Bob’s Farm Day in Orange, Virginia
by Polly Welch of Gaineville, VA
photos by Monique Bernardo, Lew Jones, & Polly Welch
On Saturday, March 30, 2013 in Orange, Virginia, members of the Virginia Draft Horse and Mule Association (VDHMA), Old Dominion Draft Horse and Mule Association and Virginia Percheron Association trailered in to support Bob Brennan’s annual Farm Day. Other teamsters traveled from various parts of Virginia as well as North Carolina, West Virginia, Massachusetts and New York to demonstrate their skills in tilling a large field supplied by one of Bob’s neighbors for this public event.
Bob Brennan, a well-known teamster for many years, originally farmed in Hillsdale, New York. As a child, he worked on his father’s farm. He bought his first draft horse, a Percheron, with $50 saved from selling eggs. When he was 14, he bought his second Percheron for $65. He would hitch the horses each morning before school and again each evening to haul water in milk cans to his chicken coops. Later in life, draft horses supported his dairy operation and his skills in training field horses for neighbors helped provide extra income when economic times were tough. In 2005, Bob sold his New York farm and settled in Orange, Virginia on a large acreage called “Chestnut Hill Farm”. He restored a Civil War-era house and built a barn ample in size to store most of his equipment. Now an octogenarian, Bob leases out most of his 200 plus acres to local farmers but maintains several acres for his six Percherons, two donkeys and a neighbor’s little hinny. His barn overflows with various farming implements and vintage wagons and buggies, either restored or in the process of restoration. Bob is also an accomplished carpenter and continues to collect antique equipment, refurbishing them to operating condition. Talking with Bob about all of his “toys” is like listening to a museum curator as he describes the purpose and history behind each of the jewels in his collection. Still hitching up a team or two weekly, Bob also has youngsters that come to his farm where he instructs them on how to drive single and team.
An active competitor in local plow days and showing in hitch classes for many years, Bob decided to open up his New York farm to fellow farmers and the local public to demonstrate horsedrawn farming techniques and equipment, drawing as many as 1000 spectators. So many kinds of equipment were on hand that one needed to just show up with their horses in harness and hook up to the implement of their choice. Bob’s Farm Day in New York was held six times over a span of a few years. After moving to Virginia in 2005, Bob joined the Virginia Draft Horse and Mule Association and the Virginia Percheron Association. He started his Farm Day tradition again, missing only a couple of years due to Mother Nature. “Only the weather can stop us. You can’t get the horses in the field when it’s pouring rain.” What is Bob’s desire to put on events like this? It’s a three-fold agenda; passing on historical knowledge of the horse-drawn equipment, educating the public that horse-powered farming still exists, and introducing driving to children. “I don’t want to see this way of life disappear.”
Putting on an event like this does require a lot of preparation. Sue Brennan, Bob’s daughter, drove down from Massachusetts with four of her Percherons (and her heritage chicken flock) to help get the equines tuned up. Sue is a skilled teamster in her own right, learning the art of driving with the lines as a teenager. Every day for two weeks, she was hitching up teams, mixing and matching, as well as putting some time on a green horse they hoped to add to their hitches. Virginia’s weather wasn’t exactly spring time as snow fell to the ground on a few of those days, yet that didn’t stop Sue and Bob from getting out there. Assisting with the daily training was Tony Blackwell, also from Massachusetts, grooming, harnessing and being on hand for any moment of contrariness. On the Friday before the Big Day, all of the Brennan horses and a couple of others brought in from parts of Virginia spent the day smoothing out an area in the field that would be used for parking. When that was done, members from the Virginia Draft Horse and Mule Association and Virginia Percheron Association were on hand to set up tents, tables and chairs. With a blustery wind still going on, fingers were crossed that Mother Nature would take a breath and calm down for Saturday. And she did.
Bob’s Farm Day drew in about 250 spectators this year, less than previous years but perhaps the Easter weekend may have had an effect. The morning air was a bit chilly in the high 40’s when the trailers of horses and longears started arriving. By mid-morning, there were 54 draft horses, 8 donkeys and 7 mules in the field plowing, pulling a wagon full of passengers and tied to trailers awaiting their turns to get in the field. Cars of visitors began lining up in the parking field at 9 AM, with children running to the spectator area to pluck up chairs to watch the heavy horses. At the same time, the horses and mules were out in the 25-acre field making furrows pulling an assortment of walking and sulky plows. Percherons made up most of the equines though there were a handful of Belgians, Shires, mules, a Spotted Draft and one Clydesdale. All kinds of plows, harrows, cultivators and diskers were lined up along with several wagons and carts, ready for anyone who wanted to hook up and try them out.
