Farming when I was a Boy
By Ralph Hilton
The Butler Place was of course where I have my first memories. I remember hearing my Grandfather Butler say that his father Josiah Butler moving to the place in 1850 when my grandfather Leander was 13 years old. Josiah Butler used to drive a stagecoach prior to his coming to Sandy River. He drove different routes at different times from Augusta to North Anson from North Anson to The Forks, and from The Forks to the Canadian border. I once had and occasion to look up some old deeds. And what we call the winding hill road, in 1833, was called the Main road to Anson there being a ferry across the Sandy river where Franklin lives and the Main Canada road was all on the west side of the Kennebec.
The Butler place interval has about 25 acres and there was about 50 acres of upland. Farmers didn’t get much off their upland. It was hard to get much manure up there in fact most of the manure went under the sweet corn. There was a 15-acre field over the first row of hills; we called it the backfield. We mostly cut hay on the backfield. Sometimes we would plant and acre of potatoes and a half an acre of dry beans and sometimes some oats would be sown. Occasionally we would plow up 5 or 6 acres of that old pasture and reseed it. Grandfather Butler was one of the first to use fertilizer. At that time it was used mostly as a starter fertilizer when planting corn. For 17 winters he was a salesman for the Bowker Fertilizer Company.
In 1913 we bought the Farrand Place, where Maurice and Ray lived. This gave us 15 more acres of fields. There was a side hill of 20 acres covered with bushes. Between 1913 and 1924 we cut all the bushes and as the stumps rotted we plowed it with horses. We cut hay on it one year then we turned it out to pasture and them hills have never been plowed since.
We used to plant 5 to 7 acres of sweet corn sometimes 2 or 3 acres of corn for silage. Sometimes an acre or 2 of yellow corn to pick, 5 to 7 acres of oats, and never more than 2 acres of potatoes. Around 1910 there were kept about 20 head of cattle. Milking 10 to 12 cows. I can remember when the cream check was $100 a month this was really something.
One of the first things that my Grandfather had me do was to drive the horse when going to town. Grandfather was quite a teamster and very good with a driving horse. We had a roan mare that weighted about 1100. She was kind of dungy on the road. It was necessary to carry a whip. Although, it was not necessary to more than touch her with it. She was very sensitive to the whip.
I would be driving her along the road and she would be going from one side of the road to the other. I would be doing my best to keep her in the road. Grandfather would say keep her head straight. Which meant pulling her into the ditch. After a while he would pull out the whip and that usually straightened her out for a little ways. One time there was a wooden culvert which had washed out and was down lower than the road. I thought I would let the old mare slow down for crossing the culvert when Grandfather struck the old mare a good one. She jumped across the culvert giving us quite a jolt. This hurt grandfather’s back for he didn’t see the culvert or he wouldn’t have struck her. He groaned saying that hurt me awful.
Grandfather Butler liked a little booze. In prohibition days the only legal way anyone could get booze was to send to Boston and buy 3 gallons 12 quart bottles packed in a wooden box. These boxes were real nice with dadoed corners and covers nailed on. It cost $9 per case, 75 cents a bottle, plus express. The R.F.D. man John Chandler used to pick it up at the express office. Of course, he would get treated for his kind service. John Chandler would drive his team down by the stable door. Grandfather would be expecting him. After they got the booze under cover, which was a closet in the stable under lock and key, the mailman would proceed along his route. It seemed that Joe Cripp hardly had time to get to our place after John Chandler had told him that grandfather’s box had arrived. Joe used to borrow some so did Jim Hilton. The next time around it was one of them to receive the shipment and grandfather would borrow.
I never saw grandfather tight but once or twice. Once he fell down on the ice and I had to help him up. Once he got in behind the clothesline and couldn’t get out that time. I backed him out, opened the door and pushed him into the house. I then beat it to the barn. I don’t know how he made out in the house. A few times I would find the horse and wagon in the stable with grandfather just setting there. I would unhitch and put the horse away. After awhile grandfather would get himself in the house.
Joe Cripps used to get awful drunk sometimes. A few times I have had to go over and do his chores. I remember Joe bringing a cow over once, it was all bare ground. The road was all clay, the mud wasn’t deep but it was awful slippery. Joe had his horses and hayrack on his wagon sleds. He had the cow hitched behind the hayrack. I don’t know what happened; but when we saw him coming around the corner he was dragging the cow along in the mud. She must have been nice to milk that night. Joe was sitting on the front crosspiece with one arm around the rein pole drunker than a lord. We tended to his cow, brought her out and hitched her on behind and started them off. We followed her for a while and I guess she didn’t lie down again.
