Yokes and oxen

Farm Forum

Chances are a museum near you has an old oxen yoke mounted on the wall somewhere.

These old hand-hewn reminders of early South Dakota agriculture are rather common.

One yoke I know of was meticulously carved from a South Dakota tree in about 1887, and our county museum even knows the names of the oxen for whom it was intended.

It also can tell us about their sad demise. Incidentally, many old oxen were sold before they passed along, to begin a second life hauling timber to sawmills in Wisconsin, where they were then in great demand.

Others may have ended up as beef steak.

By my county’s old oxen yoke has provenance provided by Leon Dill of Minneapolis. He got it from his father, Everett Dill, who received it from a relative, Peter Haas, who homestead here on the flatlands with his faithful oxen in the 1880s.

One of Peter’s sons wrote about the ox yoke.

“When the folks arrived at the homestead the only means they had to get anywhere was to walk. I know that the day after I was born, father walked to the store ten miles by section line, and carried home a 50-pound sack of flour.

“I cannot recall ever hearing when he bought his pair of oxen, but I know it was fairly early, as the oxen were one of the first things I remember. The larger one was all red and the other spotted red and white.

“He [Peter] named the red one Luke and the other one Pete, and drove Luke on the right side…

“The oxen had only one gear, and I suppose it should be called ‘low’.” It was about two and one-quarter miles per hour.

“This was our horsepower on the farm until I was about eight (1887).

The oxen had grown until they weighed about 1,400 pounds each.

“The summer of 1887 a neighbor asked to borrow the team to do some breaking. I know father dreaded to let them go, but he could never refuse a favor.

“The oxen were as fat as butter and it was probably a warm day when the neighbor borrowed them. I expect he either overcrowded them or did not watch them closely enough.

“Anyway, in the middle of the afternoon, Luke, the larger one, dropped dead in a furrow. It was a terrible blow to father. For some time after that father did farm work with Pete alone….

“When I was ten [1889], we bought a team of mules, Jack and Jenny.”

The yoke then stood in the barn, of little use. But it helped smooth the rough edges for us all. Now it is a reminder of homesteader Peter Haas, and of Luke and Pete, and a time long past.

Visit your museum and learn more about the “near” and “far” oxen that long ago helped your community and your relatives grow and prosper.

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