Dick & Diamond, my dad’s team of big black horses were a familiar part of the livestock on our farm for as long as I can remember. I don’t think anyone really knew, or cared, what specific breed they were, or that they were not registered purebreds. They were just very mild mannered, willing to work when called upon, trustworthy and faithfully did what they were asked to do.
Though they were both very solid black in color, they were easy to tell apart. Diamond had a diamond shaped white marking on his nose and one white stocking, plus he was the larger of the two. That easily made the other horse “Dick”. Interestingly, in harness Diamond was on the right, but in their manger, Diamond stood on the left.
My dad bought and sold livestock in an effort to make a living for our family, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he had traded a pile of freshly peeled cedar fence posts and several heifer calves for the team, with maybe an old McCormick-Deering side rake thrown in on the deal to boot. At milking time after school, it wasn’t unusual to find that during the day a favorite cow had been sold off to a new herd, while several unfamiliar cows were wandering the aisle, wondered where they were to go – and were probably also wondering who that unfamiliar 12 year old kid is trying to get the milking done.
We not only had the 2nd oldest barn in the county, we likely were the only farm in the surrounding area that had a collection of horse drawn implements scattered about. All our neighbors owned tractors and tractor drawn implements, like hay crimpers, kicker balers, rubber tired wagons and bale elevators – plus barn cleaners and manure spreaders.
We had none of that – our hay was put up “loose”. Because of that, and living near Lake Superior, our hay making season often started when school summer vacation began, and lasted until it was ready to return to classes in the fall. Being the only boy in the family, I felt as if my entire summer was spent “making hay”. Mowing started it off, then side raking, and after “fixing up the corners with a pitchfork, loading it on a steel wheeled wagon with a Minnesota rope loader.
Our barn measured close to 100 feet long with a drive through alleyway where we unloaded the hay. I had two jobs to do for each wagon we unloaded. The first job was to drive the team pulling the fork full of hay off the wagon, through a series of pulleys, into the hay mow. Of course, once dumped in the mow, I had to back the team to the barn for their next “trip” – lifting the oak eveners to keep them from being stepped on – discovering they became heavier with every trip out and back! When the wagon was empty, my second job was to climb into the hay mow with a pitchfork, pull the mounds of dumped hay apart, leveling it to the sides of the barn.
I could rest a bit as the team took us back into the field for the next load.
One particularly hot summer we put up a bumper crop of hay. The barn was so full we were unable to walk upright on top of the hay in the mow – so close to the inside peak of the barn roof we had to crawl. We then filled the alleyway, unloading the wagons by hand as high as we could pitch it. With the barn full, we built a stack of hay outside on the Southwest corner of he barn. That October a major wind storm hit our area, strong enough to blow small debris against the third floor windows of our school. For several days it blew against the barn making it creak and groan as it held back against the force. It was scary milking the cows, watching the barn move around you. Perhaps because of all the weight of the hay in the hay mow above, the full alleyway and the stack outside, the old barn withstood it all. From then on however, the interior doors had out of square door frames – though it held, it did move.
In winter our daily “clean the barn”, meant shoveling manure from the gutters into a bobsled parked outside the barn door. Before it froze, we hitched Dick & Diamond up to pull the sled into the field where my dad and I pitched it back off. The team slowly walked along without guidance while we gave each forkful a slight twist to scatter it properly over the snow. Of course we had to use a shovel to clean out the horse stall, as their “apples” fell through the tines of the manure fork.
Part of my regular barn chores included feeding and watering Dick & Diamond. They both looked forward to the scoops of grain I came with, ears forward, saying “yes” as they flipped their heads up and down, stomping their feet… It was satisfying to watch them enjoy the grain in the feed box they each had in their stall. Our water supply came from a 180 foot deep artesian well. Cool and clear, it had to run continuously, so the overflow was piped underground to the barn, through the cows drinking cup system, into a cooling tank then back to the trout stream that flowed between the house and the barn. I brought buckets of this water to each horse, holding the pail on their manger while they drank. Inches away from these large animals, I watched them take their long sips, with their eyes half closed, ears flipping back and forth with each swallow, knowing they were enjoying the cool water. After several pails I could tell they were no longer thirsty when they started playing with the water with their lips – like children, who began blowing bubbles into their glass of milk.
One summer day I found Diamond in a panic trying to pull his hoof out of a piece of woven wire fencing. His hoof had gone through the square segment of wire but wouldn’t come back out. The more he pulled, the tighter it seemed to get and the more panicked he became. Somehow I managed to calm this big critter down long enough to open the wire and get his hoof out. Somewhat like Aesop’s Fable of the lion with a thorn in his paw.
As I prepared to exit my high school years my dad decided to replace the horses with a tractor. A buyer was found who was looking for a team to work in the woods skidding pulp. The sad day when Dick & Diamond left our farm was made even sadder when they had difficulty getting into the stock truck. Dick loaded ok, and with their calling back and forth for each other, Diamond approached the ramp. Comforted by seeing Dick already in the truck, he slowly walked up the ramp – only to bump the top of his head on a steel support on the rack above the entrance. He backed down and refused to go up the ramp again. After a number of attempts the buyer and my dad decided to drive away with Dick in the truck alone, returning for Diamond the next day. After being together for so many years, I really felt sad listening to those two separated horses repeatedly calling out for each other.
When my dad discontinued his livestock and farm activities I asked for the oak eveners hanging on the wall near the horse stalls. After the countless trips I made dragging them back and forth during every haying season I didn’t want to see them disappear. Though he said I could have them, he added, “I don’t know what you want them for.” After sanding them down, varnishing the wood and painting the metal pieces black, they now look like new and hang in the entrance foyer of my sons home. A piece of yesterday that unlike photos, I can still reach out and touch.