon my memory was that dad always
carried a large hawk-bill knife for cutting dead limbs and small sucklings that grew alongside every fruit tree. To this day, I can
see his muscles ripple as he cut through a branch with just one stroke. I thought, “If I could ever do that I would be the happiest
boy in the world”. Little did I know, at the time, that there was little effort on the part of my dad to cut these branches! He had
the reputation of having the sharpest knife around. Men came from far and near to have dad sharpen their knives or to have him teach
them how to do it. I could never seem to get the knack of sharpening knives.
woodbin is full, and the pantry is stocked with row upon row of canned goods that were canned over an open fire that Wendell and I
had to keep stoked until mom declared “The beans are done”. Our potato hole is full of beautiful “Arsh taters”* to last all the way
into the following summer. So let the snow fall. Next spring we’ll repeat the whole process again.
* Irish Potatoes