Grandfather Butler was a very good carpenter. When he built anything it was good and solid. The Butler buildings burnt the first time May 8, 1882 both house and barn. Leander built both house and barn the first year after the fire.
There was and old man named Dan Bigelow who used to tend the ferry. He lived in a one-room shack on the riverbank. My Mother had gone up to Uncle Bert’s and they brought her back that night to the river. Dan Bigelow thought he would go get her with the rowboat instead of the ferryboat. Bigelow didn’t know the first thing about handling a rowboat. When he got about half way across he started to drift down stream. Harold and I knew Mother was on the other side and when she didn’t come we went down to the river and waded across and found out why she didn’t come across.
Bigelow drifted almost to the Peterson place and hitched up the boat. Bigelow joined Mother, Harold and I walking up river in the field on the Wood side. We met Grandfather, coming down to meet us, with a pick pole. He asked us where the boat was. We told him and he proceeded down to the boat. Pretty soon we heard the chain, which the boat was hitched with, drop into the boat. Then we heard the pick pole grating on the river bottom. It was pitch dark by this time. Grandfather poled that boat back up through that quick water almost as fast as we could walk just as straight as if it were led.. I think he did that to show up old Bigelow.
One time Grandfather was gone and old Bigelow was helping with the chores. Walter Hilton Ira’s boy, who was Harold’s age, was up with us and we were having fun. I think there was a pile of sugar beets dumped in the barn floor. We used to cut them up and feed them to the cows. Bigelow said that we were making so much noise that he couldn’t hear the ferry horn. Harold had slid off this pile of beets and was sitting on the floor. Old Bigelow started kicking Harold; he really wasn’t hurting him, telling him to shut up. I came up behind old Bigelow; he was all humped over and there seemed to be a big hump on his back. At this time I was about 12 and I started pounding on this hump. Bigelow turned around to me and said he was going to tell my mother.
Sam Brackett, who worked a shift at the powerhouse, was there that night, just visiting. Sam told Charles Cross, whom liked to make trouble for me, he told my mother. Charles Cross lived up stairs in the north end of the Butler house. My Mother scolded me and told how bad it was to strike and old man. Someone told my Grandfather. He asked me about it one day. I said yes I pounded old Bigelow. Grandfather said, “That old S.O.B. had ought to be pounded and that was all he said about it. Grandfather didn’t like Bigelow because he always had his nose in every bodies business.
Grandfather Butler was very instrumental in getting the strip of land on the eastside of Sandy River that was formally Starks set over to Norridgewock. This strip of land took in all the homes along the river and went back from the river about a half-mile.
It was very difficult to get much service out of the town of Starks for the people on the eastside. The Starks Townhouse was about half way out to Starks Village, it being on Hiram Waugh’s land. Hiram used to store farm machinery in the Town House. Uncle Ernest told me that sometimes at town meeting they would have to crowd Hiram’s carts and harrows back into the corners to have space for the people so as to have town meeting.
In 1907 when the State Legislature convened a movement was on foot to get a bridge at Butler’s Ferry.
One Martin Frederic of Starks was in the State Legislature. This bill appeared on the docket to get assistance for the town of Starks for a bridge. Of course, Martin Frederic was asked what he though about the proposal. Frederic was against the bridge. He thought it would be too expensive for the town and besides he said no one in Starks ever traveled much to Norridgewock anyway. Most people he said went to Madison. So if the legislator from Starks was opposed to the bridge what use was it for the State to give Starks money that they didn’t want.
The bridge was going to cost $15,000. The town of Starks was to pay $5,000 of the $15,000. So you see this not to forward looking legislator was willing to put at risk the future revenue for all time from the greater part of the most productive land in Starks for what seems today the paltry sum of $5000 dollars.
When the bridge was lost it made Grandfather Butler so mad he went to work. He got a partition signed by most of the people on the East Side. The two exceptions were Frank Padham and Melvin Gray. Padham had been road commissioner of Starks. Padham thought he would like to be commissioner again. He thought his chances of being road commissioner in Starks would be much better in Starks than in Norridgewock. Melvin Gray didn’t sign the partition because Padham told him not to sign.
Some of the people on the West Side got up another partition to stop the East Side from succeeding. Ben Moore signed my grandfather’s partition and also signed the West Side partition. Some of his in-laws on the other side got after him.
