2011 really tested our metal. All day there was tension among the Crew, the Oxen, the Teamsters and the Crowd. Why? Hurricane Irene was ever so slowly worming her way up the east coast, leaving havoc in her wake. She was aimed directly at New England and the Cummington Fair. By Saturday (which is known as OX DAY) Irene was so close that the air was deadly calm and the sky an unhealthy yellow-green. All the fair animals were restless, as was the overflow crowd, many of whom were tuned to hand-held technology for updates on Irene’s progress.
As a great way to finish off the century, Clyde Keyes had the idea to compete horses and oxen against each other, the same day at the same fair, in the same drawing ring. Clyde is well known throughout New England and beyond as an organizer and announcer of such events. He also had his own team of horses 42 years ago. He’s now planning retirement and thought this competition would be a unique way to highlight his career. The teams of heavyweight horses were already scheduled to attend so Clyde arranged for six teams of powerful oxen to be on hand.
Dad was always a firm believer that the best way to train an animal was real work. As a kid, I always liked to take them out and take them for a walk down the road, and if dad would let me get away with that, that’s what I did. I still tend to do that, but he’s absolutely right: the best thing for training is real work and probably the best real work for them, that I can find, is picking rocks. We’ve got plenty of them around here. You know, you take a stone boat out. We generally kept a horn tie on them if nothing else but an insurance policy, but dad whipped on us very hard to manage the rope correctly.
The long winter finally ended and our hill became green again. This time the old man had got a head start on his farming. Although he and the hands had hauled many loads of rocks and had built dams about thirty feet apart all the way up the slope, he had found time to do other things. In the fall he had cleaned out all the stables and scattered the manure over the garden spot and the land he intended to put in corn.
I was at day one, standing outside an old burnt-out Belgian plantation house, donated to us by the progressive young chief of the village of Luvungi. My Congolese friend and I had told him that we would need to hire some workers to help clear the land around the compound, and to put a new roof on the building. I thought we should be able to attract at least 20 workers. Then, I looked out to see a crowd of about 800 eager villagers, each one with their own hoe.
Cy and Don were born to big, rugged cows and were sired by the same bull. Their body type was what we refer to as old fashioned. They had long bodies, deep and wide chests, and thick, straight legs. They were straight along the top of their backs and wide across the forehead. The old ox men would say a team built like Cy and Don were, “square as a brick and smooth as a trout.”
En route to a remote pasture where the Belgian draft horses, Prince and Tom, are grazing, we survey the vast green landscape, a fine mist hovering in distant low lying areas. We are enveloped in a profusion of sweet, earthy balance. Interns and other workers start their chores; one pauses to check his smart phone. Scattered about are many animal-powered rustic implements. This rich and agriculturally diverse, peaceful place is steeped in contrasts: modern and ancient.
I hear time and time again at the outset of each workshop, “I don’t know anything about working oxen.” And I say, “There is no more fun than being a beginner.” Myself and the staff get great pleasure in sharing our knowledge of working steers and oxen. For as long as there are those interested in working cattle, the men I mentioned early in this article will not be forgotten. I believe there will always be cattle worked on small farms and in the woods.
Twenty four years ago, the students in Tillers International’s Oxen Basics class, enjoying their time together, decided to return the following year as a reunion of sorts, and so the Midwest Ox Drovers Association (MODA) was born, along with its Annual Gathering. The Gathering is held the weekend after Father’s Day at Tillers International in Scotts, MI. A weekend devoted to making new friends and greeting old friends while interacting with working cattle, the Gathering is always a great time. On Saturday night of the Gathering, after dinner, a number of us sat down for a moderated roundtable discussion. I had jotted down a few questions on the proverbial “back of an envelope,” powered-up my recorder, and we were off to the races.
