Haymaking with scythes

This painting shows farmers cutting hay with scythes and gathering it with pitchforks for drying. This would be essentially the same technique Harvey Devoe used in 1861 on his Berlin Township farm. (Submitted image.)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the seventh installment in our year-long examination of the adventures of Knox County farmer Harvey Devoe, who kept a diary for the year 1861, which has been annotated and published by historian Alan Borer and is available through online retailers.  The series began on Jan. 4It continued on Feb. 1March 7April 4May 2 and June 6. Harvey's spelling and punctuation have been left as they originally appear in the diary.


Scything was a heavily physical labor. The farmer would carry a whetstone with him for frequent resharpening of the blade to make cutting as easy as possible. (Submitted image.)


On the sweltering and sun-baked weekend that this column is first being published, we can all relate to Knox County famer Harvey Devoe, who began fighting a long battle with drought in July of 1861. While all of Devoe's diary entries are short and to the point, one can sense his growing frustration at seeing storm clouds form and then dissipate or slide north or south of his farm. It was his first year of running his own farm, and he had his work cut out for him.

The month started cool and rainy, but soon turned to scorching heat, which Harvey noted was “hard weather on corn.” In addition to “plowing” (weeding) his corn and sorghum, Harvey started making hay to feed his animals. He called this “mowing,” and it consisted of cutting swathes of hay with a scythe, and then turning the piles of grass to evenly dry them, after which they could be put up in groupings called shocks, still a common sight today in Amish country. Unfortunately, Harvey broke his scythe just a couple days into haying and had to borrow one from his friend Ed Wheeler.

Grim reaper

Harvesting hay with a scythe, or reaping, was a central human activity. Thus the ominous figure of death became personified as a grim reaper, carrying a scythe with which to harvest human souls. (Submitted image.)

Pale horse

One of the most iconic grim reaper images is the painting “Death on a Pale Horse” by American artist Albert Pinkham Ryder. It can be seen in person at the Cleveland Museum of Art. (Submitted image.)

Harvey was also neighborly to a nearby farmer he identifies in the diary as “D Dickie,” who must be the David Dickey that shows up on the 1860 census in the neighborhood. Dickey was growing wheat, and Harvey helped him harvest the staff heads. In the days long before combine harvesters, this meant the harvesters took a large L-shaped wooden tool known as a grain cradle, sweeping it across the wheat stalks. It would snap off and gather the seed heads, which could then be processed. The end result, several steps later, was the flour used to bake bread.

Throughout this work, Harvey watched several times as thunderheads built up and either dissipated or drifted away, giving little if any rain to the parched ground of Berlin Township. Only a few times, mostly around the middle of the month, did he receive decent rain showers. Enough to keep the plants from dying, but nowhere near enough to make them grow their best.

Cradling grain

This 1865 painting by Winslow Homer shows a farmer using a grain cradle. (Submitted image.)


Grain cradle

This patent drawing image shows a typical grain cradle of the 1800s. (Submitted image.)

Other ominous elements fall into place alongside the lack of progress on the farm. When Harvey notes that the Independence Day holiday was “[r]ather a dry fourth with me,” it isn't clear if he's talking about the weather, a lack of celebrating, or just a generally unpleasant time. He notes a local news item without elaborating: “Mrs Bechtel hung herself.”

Elizabeth Bechtel

Elizabeth Bechtel committed suicide on July 4, 1865, according to Harvey Devoe's diary. Nothing else is known about her demise. (Photograph courtesy of the Steve Bechtel Collection.)

Harvey said nothing else about that incident, but it's amazing how local history can make connections. Last year, I gave a talk including a few lively incidents from the history of the Ankenytown area at the wonderful Butler Historical Society. I mentioned Harvey Devoe's diary along the way, and an audience member approached me after the talk and asked if I'd noticed the mention of Mrs. Bechtel's suicide on the Fourth of July, which of course I had.

“My name is Steve Bechtel,” the man said. “The woman who hung herself was Elizabeth Bechtel. She was my great-great-grandmother.” Amazingly, Steve has a photograph of Elizabeth, taken around 1860 at the studio of photographer Fred S. Crowley in Fredericktown. The picture was apparently sent to family in Pennsylvania, where she was born to the Brumbaugh family. The picture itself was later carried by descendents to Virginia, where just a few years ago, a relative sent it to Steve, who lives on Yankee Road, north of Fredericktown.

“So, this particular photo has made the circle from Fredericktown to PA, VA (who knows where else?) and now back to Fredericktown, taking a century and a half for the trip,” Steve wrote to me in an email when he sent me a scan of the photo to use for this article.

“Elizabeth Brumbaugh (a Brumbaugh cousin became governor of PA in early 1900's) was born Jan 19, 1828 in Bedford County PA. She married Andrew Bechtel on Dec 26, 1852 in Bedford County. Their first son, Simon, my great-grandfather, was born in May 1854, in Berlin Township, so Andrew and Elizabeth had moved to Knox County soon before. I believe they lived on a farm on Syler Road (eastern Berlin Twp); at some point Andrew moved to Roberts Road just east of Palmyra. She and Andrew had four children by 1859. The third one died at a month old. I have no details of Elizabeth's death, other than suicide.”

While this doesn't reveal the full story to us of what drove this poor woman to hang herself, it does at least put a face to the name so grimly mentioned in passing in the diary.

The other ominous news Harvey mentions is the “[g]reat battle at manassa.” What he was referring to was the battle that happened near Manassas, Virginia. In the north, the battle became known as the Battle of Bull Run, and when a second battle happened later on the same battlefield, the original became known as the First Battle of Bull Run. It was the first major battle of the war, and it was the one which proved that this was not going to be some short incident, it was going to be a long and bloody civil war.

Lorin Andrews

Lorin Andrews left his position as the president of Kenyon College to volunteer for Civil War service. He was put in charge of the 4th Ohio Volunteer Infantry with the rank of colonel, but typhus took his life after only one battle. (Submitted image.)

On July 27, Harvey and his friend Ed Wheeler went to Mount Vernon to hear a speech by Col. Lorin Andrews. Andrews had been the president of Kenyon College when the war broke out, but famously became the first volunteer to sign up in the state of Ohio. But just as they arrived, they found Andrews had been forced to cancel the speech at the last moment because he had received his marching orders. Harvey and Ed watched the soldiers march out of Mount Vernon, on their way to war.

They probably expected great things of Col. Andrews, never guessing that the silent killer of the Civil War – disease – would take Andrews out of this world before the end of the summer. He limped home to Gambier to die of typhus, and is buried in the cemetery behind Rosse Hall.

Harvey ended the month borrowing Ed's paint mill to grind pigment and make paint to repaint his wagon. While the weather remained a challenge, Harvey Devoe was determined to do all he could to make his farm a success.

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