The “Parade of Plows and Wagons” started at 10 AM, with visitors comfortably sitting back in their chairs, listening to Bob tell the tales of horse-drawn farming, starting with single-horse implements. “People often don’t believe you can farm with just one horse but you can. It takes more time but it can be done. One horse is perfect for the small garden farmer.” Some of the items were homemade, examples of what Bob would build in his younger days when the average farmer couldn’t afford to buy commercially-made equipment. A great example was a triangular wooden form with short spikes of rebar protruding from the bottom. “I made this spike tooth harrow recently for $7”, chuckled Bob as a Spotted Draft walked by with the harrow.
Another homemade tool was a plank harrow constructed of oak lumber, mostly 2×10’s, guided by Gary Kisamore of Churchville with one of his grey Percherons. Next came a dump scoop, a few walking plows and cultivators. Equipment requiring two or more horses came next with several types of plows demonstrated like a Syracuse 2-way plow pulled by Sue’s team of Percherons. Soon the antique carts and wagons as well as show wagons made their way through the procession with Bob giving the history of each item as he knew it. Once the equipment had been paraded, Bobby Goodwin of Orange stepped up to the microphone and explained the heritage of the different breeds that were present. In a unique static display, Fred Cox of Mount Sydney set up his antique horse-powered corn sheller with his reliable grey Percheron, Max. With Max walking in circles, kernels of corn flowed from the spout.
Working in the field was not limited to adults. There were a few children with lines in hand behind either standard donkeys or drafts. Ricky McLeod and his 13 year-old granddaughter, Andrea, were all over the field, with “Tomorrow”, a Shire mare, pulling them both on a slide. “She’s been driving since she was old enough to sit beside her granddad and hold the lines”, according to Lori McLeod, Ricky’s wife. A teen student of Bob Brennan, Alisa, was giving wagon rides with Bob’s donkeys, Tick and Tock, in the morning. In the afternoon, she was found guiding a donkey pulling a walking plow. Alisa, 14 years old, has been taking driving lessons with Bob for over a year now, driving both single and teams. Highpoint Farm, a riding stable in Amissville, brought a large group of adults and children to see what horse-powered farming was all about. Monique Bernardo, HPF owner, introduced her young hunter/jumper students to driving last year when a 7 year-old Percheron mare was brought to her for saddle training. “Baby,” owned by Polly Welch of Gainesville, was an old hand at driving carts and working in the field. The kids saw Baby getting a little work with a slide one day and with that spark of interest, Monique added driving to her summer camp program in 2012 with Bob Brennan instructing and Baby in harness. She was also delighted to see three PMU Percherons (owned now by Bob and Polly) she brought down from Canada in 2003 and 2004, in the 12-horse hitch later in the day.
The donkeys did steal the show at times during the day. DonkeyHolics, a longear riding group for youngsters from Purcellville, Virginia, came with three mammoth jacks and assisted in directing cars in the parking area. Headed by Audrey Cadle, this group of young ladies is usually found riding their donkeys. Since becoming involved with the VDHMA, their mammoths will soon be dual-purpose as the little ladies have been introduced to harnessing and ground-driving their large donkeys. Patti Price, a director of the VDHMA, from Luray made an appearance with her two standard donkeys, pulling a refurbished Conestoga wagon.
Additional excitement was provided by the multiple-hitch arrays. Three- and four-abreast, and 8-horse hitches worked their way through the field breaking up the previously plowed soil. It was an impressive site for people that had never before seen so many horses working in harmony. The earth moved when a 12-horse hitch of black and grey Percherons manned by Bob, Sue and Gary Kisamore, came through with a huge John Deere KBA disk harrow. Visitors lined up in the field at a safe distance snapping photos of this striking arrangement. “That’s about 24 tons of horse there!” exclaimed a lady in the field. The hitch was made up with horses from four different owners. Some of these horses had never been hooked up with more than three. In the lead on the near side was a young Percheron owned by David Samuels of Elkton, Virginia, that had only been introduced to driving that week. Bob said the first time he ever worked with a 12-horse hitch was in 1985. “Five of us, my New York buddies Jimmy Golden, Jake Bates, Charlie Lent and Tony LaTrenta, got together and taught ourselves how to make this work. It is possible to put a big hitch together without these horses ‘knowing’ each other.” A little shuffling of the horses may be needed as they don’t always like each other but knowing how each horse works helps put that puzzle together for harmony in harness. This hitch pulled the disk harrow around the field a few times with smooth turns and an even pace.
What a day this was! Youngsters had fun petting the donkeys. Smiling faces filled wagons as they moved about the perimeter of the farm. Seniors were telling stories of their days on the farms when they were children. Younger folk (those less than 50 years of age) were amazed by the hard work and simple technology that fed America not that many years ago. Bob’s three goals for the day were met. Bob extended his thanks to the men and women of the three Virginia draft horse associations for their participation in his Farm Day and is hopeful that it can be done again next spring with even more horses. Many visitors came to Bob with their thanks and appreciation for putting on a spectacular day. History was told and history was made in this little rural enclave in Virginia!