Car here to stay

Farm Forum

Despite 4,000 years of equestrian experience, man has pretty well settled in on the ultimate in locomotion. The “infernal combustion” machine is here to stay.

In about 1910, assembly lines were straightened out enough by Henry Ford to pull off a cheaply made Tin Lizzy and the days of the horse were numbered.

But out here on the flatlands, the car didn’t replace old Dobbin easily. Most people loved their horse or could not afford a car, or both, so for a decade or two out here, the horse and the car co-existed.

But by the 1920s, with some good crop years safe in the bin, the car finally did sputter out on to the flatlands in large numbers. One farmer I know could still remember the day his dad fed his beloved span of Percheron and headed for town to sell them and buy a Packard.

“We were so excited that we drove our new car to town three times that first day,” he said. Going to town would no longer be an all-day, once-a-week odyssey.

The car meant many changes in flatland life. New habits, new ways of doing old chores, new tools to master and new skills in driving had to be learned.

Until small towns learned to handle traffic, parking on any Main Street was a hodge-podge, helter-skelter plan.

There were new words to add to the vocabulary, too, like pre-ignition and transmission and miles per gallon. New rules had to be followed and new laws written. Muscles had to be toned for a more precise hand-eye coordination than was required in guiding the plodding work horses.

In the 1920s and 1930s, it wasn’t uncommon for a man who had spent a lifetime with leather reins in hand to buy a new car, get brief instructions and head for home.

It must have been a white-knuckle trip after 4,000 years of humankind saying “whoa.” Old habits cling like cockleburs. Just stopping the car required good judgment and some new, tricky moves.

I imagine gates and scurrying chickens suffered unmercifully by unfamiliar drivers who commanded the car to “whoa” rather than apply the brake.

But the biggest adjustment for men who had grown up knowing and caring for horses was learning all of the idiosyncrasies of the car. It broke down, it rusted away and it was hard to start, especially at twenty below.

Folks worried about their horse when it was ill, and they showed it off in town when its coat gleamed with the freshness of youth. They mourned its passing and depended upon it to start at twenty below.

But mostly, they could talk to their horse. Bashful farmers could orate on the long, lonely back and forth trips in the field, expounding kept-to-themselves philosophies to swiveling, curious ears.

A poem that speaks of this symbiotic relationship between a poor, depression-beat flatland farmer and a skinny nag he called Jehosophat, popped out at me from an old history book I was reading.

It was written years ago by a farmer named Gleff Crawford. Here’s the first verse as the man and old Jehosophat head for town, passing by a rye and a hay field on the way:

“Mule’s gone lame, an’ the hens won’t lay;

Corn’s way down, an’ wheat don’t pay.

Hogs no better, steers too cheap;

Cow’s quit milkin’, meat won’t keep.

Oats all heated, spuds all froze;

Fruit crop’s busted, wind still blows.

Sheep seem puny and I’ll be darned,

Rye field’s flooded an’ the haystacks burned.

Looks some gloomy, I’ll admit…

Jog on, Jehosophat, we ain’t done yet.

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