Because the animals push the load with their foreheads, there are several factors that affect draft. One of the most important is that the steers need to have short thick necks so that there is less tendency for the neck to curve or sway. This is why the preferred breeds for oxen in Nova Scotia are Hereford crosses, most often Hereford x Durham. The angle of draft is controlled by a pole, or wooden tug, that is attached to the yoke with two adjustable lengths of chain. The angle with which the tug meets the yoke can be adjusted so that when the steers push into the load, the draft neither forces their heads up too high nor down too low. Like all draft animals, they need a constant angle of draft that allows them to lift the load.
In North America, horn knobs have been fixed to cattle for over 150 years. It is likely in foreign countries that horn knobs adorned the horns of oxen for several hundred years. In some regions they are called horn buttons or horn balls. I have seen the knobs made of steel and aluminum, but most commonly are made of brass. The styles and shapes run from simple hex shaped like those used in New England to multi-layered shapes and quite ornate like those used in Nova Scotia, Europe, and South America.
In this Cummington Fair event teamsters must work alone with their team, load an unruly log onto a wood-shod sled and then take the loaded sled through an obstacle course, watching out for tennis balls on pylons. Competitors start with 100 points and lose points for mistakes. Some are eliminated by the judge for reasons such as: tipping the sled over or team unable to load the log or move sled. This is a timed contest which often decides the winner.
As the teams perform there is quite naturally a lot of tension and the polite crowd is quiet. In between there is plenty of good humor, laughter and very good sportsmanship. With so many contestants the Challenge takes all afternoon as each team is allowed 10 minutes to load the miserable log onto a wood-shod sled and take it through the ornery obstacles.
When a pair of calves is carefully chosen to become an Ox Team they should be housed together, fed and watered together, yolked together, and exercised together from the get-go. There are as many training methods as there are teamsters. Like children, love and patience produce the best results. A willing team is a joy to work with for many years.
Oxen are all from the Bovine species which includes Cattle, Buffalo and Kudus. On hand for the 19th Ox Teamster’s Challenge last August were eight different Bovine breeds of cattle: Brown Swiss, Belgium Blue, Chianina, Devon, Holstein, Milking Shorthorn, Normande, and Randall. This turned out to be our best show so far, with enjoyable and not-so-enjoyable surprises.
In 2014 the Cummington Challenge celebrated 20 years of entertaining spellbound spectators while, at the same time, educating everyone about the beauty and intelligence of oxen. In these 20 years upwards of 150 different teamsters have participated in this ever-changing obstacle course with their well-trained teams of various bovine breeds. They were judged and timed and their efforts were always applauded. The SRO audiences were treated to interesting, often comical, stories about each teamster and his/her team. Several bovine beauties were celebrities in documentaries. In all these years there have been only six different winners as some have won as many as six times!
Surely it was a banner Challenge. The eager SRO crowd was treated to some bovine beauties guided carefully with voice commands. All the teamsters used the traditional twisted Hickory stick made by a respected teamster of yore, Art Hine, and given to the Challenge by Art’s son Nathan. Ten teamsters took home their share of the rosette ribbons and generous premiums provided by the fair officials. It was a long afternoon filled with patience, surprises and good humor.
For nigh on 20 years Rob Collins has been an ox teamster. He has also been a high school social studies teacher and a farming instructor at Tillers International. In his capacities with the Midwest Ox Drovers Association he began recording conversations with Ox Teamsters. He then bravely and intelligently compiled these, verbatim, into an album of tremendous effectiveness and value. I say album because, though in printed book form, it has not been ‘academized nor homogenized’ for market. It’s kind of like grandma’s scrapbook of recipes. It is a string of transcriptions which makes it all the more valuable – as it offers a superbly authentic and useful ‘jump start’ to any who might be inclined.
The culture of the ox was rich across New England. On my road alone there were several good ox men for me to learn from, and many more in the surrounding area. Even the men who were too old to still be working cattle, would give of their time telling us stories of when working cattle was economically practical.
