19 December 2011

A Cross-Checked Field; A Thing of Beauty

Is it possible to describe in words the surface planting of a checked field of corn in those days so that one who has never seen it done can acquire the idea of it? And if I describe Tommy Schofield doing it, a master at planting a checked field, can I bring him back to life, some life anyway, for a couple of minutes? It would be an indisputably good thing to do if it could be done. Tommy and his wife had no children. I know of only three other people who might still be alive to remember him.


I have mentioned Tommy before. He was the hired man on the farm owned by V.L. Smith, flat land directly to the south and the southwest of ours. We could see it all laid out below us there from our house on the ridge to the north. In 1957 when I was ten, Tommy was as old as I am now, remarkably old it seemed to me at the time. While I do not wish to belabor this leitmotif any more, I must explain that Tommy had himself lost a farm in the Depression. Instead of abandoning farm work for the city, he afterward labored on farms owned by others.

Tommy used a team of horses to plant his bosses farm, one of the last men in that part of the state do so. This was part of the fascination of it for me. When I got off the school bus and saw that he was in the field with his team, I would saddle up the pony and ride down there to watch for awhile from our side of the fence. This amused him. It was the pot-bellied pony, I think. He might take a short break to chat. It was during one of these breaks that he explained to me the relative safety of hand-rolled cigarettes as compared to store-bought ones while he rolled one for himself.

I described Tommy as a Popeye in bib overalls. I recall that for some reason he preferred Key blue denim overalls rather than the hickory-striped OshKosh B'gosh overalls favored by everyone else. Why does that detail remain in my head? And big, heavy brogans on his feet.

Those were days of transition in the business. In the first half of the twentieth century, weeds in a field of corn were controlled by “cultivating” the corn. Cultivating corn referred to mechanically hoeing between the rows with a cultivator pulled behind horses or later mounted on a tractor. Back and forth. Back and forth until the corn had grown too high to continue the back and forth. In the second half of the twentieth century when powerful and efficient chemical herbicides came into use, the days of cultivating corn in that way were over.

In the fifties even corn planted with a tractor-drawn planter was still planted in “hills.” Hills ideally consisted of three kernels planted together. Because of the imprecision of the planter, it might be only one or two kernels or it might be as many as four or five. You needed the correct size of holes in the planter plates to match the size of the particular seed corn kernels in order to drop exactly three with any consistency while at the same time not breaking too many.

The hills of corn were between three and four feet apart in a row. Today the corn seed is “drilled” continuously in a row. There is no grouping of the seed kernels in hills. The reason for planting the corn in hills in those days was in order to facilitate cultivating in between those hills while still growing the maximum number of plants per acre possible. Average yields were in the neighborhood of fifty to sixty bushels per acre, a fraction of today's yields.

Tommy would string two parallel wires along the ground from one end of the field to another and stake the ends, just like one of the old farm wives stringing twine in her garden in order to make a straight row of lettuce. Unlike that twine, however, this wire had what looked, from a little distance, to be knots in it every three and a half feet. Actually, they were metal buttons, and sure enough, they were called “buttons.”
The two wires then fed into the corn planter. As Tommy's horses pulled the two-row planter along, the wires passed through it. Those buttons then tripped a release in the planter causing it to drop three kernels from the boxes into the two small trenches formed by blades at the front of the planter. Specially shaped wheels at the back of the planter then covered the trenches and those kernels with soil. Hills of three kernels each, three and a half feet apart, in a row. This was called a “checked” field.

If that were all done well and carefully while planting a field north and south, then those hills also lined up east and west more or less. When done correctly so that the hills lined up both north to south and east to west, the field was said to be “cross-checked.” A cross-checked field could then be cultivated both north to south and east to west in order better to control the weeds. Usually, the field did not cross-check perfectly. The east to west rows were rough looking. If they were close enough, that was success. Some farmers in the fifties, my father included, did not even bother with cross-checking any more.
Consider the variables that played into this:
  • The planter fitted with the proper plates had first to be calibrated as nearly to perfection as possible, a process too tedious to describe here.

  • Those two wires had to be set with the same optimum tension relative to each other and relative to the previous setting every time. I experienced a nerdy delight yesterday in finding the rule of thumb regarding that tension. Best that there be seven buttons between the point where the wire was suspended in the planter to the point where it touched the ground. Front and back. Every time.

  • Of course the buttons in the two wires had to be lined up abreast of each other after the wire was set so that the hills were being planted side by side in the two rows.

  • The team of horses had to pull the planter at a consistent speed throughout the planting process. Their walking gate could not vary. If the planter were pulled too fast or two slow, the seeds fell into positions in front or behind of where they ought to fall. Some teams of horses had rhythm; some did not. Tommy's team had rhythm. Their patient precision was every bit as important as Tommy's patient precision.
The test of success in this had to await the germination of the seed and the appearance of the corn plants. Herein lay the delight and amazement in looking at a field of corn planted by Tommy and his horses. I could look at it from the north and see perfectly straight rows. I could ride the pony over to the ditch beside the road along the west side of the field and look east. Perfectly straight rows. Then there was the real visual payoff. I could ride on to the southwest corner and look back to the northeast. Perfect rows on the diagonal. That field could be cultivated diagonally, too, and sometimes it was.

Later, when the field had been freshly cultivated, the leaves of those intensely green plants undulated in the breeze above the freshly hoed, jet black soil. When one rode in a car down the gravel road along the west side of the field with the dust pluming up behind, the diagonal rows morphing into horizontal rows and then back into diagonal rows, the geometry of it all created an optical effect. The whole thing danced in front of your eyes. On first standing in front of one of Piet Mondrian's geometric paintings in the Chicago Art Institute years later, oddly enough I thought of Tommy Schofield. He was an artist in the same league as far as I am concerned.

And of course I cannot think about Tommy without thinking about his horses. They may have been owned by his boss, but they were his.

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