Celebrating a vanished culture - Keith Roulston Editorial
For those who grew up around farming, even many years ago, events like this weekend’s Thresher Reunion bring their youth flooding back.
Ross, my best friend when we were growing up, recently sent me an e-mail filled with nostalgia after attending the Bruce County Heritage Farm Show in Paisley. He hasn’t been around farming much since the early 1960s, having gone to Manitoba and taken a city job before moving back to Kincardine after retiring, but memories flooded back to him when he walked down the rows of tractors from that era.
He wrote me to tell me the featured tractor at Paisley this year was a Minneapolis Moline, which was the tractor my father used for most of our years on the farm. Ross himself was taken back to the 1950s when he saw a Massey-Harris 22, which he had driven on his family’s farm across the road from ours near Lucknow.
There’s a comradeship among old farm kids. He mentioned that all he had to do was ask someone “What was the first tractor you ever drove?” and the conversation would be off.
I’m sure the same sort of discussions can be started in the antique car displays by simply substituting the word car for the word tractor – and this conversation would include both urbanites and farmers. For men – I can’t speak for women – memories of the cars their parents drove when they were young, and the car they learned to drive in, are indelible.
Still, while cars have changed over the years, those changes haven’t reshaped a society the way changes in farming equipment have changed the rural way of life. The creation of the Thresher Reunion in 1962 is significant because this time marked a watershed in rural culture. Until the 1950s nearly all harvesting was done using threshing machines which required a crew of (mostly) men to bring in the crop and operate the threshing machine and a crew of women to feed them.
As Paul Thompson pointed out in his collective play Death of the Hired Man, presented at the Blyth Festival in 2000, life on the concessions would never be the same after combines replaced threshing gangs. It wasn’t just the hired man who disappeared from the farm scene. A far more profound change came because farmers began working more individually instead of trading labour back and forth.
It wasn’t only harvesting grain that was changing. My friend Ross recalled how he had driven that 22 Massey pulling a wagon with a hay-loader behind it. The loose hay was pulled up by the hay-loader and deposited on the wagon where his father forked it across the wagon-rack. At the barn a huge fork, attached to a rope, was driven into the hay and then the bundle of hay was pulled up by the tractor or horses until it reached a track at the peak of the barn and then ran across that until the hay was dropped into the mow.
By the end of the 1960s, balers had replaced hay-loaders just as combines replaced threshing machines. Elsewhere, most farmers still heated their homes by burning wood. Trees were cut down by a cross-cut saw which required one person on each end of the saw to pull it back and forth. Sometimes there would be a “bee” when neighbours got together to cut the logs into stove-sized blocks with a circular saw powered by a belt from a tractor’s pulley. But soon the arrival of the gas-powered chain saw meant each farmer could harvest trees on his own.
At about this time there was another blow to neighbourliness when the National Farm Radio Forum shut down in 1965. For 25 years previously, families in many neighborhoods would gather, usually at a different neighbourhood home, every Monday night during the winter. They’d listen to a broadcast on CBC about an important topic, then discuss it. Afterward they’d play cards and share a lunch – and, of course, local gossip.
All these changes, occurring about the same time, meant there were far fewer reasons for neighbours to get together. For decades there had been a tradition of people joining together to share burdens and find solutions. People built schools and churches together. Farmers began co-operatives like the Belgrave and Hensall co-ops. When farmers at one Farm Forum group near Blyth felt they needed a market for their milk closer at hand, they started a cheese factory in Blyth.
This tradition spread into the villages where people came together to build arenas.
For me, this all came around the time I was growing up and moving away from the farm anyway. Still, coming home to rural Ontario as I did after going to university, I have never been able to shake the feeling that the cultural change brought about by technology on the farm has damaged the biggest advantage rural communities possess: our ability to come together and work to solve our shared problems.