A Gathering of Gatherings

by Rob Collins
June – July 2024
On the opening morning of the Midwest Ox Drovers Association’s (MODA’s) 2023 Gathering, we MODA members found ourselves waiting for a van load of historians. They were set to arrive at 9:00 a.m., which they did on the dot. When the van stopped, out poured 10 members of the Association of Living History Farms and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM) and none other than oxen expert and author Drew Conroy. Handshakes and greetings passed among old friends and new friends. After a few minutes, I had the honor of making a formal welcome to.
harvesting hay
Ed, Anneka Baird, Tara Starling are on the wagon pulling the hayloader and Tom Mahoney is driving Moose and Bear, pulling them all.
Welcome to Tillers International and the MODA Gathering. The first time I was here was with a class for schoolteachers. At the end of the week, we each got a bag of Tillers’ wheat with planting instructions. The instructions said that as you harvest and save the best seed each year, the crop will adapt to your home environment more and better over time. That’s what we aim to do here today. With MODA, Tillers and ALHFAM here together, we can cross-pollinate what we do, and, when we return home, those seeds can grow and adapt to improve our own work.”

The planning for this event had begun months earlier. Social science writer Malcolm Gladwell classifies three types of people who bring about social change. One of those types is connectors, those who link people to other people. They are the folks who know seemingly everyone. Jim Slining, Tillers’ collections curator, is a connector in the draft power and living history communities. It was Jim Slining who first proposed bringing a group to Tillers as part of ALHFAM’s annual conference at Sauder Village in Archbold, Ohio. Claus Kropp was going to be the keynote speaker at ALHFAM, and, knowing that Claus is an international expert on farming with oxen in an open-air museum setting, it seemed like a wonderful idea to invite him. Eventually, the plan coalesced around a day trip, with about a dozen historians arriving to participate in several activities: the last day of our June oxen basics class, the MODA Gathering, and tours of the museum and grounds at Tillers’ site. Jim had already attended to the million details involved in such a trip, so a brief introduction was all we needed to start the day.
dump cart underside
This view of the hayloading crew shows Ed and Anneka Baird spreading and pulling the hay forward as it comes off the loader while Tara Starling captures the moment. MODA Photo

After the greeting, some of the group headed for the museum, and the rest came along to see the progress the students had made during the weeklong oxen basics class in training a pair of calves. Tillers had borrowed the calves from a local farmer, and they had little handling at the beginning of the week. We acclimated them to a yoke by Wednesday and dragged a small load Thursday. With the students demonstrating, we went through the steps of introducing a team to a cart for the first time, which went surprisingly well.

dump cart tongue frame
Claus Kropp demonstrated on Zeus how a 3-pad collar is placed. MODA Photo
Once the calves were unyoked, brushed and put away, we turned to a morning of hands-on learning with the oxen. Each of the Oxen Basics students yoked a team of their choice and taught a group ALHFAM members how to drive them, as most of the historians had more experience with equines. Rachel, from Colonial Pennsylvania plantation, took Tillers’ big team of Shorthorns with a small group, sharing her skills. Tara Starling and Brian Alfonsi had found my fast-stepping Shorthorns to be a challenge earlier in the week, so they wanted to work them again to push themselves. They spent the rest of the morning giving lessons to the ALHFAM members and other visitors.

Britney Davies, from the Oliver Kelley Farm in Minnesota, had taken a shine to my young Devon team, so she got them out and gave a number of lessons to guests and visitors alike. By the end of the week, I felt like I needed to keep checking to make sure Antony and Octavius, my Devons, didn’t end up in Britney’s rental car.

The yard in the Artisan Village section of Tillers’ property was full for the rest of the morning with half a dozen teams and around a undred people assembling and re-assembling into miniature clinics on historic farming practices from across the country. Tillers’ Museum was also open for tours during this time, with Jim Slining sharing stories from the collection.

driving oxen
Rob Collins and his ox, Zeus, used the 3-pad collar to pull a number of loads into the hay mow. MODA photo

At noon, the group gathered under the big tent for a meal and a talk by Claus Kropp. He spoke on the work he is doing at Lauresham, a purpose-built medieval village in Germany, where he studies both medieval and modern techniques with a scientific approach, drawing on the past to inspire the present and future. A summary of his talk would not do it justice, and so a lengthier interview is needed. For now, it’s enough to say that the topic dovetailed perfectly with the interests of the assembled group.

driving oxen
Tom Mahoney and his team of Brown Swiss have pulled the loose hay to the barn where it is lifted to the mow using a track and trolley system. MODA Photo
Right after lunch, we began the communal work of haymaking. Rick Eshuis, Tillers’ farm manager, had put some first-cutting down earlier in the week, and it was dry and ready for loading as loose hay. The previously mentioned teams of oxen were all yoked again, along with Tom and Debbie Mahoney’s patient and hard-working Brown Swiss, Ruth Burke’s young and sharp Shorthorns, Vicki Solomon’s agile Dexter yearlings, and Tillers’ resident Brown Swiss. A hay wagon and a hayloader made for rapid collection with the Mahoney’s team, while all the other teams were hooked to carts and wagons for hand-loading and transport to the “Ox Barn.”

Once hay was dropped at the barn, the hay trolley crew sprang into action, with oxen raising the loaded forks into the mow of the barn. My 14-year-old Dutch Belted, Zeus, pulled a number of loads while demonstrating a three-pad collar, brought by Bob McCann and explained by Claus Kropp, who is perhaps the global expert on this unique cattle harnessing system. After a while, Zeus handed off the trolley job to one of Tillers’ oxen for the rest of the afternoon.
driving oxen
The author's team Brutus and Cassius are put to a small ox cart. Photo by Ellen Armstrong Bell
All afternoon, the wagons kept coming and the conversation flowed – with no engines to drown out the sharing and good-natured ribbing about driving techniques, loading skill, training methods and a dozen other topics.

Pausing for a moment at any point in the afternoon, you could look around and see a dozen examples of the “cross pollination” of skills. A couple brief stories illustrate this: MODA member Anneka Baird from Wisconsin shared, “I hopped on the hay wagon with Ed (a farmer from a local Plain community who came for the day) and Tara Starling. Ed was standing flat-footed in the middle, with Tara and I holding the rail at either end. Ed asked us if we knew how to ride on a wagon, and, moments later, Moose and Bear pulled us over a dead furrow. Even though I was grabbing the rail, I all but fell off the wagon. If you were watching Ed, though, you'd swear the wagon never moved.”

A second example of sharing comes from Arthur, who came out with his mom for the day. One moment when I looked, Arthur was out watching Britney Davies working my Devons in the hay field with a cart. A little while later, Britney had given him a lesson, and now he was driving the Devons and appearing to be having the time of his life. It’s not hard to see how Jim Slining’s idea of a shared conference had morphed into at least a hundred individual conferences in just one day.

All too quickly, the ALHFAM van, with a tight schedule to keep, was loading up to go. Another round of handshakes and thank-yous punctuated our day and solidified our new friendships.
dump cart in action with oxen team
After a short lesson, Arthur, a young visitor for the day, learned to drive a pair of young Devons as well as Zeus, pictured above. Photo by Rob Collins
Start making your plans to attend the 2024 MODA Gathering at Tillers Internationalon (June 22 and 23) the weekend after Father’s Day . We’d be glad to learn from youand share what we know as well. rh house logo.
This article appeared in the June/Julyy 2024 issue of Rural Heritage magazine.
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