Bob Schall, Plumcreek Horsefarmer
photos and text by Cynthia Venturini
reprinted with permission from the Armstrong Weekender
Farms and families who have worked them for generations are the essence of Armstrong County.
Most of our farmers turn to modern technology to lighten the workload a bit, but some, such as Bob Schall, choose to farm using the methods of their ancestors.
Schall lives and works on the 70-acre farm in Plumcreek Township that his father, Roy, purchased in 1959. And even though he still has the tractor his father bought, also in the 50’s, Schall prefers to work the fields of his farm with his Belgian draft horses.
“I still use the tractor some – when I spray oats, have to use the hydraulic, or have to run the baler,” Schall explains, “but I’d just as soon use the horses.”
He bought his first Belgian, a light sorrel mare named Bess, from the Blair farm in Allegheny Township, Westmoreland County years ago.
Today, he owns three Belgians — Bess, Tony and Bess’s daughter Trixie.
When he harnesses them up for working in the fields, Schall positions Bess in the lead.
“The lead is always on your left, if you’re standing behind them,” he explains.
Trixie takes the “off-side,” to the right, and Tony, a gelding and the largest of the three, takes the middle.
“When I harness him (Tony), I’ve got to stand on a bale of hay to put the bridle on him,” Schall says.
“I use them to pull the plow, cultipack, drag, harrow, and to rake hay,” he says.
“I’ve had different ones ask me, ‘What’re you doing messing around with them horses?’” he adds. “I just tell them, ‘I like to.’”
For Schall, farming with workhorses is more than just novelty. His drive to farm “the old fashioned way” comes from a deeply embedded love and respect for the land and his ancestors.
“When you’re working with horses, you get to smell the ground; you get to think; and you get to just take time and enjoy what you’re doing,” Schall says.
“With a tractor, all you get is noise and smoke, and you breathe that exhaust,” he says. “It comes right back through your nose.”
Schall also feels the horses leave the fields in better condition.
“You have tractors out there with four wheels on the back end, packing the ground down,” he says, “and when you farm with horses, the ground is loose — they pack it down some, but not nearly as much as a tractor.
“And when you turn in the field, the tractor wheels will push the ground up,” he adds, “When you turn with the horses, you don’t have that pushing the ground and making ruts in your field.”
Schall’s great-great-grandfather Joseph Stewart was the first of his ancestors to settle in Plumcreek Township. But Plumcreek wasn’t actually on Stewart’s agenda.
“Two Stewart brothers were on their way to Newcastle. My great-great-grandfather’s wagon wheel broke, and he decided he might as well settle here,” Schall says.
“His brother settled at East Plumcreek.”
The original Stewart homestead is about 1 ½ miles from Schall’s farm, along what now is known as Sunken Valley Road. The farm now is owned by the Boyer family.
“I know about where the old house was,” Schall says. “My great-grandfather, John Stewart, was born there in 1838. He was the first to farm the old homestead.”
“My grandmother, Cora Stewart, was born on the farm in 1878,” he says. “She married Harry Schall, my grandfather. That’s where the Schalls come in.”
Schall and his father also were born, raised and worked on the old homestead, where they farmed with Percheron work horses.
“I was about 3 years old when I first held the lines. I would bring the horses in from the fields,” he says. “I think they knew where to go, and I was just hanging on to them.”
Fifty-six years later, Schall still enjoys walking his horses back to the barn. Doing things the same way his ancestors did so many years ago gives him a warm, secure feeling.
“When I cut my corn, I do some by hand, but most of it with the binder. Then we set it up in shocks,” he says. “We husk all the corn by hand, and feed the fodder to the cows.”
“That’s the way it was when my great-grandad farmed and grandad. They husked by hand,” Schall says.
“And it’s the same farming with the horses,” he adds. “I like to hang on to the old ways.”