Some things I have learned about working with oxen as with any other living thing is to treat them with some respect. Especially hump-backed cattle which I prefer. Be firm and gentle, but consistent, realizing you could be seriously injured if they chose. Be patient while teaching them what you want them to do, and then insisting every time that they do what you want them to do every time.
The Whiplash Teamsters are a Connecticut based loose collection of people who work with oxen. Their name comes from the 4-H club that they sponsor. The kids seem to age out, but their parents and friends stay active. We keep looking for more kids to join and promote our craft. The Fort Hill Farm owners want to expand plow day into a 2 day event in 2022.
After the log skid everyone broke for lunch and a rest from the heat. It was a beautiful sunny day with the bluest of skies with big fluffy white clouds. They couldn’t have asked for a better day! Pete and I ate lunch at the Cornplanter Pavilion and watched as the pulling horses entered the arena for the pulling contest that afternoon. We recognized several names from our area that had made the trip to compete. We then wandered through the rabbit and poultry barns and several other animal barns. We checked out the Domestic and Agriculture buildings, too. It’s nice to go to a fair that puts more emphasis on agriculture than carnival! Getting back to the “Bull Pen” (the ox barn) we found everyone getting ready for the ox pull.
Every day in the winter, and a fair number of days in the summer, I choose to work with a team of Dexter oxen, just about the smallest breed of cattle in North America. Harv and Mr. Whistling Sweets are three years old, were named on a half-forgotten whim by my young children, and stand 38” tall at the shoulder. Sometimes, perched on top of a load of hay, moving feed for my herd of thirty cows, I look and feel comical — a drover of Dachshunds.
One July day, a 70 year old man visited Howard’s farm and explained that he had heard that he had bought a pair of Devon oxen. Howard yoked the cattle to show the gentleman what they could do. The man then asked Howard if he could drive them. Howard was a bit uncertain if he could handle them knowing that there were not many experienced teamsters in the area. The man proceeded to drive the cattle quite comfortably. To Howard’s surprise, the man slipped the yoke off the cattle and continued to drive them with no apparent trouble. The man, named Johnny Lamb, then went on to tell Howard that he had trained the team.
We recently had to move the Miller archive of old books and magazines, and we had to do it in a relative hurry. Fifty years worth of accumulated reference materials, with many, many boxes of items long thought lost. Four of us packing, loading and unpacking – our urgency challenged by the discovery of hundreds of forgotten goodies. Two such items were large format, catalog-type magazines covering a certain region’s ox heritage. These were sent to us decades ago by Philippe Berte-Langereau of France. When we learned we would be able to print Rob Collin’s excellent MODA report in this SFJ, I immediately thought it would be a grand opportunity to share just a little bit from Philippe’s magnificent work.
The first thing I want to point out is that cattle have a flight response: if you’re unfamiliar with cattle, that’s going to be the point where you walk into a pasture and the cattle turn and walk away from you. That’s kind of that area around them where they are going to move away from you. It’s often called the “flight zone.” With our oxen, our goal is to make that flight zone skintight; we want to be able to do anything to them. We want to be able to work around them and have them be calm, to be very comfortable with our presence. So what we do often to accomplish that is to spend time grooming, rubbing, brushing them. Those are all things you can do to make that flight zone smaller, to make them comfortable with us.
For centuries, the skills of training steers for work and the craft of building yokes and related equipment was passed down from generation to generation. It was common for a young boy or girl to be responsible for the care and training of a team from calves to the age of working capability. Many farms trained a team each year, either for sale or for future replacement in their own draft program.
After a year old, a seven hundred pound (each) steer pair can be worked slowly up to an eight hundred pound stone boat load. Remember, if you want them to pull heavy loads, or work long hours, they must be slowly brought up to speed. You are training an athlete and must work up to the heavier loads, and always start out a training session with a lighter load and “warm-up” your athlete. No runner in high school ever started out running the four-minute mile, it takes years to work up to their maximum performance.