My Name is Herman Van Koughnet

My name is Herman Van Koughnet

I decided to basically finish my story with the help of my nephew. My name is Herman Van Koughnet. My nephew’s name is Danny Van Koughnet.

I was born in 1901. I have been successful at a few things in my life. I have been a mule skinner, trapper, farmer, railroad engineer, tie peeler, hunter, prospector, coal miner, stump puller, blacksmith, carpenter, wagon builder, firewood cutter, lumberjack, hobo, bum, road construction worker, worked on the railroad, and ditch digger. Back in the 1930’s, anywhere I could find work as a fence builder or plowboy. I fought with Poncho Villa and his army. I joined his army to help him and his people. I don’t really think I proved anything by it but I did come back alive. I used to go pull stumps for farmers, cut firewood, repair and build wagons and harness too. I worked in coalmines; was an engineer on a train and lived and worked on a farm, was a muleskinner and was able to shoe my own mules too and look after them and was good at doctoring mules too. I was able to trap every animal in the bush, and work in the woods as a lumberjack or logger. I have had many different jobs in my life.

I was a good fence builder and was hired by many different farmers over ten years to build fences both wood rail fences and wire fences. Years ago, we didn’t have a power auger on the back end of a tractor. We dug holes with a posthole auger by hand and nailed the wire to the fence by hand. You had to keep the fencerow straight and dig the holes the same depth. You cut your own fence posts and peeled them yourself. You did everything yourself years ago. I shoed mules for myself and other farmers and never had a mule lose a shoe. I am just finishing off a previous story I wrote for the Small Farmer’s Journal. To kind of complete the story. I write this story for my nephew. He is ill and does not work anywhere so I think I owe him something. He was born in 1956 and has his problems. I am now signing off.

Written by Danny Van Koughnet, as told by “Uncle Herman” Van Koughnet

I was born in 1901. My name is Herman Van Koughnet. I am just continuing my story. I was born in the backwoods of Kentucky way back in the hills. When I was born much of Kentucky was still wilderness in the eastern part and there was many small farms throughout the countryside. Most farms were 40 acres to 160 acres and every farmer had chickens, hogs, a milk cow, a dog, mules, and maybe a beef cow.

Years ago in Kentucky and other states in the south and north too, the government opened land for homesteads to be made into farms. Many people moved in the area and took up farms. The government also opened up land in Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota and Indiana. You were given 40 acres and a mule, cow and chickens and a sow pig. This was how the saying “40 acres and a mule” got started. That was exactly what the government gave you, a mule and 40 acres of land for free; no money down and you were required to clear 16 acres and plant it in crop the first year you got the property. If you didn’t, you lost the property and were kicked off. The mules that everyone got were all the same. General-purpose mules or farm style mules usually weighing about 1200 pounds to 1600 pounds. Most were black in color with a white nose or a tan brown nose. The mules were tough and strong and used to hard work. This was what the farmers wanted in the way of a mule, a work animal. The mule was the king of the farm years ago. A mule is a hybrid, a cross between a male donkey or jack, and female horse or mare.

I can remember when the countryside was full of small homesteads and farms. Everyone kept a milk cow and chickens that lived in the country in the early days when I was younger. Everyone had a big garden and everyone grew a crop of corn and wheat. Corn and hay were the main crops grown in the early days. Every farmer had a good stand of corn. The corn was fed to livestock and some was sold to the city. All married women and single men canned food for winter. People canned a lot of corn in jars and other vegetables and they took corn and wheat to the mill to be ground into flour and cornmeal. Farm people used to walk to town and carry a basket of eggs to trade for other things. Men would take sacks of corn to town to the gristmill by the stream to have it ground to meal.

I can remember when people lived way out in the country and woods. I remember when families lived way back in the woods by themselves and the nearest neighbor was 10 miles away. When it took a farmer a whole day to go to town and back and it was dark before you got home. You hung a lantern on a pole on the wagon sometimes, so you could see at night. Most times the mules or horses just knew their way home. It was called following their head. The mules knew how to get home completely on their own. I remember when trucks first came out and you had to light the headlights by hand. Sometimes you tied a lantern to the front of the truck so you could see at night. On a rainy night someone walked ahead with a lantern in case there was a wash out in the road. The depression came in 1929 and no one had money for gas, so people just parked their farm trucks and went back to mules and wagons. Years ago people lived way back in the hills and were self-sufficient and didn’t go to town more than once every two or three months.

Back in the depression of the 1930’s people were what I call human beings, same thing back in the 1920’s. Way back in the hills you welcomed a stranger into your house to spend the night and you fed him too. In those days people shaved and had a haircut and took a bath and washed their clothes and kept clean. You didn’t use all kinds of deodorant you bathed and washed if you were dirty. Years ago if you offered a stranger your horse trough to take a bath in, he was really thrilled and thought that was just great. A nice bath in the horse trough was a real privilege to get all scrubbed up nice and clean with a homemade bar of soap. People made their own soap years ago, hand soap and laundry soap, also dish soap to wash dishes with.

No one had running water or electricity just kerosene or coal oil lanterns and candles. Most people made their own candles years ago too. We bought candlewick at the general store or just used string. We used a type of string that I can’t even buy in the store any more; it was a type of butcher cord or linen string. We didn’t always have glass windows either. Sometimes we would take a big glass jar and shove it over the end of a log on the wall. That was a window years ago. We had no screens on windows years ago. If it was real hot you open a window and covered the window with thin cloth to keep the flies out. We had different cloth then than nowadays. When they came out with screen it was sold in rolls like tar paper and you just cut off what you needed and covered your windows. You made your own screen windows and own window frames for the glass. Shingles were made by hand, so were nails. Everything was homemade back in the hills years ago. Mule harness was made by hand or sometimes bought if you had the money. Some people just bought the buckles and made the harness. Some even made the buckles. The blacksmith was a very important man in a town years ago. Most people shopped at the general store; every town years ago had a general store, livery stable, blacksmith shop and if there was a train coming to town, a train station. Some towns only had three shops and a few houses and farms surrounding the countryside. The roads were just dirt trails and dirt streets. Most roads were just a trail cut through the wilderness or a footpath that you walked on or rode a mule on. There were no doctors and if you got sick you had to cure yourself. People had all kinds of home cures for different illnesses for people in those days. Most people cured their own animals, too. Nowadays people run to the doctor for every little thing from a scratch to a spot of dirt on the skin. They are wasting the doctor’s time. If you were dying I could see going to see a doctor, but a dying man can be cured, too. I have saved men from dying, so did my mother in the past. Neither of my parents could read or write but were excellent doctors. These are some of the things that I remember from the past. We are living in a different world now than what I was brought up in.

Most people call me Danny. My name is Herman Daniel Van Koughnet but I usually go by my middle name. I have a 48-year-old nephew named Danny and he calls me Herman, so does his mother but most people call me Danny. It is too confusing having two Danny’s in the same family.