OLD TIMERS TACKLE TOUGH TASK!
By Norris Chambers
We approached Ben’s big house in the early morning ready for a long day of labor. We didn’t know what he had planned but we were ready to get started. His wife told us that he was around the place somewhere so we headed for the barn and the lots. He wasn’t hard to find and he didn’t waste any time in explaining to us what he wanted us to do.
Ben pointed to an area west of his garden and began explaining what he wanted us to do.
“On that high ground over there I want you to take a turning plow, a scraper and a team and dig a ditch for me. I want it six feet wide and seven feet deep and about a hundred and fifty feet long. I want it straight and the side banks smooth. I want the dirt you remove piled along the uphill side. It will take some pick and shovel work to keep the edges and bottom square. The ends can be sloped where the scraper enters and exits. “Do you think you can do that? “
We assured him we could do whatever he wanted done. We wondered why he needed such a hole, but we didn’t ask.
A scraper (it is sometimes called a slip) is a little sharp pointed box made of metal about three feet wide and three feet long with the front open and the bottom edge sharpened. Two horses are hitched to the front with a hinged tongue connection and there are two handles on the back. When the horses pull the scraper the operator raises handles and the blade digs into the dirt. It is soon filled and the handles are released. When the load of dirt is dragged to the desired dumping place the operator raises the handles much higher and the box flips over forward, depositing the dirt in a relative smooth pile. It is usually necessary to plow the area to be dug, making the soil loose enough for the scraper to pick it up.
After doing some careful measuring we began the big digging project. We decided to alternate the plow and scraper work and the worker not operating the team would use the pick and shovel to keep the sides straight. The dirt that was dumped by the scraper needed smoothing and the pile kept wide enough for the horses to walk over it and dump the scraper load on the long accumulation.
Things went well and on the third day we had the ditch ready for Mr. Gibbs to inspect.
He looked at the finished job and told us he thought we had done a good job.
“I will need you boys again before long to put this nice ditch into operation.” That announcement was nice but we still didn’t know what the work was for.
“If it’s not a secret,” I ventured, “just what is the ditch for?” He told us that it was no secret and it would be used to store cane for animal food. He said he had read about them in one of the agricultural magazines and it sounded like a good, cheap way to keep several kinds of feed for the cattle.
A little later in the year we cut the cane with an ordinary field mower and stacked it in the trench. Ben directed us to place a layer of canvas on the bottom and sides before stacking the stalks inside. When we had it filled to about two feet from the top he covered it with another layer of canvas and we finished filling it with the dirt that we had excavated.
The animal feed kept well and Ben continued to use the trench. We made several dollars helping him every year.
About seventy years later Ella and I drove by the old Gibbs place and from the new paved road we could see the old trench on the side of the slight rise in the terrain. Someone had reworked it and it looked like the side walls had been lined with concrete that extended about a foot above ground. A large rock building had been erected on the uphill side of the ditch. I guessed that the building housed a big chopping machine that cut the fodder into small chips. I had later learned that most silo storage crops were prepared in this manner.
Did we have fun digging something that would endure for so many years and provide winter food for hungry farm animals? We did have fun. If you would like to have fun maybe you should dig a long ditch, bury some celery or something and eat it later. That could be a lot of fun!