After the Bridge Bill was defeated, no time was wasted in getting another Bill in the legislature to allow the East Side to be set off from Starks and become a part of Norridgewock. This Bill passed with no delay. In fact it was in the town meeting warrant of Norridgewock, to see if Norridgewock would accept the East Side. Norridgewock voted in the affirmative without any opposition. I went to school that spring term in Norridgewock.
The Norridgewock schools were quite a bit better than the Starks schools. For one thing they had three more weeks of school than Starks. The first year that I went to the legislature I felt out the bridge proposition at that time it was said to cost $180,000.
Grandfather Butler and I went one Saturday to see a farmer in Cornville by the name of George Foster about the purchase of a Guernsey one-year-old bull. I think it was around the 10th of December. We went to Skowhegan that was 11 miles and Fosters was about 9 or 10 miles beyond Skowhegan. There was no snow and the road was very rough. They had been hauling sawed lumber down through Cornville from West Athens when the road was soft and this morning it was froze solid. I remember we were unable to trot the horse much if we did we would be thrown out of the wagon.
We got up to Fosters just before dinner. We started for home somewhere around 3 P.M. It was way after dark when we got home. A while after that we went to Skowhegan with a pair of horses and sled and put up at the Skowhegan House. Foster met us there with the bull, we loaded him and came home.
In 1911 Grandfather bought an Adriance corn binder. It came all knocked down by freight to Norridgewock. This Adriance, Platt & Company made farm machinery such as corn binders, reapers, and I don’t know what else. By 1925 I think they were out of business.
A man came to put this corn binder together. Grandfather knew this man from his travels as a fertilizer salesman. We met this man at the Rail Road Station. He stayed I think two nights
This man had business in Skowhegan and Grandfather offered to take him to Skowhegan. Grandfather took me along. When we arrived in Skowhegan this man took us to the Coburn Hotel. It being at the time the best hotel in Skowhegan. It was the first time that I had ever eaten in a hotel. It was a very nice place and I remember what a good dinner they served for 50 cents. In those days one or two trips a year to Skowhegan was about average.
Another venture was to go to Waterville Fair. We had to leave the house at 6:30 in the morning put the horse up for all day at the livery stable and get aboard the 8:00 o’clock train for Oakland. Then take the electric cars out to the Fair Grounds, which was between Oakland and Waterville.
There used to be a regular night train that arrived in Norridgewock at 4:30 or during the Fair they put on a special train that got up to Norridgewock at 9:00. Sometimes we took the late train but most always we came home early. Which meant leaving the Fair grounds before 3:30. In the afternoon at that time Waterville Fair was the best in the State. They had livestock from all over New England.
I think what used to be Fair grounds is now all covered over with houses. The Fair grounds were not far from the Mercy Convent. I went to Waterville Fair the last time in 1924. I think it was on its last legs then for about all they had was midway. There was a half-mile track, lots of horse sheds and buildings to house lots of cattle, sheep and hogs.
My Father, who died March 9, 1908, when I was nine, used to show Oxford Down sheep at Waterville, Bangor, and Lewiston Fairs, that ran a week each. Bangor was the first in August, Waterville was the first week in September, and Lewiston was the second week in September.
I went with my father to Waterville Fair and stayed a whole week and slept in a sheep tent when I was 7 years old. Uncle Bert bought most of my father’s sheep, after he died, but didn’t keep them only a few years. He wasn’t a sheep man like my father.
In the early 1940’s I was in Waterville and I thought I would see if I could find the old Fair grounds. After driving around in the general direction that I thought it might be I came across the Mercy Convent then I knew the fair grounds could not be far away. Finally I came upon the remains of the old horse sheds and the old racetrack. My father shipped his sheep by railroad. Unload at the freight yard, then drove them out to the Fair Grounds through the streets of Waterville.
The last 2 or 3 years Grandfather Butler lived he didn’t take any part in the farm work such as haying. Harold and I did the haying, Maurice was big enough to rake and Charlie probable could drive the horse to pitch off. When Harold and I were after a load of hay down back of the house Grandfather used to go out beside the road where he could see us and watch. When he saw the team start towards the barn he would pick himself up and go to the house. When we went back in the field he would go back to his post beside the road.
The water for the Butler Place came from a spring back over two hills. The best way to get to the spring and the pump was to go down the road toward the ox bow at the edge of the field on the right just before you get to the gully go up the hill. The water was pumped almost a quarter of a mile to a reservoir on the hill in front of the stable. This pump had its own transformer and electric meter. We would have to go up and start the pump and after 8 or 10 hours go up and stop it. Before we had electricity the water was pumped by windmill.
