|Broken Ground & Broken Bread|
by Ralph Rice
The trailer door closes
on the last team of horses loaded. The field is turned over, the plowing
match complete. Our turnout of 15 teams and teamsters represented several
farms and a few breeds—Percherons, Belgians, Clydesdales, and ponies.
We had all gathered at the host farm about 7:00 this morning and spent
the first half of the day plowing just for fun. Walking plows and riding
plows followed one another in random fashion. All forenoon we laughed,
joked, shared information, and took turns trying different plows or
showing an upcoming teamster a few tricks of the trade. Each teamster
tried to leave a clean straight furrow for the team coming behind.
After a noon hour of resting, eating, and more stories we find the contest
field laid out and waiting. We draw our numbers from a hat and the competition
begins. The usual rules of strike out, then three rounds to the right,
and finish to the left are explained. We take our places at the numbered
stake corresponding with the number we drew from the hat. Each teamster
has a friend or family member positioned at the numbered stake on the
opposite end of the field, to mark our furrow and help us distinguish
our stakes from those on either side.
The field judge tells us to go ahead and plowing begins. A few teamsters
strike out with furrows as straight as a string, while a few others
don't seem to know which stake to plow to. For me the hardest and most
exciting parts of a plow match are striking out, or making the first
furrow, and finishing up, or making the last furrow. My heart beats
fast and my mouth goes dry.
My hands guide the plow while my voice and a taut line guide the horses.
Today we do pretty well, but not as well as we have done other days.
We turn around exactly at the stake and make our return trip, being
careful to lay this strip of sod slightly on top of or next to our first
strip. Upon reaching our starting point, we take care to stop exactly
at the beginning to create a straight and perfect headland.
I always rest a minute after striking out. I need to settle down, catch
my breath, and gather my thoughts. The work is not hard, but the intensity
takes my breath away. I lay down my lines and talk to the horses, reassuring
both them and myself.
We start out again, making our three turns to the right. We make each
furrow as straight as possible, while stopping at each end in an even
fashion. This part of the contest is easy, just walking along guiding
the plow as needed to straighten a furrow or bury some stubble.
Our third round completed, we finish to the left—making left turns
at the headland and finishing the space between where we started and
our neighbor on the left, hoping he had a good start too. A plowman
must check the headlands often to maintain an even appearance. He must
learn to slice the land to his advantage to straighten a furrow or bury
a mistake. Almost anyone can flip dirt over, but flipping it where you
want takes practice.
We work the land down to the last strip of about 10" or 12" width. Removing
this small strip will create our dead furrow, our last ditch and our
last chance to win the contest. At this stage I take another breather.
Then, following the words of a mentor, forever indelibly etched on my
mind, I split the little strip of sod. As I walk the team while carefully
guiding the plow, I can feel the patient hand of my old friend on my
Reaching the end of the furrow, I turn my team around and make ready
for our last return trip. This time, to remove the small remaining strip,
they must walk close together. We need to turn over this last little
piece to create our dead furrow. It must be straight, clean, and even—beginning
and ending precisely at the headland on each end. This skill is easy
to describe, but hard to master.
The judge walks around and over the plowed ground, checking each teamster's
efforts, while we plowmen rest our teams at the ends of our sections,
visiting with each other or passing smiles and nods to one another.
The judge calls our names from the top down to fifth place. Plaques,
ribbons, and prize money are distributed to the sound of clapping from
the crowd and teamsters. Prizes are also awarded to the team best matched,
the ones that came the farthest and, my favorite, the best teamster.
This trophy goes to the man with the best shown, best driven horses
whose very thoughts are telegraphed back and forth through the 1" leather
straps that are his lines.
Today my young team and I come in second in the walking plow class.
I am pleased with our showing, as this competition is their first, working
against several contestants who have been plowing for decades. To finish
the day, we teamsters take turns plowing the remaining open ground,
again following each other and poking fun at one another.
On this day, ground and bread have been broken, old friendships renewed,
and new ones made. Having set a date for our next gathering—where
we will again meet as friends and compete as rivals—we load up
our horses and head back to the farm chores awaiting us all.
Ralph Rice's column "Reflections" appears regularly in
Rural Heritage. This column appeared in the Spring 2005 issue.