Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Farm Yard

The Farm Yard

As a pre-teenaged young boy I spent some of my summers at my father's parents house on Houck Road near Harmonyville, Chester County. The adjacent field was part of the Wade Farm and by crossing it you would come upon a bank barn, hog pens, chicken houses, and a fenced in farm yard where centered was usually a fairly large manure pile. Their farm house, just a short distance further on, was built over a wet spring which cooled the cellar during the summer that kept meat, eggs, and vegetables from spoiling and where they stored many shelves of jarred and canned items. It was a big stone house complete with a large walk in kitchen fireplace and, oh yes, water cress grew year round in the spring ditch exiting the cellar. The barnyard remains indelible in my memory. I clearly remember when I saw all of life's processes play out there, but especially, was butchering day.

I've often suggested that teenagers be exposed to a farm yard early on in their youth so their budding education would include how animal life reproduces. The universal acts of animal rutting, gestation, and birthing known well to farm children would, in my mind, benefit the whole population of our youth. In and around barn yards all of life's episodes play out, not only, that of reproduction, but also, the harvesting of animal flesh for human consumption, and getting of milk for the public's use. Here eggs are gathered while animal manure is also gathered up onto a pile so it heats up and composts so later it can be spread on the fields which grow both animal feed and vegetable edibles for humans. The basic cycle of life : birth, growth, death goes on year after year around the barn yard as it has for thousands of years without interruption. The only change is in the relative scale of the operation.

Most memorable was butchering day. Big kettles were hung over hot fires while large hooks were hung down from the sturdy bank barn upper floor beams which cantilevered out past the main stone barn wall some five feet out and about ten foot overhead. All the available large wooden and metal tubs were filled to the tops with clean water and all the farm buckets were scrubbed clean and set aside. 
A concrete apron under the overhang., extended out into the barnyard about five more feet then the end of the overhang, it was scrubbed down and hosed off. 

The Wade boys were in the butchering mood this day even though this turned out to be hard work and took all day. A young steer, an huge old hog, and a rather young calf were the candidates for todays gathering. From my vantage point sitting on the main swinging gate to the barn yard I saw the boys bring each animal into a chute, a very narrow ramp leading from an out building into the yard. They quickly sliced the calf's neck from ear to ear 
with a long sharp knife. Then they hooked a chain to the animal's back legs and dragged the carcass to the scrubbed concrete apron and hoisted it up to a hook. They placed buckets under the carcass to catch blood as they cut the belly from the chest bone to the anus and out spilled the animal's guts and entrails which they set aside in a tub. Blood drained as they sloped water on the inside of the carcass. Using a very sharp smaller knife one of the boys cut away at the skin while two others pulled the skin off the hide. The head was severed and set aside, later the tongue was removed and saved.

The young steer maybe twice as large was forced into the chute and he was shot in the head first before his throat was cut. It took a block and tackle to drag this dead animal to the apron and hoist his carcass up to a hanging position. The de-gutting process and the removing of his hide took longer than the first animal but was a similar operation. 

Mister Hog was even more eventful. He was almost too fat to squeeze into the chute but, once there, one of the boys put a gun barrel to its head and shot. Another Wade boy tried slicing the hogs throat but it bolted into the barnyard as two boys with long knives ran after it trying to finish the throat job. Finally, either from the bullet or the slicing the hog went down. This big fellow needed the block and tackle to hoist him up for butchering. After the removal of the hide the boys sliced off as much fat as they could and tossed it all into a large pot hanging over a fire pit, lard in the making. 

Into another pot over a fire went a menagerie of animal parts which eventually ended up, I'm told, as
sausage or scrapple. I remember they just threw on the manure pile any unwanted carcass pieces which flocks of birds swooped in to fight over. The carcasses were dissected into carry able sizes and taken either to the farmhouse kitchen or to the spring cellar below. A big meal was planned for Sunday when invited neighbors came to eat and go home with meat cuts they had ordered earlier. 

Many times I witnessed a chicken's head cut off, but watching an ageless process as is farm butchering sobered me up at a young age. Hunters and trappers do this all the time and think nothing of it. As do fisherman who clean their catch at the end of the  day. Thankfully humans are at the top of the food chain so we get to pick and choose what we kill so we can eat. The barnyard is a great place to learn about things in life generally hidden from modern day youngsters. Visit a working farm to see how the interdependent web of life exists.

Ronald C. Downie

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