I want to tell about something that happened in 1927. I thought that probably the water in the reservoir must have been getting low so, in the morning I went up to start the pump. The pump would start but it wouldn’t pump water. I couldn’t make it pump, sand had got into the pump it was full of sand. There was no way I could get it to pump water, so I took out the pump got the horse and wagon and took it to Skowhegan.
It was in the mist of mud season. Travel to the Mercer road had to be made by horse. We had a little horse that weighed about 1,000 lbs. Maurice got this horse from Ellery Tuttle and he could road right along where the mud wasn’t too deep.
I started for Bill Sargents plumbing Shop on Madison Ave. in Skowhegan. He took the pump apart and said it needed a lot of parts as the sand had ruined the leathers etc. He suggested he call Boston for the parts. When he completed his call he said those parts will be here tomorrow morning in the mail and we will have the pump ready by noontime. I went down, got the pump, got home and had it pumping water before chore time. We didn’t get out of water.I doubt if anyone could get any better service than that today.
Another thing that bothered us in the Model T Ford days was having the gas tank under the front seat. The gas ran from the tank to the carburetor by gravity. Going up a steep hill the car would stop because the gas couldn’t run up hill to the carburetor. You had to have 6 gallons of gas in your tank to get up Nichols hill. (Now Peterson’s hill). If we couldn’t make the hill we would go to the bottom turn around and back up.
Up to the Yeaton Place where the road turned off to go to Norridgewock there was a sharp corner. When the road machine worked the road they would cut a little off that corner each year.
That annoyed your Grandfather Yeaton beyond his endurance. He decided to put up a fence so people would have to keep away from the sharp corner. Florian and Bennie refused to help Mr. Yeaton. Ralph and Bion Piper were living there they were young boys 12 to 14 years old. They helped their Grandfather put up his fence. He put the fence right fair between the two wheel tracks about 25 feet of fence.
That made it so anyone traveling by had to drive out of the road to get around the corner. Anyone with a long load would have difficulty getting around the corner. Mr. Yeatons fence was 4 foot woven wire with plenty of stakes drove into the ground. Of course it was difficult to drive them into the ground very far in the middle of the hard road.
Grandfather Butler went to town, saw the fence and told Joe Cripps. Joe said leave it to me I will take care of that. Joe had some colts that he raised and most always he had one in the team with old Jack. Joe went to town and when he came back by the fence he accidentally on purpose hooked onto it with some part of his rigging. When the team felt the collision they jumped and ran taking fence, stakes the whole works down the road past the house until it let go.
Joe Cripps had kind of a crazy spell one fall. It was in the middle of October one cold night he didn’t show up to do his chores. I went to Madison a few days later and run into Ernest Emery, who worked at the Power House sometimes as a spare man. Ernest was very loud and talked a good deal which was quite offensive to some people.
Ernest says, “what has happened to your neighbor down there.” I said, “Who you talking about.” Ernest says, “ why Joe Cripps.” Ernest said, “he took the train upriver the other day. I saw him and the old horse is over to Isaac Jeffer’s feed stable.” “I don’t believe it,” I said. “Well you come right over to the stable and I will show you.” It was old Jack all right and there was the wagon.
When I got home I went over and told Tilly, Joe’s sister, who was in her seventies, where the horse was and that it was costing a dollar a day for board. Tilly says, “I want you to ride up to Madison tonight with the mail man and get the horse. Isaac would not let me have the horse at first as he was making good money boarding him. The horse had been there about 10 days then. Isaac said that Joe told him to keep the horse until he came after him. I insisted that he let me have the horse, as the bill would be more than the horse was worth in a little while. Isaac called up Judge Small and told him the case and who I was. I could hear Judge Small say, “that boy is a good reliable boy let him have the horse.” So I hooked up old Jack and came home.
Tilly got a letter from Joe in a few days saying that he was in California and would be home in the spring. I think he came home very shortly after she got the letter. When Joe took off he went up to Somerset Junction where the Canadian Pacific tracks cross the Somerset Line and headed across Canada and found his way to California.
His mental condition was much improved when he got home and he never had any more spells. He lived to between 75 to 80. He had his fur coat with him. I would have thought he would have been warm sometimes. He told me how he enjoyed his trip and that there were a lot of people going to California. And he said that he had a great time with the people. “Why,” He said, “I was the life of the party.” No doubt he probable was.